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Traditionalist Catholics are Roman Catholics who believe that there should be a restoration of many or all of the liturgical forms, public and private devotions and presentations of Catholic teachings which prevailed in the Catholic Church before the Second Vatican Council (1962–65). They are most commonly associated with an attachment to the Mass liturgy in general use in that time period (often called the Tridentine Mass, the Traditional Mass, the Latin Mass, or extraordinary form of the Mass), but their theological and practical concerns are broader in scope.
Traditionalist Catholics are distinct from other Catholics who have a broadly "traditional" or conservative outlook.
Traditionalist Catholics generally prefer to be referred to either simply as Catholics or, if a distinction must be made, as "traditional Catholics" (with a lower-case T). However, since Roman Catholics in general consider themselves to be "traditional" in the sense of being faithful to historical Catholic teaching, the term "traditionalist Catholics" is used in this article as a means of clearly distinguishing them from other Roman Catholics.
Traditionalist Catholics may be divided into four broad groups.
Since the Second Vatican Council, several traditionalist organizations have been started with or have subsequently obtained approval from the Catholic Church. These organizations accept in principle the documents of the Second Vatican Council, and regard the changes associated with the Council (such as the revision of the Mass) as legitimate, if often prudentially unwise, but celebrate the older forms with the approval of the Holy See.
There are also multiple monastic communities, including
See Communities using the Tridentine Mass for a more detailed list.
In addition, many traditionalist Catholics in good standing with Rome are served by local diocesan or religious priests who are willing and able to offer the traditional rites. Many other Catholics sympathize or identify as traditionalist who are not able to attend the traditional liturgy regularly because it is not offered in their area (at least not with regular canonical standing) and so they more or less reluctantly attend the Mass of Paul VI, the current ordinary or normal Roman Rite of Mass following the Second Vatican Council. There are also numerous local and international lay organizations of traditionalist Catholics, such as the youth-groups of Juventutem.
Catholics in good standing with Rome who attend the traditional liturgy have diverse worldviews and outlooks ranging from (modern concepts of) liberal to conservative.
Some traditionalists practise their faith outside the official structures of the Church, though they affirm their loyalty to the Church and to the papacy. The largest priestly society to fit this description is the Society of St Pius X (SSPX), which was established in 1970 by Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, a founding figure of Catholic traditionalism. Members of this category view many of the post-Conciliar changes as being doctrinally and pastorally unacceptable. The fact that they recognise the official Church hierarchy while rejecting some decisions which they perceive as not consistent with traditional Catholicism, or ineffective in terms of catechesis and how the Catholic faith is passed down, draws accusations of disloyalty and disobedience from the preceding groups—whom this group in turn accuse of blind, un-Catholic obedience. Discussions between the SSPX and the Holy See have been in progress for some years, and in January 2009 the Prefect of the Congregation for Bishops remitted the excommunications which the Congregation had declared to have been incurred by the Society's bishops in 1988. He further expressed the hope that the Society would speedily return to full communion with the Church by showing "true fidelity and true acknowledgment of the Magisterium and the authority of the pope".
Sedevacantists hold that the post-Vatican II popes have forfeited their position through acceptance of heretical teachings connected with the Second Vatican Council and consequently there is at present no true pope. They conclude, on the basis of their rejection of the revised Mass rite and of certain aspects of postconciliar Church teaching as false, that the popes involved are false also. This is a minority position among traditionalist Catholics and a highly divisive one, so that many who hold it prefer to say nothing of their view, while other sedevacantists have accepted episcopal ordination from sources such as Archbishop Pierre Martin Ngô Đình Thục
The terms sedevacantist and sedevacantism derive from the Latin phrase sede vacante ("while the chair/see [of Saint Peter] is vacant"), a term normally applied to the period between the death or resignation of one pope and the election of his successor.
Conclavism is the belief and practice of some who, claiming that Pope Benedict XVI, Pope John Paul II and other recent occupants of the papal see are not true popes, elect someone else and propose him as the true pope to whom the allegiance of Catholics is due. They are often classified as sedevacantists because they reject the official papal succession for the same reasons. Conclavist groups include the "true Catholic Church", the Palmarian Catholic Church, and the followers of David Bawden ("Pope Michael"). The Palmarian Church has drastically altered its worship and doctrines and as such is no longer considered Catholic by other traditionalists.
Traditionalist Catholics believe that they are preserving Catholic orthodoxy by not accepting all changes introduced since the Second Vatican Council, changes that some of them have described as amounting to a "veritable revolution". They claim that the positions now taken by mainstream Catholics—even conservative Catholics—would have been considered "modernist" or "liberal" at the time of the Council, and that they themselves hold positions that were then considered "conservative" or "traditional".
Many traditionalists further believe that errors have crept into the presentation and understanding of Catholic teachings since the time of the Council. They attribute the blame for this to liberal interpretations of the Conciliar documents, to harmful post-Conciliar pastoral decisions, to the text of the Conciliar documents themselves, or to some combination of these.
Most traditionalists view the Council as a valid, albeit problematic, Ecumenical Council of the Catholic Church, though most sedevacantists regard it as wholly invalid. It is common for traditionalists in dispute with Rome to affirm that the Council was "pastoral", and hence that its decrees were not absolutely binding on Catholics in the same way as the dogmatic decrees of other Ecumenical Councils. Support for this view is sought in Pope John XXIII's Opening Address to the Council, Pope Paul VI's closing address, statements from Pope Benedict XVI, and the lack of formal dogmatic definitions in the Conciliar documents.
Pope Benedict XVI contrasted the "hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture" that some apply to the Council (an interpretation adopted both by certain traditionalists and by certain "progressives") with the "hermeneutic of reform, as it was presented first by Pope John XXIII in his Speech inaugurating the Council on 11 October 1962 and later by Pope Paul VI in his Discourse for the Council's conclusion on 7 December 1965." He made a similar point in a speech to the bishops of Chile in 1988, when he was still Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger:
[Archbishop Lefebvre] declared that he has finally understood that the agreement he signed aimed only at integrating his foundation into the 'Conciliar Church'. The Catholic Church in union with the Pope is, according to him, the 'Conciliar Church' which has broken with its own past. It seems indeed that he is no longer able to see that we are dealing with the Catholic Church in the totality of its Tradition, and that Vatican II belongs to that.
There is some tension between different traditionalist groups at the official level: the SSPX, for example, condemns the FSSP and attendance at its Masses. The SSPX itself also is often in conflict with other traditionalists. In fact, the only common denominator that is held by all the groups identifying as traditionalist is love of the traditional liturgy and, usually, suspicion of modern "neoconservative" Catholicism, which is viewed as shallow, ahistorical, and intellectually dishonest. On other questions, there are a variety of opinions.
Many traditionalist Catholics associate themselves with a particular priestly society. Other small groups of traditionalists sometimes form around an individual "independent" priest who has no ties with any particular organisation.
Some leaders of Independent Catholic Churches also claim to be traditionalist Catholics and to be preserving the Tridentine Mass and ancient traditions. Examples are the Apostolic Catholic Church, the Canonical Old Roman Catholic Church, and the Fraternité Notre-Dame.
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Traditionalists' claims that substantive changes have taken place in Catholic teaching and practice since the Council often crystallise around the following specific alleged examples, in which others see not what Pope Benedict XVI called "discontinuity and rupture", but what he called "renewal in the continuity of the one subject-Church which the Lord has given to us":
Georges de Nantes, a priest of the Diocese of Grenoble and founder of the traditionalist Catholic League for Catholic Counter-Reformation, criticized the Second Vatican Council for encouraging ecumenism and reform of the Church, and accused Pope Paul VI of heresy and of turning the Church into a movement for advancing democracy, a system of government that de Nantes abhorred. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued a notification on 10 August 1969, stating that, as de Nantes continued to maintain his views on the Council, the aggiornamento of the Church, the French episcopate, and the "heresies" of Pope Paul VI, he thereby "disqualified the entirety of his writings and his activities". It issued another notification in 1983, published on L'Osservatore Romano of 16–17 May of that year, stating that de Nantes had come to Rome to present a "Book of Accusation against Pope John Paul II for Heresy, Schism and Scandal", and that the Secretary of the Congregation had received him, as instructed by the Pope, but had refused to accept from him a book that contained unjustified gravely offensive accusations of the same character as those that de Nantes had directed against Pope Paul VI in a book published in 1973. It added that the refusal of de Nantes to retract his previous attacks on Pope Paul VI and the Second Vatican Council, to which he was now adding attacks on Pope John Paul II, made it impossible to believe in the sincerity of his declaration in 1978 and 1981 of a desire for the reconciliation for which the Pope remained always disposed.
Those who in response to these criticisms by certain traditionalists defend the decisions of the Second Vatican Council and the subsequent changes made by the Holy See make the following counterclaims:
Sedevacantists claim that they avoid much of the mainstream Catholic critique of traditionalism because their view is that, beginning with John XXIII or Paul VI, one or both of whom and all their successors they consider to be heretics, there is no valid Catholic Pope or body of bishops to whom allegiance or obedience is owed. They criticise non-sedevacantist traditionalists for recognising the recent Popes, on grounds such as the following:
"Integrism" is a term used to describe traditionalist Catholicism especially in a social and political context. Kay Chadwick writes: "It would be naive to suppose that [Catholic integrism] does not harbour a political agenda. It is both anti-Masonic and anti-Communist. It finds a voice in the Right-wing press. ... The annual Joan of Arc procession in Paris brings together integrists and National Front supporters. The annual National Front party celebration is preceded by a Latin Mass, celebrated according to the rite of Pius V. Just before his death in March 1988, Lefebvre was fined eight thousand francs by the Court of Appeal in Paris for 'racial defamation' and 'incitement to racial hatred', for suggesting publicly that immigrants, beginning with Muslims, should be expelled from Europe. In 1976, he declared his support for Latin American dictatorships. He was an admirer of Maurras and Pétain, and supported the cause of French Algeria.
The Southern Poverty Law Center used the terms "radical traditionalist Catholics" to describe those who "may make up the largest single group of serious anti-Semites in America, subscribe to an ideology that is rejected by the Vatican and some 70 million mainstream American Catholics and many of their leaders have been condemned and even excommunicated by the official church. It claims that adherents of radical traditional Catholicism "routinely pillory Jews as 'the perpetual enemy of Christ'", reject the ecumenical efforts of the Vatican, and sometimes assert all recent Popes are illegitimate. And it says that adherents are "incensed by the liberalizing reforms" of the Second Vatican Council (1962–65) which condemned hatred for Jewish people and "rejected the accusation that Jews are collectively responsible for deicide in the form of the crucifixion of Christ" and that "Radical traditional Catholics" also embrace "extremely conservative social ideals with respect to women."
The best-known and most visible sign of Catholic traditionalism is an attachment to the form that the Roman Rite liturgy of the Mass had before the liturgical reform of 1969–1970, in the various editions of the Roman Missal published between 1570 and 1962. This form is generally known as the Tridentine Mass, though traditionalists usually prefer to call it the Traditional Mass. Many refer to it as the Latin Mass, though the Mass of Paul VI that replaced it can also be celebrated in Latin (Latin is the original language of all liturgical documents in the Roman Rite). In his 2007 motu proprio Summorum Pontificum Pope Benedict XVI relaxed the regulations on use of the 1962 Missal, designating it "an extraordinary form of the Roman Rite". Some refer to it, less exactly, as "the extraordinary form".
Different traditionalist priests use different editions of the Roman Missal to celebrate the Tridentine Mass. Most, not only those in good standing with the Holy See but also such as those in the SSPX, use the 1962 edition, the only one that the Holy See authorises. A series of modifications to the 1962 liturgy introduced in 1965 are used by some traditionalists in good standing with Rome. This version of the liturgy is sometimes referred to as that of the "1965 Missal", though no new edition of the Roman Missal was in fact published in that year.
Since sedevacantists consider John XXIII not to have been a Pope, they reject the 1962 typical edition of the Roman Missal, which he promulgated. They generally use the 1920 typical edition, updated to some date previous to 1962. The Congregation of Mary Immaculate Queen follows the Missal as in 1955, accepting the changes introduced by Pius XII, but others reject his alteration of the calendar of saints and his revision of the rites of Holy Week. Thus these others reject both John XXIII's 1962 edition and Pius XII's changes, seeing them as steps that led to the Novus Ordo Missae. There are no reports of priests regularly using any typical edition of the Missal earlier than that of 1920, which incorporated the rubrical and calendar changes made by Pope Pius X in 1910.
Linked with the celebration of the Tridentine Mass is the observance of the liturgical calendar of saints' days as it existed before the revision of 1969 (see General Roman Calendar of 1960). Some also ignore the revisions of 1960 by Pope John XXIII, and of 1955 by Pope Pius XII, and use instead the General Roman Calendar of 1954.
Many traditionalist Catholics lay stress on following customs prevailing immediately before the Second Vatican Council, such as the following:
These practices are, of course, not confined to traditionalists; many mainstream Catholics also follow them, and a few are still promulgated by the Church. Likewise, moderate traditionalists sometimes avail themselves of post-Vatican II modifications to these practices, as their individual beliefs permit.
The Second Vatican Council's decree Orientalium Ecclesiarum encouraged the 22 Eastern Catholic Churches to return to their own past traditions and practices, which in some cases had been overlaid with elements taken from the Latin Church. Subsequent Vatican documents reinforced this tendency. Some of the Latinising modifications to be undone date back decades or even centuries, and the process of reviving older traditions is ongoing. This process has been opposed by some, perhaps most notably within the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church. The Priestly Society of Saint Josaphat claims to be part of that particular Church, while having close links with the Society of St Pius X (SSPX). On 3 March 2008 a group of Basilian priests stationed at Pidhirtsi, Ukraine informed Pope Benedict XVI that four of them had been consecrated as bishops in order to save the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church (UGCC) from heresy and apostasy. On 11 August 2009, they announced the formation of the Ukrainian Orthodox Greek Catholic Church as a "new Church structure for the orthodox faithful of the UGCC", professing the Catholic faith, including the primacy of the Roman Pontiff, and disassociating themselves from "contemporary heresies which destroy both the Eastern and the Western Church". Having elected their own patriarch, they declared on 1 May 2011 that both Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI were excommunicated, leaving the Holy See vacant; they added: "The Byzantine Catholic Patriarchate is now commissioned by God to protect the orthodox doctrine of the Catholic Church, including the Latin Church. Only after an orthodox Catholic hierarchy and an orthodox successor to the Papacy is elected, will the Patriarchate be relieved of this God-given duty." In some other Eastern Catholic Church too, there are small numbers who try to hold to practices as they were at the time of Pius XII's death (1958).
The Holy See recognises as fully legitimate the preference that many Catholics have for the earlier forms of worship. This was apparent in Pope John Paul II's 1988 apostolic letter Ecclesia Dei and Pope Benedict XVI's 2007 motu proprio Summorum Pontificum. Naturally, however, the Holy See does not extend its approval to those who take a stand against the present-day Church leadership.
The Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei was founded in July 1988 in the wake of Pope John Paul II's apostolic letter Ecclesia Dei. Pope Benedict XVI was a member of the Commission during his tenure as Cardinal Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Speaking on 16 May 2007 to the Fifth General Conference of the Bishops of Latin America and the Caribbean, Cardinal Castrillón, the current head of the Commission, stated that his department had been founded for the care of those "traditionalist Catholics" who, while discontented with the liturgical reform of the Second Vatican Council, had broken with Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, "because they disagreed with his schismatic action in ordaining Bishops without the required papal mandate". He added that at present the Commission's activity is not limited to the service of those Catholics, nor to "the efforts undertaken to end the regrettable schismatic situation and secure the return of those brethren belonging to the Fraternity of Saint Pius X to full communion." It extends also, he said, to "satisfying the just aspirations of people, unrelated to the two aforementioned groups, who, because of their specific sensitiveness, wish to keep alive the earlier Latin liturgy in the celebration of the Eucharist and the other sacraments."
In the same speech Cardinal Castrillón indicated that it was intended to make the Commission an organ of the Holy See for the purpose of preserving and maintaining the traditional liturgy; at the same time he stated that this was not with the purpose of "going backward, of returning to the times before the 1970 reform.... The Holy Father wishes to preserve the immense spiritual, cultural and aesthetic treasure linked with the old liturgy. Recovery of these riches goes together with the no less precious riches of the Church's present liturgy."
Following months of rumour and speculation, Pope Benedict XVI issued the motu proprio Summorum Pontificum in July 2007. The Pope ruled that priests of the Latin Rite can freely choose between the 1962 Roman Missal and the later edition "in Masses celebrated without the people". Such celebrations may be attended by those who spontaneously ask to be allowed. Priests in charge of churches can permit stable groups of laypeople attached to the earlier form to have Mass celebrated for them in that form, provided that the celebrating priest is "qualified to [celebrate] and not juridically impeded" (this would exclude traditionalist priests not in good standing with Rome).
The document, as well as being welcomed by the traditionalist groups that have been in good relations with Rome, has been considered by groups such as the Sons of the Most Holy Redeemer, which have been in dispute with Rome, to be sufficient grounds for seeking an agreement. The Society of Saint Pius X welcomed the document, but referred to "difficulties that still remain", including "disputed doctrinal issues" and the notice of excommunication that still affected its bishops. Sedevacantists of course consider all documents issued by Benedict XVI to be devoid of canonical force.
Catholic doctrine holds that any validly ordained bishop can ordain any other baptised male as a priest or a bishop, provided that he has the correct intention and uses an acceptable ordination liturgy. This remains the case whether or not the ordination is performed with official approval, and even if the individuals involved are not Catholics. The conferring of holy orders may therefore be valid but illicit.
The Catholic Church obviously considers the orders of traditionalist clergy who are in good standing with the Holy See, such as the priests of the Priestly Fraternity of Saint Peter, to be both valid and licit. It sees as valid but illicit the orders of the bishops and priests of the Society of Saint Pius X, and accordingly considers them to be forbidden by law to exercise priestly offices. As for the "independent" traditionalists, whether bishops or priests, it certainly sees their ordination as illicit, but its judgement on the validity is less clear. The Holy See declared devoid of canonical effect the consecration ceremony conducted by Archbishop Pierre Martin Ngô Đình Thục for the Carmelite Order of the Holy Face group at midnight of 31 December 1975, while expressly refraining from pronouncing on its validity. It made the same statement with regard also to any later ordinations that those bishops might confer, saying that, "as for those who have already thus unlawfully received ordination or any who may yet accept ordination from these, whatever may be the validity of the orders (quidquid sit de ordinum validitate), the Church does not and will not recognise their ordination (ipsorum ordinationem), and will consider them, for all legal effects, as still in the state in which they were before, except that the ... penalties remain until they repent."
Traditionalists themselves are divided on the question of the validity of the orders conferred using the rite promulgated by Pope Paul VI in 1968. Those who deny or put in doubt the validity of the sacramental liturgies as revised after the Second Vatican Council pass the same negative judgement on all such ordinations. The Society of Saint Pius V split from that of Saint Pius X for reasons that included Archbishop Lefebvre's acceptance of priests ordained according to the revised sacramental rites as members of the traditionalist Society that he founded.
According to the Statistical Yearbook of the Church, the Catholic Church's worldwide recorded membership at the end of 2005 was 1,114,966,000. Estimates of the number of traditionalist Catholics vary. Catholic World News reported that "the Vatican" estimated the number of those served by the Fraternity of St Peter, the Society of St Pius X and similar groups at "close to 1 million". Various sources estimate the adherents of the Society of St Pius X alone at 1 million. No major religious survey has ever made an attempt to sample and enumerate subsets of Catholics by their position on a liberal to mainstream conservative to traditionalist and sedevacantist continuum, so any figure on the numbers of traditionalist Catholics must by necessity be more or less educated guesses.
The two most prominent societies of traditionalist priests – the SSPX and the FSSP – claim to have a presence in 31 and 14 countries respectively. A large share of their members in each case are stationed in France. Two other societies, the SSPV and CMRI, are based in the United States and also claim a presence in many countries, especially the CMRI. Traditionalist Catholics in English-speaking countries and Germany are more likely to be sedevacantist than those in France and other Latin countries.
For purposes of comparison with mainstream Catholic organisations, the Knights of Columbus in the United States are stated to have 1.7 million members, the Neocatechumenal Way is reported to have around 1 million members, and Opus Dei is claimed to have 87,000 members.
Another comparison is that Eastern Rite Catholics number 16 million. Approximately 7,650,000 belong to the fourteen Catholic Churches of Byzantine Rite, whether they attend the Divine Liturgy in that liturgical rite or in another, and 8,300,000 belong to other Eastern Catholic Churches of Armenian, Coptic and Syriac traditions.