It’s no secret to anyone who reads this blog that I am sympathetic to the “movement” of traditional Catholicism, though I have never felt comfortable identifying myself as a “trad-Cath.” Over the course of my life I have had several friends tell me—sometimes quite harshly—that I will never allow myself to “fit in,” regardless of the environment. Apparently I take too much pleasure peering in, running up to the edge, and then retreating back to neutral ground. Whether that is really true or not is difficult for me to say. Could it not be that I am not a “true believer” when it comes to most movements (ecclesial or otherwise) and that I would rather hover around the periphery than land in bad faith? With respect to traditional Catholicism, I should probably have an easier go of it since the label is now broadly applied to just about anyone who regularly attends the Tridentine Mass and says the Rosary more than once a year. That’s not particularly helpful since there are a good number of Catholics who attend the Tridentine Mass for largely aesthetic reasons. They couldn’t care less about all of the “other stuff” most traditional Catholics concern themselves with, including problematic teachings emanating out of Vatican II; defects in the Novus Ordo Mass; the disintegration of Catholic culture in the West; and novelties in Church teaching, theology, spirituality, and liturgy. Back in May, in a post entitled “Trads,” I tried to loosely lay out three categories of traditional Catholics that one is likely to encounter today. While I still stand by that sketch, I am well aware that there is a great deal of nuance within the whole traditional Catholic community. I have encountered, for instance, a traditional Catholic whose rhetoric borders on sedevacantism and yet will not, under any condition, associate with the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX) because of its canonically irregular status. (The SSPX, by the way, are not sedevacantists.) At the other end of the spectrum, I know people who are faithful SSPX supporters and yet find very little which is objectionable in Vatican II, the Novus Ordo Mass, or some of the “new theology” which came out of the 20th C. Their sense is that all of this stuff is correctable. I hope they’re right.
My experience in and around traditional Catholicism is much more limited than many other folks. I have only been back in the Catholic Church for a bit over 2 1/2 years and in that time I have lived in two Midwest cities: one large (Chicago) and one not-so-large (Grand Rapids). Chicago, by virtue of its size, has just about everything under the sun when it comes to Catholicism generally and traditional Catholicism specifically. Within the greater Chicago area, you can find at least half-a-dozen diocesan parishes that offer the Tridentine Mass, along with parishes run (or partially run) by the Canons Regular of St. John Cantius, Institute of Christ the King, Fraternity of St. Peter, SSPX, Society of St. Pius V, and at least one independent traditional group. St. John Cantius, far and away, was the most diverse parish in terms of socio-economic standing, educational background, and race/ethnicity. Not only was it situated in the heart of Chicago, but its fame attracted people from Wisconsin, Indiana, and Michigan to drive in every Sunday for one of their four Masses. Although I don’t think it’s fair to call it a “wealthy parish” (so much of the money they have raised has had to go into restoring the church building and attendant facilities), it certainly had enough affluent folks to keep a liturgical oasis going full-time. And since St. John’s offered both forms of the Mass, I doubt that many attendees would identify themselves as traditional Catholics, though most had traditional sympathies and all of them were liturgically conservative. (For what it’s worth, I believe the highest attended Sunday Mass at St. John’s was the Novus Ordo in Latin.) I never met a lot of people when I was there, but most of the folks struck me as sincere Catholics who were grateful to have a faithful parish to attend each week. Sure, there were some pure liturgical snobs there and a few quasi-intellectuals who assessed the theological rigor of the sermons delivered, but they were far and far between (far fewer, actually, than what I have encountered in diocesan parishes).
The SSPX chapels I have been to in Chicago and parts of Michigan are a different story. Having read so many horror stories about the sectarian insanity I was bound to find within the Society’s ranks, I initially entered their chapel on the outskirts of Chicago with some trepidation. It was too small of a place for me to hide, but well-attended enough to where I could easily slip out the side if need be. Then one day I decided to go into their bookstore and, well, there was no escape then. However, instead of being accosted by pitchfork-wielding inquisitors screaming on about Masonic conspiracies and the Jews, I met…normal people. Catholics. Normal Catholics who simply wanted to know my name, ask about how I heard about the chapel, and, occasionally, where I was from. (So many people in Chicago are transplants after all.) Oh, sure, there were a few eccentrics and maybe or two folks (men) obsessed with a Leave It to Beaver-style posture, but having been in Orthodoxy for a few years, I know all about churchly “dress-up.” I lost count of how many woman I encountered who went to liturgy looking like 19th C. Slavic peasants or men (boys) pretending that they’re Athonite monks. On the whole, though, I found SSPX attendees to be down-to-earth, unpretentious, and far less obsessed with liturgical order than some of their counterparts in diocesan parishes.
After moving up to Michigan, my experience at two SSPX chapels was largely the same. The biggest difference here is that there are more folks from rural areas and most, it seems, are entirely middle class (though that category has lost a lot of meaning in recent years). Up in northern Michigan there is an SSPX chapel which is entirely rural and entirely friendly. Again, there is no faux intellectualism there, or the endless drone of lamentations over how “crappy” the Novus Ordo parishes are. I suspect most of these people already knew that, and they didn’t feel compelled to bring it up. One of the most frequent ways Catholics try to bolster their traditionalist street credibility is by swapping Novus Ordo horror stories: “You had dancing altar girls? Well, let me tell you about the clown that skipped down the aisles with a basket of Hosts!” All of that stuff is terrible, but I am not sure what the therapeutic payoff is of going on and on and on about it. Outsiders can accuse the SSPX and its adherents of being insular and walled-off from the rest of the Catholic Church, and to some extent they have a point. At the same time, though, it’s worth pointing out that they are not simply hiding out; they are doing what they can to live their Catholic Faith in an honest and integral fashion. No, I am not in perfect agreement with every position the Society advances and yes, I would rather see them regularized canonically than remain where they are at, but these things are on God’s time, not mine. In the interim, I don’t see much wisdom in getting bent out of shape over such things.
Now, I have made some mention of diocesan traditional Catholics or, rather, those Catholics who attend diocesan Tridentine Masses. I don’t want to leave anyone with the impression that my experiences in these circles have been negative. I only want to iterate that there is, at times, a different climate there than what I have experienced in SSPX circles. (For the record, my experience among the faithful who attend Mass at the Institute of Christ the King and independent chapels tends to be closer to the SSPX culture than they are to the diocesan culture.) But even within diocesan circles there can be clear lines of demarcation between those who attend the Novus Ordo services and those who attend the Tridentine services. For instance, though St. John Cantius in Chicago is not a diocesan parish per se, it does offer both forms of the Mass and, moreover, encourages integration among its parishioners in order to break down any walls of exclusivity which might exist within the parish. Diocesan parishes, on the other hand, are typically more divided in that regard, with people sticking to one form of the Mass even when the reverence and solemnity due to the Tridentine Mass directly influences the manner in which the Novus Ordo Mass is served. (Despite some traditional Catholic fears, I have yet to witness the Novus Ordo Mass influencing the manner in which the Tridentine is served.) At the diocesan level, there tends to be more diversity in why people choose to attend the Tridentine Mass than what I have typically found in circles that exclusively serve that form of Mass. Some, as I noted, are just there for aesthetics. Some like Latin. And then there are others who are simply fed up with what they found at Novus Ordo services in their area. I make note of these reasons not to denigrate them, but to highlight, in a limited fashion, one of the key differences I have found between diocesan Tridentine attendees and those who, say, attend SSPX chapels: The latter embraces the Tridentine Mass as part of a larger ideal for living an authentic Catholic life which, by their lights at least, doesn’t make compromises with the world. Sure, there are diocesan Catholics who feel the exact same way about their choices, but I am not sure that’s the over-arching norm guiding their decisions. Why that is the case or, at least, why that seems to be the case is something I haven’t fully unpacked yet.
Now, with that stated, I should restate that this is all very impressionistic and subjective. What does bother me a bit is that even within the realm of traditional/traditional-leaning Catholics, there is more than a bit of mistrust and misinformation. A lot of people want “purity,” though. It’s a fetish of modern times. Some traditional Catholics desire the “purity” of having nothing whatsoever to do with the “Novus Ordo Church.” Others want the “purity” of being in canonically regularized environments, far away from the “unwashed masses” who hear “illicit Masses” offered by “rogue priests.” Has life ever been that neat? Keep in mind that this is not an exclusively Catholic problem. There are many, many Orthodox across all of the various jurisdictions who would never think to step foot in a “Greek church” or a “Russian church” or an “Antiochian church” (ok, I can’t always blame them there), etc. You would think that the minority status of traditional Catholics, like the minority status of being an Orthodox Christian in the United States, would offer more avenues for unification and cooperation. Too many people are too interested in the luxury of abiding in their own petty kingdoms, I guess. So goes the world.