First, an appreciation of traditionalist Roman Catholics (from a Protestant-turned Roman Catholic priest):
I’m not a traditionalist. To quote Fr.Z, I just want to “say the black and do the red”. In other words, I want to live my life as a Catholic priest where I am today in this situation in the twenty first century–realizing that things are not perfect–but knowing that they never have been. Within that I try to be faithful to my vocation as a Benedictine oblate and a Diocesan priest.
But while I am not a traditionalist, I appreciate them and here’s why:
One of the riches of the Catholic Church is her unity and diversity. Within the Catholic big tent we have different religious orders, ecclesial movements and associations of the faithful. Some of these are formally organized and recognized–others are more amorphous but still identifiable. We have different tastes, different trends, different tendencies. The Lord has given us many ways to follow Christ. Each of these different traditions, spiritualities, emphases and disciplines offer particular strengths and weaknesses. Each of them have a particular charism and something to offer the whole church.
The reason I love traditionalists is the same reason I love Franciscans or Charismatic Catholics or Jesuits or Missionaries of Charity or Friars of the Renewal or Priests for Life or Benedictines or Legionnaires….and on and on and on. Each of these groups or sub-categories in the church offer the whole church a particular vision and aspect of the whole truth, and members of each group serve the church best by being faithful to Christ within their path. The traditionalists offer us a reminder of the hermeneutic of continuity. They work hard to bring forward the best in our Catholic traditions of spirituality, liturgy, music, art and architecture. They remind us of the call to radical discipleship and the need to love the Lord with our whole heart.
Does Father Longenecker also appreciate the nuns or the editors of America? I don’t think so. But he doesn’t think he has embraced relativism because the pope is the pope and when popes change things, change is good (what happens when the liturgy changes and the new order of the Mass loses efficacy is a question he doesn’t address):
This is not to endorse a kind of Catholic relativism in which everybody should just do as they please. Within the diversity we have unity in our obedient allegiance to the magisterium. There is an enormous amount of latitude in the Catholic Church, but there boundaries. History shows that any sub group can become corrupt, twisted, heretical or schismatic. It happens. This is why all of the sub groups in the Catholic Church are to be committed not only first and foremost to following Jesus Christ, but also being submissive to the authority of his Vicar on earth. Mother Church properly corrects, adjusts and directs both the individuals and the groups within the church. In this way our diversity is celebrated while our unity is affirmed.
I realize that traditionalists may not appreciate my take on the matter. [Me: they don’t.] They may say, “But we are not a sub group of the church. The Latin Mass is the mass of the ages. This is what all Catholics used to do. We’re keeping the true faith! The others are all wrong.” I understand that opinion, but that’s not actually the teaching of the Catholic Church. Like it or not, the second Vatican Council has taken place. Like it or not, by decree or by popular practice, changes have happened.
But it turns out that even mainline Protestants know diversity is not workable:
I am not staying in the PC(USA) because I believe the theological diversity in the denomination is good for me. I’ve heard this sort of thing from my friends, both evangelicals and progressives. An evangelical will say, “I need to be in a church with [supply name of your favorite liberal] because she challenges me and helps me to think more clearly and truly and not to get into an evangelical rut.” A liberal will say, “I need to be in a church with [supply name of your favorite evangelical] because he challenges me and helps me to think more clearly and truly and not to get into a liberal rut.”
I’m not persuaded by this argument. I have plenty of friends who are more conservative than I am theologically, and plenty of friends who are more liberal than I am theologically. These friends challenge me and help to keep me honest in my theology and discipleship. I appreciate these friends and I am glad they’re in my life. But they are not members of the PC(USA). In fact, given their views on various issues, it would be difficult, if not impossible, for us to be in the same denomination. Yet we can be friends. We can join together in certain kinds of short-term ministry. We can talk theology and challenge each other. We can love each other with the love of Christ. We can be in the church of Jesus Christ together. But our differences are such that we’d have a very hard time being in the same particular church or denomination. If we tried to be a denomination together, we’d exhaust ourselves trying to manage our differences, leaving very little time for mission.
When folks say, “I need so-and-so in my denomination to challenge me and keep me honest,” it almost sounds as if they’re limiting their Christian relationships to people of the same denomination. Yet if this is not true, won’t they be challenged and kept honest by Christian brothers and sisters from other denominations?
. . . In my opinion, one of the main reasons the PC(USA) is failing in its mission and losing members at such a rapid rate is the ineffectiveness that comes from untenable theological diversity. We have been trying so hard to stay together in spite of our differences that we don’t have the energy and focus needed for effective mission. . . . Now I’m all in favor of contexts in which those who are committed to evangelism are challenged to consider the biblical call to social justice. And I’m equally open to conversations that challenge the justice folk to consider how their efforts should be a reflection of the Christian gospel. But I believe that efforts of people actually to do evangelism and efforts of people actually to do justice can be hampered if they can’t agree on what evangelism is or what justice is. A certain measure of theological diversity will strengthen a denomination or a church or a committee. But too much diversity will weaken them and make it almost impossible for them to fulfill their mission. . . .
So, in sum, I’m not staying in the PC(USA) because I need to be in fellowship with people who have different theologies than I have. I have plenty of non-PC(USA) friends who fill this bill, and could always find more if needed. I do believe that a certain amount of theological diversity is healthy in a church or denomination. But, in my opinion, what we have in the PC(USA) is too diverse to support effective mission. We PC(USA) folk are like a team of backpackers who are carrying such a giant tent on our backs that we can’t make it up the mountain we’re supposed to climb. As a result, we’re unable to fulfill our mission. At some point we’ll have to choose, I expect, whether we want to keep hanging on to our big tent and remain missionally stuck, or whether it’s time to carry smaller tents that will enable us to start moving up the mountain.
Would a pope fix this, or does the papacy simply hide fundamental incompatibilities? I’m still waiting for Bryan to think about this.