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Monday, October 29, 2018

Uncomfortable Lessons: How I learned the difference between “conservative” and Traditional, the hard way

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Uncomfortable Lessons: How I learned the difference between “conservative” and Traditional, the hard way

There are times I feel like Charlie Brown being convinced by Lucy to take just one more run at the football.

Every now and then, perhaps in some kind of seasonal cycle, I experience one of my little episodes, these periodic fits where I begin to think that perhaps there could be a monastery of nuns out there who, while they have the Bugninified liturgy have also somehow retained the holy Faith and the essence of their charism. These painful attacks happen fairly regularly, and every time it happens I sit down at the computer and start searching for That Monastery[1]. And nearly every time, I find it. I find a place where there are the Benedictine habits and Chant, beautiful, prayerful surroundings and at which the traditions of the ancient monastic life are maintained. At least, on the website.

And, still in the throes of my glowy optimism, I sometimes email them and ask to come and make a check-it-out visit. And every time I try this, I discover that I was right the first time; you can’t be Catholic – at least, not too Catholic – in NuChurch. Quite apart from the question of how much Novusordoism you can stand, being the kind of Catholic you are likely to become if you have already learned of the inadequacies of the Bugnini liturgy – and all that usually goes with that – makes you the kind of Catholic they don’t want.

Image result for benedictine nuns at prayer

And who can blame them? Who wants to have a settled and comfortable monastic life invaded by someone whom you know fine well thinks you’re compromised, no matter how polite she may be? How much fun could it be to have your lovely new “chants” – written specially for the community in 1972 by a good priest friend of the abbess – disdained as an unsingable novelty by some annoying interloper? How many times will you put up with being asked, “What time is Prime?” before getting a bit fed up?

In fact, starting all the way back in 2001 it was this process of visiting “conservative” nunneries in the US that first made me start to realise that there was something going on that wasn’t part of the narrative I’d learned. When I finally learned the terms, I started to see that there was something much more serious separating “conservatives[2]” from Traditionalists than mere differences in stylistic preference.

The time I visited the Visitation monastery in Ottawa (since closed for lack of vocations). Full habits! I thought. A beautiful monastery in the French Visitation architectural tradition! I thought. Grilles! I thought. Even a little bit of Chant! I thought. Being presented with “some retreat material” authored by some of the most notorious heretics in the Church, telling me that the “historical Jesus” had never intended to found a Church at all. Watching the nuns standing and sticking their hands through the grille to receive Holy Communion. And finally, being sent off at the end with a hug and a cheery benediction: “I hope we didn’t shock you too much.” It didn’t seem polite to say, “Yes, you did.”

The time I attended a vocation retreat of some teaching sisters in the US, famous as leaders in the “conservative revival” of the late Fr. John Hardon. Being ushered into a conference where the most notorious heretics in the Church were praised as visionaries and the “real force behind the Council.[3]” Hearing from a priest they brought in to hear confessions that because John Paul II was the pope, and therefore personally chosen by the Holy Spirit, he couldn’t possibly ever be wrong about anything, ever. Getting right back on the bus back to Toronto inside 24 hours.

The time I attended the Institute on Religious Life conference at Mundelein in Chicago and sitting in a little huddle at lunch with a tiny group of Trads, all wondering what we were doing there, and explaining to Avery Cardinal Dulles that yes, we all attended the Traditional Rite. Yes, the one with the Prologue of John’s Gospel at the end. No, none of us really wanted to be lectors or “Eucharistic ministers,” thanks. Yes, we were all perfectly comfortable with our level of “active participation” by praying and listening… He didn’t seem to be able to come to grips with it, and neither did any of the “conservative” CMSWR sisters[4] I met there.

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Nor did the Franciscan Friars of the Primitive Observance to whom I turned then for advice. These are the ones who broke away from the Franciscans of the Renewal so they could live the original 1221 Rule of St. Francis and not wear shoes. I liked them. And they had a community of sisters forming, so I went to visit and I liked them too. I was on board with getting up at four am, sitting on the floor and praying a lot and not wearing shoes[5].

At a “Youth 2000” retreat[6] they gave conferences in which we heard that we are all called to greater “authenticity” in the practice of Catholicism in the face of growing hostility of the world. I liked this too. I was on board! I wanted authenticity. I wanted a “path to a radical, transformative life in Christ”. I also told them I wanted the Divine Office in Gregorian Chant and the Mass as it had been in the time of St. Francis too. I mean, why not ask for everything, right? I was told I’d better go be a Benedictine somewhere. Somewhere else, that is.

So then there was that last time, in 2004, when I went to visit a Benedictine monastery where the Chant was all Gregorian and the Mass was all Latin. There it all was; habits, grilles, Chant, Latin, and the Benedictine life lived according to (most of) the Rule of St. Benedict. It looked like paradise on earth to me. I visited several times. I told them I wanted to join and they let me apply. They also let me give notice at my job and my apartment.

And then, while on a Christmas retreat, making the mistake of asking, in complete innocence of the political landmine I was stepping on, “If you’ve got the traditional Benedictine Divine Office and the Novus Ordo Mass entirely in Latin, and your chaplain is from Clear Creek, why not just have the traditional Mass as well?” Following this, being told, a few weeks before I was going to enter, “We don’t think you have a vocation.”

And then giving up and becoming quite depressed. And talking about it all to my friends, one of whom was a priest of the SSPX and having him say, “Well, I don’t want to make you feel worse, but I think these difficult experiences should be teaching you something…” And getting on the internet to find out what that was.

Since then I’ve learned quite a few things, very few of them cheerful. Then I left Canada and moved back to Britain where I learned a great many other non-cheerful things, and then a year later went on to Rome for the last four interesting years of Benedict’s reign… And so on, and that which followeth…

One of the things I’ve learned is that my own desire for contemplative life isn’t going away. But at the same time the knowledge grows that it is impossible to fulfill this aspiration in any established community that adheres to what we are now officially calling the New Paradigm. Twice more I’ve given in to the promptings of the vocational fit, and both times I’ve learned the lesson again.

Most recently it struck a couple of weeks ago and I visited a monastery of Benedictines who sing the Divine Office partly in Italian and partly in Latin using the Chant. They just moved a few years ago into a beautiful place, built in the 16th century, a couple of hours north of where I live and told me that there was no upper age limit.

I can understand wanting to have the text of the Psalms in a language people can read and meditate on with ease. Their hymns, antiphons and other repeated parts of the Office were mostly in Latin, as were the propers at their Mass. And the Mass was ad orientem, there being no “people’s altar”[7] in this old Tuscan church.

As always, it looked good on paper. But bad signs abounded: the foremost being sisters all lining up and receiving Holy Communion in their hands. They seemed to keep no enclosure at all, inviting not only me but a lay couple in to have lunch in their refectory; signs reading “clausura” seemed to mean nothing to anyone.

Silence was also absent, with only one meal of four being conducted in the Benedictine manner, in silence with a table reading. All others were accompanied by loud chatter from the four sisters and a somewhat embarrassed and disapproving silence from the two young (South American) postulants. The chatter moreover, especially boisterous in the presence of the lay couple, was about nothing religious, nothing meaningful; it was small talk. It seemed rather forced, as though they had something to prove and felt somehow obliged to talk about nothing serious in order to prove it. it seemed that questions about following the Rule more closely in general would also be thought silly and pointless. All that was something they were well out of, a burden they were relieved was no longer required.  


What was really missing? Awareness, and seriousness. The oddness of the liturgy might be possible to overlook, but the total lack of consciousness of anything like a crisis made it clear there was no common ground. There was certainly no sign of awareness of a need to revive or restore anything. They are, like nearly all the monastic world, New Paradigmists, for whom this or that traditional Catholic artefact is kept as a kind of decorative trinket, an aberration, tolerated because of a general agreement on the lack of seriousness of the monastic life itself. Comparing them to what I knew of Benedictines elsewhere, it seemed more like “playing nuns” than anything more serious. I wondered why they were bothering.

And that is, by extension, what Traditionalists are always, always going to find when we try to play along politely with the New Paradigm. The New Paradigm is about not taking the Faith very seriously. It’s about reducing the patrimony to stylistic preferences, a personal taste for guitars or Chant, habits or polyester pant suits. It’s about being officially in monastic life but not bothering very much about doing monastic things. It’s about having the Benedictine habit but not the conversatio mores… the externals drained of their purpose. It’s about preferring lesser things while rejecting greater things. About having even great and ancient things, like the 1221 Rule of St. Francis, but flinching away in disgust from the great and ancient Mass that St. Francis loved.

And it’s about telling married couples that their marriage is probably technically invalid anyway, and that getting divorced and “married” to someone else is not that big a deal in the eyes of the Lord. It’s about telling Catholics not to bother to strive for perfection because “heroism isn’t for average Christians.” It’s about rewriting Holy Scripture to make Jesus Christ less “rigid” about things modern people don’t like. About excising the very words of Christ on the “first and greatest commandment” to invert reality itself, to elevate love of neighbour over the primacy of the love of God; in fact, and in the fine old Stalinist tradition, to photoshop the love of God entirely out of the picture as though it had never been there.

In 2001 I set out on a path to discover that not only was there no “conservative” revival of religious life happening in the Church, but that the category itself was a fiction. It took a while longer to get to the conclusion that there were, in reality, two entirely different religions functioning in the institutions of the Church. And they are not living together in happy harmony. I’m still working out the details of how to understand the proposal, “It’s a different religion,” but the truth of what is now being called the New Paradigm has become very difficult to deny, reconfirmed every time I submit to the vocational fit and go to look at its fruits up close.

Next up: We can’t walk away, so what are we going to do about it?

Stay tuned…


[1] I happen to know that internet “nun-gazing” is a bit of a hobby for many of us. Pretty sure some of the creators of nun websites know this.

[2] What is called “conservative Catholicism” in the United States is a movement more or less unknown anywhere else. It is a product of a political alliance in the 1980s between Catholics and Protestant Evangelicals to fight the abortion laws and that developed later into the broader “Culture Wars”. It was boosted by a similar alliance – or at least the appearance of one – between Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and Pope John Paul II. By 1991, when the Berlin Wall came down and Soviet-supported communist regimes in Eastern Europe fell, the alliance had more or less begun to dissolve, leaving in its wake in the Church an entrenched political position mainly based on the “conservative” opposition to abortion, dividing up bishops on this or that side of the line on this or related issues. None of this happened anywhere else. Therefore the division of the Church into the three parties that Americans think is normal exists only in the US, with some spillover into Canada: a “liberal” majority, a “conservative” minority and a tiny fraction of Traditionalists refusing to stop talking about the inadequacies of both – and thereby annoying everyone. Everywhere else, there is the vast Catholic establishment run by the likes of Cardinal Marx, and a tiny completely insignificant, mostly-ignored but sometimes heavily persecuted little fraction of a fraction of Trads, hiding in the hills. Outside North America the “conservative middle ground” game is not much played.

[3] Chenu. De Lubac. Rahner. And indeed, they were.

[4] CMSWR, the Conference of Major Superiors of Women Religious, founded by Fr. Hardon, was intended as an “orthodox conservative” alternative to the neopagan wackadoodles in the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. That whole thing is a blog post for another day, but it became one of the red flags that taught me things weren’t really as rosy as the “conservative” Catholic leadership wanted us to believe. Until I came to Rome I was never able to wrap my head around there being two implaccably opposed American associations of religious equally recognised by Rome. And I never understood why “the Vatican” didn’t do something to reign in LCWR whose excesses seemed to grow with each year their membership came nearer to extinction. Then, as I said, I came to Rome and it all became clear.

[5] Things have developed a lot for these sisters since that long-ago day. They’ve found a permanent home and elected to become cloistered in the manner of traditional Poor Clares. I still like them a lot, and they seem like the sort who wouldn’t be too averse, should it be put to them in the right way, to adopting the traditional rites. Maybe.

[6] This is a thing I first encountered at World Youth Day, 2002, where they get a big room, a gymnasium in this case, and build a kind of wooden pyramid structure in the middle, put a big monstrance on top and floor cushions all around, and the kids come and pray. And there’s a band. This is to aid meditation. I liked the praying part. Could do without the band. But I was impressed with the kids. We were all sort of camping at this school, and I had thought I’d like to get some adoration time in by myself, so set my watch for 2 am. When I got down to the big adoration chamber there were at least fifteen kids already there, two of the sisters and two priests hearing confessions. I’ll never be among those who completely condemns these sorts of things. There were real conversions happening. Obviously there are better ways to do it, but that was really Christ in that monstrance, and those were teenagers praying to Him.

[7] The visiting priest, however, took it upon himself to correct this oversight by turning around to say the formula of consecration, while holding the Host up and smiling at everyone while he waved it back and forth. I was open-mouthed with astonishment. I’ve never seen anyone do anything like this before, and sincerely hope never to see it again.

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Last modified on Monday, October 29, 2018
Hilary White

Our Italy correspondent is known throughout the English-speaking world as a champion of family and cultural issues. First introduced by our allies and friends at the incomparable, Miss White lives in Norcia, Italy.