Catholic apologist Matthew Arnold (www.matthewarnold.org) is the author of a new book titled Confessions of a Traditional Catholic, which is published by Ignatius Press. Arnold is a convert to the Catholic faith, and has since become a prolific speaker, author, and producer. He hosted a Catholic radio program, Reasons or Faith LIVE, and Scripture Matters LIVE with Dr. Scott Hahn for EWTN Global Catholic Radio, and he served as creative director for St. Joseph Communications. He lives in Southern California with wife Betty, with whom he has six homeschooled children. He speaks on a wide variety of Catholic topics, among his favorite is his devotion to Our Lady of Good Success.
Arnold recently spoke with Catholic World Report about his book and what it means to be a Traditional Catholic.
CWR: Can you give a short overview of your new book, Confessions of a Traditional Catholic?
Matthew Arnold: The book considers the Traditionalist movement in the context of my own personal witness: how, as a conservative Catholic apologist I went on a quest for reverently celebrated liturgy and discovered the Traditional Latin Mass, how an unexpected crisis lead me to attend an “independent” Traditionalist chapel outside the diocesan structure, how I eventually returned to full communion with the Church, and, most importantly, what I learned along the way.
CWR: Why did you want to write this book?
Arnold: Having been on “both sides” of the liturgical divide I wanted to provide some personal insight into the motives and desires of those attached to the traditional forms of Catholic belief and practice – especially those who merely want to be Catholic in the same sense that their parents or grandparents or patron saints were Catholic. I also wanted to sound a note of caution regarding more extreme forms of Traditionalism and the real spiritual danger of setting oneself in constant opposition to the authority of the Church.
CWR: What is Catholic traditionalism? How would you explain the term to someone with limited knowledge of the Catholic Church?
Arnold: Traditionalism is primarily a response to the changes in the Church after the Second Vatican Council and the introduction of the Novus Ordo Missae (New Order of the Mass). It manifested itself in scholarly critiques of the new liturgy, heartfelt requests for permission to continue celebrating the Traditional Mass from clergy and laity alike, and in some extreme cases, setting up independent traditional apostolates over and against the pope and the local bishop.
Today, mainly due to Benedict XVI liberating the celebration of the Traditional Mass with his motu proprio Summorum Pontificum (2007), the majority of Catholics who assist at Traditional Latin Mass—what the Pope Emeritus termed the “Extraordinary form of the Roman Rite”—do so in diocesan churches in full communion with the hierarchy and with the blessing of their local bishop.
But whether they assist at the Traditional Mass in a diocesan church or consider themselves “more Catholic than the pope,” Traditionalists for the most part are sincere Catholics of all ages and ethnicities who are primarily attracted by the reverence, dignity, doctrinal integrity, and sacrality inherent in the Traditional Latin Mass – and, sadly, often lacking in the celebration of the New Mass.
CWR: You regularly attend the traditional Latin liturgy offered at a parish with the approval of the local bishop. What appeals to you about the traditional liturgy compared to the New Mass?
Arnold: Primarily it is the beauty and dignity of the rite itself: the times of profound silence, the many genuflections and other signs of reverence by the priest and other ministers of the altar, the unambiguous wording of the prayers, the timeless melodies of the Gregorian chant, receiving Communion on the tongue while kneeling – all these things work together to help raise the Catholic’s heart and mind to God. Assisting at the Traditional Mass makes it quite clear that the liturgy is about offering the Sacrifice of Christ and not celebrating the community.
CWR: You converted to Catholicism in 1996. How did you find your way to the traditional Latin liturgy?
Arnold: Well, obviously it was not nostalgia for the “old days.” As an adult convert, I had virtually no experience whatsoever of the pre-conciliar Church. Neither was my journey motivated by any personal animus towards Vatican II or the Novus Ordo Missae. Saint John Paul II was the first pope I ever knew and the New Mass in English, complete with lay lectors and contemporary music, was the liturgy I embraced. I had no trouble, then or now, reconciling the New Mass with the traditional doctrines of the Church.
That said, I was received into the Church at a small, conservative parish. But when our elderly pastor retired and the other priests were reassigned, things changed dramatically. The kind of horror stories I had heard from people around the country about liturgical abuse, heterodox homilies, and dissent-ridden catechesis suddenly became my personal experience. When I lamented the situation to a friend, she suggested attending a Traditional Mass celebrated at a local parish under Saint John Paul II’s Ecclesia Dei indult. Frankly, my wife Betty and I did not know what to expect. To our surprise we discovered “a pearl of great price.” After our first Traditional Latin Mass I asked Betty, a cradle Catholic, her opinion. She said, “I feel like I’ve just been to Mass for the first time.”
In the Letter to the bishops that accompanied Summorum Pontificum, Benedict XVI himself declared that many people turned to Traditionalist groups outside the diocesan structure precisely because “In many places celebrations were not faithful to the prescriptions of the new Missal, but the latter actually was understood as authorizing or even requiring creativity, which frequently led to deformations of the liturgy which were hard to bear… I have seen how arbitrary deformations of the liturgy caused deep pain to individuals totally rooted in the faith of the Church.”
As a fledgling Catholic apologist had I cut my teeth on standard works like Faith of Our Fathers by James Cardinal Gibbons and The Catholic Church Has the Answer by Paul Whitcomb, not to mention the Life is Worth Living series with Archbishop Fulton Sheen. But, the deeper I went into the Catholic lay apostolate, the greater my apprehension over the tension I found between the traditional teaching of the Church on the one hand—which has no expiration date—and my actual experience of Catholicism on the other. Assisting at my first Traditional Mass felt like a crucial puzzle piece had fallen into place – here at last was what I had been looking for all along, without even knowing it.
CWR: What are some positive aspects of Catholic traditionalism?
Arnold: I personally believe that traditional Catholic faith, morals, and worship constitute an effective bastion against a whole host of modern errors. For example, statistics suggest that a majority of today’s Catholics do not understand many basic teachings of the Church including that the Mass is a Sacrifice and that Christ is truly present in the Holy Eucharist. I can guarantee that is not the case among Traditionalists.
It is well to remember that before Vatican II, a “Traditionalist” would have simply been called a “Catholic.” Consequently, some Traditionalists have adopted an axiom of English Catholics from the days of the Reformation: “We are what you once were; we believe what you once believed; if we are wrong now, you were wrong then; if you were right then, we are right now.”
That said, Catholics are not fundamentalists or puritans. Just as Catholics cannot be “Bible only” Christians, we cannot be “Council of Trent only” Christians either. We are not free to simply ignore the Second Vatican Council or the ordinary Magisterium.
Happily, since Summorum Pontificum, more and more Catholics are able to assist at the Traditional Latin Mass in diocesan parishes. In the last ten years I have noticed with joy how communities that regularly celebrate the Extraordinary form of the Roman Rite tend to have a lot of lay involvement, Eucharistic Adoration (often perpetual), long lines for Confession, a refreshingly reverent celebration of the New Mass, and a genuine sense of community.
CWR: What are some harmful tendencies to which Catholic traditionalists might fall victim?
Arnold: I strongly suspect that most Traditionalists who attend the Chapels of the Society of Saint Pius X (SSPX) or some other independent group operating outside the official diocesan structure do so with what are, at least initially, good intentions. For example, this would include the formation of their children in traditional faith and morals, the desire for substantive preaching, or the afore-mentioned longing to simply assist at a reverently celebrated liturgy.
But, as Bishop Morlino of the diocese of Madison, WI has pointed out, what begins as tolerating the irregular status of such groups as SSPX can become, over time, a mark of identity—even a badge of pride—and ultimately lead one to a fixed posture of separation from the Church.
This is a perilous place to be spiritually, for the longer such a fixed posture of separation lasts, the deeper one’s rationalization must become in order to justify continuing to remain in an irregular situation – which can lead intelligent and well-intentioned Catholics to some pretty absurd conclusions. And after all, when was it ever “traditional” to adopt a fixed position of opposition to the ordinary Magisterium? At what point did “following tradition” mean that independent priests, excommunicated bishops and a host of lay Catholics get to decide for themselves which teachings and laws of the Vicar of Christ and the bishops of the world are binding and which are not?
CWR: Prominent figures in the Catholic Church today publicly promote views apparently at odds with the traditional teaching of the Church, particularly in the areas related to the family and human sexuality. Do you think this situation has led many to explore Catholic traditionalism as an alternative?
Arnold: It is undoubtedly the case that many investigate Traditional Catholicism seeking a refuge from heterodoxy of various kinds. Traditionalism seems like a natural antidote to a whole host of novelties unknown in the prior history of the Church. One can hardly conceive of a time before the post-conciliar era when something as universally accepted as the natural law concerning human sexuality might be seriously challenged by those within the Church herself.
On a side note, heterodox teachings have all too often been supported by unwarranted appeals to the Second Vatican Council or its ill-defined “spirit.” Because, for decades, Vatican II has been depicted by extreme Progressives and Traditionalists alike as a radical break with the Church’s tradition. The former use this interpretation to justify the most unprecedented “views at odds with the traditional teaching of the Church”, while the latter use this same interpretation to condemn not just errors and abuses, but even the New Mass and Vatican II itself. But it is an error on both sides to assume that Catholic doctrine has changed – as a cursory perusal of the Catechism of the Catholic Church will quickly confirm.
CWR: In your book, you document the century-long movement to reform the liturgy. Tell us the goal this movement seeks to achieve, and some of the highlights along the way.
Arnold: The liturgical movement began among 19th-century medievalists as an attempt to rediscover and renew the pre-Reformation worship practices of the Middle Ages which were held as an ideal. The work of Dom. Prosper Guéranger on Gregorian chant and the liturgical year was very influential as were some significant archaeological discoveries including the Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus of Rome that contained the complete text of a 3rd-century liturgy.
But the overarching goal that emerged from the Catholic liturgical movement was the “active participation of the faithful” in the liturgy. None other than Pope Saint Pius X insisted that the faithful should be able to chant, in Latin, the responses to the ordinary prayers as well as the Creed, the Gloria, and so on, in other words virtually all the parts of the Mass sung or recited by the congregation at the Novus Ordo. “One must not sing or pray during the Mass,” he said, “one must sing and pray the Mass.” The call for active participation was taken up by his successor Pius XI in his encyclical Divini Cultus (1928). Active participation was to be particularly encouraged by education and formation of the laity.
To this end, the liturgical movement called for a vernacular liturgy, returning the altar to its primitive table form, the priest celebrating Mass facing the congregation and a host of liturgical practices that are common today, but at the time caused great anxiety in Rome. Consequently Pius XII criticized the liturgical movement for “false innovations,” “radical changes” and “Protestant influences” in his encyclical Mediator Dei (1947), but still praised their efforts to encourage active participation.
Pope Saint John XXIII, best known for convening the Second Vatican Council, also called for active participation by the laity even as he insisted on the necessity of Latin as the universal and immutable (unchanging) language of the Church (Veterum Sapientia, 1962). Not surprisingly, Sacrosanctum Concilium, the 1963 Vatican II document on the renewal of the liturgy, declared, “In the restoration and promotion of the sacred liturgy, this full and active participation by all the people is the aim to be considered before all else”.
Although Sacrosanctum Concilium was consistent with the papal magisterium since Pius X that Latin was to be retained and Gregorian chant given pride of place among church music—and despite Pius XII’s warnings in Mediator Dei—by the time the Novus Ordo Missae was promulgated in 1970, the priest was already facing the people and was not obliged to say a single word in Latin.
CWR: Pope Francis has extended faculties for priests of the Society of St. Pius X to hear confessions and in some circumstances officiate at Catholic weddings. What do you understand the official status of the SSPX to be and do you see a formal reconciliation in the future?
Arnold: After some confusion surrounding his lifting the excommunications of the four bishops of the SSPX in January 2009, Benedict XVI sent a letter to the bishops in March of that year stating unequivocally that the remission did not alter the canonical status of SSPX. It was a matter of mercy extended to individuals who requested it, not a change in the standing of the institution. So while SSPX are not in formal schism they are also not in full communion with the Church.
In extending faculties to their clergy, Pope Francis has made a very broad gesture of good will toward the SSPX. But Pope Benedict made it clear that the remaining obstacles to SSPX’s return to full communion are doctrinal rather than disciplinary. I suspect it will take a great deal of trust on both sides to fully reconcile SSPX to the Church. Whether it will happen in my lifetime I would not hazard a guess, but it is a consummation devoutly to be wished.
CWR: In the nearly 50 years since the widespread adoption of the New Mass, Catholicism has seen a significant decline in the United States and Western Europe. Do you see a link between the adoption of the New Mass and the decline the Church in the West has experienced?
Arnold: Without falling into the logical fallacy of post hoc, ergo propter hoc, it is a simple fact of history that the majority of Catholics in this country and elsewhere simply abandoned the practice of the Catholic faith after the introduction of the new liturgy. I was not Catholic at the time, and doubtless there were many other factors, but my own experience reveals the deep personal crisis that can follow upon the draconian imposition of a new style of worship, especially for the pious.
I dare say this crisis was not entirely unforeseen. In his 1970 general audience making the New Mass obligatory, Pope Blessed Paul VI referred to it as “a many sided inconvenience,” a “novelty,” a “grave change” and noted that “pious persons will be disturbed most” as they did not require a new rite in order to appreciate the Mass.
Speaking of the abandonment of Latin and the Gregorian chant, Pope Paul said, “We have reason indeed for regret, reason almost for bewilderment. What can we put in the place of that language of the angels? We are giving up something of priceless worth. But why?” His answer, predictably, “Participation by the people is worth more – particularly participation by modern people, so fond of plain language which is easily understood and converted into everyday speech.”
He did state that the Latin language would not disappear and that “the new rite of the Mass provides that the faithful ‘should be able to sing together, in Latin, at least the parts of the Ordinary of the Mass, especially the Creed and the Lord’s Prayer.’” However, as we know, virtually no serious effort was made in this regard.
But is the decline of the Church in the west reducible only to the New Mass? Considering that the 20th century saw not one but two world wars that challenged the faith of millions followed by the massive social upheaval and sexual revolution of the 1960s and 70s, I think not.
Also, consider that in 1970 Paul VI stated that “the fundamental outline of the Mass is still the traditional one, not only theologically but also spiritually” and could be expected to provide great spiritual richness “if the rite is carried out as it ought to be.” Almost 40 years later, Benedict XVI echoed this sentiment in Summorum Pontificum when he taught that, properly understood, the lex orandi (law of prayer) of the New Mass, is really the same as the lex orandi of the Traditional Latin Mass and therefore both forms of the Roman Rite should lead to the same lex credendi (law of belief). So another powerful factor would seem to be not the New Mass itself, but the deficient celebration of the Ordinary form. I suspect that if it were not for the near constant abuse of the new liturgy I would likely have never sought out the Extraordinary form in the first place.
CWR: Any other thoughts?
Arnold: Cardinal Sarah, the current Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments, has spoken of a reconciliation of the two forms of the Roman Rite by restoring some of the traditional prayers and practices to the New Mass, while retaining the more positive changes as well as imposing a universal calendar on both forms of the Roman Rite so that all Catholics will be using the same prayers and readings on the same day. Whether or not such a thing could be accomplished and in what manner, only time will tell.
In the meantime, the final chapter of Confessions of a Traditional Catholic is devoted to the practical ways that the two forms of the Roman Rite can be made more “mutually enriching.” I list ten approved options that any priest can use to enrich his celebration of the Ordinary Form with little or no extra training or expense – and not one of them requires the use of Latin.
On the other hand, the Extraordinary form can benefit from Benedict XVI’s option of reading the Gospel, Epistle, and proper prayers in the vernacular and especially encouraging the congregation to chant the responses and ordinary prayers in Latin along with the servers and the choir. I have seen this work very well in parishes in dioceses in different parts of North America and suspect it comes close to what the Council Fathers of Vatican II had in mind when they approved Sacrosanctum Concilium. In any case, I am convinced that, if the Church can support more than a score of Eastern Catholic rites, she can certainly support two expressions of the one Roman Rite. I also believe that the mutual enrichment of the two forms of the Roman Rite is a visible sign of the on-going restoration of the Church in the west. Further, I believe things will continue to improve in direct proportion to our fidelity to the Church and her official liturgy in whatever form or rite.
If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!