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A friend and I are arguing over the word traditionalist as applied to Catholics. He criticizes “traditionalists” but means only the “cranks,” he insists: No “sane person” would call himself a Catholic traditionalist; only cranks do that. When he writes “traditionalist,” my friend has in mind a careful definition that excludes the likes of Cardinal Burke and Pope Emeritus Benedict, but the word in general circulation has a broader range than that, and many gentle souls get caught in its net.

“Pope Benedict XVI a traditionalist with modern savvy” is how USA Today summed up the 265th pontiff in a headline last year on the occasion of his announcement that he was stepping down. “He will be remembered for his traditionalist views and as a defender of Roman Catholic orthodoxy,” the Telegraph wrote.

Often the word is barbed. “Cardinal Burke is a traditionalist, as such he’s scared of change,” writes one commenter to an article published by the Religion News Service last Saturday. The Riverfront Times, a St. Louis newspaper, refers to “Burke’s ideological similarities with the rigid traditionalism of the previous pope.”

When someone points a finger at “traditionalists,” it’s often to call out the sourness of particular spokesmen for the cause of promoting traditional Catholic liturgy, although, as the preceding paragraph illustrates, the sourness is clearly a two-way street. Sometimes a slur against traditionalism writ large has its genesis in a narrow, valid question about the orthodoxy or cogency of one blogger’s outré ideas, but even those are likely to emanate from a current of thought that runs as well through, for example, The Spirit of the Liturgy by Joseph Ratzinger. Insofar as they do, I agree with the blogger, although I still might find his tone offensive and his conclusions ultimately unconvincing. What part of that mélange of attributes constitutes the “traditionalism” that my friend objects to? To dismiss the package of goods wholesale is to dismiss Ratzinger in the process.

Words mean more than we want them to. That’s the delight of poetry, but the bane of discursive prose. I called myself a traditionalist for a while. It was a functional, plain descriptor, I thought. Sure, it put me in the company of a few grouches and curmudgeons, but so did the descriptors “Catholic” and “conservative,” to be honest. And “human.” I stopped calling myself a traditionalist when I noticed that people who did not share my enthusiasm for the extraordinary form of the Roman rite usually gave the word a pejorative twist. On their lips, it was a term of abuse, a weapon in the liturgy wars. Let’s follow Peter’s example and put our swords away.

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