Membership in the Catholic Church is different from memberships in other religious groups. Unlike other religious bodies that simply insist on members accepting the authority of holy books or certain practices, the Catholic Church also insists her Pope and bishops are the successors to the Apostles and have the same authority which Our Lord gave to the Apostles. To reject the authority of the Pope and bishops is far more serious than a Presbyterian rejecting the authority of his minister. The Presbyterian can go to another denomination or to another church within his denomination and still be Protestant. But a Catholic who denies the teaching authority of the Pope and bishops has damaged their relationship with the Church we profess was founded by Christ.
That’s a serious matter. The person for whom membership in the Catholic Church is important, must justify rejecting the authority of the Pope and bishops in communion with him by arguing that he is not in opposition to the Church. Rather he is being faithful in larger matters. The people who do this have different motivations and political leanings. Some try to argue that the Church teaching is harsher than Our Lord ever intended and this justifies disobedience. But others claim that they follow the Catholic teaching as it was always practiced, claiming that the Church fell into error beginning with St. John XXIII and will be in error until the Church rejects Vatican II and all the changes which followed. This is the position of Radical Traditionalism.
Before continuing, we need to make some distinctions. A radical traditionalist differs from the Catholic who simply prefers the pre-Vatican II form of worship and devotion (commonly called “traditionalist.” [†] The traditionalist may wish the Church handled things differently, but recognizes the magisterium today has the authority to decide on these matters and seeks to obey despite misgivings over their prudence. The radical traditionalist rejects the authority of the magisterium when that authority challenges something they hold dear.
We need to remember that while all radical traditionalists are traditionalists, not all traditionalists are radical traditionalists. So we need to be careful not to assume that a Catholic who prefers the extraordinary form of the Mass must be guilty of disobedience. All A = B does not mean All B is A.
[Just because All A is B does not mean All B is A]
Radical traditionalists have many different factions. It ranges from people who stay within the Church while sniping at the Pope and bishops to those openly denying that the Pope is the Pope. Because of these factions, criticisms of the errors from the extreme side of radical traditionalism won’t apply to the “mainstream” versions, but all versions prefer their own interpretations to any teaching they disagree with. They claim to be the survival of truth within the Church while the Pope and bishops fall into error. They never assume that they fell into error.
Begging the Question through Invented Theologies
To justify his claim, the radical traditionalist invents a theology that works this way. Based on the opinions of a few theologians who defended the Papacy in the 16th and 17th centuries, they claim that if a Pope teaches heresy his teachings cannot bind (some even claim this means he is no longer Pope). From that assumption, they argue that a difference exists between what the current Pope said and what the Church taught in earlier centuries. From that claimed difference, they claim the current Pope is a heretic. From this, they conclude with the argument that they can ignore (or sometimes, depose) the Pope.
The problem with this argument is this: It is the Begging the Question fallacy. The radical traditionalist takes as given several things which they have to prove before we can accept their claims as true.
- They have to prove that the theological positions in the writings of certain saints were more than just theological opinions.
- They have to prove that their interpretation of past Church documents are accurate and in keeping with magisterial interpretation
- They have to prove that their citation of past Church documents have the proper context
- They have to prove that their interpretation of Pope Francis is the same as his intention
- They have to prove that what Pope Francis intends to say is in fact error that contradicts past documents.
- They have to prove that they have authority in making these determinations.
They do none of these things. Instead they beg the question, appealing to their own non-magisterial interpretation against the magisterial interpretation of the Pope and bishops. But no matter how many arguments they make over how the Pope goes against an obscure document, they all assume exactly what they have to prove: That they, not the Pope, have properly understood the document. But only the Pope and bishops in communion with him can judge how to best apply past teaching documents to today’s situations. Not the layman. So, no matter how eloquent the radical traditionalist might be, they simply offer opinions, not authoritative teaching.
The Pope and Bishops, Not the Radical Traditionalists, Interpret and Apply Church Teaching
Once we recognize this, we can say about the radical traditionalist, “The emperor has no clothes.” He or she can't pass judgment on the Pope or bishops, or call them heretics. As St. John Paul II pointed out, radical traditionalism has a fundamental flaw. They have
...an incomplete and contradictory notion of Tradition. Incomplete, because it does not take sufficiently into account the living character of Tradition, which, as the Second Vatican Council clearly taught, "comes from the apostles and progresses in the Church with the help of the Holy Spirit. There is a growth in insight into the realities and words that are being passed on. This comes about in various ways. It comes through the contemplation and study of believers who ponder these things in their hearts. It comes from the intimate sense of spiritual realities which they experience. And it comes from the preaching of those who have received, along with their right of succession in the episcopate, the sure charism of truth".
But especially contradictory is a notion of Tradition which opposes the universal Magisterium of the Church possessed by the Bishop of Rome and the Body of Bishops. It is impossible to remain faithful to the Tradition while breaking the ecclesial bond with him to whom, in the person of the Apostle Peter, Christ himself entrusted the ministry of unity in his Church.
John Paul II, Ecclesia Dei #4
So, in the eyes of the Church herself, the person who rejects the authority of the Pope and bishops in communion with him is starting in error and ending in error. They can rage against the Pope for writing about social justice or how to help people in an invalid marriage, but their accusations of heresy have no authority. Canon 1404 tells us, “The First See is judged by no one.” Not a Council, not a personal interpretation of past Church documents.
Forgetting God’s Hand in the Church
Radical traditionalists falsely accuse other Catholics of “papolatry” when these Catholics insist on hearing the Pope and ignoring their accusations. They accuse us of believing the Pope cannot sin and of being blind because we say to the radical traditionalist, “You’re the one who is wrong.” But they forget what we remember: God is with His Church and protects her from teaching error. That’s vital. If the Church can bind error or loose sin, we can never know when she was right. We could only say we think she was right when we happen to agree.
But if God’s promised to be with the Church always (Matthew 28:20) and that the gates of hell will not prevail (Matthew 16:18), then we can have faith that He will protect the Church from allowing sin or forbidding moral obligations before God. That protection does not mean that old laws from the Papal States or certain condemnations given will be just. Those are not things that God protects from error. But God does command us to obey His Church (Luke 10:16, Matthew 18:17). Even if an individual Pope's personal behavior goes against our moral teaching, that does not remove his authority of binding and loosing (Matthew 23:2-3).
The radical traditionalist has some bizarre ideas. He accepts that God prevented bad Popes like Benedict IX, John XII or Alexander VI from using their teaching office to justify their sins. But he assumes that Pope Francis uses his teaching office to approve error and sin left and right. So does God protect His Church or doesn’t He? The Catholic faith tells us He does, and Popes before 1958 [*] insisted on obedience to even the ordinary magisterium of the Church. For example, Pope Pius XII wrote in Humani Generis:
20. Nor must it be thought that what is expounded in Encyclical Letters does not of itself demand consent, since in writing such Letters the Popes do not exercise the supreme power of their Teaching Authority. For these matters are taught with the ordinary teaching authority, of which it is true to say: “He who heareth you, heareth me”; and generally what is expounded and inculcated in Encyclical Letters already for other reasons appertains to Catholic doctrine. But if the Supreme Pontiffs in their official documents purposely pass judgment on a matter up to that time under dispute, it is obvious that that matter, according to the mind and will of the same Pontiffs, cannot be any longer considered a question open to discussion among theologians.
Claudia Carlen, ed., The Papal Encyclicals: 1939–1958 (Ypsilanti, MI: The Pierian Press, 1990), 178.
We can have faith in God to protect His Church or we can deny that He does. But God insists we obey the Church, and the Church has consistently taught that this obedience is not limited to a certain era. So we have a choice. We can either have faith that God will protect His Church from teaching error or we can pretend He does not when we dislike Church teaching. But God obliges us to obey the Pope when he intends to teach. We must obey God rather than men. God decrees we obey His Church. So to obey His Church is to obey Him and to reject His Church is to reject Him. Given that the radical traditionalist seeks excuses not to obey the Pope, we must say that their theology is counterfeit and has no authority over and against the Pope and bishops in communion with him..
[†] It’s important to make that distinction. Traditionalist ≠ Radical Traditionalist. The traditionalist who faithfully follows the Church under the current Pope should not think I am indicting them alongside the radical traditionalist.
[*] The radical traditionalist usually believes there was a radical change in the Church beginning with the pontificate of St. John XXIII