The Emergence of Conservative Catholicism

The post-conciliar debacle cannot be assessed without some discussion of its most remarkable epiphenomenon: the emergence of "conservative" Catholicism. Indeed, the appearance since the Council of the three distinct modes of Catholicism "traditionalist", "conservative", and "liberal" is a development never before seen in Church history. The very usage of these terms in modern Catholic parlance is empirical confirmation that there has been a rupture of external unity of cult in the Church during the post-conciliar period, at least in the Roman Rite.

Before the Council there was no need, of course, for special terminology to differentiate strains of Catholicism, for there was only one strain: every Catholic in good standing was a "traditionalist". That is, every Catholic worshipped strictly in accordance with the untouchable ancient rites of the Church, regarding as unthinkable any compromise of ecclesiastical traditions for the sake of "unity" with non-Catholics, much less any form of worship in common, which the Church had always strictly forbidden as a grave danger to the Faith.

Regarding the liturgy, the preconciliar Catholic believed what the Popes had always taught him, up to and including Pope John XXIII in Veterum Sapientiae: that the form of the Mass, including its ancient language, is a work of the Holy Ghost over the ages and is not subject to innovations.

As for Christian unity, the preconciliar Catholic regarded his Church precisely as Catholics had always been taught to regard her: The one true Church to which the separated brethren must return, not merely the most perfect of many "Christian churches and ecclesial communities" moving toward "full communion" at some unknown terminus of the "ecumenical movement". Only 35 years before the bronze doors opened on Vatican II, Pope Pius XI forcefully restated the traditional teaching on true Christian unity in his encyclical Mortalium animos, which condemned the developing "ecumenical movement" as a threat to the very foundations of the Christian faith, and forbade any Catholic participation in it: "So, Venerable Brethren, it is clear why this Apostolic See has never allowed its subjects to take part in the assemblies of non-Catholics; for the union of Christians can only be promoted by promoting the return to the one true Church of those who are separated from ...Let them therefore return to the their common Father, who, forgetting the insults heaped upon the Apostolic See, will receive them in most loving fashion. For if, as they continually state, they long to be united with Us and ours, why do they not hasten to enter the Church..."

Then came the Council and what Paul VI described as its "command" and its "program" of "newness", including the new liturgy and the new ecumenism. It was especially the liturgical reforms which provoked the unparalleled division of Catholicism into the three modes we now see.

The liberal Catholics, unleashed upon the Church by the Council's abandonment of all condemnations and the Vatican's sudden rehabilitation of numerous suspect theologians, were naturally delighted with the reforms. They demanded, and usually got, Vatican approval for a seemingly endless series of additional changes in the liturgy, including altar girls.

The liberal Catholics of today correspond roughly to the old canonical category of excommunicati tolerati (those who remain within the Church despite a sentence of excommunication), except that today no sentence of excommunication is ever pronounced against them by Vatican authorities. Since the Council only one local bishop, Fabian Bruskewitz of Nebraska, has issued a latae sententiae sentence of excommunication against a few practitioners of the liberal mode of Catholicism within the jurisdiction of his diocese, but liberal Catholicism is otherwise universally tolerated in the Church today. It has come to subsist as mode of Catholic praxis and belief, at least in the external forum, where we must presume that the liberals remain members of the Church because they have not been excluded by any sentence of ecclesiastical authority.

As we know, traditional Catholics, who have come to be called "traditionalist", opposed the post-conciliar revolution from its inception. The "traditionalist" position regarding the liturgy in particular was expressed in 1969 by Cardinals Ottaviani and Bacci in their famous "intervention" against the New Mass: The reforms of Paul VI were a "striking departure" from the theology of the Mass codified by the Council of Trent; "an incalculable error" producing a "crisis of conscience" among those who could not simply abandon a liturgical tradition more then 1,500 years standing.

Rather than submitting with docility to the destruction of the Roman rite, the traditionalists have been guided by the axiom of moral theology stated in the Ottaviani Intervention: that subjects of a legislator, even subjects of the Pope, "have always had the right, nay the duty, to ask the legislator to abrogate the law, should it prove to be harmful." The traditionalists have never ceased to exercise that right and duty, and to this day have never embraced the post-conciliar reforms - especially the reform of the liturgy, which they regard as an utterly unprecedented abuse of papal authority that no Pope prior to Paul VI would have dared to impose upon the Church.

Here it must be noted that in his monumental work, Reform of the Roman Liturgy, Msgr. Klaus Gamber (with the approbation of Cardinal Ratzinger) devoted an entire chapter to defending the traditionalist position that the Pope's supreme legislative power in disciplinary matters is not an absolute power which would allow the Pope to destroy the liturgy of the Roman rite. As Gamber notes, the popes prior to Paul VI "repeatedly observed that the [Roman] rite is founded on apostolic tradition." It follows that not even the Roman Pontiff has authority from God to abolish the received and approved form of divine worship in the Catholic Church, although the act of abolition cannot be appealed to any human authority.

Into the gap between the liberal and the traditionalist position emerged what is now called "conservative" Catholicism. It is based in large measure upon confusion between the Pope's supreme and full power to rule the Church (plena et suprema potestas), on the one hand, and absolute power on the other, which not even the Vicar of Christ possesses. The "conservatives" wrongly deduce that since there is no appeal to any human authority from a decision of the Roman Pontiff, his authority must for all practical purposes be regarded as absolute, and the faithful must therefore not only docilely accept but embrace all of the papally-approved post-conciliar reforms. There could perhaps be a polite, private entreaty for reconsideration, but no resistance or opposition whatsoever.

The Error of Papalotry

The fundamental problem with this aspect of the "Conservative" position is that it is simply not Catholic. It makes of the Pope precisely what the Protestants falsely claim he is: a despot, whose decrees must be carried out to the letter even if they harm the common good of the Church. Responding to this Protestant caricature of papal authority, Saint Robert Bellarmine, a doctor of the Church, stated the truly Catholic position: "Just as it is licit to resist the Pontiff who attacks the body, so also is it licit to resist him who attacks souls, or who disturbs the civil order, or above all, him who tries to destroy the Church. I say that it is licit to resist him by not doing what he orders and by impeding the execution of his will; it is not licit, however, to judge him, to punish him or depose him, for these are acts proper to a superior."

Of course, the teaching of St. Bellarmine is nothing other than the teaching of Sacred Scripture itself: In St. Paul's epistle to the Galatians we read that when Cephas Peter refused to sit at table with the Gentiles, St. Paul rebuked the first Pope for jeopardizing the mission of the Church buy scandalously shunning the very souls they had been commissioned to convert: "But when Cephas was come to Antioch, I withstood him to the face, because he was to be blamed." (Galatians 2:11) Some 1,300 years later French theologians would likewise rebuke Pope John XXII for teaching from the pulpit that the souls of the faithful departed do not see God until after the Last Judgment. Shortly before his death John XXII retracted his erroneous opinion, which by the protection of the Holy Ghost he had never pronounced ex cathedra.

For the "conservative" Catholic any attempt to rebuke, resist or impede the Pope in any matter whatever is unthinkable. The Pope is king, and that is that. One "conservative" Catholic leader, who shall in charily remain nameless, even attempted to demonstrate that the "Cephas" rebuked by Paul in Galatians was not Peter! Even Holy Scripture itself must yield to the exigencies of papolatry! The "conservative" becomes a modernist revisionist exegete! (See Resisting Wayward Prelates)

For the "conservative" Catholic the principle of papal authority trumps everything, even the common good of the Church - although, as we shall see, the conservative's adherence to papal authority curiously weakens when it comes to the definitive anti-modernist pronouncements of any Pope before 1960. Michael Davies captured "conservative" Catholic attitude perfectly when discussing how "conservative" clergy, following the latest instructions from their superiors, embrace the very things they once condemned, and condemn what they once taught: "The prevailing attitude among so many of the clergy is to accept a particular belief or attitude not because it has an inherent and enduring truth or value, but because it happens to be the current policy. This the very clergy who would have denounced (and rightly so) any layman who had attended a Protestant service before the Council will now denounce any layman who suggests that the faith would in any way be compromised by attending such services...Thus a matter touching upon the very nature of the Church Christ founded is seen in itself as something neutral; all that matters is the current instruction..."

As we have seen, Cardinal Ratzinger admitted in his recent memoirs that Paul VI's attempt to abolish the traditional Mass caused "grave damage" to the Church, damage whose "consequences could only be tragic". If that is true - and it manifestly is true - then the Pope's subjects had not only the right but the duty to use all licit means, short of judging or deposing him, to minimize the damage that was about to be inflicted on the Church. For traditionalists licit resistance to the Pope meant simply refusing to abandon the traditional rite of Mass in favor of the new Mass, or to practice any of the other novelties which appeared in the Church during the 1960s. History has already demonstrated that they were right to do so, as Cardinal Ratzinger's recent statements will attest.

A False "Middle Way"

"Conservative" Catholicism is a far more complex phenomenon than this discussion might suggest. Within "conservative" Catholicism there is range of praxis and opinion, with some "conservatives" coming rather close to the traditionalist position, so that generalizations are difficult. But in all of its variations, "conservative" Catholicism attempts to forge a middle way between liberalism and traditionalism, presenting itself as the domain of sound orthodoxy lying between the two extremes of the postconciliar era. It purports to see an equivalence between liberals and traditionalists - an equivalence which is quite false, as Dietrich Von Hildebrand has noted, because even the most "extreme" traditionalist does not hold any view which contravenes an times12 of the faith.

"Conservative" Catholicism claims to be motivated by "true" fidelity to Tradition and "true" obedience to the Magisterium, even if that fidelity and obedience have required a series of humiliating about-faces which have undermined the very credibility of the Church. As Cardinal Ratzinger has stated regarding the suppression of the traditional Mass by Paul VI: "A community that suddenly declares that what until now was its holiest and highest possession is strictly forbidden, and makes the longing for it seem downright indecent, calls its very self into question." Yet the "conservative" Catholic is not disturbed by this. He simply follows the Pope, no matter what: "I would rather be wrong with the Pope than right without him" is one of the more asinine "conservative" Catholic bromides.

It needs to be stressed, however, that it would be unjust to condemn "conservatives" en bloc because they have more or less accommodated themselves to the post-conciliar revolution. The question of opposition to papal acts is a matter of conscience in which no member of the faithful can claim infallibility. Indeed, the very emergence of neo-Catholicism reflects an unparalleled situation which has caused vast confusion about what to do in the current crisis: While there have always been would-be innovators in the Church and traditional Catholics to oppose them, never in the history of the Church have the innovators been the Popes themselves.

As Msgr. Gamber observed in Reform of the Roman Liturgy: "It is most certainly not the function of the Holy See to introduce Church reforms. The first duty of the Pope is to act as primary bishop, to watch over the traditions of the Church - her dogmatic, moral and liturgical traditions." But what happens when the popes, for the first time in Church history, demand reforms which destroy or suppress a number of those traditions? "Conservative" Catholicism seeks an answer to that question - we must presume in good faith - even if history is demonstrating that it is the wrong answer.

Self-Contradiction and Denial

Mindful of the grave duty to preserve the Church's patrimony, yet unwilling frankly to question papal acts, the "conservative" Catholic seeks to relieve the insupportable tension of his own position, thereby falling into self-contradiction. He will say, for example, that a new rite of Mass in the vernacular is "not what the Council intended". But, as we have already seen, Paul VI declared that it was precisely the Council which provided the mandate for his revolutionary new vernacular rite of Mass; and it was Pope Paul himself who approved the Council's Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, making it his own act as supreme legislator of the Church. Thus, while insisting that papal reform of the liturgy be accepted with utter docility, the conservative implicitly accuses the Pope of gravely erring in the interpretation and implementation of his own document!

Another device which conservatives use to relieve the tension of their position is to assign all of the disastrous effects of the post-conciliar innovations and reversals to "abuses" committed by faceless "liberals", without ever acknowledging that the "abuses" are nearly all permitted under Vatican guidelines. The conservative often finds himself decrying what the Vatican itself approves or encourages, even as he insists that there be no public criticism of the Holy See.

For example, the neo-Catholic might well lament the current state of the liturgy in a general. But he will not confront the fact that the spectacle of a charismatic guitar Mass with babbling parishioners, "slaying in the Spirit", people falling backwards onto the floor of the sanctuary, altar girls, female "lectors", communion in the hand and readings by a Protestant minister, conducted in a church used jointly by a Catholic parish and a Protestant sect, is entirely "permissible" under guidelines approved by Paul VI and John Paul II, including the utterly astounding 1993 Directory on Ecumenism.

To give another example, neo-Catholics can often be heard complaining about the scandal of "sex education" in Catholic schools. Yet they will never mention that for 30 years the Holy See has been well aware of the pornographic content of "Catholic" sex-ed curricula and has taken no action to remove them from Catholic schools, much less punish the bishops, priests and nuns who force these vile curricula upon innocent children. On the contrary, despite the teaching of the pre-Vatican II Magisterium condemning any form of "sex education", Cardinal Ratzinger declared that there was no problem from "the doctrinal point of view" with the obscene "New Creation" course, then passed it over to Cardinal Baum, who likewise approved it and sent it back to America, where it has been destroying the innocence of children ever since. While the Vatican goes on allowing little children to be scandalized in Catholic classrooms around the world, the "conservatives" heap lavish praise on a toothless 1995 Vatican document, issued 30 years too late, which contains the laughable advice that "it is recommended that respect be given to the right of the withdraw from any form of sexual instruction imparted outside the home." Recommended? It is an intolerable outrage in the first place that a Catholic child should have to withdraw from a Catholic classroom in order to preserve his innocence!

The same refusal to place the blame where it belongs characterizes the "conservative" Catholic's approach to the post-conciliar Vatican program of "collaborating" with the very forces of secularism the preconciliar popes condemned. Thus, "conservative" Catholics will decry Ted Turner's gift of a billion dollars to the godless United Nations, as did Mother Angelica at one of the conservatives' widely publicized "Call to Holiness" conferences. Yet they never mention that the Vatican, a permanent observer at the U.N., is one of that organization's staunchest supporters, despite measured "reservations" about particular U.N. policies or activities which it otherwise subscribes to. [For example, the Vatican is a signatory to the deplorable U.N. Convention on the "Rights of the Child."] Neither will "conservatives" mention that the Conciliar document Gaudium et spes called precisely for establishment of a world government, or that in the very midst of the Council Paul VI traveled to New York to pay tribute to the United Nations as "this lofty institution", and the "last great hope for concord and peace", declaring: "Let unanimous trust in this institution grow, let its authority increase...". Nor will conservatives breathe a word about the fact that Pope John Paul II, a major contributor to Gaudium et spes, expressed the same sentiments as his predecessor in his own address to the U.N. thirty years later. On that occasion the current Pope proclaimed the "esteem of the Apostolic See and of the Catholic Church for this institution" and pronounced the U.N. - worldwide promoter of contraception, abortion and atheistic humanism - "a great instrument for harmonizing and coordinating (!) international life". God forbid.

There is still another device by which conservatives seek to resolve the tension between the continuity of ecclesial traditions and obedience to the current program of unprecedented innovation: Some of them pretend that there is no tension at all by simply declaring that anything whatever the Pope decrees is by definition traditional: "What the Church approves is, by definition, compatible with Catholic Traditions; for the Church, especially the Holy See, is...the arbiter and judge of Tradition." [The Pope, the Mass and the Council, p. 71-72] The problem with this argument is that it deprives Tradition of any objective content, reducing it essentially to whatever the Pope desires. The result is pure nonsense: altar girls, for example, become "traditional", even though they were forbidden for the entire 2,000 year history of the Church, and were even forbidden by Pope John Paul II until he abruptly reversed his own prior decree.

The abandonment of the traditional Mass in favor of a new vernacular Mass also becomes "traditional". In fact, innovation itself becomes "traditional". The truth of the matter is that the Pope is not the "arbiter" of Tradition, but its custodian, as Gamber observed with the approbation of Cardinal Ratzinger. When Pius IX declared that "I am Tradition!", he meant that he represented Tradition not that Tradition was his to determine. Tradition does not need an "arbiter" because Tradition is a manifest fact: the sum total of what Catholics have always believed and practiced in their faith and worship. None of that had changed in any material respect before 1965. To say, therefore, that the changes of the past 35 years are "compatible with Tradition" is to deny reality; it is even to deny what Paul VI himself said when introducing the new Mass on November 26, 1969: "We must prepare ourselves. This novelty is no small thing."

In order to maintain his position, therefore, the "conservative" Catholic must live in a constant state of denial about the ultimate source of the current crisis in the Church. This assumes the conservative is willing to admit that there is a crisis to begin with. As already noted, many conservatives insist that we are in the midst of a "great renewal".

The "conservative" wants to believe and wants us to believe that the liturgical revolution and the "ecumenical venture" imposed upon us by Rome are good in themselves, and that the problem, if any, lies with "abuses" in the application of these unexampled novelties at the pastoral level. He stubbornly refuses to concede the possibility that the vast program of aggiornamento directed from the Vatican over the past 35 years is flawed in principle, even though it has been accompanied by the manifest devastation of the entire landscape of the Church.

When we examine the "conservative" approach to the pre-Vatican II Magisterium, we find a further tendency to self-contradiction in the "conservative" position: Many of the same conservatives who counsel blind obedience to the reforms of Paul VI and John Paul II are curiously ambivalent when it comes to the definitive anti-modernist teaching of the great preconciliar popes, which does not square well with the Vatican's current non-infallible pastoral program.

A remarkable example of this is to be found in the writings of prominent "conservative" Alan Schreck, a professor of theology at the Franciscan University of Steubenville, which has acquired a reputation for uncompromising orthodoxy. In discussing the Syllabus of Errors of Pius IX, which non-liberal theologians regard as a probably infallible condemnation of the very principles of modern civilization, Schreck opines that: "Unfortunately, the Syllabus condemned most of the new ideas of the day and gave the impression that the Catholic Church was against everything in the modern world...The Catholic Church looked like it was becoming a fortress Church, standing in opposition to the modern world and rejecting all new ideas."

But, of course, a fortress against the ideas of the world is precisely what the Catholic Church is meant to be by her divine Founder. The Church has no need of the world's "new ideas" (which are really old heresies with new faces) since she is the repository of everything that has already been revealed to us by God. Schreck's slighting of the Syllabus, which appears in Denzinger as binding Catholic doctrine, is a stark contrast to the obsequious obedience conservatives display toward every non-infallible pastoral directive of the post-conciliar era.

Schreck's assessment of the definitive acts of Pius X against the modernists is even more revealing of this self- contradiction within the "conservative" idea: "It is probably true that Pius X overreacted (!) against the threat of Modernism, which led to the stifling of creative (!) Catholic research, especially in the area of biblical and historical studies, over the next fifty years..."

So then, Pope St. Pius X, perhaps the greatest Pope in Church history and the only Pope to be canonized in the past 500 years, is blithely accused of "overreacting" by professor Schreck of Steubenville! Yet "conservatives" like Schreck would never dream of accusing Paul VI of "overreacting" in his quest for "Christian unity" when he suddenly imposed on the entire Church a new rite of Mass, concocted with the aid of six Protestant advisors under the guidance of a suspected Mason who was later dismissed and packed off to Iran!

Another striking example of this self-contradiction is to be found in The Pope, the Mass and the Council, a celebrated book-length defense of the "conservative" view that we must embrace each and every one of the postconciliar reforms, including the abominable ICEL translation of the Mass into English approved by Vatican bureaucrats. The authors concede that the Catechism of the Council of Trent clearly teaches that the words of Our Lord over the Cup of His Blood are to be translated pro vobis et pro multis - for you and for many - because the Church has always taught that the fruits of the Sacrifice of the Mass benefit only the elect, not all men. Yet ICEL mistranslates "for many" as "for all".

Faced with this undeniable conflict between a solemnly promulgated Catechism of the universal Church and a currently approved vernacular translation of the Mass, the authors give the Catechism the heave-ho: "It [the Catechism] was not issued by the Council of Trent but was only prepared afterwards at the request of the Council." But the authors fail to mention that the Catechism of the Council of Trent was solemnly promulgated by the authority of Pius V, a canonized saint! In further support of a mistranslation which alters the very theology of the Mass and contradicts Trent, and which Msgr. Gamber rightly calls "scandalous", the authors cite a liberal theologian who claimed in 1963 that "Christ had no intention of establishing a rigid formula." Thus, the "conservative" will even resort to the opinions of liberals to justify the unprecedented innovations of the current program.

For many "conservatives", then, absolute obeisance to papal pronouncements ends at the chasm marked by the year 1960. Beyond that chasm, their allegiance to the constant teaching of the Magisterium seems to wane; the preconciliar popes become for them hazy figures, whose encyclicals and solemnly promulgated catechisms may be minimized as the outdated artifacts of a bygone era to the extent that they conflict with post-conciliar novelties. Two thousand years of traditional teaching and praxis become a closed book, or at least a book which must be edited and revised in accordance with the new and separate book of Vatican II.

The Malice of Some

The elements of denial and self-contradiction in "conservative" Catholicism are not the only problem with this phenomenon. Some "conservatives", particularly a number of the more prominent ones, seem discontent to remain immured in the compromises of their own position while leaving others to their own approach to the crisis. For these conservatives there is an unfortunate tendency to denounce those who have refused to join them: namely, the traditionalists.

Thus we are treated to the spectacle of certain conservatives who timidly decline to name any of the liberals demolishing the Church before their very eyes, yet fearlessly name and publicly condemn traditionalists whose only offense is to continue to practice the Faith precisely as it was always practiced before 1965.

We can see, then, how "conservative" Catholicism has vastly complicated the current crisis. Unwitting watchdogs of the post-conciliar revolution, the conservatives slumber while an army of burglars ransack the household of the Faith, but now and then leap to their feet to run upstairs and yap at traditionalists who have taken refuge in the attic with their few remaining possessions, including some "illicit" Latin Masses. Meanwhile, the burglars continue their work without hindrance.

Thanks to the emergence of "conservative" Catholicism, for the first time in Church history staunch Catholic traditionalism has become an epithet. The very existence of a false "conservative" middle-ground between revolution and tradition has permitted the revolutionaries to emarginate traditionalists. As arch-liberal Richard P. McBrien put it in his book The Remaking of the Catholic Church: "Criticism of the extreme right by moderate conservatives is far more effective than by moderate progressives."

Indeed it is. The conservatives, however unwittingly, have served the revolution well. Yet it was Pope St. Pius X, ten years before Our Lady appeared at Fatima, who warned the faithful of the growing potential for revolution in the Church, and who reminded us all that "the true friends of the people are neither revolutionaries, nor innovators: they are the traditionalists."

This article is condensed from an article by Christopher Ferrara, Esq., founder and president of America-Catholic Lawyers Association, 10 Audrey Place, Fairfield, NJ 07004