By Larry Chapp
“You are the way the truth and the life. You are the beginning of the new creation. Give me the courage to venture this new beginning, not merely in the heat of the moment, but with the seriousness that knows that eternal fate is at stake. Let me see where the turning point lies, and bring it about in the reality of my daily life. And when I discover how entangled in my former ways I am, give me the loyalty that persists and the confidence that starts over again, however often all may seem in vain.”
“Prayers from Theology”
I ended my last post by indicating that the path forward must involve some form of “traditionalism” as the key to any true reform of the Church. The liberal and neo-con approaches, though not symmetrical or equivalent in the mistakes that they make (the neo-cons at least adhere to some version of orthodoxy), nevertheless both engage in a muting of the full eschatological message of the Gospel and opt instead for a transposition of the Gospel into the idiom of modern Liberal political culture. Therefore, my claim is that we must return to a full-throated and robust reaffirmation of the supernatural contours of Revelation that is unafraid to bring the Gospel as such into the public square. In other words, my claim is that the Gospel is a form of “reason” and does carry within its own unique theological categories a public dimension that isn’t merely a fideistic expression of a private and subjective disposition that lacks any “objective” warrant and which must therefore be “translated” into a form of secular discourse. Catholics of a liberal persuasion mute the Gospel message of sin, conversion, and repentance by translating the Gospel into, and thus reducing it to, a secular message of “social justice” and “amity” between all people of “good will,” while neo-cons appeal to those same people by attempting to engage the hot-button “culture war” moral issues of our time via the use of a putatively “neutral” (i.e. secular) form of natural law reasoning. Both projects have been abject failures in my view and need to be rejected.
Unfortunately, there has emerged of late a radical version of “traditionalism” that rejects for all practical purposes Vatican II and, by implication, the modern pontificates that have sought to implement its vision. Vatican II is indeed the great bogeyman in this narrative – – a grand mistake in their view engineered by a cabal of Freemasons and allied modernists – – and is the watershed event that sent the Church down the path of destruction. The Council, in their view, was secretly manipulated by that cabal which allowed for the deliberate insertion of theological and doctrinal “ambiguities” into the conciliar documents which could then be exploited after the Council when all the bishops returned home to implement the “reforms.” Therefore, the traditionalist’s claim is that the obvious solution to the mess we are in is to repudiate Vatican II, either in whole (Vigano) or in part (Athanasius Schneider) and to return the Church to that Tridentine form and discipline, including a return to the Traditional Latin Mass as the ordinary form of the liturgy for the universal Church.
The problem with the traditionalist’s analysis is that its diagnosis of the problem and its proposed prescriptive remedies are almost completely wrong, which I think should matter. Their entire line of argumentation is disfigured by a simplistic “post hoc ergo propter hoc” fallacy that romanticizes and idealizes a past form of the Church whose putative vitality is greatly exaggerated which leads it to read the Council uncharitably and through the lens of a hermeneutic of suspicion lacking in theological nuance. Their position is that the Church before the Council was doing just fine, thank you very much, and therefore the only reasonable conclusion one can reach is that the nonsense that came after the Council was the direct result of the Council’s manifest deficiencies.
Archbishop Vigano is out with a new interview in which he once again repeats this trope which has by now become a talking point in the circles of Tridentine traditionalists for whom Vigano has become a kind of folk hero. But in my view, the so-called “ambiguities” of Vatican II are not ambiguities at all, but mere developments of doctrine with which they disagree. They are of course free to disagree with these developments – – for example, the conciliar teaching on religious freedom – – but let’s not obfuscate the seriousness of what is at stake here with ambiguous talk of ambiguities and let’s instead call it for what it is: theological dissent from conciliar teaching. To cite another example, Bishop Athanasius Schneider (another Tridentine traditionalist favorite) says elements of Vatican II need “correction.” Specifically, those bits that were misinterpreted in a liberal direction. Well guess what… the misinterpretation of the Council by post-conciliar liberals was corrected, and by the magisterium itself, in the pontificates of John Paul and Benedict, a fact which Bishop Schneider well knows, which leads me to believe that what he really means by “corrected” is “rejected.”
So let us just be honest here about what is really going on. The linchpin in their argument is that there is a direct line of theological interpretation that runs from the Council itself into the flawed implementation of the Council in a liberal direction. For example, in the post conciliar Church the Council’s teaching that there can be salvation outside of explicit membership in the visible Church via water baptism was interpreted by many to mean that a new religious relativism and subjectivism was being taught. The Tridentine traditionalists further claim that this caused a widespread religious indifferentism in the Church. Ergo, this teaching at Vatican II is clearly “ambiguous” since so many misinterpreted it.
But I defy anyone to actually read the documents of Vatican II and to see anything other than a reiteration of what many Popes previous to the Council had already taught. The Church is, rightly, teaching that it is false to claim that only baptized Catholics can go to Heaven. And, therefore, it rightly seeks to chart a path between a rigid exclusivism with its adherence to some version of the massa damnata and the equally erroneous view that all religious paths to God are basically the same, with the Church and Christ being unnecessary for salvation. It is admittedly a very delicate path to follow, requiring theological nuance and sophistication. But the Tridentines reject this “nuance” as a mere “word salad” of obfuscation and resort back to an exclusivism that has been rejected by the teaching magisterium of the Church even before the Council. Theological clarity is indeed a virtue highly to be prized, but not at the expense of truth, and sometimes a theological “problem” needs to hold two extremes in tension which allows for a certain “suspended middle” wherein future theological “solutions” can be sought. In other words, theological nuance is not necessarily a “word salad” and carries clarity as far as it will go into the deep mysteries of Revelation, without for all that merely seeking to “resolve” the problem by dissolving it into one of the extremes. And on this issue of salvation both liberals and the Tridentines seek to do just that.
But the Tridentines will just dismiss this as more ambiguity and even view this approach as something dangerously modern. For example, Vigano, in the same interview mentioned above, accuses Pope Benedict’s theology of being “Hegelian” since it seeks to chart a course between the two extremes mentioned above, proving that Vigano does not understand either Benedict or Hegel. But this has not stopped the army of Vigano’s supporters in the Tridentine traditionalist movement from pushing this latest narrative of his as can be seen in their numerous posts on the topic on social media. Suddenly, the Tridentines are now all Hegel scholars, despite, most likely, having never read him. But that has never stopped them before since they excel at criticizing authors they have never read, confident that Taylor Marshall’s talking points on folks like de Lubac and Balthasar are sufficient for the necessary condemnations. As a Balthasar scholar myself, I can say without any fear of contradiction that most of the internet Fiddleback fuss budgets who criticize him have never read him. According to their traditionalist taxonomy of theological perfidy, Balthasar was a universalist (he wasn’t) and de Lubac taught that God owes us grace (wrong again.) Put those ideas together and you get Vatican II, where God gives everyone salvific grace, all go to heaven, and the modern world is already engraced and in no need of correction or evangelization. Apparently in their taxonomy only Garrigou Lagrange is trustworthy even though I am sure most of them have also never read him either.
But truth is not important in this narrative, and therefore nobody ever really needs to read anybody, which allows really stupid things to be said (e.g. Benedict is a Hegelian,) since what is really going on here is the pushing of an ecclesiological ideology rather than the pursuit of truth. Indeed, I will go further and say that what is going on here is an ecclesiological idolatry where the Church is further numbed down to its eschatological mission where Christ and his Gospel are eclipsed by an obsessive and singular focus on the form and structure of one particular era of the Church’s history at the expense of all others and at the expense of Christ and his redemption. And insofar as this idolatry fetishizes a historically conditioned ecclesial form, essentializing it and freezing it ahistorically in an inauthentic snapshot, it indulges in a form of magical thinking that is contrary to the path of true faith and conversion from sin.
But this fetishization of Tridentine Catholicism also requires a revisionist reworking of the past 100 years of Church history where even previously revered figures come in for withering critique if they show the slightest sign of deviation from the woke cancel culture of the neo-traditionalists. Not content to reject an entire ecumenical council of the Church (as Vigano says we must do), and the entire papacy of Saint John Paul II (human rights, Assisi, and all of that humanist garbage), they are now setting their sights on Benedict the modernist Hegelian, as well as even Pius XII whose “dangerous” post-1955 “innovations” in the liturgy were some of the first signs of a Church going squishy. Pius XI was great in condemning contraception, but even he did not emphasize enough that sex is first for making babies and for love second, and so he too was already putting on the Ritz of ressourcement. And of course, it goes without saying that John XXIII, Paul VI, and Pope Francis were, and are, modernists, or even, as in the case of Francis, Freemason sympathizers. Taylor Marshall’s book “Infiltration” makes this claim about Freemason and modernist inroads into the Church, and lots of Tridentine sites advertise that book and push it, so I defy anyone to say I am attacking a straw man here. Once again, never mind that the book is a daisy chain of endless arguments of guilt by association without the slightest care for evidentiary journalism, it tells the “right” revisionist history and continues the fetishization of the Tridentine form, so it has become Gospel.
And of course, to these denunciations of Councils and Popes are added a growing list of “crypto modernist” theologians who likewise deserve condemnation: the entirety of the theological school known as “ressourcement” (especially de Lubac and Balthasar), Robert Barron (he promotes Vatican II and Balthasar!!), Joseph Fessio (hey, he published Balthasar!!), Thomas Weinandy (he dares question Vigano!!), and a host of lesser personalities whose only crime seems to be that they think the magisterium of the Church did not die after Pascendi. Eric Sammons over at Crisis magazine published a puff piece lamenting the fact that Bishop Barron is unfair to the poor Tridentines, that he does not understand their irenic desire just to be “left alone” to do their thing, and is really just attacking a straw man. But then scroll down and read the comments under the article, or read the emails I get after I say anything positive about Barron, or watch Michael Voris’s execrable and calumnious ravings on Barron and Balthasar, or just spend five minutes on Peter Kwasniewski’s Facebook page, and then tell me that Barron is attacking a straw man: Ecce Homo.
Barron really does seem to get under their skin, which pleases me, and I think it is because more than any other modern American prelate he is the face of the ressourcement retrieval of Vatican II, the face of the “reform of the reform” of the liturgy, and a man who, through his various forms of media evangelization, gives the lie to the Tridentine narrative that we need a Catholicism of hellfire and confessional States in order to save souls, and that the post conciliar Church is just a hopeless wasteland devoid of any resources for renewal. As such, Bishop Barron is their mortal enemy, even more so than the liberals, since the latter at least share with the Tridentines the view that Vatican II was a definitive rupture with the past and that we now have, in essence, an entirely new “religion.” Most bishops are not men of great intellectual sophistication and they tend to be “sympathizers” with either the traditionalist, neo-con, or liberal views, but remain largely silent as they seek to chart a bureaucratic middle path through the troubled waters and to “keep the peace.” But Barron is different. He is a legitimate theological scholar in his own right (read his brilliant books “Vibrant Paradoxes” and “The Priority of Christ”) but also possesses that rare skill to translate that erudition into effective evangelization for the post Vatican II Church. Therefore, the Tridentine traditionalists do not dislike Barron as a person, but they resent his success since it is a success for a form of Catholicism that they despise and seek to discredit. As such, he is merely a shibboleth for their deeper agenda, which is why I choose to highlight their animosity toward Barron as an example of that agenda.
There are indeed lots of problems in the Church today, and I have noted many of them on this blog in a series of posts. And Vatican II was far from perfect, made mistakes, and had flaws, some of which were serious. I will deal with those strengths and weaknesses in part four of this series. But it is important to get the diagnostics right in order to get the prescriptive remedy correct as well. And if you think the actual documents of Vatican II, the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict, as well as theologians like de Lubac, Balthasar, Barron, Fessio and Weinandy are the problem, then I humbly submit to you that you are insane.
There is a reason why the Church has a magisterium. And therefore, the only true and proper interpretation of the Council – – a Council of that Church’s magisterium – – is the interpretation given to it by the magisterium. The Tridentines point to post conciliar distortions and to theologians like Kung and Schillebeeckx as evidence of what the Council itself was “really” all about. And yet why should they be the barometer for the true meaning of the Council rather than the magisterium itself? Even after Nicaea the Church had to contend with massive ongoing dissent from the Arian remnants in the Church, including from the Roman Imperium, and some loyal saints, like Athanasius, had to pay a high price to defend the truth. But the magisterium held firm and the Council was eventually properly appropriated due to that magisterium. That is how the Church works. That is why we have a magisterium in the first place, in order for the Kung’s of the world to not have their way in the long run. Which is why the Tridentines have to disparage not just the Council as such, but the magisterium that promoted and interpreted it as well. It is modernist turtles all the way down, at least to Pius X and probably beyond, as the line for when the “rupture with tradition” happened keeps getting moved further back in time. It will be interesting to see how far they peel back that onion of deconstruction before they realize that there is nothing left for them to peel away anymore. It is an eerily similar ecclesial historiography to that of the Protestants who are in constant search for where the “rupture” happened that led to the rise of the false Church.
The liberal narrative won the day after the Council, not because of what the Council actually said, but because they were the beneficiaries of an amenable secular culture eager to spin the Council in their direction. They were thus also the beneficiaries, as Benedict has noted, of a deeply liberal and favorable world of media who fawned over every pronouncement by a dissenting liberal theologian as an act of “courage” against an “inquisitorial” old guard intent on preserving their “power.” Liberal theologians were thus able to act as fifth column quislings who paid lip service to the faith even as they sought to undermine it. The laity had also been conditioned and propagandized by these same media outlets to expect big liberal changes – – changes that would make their lives more conformable to modernity and were, therefore, changes that many lay people were most eager to embrace. But it also goes to show that those same lay people had been ill-formed by the pre conciliar Church and were ripe for the plucking. Seen in this light, the papacies of the post Vatican II Church should be viewed as heroic attempts to retrieve the true Council and to maintain orthodoxy in the face of this tsunami. Instead, the Tridentines vilify them as co-conspirators since they dared to agree with the Council that the Tridentine form of the Church had deep and festering problems.
Despite these manifest realities, for Tridentines Vatican II remains the true scapegoat in this narrative and the litany of Tridentine complaints against the Council is indeed a long one. Just in the past week I have read: “No Council in the history of the Church has ever been just a pastoral Council!” Well… so what? Now there is one. Also I saw this one the other day: “This Council was a Council of theologians doing theology and was the most verbose Council in history!” Again … so what? Now, finally, we do have a verbose Council of theologians doing theology. The Church is allowed to do that? Right? Or is it just “canon law and anathemas” that are allowed? And if so, who made that rule? Taylor Marshall? Vigano? Mattei? And by the way, most of the early Christological Councils contained theological discourse of a very high caliber. They had to in order to properly counteract the various Christological heresies that were floating around. And so the claim that Vatican II’s “theologizing” was some kind of dangerous novelty in the history of the Church is just empirically wrong. Are the conciliar documents longer than usual? Yes. But were they unnecessarily “verbose” in a bad way? Maybe a tad, but not by much, and who cares anyway? Unless your deeper agenda is that in all of the verbosity is found the deceptions of wily theologians who planted time bombs in the texts. In other words, I doubt most Triedntines would complain if the Council had written 1000 pages on the glories of Latin and the index of forbidden books and so I find their criticisms hollow and opportunistic.
It never occurs to these types that the Church rightly saw that modernity represents a completely unique challenge to the Church, the greatest in her history, and is such because modernity is a grand rupture with all of the past and with all moral and spiritual traditions, thus requiring a theological response that was discursive, even philosophical, and which sought an answer in the realm of theological ideas rather than the purely internal realm of ecclesiastical house-keeping. The Tridentines wanted a Council of more anathemas. And they are angry that there were no sweeping denunciations of everything from democracy to electric can openers.
Then of course there is their complaint about the Church at Vatican II teaching that religious freedom is a basic right rooted in the dignity of the person as a free spiritual agent. They were outraged, for example, that Bishop Barron did not tell Ben Shapiro in that now infamous interview that Shapiro was most likely going to Hell for being an observant Jew. And, once again, lest I be dismissed as attacking a straw man and that this is just a screed, go and watch what was said by the Tridentines about Barron’s interview. The mere fact that Barron told Shapiro that even though he was a Jew he still could gain salvation through Christ sent these folks into an orgy of accusations. It is not so much that they all really believe that Shapiro is going to Hell, but rather that they think telling him he has a chance for heaven is just a bad pastoral strategy and is a form of milquetoast Catholicism. So I guess Barron was supposed to lie in order to scare Shapiro into converting, or at least to get all “hell-spooky” with Shapiro in order to scare him straight. However you slice it, it is just high silliness and an example once again of the fetishization of a certain form of Catholicism rather than a serious pursuit of the truth. Barron gave Shapiro what the Church teaches. But apparently that was not good enough. More “hell cowbell” please.
I have written in a previous blog about why the traddies are wrong about religious freedom and so I do not want to repeat it all again here. All I will say is this: their views on this topic, like so many of their other views, are identical to those of the SSPX. Indeed, frequently in their writings you will see the SSPX praised and Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre referred to as a “hero” and a “prophet” who stood up to the heresies of Vatican II. I am assuming that most Tridentines are allergic to schism, and rightly so, which is why they don’t just join the SSPX. Still, there is a whiff of deception and dishonesty here. From where I sit, many, many Tridentines are just closeted SSPX followers but who won’t join the SSPX since they want to stay in union with Rome, despite the fact that there hasn’t been a Pontiff that they liked in about 110 years.
We can debate the true legacy of Vatican II endlessly and the debate will, and should, continue. I have my own criticisms of the Council and will expand on them in my final post in this series. But from where I sit the pastoral and theological project of the Tridentine traditionalists is deeply flawed, lacking in both charity and nuance, and beholden to an ecclesiological idolatry. Theirs is not a true traditionalism since it truncates that tradition and freezes it at one point in time. The ressourcement theology that guided the Council was and is a far more authentic form of traditionalism since it pays attention to the entirety of that tradition. And therefore, the Council itself, especially in its clear turn to the Christocentric (Gaudium et Spes 22!) is far more traditional in this broader sense than the so-called traditionalists could ever dream of being with their arid and desiccated scholasticism as their sole barometer for truth.
The problem with Vatican II was not that it was too radical, but that it was not nearly radical enough. Therefore, its project is just beginning. Specifically, what needs to be doubled-down on is the Council’s only true hidden time bomb: the universal call to holiness. And it is that piece of dynamite, as Peter Maurin noted nearly a century ago, that needs to be exploded. It is to that needed explosion that I will turn in the final post in this series.
Dorothy Day, pray for us.