Stealing Catholic Tradition

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Photo by DDP on Unsplash

On Monday, October 21, 2019, a number of vandals entered the Church of St. Maria Transpontina in Rome. They stole a wooden figure used at the Vatican’s Synod on the Amazon and dumped it into the Tiber.

These criminals videoed their actions, passed the recordings to a well-known reactionary Catholic dissident who uploaded it to YouTube and spread it on social media.

Catholics (and others) opposing Pope Francis and the Amazonian Synod celebrated this deed as a victory against “paganism.” They went so far as to describe themselves as following in the footsteps of St. Boniface, who supposedly chopped down a sacred oak tree in the early eighth century.

The Roman felons echo the actions of ISIS who destroyed ancient artifacts and the Taliban who blew up 1,700-year old statues of the Buddha. All of these destructive-religious-extremist groups believed they were following the will of God.

These criminals in Rome belong to a subset of alt-Catholics who portray themselves as super-Catholics who reject modernism and uphold Catholic Tradition (with a capital T). However, the only “tradition” they uphold is an imagined one that exists in a relatively small gaggle of social media accounts. They are informed by right-wing Catholic media (such as EWTN and LifeSite) as they do the bidding of wealthy libertarian Catholics (like Tim Busch and The Napa Institute) and are given intellectual cover by Catholic and Catholic-adjacent magazines (including The Catholic Herald and First Things) and find heroes among dissenting clergy (like Cardinal Burke).

Matthew Sitman and Sam Adler-Bell analyze this unholy synergy in their June 30, 2019 podcast.

Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin describes this band of agitators as “keyboard warriors.” These wannabe cyber crusaders “spend all day attacking and responding [on social media in the belief that they are] defending the integrity of Church teaching.”

The irony is that alt-Catholics embrace their own style of modernism as they consistently act outside of the Catholic Tradition. They substitute their personal decrees for the judgments of those in communion with the pope — the guarantor of Catholic Tradition.

Because the Tradition is lived out among the relationships of real people, it changes and develops. Tradition is not a static entity existing in some highest Platonic realm. The Church’s Tradition rejected this neo-platonic approach early on. Today’s alt-Catholics, though, promote their own neo-platonic heresy. They are angry that our world and Church does not comport to their notion of the Ideal; so in a paradoxical twist, they implement modern methods of communication, capital, and clericalism to impose their version of reality onto others.

In his book Catholic Modern: The Challenge of Totalitarianism and the Remaking of the Church, James Chappel analyzes Catholic responses to modernism in the twentieth century. He observes, “One thing is at least clear: it has embraced modernity.” While some people today call for a state-church fusion, “Catholics have their own idea of what a just modernity should look like” (p.1).

Jason Blakely, professor of political theory at Pepperdine, describes the dilemma the alt-Catholics have made for themselves.

Rad Trads do not like to hear this but true conversion must pass through a “yes” of the human heart. Everything else is ideology and a modernist attempt to mobilize around a dis-incarnated discourse. The long term success in political terms is dialectically a loss.

The Catholic Church embodied by the pope, bishops, and several lay participants met in Rome during October to explore how the Church might respond to pressing issues facing the Church and world in the Amazon region. In their licit capacity, they have added a new layers of Tradition onto the already-existing Tradition.

All Catholics struggle with some aspects of the Church’s Tradition. But unlike the radical alt-Catholics, most people don’t call the pope a heretic. Or claim their opinion is the “true” tradition. Or break into a church and steal things and feel self-righteous about it.

Tradition does not belong to any single person. It is a gift from previous generations to the collective Church.

Because Tradition is the lived experience of the whole Church, it belongs to the complete Church; it is not defined by a vocal group of malcontents. Reformers like St. Francis, and St. Catherine, and Dorothy Day did not reject the Church or its Tradition. The Poverello rebuilt the church; he didn’t break in and steal things from it.

In stealing from the Church of St. Maria, the Catholic vandals have attempted to steal the full Catholic Tradition and replace it with their private dogmas.

Simply, alt-Catholics (especially the Roman vandals and those celebrating them) reject the Church’s Tradition and attempt to foist their fictional tradition onto all Catholics by circumventing the actual, living, and dynamic Universal Church. Instead of dialoguing within the Church to shape Tradition, these vocal alt-Catholics reject and actively subvert it.

This may find applause on social media, but it is not Catholic Tradition.

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