Walking the Old Path:
A Tribute to Walter L. Matt

Michael Davies

Reprinted from The Remnant
21170 W. Linwood Dr. NE
Wyoming, MN 55092

The news of the death of Walter Matt was given to me on 22nd April as I was preparing to leave for JFK Airport after a weekend in New York for the 10th Anniversary of the Dietrich von Hildebrand Institute. The long flight home gave me ample time to reflect on this event, which is one of significance for all those who possess what Dietrich von Hildebrand described as a sensus catholicus, which I would translate freely as “being imbued with a Catholic instinct.”

No one possessed this instinct more fully than Walter Matt, and I count it as one of the great privileges of my life to have known him and to have been able to call him my friend. I had the honour of sharing the platform with him in every Remnant Forum in which he participated and of staying as a guest in his home. I remember him best relaxing in the evening with his pipe, his family, and his friends, always good-humoured, always ready with a smile and a joke.

I know that his declining health in recent years, particularly the past year, had been a severe trial both to him and to his wife Marilyn, who cared for him until the very end, and to whom the words “for better or for worse” meant precisely that. I learned from several members of his family of the beautiful and truly Catholic way in which he passed from this valley of tears to “a place of solace, of peaceful rest and of glorious light.” His granddaughter Melanie remarked in a letter to me: “What a man, a man I am privileged to call my grandfather. And on Monday night at Grandma's house, as we put together posters and pictures of Grandpa and thought of all the things he had done, I was becoming a little sad, but when I looked into the next room, the room that had been his, and I saw the wheelchair and the lift and all those painful parts of his life, I realized how happy I should be for him.”

Melanie certainly possesses the sensus catholicus. Our initial reaction to the loss of anyone we love must be sadness, but this must turn to joy if we truly accept that death is not the end, but the beginning, the beginning of the eternal life for which our transitory years on earth have been no more than a preparation, and I can think of no one who had prepared for eternal life in a more Catholic way than Walter Matt, and I can think of no one with more right to utter those inspiring words from the Second Epistle to Timothy: “I have fought a good fight: I have finished my course: I have kept the faith. As to the rest, there is laid up for me a crown of justice which the Lord the just judge will render to me in that day, and not only to me but to them also that love His coming.”

We should indeed, as Melanie tells us, be happy for him, and as for those that mourn him: “God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and death shall be no more, nor mourning, nor crying, nor sorrow shall be any more.”

Every traditional Catholic owes a debt of gratitude to Walter Matt, not least for the fact that it is due to him more than any other individual, with the possible exception of Hamish Fraser, that we have a traditionalist movement in the English-speaking world. Walter was, to all intents and purposes, editor of The Wanderer for thirty years, and just as his father had done before him, used it to propagate the traditional doctrine which was accepted totally and joyfully by almost every member of the thriving and expanding Church in the United States. Then came Vatican II.

There can be no doubt whatsoever that the Second Vatican Council has been followed by the worst crisis in the history of the Church since the Arian heresy, which denied Our Lord's divinity during the fourth century, when the heroic Athanasius led the Catholic resistance. The heresy became so widespread that about the year 358 St. Jerome gave vent to his famous cri-de-coeur: "The whole world groaned and was amazed to find itself Arian."

His dismay was hardly surprising when it is considered that Athanasius was in exile, a compromised Pope occupied the Chair of Peter, and hardly a bishop throughout the Empire possessed the courage to stand up for the true faith, which was, as Newman explained, upheld by laymen, inspired by Athanasius, who held fast to what their bishops had taught them, even though those same bishops had by then either abandoned it or lacked the courage to profess it.

The reaction of almost every bishop throughout the English-speaking world was that Vatican II had been called to initiate a renewal and therefore it had initiated a renewal. If that was what the bishops said, then the quasi-totality of the clergy had no hesitation in endorsing the judgment of the prelates upon whom their career prospects and pensions depended. Prelates and priests assured us that day by day in every way things were getting better and better, and nowhere more so than in the United States.

There were constant changes, and, of course, these were invariably presented as changes for the better, and the phenomenon of constant change was presented as indisputable proof that we were in the midst of a constant renewal, basking in the warmth and light of a second Pentecost. The story of the Council is told in great detail in my book Pope John's Council, which is now in its sixth edition, and I will not attempt to repeat it here. It was a source of great satisfaction to me that Walter agreed so wholeheartedly with what I had written that he serialized the book in The Remnant.

One American bishop did break ranks, Bishop Adrian of Nashville, Tennessee. He explained that although most American bishops came to the Council as inveterate conservatives, many returned home as rabid liberals. He wrote:

As the council developed, some of the originally somnolent American bishops, catching fire from their alert European colleagues, became the able engineers of liberal proposals, going beyond the Europeans in ferocious, vituperative attacks on the Roman Curia....The European periti, who really imposed their theories upon the bishops, were themselves deeply imbued with the errors of Teilhardism and situation ethics, which errors ultimately destroy all divine faith and morality and all constituted authority.

Bishop Adrian appeared to be a man crying in the wilderness, but Walter Matt, who knew him well, agreed wholeheartedly that beneath the mantle of euphoria enveloping the Church in the USA, just as the mantle of smog envelops the City of Angels, all divine faith and morality, and all constituted authority were being destroyed, and to this litany of destruction he added the Roman liturgy.

The traditional Mass of the Roman Rite, the most beautiful thing this side of heaven, as Father Faber described it, had become almost unrecognizable by 1967, two years before the imposition of the Mass of Pope Paul VI in 1969. Walter Matt saw clearly that if he was to remain faithful to the principles of journalistic integrity that he had learned from his father, Joseph Matt, KSG, he must make a public stand against the destruction masquerading as renewal. He must speak out as did St. Basil, who wrote in about the year 372:

Religious people keep silence, but every blaspheming tongue is let loose. Sacred things are profaned; those of the laity who are sound in their faith avoid the places of worship as schools of impiety, and raise their hands in solitudes, with groans and tears to the Lord in heaven. Ep. 92.

Only one offence is now vigorously punished—an accurate observance of our fathers’ traditions. For this cause the pious are driven from their countries and transported into deserts. The people are in lamentation, in continual tears at home and abroad. There is a cry in the city, a cry in the country, in the roads, in the deserts. Joy and spiritual cheerfulness are no more; our feasts are turned into mourning: our houses of prayer are shut up, our altars deprived of the spiritual worship. Ep. 243.

For reasons of ownership, which I need not go into here, Walter Matt could not speak out in the way he wished while Editor of The Wanderer, and he founded The Remnant so that he could campaign for the continued “observance of our father's traditions.” In doing so, he placed himself in what, to put it mildly, was a minority position, a minority so small that from a numerical standpoint it could not even be described as insignificant.

The life of St. Athanasius provides us with a valuable antidote when we are tempted to succumb to the most pervasive of contemporary heresies, i.e., that truth must necessarily lie with the opinion espoused by the greatest number. St. Athanasius is not alone among great saints who have seemed to be in a minority of one.

St. John Fisher, alone among the English hierarchy, had the courage to repudiate the claim of Henry VIII that the Bishop of Rome had no jurisdiction in the realm of England, and St. Thomas More was the only layman prepared to die for the unity of the Church. The parallel between this great saint and Walter Matt was plain to me at the time of the very first Remnant Forum, where I presented him with a statue of the great English saint.

In the first two decades of The Remnant’s existence, Walter Matt was dismissed as being out of step, even by many of those who had been his friends. How could he be right and almost the entire Catholic hierarchy wrong? Why could he not fall in step and rejoice at having the good fortune to live during the glorious days of the great renewal? His opinions were considered singular in the sense that they were unusual, odd, extreme, and must therefore be wrong. Not so, wrote Cardinal Newman:

Those who serve God faithfully must ever look to be accounted, in their generation, singular, intemperate, and extreme. They are not so; they must guard against becoming so; if they are so, they are equally wrong as the many, however they may, in other respects, differ from them; but still it is no proof that they are so, because the many call them so. It is no proof that they are so, because others take it for granted that they are, pass their doctrines over, put their arguments aside without a word, treat them gravely, or are vexed about them, or impatient with them, or ridicule them, or fiercely oppose them. No, there are numberless clouds which flit over the sky, there are numberless gusts which agitate the air to and fro: as many, as violent, as far-spreading, as fleeting, as uncertain, as changing, are the clouds and the gales of human opinion; as suddenly, as impetuously, as fruitlessly, do they assail those whose mind is stayed on God. They come and they go; they have no life in them, nor abidance. They agree together in nothing but in this, in threatening like clouds, and sweeping like gusts of wind. They are the voice of the many; they have the strength of the world, and they are directed against the few. Their argument, the sole argument in their behalf, is their prevalence at the moment; not that they existed yesterday, not that they will exist to-morrow; not that they base themselves on reason, or ancient belief, but that they are merely what every one now takes for granted, or, perhaps, supposes to be in Scripture, and therefore not to be disputed:—not that they have most voices through long periods, but that they happen to be most numerously professed in the passing hour. On the other hand, divine truth is ever one and the same; it changes not, any more than its Author: it stands to reason, then, that those who uphold it must ever be exposed to the charge of singularity, either for this or for that portion of it, in a world which is ever varying.

Walter Matt’s arguments were indeed put aside without a word and even ridiculed, but time has proved him right. Great liturgical scholars have now endorsed the negative judgement which he passed on the liturgical reform, better termed a revolution, from its very inception. Mgr. Klaus Gamber was described by Cardinal Ratzinger as "the one scholar who, among the army of pseudo-liturgists, truly represents the liturgical thinking of the centre of the Church." Like Walter Matt, Msgr. Gamber insisted that what we have experienced is not a renewal but a débâcle that worsens with each passing year:

The liturgical reform, welcomed with so much idealism and hope by so many priests and lay people alike has turned out to be a liturgical destruction of startling proportions — a débâcle worsening with each passing year. Instead of the hoped-for renewal of the Church and of Catholic life, we are now witnessing a dismantling of the traditional values and piety on which our faith rests. Instead of the fruitful renewal of the liturgy, what we see is a destruction of the forms of the Mass which had developed organically during the course of many centuries.

Search through the back numbers of The Remnant and you will find that Walter Matt used no stronger language than this is denouncing the liturgical débâcle hailed even by the post-concilar popes as a movement of the Holy Spirit in the Church, for which we should all give thanks. In his Apostolic Letter Vicesimus Quintus Annus of 4 December 1988, commemorating the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Liturgy Constitution, Pope John Paul II accepted that “the application of the liturgical reform has met with difficulties”—surely the understatement of the second millennium. Despite this admission, he insisted that:

This should not lead anyone to forget that the vast majority of the pastors and the Christian people have accepted the liturgical reform in a spirit of obedience and indeed joyful fervour. For this we should give thanks to God for that movement of the Holy Spirit in the Church which the liturgical renewal represents...for the radiant vitality of so many Christian communities, a vitality drawn from the well-spring of the Liturgy. These are all reasons for holding fast to the teaching of the Constitution Sacrosanctum Concilium and to the reforms which it has made possible: the liturgical reform is the most visible fruit of the whole work of the council.

The Holy Father is here expressing his opinion on a matter of fact, and if the facts do not correspond with his personal opinion, we are not obliged to accept it. The fact is that, far from accepting the reform with joyful fervour, the vast majority of Catholics throughout the western world no longer assist at Mass. In most European countries, Mass attendance has declined to a single percentage figure. A few weeks ago I asked an English Monsignor how the Pope could make such a statement, when, in his personal diocese of Rome, Mass attendance has declined to 8%. He laughed and replied: ”Michael, where have you been living? An optimistic assessment at present would be 3%.” The liturgical reform is indeed “the most visible fruit of the whole work of the council,” but it is a manifestly bad fruit.

Walter Matt was criticized frequently for having the temerity to disagree with the Pope, but we have no obligation whatsoever to agree with papal opinions on matters of fact if they do not correspond with fact. That great friend of The Remnant, Professor Dietrich von Hildebrand, reminded us that, although we must accept everything promulgated ex cathedra by the Pope as absolutely true:

In the case of practical as distinguished from theoretical authority, which refers, of course, to the ordinances of the Pope, the protection of the Holy Spirit is not promised in the same way. Ordinances can be unfortunate, ill-conceived, even disastrous, and there have been many such in the history of the Church. Here Roma locuta, causa finita does not hold. The faithful are not obliged to regard all ordinances as good and desirable. They can regret them and pray that they be taken back; indeed, they can work, with all due respect for the pope, for their elimination.

During his editorship of The Remnant, Walter Matt did precisely this. He worked, with all due respect for the pope, for the elimination of those aspects of contemporary Catholicism which are undermining the Church to which he was totally devoted. No less an authority that Cardinal Ratzinger now accepts that we are in the midst of a crisis and not a renewal, and that the liturgical reform is to a large extent responsible for this crisis:

I am convinced that the crisis in the Church that we are experiencing today is to a large extent due to the disintegration of the liturgy...in that it is a matter of indifference whether or not God exists and whether or not he speaks to us and hears us. But when the community of faith, the worldwide unity of the Church and her history, and the mystery of the living Christ are no longer visible in the liturgy, where else, then, is the Church to become visible in her spiritual essence? Then the community is celebrating only itself, an activity that is utterly fruitless.

Would those who accused Walter Matt of disloyalty make the same charge against the Cardinal responsible for the defense of orthodoxy within the Church? Time has proved Walter Matt correct in every aspect of his denunciation of the errors which ultimately destroy all divine faith and morality and all constituted authority. Who would have believed when he founded The Remnant in 1967 that in 2002 all the American cardinals would be summoned to Rome to be admonished by the Pope for the gross immorality rampant among the clergy in the United States. Nor would it have been believed that the Pope would content himself with stating to prelates who had allowed priests to abuse children that priests should not abuse children, and allowing them to return home in full possession of their sees—another prudential decision with which we are entitled to disagree.

I will conclude by noting that Walter Matt did not content himself with denouncing error. He campaigned constructively to uphold and preserve the most sacred traditions of the Church—liturgical traditions in particular. While the overall state of the Church in the United States still continues to degenerate with each passing year, and is almost certain to continue doing so, the state of the faithful remnant has improved immeasurably since 1967, not least as regards the traditional Mass for which Walter Matt campaigned so courageously and consistently. His uncompromising insistence upon the right of every Catholic priest to celebrate the Traditional Mass, a right which the Una Voce Federation has always insisted upon, was greatly appreciated by Dr. Eric de Saventhem during his long presidency. The 1986 Commission of Cardinals also affirmed that every priest possesses this right. No journal in the English-speaking world gave more consistent support to the principles for which the Federation stood and stands.

The Traditional Mass is now celebrated in hundreds of parishes throughout the United States. A dramatic instance of this was seen in the Solemn Requiem for Walter Matt according to the 1962 Missal, celebrated in a diocesan church, something that would have been unthinkable in 1967.

The greatest legacy of Walter Matt is the faithful remnant of Catholics inspired by him, and found throughout the English-speaking world, a remnant certainly selected out of grace, loyal to the Church and to the papacy, and dedicated to the fundamental principle upheld by Walter Matt as a Catholic and a journalist that, as Archbishop Lefebvre expressed it, “Our future lies in our past.”

“Thus saith the Lord,” we read in Jeremias, chapter 6, “Stand ye on the way, and see and ask for the old paths, which is the good way, and walk ye in it: and you shall find refreshment for your souls. And they said: We will not walk.” Walter Matt refused to abandon the old paths when all around him were doing so, and because he kept to the old paths he finished his course, kept the faith, and enabled many thousands to do the same. “Blessed be God!” wrote Cardinal Newman. “We have not to find the Truth, it is put into our hands; we have but to commit it to our hearts, to preserve it inviolate, and to deliver it over to our posterity.”

Walter Matt preserved inviolate the truth that he received and delivered it inviolate to us. May we preserve it with equal care and hand it down just as he did. May he rest in the peace that he so richly deserves, and receive the crown of justice that his entire life has earned for him.