The Smoke of Satan: Conservative and Traditionalist
Dissent in Contemporary American Catholicism
by Michael W. Cuneo Oxford University Press, 214 pages, $27.50
The regular Church, with its sterile approach to everything, just wasn’t offering me much,” says Patricia. Patricia (last name unreported), “an Irish-American woman,” is one of a colorful and often positively crazy cast of characters featured in sociologist Michael W. Cuneo’s new book on conservative Catholics in the United States. The most extreme of his subjects are conspiracy driven, convinced that the post-conciliar Church—presided over by anti-popes and heretical bishops—has been taken over in a Communist-inspired Judeo-Masonic plot. In their view, a small but faithful remnant has a mandate to keep the faith pure and, in the case of what the author calls the “mystical marianists and apocalypticists,” know themselves safe in the face of God’s imminent chastisement of sinful humankind, and almost look forward to the end of time.
Cuneo spoke to Patricia while investigating the goings-on in the Bayside Hills section of Queens in New York City, where the self-proclaimed marian visionary Veronica Lueken held court before her death in 1995 and where her most loyal followers—all men, joined in the Lay Order of St. Michael, whose sole “apostolate” is the Lueken legacy—keep things going at the apparently still-booming shrine.
The surfeit of detail in Cuneo’s descriptions of characters and movements, a good bit of it not terribly compelling and rather repetitive, threatens to deter all but the most diehard readers. But with Patricia’s comment, he has recorded—perhaps unwittingly—something we need to take very seriously: So much of the life of the contemporary Church in America is positively dull, lifeless, and indeed sterile, particularly when it comes to the liturgy and the social dimension of Church life. And if there is anything that motivates the myriad extremist movements that Cuneo chronicles, it is a potentially richer and more solemn liturgical experience—by way of the Tridentine Mass—and a close-knit community life inspired by impassioned, albeit largely misguided, leadership.
That being said, the book gives ample ammunition to critics in the Orthodox community who despair of unity between the Churches of the East and West in large part because of the liturgical muddle in Western Europe and North America. Similarly, Cuneo’s painstakingly compiled report once again confirms the lure of some Protestant denominations and local congregations whose warm outreach readily wins over more mainstream but nevertheless disaffected U.S. Catholics. But this is hardly the intended thrust of Cuneo’s book.
The author set out instead to record the intimate workings of a number of movements, most dominated by charismatic and highly eccentric leaders. A good number of them assure the perpetuation of their communities by ordaining priests and even bishops, a defiant act most famously associated with the late Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre but practiced freely by a host of leaders in this most bizarre Catholic underground.
Most of the movements have sprung up in the wake of Vatican II, the watershed event for most conservatives. With the Council, a majority insists, authentic Catholicism was lost, as the Council Fathers gave away the store. With the landmark document on religious liberty and its spur to ecumenism and interreligious dialogue, the Church surrendered her exclusive claim to truth; and with the introduction of vernacular into the liturgy, the Novus Ordo Mass, and the initial ban on the Tridentine Mass—aggravated by the endless experimentation of the “Litnicks” (liturgical beatnicks), as they were called by Father Gommar de Pauw, founder of the Catholic Traditionalist Movement—the Church’s worship life was damaged pretty much beyond repair.
In the most extreme cases, the conciliar Popes—John XXIII, Paul VI, and John Paul II—are believed to be impostors. Those who subscribe to the school of “sedevacantism” believe that the Chair of Peter is actually vacant and even that the “real” Pope is imprisoned somewhere. According to adherents of the Orthodox Roman Catholic Movement, founded by a Father Francis Fention, the real Pope is Cardinal Joseph Siri, who is held captive in a Roman monastery and whose election to the papacy was overturned twice by agents of “a worldwide Judeo-Masonic conspiracy in an effort to dismantle traditional schism.”
A related theory was propagated by Francis Shuckardt, founder of the Tridentine Latin Rite Church, a community featuring “a blend of Catholic survivalism, paranoia, and lockstep dogmatism.” Because Vatican II contradicted the earlier teaching that “the Catholic Church alone possesses the fullness of truth and the certain means of salvation,” Cuneo writes, “the principle of noncontradiction” suggests that the Popes presiding over all the changes are simply schismatic, “and the entire institutional Church is also therefore schismatic.”
It gets still wilder. Brother Joseph, a member of the Holy Family Monastery, a community founded by a self-proclaimed Brother Joseph Natale and “one of more than three hundred centers of traditionalist (or separatist) Catholicism” in the country, declares: “The Second Vatican Council was an ingenious plot devised by the Communists to take over the Church, and after the Council was finished, communism infected every aspect of the Church. Communism isn’t dead; it’s stronger than ever. Satan has overseen the communistic takeover of the Church. The United States is next, and then the entire world!”
Pro-lifers such as Father Paul Marx, OSB, founder and director of Human Life International—who battle American Catholics’ contraceptive mentality and what they perceive as the relative softness of prominent pro-life organizations, including the bishops’ conference—take their place alongside more mainstream conservatives, who are staunchly loyal to the Pope and respect Church authority, despite their misgivings. But the bulk of the book is devoted to separatists and mystical marianists and apocalypticists, some of whose views, as it happened, were given an airing in a recent cover story in Newsweek that considered the question whether the Pope, depicted as more or less obsessed with the Virgin Mary himself, will proceed to proclaim the Virgin Mary co-redemptrix.
The author, while maintaining the neutral, dispassionate stance of the objective observer throughout, is clearly most engaged when considering the more extreme fringes of the Catholic world. The effects can be comical or depressing, depending on one’s perspective. Thus, Michael E. Jones, renegade editor of Fidelity magazine, is convinced, says Cuneo, that “heresy . . . springs directly from the groin; and sexual sin is the root cause of virtually everything that has gone wrong with American Catholicism since the Council . . . . Where there exists theological dissent, the Jonesian formula goes, sexual perversion can’t be far out of sniffing distance.”
For his part, Father Nicholas Gruner, defender of the secrets of Fatima—and someone frequently taken to task by Fidelity for his obsession with alleged marian messages—shows his colors when he tells Cuneo that “Jones is secretly a Jew. He’s a Marrano, planted in the American Church to confuse Catholics and sow hatred against people like myself. I think most of us have figured that out by now.”
A comic highlight comes in a description from the late 1970s, the heyday of the Bayside shrine, featuring Veronica Lueken in top form: “In addition to the Virgin Mary, Jesus and St. Michael and several other heavenly beings had also started making frequent appearances to her at the shrine, and the full-time workers were forced to rig up a system of lighting so that pilgrims could keep track of the incoming celestial traffic. A flashing blue light signaled that the Virgin Mary was on the grounds, and a flashing red one signaled the arrival of Jesus.” Michael E. Jones, along with the folks at the Wanderer and Catholics United for the Faith, is featured in the book’s opening section that deals with conservatives committed to changing the Church from within. With some variations, this group, though convinced that the Church is in a deep crisis, is marked by staunch support for the Pope and overall support for Church authority, despite sometimes overt criticism of individual prelates. In this group, a man of genuine substance, historian James Hitchcock, along with his wife Helen Hull Hitchcock, founder of Women for Faith and Family, has pride of place.
Some readers will be surprised to learn that Dr. Hitchcock started out the 1960s as a Church liberal or that his wife was a Protestant before converting to Catholicism in the mid-1980s. It is too bad Cuneo didn’t spend some more time with the Hitchcocks, sacrificing perhaps some space devoted to the lives of a host of eccentric underground Catholics, the details of whose childhood or adult wanderings from fringe group to fringe group are of fleeting interest at best. In the end, the extreme Catholic right depicted here amounts to little that is genuinely viable. In addition, a key figure notably absent from this conservative pantheon is Hitchcock ally Father Joseph Fessio, S.J., and his Ignatius Press mini-publishing empire, mentioned only in passing.
Cuneo’s investigation, detailed as it is, suffers from a dated quality. On numerous occasions he prefaces a report by saying that he met or talked to so-and-so “several years ago.” It would seem that much has happened in the last couple of years that has heartened conservatives of various stripes, including, for example, the actions of the Bishop of Lincoln, Nebraska.
While Cuneo makes it clear that a huge gulf separates the conservatives (including the pro-lifers, however radical) from the separatists and extreme marianists—and, as noted, stresses that conservatives very much seek to reclaim the Church from within—an overly facile and tidy conclusion throws all of them together under the header of “Catholic fundamentalism,” albeit “of three analytically distinct types.” He thus implies that the conservatives absolutize the papacy as “their primary source of ultimate authority,” just as the others revere to the point of absurdity visions and tradition. This classification hardly does justice to someone like James Hitchcock, who, moreover—unlike the extremists—represents a significant factor in the U.S. Church.
Joop Koopman, former Editor of the National Catholic Register, is a freelance writer based in Connecticut.
Image by Photogoddle licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.