The false binary between progressive accommodators and “rad trad” restorationists

Dr. Larry Chapp is a retired professor of theology. He taught for twenty years at DeSales University near Allentown, Pennsylvania. He now owns and manages, with his wife, the Dorothy Day Catholic Worker Farm in Harveys Lake, Pennsylvania. Dr. Chapp received his doctorate from Fordham University in 1994 with a specialization in the theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar. He can be visited online at “Gaudium et Spes 22”.

Many formerly conservative Catholics have been red-pilled by the current papacy, which has, sadly, led to extreme and wrong positions about Vatican II and the Church at large.

Pope Francis meets with the editors of 10 European Jesuit magazines and Father Arturo Sosa, superior general of the Jesuits, on May 19, 2022, in the library of the Apostolic Palace at the Vatican. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

Much ink has been spilled on the recent comments by the Holy Father concerning his assertion that the Second Vatican Council has been “gagged” by “restorationists”. Pope Francis specifically mentioned the United States as home to many such restorationists. This interview, published in La Civiltà Cattolica, was with editors of European Jesuit journals of culture, so it was no mere “off the cuff” collection of remarks. It was a Jesuit Pope speaking to fellow Jesuits in a scheduled event about one of the burning issues of the day—namely, the ongoing retrieval and application of Vatican II.

Therefore, I think his comments deserve careful scrutiny both as to their exact meaning and as to what they might portend in the way of “policy” decisions.

It is tempting to assume there is a specific group of American Catholics the Holy Father has in mind when he uses the term “restorers” and that this group is what many refer to these days as the “radical traditionalists” (or “rad trads”). And if that is who he has in mind, then he is indeed correct and is not attacking a straw man. Because such groups do indeed exist and they are increasingly vocal on social media about their rejection of Vatican II as a failed pastoral Council that should now be seen as a gigantic mistake. And, this thinking goes, since Vatican II was a mistake, we should just quietly set it aside as the quaint and naïve relic of a post-war, Pollyanna ecclesial optimism about the goodness of bourgeois Liberal culture.

Furthermore, included in their bestiary of the monstrous fruits of the Council are: the deep Masonic perfidies of the liturgical reform, the crypto-heresy of all post-conciliar popes (for some of them even Pius XII was “squishy”), religious freedom (a dangerous concession to religious error), ecumenism (the denial of Catholicism as the true Church), interreligious dialogue (religious relativism as we saw with Pope John Paul II at Assisi), and finally, a full-throated condemnation of Pope Francis as a heretic or even, some assert, an anti-pope who is the head of the false “Vatican II Church”.

That is indeed quite a list of grievances—grievances I categorically reject without qualification. And it is a list filled with intellectually lazy and imprecise conflations of post-conciliar theological distortions with the conciliar project and its texts as such. But it is an intellectual laziness, I think, born not of a more generalized lassitude toward deep thinking, but rather of a kind of ecclesial and theological exhaustion on a personal level.

Many of the people who now call themselves traditionalists and who harbor some or all of the positions outlined above were people who a mere ten years ago would have been content with being called “conservative JPII Catholics”; they harbored no such deep resentments toward the Council and were quite adept at making the proper distinctions between the Council as such and the often silly adaptations that came after. They understood the need for ecclesial obedience and cohesion in the face of an increasingly hostile culture and found in Pope John Paul II and Benedict XVI great figures of cultural resistance and stalwart defenders of orthodoxy. Some of them were active in the “reform of the reform” of the liturgy and were not the implacable enemies of the Mass of Paul VI they later became. The Lefebvre folks existed but were an extreme and marginalized minority and their “soft schism” was rejected by almost all conservative Catholics as a dead end. These conservative Catholics understood that there were still deep pathologies in the Church and much more work needed to be done, but there was confidence in the authority of Rome, that the center would hold and was holding, and that the Church would survive the centrifugal forces threatening to rip her apart so long as the Rock of Peter held firm.

What happened?

Pope Francis is what happened. And those formerly conservative Catholics have been red-pilled by the current papacy, reacting against it in often emotional and visceral ways. “Red-pilled” is the buzzword people use these days for when one’s mind is changed almost overnight by some sort of black swan event. After decades of fighting and struggling within the Church for a return to ecclesial sanity, and after decades of fighting against the deeply antagonistic currents of modern culture, the rise of a Pope who not only didn’t have their backs in those struggles but who seemed to go out of his way to scold them for their efforts as “rigid pharisees” (and who promoted the worst cultural quislings to the high ecclesial office) was the final straw. The center had given way, it no longer holds, and the barque of Peter had raised its sails and tacked with the cultural wind rather than against it.

And so the long-suffering conservative Catholics simply said, out of exhaustion, “Basta!” and threw in the towel. “If this is Vatican II”, they said, “then we want no part of it. A pox on all of it!”

The irony is that the very radical traditionalists the Pope clearly dislikes are of his own making. He is the one who has radicalized them. They would not exist in the numbers that they do if he had not become an enigmatic provocation rather than a clarifying unifier. I am all in favor of a prophetic and brave Pope who does not mind upsetting the status quo applecart of settled conventions in order to stir the pot and get the blood flowing. I am, after all, a Catholic Worker. And I am no friend of the “system” of modernity either inside or outside of the Church. And if that is what this Pope is trying to do, then I gladly stand aside, bow, and wish him well as he passes by.

But I do not think that is what he is up to. Further, I think he bears responsibility for the rise of the very traditionalists he helped to create and who he now laments.

Some might say that all of this is a bit of a caricature of the current Pontiff. And I suspect it might be in part, but only in part. Because somewhere embedded in the caricature is the truth, and the truth is that this is a Pope who is no friend to conservative, orthodox American Catholics.

This leads to the further question: Did Pope Francis, in his comments about restorationists in the American Church, have in view more than that very small but vocal minority of “rad trads”? One wonders if he did not also have in mind, even if in a vague and generalized manner, the large swaths of American Catholics who were simply garden-variety “conservatives” who admired the kind of Catholicism represented by journals such First ThingsCommunioThe Thomist, and publishing houses like Ignatius Press, as well as centers of intellectual discourse including the John Paul II Institute in Washington, DC.

There is more than a little evidence this is the case. Far from merely dissing the radical traditionalists, this pope has gone out of his way to also snub and bypass bishops of a more conservative bent in favor of prelates including Cupich, Tobin, Gregory, and McElroy. In the same interview with the Jesuit editors, the Pope also made the claim that reality is superior to ideas. And that ideas are all well and good, but one can only make progress in the spiritual life when one attends to a process of discernment via an encounter with reality. He obviously means more here than a simple dichotomy between pragmatism and idealism and is appealing to deep Ignatian principles of discernment. But whatever his broader meaning in these words, I think it is safe to conclude the Holy Father thinks prelates like the above are better at discerning reality—and what our pastoral response to reality should be—than are prelates such as Cordileone, Gomez, Barron, or, formerly, Chaput. It really is impossible to see it otherwise.

This should tell us something. I lived through the post-conciliar silly season. And my analysis of that era is that a well-organized group of academics and clerics co-opted the Council in order to further their own agenda of deep theological rupture with the tradition. This is what Pope Benedict called the “Council of the media” rather than the real Council of the fathers and the texts they actually produced. I know this is an old story and a bit shopworn by now; nevertheless, I think it is largely accurate and still important.

Along these lines, Pope Francis speaks of those forces in the Church today who are “gagging” the Council. And he focuses on restorationists as the main culprits. But from where I sit, and based on my own lived experience of the post-conciliar era, the primary “gaggers” of the Council were those progressives who derailed the Council by sidelining the ressourcement thinkers who animated it (Henri de Lubac, Louis Bouyer, Hans Urs von Balthasar, Jacques Maritain, Joseph Ratzinger, Jean Danielou, et al) and replaced their powerful theology of a reinvigorated retrieval of Scripture and the Fathers with their own ersatz accommodationism to the spirit of the Zeitgeist.

And I see a recrudescence of this same theological superficiality in the American episcopal appointments of the current pontificate. This is not history repeating itself in a literal way, but let’s just say I think the scent of 1966-1978 can be detected in the air. Cardinal Cupich bans ad orientem worship in Chicago in all Masses, but allows for the Cirque du Soleil liturgies at Fr. Pfleger’s parish to continue on unabated and unopposed. In that same diocese, a priest can wear rainbow vestments celebrating and promoting a form of sexuality opposed to Church teaching. But a priest dare not wear Fiddleback lest one be accused of being a restorationist and getting shipped off for “counseling”. On and on it goes. We have seen this before; we had hoped it was a thing of the past. But it apparently isn’t.

For me, it is déjà vu all over again: the false binary between progressive, cultural accommodators and rad trad restorationists. They have both “gagged” the Council. And, sadly, it is the great ressourcement project of the Council, and of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, that is the victim. If Pope Francis wants to “ungag” the Council, I believe that he needs to rethink his pastoral strategy of snubbing ressourcement prelates in favor of the theological heirs of Concilium.