Confessions of a “Postconciliar Exile”
Book Review: Tradition and Sanity: Conversations & Dialogues of a Postconciliar Exile, Peter A. Kwasniewski, Angelico Press, 232 pages, $17.95.
We live in an age littered with labels. Some of these labels are ways to describe one’s political views: conservative, liberal, moderate. Other labels may describe one’s generation: “Baby Boomer”, “Gen-X”, “Millennials”, and even the most recent one — “post-millennial”. Labels extend to just about every facet of life, even including one’s race, sexual identity, and even preferred pronouns. As such, it is not uncommon today to find someone’s Twitter bio to contain something like “black, queer, transgender, inter-sectional feminist, ze/zir”, etc. People cling to labels so that they can easily identify themselves in comparison to others.
I often wonder what labels people assign to me. As a white heterosexual male, I’m a walking “micro-aggression”. Politically, I have been called all sorts of things. My opposition to abortion has resulted in my labeling as a “conservative”; my concern about climate change has me branded a “liberal”. If someone asked me “who” I am, I would simply say: “I am a Roman Catholic,” because despite my best attempts to sabotage God’s grace in my life, I am indelibly sealed with the Holy Spirit through Baptism and Confirmation. My Christian identity will always supersede any label the world could give me.
Unfortunately, even within the Catholic Church, there are labels too. Oftentimes, these labels mimic their secular political counterparts. Those who uphold the Church’s teachings on contentious issues like abortion, gay marriage, and euthanasia are oftentimes called “conservative”. Catholics who seek to abolish the death penalty, support socialized medicine, and oppose U.S. President Donald Trump’s immigration stance are usually called “liberal”. If they are living their faith correctly, Catholics will elude most labels. As in the famous words of Dom Hélder Câmara, “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist.”
It was during my last year in seminary that I came to the conclusion that I was neither a conservative nor a liberal. The more I reflected upon my beliefs and attitudes, the more I saw that they eluded any attempt to pigeon-hole them into a particular camp. I thought of the many canonized saints in the Church’s history. Was St. Francis of Assisi a hippie, flower-boy who preached peace at a 13th century Woodstock? Was St. Thomas Aquinas a conservative European intellectual, like Roger Scruton? Given that the terms “conservative” and “liberal” stem from the 19th-century Enlightenment, it doesn’t make much sense to assign them to earlier figures, and makes even less sense to confine ourselves to them today. Yet the labels remain.
Just over a year ago, I published an essay about the rise of Catholic “traditionalists,” a movement gaining ground especially within the younger generation. The general idea is this: since the 1960’s there has been a global effort in the Catholic Church to ‘modernize’ its worship, weaken its doctrinal teaching, and accommodate to the whims of an ever-increasing secular society. The “traditional Catholics” — who ironically are younger than the increasingly-elderly modernizers — reject this. For these traditional Catholics (“trads” for short), the modernization efforts have been a massive failure. To them, destroying beautiful churches and replacing them with ones which look like spaceships was not a very good strategy. Changing the Mass from its ancient and venerable form to one composed by a committee of liturgical “experts” was not going to win souls for Christ. And so on.
For the most part, I have rejected the “trad” label, especially when others apply it to me. Why, you may ask? Well, for starters, I think it is simply unnecessary. There is no reason to call oneself a “trad”, because any Catholic who believes and lives what the Church teaches is a “traditional” Catholic in the fullest sense of the term. Cardinal Robert Sarah echoes this same sentiment:
“Some, if not many, people, call you ‘traditionalists’. Sometimes you even call yourselves ‘traditional Catholics’ or hyphenate yourselves in a similar way. Please do this no longer… You do not belong in a box on the shelf or in a museum of curiosities. You are not traditionalists: you are Catholics of the Roman rite as am I and as is the Holy Father.
You are not second-class or somehow peculiar members of the Catholic Church because of your life of worship and your spiritual practices, which were those of innumerable saints. You are called by God, as is every baptized person, to take your full place in the life and mission of the Church in the world of today, not to be shut up in — or worse, to retreat into — a ghetto in which defensiveness and introspection reign and stifle the Christian witness and mission to the world you too are called to give.”
I grew up attending both the traditional Latin Mass as well as the Novus Ordo. As a child, I was brought to Eucharistic adoration daily; I learned the rosary, novenas, and other traditional prayers. I was taught Christian doctrine from a young age and knew how to defend the Faith. Simultaneously, my mother volunteered at a Catholic hospice for persons suffering from HIV/AIDS; she also made sure I had direct contact with and serviced the poor in our community. When she wasn’t adoring the Blessed Sacrament or teaching me the Catholic faith, she was in her inner-city job helping underprivileged students. Was she “trad”? Was she a liberal social-justice warrior? Up until my freshman year of college, I honestly had no idea what a “traditional Catholic” was, because what I experienced at home was Catholicism in its purest and most traditional form — all without the labels.
Unfortunately, unlike my idyllic childhood of yesteryear, it is not so clear what it means to be a “Catholic” today. There are baptized Catholics who argue that the Church is wrong in its opposition towards same-sex “marriage”, contraception, abortion, women’s ordination, etc. There are Catholic priests who argue that gay couples should be able to “kiss” at Mass and Catholic priests who preach that same-sex activity is intrinsically disordered. The Pontifical Academy for Life, founded in 1994 to promote the Church’s magisterial teachings on ethics and life, now has members on its board who support abortion. Most obviously, Pope Francis has said & wrote things which are in complete contradiction to his predecessors numerous times. In the face of scandals, strife, and insecurity, Catholic tribes emerge, each with their own claims and demands. And what about me? Where do I fit in? Am I a “trad”, a “moderate”, a “lib”? I am none of these. I am a Roman Catholic. But given the current state of the Church and competing claims of Catholicity, I am required to describe myself further.
I am a “post-conciliar exile”.
In his latest book, Tradition and Sanity: Conversations & Dialogues of a Postconciliar Exile, Dr. Peter Kwasniewski offers a message of hope to those Catholics who feel exhausted trying to navigate between the usual “conservative” and “liberal” labels. The term “post-conciliar exile”(iv) is an appropriate one for people like me, who find ourselves completely disoriented by this supposed “new springtime” of the Church’s life. On one hand, we have “liberal” Catholics who act as if the Church began in 1962, and that Vatican II was a sort of behemoth which replaced the Catholicism of ages past.
On the other hand, we have “neo-conservatives” who think that Catholicism and classic liberalism go hand-in-hand; to them capitalism is the greatest economic system known to man.
We “post-conciliar exiles” are simply trying to live out the traditional Catholic faith in a modern world which despises it. We desire reverent, beautiful liturgy which lifts up our souls to God. We want the truth of the Catholic faith. We do not fit within the “conservative” or “liberal” label because we are rejected by both groups. And this dual-rejection is a sign that we are on the right path. Once a Catholic discovers the wealth of tradition, it begins to “make sense”. As Kwasniewski writes in the preface, discovering traditional Catholicism resulted in the embrace of the faith “…as a total worldview in which everything found its proper place in a coherent whole: belief, work, leisure, art, science, beauty, suffering love, worship, life, death, eternity” (i).
Just like “post-conciliar exiles” should not be seen as a breakaway group, “traditional Catholicism” should not be viewed as a niche within Catholicism — it is Catholicism itself. To use a more humanistic example — a person suffering from amnesia is still the same person in substance, even if his or her behavior reveals a certain forgetfulness. Similarly, a Church which suffers from an identity crisis is still the same Church which Christ founded, even if its human element strays from its traditional articulation of faith. Kwasniewski’s project is not to create a “new” Church, but instead remind the Church and Her members about their true identity, faith, and worship.
The book is comprised of several interviews and fictional dialogues which cover many topics within traditional Catholicism. As usual, Kwasniewski’s writing is clear and easily-accessible, while balancing a poetic style. Throughout the book, he addresses many burning questions: what makes the traditional Latin Mass so special? Can’t the Novus Ordo be celebrated well, too? What are Catholics in contemporary times to do when the past fifty years have resulted in such a departure from the faith as taught through the centuries? Kwasniewski answers these questions — and more — honestly and faithfully. He dispels certain myths, such as the idea that the Mass pre-Vatican II was “incomprehensible” to the faithful, while the post-Vatican II liturgical reform has allowed Catholics to understand the Mass better (3). He shuts down the annoying trend of “papal positivism”, reminding the readers that the pope is at the service of the Catholic faith — not its master (85).
As a scholar, Kwasniewski understands the philosophical and theological presuppositions of Catholic modernists. He explains old heresies, such as Gnosticism, with liturgical reform efforts which seek to rip apart the liturgy-as-handed-down and replace it with a ‘rational’ one for modern man (102). He also explains the philosophical attitudes of modernity (such as rationalism, materialism, and hedonism) and demonstrates how these attitudes are not compatible with the orthodox Catholic faith and traditional worship (29). And, as a musician and composer, Kwasniewski also understands the importance of Gregorian chant and polyphony for the Roman Rite — as well as the Magisterium’s teaching on sacred music (186). He is no intellectual slouch, and he is carrying on the important work begun by traditional Catholics such as the late Michael Davies & Klaus Gamber. The author’s broad knowledge & interdisciplinary competency adds credibility to his claims. He knows what he is talking about, and is able to anticipate possible objections before they even arise.
This book is accessible, and hits upon many important points for traditional Catholics today. His exploration of several pertinent topics relating to traditional Catholicism is a much-welcomed exercise for the benefit of the faithful. This book should be read as a helpful guide; that said, it is not intended to be read in a single sitting. It serves as a resource for those looking for an easy-to-understand “beginner’s guide” to Catholic tradition. The fictional dialogues — though cheesy at times — take serious issues and distills them into curious conversations. For example, in response to Pope Francis’ novel change in the Catechism’s teaching on capital punishment, Kwasniewski investigates the question of “development of doctrine” through two fictional monks — Brother Macarius and Brother Jonas (141). Other dialogues feature fictional lay Catholics and their all-too-real conversations about liturgical matters. In the dialogue, “May We Question the Liturgical Reform?”, you will meet William and Terence — two men with opposing views on the Novus Ordo liturgy, who find common ground at the end (117–130). If you can tolerate some of the dialogue’s more corny moments (in one chapter, two monks are deciding what names to give their newest professed members, including “Brother Paphnutius of the Papal Tiara”, 177), you will come across several insights, such as the reasons for the collapse of religious life, what ‘true’ development of the liturgy looks like, and challenges towards Catholic evangelization.
I recommend Tradition and Sanity to Catholics of all stripes. If you are a Catholic who is tired of the “conservative” and “liberal” dichotomies, you may find this book to be refreshing. Kwasniewski is critical of “conservative Catholicism” as well as its liberal twin — both have serious blind spots and cannot be considered the full expression of the Catholic faith. If you are a Catholic who doesn’t understand the rise of traditionalism (especially among the young), this book may be a good way to see how traditionalists think. And of course, if you are a self-professed “trad”, this book will confirm your already-held convictions — the Church is in a crisis, and only a return to traditional faith and worship can get the train back on the right track. Even if you have followed the “trad” blogs for a while now, this book can serve as a collection of important thoughts and responses to common objections to Catholic traditionalism. Kwasniewski’s personality shines through the text, and you will come to know his dedication to the Church—and the concerns of many Catholics — by reading Tradition and Sanity: Conversations & Dialogues of a Postconciliar Exile.