For several years I had been inching closer and closer towards a staunch, perhaps even radical, Catholic traditionalist position. In other words, I was becoming a RadTrad. Recently, I have stepped back, perhaps I should say leapt back, from that cliff-edge path. I thank God that He redirected me towards a more faithful Catholic position, one that I am still figuring out, but believe firmly to be more in the spirit of Christ — that is, actually Christian rather than one of the various fake or marginal “Christianities” we find surrounding us.
Do not misunderstand me; I love tradition. Up to a point I do love orthodoxy and traditional orthopraxy. I love old churches, classic vestments, Latin prayers, Gregorian chant and polyphony, and all the smell and bells associated with a more ancient Church. These can be good and beautiful things. I believe the Church would do well to re-embrace, up to a point, a lot of what was set aside over the past 60 or more years. But I have come to see a profound sickness growing in certain corners of the Church, a sickness of Pharisaism and worldliness and pride (the kind of pride that believes the little specks in one’s bother’s eyes are enormous logs and refuses to accept even the possibility of a log being in one’s own eye) all in the name of getting the religion right and the enemies crushed. I could not take it anymore and I had to step off the bus. But let me tell you how I got there and why I am now somewhere else.
Thread one: I did not enter the Catholic Church until I was forty-seven years of age. I was born into a conservative Baptist church. I remained essentially Baptist for many years. Gradually, I shifted to a kind of generic Evangelical position, and then to a more quasi-Reformed position. All the while I retained a deep concern for an orthodox faith (warped and frankly somewhat heretical as it was). This concern for orthodoxy was instilled within me by my Baptist formation, and not because I felt a need to be Baptist, rather I wanted to pursue the Truth. At that time conservative Baptists tended to draw very strong ideological and religious lines in the sand between themselves and all other denominations (including other Baptists), all of which were viewed with varying degrees of suspicion and fear, and Catholics where the most to be feared. This tendency to draw lines is still within me for better or worse – mostly worse I think. Regardless, a passionate belief in God, in the story of salvation God is writing, and entering as He did into creation itself, dying on a cross and rising again, and now reigning in glory, has been within me for as far back as I can remember. Faith is truly a life and death issue. Believing that eternal life truly exists, that we are called to love each other, our neighbors, and even our enemies, and being utterly convinced that following Christ is something radically different than all the other options available to us, has been my journey (fumbling and stumbling) my whole life. I can’t express strongly enough how important all this has been to me. I am, as well, too embarrassed to describe just how profoundly I do the opposite of what these beliefs say and require me to do. Regardless, it was my love for Christ and scripture, however frequently shaky is that love, that impelled me into the Catholic Church. God be praised. (I wrote about that journey several months before I entered the Church and have been writing about my continued journey ever since. It’s been the main theme of this blog for a long time.)
Thread two: In college I majored in art history. I studied the masterworks of western art, including the great cathedrals and religious art, most of which are Catholic in origin and meaning. I basically brought nothing to these topics. I had zero understand of Church history and had never experienced a Catholic Mass, which is so central to that history, architecture, and artwork. I truly did not know what I was looking at other than architectural shapes and paintings with dates and names to memorize. Most Protestants in my experience are profoundly ignorant of nearly all of Church history (but, of course, they think all of that is unimportant anyway). Baptists and Jesus Movement types may be the most ignorant (but so are many Catholics, surprisingly or not). Although a great deal of that art history went over my head, I think it instilled within me something at a visceral and subconscious level. I intuitively knew there was something great there, something singing to my soul as it were, but I couldn’t put it into words. So I didn’t dwell long on it and focused, instead, on 20th century art (which is also remarkably spiritual though less easy to recognize to those looking for traditional representations).
Thread three: When our first child was born my wife and I decided to take the plunge and live off of one income and homeschool our kids. We took it year by year, but it seemed to work well and eventually we discovered the classical model of education. I spent time studying deeply the model, wrote a number of articles and blog posts, even contributed to a chapter of a book by one of the most prominent figures in the classical homeschooling movement (who took my chapter and claimed it as her own). I became convinced a Christian classical education model was perhaps the best available anywhere. Central to this view, I came to believe, was a better anthropology than found in modernist models. I came to see the nature of man more clearly, what it means to be made in God’s image, that we are made to worship God, that we are made to give honor and show reverence, that there is a profound connection between our bodies and our souls. From that I began to examine my Christian experience.
For years we were part of a non-denominational quasi-Reformed little “church” that had, I painfully came to see, an anemic culture at best. This church was two songs and a forty-five minutes to an hour long bible lecture, taught from a working-English translation made by the teacher from the original Greek. (Many in the church brought their own Greek New Testaments the way many traditionalist Catholics bring their Latin missals to the TLM.) These were good people (aren’t we all?), and some remain dear to me, and I’m all for going directly to the Greek (kudos from me if you do), but I came to see that little local church was based on a faulty and incomplete anthropology, an Enlightenment-model approach to epistemology and biblical interpretation, and some strange ideas about community and about being a Christian in the world, and non-biblical ideas about mystery and sacramentality. In short, it promoted a false religion and taught poor gospel based on (ironically) not being able to read and interpret the Bible well. Its leaders also began to veer strongly towards an alt-right political/religious stance while I was beginning to recoil from it – because it comes from a spirit of anti-Christ. Sadly, very good people, including people I love, fall for this all the time and I certainly did for years.
My Baptist formation, our homeschooling choices, and the fringe quasi-Reformed church all promoted a kind of “neither of the world nor in it” mindset. I wanted to make distinctions and draw lines. That mindset went deep in me, but was also challenged somewhat by numerous other experiences. I began to have a crisis of ecclesiology; not a crisis of faith but of what church is and what it means and perhaps how it ought to be like to worship corporately. My shifting went from thinking the real Church was essentially invisible to thinking the opposite; that the Church must be visible, like our bodies (the human person being body and soul together forever), and that we are called to a visible unity and the struggle it takes to do so is not merely a commandment but is, in fact, a gift from God. This take humility, much greater humility than evidenced in the religious cultures of my Baptist and quasi-Reformed theologies and ecclesiologies.
Thus I began searching in earnest. We had become disenchanted with where we were. Having children raised questions about our faith, our intentions in the world, what is community, what is the purpose of religion, and what is the Church? I became interested in the “emergent church,” then in Catholicism, then in Eastern Orthodoxy, then Presbyterian, then back to Orthodoxy, and then finally back to Catholicism. (I wrote about why I did not become Eastern Orthodox.) I was searching for what resonated within my heart, not in a merely emotional or touchy-feely way, but in a way that was grounded in what I was gradually coming to see as the truth of the gospel, the nature of human beings, the human necessity of worship, and the increasingly obvious fact of sacramentality. Thus, and for several other other reasons, I became Catholic and soon my kids followed and then my wife.
The Church, however, does not do a great job of orienting and guiding converts. In fact, it’s so bad, so utterly pathetic, it’s nearly tragic. Most cradle Catholics, including most priests, seem utterly clueless about what former Protestants (especially non-sacramental, minimalist liturgy, emotion-based or intellectually-based Protestants) deal with when coming into the Church. It’s like two entirely different countries and cultures with what looks like a lot of shared (but not really) vocabulary. Maybe someday I’ll write a laundry list of things that are foreign, strange, or just plain different for converts that no one explains and that cradle-Catholics don’t realize. By necessity, then, I began on my own exploring what it means and ought to look like being Catholic. I read a lot of books, articles, and bogs. I listened to a lot of podcasts and shows. I was drawn most to beauty and tradition. One reason is that beauty and tradition are, well, beautiful and traditional. They also point to the history of the Church, something I lacked in my previous Christian life. I longed for a church with a history going all the way back. I was also drawn by the mystery. The quasi-Reformed little community I was part of tended to seek every way possible to dispel mystery. I came to recognize the wrongheadedness of this. This is all to say that I found what I thought was a solution in the Catholic traditionalists and their “version” of the Catholic faith known as Traditionalism.
The traditionalists love the smoke and the bells, they love the vestments and old churches, they love the old fashioned forms of piety and the old prayers, and they love the traditional Latin rite of the Mass which they call variously “the old rite,” the Traditional Latin Mass (TLM), the Tridentine Mass, the Mass of the Ages, the usus antiquior, and even “our birthright.” They say they love big families, try to parade older forms of masculinity and femininity, praise men in tweed suits and women in veils, and love posting pictures of little kids praying on their knees before ornate tabernacles as symbols of True Faith™. Mostly, though, they love what they perceive as greater reverence for God in the TLM. The prayers, the priest’s actions in all its minutiae, the general form, and other factors all play into the greater feeling of reverence. They do have a point and I tend to agree, at least about the importance of reverence. Given that Christ becomes truly present in the Eucharist, and that He is God, the Messiah, our Lord and savior, it makes sense that the Mass would be as reverent as possible. They see the more casual and laity-focused new Mass less reverent and therefore inferior at best (much of the time in fact corrupting the laity they believe) and even outright invalid at worst, with a growing number of fringe-types calling it patently sacrilegious. They also have a very strong “neither of the world nor in it” mindset. That, as you may have guessed, appealed to me at the time. As I saw it then, traditionalism was the antidote to the ills of the Church, the world, and my soul. A substantial number of posts on this blog are about that.
Traditionalists see the loss of the TLM and other traditions as largely the source of all the problems in the Church today (you all know what I mean and I don’t have the space here to go into all that). Reclaiming the TLM (our birthright!) is believed to be the first and foremost action to reclaim the glory of the Catholic Church and the moral high ground, reinstate Christendom, and save our children from the world and its steady turn toward immorality and liberalism. Their message rings true for many and has become a kind of clarion call for many feeling disaffected and lost at sea.
In the past two years I noticed (late to the game) the crypto-fascism, racism, and nationalism raging in many corners of the traditionalist subculture. I also began to see a kind of swaggering self-righteousness and proud Pharisaism regularly on display by the chattering class, a.k.a. traditionalist social media grifters. And if that wasn’t bad enough, again and again I saw traditionalists eagerly grasping at every conspiracy theory floating on the credulous currents of fringe Internet sites. And these folks were getting followers, tons of them, especially as they entered the U.S. culture wars and vociferously promoted Trump as God’s Man. A light bulb went off in my head. More like a high-voltage spotlight. I wanted no part of that world. So I fled. And as I did I began to see the vehement hatred of Pope Francis spewing from the trads (and many conservatives too) to a degree I had not fully noticed before. I too had been caught up for a while in not trusting the Pope. Now I felt ashamed. I became a Catholic in big part because the Church has the Pope – a huge gap in Protestantism and Eastern Orthodoxy. Once I decided to stop criticizing the Pope and others deemed “liberal” by the crypto-fascists it was like scales fell from my eyes. I felt like I had climbed out of Plato’s cave.
I would encourage anyone in the traditionalist camp, or thinking it looks attractive, to step back. Don’t give up on the wonderful traditions of the Church that you find attractive, but don’t make them the center of your faith. Don’t think traditional Catholicism actually represents some front-line is some war of any importance and that you can, somehow, both derive your identity and get good favor with God because you’re on the right side. And don’t give up on other Catholics who don’t share your love of tradition or find their faith encouraged by the smells and bells or Latin prayers. And remember, if you do turn towards tradition and away from other Catholics, you are no longer with Christ.
I originally chose to enter the Catholic Church, in part, because it’s a big tent. One finds not only all kinds of people but that the Church is global and not American. At that time I was also coming to terms that neither my politics nor my faith are “conservative.” I’m a mixed bag, but on the whole my views are more independent and more radical than the mainstream polemicists want me to be. Opening my eyes to the true intentions, and perhaps more to the point, the means of achieving those intentions of the traditionalists turned me right around. I saw that I had forsaken my original love and was, even, turning from Christ toward idols. I have come to see the traditionalist movement at least teetering on the precipice of idolatry and perhaps fully over the edge.
This makes me sad. Not only for the traditionalists themselves (thinking of their fate) and all the people they hurt, but for the natural consequences of their hatred, vitriol, and a host of others actions that are drawing down the hand of correction and discipline on them. Their actions are setting back any recovery of past traditions by those who just love them and have no need to politicize them. The old adage that one can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar is completely lost on the traditionalists. They love vinegar but don’t believe they do. They revel in vinegar and call it sweet. The movement has collected an outsized number of individuals aching for fights and opportunities to display their bravado. What folly, especially in light of our example, Christ.
May God bless you and come near you always.