On Selective Clericalism

During the turmoil that occurred at St F in 2008, a meeting was held to try to defuse the some of the tensions, as well as provide a forum for Fr B to defend himself from the crazy stuff that was being circulated about him from the SSPX/homeschooling faction. At this meeting, a gentleman quipped that the anti-Fr B crowd were essentially “congregationalists with a desire for valid sacraments,” not traditional Catholics. Yet, it seems to me that this “selective clericalism” is an essential part of the phenomenon known as “traditional Catholicism.”

It is my understanding that traditional Catholics miss the days in which one member of the hierarchy was essentially as good as any other; the fight against “modernism” was such that you knew that a priest, bishop, or cardinal would teach the same thing, regardless of his cultural background or geographical location. Ditto for the religious sisters and nuns, whose ideological conformity could easily be controlled by the proper male authorities, as well as the various mother superiors within the orders themselves. With the experimentation ushered in by Vatican II, authority figures that were once trusted without question became suspect in the eyes of traditionalists, since it was now unclear who was “traditional” or who was “modernist.” Those clerics who stood up for “orthodoxy” were to be championed whatever they happened to be, whereas the heterodox were to be scorned, even if the “heretic” in question happened to be your own local bishop or parish priest. This is why, for example, the posters on sites like “Catholic Answers Forum,” “Fish Eaters,” and “Angel Queen” encourage the previously unheard of practice of parish-hopping, because finding an “orthodox parish” trumps the kind of automatic obedience to local authority that was a given in the pre-Vatican II white Catholic ghetto. This is also why, you can find fan pages for “orthodox bishops” or the hardline modern “Pius popes.”

While traditionalists claim to have a very high regard for the priesthood and openly pine for the days of “pray, pay, obey” when the orthodoxy of the hierarchy was a given and not something you had to think about, the incident with Fr B at St F indicates that their clericalism is selective. I would later find out that all of the previous pastors of St F had either left or been forced out under the same kind of manufactured controversy that Fr B experienced, presumably by the same lot of self-appointed guardians of tradition, who were willing to pray and pay, but not necessarily obey a priest who didn’t meet their litmus test.

Like many modern fundamentalist movements, Catholic traditionalism assumes the existence of a “hyper-educated laity” that is more knowledgeable about the particulars of their religious tradition than many members of the clergy. Many Catholic traditionalists learn Latin and/or Greek, have sets of canon law books, and obsessively study church documents to ascertain what is really “traditional.” Such proponents of self-aware orthodoxy aren’t going to just accept the authority of a priest, ontologically different as they may believe him to be, if they don’t feel like he is worthy of them. The kind of blunders that a traditionalist priest could make in the eyes of his flock could range from being perceived as being too negative towards the SSPX to not being negative enough towards the vernacular mass or even disapproving of certain unapproved Marian apparitions. When you’re in a parish where even little children have been deputized to be heresy hunters (you don’t know what creepy is until you’ve heard First Communion kids talking about “liturgical abuses” and the tragedy of heretical relatives), it shouldn’t come as a surprise when a lot of people get injured in the ideological crossfire.

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