The Liturgy Wars Have Become Doctrinal Wars

Many Catholics over the past few decades have studiously avoided the “liturgy wars” within the Church and, frankly, I don’t blame them. Too often these battles involve a lot of heat and not a lot of light. Catholic against Catholic can become quite vicious and personal at times. Better to simply keep one’s head down, bear silently with any liturgical issues at your parish, and soldier on.

Because of this prevailing attitude, many Catholics have also only been somewhat if at all interested in Pope Francis’s efforts to restrict and ultimately eliminate the traditional Latin Mass. It doesn’t impact them directly, and it seems to concern issues above their pay grade. Again, better to keep one’s head down.

The problem is that the effort to shut down the traditional Latin Mass is only one prong in a multipronged war by the pope against the perceived threat of “traditionalism.” For whatever reason, Francis seems to believe that traditionalism is one of the most pressing problems in the Church today and needs to be vigorously resisted.

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Now the average faithful Catholic might say, “But I’m not a traditionalist, I attend the Ordinary Form and I’m fine with Vatican II, so what’s it to me?” Recent remarks by the pope, however, shows that this attack on “traditionalism” in the Church goes far deeper than an attachment to the old rites—it directly impacts the doctrines of the Church.

Last week on the plane back from Canada (it’s always on a plane, isn’t it?), the pope was asked about efforts to undercut Humanae Vitae and change the Church’s absolute prohibition against artificial contraception. His answer was revealing. Instead of just simply saying that this teaching would not—because it could not—change, he launched into another diatribe against traditionalism:

But know that dogma, morality, is always on a path of development, but always developing in the same direction…I think this is very clear: a Church that does not develop its thinking in an ecclesial sense, is a Church that is going backward. This is today’s problem, and of many who call themselves traditional. No, no, they are not traditional, they are people looking to the past, going backward, without roots – it has always been done that way, that’s how it was done last century. And looking backward is a sin because it does not progress with the Church. Tradition, instead, someone said (I think I said it in one of the speeches), tradition is the living faith of those who have died. Instead, for those people who are looking backward, who call themselves traditionalists, it is the dead faith of the living. Tradition is truly the root, the inspiration by which to go forward in the Church, and this is always vertical. And looking backward is going backward, it is always closed.

In other words, to think that the Church’s teaching about artificial contraception cannot “develop” is to be a “traditionalist” who has “the dead faith of the living” (and although there’s a lot of wordplay here, “develop” essentially means “change” in this context, since an absolute moral prohibition on artificial contraception can only be changed into something it is not). Humanae Vitae is simply “how it was done last century.”

So, in the pope’s eyes, you do not have to attend the traditional Latin Mass—you don’t even have to care a lick about the liturgy—to be a “traditionalist;” simply believing that the Church cannot change her fundamental moral teachings makes you one.

We are all traditionalists now.

  • Eric Sammons

    Eric Sammons is the editor-in-chief of Crisis Magazine.

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