Up from Traditionalism

I became serious about my faith in the spring of 1993. I broke up with my girlfriend, went to confession, and made two phone calls, one to Opus Dei and the other to a firebrand traditionalist priest living at St. Agnes Church in Manhattan. The firebrand called back and became my spiritual director.

He put me on a daunting regimen: fifteen minutes of mental prayer each morning and evening, daily Mass, fifteen minutes of Scripture and spiritual reading, daily Rosary, Angelus, examination of conscience at noon and night, weekly confession and spiritual direction. “And,” he said, “you should start attending the Tridentine Mass.” This was my introduction to Traditional Catholicism and to the Traditionalist Movement.

Father ran a little group called Chistifidelis and I quickly became his chief lieutenant. We ran a weekly study group that met for two hours of close-order drill on The Baltimore Catechism – we were memorizing the whole thing – and two hours studying the Summa Theologiae. We ended each session with a loud and lusty Salve Regina, then knelt for Father’s blessing.

The Tridentine Mass each Sunday at St. Agnes Church was the most remarkable experience. It was the High Mass with schola according to the 1962 missal, a revelation to me after finding the new Mass somewhat thin gruel, and a glorious time for me and for my friends who were going through the same experience, a full-blooded engagement with the Catholic Church and her theological and liturgical traditions.

We started the Torquemada Project in which we studied the works of a heterodox speaker who was coming to town. We would go to the event, separately so as not to arouse suspicion, and descend on the microphone during questions so that he would only get hard questions.

The almost giddy height of my involvement with the Traditionalist Movement was Father’s annual colloquium and Mass. This was a weekend-long event that included a conference and a Vatican cardinal coming to celebrate the old Mass. In May 1996 we somehow got permission to have the Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, the first time it had been celebrated there since it had been banned thirty years before.

The Mass was a fairy tale event with 150 priests, 4,000 congregants, twenty news crews and twice-daily coverage from The New York Times. The real highlight, though, was a debate on the liturgy at the home of a millionaire traditionalist. Alfonse Cardinal Stickler sat as judge at the center of the room; on either side sat the luminaries of the Traditionalist Movement including their leading theoretician, Michael Davies.

Davies and writer Chris Ferrara were debating Father Joseph Fessio and Father Brian Harrison about the 1962 missal vs. Fessio’s project called the reform of the reform (seeking to reform the Mass as the Vatican II Fathers really wanted). What I recall most from that night was the feeling of being absolutely at the center of the universe (isn’t that odd?), the short cardinal’s feet dangling above the floor, Michael Davies repeatedly spilling his glass of scotch, and Cardinal Stickler leaving angrily because the traditionalist team was aggressive and uncharitable.

This was just a glimpse of traditionalist tactics that in part led to my departure from the movement. There were other reasons for my departure. We hated the bishops. I can’t put it any softer than that. I recall preparing actually to meet a bishop. We practiced kneeling on our left knees and kissing his ring and later we laughed about his obvious embarrassment over such traditional practices. We saw the bishops as not just befuddled, but as sell-outs to political and theological liberalism.

And it wasn’t just the bishops we hated. We really hated the documents of the Second Vatican Council; they were the root and branch of all the problems in the Church. We felt no need to read or know them, and certainly not to follow them.

We did not hate John Paul II; almost worse, we were indifferent to him. The rest of the Church celebrated each of his new utterances; we shrugged and ignored them.

I looked at myself and the movement and did not like what I saw. In addition to everything else, the mainstays in the movement began to praise the schismatic Society of Pius X. Chris Ferrara and my good friend Tom Woods wrote a vicious book called The Great Facade, a monumentally uncharitable attack on John Paul II (Woods later recanted privately).

And then there were the exotica. Love of monarchy and deep hatred of America and democracy, all presented as traditional Catholic belief. The movement bred oddness and unhappiness.

At the same time two guys starting pushing me to read Church documents. Bill Saunders pushed the documents of the Second Vatican Council on me and I came to the view that rather than causing the current problems, properly understood were a bulwark against them. Keith Fournier began pushing the writings of John Paul II on me. I came to understand what a monumental figure this man was, and to think I almost missed his papacy altogether!

I decided finally that I was a Traditional Catholic and not a Traditionalist one. Traditional Catholics adhere to the all the teachings of the Church including the Second Vatican Council. Traditionalists are more of a political party advancing an agenda. All I wanted to be was a regular pew-sitter holding fast to the barque of St. Peter.

There is a great deal of talent in the ranks of the Traditionalists and I pray for them on the fifth decade of the Rosary, which a Traditionalist priest taught me to pray, every day.

Austin Ruse is the President of the New York and Washington, D.C.-based Center for Family & Human Rights (C-Fam), a research institute that focuses exclusively on international social policy. The opinions expressed here are Mr. Ruse’s alone and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of C-Fam.