Catholic Traditionalism versus Fundamentalism

A Traditional Latin Mass (Vetus Ordo) Celebrated at St. Agnes Cathedral in Springfield Missouri in 2010
Celebrant is  Rev. Jeffery A. Fasching, the Most Rev. James V. Johnston kneels in Choir
Photo by John Kelly
NOTE: This article pertains primarily to Catholicism in the English-speaking world.  The situation can be quite different in non-Anglophone countries.

Traditionalism and Fundamentalism; yes there is a difference.  This is most especially the case in Catholicism. We see it in Protestantism too, but in Catholicism the line is more clearly drawn, and it is a line based in attitude.

Traditionalism is when Catholics cling to tradition, and overall, this is a very good thing.  It helps to keep the Church connected to her past, and in the end, it keeps her identity clear.  From the 1970s through early 2000s, there was a shortage of traditionalists in the Catholic Church, and the Church suffered because of this.  Thankfully, that is starting to change.  The trend toward returning to traditional practices really picked up in the late 1990s to early 2000s, however, because many priests and bishops had adopted a hostile attitude toward tradition, many traditionalists had nowhere to go but to illicit SSPX chapels and schismatic sedevacantist groups.  Consequently, there was a mix between what I will henceforth refer to as "traditionalists" and "fundamentalists."  Traditionalists mingled with the fundamentalists and vice versa, because they had nowhere else to go, creating a traditional-fundamental soup in those dioceses were the bishop was hostile to the traditional Latin mass and other traditional practises.

Fundamentalism in the Catholic world actually has a whole lot in common with fundamentalism in the Protestant world, and I'm sure some Catholic fundamentalists will object to me using that term in reference to them, and shriek at me making such a comparison.  However, I am very familiar with fundamentalism from my experience as a Protestant.  I know it like the back of my hand, and I can smell it a mile away. Fundamentalism, in a Catholic sense, is when a Catholic basically adopts an attitude of thinking he's more Catholic than the pope.  I mean this quite literally.  The pope is often referred to as a 'heretic' or a 'schismatic' or an 'antipope', even though the person making these accusations has no ecclesiastical authority to do so. (More often than not, these are laymen.)  The mainstream Catholic Church is often seen as a 'false church' of heresy, and the only 'true Catholics' are those who adhere to their sectarian groups and mentality. A good example of this can often be found in the SSPX (Society of Saint Pius X).  Now it's not fair to paint all persons within this group a Catholic fundamentalists, but I think it is fair to say the SSPX fosters this sort of attitude among many of its members.  It is an attitude of superiority, wherein one thinks one is 'more Catholic,' or even worse, 'more legitimately Catholic' simply because one clings to the older traditions of the Church.  However, it runs deeper than that.  There is a doctrinal division too, wherein Catholic fundamentalists become a magisterium unto themselves, believing they are the only 'authentic' interpreters of Catholic teaching and tradition, often to the exclusion of the real magisterium of the Church.  Even Rome is presumed to be 'n error' about these things.  That being said, there is always room for disagreement over some pastoral issues within the Catholic Church, but this isn't what I'm talking about here.  I'm not talking about two Catholics, who both submit to the authority of Rome and the local bishop, but have a vehement disagreement over how a certain Church teaching or discipline should be interpreted.  I'm not talking about Catholics who have different liturgical preferences and think the Church has gone too far one way or another. I'm not even talking about Catholics who say the pope is wrong on this issue or that.  Again, there is room for disagreement within the pale of orthodoxy.  No!  What I'm talking about here is entirely different.  I'm talking about a Catholic, who may have a disagreement with the Church (over this issue or that), and then takes it to the point where he pronounces the Church to be false, or having been 'taken over' by the forces of evil, to the point where this Catholic feels he can no longer be a regular member of the Church, but instead must live and worship apart from the mainstream entirely.  This is when traditionalism goes beyond traditionalism and becomes fundamentalism.  The SSPX is not alone in flirting with this kind of fundamentalist attitude.  There are other organisations even more involved: such as the SSPV (Society of Saint Pius V) for example, which is outright sedevacantist, along with the CMIQ (Congregation of Mary Immaculate Queen), and the MHFM (Most Holy Family Monastery) among others.  While it would be unfair and (so far) inaccurate to classify the SSPX as a sedevacantist organisation, it is however accurate to say that many sedevacantists frequent SSPX chapels and mingle in this traditionalist-fundamentalist soup. Hopefully that will eventually change, if or when the SSPX fully reconciles with Rome.

All of this changed in July of 2007, when Pope Benedict XVI issued Summorum Pontificum.  To any non-Traditional Catholic reading this, pay attention here, because I'm going to reveal something big to you.  No recent document of the Church has done more to hinder the fundamentalist movement in Catholicism than this document.  If you don't like Catholic fundamentalism, than you better love Summorum Pontificum, and here is why...

Summorum Pontificum is the papal motu proprio that liberalised the regular celebration of the pre-1970 Traditional Latin Mass.  It brought the Missal of 1962 back into the mainstream of Catholicism as the 'Vetus Ordo' (old order) or the 'Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite.'  This means that all lay Catholics, anywhere in the world, have a sacred RIGHT under canon law to request, and be accommodated with, a Traditional Latin Mass to a stable and consistent group.  It also means that every Catholic priest, everywhere in the world, has the sacred right under canon law to celebrate this form of the mass (privately), assuming he is competent to do so, without permission from his local bishop or ordinary.  Contemporary or 'modernist' Catholics were initially livid about this, and some of them still are, but I assert their frustration is misplaced, and in fact, they should rejoice at this decision, because it has done more to undermine Catholic Fundamentalism than anything else.  What Pope Benedict XVI did here was pull the rug out from underneath the Catholic Fundamentalist movement.  You see, prior to 2007, Catholic Fundamentalists had a virtual monopoly on the Traditional Latin Mass, especially in those areas where the local bishop and priests where hostile to the older traditions of the Church.  What these bishops and priests didn't realise, was that their hostility toward older traditions was actually the very fuel feeding the Catholic Fundamentalist movement. Those Catholics who were merely 'traditionalists,' and not fundamentalist in attitude, had nowhere else to go, but to a local illicit chapel, where they could be gradually indoctrinated with fundamentalist propaganda.  In short, the greatest thing fuelling the rise of Catholic Fundamentalism was the very hostility toward tradition that some contemporary bishops and priests were using in a futile attempt to quash it.  Here is the fatal flaw that many contemporary or 'modernist' bishops made.  They failed to understand that fundamentalism is 100% reactionary in nature.  It is a response to provocation, nothing more and nothing less.  By creating a provocation, such as eliminating all Latin masses in a diocese for example, the bishop actually creates the perfect conditions necessary for the rise of Catholic Fundamentalism in his diocesan territory.  Nowhere was this more evident than in my own local diocese, wherein the previous bishop (presumably in a misguided attempt to quash fundamentalism) did just that. He banned traditional Latin masses all throughout the diocese.  It wasn't long after that a local SSPX chapel sprang up, and grew, and grew, and grew!  I suspect it would likely be nearly a mega-church by now, where it not for Pope Benedict XVI's intervention in 2007 with Summorum Pontificum.  By 2008 a new bishop was installed in the diocese, and he immediately provided for a traditional Latin mass to be celebrated in his own cathedral almost daily.  As a result, the growth of the local SSPX chapel came to a grinding halt.  The damage was done by the unwitting actions of the previous bishop, but is now controlled (for the time being) by the actions of the new bishop.  In short, all Catholics must learn a lesson from this, because the exact same thing can be seen in the Protestant world. You don't stop fundamentalism by attacking tradition.  In fact, that is the worst possible thing you can do, because you see, fundamentalism is entirely 100% reactionary.  If you create a provocation, you will get a reaction.  The way you stop fundamentalism, contain it, and limit it's growth, is by embracing tradition!  For heaven's sake people, learn this!  Burn this into your brains!  A Catholic Fundamentalist is no different than a Protestant Fundamentalist in attitude and action.  You want to stop fundamentalism -- embrace tradition!

As a general rule, there is a simple litmus test that can be applied to determine if a Catholic is a fundamentalist or merely a traditionalist.  Protestants don't have this luxury in identifying their fundamentalists this way, as they don't have the necessary structures.  It's called the full-communion rule.  This is how you know.  If the Catholic in question is very traditional in nature, and exclusively attends the traditional Latin mass, but does so in a parish or cathedral that is under the bishop, or else a traditionalist society that is approved and regularised by Rome, than what you have here is probably just a Traditional Catholic -- not a fundamentalist.  Traditionalists are absolutely not threat to the Catholic Church.  Indeed, they are the spice and life of the Church, because they keep her connected to her past and very identity.  They are humble. They submit to proper ecclesiastical authorities.  They are in full communion with the pope.  Such people should be celebrated not ostracised.

If however, the Catholic in question is very traditional in nature, exclusively attends the traditional Latin mass, but does so in a parish that is neither approved nor regularised by Rome (when a fully regularised mass is available nearby), than what you have here (in most cases) is a fundamentalist -- not a traditionalist.  This is an extremely important distinction, because the term 'radical traditionalist' or 'rad-trad' is often incorrectly applied to these people.  Because you see, there is nothing 'traditional' about breaking communion with Rome, or worshipping at a mass that is neither approved nor regularised.  A mass that is illicit is anything but 'traditional'.  It is the very antithesis of 'traditionalism'.  Fundamentalist -- yes.  Traditionalist -- no!  Not even close.  I assert if Pope Pius X were alive as pontiff today, he would make many changes to today's Church, but simultaneously, I assert he would excommunicate the fundamentalist society that bears his name (SSPX), along with anyone who continued to frequent their masses, for failing to maintain obedience to the pope. No sir, there is nothing 'traditional' about bucking the authority of Rome. I assert he would not lift this excommunication until the SSPX was fully reconciled and regularised within the Church.

What Pope Benedict XVI did with Summorum Pontificum was brilliant, and he will remembered by future generations as one of the greatest minds in Church history.  By regularising the traditional Latin mass throughout the Church again, he effectively put an end to the virtual monopoly fundamentalists had on Traditional Catholicism.  He opened wide the doors of the Church to Traditional Catholics who do not fit in with the fundamentalists they had previously associated with in illicit chapels and groups.

So let's start using terminology correctly, and reclaiming 'traditionalism' as something that is welcome within the Catholic Church.  Traditional Catholics who remain humble and submissive to the pope and bishops should be given praise and support, even if you're a priest or layperson who wants nothing to do with this way of expressing Catholicism.  Likewise, let's start identifying those who operate outside the Church as what they are -- fundamentalists.  As their behaviour is strikingly similar to fundamentalism within Protestantism, even to the point of declaring the pope a 'heretic'.  Finally, it's time to stop confusing traditionalists with fundamentalists.  There is a difference, and it's insulting to traditionalists within the Catholic Church to classify them with the same word used to describe fundamentalists outside the Church.  It is also counter-productive.  If you're a Catholic who doesn't care for fundamentalism, than stop calling it 'traditionalism'.  It is not the same.  Stop calling fundamentalist 'traditionalists.  They are not the same.  There is a difference. Traditionalists operate inside the Church, fundamentalists do not.  Let's start recognising that please!


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For the most part, I agree with everything you've said, except for one important point. You said that whether or not a Catholic is traditional or fundamentalist depends on whether or not they attend the traditional Latin Mass under diocesan/FSSP/ICRSS/etc. auspices. However, that's not always the case. I have encountered quite a few regular attendees at approved Latin Masses who are definitely fundamentalist rather than traditional (e.g. they think the Ordinary Form Mass is evil or invalid, they insist Vatican II teaches error, they openly and stridently attack and criticize the Holy Father, etc.). Granted, most of those who attend approved Latin Masses are indeed traditional and not fundamentalist, but the latter group makes the former group look bad (you know what they say about one bad apple).
Shane Schaetzel said…
Indeed. There is one in every barrel. Yet, I would assert, and you would probably agree, that they don't belong there, which raises the question of why they are there in the first place. Is it because there is no illicit TLM to attend nearby? Or are they simply scouting for potential new converts?
I agree, Shane, they don't belong there. As for why they'd attend approved Latin Masses over SSPX Masses, I suppose they'd do so due to distance, more convenient Mass times, etc. In fact, I've heard of sedevacantists attending approved Latin Masses because they're unwelcome at the SSPX. True, a lot of sedevacantists do indeed attend SSPX chapels, but some SSPX priests crack down on that type of thing.
Shane Schaetzel said…
Indeed, SSPX parishes, especially in the United States, have a reputation of being a mixed soup of sedevacantists, fundamentalists, and displaced traditionalists who have no approved TLM nearby. I know the SSPX is not sedevacantist on any kind of official level. So it makes sense to me why some priests would crack down on sedevacantists within their parishes. It varies from chapel to chapel.

Conversely, approved TLM's tend to have an "open to everyone" disposition, which is why some sedevacantists and fundamentalists might find it a welcoming environment.

I think this serves as an opportunity to win some of these people back, so long as the priest is aware and is able to strike some kind of balance. I know one sedevacantist who was won over back to the Church proper by the ministry of a good traditionalist priest.
Firstly, I bought your excellent book. I had a bit of a prob. initially with not knowing what to do with .epub files, but it’s great! :)

This is a good piece, but I would have separated the TLM from ‘Traditionalism’: and both of those from the ‘Traditionalists’.

In other words, is it a good idea to be clear about when we’re talking about content, and when we’re referring to the supposed adherents or believers of that ‘content’?

I believe completely in Tradition (as outlined in Lumen Fidei), but I’m no ‘Traditionalist’, and I am indifferent to the TLM. I simply don’t mind. I love both forms. That said, the OF is more likely to be abused, but when it’s celebrated by ‘doing the red, saying the black’, I have no issues. If I visit a parish and it’s a clown Mass, I offer it up. If my current parish had a new clown priest would I leave? No. The Holy Spirit is bigger than that. My job is to pray for him to turn back to Christ, and support him in as much as he does that, not abandon him (and the congregation for my ‘preference’). How much do we really believe Sacraments are valid, ex opera operato, or not? (Without being pedantic about it.)

Tradition, as far as I understand it, is that which simply gives real assent to the Magisterium. It is just the Catholic position. So surely (genuine) ‘Traditionalism’ should be the expression of that, not an umbrella term for what could be better termed a ‘genre’?

Therefore, I don’t see the TLM as ‘Traditionalist’ any more than the Ordinary Form, in as much as they are celebrated correctly. So, the biggest problem I have is with ‘Traditionalists’ (the adherents), not any liturgical form or assent to Magisterial teaching. In other words, ‘Traditionalism’ as it’s used – mostly pejoratively – seems to me to be distortion, an expression of a worldview, or what I termed a ‘genre’, when, in fact, all Catholics are required to be Traditionalists.

In short, many ‘Traditionalists’ seem not to be fundamentalists, so much as a having a sort of Non-Denominational/Congregationalist mindset. They flock together only with like minds, and so are often fiercely dismissive of those outside their clique. In fact, dare I say the closest group to which they seem to resemble, are the Jansenists?

Here in England, for example, they commute miles to somewhere which provides a Mass that ‘meets their need’ as my non-denominational Evangelical friends describe the quality of their ‘services’. Each Protestant sees themselves as having the right to judge by their own standards, and in the same way, the ‘Traditionalists’ behave as if they’re an official outpost of the CDF, when they’re not (a point you imply). If anything, they’re an outpost of Non-Denominationalism within the Catholic Church, judging things by their own lights.

They have a consumerist view of the Mass, just like Evangelicals do their ‘churches’. They go only where they’re in agreement. They shop round for the ‘pastor’ or ‘Fr Zee’ who preaches closest to their own worldview.

Owing to this, I suggest ‘Traditionalists’ do grave damage to the catholicity of the Church to the degree they ghettoize themselves in this manner.

They’re not Traditionalists, so much as Liturgical Consumers. They want the Church to be more uniform – like McDonalds – than Catholic. Like my Evangelical friends, at root they believe other people are the problem.
Shane Schaetzel said…
You raise some excellent points. Thank you. And thank you for reading my book too. :)
Stephen Korsman said…
Thanks for this post - it really hits the nail on the head. I've used the term myself for some time. Fundamentalism it is. I'd also like to propose the term "High Church Vatican II Catholic" instead of "Traditionalist."

Some people prefer the Latin Mass, and will occasionally/frequently/exclusively attend Mass at an SSPX chapel for the beauty of it simply because they don't see the rift as full blown schism deserving of avoidance of the SSPX. They may not feel as strongly as some that the right and orthodox thing to do would be to avoid the SSPX. Their motivations may simply be to fulfill their own spiritual needs.

I would hesitate to call people who "shop around" for a suitable parish "liturgical consumers" (cf one of the comments). Different people have different needs - some will choose a parish based on a functional youth group, some will use the quality of sermons, some will choose a priest they like, and some will go for a charismatic or formal or Latin liturgy. In my opinion, given the ability to do so easily in modern times, feeding such a spiritual need is legitimate.

Lastly, I know someone who is a shut-in, experiencing significant anxiety leaving home for anything other than the daily routine - work, home, work, home. To make it possible to attend Mass - any Mass - he bought a house next to an SSPX chapel because such a house was available, by the grace of God, when he was in a position to buy a house. He would be described as a High Church Vatican II Catholic, so the Latin Mass there is an added advantage; he does not subscribe to the fundamentalism, though. Even so, going next door takes courage, although it's a lot easier now that he's got to know the people.
russ rentler said…
Shane, thanks for the post. I have been troubled by the traditionalist Catholics I have seen in my diocese who say they are faithful to the pope and magisterium but constantly ridicule him, posting comments on fb etc. They seed suspicion and doubt and give you the impression that all the bishops are gay, all priests who celebrate NO (NERVOUS ORdo) as they call it, are bad etc etc. Yet when you ask them if they are schismatic, they say "I am faithful to the pope and magisterium." Honestly, folks like this are like a cancer in the body of Christ, quietly sowing seeds of dissent and they are quite evangelistic in their pursuit of new devotees. They make the Catholic Church look as divided as the Protestants who are constantly seeking for that "perfect church."
When I was an evangelical we had a little saying: "When you find the perfect church, don't join it, cuz it won't be perfect anymore." Well, we have indeed found the perfect Church because it truly is the body of Christ, yes with problems, just as the 12 disciples had problems. But if we murmur against her under our breath all day, posting videos, fb posts blogging against her, soon you just have to wonder, why they we just schiz-off like the sedes did? Honestly, the spirit of Martin Luther is alive and well in some of these folks, because they truly believe they know better than the pope. Just look at the post in the New York Times recently quoting a traditionalist Catholic who says as soon as he saw Pope Benedict he knew he was bad, just from looking at him! "His eyes were dead." With folks like that getting quoted in the NEw York Times, we ultimately look divided to the world. YEs keep the traditions, the liturgy, the marian devotion, communion on the tongue etc, but leave out the suspicion the dissent, the anti-semitism and ultimately the spirit of protestantism.
Wendy Haught said…
I thought your readers might find this latest post by Steve Skojec helpful:

He gives the background for making the remark about feeling dread when first seeing Pope Francis (not Benedict). Steve made the comment in his post, "It Takes a Rigorist," which I most highly recommend.

Also, I've been studying the crisis in the Church for more than 10 years and attending a Society chapel for 9. I firmly believe that there would be no TLM for anyone to attend if it were not for Archbishop Lefebvre and the SSPX.

God bless,

Wendy Haught
Anon said…

why be so dismissive towards the SSPX? As Wendy says, if it hadn't been for Archbishop Lefebvre there would probably not have been Summorem Pontificum, nor the FSSP. The liberal modernist take-over of the Church would have been complete. Can they be schismatic - which, by the way, the Church has never said - when all they do is to hold true to the immemorial Mass and dogmatic teachings that has existed pre 1960?

That is not to say that they need not be within the bosom of the Church and not shunned and rejected as is currently the case, they do. But by their fruits ye shall know them and their seminaries are overflowing with priests willing to die for Holy Mother.

If, as hypothesised, St Pius X were to be in the Church today, he might conceivably excommunicate the SSPX - though I thank that is, on balance, unlikely. What I don't doubt at all, is that he would excommunicate a great many cardinals, archbishops, lesser clergy of every rank, religious of both sexes, and laity who have nothing to do with the SSPX. The NCReporter might well be gone - but so would many of its critics. I don't see St Pius X approving of Paul VI or JP2, either.

Any criticism of the SSPX that ignores the scandals, unorthodoxy, sexual immorality, disobedience, indiscipline, indifferentism and other great sins in the CC is self-serving and propagandistic. When all alternatives are unsatisfactory, Catholics have to make the best choice they can. And for a million or so, that choice is the SSPX.
OneTimothyThreeFifteen makes some excellent points. The parish I attend in Scotland provides the Pauline Mass - it is also the parish at which a FSSP priest offers Mass in the Old Rite. I far prefer the latter. Does that make me a "consumer" Catholic ? I see no difference in principle between (1) "shopping around" parishes until one finds the Mass one is looking for; and (2) choosing between different Masses at one parish.

The matter is not simply one of aesthetic preference - though that does play a part in which one goes to, and IMO no Catholic should be embarrassed to say so. People go because they find the Old Mass less inadequate than the Pauline Mass for the adoration of God - from the Catholic's POV, not from God's: obviously no adoration rendered to God even by the Saints and Angels in Heaven can be truly adequate to the Divine Majesty; much less that rendered by sinful men on earth. This, IMHO, is why the Mediation of Christ is of such vast practical importance - He is the Perfect Adorer of the Father, and in Him and through Him our grotesquely inadequate prayers are made pleasing and acceptable to the Father.

So in some very important ways - not all - I think it doesn't matter which Missal is used. The only thing that really matters, is that the prayers offered be acceptable to God. Canonical, theological, and doctrinal issues have loomed so large - I think - that the rite of Mass has monopolised attention, while the point of the Mass has been overlooked. I hope I am mistaken.