Thursday, January 14, 2010

Saving the papacy from the pope

Turretin Fan has been patiently responding to 38+ questions for “Bible Christians.” I haven’t decided yet whether I’ll take time out to work up my own reply. For one thing, I’ve been over this ground soooo many times before.

For now I’ll content myself with a general observation. I notice that, by Steve Ray’s own admission, the questionnaire was basically ghostwritten by David Palm.

But that casts the questionnaire in a wholly different light. For Palm is a traditionalist Catholic. And traditionalist Catholics have a love/hate relationship with the papacy. Their basic attitude is that, if it weren’t for the pope, the papacy would be a really swell idea. Indeed, it’s still a pretty swell idea, but you have to take great pains to distinguish the papacy from the flesh-and-blood incumbents.

Normally, when a Catholic epologist tries to coax an Evangelical to swim the Tiber, he presents the church of Rome as a solution all the ills, real or imagined, that beset Protestantism. The blueprint for anarchy and all that good stuff. He’s like a used car salesman who’s enticing you to trade in your clunker for a more reliable model. Something you can count on, day in and day out.

But, of course, a traditionalist Catholic is quite ambivalent about his own communion. Basically, the papacy went off the reservation with the election of John XXIII–and hasn't been seen since.

BTW, I’ve never known why traditionalist Catholics draw the line with John XXIII. After all, it was really Pius XII who poked a hole in the dike with encyclicals like Divino Afflante Spiritu and Humani generis. But I guess that Munificentissimus Deus covers a multitude of pontifical sins.

Anyhoo, when a traditionalist Catholic salesman offers you a great deal, there’s more to that car than meets the eye.

We’ve all seen those nifty two-seater convertible sports cars sunning themselves in the used car lot. The kind we died to own in junior high or high school.

They have a great wax job. And the interior has that “brand new” aroma. Used car salesmen seem to store that “brand new” aroma in spray cans which they apply liberally to the musty interiors of “preowned” vehicles to give them that factory fresh scent.

It’s just so doggone tempting. Like being a teenager all over again!

You can forego the obligatory midlife crisis. Don’t have to ditch wifey and your five kids. No alimony or custody battles. This car will restore your long0lost youth!

But after you drive the car around for a few days, problems begin to surface. Engine stalls. An oil leak here, coolant leak there. Car battery dies. Power windows on the fritz. Fun stuff like that.

Your “new,” preowned car spends an inordinate amount of time in the shop. As soon as the mechanic has one thing fixed, something else acts up.

Look at poor Gerry Matatics. Saving the papacy is from the pope is a full-time job. Indeed, you have to work overtime. Weekends. Graveyard shift.

The circle of the one true church keeps gets smaller. Every month. Every week. Poor Gerry has to sleep with one eye propped open by a toothpick lest he blink and find one true church contract microscopically while he wasn’t looking.

Of course, Palm isn’t quite as far along as Matatics. Palm is a “reluctant” traditionalist.

But when you read through his questionnaire for “Bible Christians,” consider the alternative. Read his questionnaire side-by-side his diagnosis of contemporary Catholicism. Before you trade in your clunker for that shiny preowned model which David Palm has sitting in the lot, take a close look under the hood:

[Quote] I can easily imagine someone saying, "Why do we need the labels anyway? Isn't just 'Catholic' enough?" Well, it ought to be. But we live in a time when Charles Curran, Hans Küng, Ted Kennedy, and John Kerry all call themselves "Catholic" and no bishop in the Church says otherwise. So we take to calling ourselves "orthodox Catholics" or "faithful Catholics" or some other such modified phrase, to distinguish ourselves from self-styled Catholics who have yet to be informed that they are no Catholics at all.

But even within the relative minority of orthodox, faithful Catholics there is another distinction to be made, primarily concerning the nature of the "reforms" that have taken place since the Second Vatican Council. There exists a small, but definitely growing, movement that in its broad outlines can be identified and is commonly described as the "traditionalist Catholic movement"; its adherents are naturally called "traditional Catholics". Now as a formal movement, as embodied in certain publications and groups, there are a lot of serious problems. I hope to comment on these difficulties more in the months to come and I will most certainly step on some toes by doing so.

As with a lot of things in life, though, the matters raised by seemingly simple questions turn out to be not quite so simple. Yes, the NOM is valid, but there are concerns about its creation, its relationship to the larger liturgical tradition, and its effect on the life of the Church. Yes, Vatican II is a valid and binding ecumenical Council, but there are a lot of legitimate questions about the precise level of magisterial authority with which the various documents are invested and exactly how certain portions can be reconciled with the Church's pre-conciliar teaching, to say nothing of the prudence of the inclusions, omissions, and pastoral approach embodied in the documents. And yes, Benedict XVI and John Paul II and Paul VI and John XXIII are/were validly reigning Popes, but this bare fact does not place their every word and action beyond all analysis and evaluation. Still less does it guarantee that the course set by their words and actions has had the desired effect of renewing and invigorating the Church.

There is a pithy saying that is oft repeated in traditionalist circles that captures well the dynamic between those who define their Catholic identity to a great extent by what has transpired since 1964 and those who seek to maintain more continuity with the perennial doctrinal, liturgical, and disciplinary tradition of the Roman Catholic Church.

We live in a time of crisis (and rebuilding) in the Catholic Church. I think every orthodox Catholic can agree on that. But the precise nature of that crisis—its root causes, the dynamics behind its present manifestation and unfolding, and the appropriate solutions—are all matters of intense debate. And here, although there is plenty of infighting within the movement, traditionalists firm up into a more unified front. What I think all traditionalists can agree upon is that behind the crisis stands in large part a de facto—and sometimes de jure—abandonment of numerous doctrinal, liturgical, and disciplinary traditions of the Roman Catholic Church, traditions that had held her in good stead for centuries, if not millennia.

in the Church those Catholics who are ostensibly conservative but who embrace every single change that comes down the pike (as long as it comes backed by ecclesiastical authority and ofttimes even if it does not) have no legitimate claim to the label "conservative", for they do not conserve the Faith and the observances that have embodied and protected it over the centuries. Rather, they are by historical standards quite liberal and so, in my own writings if a distinction is necessary I will refer to them as "neo-conservative Catholics" or just "neo-conservatives", with the caveat that they are really only moderately and selective conservative at best (but with the emphasis that they are, of course, certainly Catholics!)

Hopefully such definitions answer certain questions, but I have been very broad in sketching the outlines of the traditionalist position. And obviously I leaves lots of questions unanswered, questions concerning the Mass, Vatican II, ecumenism, the Society of Pius X and "independent" priests, and so on. All of those issues will receive more detailed attention on this site but one issue in particular requires a bit more treatment here, namely, traditionalist attitude toward the papacy.

the traditionalist, of all people, knows that outside of the Catholic Church there is no salvation. Rather, as I have said, traditionalism is characterized by an historically Catholic attitude toward change. Unfortunately, in our present day this attitude brings us into tension with many prelates in the Catholic Church, including at times even the Popes. There may be times in which we sincerely disagree with the courses adopted by the Roman Pontiff, but I believe such conclusions should only come after serious reflection mingled with holy fear. Still, as Dietrich von Hildebrand wrote, the traditionalist who vigorously upholds the theoretical authority of the Pope may, at times, find himself in serious disagreement with a particular exercise of that authority


  1. Obviously, you can't trust those popes.

  2. We can trust the papacy–just not the pope!

  3. Your piece was interesting and even entertaining reading, but certainly didn't accurately capture the position I laid out in the essay you cited (and the lack of ellipses definitely make the citation look and read strangely.) I'm not one who is "quite ambivalent about his own communion"; on the contrary, I thank God every day for my Catholic faith. But I have tried to reflect more soberly on precisely the distinction that we make when explaining the papacy to Protestants, namely, that not every exercise of the papal office is infallible and the popes aren't impeccable; you know that too, but it seems that you continue to want to hold us to believing otherwise.

    That there are serious problems in the Catholic Church right now--well, none other than Karl Keating told me prior to my conversion that it was perhaps the most difficult time for the Church in her history, that I could expect serious trials and difficulties within the Catholic Church. So there's no grand cover-up there.

    In spite of this I hold, as I always have as a Catholic, that there is a significant difference between Protestantism and Catholicism in terms of certainty of belief. My reasons for that may be found here:

    God bless,