That old time religion

Traditionalist Catholicism grew from opposition to the reforms of the Second Vatican Council Actor-director Mel Gibson is among

Toronto Star/August 28, 2004
By Sheila Dabu

Latin is a dead language, but for traditionalist Catholics like Mel Gibson, it's alive and well in their churches.

Traditionalists are a small minority compared to the world's 1 billion mainstream Catholics. Their numbers are difficult to compile because many groups operate underground or practise their faith privately in the belief that there are no priests left who administer the sacraments properly. Estimates vary from 250,000 to 7 million worldwide

While relatively small in number, the movement has gained attention recently with the popularity of Gibson's The Passion Of The Christ.

The United States is believed to have about 100,000 traditionalists. In Canada, there are 5,000, according to Fr. Jean Violette, of Toronto, District Superior for the Society of St. Pius X, one of the largest traditionalist groups.

The society, with some 600 chapels and 300 priests worldwide, runs more than 100 schools and six seminaries. Canada has two schools and the largest traditionalist group is in Calgary.

Traditionalist Catholicism is a reactionary movement against changes within the Church after the Second Vatican Council ended in 1965. Its followers uphold beliefs and practices predating Vatican II: They attend the Tridentine mass in Latin, abstain from meat on Fridays and the women cover their heads in church.

Traditionalists are also dismayed by what they see as the loss of Rome's disciplinarian hand on the faithful, resulting in "cafeteria Catholicism." They argue that today's mainstream Catholics pick and choose which church teachings to follow in areas such as sexual morality and the priesthood.

While some simply have a personal preference for the old mass, others have used the Tridentine mass as their "language of Catholic dissent," believing that the post-conciliar Church has "fallen into error."

The main differences between the old and the new mass is that in the old rite, the altar was against the church wall facing east, toward Jerusalem and in the direction of the rising sun, which symbolized Jesus.

The new mass is said in the vernacular instead of Latin and the laity participates more.

In the new mass, the priest faces the congregation. The old mass is celebrated with the priest turning his back to pews and facing the altar in the belief that the priest alone offers the sacrifice to God for the congregation. Post-Vatican II theology says the celebrating community offers the sacrifice to God with the priest.

There are three main factions of traditional Catholicism, each with its own view of Catholic dogma and the authority of post-Vatican II popes: the Indult, Independent and Sedevacantist Catholics.

The indult movement consists of Catholics whose main concern is the post-Vatican II liturgical reform (that is, the mass and the sacraments).

Indult, a legal term, means a special permission from the Pope to practise something other than the common law of the church. In 1984, John Paul II granted an indult for the continued use of the traditional Tridentine mass, with the local bishop's permission. The indult reversed the church ban on the old rite instituted after the new mass became the official church liturgy after the 1960s.

In 1988, the Pope reiterated this permission and called on all bishops to use the indult "widely and generously." While several have complied, some traditionalists say many bishops restrict use of the old mass.

Indult masses are celebrated by regular priests in various archdioceses. Some Indult supporters have a personal preference for the old mass and are quietly indifferent to post-Vatican II teachings.

Sedevacantists believe seat of the
Pope has been vacant since Vatican II

Others are openly critical of the modern liturgy and Vatican II. The followers of this independent faction operate separately from the mainstream church, running their own chapels, schools, churches, seminaries and monasteries without ties to the local bishop.

Most acknowledge the Pope and his bishops are Catholic, but they don't follow post-Vatican II teachings. They operate underground and maintain that they are the true holders of the Catholic faith. Independent traditionalists practise the pre-Vatican II mass and teachings, believing the Church is in a profound state of crisis and that most within its hierarchy, especially the Vatican II church fathers, have been "infected" by the vices of liberalism and modernism.

The largest traditionalist organization, the Society of Saint Pius X, was established by the late Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre of France. Lefebvre and his group were excommunicated in 1988 when he consecrated four bishops in defiance of the Pope. This is a hotly contested issue and St. Pius members deny their ex-communication.

The third group are the Sedevacantists, from the term sede vacante," Latin for "see (diocese) vacant, who believe in the theory of a "popeless church." They have the most uncompromising stance of all the traditionalists and claim that all post-conciliar Popes are false popes since none of them was a genuine Catholic. For them, the seat of the Pope has been vacant since Vatican II.

Unlike most indult traditionalists who merely question post-Vatican II doctrine, this group claims that such teachings are false and all who follow them are not authentic Catholics. The group has also established its own churches and seminaries outside of the mainstream church's jurisdiction.

Even with their differences, the three groups share three common beliefs: the pre-Vatican II Tridentine rite for masses; that most of the Vatican II teachings contradict church tradition; and that many of the post-conciliar changes are "neo-modernist errors."

According to Violette, the main "error" is the post-Vatican II teaching on ecumenism. He says that the society is in communion with Rome but isn't in agreement with all of its teachings. According to one pamphlet, John Paul II's liberalism is "destroying" the church.

"Catholic ecumenism is to try to convert non-Catholics to the Catholic church," explains Violette. "That's what the church has always done, following the word of Jesus to go out and preach the Gospel, make disciples and to bring them into the church.

"The modern ecumenism since Vatican II has ended up being a watering down of the faith, worship and devotions in order to please non-Catholics and that's what we say they cannot do, (that) they have no right to do, and that's what we are opposed to is the watering down, in the name of ecumenism, of faith and morals and of the practices of the church.

"So it is in fact destroying the church. It is leading people away from the church. Even Catholics are falling away from the church because of the novelties and if it's not because of the novelties, well it's a very strange coincidence that it just happens at the same time."

Violette points to the state of the church today as evidence of the harmful effects of Vatican II, namely the crisis in the priesthood and the religious orders, the growth in born-again Christian sects and lax Catholicism.

"I just offered mass this morning and in the mass, every day, we pray for the Pope. We pray for the local bishop and we certainly don't wish anybody harm. We're not animated by bitterness but we do want to keep the faith and we're going to protect it no matter what it takes.

"One may have to be considered excommunicated, to distance himself from the official church ... That's basically what we've done. We have distanced ourselves from them because we feel we can't trust them to give us the faith."

Mel Gibson's religious adviser, Fr. Stephen Somerville, of Queensville north of Toronto, says he and Gibson are not members of the Society of St. Pius X, but are independent traditionalists. Gibson has refused to publicly describe his exact religious affiliation, only saying that he attends Latin mass and recently built his own chapel near Malibu, Calif., because his previous church in San Gabriel Valley was taken over by the society. Earlier interviews don't indicate he's part of the "far-right" group.

The largest traditionalist groups are the indult and independent groups who comprise four-fifths of the traditionalist movement while Sedevacantists and other groups are the remaining fifth. Estimates about Society of St. Pius X members range from 250,000 to 1 million.

The Vatican has considered "traditionalism" to be enough of a problem that, in recent years, Pope John Paul II has been trying to heal divisions within the church and reconcile with the Society of St. Pius X. In 2003, bans on three of the four bishops illicitly consecrated by Lefebvre were lifted. This past May, the first Tridentine mass since Vatican II to be celebrated by a Cardinal took place in Rome. Negotiations with the group are reported to be continuing.

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