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By Their Fruits You Shall Know Them

Updated: Nov 6

The title of this piece, taken from Matthew 7:16, is cited often by traditionalists to justify their position. They point to their reverent liturgies, large families, and growing communities as proof of the effectiveness of the traditionalist model, while claiming that low Mass attendance, poor catechesis, and few children at diocesan churches is evidence that the church today is dying. But my opinion (based on experience in both settings) is that the “fruits” argument does not accurately represent either side, and that the traditionalist “fruits” demand further scrutiny.

My skepticism of this position began when I realized that the argument is quite surface-level, and relies too much on criteria that are quantifiable or external (how many children, how many parishioners, how many churches/communities, etc). And while attracting more people or having more reverent liturgies are certainly good things, I do not think these are enough to rely on. Most of the fruits found in traditionalist communities can be found just as easily elsewhere (Mormons have large families, the Orthodox have beautiful liturgies, Protestants have religious formation [albiet flawed], and so on), so in the same way that clown masses and heterodox catechesis cannot honestly be seen as fruits of a council or a rite of mass, I think these alleged traditionalist fruits cannot be seen as results of the movement itself. I think it is worth examining the heart of the movement. When one does, the fruits to be found there are, unfortunately, not good.

Firstly, we must ask the question- what is “traditionalism”? For our purposes here, I define it as “an ideology that is generated from suspicion and rejection of the Second Vatican Council and its reforms, seeing the older ‘traditional’ ways as superior, and setting itself apart from the juridical structure of the Catholic Church.” (My definition here applies to independent groups such as the SSPX and sedevacantists, but I will also touch on approved traditionalist groups like the FSSP or ICKSP.) The position is often cobbled together by cherry-picked quotes, messages from apparitions (whether approved by the church or not), theological opinions, and other material to justify its existence and its disobedience to lawful church authorities.

So, looking past the externals, what fruits do we find?

The most egregious “fruit” is daily illicit (and in some cases, invalid) sacraments, especially the Eucharist. The SSPX, thankfully, have been given avenues for their confessions and marriages to be valid, but for 40 years, they were not. And the other 5 sacraments they offer daily are done without the delegated faculty, rendering them illicit and unlawful. Other independent clergy do not enjoy the universal faculty for confessions that the SSPX does, and so they do not validly absolve or witness marriages. This article could end right here and have enough material to prove the point. No amount of growing parishes or reverent liturgies can justify a Eucharist that is sacrilegiously offered, or an absolution that has no effect. Offering a “rival” Eucharist is just as much an abuse (if not more so) as carelessness or irreverence.

Another is the habitual failure to fulfill the Sunday obligation of assisting at Mass, if there is no Latin mass nearby. Independent traditionalist groups claim the missal of Paul VI is offensive to God, and instruct their congregations to simply not attend, even on Sunday. This is deliberate, willful violation of a precept of the Church- to worship God as He has instructed. This also leads to the unfortunate decision by many to deny themselves any kind of spiritual community or environment in which they can strengthen their faith, seeing Mass as simply an obligation to fulfill on Sunday and not as the culmination of their Catholic identity. There are those who travel several hours to make it to a Latin mass on Sunday, or even only attend on an irregular basis, passing who knows how many churches along the way, which they will not attend because of the opinions of a certain group of priests they follow.

To expound on the last point, traditionalists have unfortunately isolated themselves from the Church as a whole, and are not united to their bishop or even fellow Catholics. They “hunker down” and are content to remain in their own circles or their own communities without having any connection to their Holy Mother. They develop a sense of “us versus them” or “other”-ness. Unlike perfectly legitimate differences like Eastern rite as opposed to Roman rite, the traditionalist position is necessarily opposed to other traditionalists, the “Novus Ordo church,” the hierarchy, and anyone who is not part of their group.

This leads to a further deficiency- the tendency to splinter into groups and to remain stuck in a cycle of infighting and ideological battles. Breaking away from the Church only brings further division. After the SSPX split away, for example, they’ve only continued to hemorrhage followers (including from their own leadership, like Bishop Williamson). In the words of apologist Dave Armstrong, traditionalists “keep closing the circle of “true believers” tighter and tighter, until (theoretically) there could be ten people in the whole world who constitute the "Catholic Church." That doesn't sound like the One True, Universal, Catholic Church." Unfortunately this has indeed happened. 

Traditionalists also maintain a distrust and suspicion of anything related to the “Novus Ordo church,” whether that is books, public figures, new forms of theology, even saints canonized after the council (which they often deem “not really saints”, purely based on their opinion). They will not use anything current in their religious formation, seeing it as possibly tainted by Modernism. This unfortunately restricts their spiritual growth, making their understanding of the Church incomplete and insufficient.

There also exists a tendency to strongly criticize the bishops, the pope, the council, and anything else that they see as responsible for putting the church in its current predicament. (Check the comments section of any prominent traditionalist website and you will get an idea of their mindset.) I’ve seen Protestants in comment sections say they’ve never spoken so poorly about the Catholic Church as they see some traditionalists do.

Scrupulosity and anxiety are huge issues in traditionalist circles as well. Being stuck in the overly legal/juridical mindset that they are (which Vatican II recognized as a problem and tried to encourage people to move away from), they tend to miss the forest for the trees, and cannot apply the “rules” that they’ve learned growing up to the complex issues the church faces today. This is especially true with regard to Catholic sexual morality. Rejecting teachings like the Theology of the Body places one in the awkward position of trying to reconcile question-and-answer spiritual “rules” to sex, purity, chastity, etc. It is unfortunate that the comparison is often drawn between traditionalists and Puritans, but it is an accurate comparison. As an example, for my wife's high school biology class at St Mary's Academy, the school had cut out the section on human reproduction in their textbooks to avoid teaching about it.

Perhaps one of the most dramatic examples of the fruits of traditionalism is how it drove several men to declare themselves pope. Three false popes have been affiliated with the traditionalist movement in some capacity: “Pope Michael” (David Bawden), “Pope Linus II” (Victor von Pentz), and “Pope Pius XIII” (Friar Lucian Pulvermacher). Radical traditionalism even motivated Fr Juan Maria Fernandez y Krohn, a former SSPX priest, to attempt assassinating Pope St John Paul II, shouting “Down with the Second Vatican Council!” as he tried to stab him with a bayonet.

Something that might be more accurately categorized as a lack of fruits, rather than a fruit itself, is the low numbers of converts coming into the church through traditionalist communities. By rejecting Vatican II, these communities are rejecting the call of evangelization and mission, a call that urges all the Catholic faithful to bring Christ to a world that sorely needs Him. To simply be content with your lot and not to spread the Gospel is not the mission of the Church. These communities tend to attract other Catholics who are dissatisfied with their current parish, but rarely bring converts into the church. In my 25 years in various traditionalist communities, I witnessed a grand total of 2 adult baptisms, and am aware of 2 others. That is an abysmal showing for a group that supposedly is doing everything right while the rest of the church is floundering in error. A former SSPX priest made the observation that the SSPX might serve as a microcosm of what the church would be like if there were no reforms. If this is accurate, then thank God the hierarchy recognized the need for reform, because the church would have continued to hide safely behind her walls but not invite anyone in.

And none of this so far has touched on the division among families caused by disagreements on various traditionalist points, which is another great tragedy. The one thing that should be uniting us, especially in these tumultuous times, is our faith, and yet in a natural continuation of its tendency to split into groups, traditionalism causes families and friends to split as well. Families are torn apart when one parent sees a particular group as too lax and seeks out a more “traditional” organization for its sacraments, or when one sees the errors and only attends a canonically approved group while the other goes elsewhere. Tensions, disagreements, and even rejection are hallmarks of the traditionalist ideology.

Looking further than the immediately observable results, one finds an undeniable pattern. Traditionalists may have beautiful liturgies and large families, but their communities are isolated, they celebrate sacraments unlawfully, they possess a superiority complex that excludes anyone who doesn’t wholeheartedly agree with them, and are prone to infighting and separation in their groups and their families. This is not a reflection of the charity, joy, and peace given by the Holy Spirit to guide the Church. This is an ideology driven by bitterness, anger, rejection, and an overly constrictive mindset that produces warped spiritual formation, and it often leads people outside the Church. Even approved traditionalist groups, while having legitimate sacraments, are prone to these pitfalls. Isolation, a sense of superiority, and rejection of anything “new” in the church are common in their ranks as well.

The fruits of Vatican II, the real fruits, are admirable. Incredible advancements in biblical studies, more thorough ecclesiology, the Saint Paul center and Scott Hahn’s work (which has brought many Protestants home to the Church), Ascension Press and its material like Catechism/Bible in a Year, Catholic Answers, Word on Fire- these are all amazing things. Not to mention that it is generally agreed upon that young priests today are very orthodox and are offering very reverent masses, encouraging older practices, renovating churches, etc. These are the fruits of Vatican II. Sloppy liturgies and problematic preaching are not.

In fact, the “fruits of Vatican II” that traditionalists point to are almost always things that the council or papal directives have actually forbidden. (Liturgical abuse has been denounced by the Vatican since the day it started. Every pope since Paul VI has decried the improper liberties taken with the rubrics. Not to mention, Sacrosanctum Concilium itself stated very clearly, “Therefore no other person, even if he be a priest, may add, remove, or change anything in the liturgy on his own authority.” Can we point to the council as the source of abuses when it very explicitly forbade any personal innovations before the new missal was even published?) But unfortunately, the fruits of traditionalism can be traced directly back to its radical ideology. Suspicion and rejection of a council, and therefore the Church, trickles down into everyday life and manifests as a refusal to worship with or think with the Church, and only brings division.

Look further than what is on the surface. “Novus Ordo Catholics” may not have the book knowledge that some traditionalists have, but they do have a spirit of joy and peace that naturally comes when being united to Holy Mother Church. Traditionalists are bound by a spirit of “other”-ness that sets itself apart, leading to a physical and spiritual separation that is very harmful to an authentic Catholic life. By their fruits you shall know them indeed, but let’s not mistake rotten fruit for good fruit because the exterior looks pleasant.

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