Traditionalist Concerns Over Labeling & Classifications

Traditionalist Concerns Over Labeling & Classifications August 8, 2013
. . . (Karl Keating’s Word Usage as a “Test Case”)
[Pixabay / public domain]



On 3 August 2013, I changed my own use of terms of a certain category of Catholic on the “far right” from radtrad to the self-coined radical Catholic reactionary (“RadCathRs” for short). No label or descriptive title is perfect, including this one, and without question, in due course I’ll get a lot of criticism for it, just as I would for any other chosen word. But that’s part of apologetics. “Bring it on.” I am willing and fully able to defend my positions, and I am just as willing to be persuaded otherwise (as this very change of terminology proves).

What I want to highlight in this paper are some of the difficulties involved in what many folks seem to consider a “simple” thing. In fact, it’s not simple at all, in accordance with the rules and use-in-practice of language, and technical, often fluid or malleable theological categories and strains of thought. There are basically three major options in play here (each having its advocates):

1) Continue to use radtrad: a term which has been in use since the mid-90s, and which seems to be the current “default” favorite. This has recently been advocated, notably, by Fr. Dwight Longenecker, and also by Patrick Coffin and Tim Staples of Catholic Answers, who  have also virtually introduced the troublesome and problematic “mad-trad” as a more controversial (judging by a pronounced “traditionalist” protest) “half-sister” of radtrad. I was zealously advocating radtrad, too, before my recent change of mind. At length I ditched it, not because of intrinsic problems of objective meaning and intent, but because it was widely misunderstood (a key factor in all effective communication).

2) Don’t use any labels at all. This has been vigorously advocated by mainstream “traditionalist” Kevin Tierney (who quite obnoxiously deletes most of my comments from his site, even while I seek to be an ally) in a recent article at Catholic Lane, and seems to be the approach of leading apologist Karl Keating as well. In this view, various errors that we all oppose are identified, while at the same time one avoids attaching any label (“pejorative” or otherwise) to the group of people who espouse the error.

3) Utilize an alternate term that has (in particular and most importantly) no direct connotation of inclusion of “traditionalists.” This was my own course (and I don’t observe anyone else proposing it at the preset time), in adopting radical Catholic reactionary, which was the best I could come up with, in trying to convey exactly what I am referring to, while not suggesting (and indeed, deliberately distancing from) “traditionalism.” It is an overt attempt to separate the two groups more or less totally: mainstream “traditionalists” vs. this very real “extremist” (terminology of Popes Francis and Benedict XVI) sector of those who are still within the Catholic fold: as opposed to being canonical schismatics.

Now, let’s analyze this a bit. The self-labeled [mainstream] “traditionalists” have been loudly complaining about radtrad and saying that it implicates them, since “trad” is part of it. It’s clear that those of us who have used it, and those who continue to do so, intend it to refer to only a small, fringe, extreme wing of “traditionalism.” That is the given explanation: detailed and reiterated many times, including by myself.

I have not been persuaded by this particular argument coming from offended “traditionalists” at all, primarily because it ignores the definitions that those who use radtrad have offered and made quite plain again and again. Yet it continues to be widely misinterpreted. I suspect this is because there are two possible ways, I suppose, of looking at the word:

A) Radtrad = the more radical wing of “traditionalism” as opposed to the mainstream, vastly majority wing.

B) Radtrad = all “traditionalists” are radical and objectionable by their very nature.

Sensible , otherwise respectable proponents of the term obviously have opted for #1, but critics seem to presuppose #2, despite all protests to the contrary (or at least object to an insinuation of being tarred by the same brush). Moreover, it’s true — I freely grant — that many who use radtrad have applied it wrongly and have too often jumped the gun in applying it to those who don’t actually fall under the category. This is analogous to the term anti-Catholic [Protestant]: that I have used for many years and defended. I still use it (because — as one reason among many — scholars in several fields also do), but it remains quite controversial, and it is often abused by folks who don’t know how to do apologetics properly and carefully.

I decided to stop using radtrad because (above all) it is pointless and foolish to keep using a term which is widely offending people who are not even the recipients of the term, rightly understood. I was also very tired of being misunderstood, myself, and having my intentions (and even sincerity) questioned. The whole thing became counter-productive and a huge mess. That is more than reason enough to drop it. And so I did.

But there was also a second good reason of a different sort. “Traditionalists” have increasingly been asserting that they are in a separate category altogether from the “radtrads” or radical Catholic reactionaries, as I now call them. They are saying, more and more, “those guys ain’t us! Don’t lump us in with them at all! You guys don’t know us personally. We’re not like that.”

This is where classification gets extremely complex and tricky, but I was willing to say, in effect, and in charity, “okay, my friends and allies for the most part, I am willing to accept your own report that you are completely distinct from these radical groups and worldviews. I take you at your word. For the sake of unity and peace, I will use an entirely different term for the radical group”: thus, implying that “traditionalism” and RadCathRs have no intrinsic or necessary or even sociological relation.

“Traditionalists” are also currently denying that there is a “theological spectrum” that includes both groups: one gradually evolving into the other, as one goes further “right”: with the radicals being a small and far-right “wing” or fringe of the larger “respectable” group. This sort of consideration is part and parcel of sociology (my major in college). It is also seen in something as complex as, say, medical diagnosis (especially when dealing with mental illness). The categories are often not very clear-cut at all and there is much overlap. I don’t buy this argument, either, that there is no spectrum: mainly because all parties are baptized Catholics; but that requires another lengthy discussion beyond our purview here.

The problem now becomes the following: assuming that radtrad should be ditched (for the reasons given above) and considering only #2 and #3 above as live options, if we use no labels, “traditionalists” still wind up being tarred with the same brush. This would seem to defeat the goal of being perceived as altogether distinct and separate groups, and places them on the same spectrum, which is being protested against by the mainstream “traditionalists.”

On the other hand, if “traditionalists” want to get rid of any notion of a spectrum, with “sensible traditionalists” vs. the “radical / extreme / wacko” group,  then it seems to me that an alternate label is the only workable way to do that. Now, let’s see how this works, by using the test case of an e-letter from Karl Keating (dated 6 February 2007). As noted above, Karl dislikes the label “radtrad.” On Kevin Tierney’s site just two days ago, Terrye Newkirk, former editor of This Rock (published by Catholic Answers), stated:

After I heard about the use of “rad-trad” on the Catholic Answers radio program, I was glad to hear from my old boss, Karl Keating, that he would never use such a term himself.

Along these lines, writing on a public thread on Terrye Newkirk’s Facebook page on 15 March 2013, Karl stated:

Usually it’s the Traditionalists who collapse into name-calling. . . . I have an extensive vocabulary. If I want to indicate my disdain for someone, I don’t have to fall back on slang such as “radtrad” or “Fundie” or “Prot.”

Fair enough. I would mightily quibble with this characterization, but that’s a separate discussion, too. Now let’s examine Karl’s use of non-labels in his e-letter above, in discussing the same group of people that most of us who critique it call radtrads or some other similar title (e.g., “ultra-traditionalists” has been another name used) [my blue highlighting]:

There really is anti-Semitism within the Traditionalist movement. It is not a problem that has been ignored by Catholics, Traditionalists included. Over the last few years several Catholic blogs, in particular, but also several orthodox Catholic publications have examined the problem at length.

It is not my intention in this E-Letter to recapitulate what others have written, but I do want to say that it is only a very small portion of Traditionalist Catholics who have succumbed to the anti-Semitism virus. . . .

The greatest fault of the SPLC report is its lumping all Traditionalists into the anti-Semitism category. I know that there are some authentically anti-Semitic people within Catholic Traditionalism, but I also know that they are not representative of the movement.

Yes, some of the individuals and groups discussed in the SPLC report truly are anti-Semitic, and only a disingenuous person could deny that. But not everyone and not every group discussed in the report is anti-Semitic. And, what is more important, those that are discussed comprise only a subsection of the Traditionalist movement.

SPLC claims that there are more than 100,000 Catholic Traditionalists in the U.S. and implies that most of them imbibe from the spring of anti-Semitism. The number 100,000 may not be far off from the real number of Traditionalists in this country, but anyone having familiarity with the people who attend, for example, indult Latin Masses will see in short order that almost no one there harbors prejudice against Jews, just as almost no one attending vernacular Masses harbors such prejudice.

To the extent there is anti-Semitism within the Traditionalist movement, it resides almost exclusively within a few groups and publications that, collectively, probably don’t exceed 20,000 members and readers, and even then only a minority of those people properly could be termed anti-Semitic. . . .

How many true anti-Semites are there within the Traditionalist movement? I don’t know for sure, . . . but I’d estimate that there are a few thousand anti-Semites at most. That is still a distressingly large number, but it is a far cry from what the SPLC report suggests, and it is a number that cannot be used to indict the whole of the Traditionalist movement. . . .

The issue of anti-Semitism within the Traditionalist movement does need to be discussed, but it should be discussed by people who know what they’re doing.

So Karl Keating has acknowledged that anti-Semitism is a problem “within the Traditionalist movement” (this description is used five times), among “a very small portion of Traditionalist Catholics,” and in “a subsection of the Traditionalist movement.” This means that he presupposes the “spectrum” that is now being denied. He denies (by his very wording of “within,” etc.) that there is a complete break of category between the mainstream “traditionalist” and the fringe radical anti-Semite that he places within the same “movement” (however tiny it is).

This is the only interpretation that could be given of his analysis. If “traditionalists” deny the spectrum and deny that anti-Semites and other extremists are part of their movement, that view won’t be furthered simply by having no labels. It’ll require a label that implies a complete break and dichotomy (and my radical Catholic reactionary fits that bill). It won’t do to simply use “traditionalist” and no other qualifier, since the same problem exists that was present in the controversial radtrad. The same dynamic seen in A and B above works (by a more or less perfect analogy) the same way in this instance:

A2) Traditionalist: also refers (or can refer) to the more radical anti-Semitic wing within the movement: as opposed to the mainstream, vastly majority wing (“anti-Semite traditionalists”).

B2) Traditionalist: all “traditionalists” are anti-Semitic [false conclusion drawn by generalizing the exception to the whole], since anti-Semites among “traditionalists” are also able to be called “traditionalists” like all the rest; thus tarring (or besmirching) the whole group with the same brush.

Thus we see that an idealistic, well-intentioned policy of “no labels” amounts in practice (I would say, almost inevitably) to the same objectionable scenario that is protested against when radtrad is used. Keating took the greatest pains to explain that only a tiny number were being talked about. But likewise, advocates of radtrad have done the same, many times. Fr. Longenecker did; Patrick Coffin did, Dr. Taylor Marshall (himself a “traditionalist”) has done so, Mark Shea has, times without number, yet remains a highly despised figure among “traditionalists” and also RadCathRs. I’ve done it till I’m blue in the face.

If that didn’t matter — didn’t solve the “problem” –, then by direct analogy it also won’t matter if someone like Karl Keating (or Kevin Tierney) calls everyone by the blanket title of “traditionalist:” but notes that there are fringe, wacko elements within it (that many have simply given a name / label and classified as radical traditionalist or radtrad). One could easily envision the following conversation:

Non-trad: “Anti-Semitic traditionalists have claimed . . . ”

Trad: “Oh, you’re claiming that all traditionalists are anti-Semites?”

Non-trad: “No! Not at all. They constitute only a tiny fringe of traditionalists.”

Trad: “But anti-Semites are not traditionalists at all.”

Non-trad: “They believe most of the same things — in terms of ‘defining markers’ or distinguishing characteristics — that other traditionalists do.”

Trad: “But they prove that they are not traditionalists by being anti-Semitic in the first place. They aren’t us!”

Non-trad: “So the definition of ‘traditionalist’ is ‘one who is not anti-Semitic’?”

Trad: “No, but we want nothing to do with that. We’re caricatured and lied about and looked down upon far too much as it is.”

Non-trad: “I understand that, but it is a matter of definition. ‘Traditionalist’ means certain things, and some traditionalists are in fact, anti-Semitic, just as in the Bible, the Galatians and Corinthians and seven churches of Revelation were all Christians, yet suffered from some very serious deficiencies. Jesus said that the wheat and the tares would grow up together in the Church.”

Trad: “They ain’t us! And you are bigoted against us by saying so!” [stomps off, indignant at being “lied about” and classified as an anti-Semite yet again]

The problem comes from calling everyone, including the wacko anti-Semite, a “traditionalist”. That doesn’t resolve anything. That still tars with the same brush, which is what the “traditionalist” objects to in the case of radtrad. It takes too long to say every time such a person is referenced, “the anti-Semite who is within the Traditionalist movement: only a very small portion of it; a mere subsection, fringe” etc., etc. These folks need to have a name just as any other distinct category of persons or things has, and should have, an identifying name or title or (the dreaded) label.

The “traditionalist” continues to object, in this scenario. So I come around, as an apologist who wants to build bridges with mainstream “traditionalists” and who considers them (more and more all the time) very close in many ways to myself, and say, “fine; I’ll accept your word — not knowing all the minute details of fact — that it is a different group altogether, and so, in good faith, consideration of your opinions, and in the interest of good relations, will classify them with an entirely different name: “radical Catholic reactionaries.”

To me, that (or some other similar name) is the solution. If the “traditionalist” continues to say that no labels are preferable, then they have to explain to me how that is a superior solution, given the difficulties just detailed.  It’s far more charitable, I submit, to classify the wingnuts and true bigots and extremist folks as a separate group altogether, than it is to include them under the larger title of “traditionalist” with endless, tedious, needlessly repetitious qualifications (as we saw plainly in Karl Keating’s article) to show that they are fringe and a tiny minority only. If the connotation of “spectrum” or “association” is frowned upon, then only a label and separate category altogether will be able to overcome that.

What we can’t logically and linguistically have is “no spectrum” and also “no label.” That’s being called for now in some “traditionalist” circles, but it’s illogical and unworkable, as I think I have demonstrated above. The only option that can please everyone, therefore, is a label that is an alternate to radtrad. I think I have provided one (like it or not), in radical Catholic reactionary, which is then repeatedly contradistinguished from or pitted against “traditionalist”: with the latter having a positive connotation and the former a negative and objectionable one. Presently, I’m in the process of making that very distinction and classification apparent in my papers on the topic, my web page devoted to it (called, “Radical Catholic Reactionaries vs. Catholic Traditionalism”), and my two books as well.

If someone doesn’t like my reasoning, come talk to me. I don’t bite. I ain’t a wascally wascal. I’m a pretty friendly guy (so many people tell me). I’m trying to do my part to build bridges and do apologetics, while not unnecessarily offending anyone. There is also necessary offense that can’t be avoided in either apologetics or theology (because both classify certain beliefs as wrong and/or evil and wicked, and those in the groups so classified don’t like it: human nature). But we can do our best  avoid counter-productive and hurtful unnecessary offense . . .

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  • So what's your theological opinion regarding Jews who reject Christ? Do they need to repent and believe? or do they not?

  • Sure.

    What that has to do with the post, I confess, I have no idea.