By Eric Sammons
Eric Sammons is the editor-in-chief of Crisis Magazine. He is the author, most recently, of The Old Evangelization: How to Spread the Faith Like Jesus Did (Catholic Answers, 2017).
Bishop Robert Barron first came to fame in the Catholic world for his fight against what he called “beige Catholicism.” The founder of Word on Fire rightly saw that a milquetoast, flaccid expression of Catholicism—so common in parishes across the country and embraced by the liberal elements of the Church—is a death knell for the Church. Barron wrote eloquent articles and produced polished videos reminding Catholics that the Faith is more than the insipid liturgies and watered-down teachings they were being fed each week. Justifiably, his influence grew and eventually he was named the Auxiliary Bishop of Los Angeles.
Yet since being named a bishop, Barron has pivoted his ministry, presenting Word on Fire as navigating between the Scylla of beige Catholicism and the Charybdis of “extreme traditionalist Catholicism.” In doing so, however, Barron misses the changing face of the traditionalist movement while falling prey to the very beige Catholicism he originally opposed.
When you read Barron’s descriptions of traditionalist Catholics, you find the words “extreme,” “radical,” and “angry” peppered throughout. Apparently, in his view traditional Catholics are a fringe movement of socially-inept people who desire to overthrow the Church and install their own 1950’s-style religion in its place. Clearly the good bishop hasn’t kept his finger on the pulse of this movement. Traditionalism is booming (in this country, at least), and it’s a diverse, joyful group of people who want exactly what Barron first promoted: a faith that’s no longer watered-down to conform with the surrounding culture.
Why is Barron so wrong in his assessment of the traditionalist movement? Some of his error is understandable; it’s true that traditional Catholics have long had a reputation for being mean and judgmental. This reputation is partially justified. From the early 1970s until Pope Benedict’s motu proprio liberalizing the use of the Traditional Latin Mass (what Benedict called the “Extraordinary Form” of the Mass), traditional Catholics were truly on the peripheries of the Church.
Traditionalists endured persecution from Church officials and fellow Catholics, all because they wanted to practice the faith as countless generations had practiced it before them. Labeled “schismatic,” they were given less respect by far than heretic theologians. While most Catholics ignored the growing abuse crisis among bishops and priests out of a misplaced sense of loyalty and obedience, traditionalists were among the few who spoke out…and they were attacked for it. It’s no surprise that perhaps they had a chip on their collective shoulder.
Much has changed in the Church since those days. In Summorum Pontificum, Pope Benedict acknowledged the key point that traditionalists had long argued: that the traditional Latin Mass had never—and could never—be abrogated. In addition, the abuse scandal went public in 2002, showing that traditional Catholics had been right all along in calling bishops to account for their terrible mismanagement of that crisis.
And that’s not all that’s changed: the 2018 McCarrick scandal demonstrated to the world that the episcopacy is still horribly corrupt, in spite of PR-driven efforts to address the abuse crisis. Church leaders were still covering up their sins and illegal activities while doing little to nothing to boldly proclaim the Gospel to the nations. Catholics realized that this wasn’t just beige Catholicism, it was black Catholicism. Yet bishops—including Bishop Barron—still speak about the McCarrick affair like an English gentleman who sees someone picking up the wrong fork at dinner. It’s unfortunate, but let’s not get too worked up, shall we?
Because of all this, traditional Catholicism has boomed as an alternative to the status quo—beige—Catholicism that Barron now represents. The movement has become far more diverse than it was back when you had to drive hours to find an underground Latin Mass to attend. Catholics from all backgrounds are now being drawn to traditional expressions of the faith, and while perhaps it was anger at events like the McCarrick scandal or the bishops’ sycophantic response to state COVID-19 restrictions that originally motivated them, they fell in love with tradition and now stay because they believe traditional Catholicism is the fullest expression of the Catholic Faith.
Traditional Catholicism is no longer monolithic, either, if it ever was; it encompasses a variety of opinions and views on how best to practice the faith and reform the Church. There are only two unifying threads within traditionalism: a love for the traditional Latin Mass and a suspicion about making Vatican II the sole key for unlocking the mysteries of Scripture and Tradition. Consider some of the public figures who attend the Latin Mass regularly, such as Scott Hahn, Janet Smith, and Leah Darrow. These figures are not the “mean, angry traditionalists” that populate Bishop Barron’s caricatures. They are joyful Catholics who have simply found a deeper devotion to Christ through the practice of traditional expressions of the Faith.
There lies the irony of Barron’s negative views of traditionalism. Catholics are fed up with beige Catholicism, but they don’t want the half-measures that Barron recommends in response. Instead of replacing felt-banner 1970s liturgies with slightly less gauche ones, they want liturgies that give all the glory to God. Instead of substituting heretical teachings with orthodox yet oh-so culturally-relevant homilies, they want unadulterated, politically-incorrect, and unapologetic proclamations of the Faith. And instead of a half-hearted, cover-your-*ss response to the abuse scandal, they want a deep cleaning of the hierarchy, from top to bottom. They see that Catholicism as practiced since the 1970’s is far worse than beige, and Barron’s response itself has lost all color. Give us that ol’ time religion, they say.
It’s clear that Bishop Barron is far and away one of the most talented members of the American episcopate. Unfortunately, it’s also clear that he’s missing the new pulse beating within the Church: the strong and joyful beat of traditional Catholicism. Instead of considering it his enemy, he should recognize it as the fulfillment of what he’s been striving for all along.