A Political Theology of Traditionalist Catholicism?

Decades ago, on my first visit to Rome, I stood inside the Church of St. Peter in Chains, watching a stream of people, mostly elderly, stuffing their alms into an offering box. How could the pastors of such an ornate palace accept such a thing, my 18-year-old self asked?   It shocked my conscience and I was determined to do something about it.  Looking around, I saw a confessional manned by a priest.  That, too, was a strange site for me:  a pastor sitting inside an ornate wooden booth.  What went on in there, I wondered?  No matter: I marched up to the booth where a discrete sign was posted: “italiano,” “español,” and “English,” indicating the languages spoken by this polyglot priest. I protested what I then considered to be fleecing people of their money. The priest was reading a newspaper. “Reverend! How can you just sit there while those poor old people give away all their money?!  This church doesn’t need it! Can’t you help them?” The priest calmly folded his newspaper, gave me a wearied look, and asked with a sigh, “A Protestant, I’m guessing?”

I chuckle when I tell the story now, even as I am appalled by my own smug self-righteousness. It never crossed my mind that people, as capable ethical actors, might give of their own volition.  I chuckle, too, because the priest could see things about me that I couldn’t yet:  I was speaking from an anti-Catholic framework as old as the 16th century, drilled into me as a student at my fundamentalist church and school: Catholics aren’t real Christians. That day in Rome so long ago was the first time I became deeply aware of an unmarked identity that I later understood was built in opposition to Catholic:  I’m a Protestant!  I remain so today, but with a distinctively ecumenical bent and, I trust, a lot more humility.

I tell you this as a response to Christina Wassell’s posting “Following Jesus as a Traditionalist Catholic” because an important step in respectful conversation about religion is getting real about ourselves, understanding our implicit (and sometimes explicit) biases, and narrating our own pilgrimage in faith.  I eagerly read Wassell because she so eloquently relates her migration through several Protestant churches into the traditionalist wing of Roman Catholicism, where she is so clearly and happily at home.  It’s rare to find such a comprehensive interweaving of family and faith like the one Wassell describes in her biography. I feel a tinge of longing for the rhythms of life she describes – keeping the fasts and feasts of the traditional church calendar, for instance.

Most of us are harried by the demands of earning a living, putting the kids in day care, commuting, fighting over social media usage, anxiously shielding our children from the inanities of commercial culture.  Wassell has fashioned a different kind of life.  Down on the farm. Raising their own food. Hell, even slaughtering their own meat!  It’s an admirable counter-cultural life, in some ways not so different from the 1960s back-to-the-land movement, but with a Christian spin. Mazel tov, Christina, for this counter-cultural move.

Christina, we’ve both traveled through several Christian zones on our way into minoritized spaces within our respective spiritual homes.   You, as traditionalist Roman Catholic and I, as a queer white man in a queer African American Pentecostal movement.  Eager to follow Jesus, your faithfulness and mine is under attack. I can’t tell you how many times my bishop, as a lesbian, and my fellow pastors, have been anathematized by other Pentecostal bishops and clergy for being what God gloriously made us.  There are growing tensions within your church, even talk of schism. Pope Francis has been at odds with traditionalists, very recently curtailing authorization for the pre -Vatican II mass you cherish so.  This is to note the obvious:  the spiritual lives of each of us are lived as minorities within our respective Christian movements. That needs to be said.  And that’s about where the similarities end.

Wassell’s path of following Jesus focuses on liturgical aesthetics – at least it seems so to me. Christina’s love for the Latin mass unfurls only against the backdrop of intense negativity about liturgical differences. She is often dismissive of Catholics whose “new mass” offends her spiritual and aesthetic sensibilities. Wassell finds post-Vatican II ritual “’hokey’,” likening attendance at the new mass to being in “the desert” or  at “campfire singalongs.” Wassell demonstrates little charity in her smackdown with Novus Ordo Catholics. It’s either my way or the highway.

Wassell structures her comments around the Latin phrase lex orandi, lex credenda, lex vivendi:  “The law of praying is the law of believing is the law of living.”  While lex orandi and lex credendi aspects of the post are lengthy, lex vivendi is only one paragraph. Even after Harold Heie’s post encouraging Christina to tell us something about Catholic social ethics, what she offers is yet more defense of traditional Catholicism, and more stinging criticism of post-Vatican II Catholics. Wassell even appeals to an enigmatic saying of Jesus to swat away attempts at structural analysis and transformational change, both characteristics of modern Catholic social ethics: “Our Lord told us that the poor would always be with us.”  Of the many sayings of Jesus, this is your lex vivendi?  This is the word of the Lord that I favor, Jesus quoting Isaiah in Luke’s Gospel:   

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,

because the Lord has anointed me.

He has sent me to preach good news to the poor,

to proclaim release to the prisoners

and recovery of sight to the blind,

to liberate the oppressed . . .

Back to the Latin mass.  Following Jesus within traditional Catholicism is not just about nostalgia, nor simply personal preference.  It entails a political theology. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.  Political theology is at work in any application of Christian ethics to society.   But I’m concerned when we don’t own up to our respective theo-political visions – in this case, what “following Jesus” means for participation in a pluralist society.

There are traditionalist Catholics who are so disgusted by the direction of the U.S. that they’ve withdrawn from public life to build model communities at society’s edge. Yet even some of these withdrawalists, to coin a term, continue to see themselves as engaged in a struggle within the Catholic church and within America’s civic spaces.  Wassell places herself and other traditionalists “in a fierce battle against the culture . . ..”  Wassell never says what she means by “culture, but her words lay bare an “us” versus “them” schema of almost Manichaean proportions – e.g., she speaks of traditionalists as “some remnant of the faithful” here to do penance for a “wayward Bride of Christ.”  I have a feeling that me and the church folks I hang with would be in the “them” category, and so would many of Wassell’s fellow Catholics of the post-Vatican II variety.

Many Catholic traditionalists and their fellow travelers are politically engaged in some of the greatest ethical struggles of our time. Cardinal Raymond Burke, a noted leader of traditionalist Catholics, has agitated against COVID vaccines.  (He was recently hospitalized with COVID.) Then there are fellow travelers who may not identify as traditionalists but are certainly sympathetic.  Steve Bannon and Lieutenant General Michael Flynn are well-known in that category. These leaders and others are determined to curtail if not end women’s access to abortion. They rail against the extension of civil marriage rights to same-sex couples. And they hold a fierce opposition to the civil rights of transgendered persons.  The heat of these battles is tearing at the fabric of American life, and that’s perhaps why Harold Heie has sponsored this respectful conversation. These are matters that send American Christians to the front lines, in battle formation against each other.  It’s helpful to remember that the public square is a dangerous place to enact us-versus-them thinking.

I’ve tried to cultivate the spiritual humility I lacked so many years ago in Rome in my self-righteous quibble with the priest. My many visits over the years to Catholic churches here and around the globe have illuminated, dissipated, and destroyed the knee-jerk anti-Catholicism I was taught as a child.  Not too long ago I attended the funeral of a colleague’s spouse, held in one of those Novus Ordo parishes Wassell so loathes.  At the Eucharist, the priest invited non-Catholics like me to the altar; he did so with the caveat that we come in a spirit of reverence and worship, acknowledging Christ’s presence.  The priest’s invitation might have angered the local bishop, had he known about it, and I’d bet that you, Christina, take this as another indication of the church’s post-Vatican II degradation.  I received the priest’s gesture of hospitality with gratitude and humility. It resonated with my ecclesiology and liturgical theology. As I walked forward to receive, I heard the Holy Spirit’s voice whispering in my ear – how Pentecostal! – a hymn we sometimes sing at communion, “This is God’s table, it’s not yours or mine, come to the table of grace.”

I imagine a church with plenty good room, as the African American spirit song says.  To me, following Jesus means ever-expanding the circle of “we.”  There’s room for you, Christina, in the church I dream about, a church of the third Pentecost where the “least of these” get the front row seats, some of us speak in tongues, and Latin masses and Pentecostal praise breaks are happening at the same time.

What you and I and all of us in the U.S. will have to figure out is how we live together peacefully with such opposing political theologies and nationalist projects. What is it that we hope for?  What is the future we envision? What do we fear?  Whom do we fear? My political theology envisions a multi-ethnic, multi-racial, and multi-religious America, where everyone has the respect they deserve, the right to vote, a roof over their heads, and enough to eat.

In the nation a coming, let there be plenty good room.

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