This week’s Economist has a nice story on the revival of traditionalism in the Catholic Church, entitled “A traditionalist avant-garde: It’s trendy to be a traditionalist in the Catholic church.” The usual tropes are there—the “church hierarchy in Western countries [is] beset by scandal and decline”—but as mainstream news reports go, it’s accurate and balanced.
The numbers behind the trend are striking: “The Latin Mass Society of England and Wales, started in 1965, now has over 5,000 members. The weekly number of Latin masses is up from 26 in 2007 to 157 now. In America it is up from 60 in 1991 to 420.” More from the report on the Latin Mass scene:
Women sport mantillas (lace headscarves). Men wear tweeds.
But it is not a fogeys’ hangout: the congregation is young and international. Like evangelical Christianity, traditional Catholicism is attracting people who were not even born when the Second Vatican Council tried to rejuvenate the church. Traditionalist groups have members in 34 countries, including Hong Kong, South Africa and Belarus. Juventutem, a movement for young Catholics who like the old ways, boasts scores of activists in a dozen countries. . . .
A big shift came in 2007 when Pope Benedict XVI formally endorsed the use of the old-rite Latin mass. Until that point, fondness for the traditional liturgy could blight a priest’s career. The cause has also received new vim from the Ordinariate, a Vatican-sponsored grouping for ex-Anglicans. Dozens of Anglican priests have “crossed the Tiber” from the heavily ritualistic “smells and bells” high-church wing; they find a ready welcome among traditionalist Roman Catholics.
The story reminded me of a relevant passage in Ross Douthat’s Bad Religion. He praises Latin Mass Catholics and analogous groups of Protestants for their vibrancy and other virtues before issuing a gentle warning:
In its quest for a greater purity and a more perfect solidarity, the Benedict option [i.e., withdrawing from society or the larger Church, as traditionalists sometimes do] often seems to have little to say about the millions of baptized Christians whom separatism would effectively leave behind. Even if their faith is lukewarm and compromised, the undercatechized Catholic and the Oprahfied Protestant are still only a good confession or an altar call away from a more authentic Christian life.
I thought his warning a prudent one when I read the book, and I still do. But in my experience, traditionalists are well aware of potential pitfalls and doing their best to avoid them. Rather than withdrawing from society, my traditionalist friends are busy inviting undercatechized Catholics to attend the Latin Mass, talking to their Oprahfied Protestant friends about Catholicism, and reviving their local parishes. We should all have such problems.
(Thanks to my friend Paul Schultz, who helped found the Michigan branch of Juventutem, for pointing me to the Economist article.)