Conservatives, traditionalists, and Traditional Catholics

In the Remnant, Chris Ferrara contemplates the question “What exactly is a traditionlist?” 1 The nub of it is that a man who is, by Ferrara’s label, a “traditionalist,”

is a Catholic who lives the faith as if the ecclesial calamities of the post-Vatican II epoch had never happened—indeed, as if Vatican II itself had never happened. And the astonishing truth about the traditionalist is that no doctrine or disciplinary rule of the Church whatsoever forbids him to believe and to worship God in just that way, even though the great preponderance of Catholics no longer does. ¶ That Catholics who have simply gone on believing and worshiping as Catholics always did before the Council have come to be called traditionalists—quite suddenly in historical terms—that the very word tradition now distinguishes these relative few Catholics from the vast majority of the Church’s members, is the undeniable sign of a crisis like no other the Church has ever witnessed. Those who deny this would have to explain why it is only within that transformed vast majority, … described [by some] as neo-Catholic, that the faith has been steadily losing its grip on the people, with many falling away completely into the “silent apostasy” John Paul II lately lamented after hailing for so many years a “conciliar renewal” that was actually a massive collapse of faith and discipline.

I would think that Ferrara is describing what is often called a “Traditional Catholic” or “Trad.” To my way of thinking, a (small-t) traditionalist is more closely-related to a conservative—those whom some Trads dismiss, prissily, tendentiously, and unhelpfully, as “neoconservatives” or “neocons.” 2

Let me offer a partially-baked taxonomy. In a Catholic context, it seems to me that the difference between Trads and conservatives/traditionalists is that the former, as Ferrara perceptively suggests, seeks to “live[] the faith … as if Vatican II itself had never happened,” while the latter accepts what she regards as legitimate postconciliar developments. The differences between conservatives and (small-t) traditionalists are more subtle. I might suggest that it breaks down something like this:

  • The former is more normative and positivistic: Postconciliar developments are legitimate because and insofar as they are correct, reasonable, and promulgated by legitimate ecclesiastical authority. (To put it more critically, they are taken for granted because nothing else exists in living memory.) The EF is okay, but they see no real problem with the OF beyond a vague and often unguided preference that it be “done reverently.” Their (recent) hero is apt to be John Paul II.
  • The latter thinks in terms of the hermeneutic of continuity: Postconciliar developments are legitimate because and to the extent that they harmonize with preconciliar tradition. She acknowledges legitimate development in the postconciliar world but insists that it has been encrusted and obscured by abuse and illegitimate accretions, and hopes to fix those problems. Thus, for instance, the EF? Good. The OF? Problematic, but capable of being good.  Our (recent) hero is apt to be Benedict XVI.

If the conservative has one over on the traditionalist, it’s that he is more flexible and capable of growth whiles he can be too rigid and hidebound; if the traditionalist has one over on the conservative, it’s that she has a criterion external to herself while he is too wedded to his own judgment.

Both positions, by themselves, have limits and difficulties.But just as in the political arena, most (American) conservatives cut our conservatism with a measure of libertarianism, and vice versa, and both are healthier for it, 3 I think it fair to aggregate conservatives and traditionalists because most of the conservatives and traditionalists that I encounter in person are somewhere in between. Cardinal Dolan and the EWTN people might serve as high-profile exemplars of unmixed conservatives, but certainly I would say that there is a constructive middle ground.


  1. Ferrara, What exactly is a traditionalist?, The Remnant, May 3, 2014, (last visited May 19, 2014).
  2. Or rather, have done since that became a fashionable term of abuse in political discourse, regardless of its aptness.
  3. See The conservative premise, 2 MPA 50, 51 (2012).