We Were All Trads. No, We Weren’t.

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May 25, 2013 by lucieromarin

I read this post over at Orwell’s Picnic. It’s hard to disagree with someone who references both Firefly and Fringe on her blog, but even after listening to as much of Chris Ferrara’s talk as I could, I still felt myself shaking my head.

Hilary White is correct when she says, “Where there are differences, one must make distinctions.” Labels matter because nouns matter; if they didn’t matter, everything could be called ‘Joe’ and society would still function. Just as we need to know whether ‘St Mark’s Parish,’ is Anglican or Catholic, we also save ourselves undue suffering if we know whether it’s charismatic or traditionalist. (However, I do think that when some people say, “I’m just a Catholic,” what they mean is, “I don’t want my religion to be about attacking other people, and your labels all seem to be used as insults.” We can be our own worst enemies here.)

It’s also correct to say that many of the distinctions which – ahem – enrich Catholic life today have appeared only since the Second Vatican Council, and often in relation to Sacred Liturgy, and that they are not historically characteristic of Catholicism.

From this, however, Mr Ferrara reaches this conclusion: “Before Vatican II we were all ‘traditionalists’. We all went to the traditional Latin Mass; we all believed there was one true Church; we all prayed fifteen decades of the Rosary… there has arisen in the Church a kind of division of the Church into strains of Roman Catholicism….Whereas before Vatican II, we had heretics and Catholics.”

Um…the thing is…this isn’t true. First of all, multiple strains of Catholicism are not just the fruit of the Council. They’re the fruit of universal literacy and the internet. That is, news travels faster than it used to and everyone gets to read and/or watch videos about it, which means that everyone knows what everyone else is doing, so differences are noticed more often and discussed and/or argued about by more people than they once were. This is all Gutenberg’s fault.

Second, we were not all traditionalists before the Council, even if you do define ‘trad’ merely as ‘someone who goes to the Old Mass,’ rather than as ‘someone who goes to the Old Mass with an agenda against the New.’ Eastern Catholics did not go to the traditional Latin Mass, and Western churches, too, are filled with the ghosts of now-vanished rites; think of the Sarum, Ambrosian, and Mozarabic rites, not to mention those particular to religious orders – Dominicans, Franciscans and Carmelites all had their own rites, once. (Can you imagine a traditionalist these days demanding the restoration of the medieval French Mass of the Donkey, during which the congregation responded to the [braying] priest with “Hee Haw”?)

As for all praying fifteen decades of the Rosary… look, I don’t pray the Luminous Mysteries either, but we can’t pretend that we’re praying something that Catholics have always prayed. When St Thomas Aquinas wrote about the Hail Mary, the prayer still ended at the word ‘womb.’ The Holy Name had yet to be added to it. From the fifteenth century on, it had two alternative endings; the prayer we know only became common around the 16th century. And no one who prayed the Rosary ever prayed the Fatima Prayer before 1917!

Third, that Catholics were not divided into trads and neo-cons and charismatics in the past does not mean that they were not divided. They were heaps divided. They were so divided that they killed each other over their differences. You know why we lost the Battle of Constantinople? We lost it because we were outnumbered, and we were outnumbered because French and English Catholics were too busy killing each other to go fight the infidel. (Truly, English bowmen were the best in the world at that time. We could have won.)

Catholics subcultures have always existed in competition with each other. It’s just that, in the past, instead of arguing over which was the best rite of Mass, Catholics argued over which was the real Pope. They were Guelph and Ghibelline (and Black Guelph and White Guelph); they were piagnoni and palleschi, they were York and Lancaster, they were French and English. And remember that the monarch was believed to rule by Divine right, so the monarch you supported told what kind of Catholic you were. The Crown was as important as the liturgy, which is why no Catholic ever said, “Well, I’m French and you’re English, but you know what? We’re both Catholic, so let’s not fight.”

The label of nationality has long meant more than the label of faith. In ‘The Shadow of His Wings,’ German author Fr Gereon Goldmann, writing about the Second World War, describes holding an Italian bishop at gunpoint, because the bishop refused to administer the Sacraments to dying German Catholic soldiers, saying, “Germans are not liked here.” Seriously, I mentioned to a Polish friend that I was going to venerate the relic of St Stephen of Hungary in Budapest, and you know what she said? She said, “Well, St Stephen stole the crown from the Polish people. He is only a king because he stole our crown.” This happened in the year 1000. The Poles still care. The shared faith is irrelevant beside the stolen crown.

Even at the not-killing level: Ninth-century Slavs were so intractable that Saints Cyril and Methodius created a semi-vernacular liturgy for them. The ninth-century author of the Heliand really thought that an Anglo-Saxon poetic interpretation of the Gospels, complete with the Holy Spirit appearing as Odin’s crow, was a good idea. Medieval Catholics who believed in the Swoon were an irritation to those who rejected it. American Catholicism and European Catholicism were so distinct, and the former was so threatening to the latter, that Americans ended up with a heresy named after them.

The seventies and eighties were awful. They were really, really awful. People who wonder why other people get so worked up about liturgy need to be sent back in time to those decades when your only Mass options were puppets-and-heresy or heresy-and-guitars. But we don’t further our cause by imagining a pre-Vatican II era in which all Catholics all did the same thing, because that era never existed.


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