One of the most important things for a person to have is an identity. This is why names are so important to us. Adam was given power to name things in the Garden of Eden, showing that he had dominion over the rest of creation, including Eve, whom he named. When a child finds out that a large, strange-looking animal has a name, he finds comfort in the fact, knowing that, if it has a name, and if Daddy can identify it, the thing must not be all that terrifying. It is known.
Traditional Catholics, or traditionalists, name themselves thus because of their embrace of the traditions of the Church. That they do so in the face of large-scale abandonment of those traditions by hierarchy, clergy, and faithful alike is why the name “Catholic” is not always adequate, though it should be. Beyond that very generic concept of what traditionalism is, there are manifold and disparate understandings of what exactly defines the identity of the traditionalist. Avoiding a rigid dogmatism where the Church has given us no dogmatic definition — we must be willing to die for Catholic dogma, but not for our own opinions — I would like to consider what traditionalism is in its essence.
Contrast clarifies the mind, so I will begin with what traditionalism is not. Traditionalism is not a negation. It is not a denial. It is not a finger-pointing followed by a “you’re wrong!” There is a name for that ideology: Protestantism. Protestantism is not a content, but an anti-content. It is not an affirmation, but a negation.
Certainly, the Catholic must assent to the Church’s condemnations as well as to her definitions, but a condemnation’s existence is contingent on two things: the truth that came first, and an error that denies truth. In other words, a condemnation, though good and necessary, only arises because some villain (perhaps Satan himself) concocted a denial of God’s truth. But God’s truth came first.
The texts of the Council of Trent provide us with an illustration of this. Trent affirms Catholic truth in its decrees, which are comparatively lengthy texts that explain Catholic doctrine in detail. At the end of those content-rich decrees, the Council then condemns various errors in its brief canons.
So, the short answer to the question concerning a traditionalist’s identity is that he is a Catholic who affirms the dogmatic truths, moral teachings, and liturgical traditions of the Church. This is substantial and primary. That he does so in the face of opposition, not only from the world, but from others calling themselves Catholic, is secondary and accidental. Let us not invert that order, lest we allow the enemy to dictate our identity to us.
A word about the quest for an identity: I believe it is a very modern thing, a product of the rootlessness of modern culture, which severs us from our traditions, our land, and our people. Modernity homogenizes us all, effectively uprooting local customs and cultures. The Catholic is a member of the universal Church, but he is not thereby a citizen of the universe. He is localized, and his encounter with the Faith is in the context of place, language, and custom. A Catholic from fourteenth-century France and his coreligionist from fourth-century Egypt possessed the same faith, morals, and religion (with priests, bishops, Mass, sacraments, etc.), but the variety of language, ritual, and custom was great.
That is as it should be. We receive the Faith locally. We live it in our families. We utter it in our own tongues. We practice it in this church building, with people from this community. (The Italian notion of campanilismo and the Carlist conception of fueros are cultural and political expressions of this.) The living out of the true Faith is what produces a Catholic culture, and that culture is what ought to impress itself on our young, forming their convictions, eliciting their actions, commanding their reactions. An identity — a genuine one, anyway — is forged in this organic fashion. We don’t put them on and take them off as an indecisive college student does his major. That is what the rootless, restless modern man does, and this is one cause of his insanity.
In our day, of course, the Faith is not being lived in places where it used to be. The Italian bell towers that give those in their hearing a sense of home still toll, but they often herald the offering of a bizarre liturgy, the preaching of a watered-down doctrine, and a religiosity of conformity to the standards of this world. So campanilismo, “spirit of the bell tower,” does not fully represent what it once did. The same is true elsewhere in the universal Church. Thus is it that traditionalists travel, sometimes great distances, for a traditional Mass, with the catechesis and culture that go with it.
But we can still do very much to live the Faith in our families and our communities. In doing so, we must resist the temptation to make traditionalism into an ideology, a reaction, or a negation of what other people do. Traditionalism is what we are, what we know, and what we do. Here, then, I will catalogue some of the things traditionalists affirm, or ought to affirm:
- We affirm the Catholic Credo in all its integrity.
- We affirm that the Catholic Church is the one bride of Christ, and that its Faith and its religion are the only divinely revealed ways to believe in and serve the living God. Consequently, the Catholic Church is the only path to salvation.
- We affirm that divine truth is assailed by enemies of God’s Church, and that the faithful must “contend earnestly for the faith once delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3).
- We affirm the supernatural constitution of the Church, the natural hierarchy of the family, and the rule of Christ the King in society. To what degree we can, we will work to preserve or restore these things in our own families and communities; for the the world, the flesh, and the devil are undermining this order established by God.
- We affirm that the Church’s public worship of God, her liturgy, has been handed down to us with great care by our fathers in the Faith. This has been done in a beautiful variety of rites. It is wrong to cast off these treasures of centuries of careful development under the protection of the Holy Ghost. Therefore, we will practice them, honor them, love them, and teach them to our children.
- The authentic response to evil is a life of Christian virtue and holiness, which is none other than the faithful response to one’s primary vocation (the baptismal call to sanctity), lived according to the mode of his “secondary vocation” (i.e., priesthood, religious life, marriage, the single state in the world).
There is much that is dark and evil in life, but if we choose to allow ourselves to be consumed by it, then shame on us. Saint Paul notes that what we lost in Adam is far exceeded by what we gained in Christ (cf. Rom. 5:15ff). One need not have Faith to see wickedness and despair; they are too evident to the senses. The real marvel is the amount of good that actually exists, and that does take Faith to see: water regenerating sinners as God’s children and heirs to Heaven, God Himself coming down on our altars in the appearances of bread and wine, the Gospel being preached to the poor.
And that Gospel itself, the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ! It is the “Good News”: good because it comes from the good God, and news, because it needs to be told.
We have a treasure in the Church’s traditional liturgy. We also have great commentaries on it, none better than Dom Gueranger’s Liturgical Year. We also have Holy Scripture, the writings of the Fathers and Doctors, and great intellectual and artistic monuments of Catholic culture that were born of Christian societies. All that we have, plus God Himself, the angels, the saints, and a promise of future glory if we persevere! And let us not forget that we have Our Lady, the Cause of All our Joy.
If, with all that, we need to go in search of an identity, or define it in purely negative terms against some other class of people, then we really have no clue what tradition is.