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Seattle Catholic
A Journal of Catholic News and Views
24 Sep 2003

Overcoming "Cafeteria Traditionalism"

by R. James

Church Organ

The wake of the Second Vatican Council capsized countless Catholic traditions. Some traditions were explicitly undone by Church authorities (such as the revision of rules concerning fast and abstinence), and others were abandoned without any such official action on the part of the Church (such as the disuse of chapel veils). Still others fell by the wayside in spite of Vatican pronouncements to the contrary (such as the disappearance of Latin in the liturgy). Regardless of the why or how, the fact remains that numerous traditional practices and rules of discipline are no longer the "norm" in the Roman Catholic Church of 2003.

Of all the traditions abandoned after Vatican II, the most obvious, most significant, and most cherished is the traditional Latin Mass. Not surprisingly, then, Catholics called to tradition often begin their journey back with the Latin Mass. For this, and other reasons, it would probably be fair to call the traditional Latin Mass as the "gateway" to Catholic tradition.

However, a funny thing happens on the road to tradition: the budding traditionalist (especially if he or she is too young to have been raised in the pre-Conciliar Church) soon learns that Catholic tradition is more than just the Latin Mass. He or she soon discovers the plethora of fascinating and fabulous customs and practices that help define traditional Catholicism: three hour fasts before Mass (if not from midnight); meatless Fridays throughout the entire year; observance of Ember Days; the Brown Scapular; the Holy Rosary; Eucharistic Adoration; regular Confession; dressing up for Mass; the Little Office; grace before meals; crucifixes in the home; home shrines; the Angelus; family prayer; and so on and so forth. Where does one begin in sorting through, learning about, and embracing these traditional Catholic staples? And, moreover, where does one end?

And therein lies what I call the problem of "Cafeteria Traditionalism." As the Vatican no longer concerns itself with most of these traditional practices and customs, the traditional Catholic is left to observe them within his own discretion. Should an individual fast three hours before Mass, or from midnight until Mass, or should he avail himself of the one hour rule currently mandated? Should one abstain from eating meat on all Fridays, or just during Lent? What about Ember Days? Indeed, it is quite ironic that the multiplicity of options and choices in matters of religious discipline and practice that traditionalists have decried is precisely a characterizing feature of "modern" Catholic traditionalism. Indeed, I posit that over time, the lack of binding, authoritative guidance over such matters poses a threat to the spiritual health of traditional Catholics.

Discretion over such affairs is dangerous because it suggests that matters of religious discipline (if not religion, generally) are arbitrary, unimportant, and merely optional. I surmise that this discretion would have a magnified deleterious effect on children, who are to a much greater extent still in the process of forming their religious bearings.

One may fairly object that many of the customs I write of were optional even before Vatican II. Although this is true, several of these customs were not optional, and, moreover, many of those customs that were optional were nonetheless universally (or nearly-universally) observed, thus taking on a mandatory nature by virtue of peer pressure. In any event, even if one were to limit one's self to only those traditions that were officially enforced, there can still be no doubt that Catholics prior to Vatican II lived under a far more austere set of disciplinary guidelines than does the traditionalist of today.

Fixed, mandatory disciplinary guidelines, as were historically promulgated by the Church, lent themselves to a culture of discipline and fostered a respect for Church authority. Contrary to what many progressives in the Church had taught, lowering the disciplinary bar does not increase discipline, but diminishes it. Thus, modern mainstream Catholicism, which is marked by a wholesale abdication of Church authority, suffers a decline of discipline (among both the clergy and the laity). In sum, authority not exercised leads to authority not recognized, and a community lacking recognized authority soon finds itself lacking in discipline. Without a central, fixed arbiter of rules concerning traditional customs and practices, is this same specter of anarchy what the future holds for traditional Catholicism?

Probably not. The traditional Latin Mass, by itself, protects (both naturally and supernaturally) against the laxity and casualness that characterize mainstream Catholicism today. As the traditional Mass embraces discipline and perfection, it inculcates the same. Nevertheless, the dangers posed by Cafeteria Traditionalism remain serious and real, and a solution needs to be found. I propose three potential approaches:

(I) Pastors are the obvious first line of defense against discretion run amuck, and I would urge all traditional pastors to promulgate clear guidelines and rules for those Catholics who wish to attend the chapels under their stewardship. These guidelines need not be "one size fits all" or "all or nothing" from the get-go; I would suspect that the prudent pastor would give a new parishioner a probationary period (of varying length, depending on the circumstances) during which time he could be "brought up to speed." Eventually, however, all parishioners should be expected to conform to the same fixed set of disciplinary rules as set forth by the pastor.

(II) Pastors of diocesan churches which offer the traditional Latin Mass face both a challenge and an opportunity. Ideally, these pastors should do the same as their chapel counterparts, and simply promulgate traditional rules of conduct for their entire parish. It would be truly wonderful if a Pastor of a Latin Mass parish could help "bridge the gap" between its Latin Mass and non-Latin Mass congregations by demanding adherence to at least some traditional rules and practices. If such an act would be futile or otherwise imprudent, however, perhaps the pastor could instead require adherence to certain traditional disciplinary rules as a prerequisite for attending the traditional Latin Mass offered at that parish.

(III) Priestly societies, such as the F.S.S.P., should consider promulgating a uniform set of binding traditional disciplinary rules and regulations (beyond those regarding the sacraments themselves) for all their apostolates worldwide. Such societies could be tremendously influential in setting a standard that other, non-affiliated traditional chapels and diocesan indult communities would possibly emulate.

Another potential solution would be the erection of a global, traditionalist confraternity. Just as the Brown Scapular Confraternity obliges its members to wear the brown scapular and pray the Little Office (or Holy Rosary) every day, a traditionalist confraternity could oblige its members to adhere to traditional disciplinary rules or practices.

Until such time as these (or other) solutions are realized, I would suggest to traditional Catholics what all suggest to those embarking upon a challenging new endeavor: take small, incremental steps. Incorporate traditional practices, traditional modes of behavior, and traditional rules of discipline into your life gradually and after careful reflection. Do not fall into the trap of embracing all at once, only to fall back to a less demanding regimen of discipline via the rationalization that all such matters are merely optional. Few worse precedents could be set for one's self or one's family. And on a related note, as Fr. McLucas of The Latin Mass magazine has suggested more than once in the past, please be sure to support fellow traditional Catholics, especially those who may not be as far down the road to tradition as you might be. It can sometimes take several years for someone to move from "mainstream Catholicism" to a full embrace of traditional Catholicism, and we ought not ostracize those individuals who are not yet as far along as we might like them be.


R. James is the Chairman of Una Voce New Jersey, as well as a graduate of Cornell University and NYU School of Law. He has clerked for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, and is currently a fifth-year litigation associate at a Wall Street. law firm.

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