. . . with Dr. Philip Blosser
Friends & apologetics colleagues all. Gary and Steve are also fellow Michiganders.
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Dr. Blosser teaches philosophy at Sacred Heart Seminary in Detroit, and hosts the very influential blog, Musings of a Pertinacious Papist. Recently, we met for the first time at a discussion at my house about traditionalism. The guest lecturer was “Boniface”: webmaster of the Unam Sanctam Catholicam traditionalist website. Dr. Blosser wrote a piece on 3 May 2014 entitled (tongue-in-cheek), “Why Catholic Traditionalists are so Annoying.” The theme was roughly what my title alludes to.
Dr. Blosser later clarified that he was simply observing the dynamics, not agreeing with them. I made a reply on Facebook (since my name had been mentioned) and he counter-replied and it became a dialogue. Now I’d like to re-edit (and in places, abridge) the whole thing, and add a few tidbits here and there, to make the exchange more readable and hopefully of benefit to readers. I think it’s a model of traditionalist-apologist dialogue. His words will be in blue. Words of a traditionalist (or possibly radical Catholic reactionary) commenter, Robert Allen, will be in green.
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It’s just a hunch of mine, but I would guess that what makes Catholic traditionalists so annoying is that they seem to be annoyed by so much of what the rest of the “normal” conservative Catholic world takes for granted as being “normal.” . . .
The case of the Catholic apologist seems almost emblematic. Tradition-minded Catholics generally seem put off by the Catholic apologist. They seem to find him annoying. Why? Would they say it’s the slightly patronizing “patness” of his answers? the approaching-smug sense that if his listeners simply got all their facts right, all would be well with the Church? I don’t have the answer. But I do know that “normal” conservative Catholics are sometimes seriously annoyed when they discover that traditional Catholics are put off (for whatever reason) by their celebrity apologists.
The fact is, I have personally profited a great deal from some of their work. I like the arguments made by Karl Keating in Catholicism and Fundamentalism, by Jimmy Akin in The Salvation Controversy, and by Peter Kreeft in Fundamentals of the Faith: Essays in Christian Apologetics . . . many of these sorts of works are well-conceived and meet a real need, not only for the potential convert but for the Catholic who wishes to know his faith better, particularly vis–à–vis Protestantism.
Still, I can imagine that there are many tradition-minded Catholics who would be at least mildly annoyed by titles like Dave Armstrong’s Bible Proofs for Catholic Truths, or One-Minute Apologist, no matter how cogent and substantial Armstrong’s arguments.
The question is, why?
The answer, I imagine, would have something to do with the fact that those Catholics who are particularly concerned about (some might say obsessed with) Catholic tradition probably tend to think that other “normal” conservative Catholics aren’t sufficiently exercised about the kinds of things that concern them. That is, as these tradition-minded Catholics see it, there is a subject often conspicuously absent from the table in most discussions by apologists — something that cuts to the heart of their own concerns — namely the crisis in the Church. (And let’s not get hoodwinked by the red herring that the Church has always been in crisis, which doesn’t absolve us from dealing with our own crisis of mass apostasy and an imploding Church.)
Of course it goes without saying that the Catholic apologist, who is concerned with defending and promoting Catholic doctrine to prospective converts, is not likely going to be spending a lot of time lamenting the pitiful state of the Church today. This creates the impression among tradition-minded Catholics, however, that the Catholic apologist, while serving a certain niche market, seems to be a member of a sort of fan club for the status quo that is hell-bent on winning converts even at the cost of dishonesty in advertising.
Many Catholic apologists are, like me, converts to the Catholic Faith. . . .
Meanwhile, other converts are more preoccupied with the internal state of the Church. In the cultural momentum of the recent Church history, they have discerned much that fills them with alarm. The focus of their concerns is thus not so much on how to win converts as how to keep them once they come into the Church. . . .
From this vantage point (at least for traditionalists), it may sometimes appear as though the rest of the “normal” conservative Catholic world is intent on burying its head in the sand. Of course, I seriously doubt this is true; yet I can understand the perception. Where but among the more tradition-minded Catholics, who are often dismissed as (and sometimes are) extreme . . . does one find any real head-banging-serious hand-wringing over the effects of Vatican II and the current implosion of the Western church?
Oh, of course there will be the obligatory nod toward the problem of abuses and confusions here and there, as exemplified by Helen Hull Hitchcock in the Adoremus Bulletin. But the focus is clearly on trying to patch up a few relatively minor bruises on an otherwise healthy patient. One need only read or listen to anything by the prolific Fr. Robert Barron on his Word of Fire website, or by the equally prolific George Weigel, like his Evangelical Catholicism, or listen to any of his interviews, to see how oblivious they seem to be about the deepest concerns that trouble tradition-minded Catholics. . . .
Meanwhile there continues to be a lot of talk about evangelization and the New Evangelization, but very little actually being done beyond diocesan and parish programs that come and go and leave the status quo pretty much unchanged. Not for a moment would I deny or belittle the evidence of pockets of renewal here and there throughout the country, or the work of wonderful priests and lay evangelists faithfully working against incredible odds and often at great personal sacrifice: there is nothing that argues so incontrovertibly as the testimony of changed lives. At the end of the day, nonetheless, for all their work and for all the books and articles and programs focusing on parish renewal, keeping kids interested, and bringing lapsed Catholics home, there is very little that promises to stem the tide of massive apostasy sweeping the West.
That leaves the tradition-minded Catholic with a sense that something about all the “happy talk” among contemporary “normal” conservative Catholics seems a bit abstracted from real world of lived experience in the local parish, and the sense that the rubber never quite hits the ground — and the fact that he refuses to stop pointing this out is probably what makes him so damned annoying. Especially if he’s cheerful.
The article as a whole alluded to the usual litany often heard from traditionalists and radical Catholic reactionaries: that we apologists supposedly ignore the problems in the Catholic Church; have our heads in the sand, since to do otherwise would be “bad PR” and we wouldn’t gain our slate of converts that we are seeking. I’ve written about that at length, especially in relation to Michael Voris’ charges and complaints of my friend Jay McNally. I have less than no desire to do so again now.
Some “traditionalists” (so it is stated as likely) don’t like two of the titles of my books or the methodology behind them? That strikes me as out-of-whack. I don’t think such a criticism, if made, would be a valid one, closely examined. My friend Al Kresta has a saying about efforts that he may not be crazy about, but which meet an important need: “I like his way of doing things better than someone else‘s way of not doing anything.”
Apologists are out on the front lines of defense of the Church: dealing with objections and complaints and strong criticisms; doing our best to meet expressed needs of Catholics, and taking plenty of slings and arrows in the process, too.
I have lots of traditionalists on my list of Facebook friends. I think they believe I am very traditionalist-friendly, after reading so many of my papers devoted to liturgical abuses, theologically liberal nonsense, watered-down traditional morality, etc. I often say that I have many affinities with them.
Mr. Armstrong. I have your Newman book [link], which I like very much. Please note that I nowhere suggest that books such as yours should not be written, even the quick reference book for one minute apologists. They’re very useful, and I myself find such booklets useful. I position myself in my post simply as an observer with sympathies for both “normal” conservatives and “tradition-minded” Catholics. If anyone calls me a “traditionalist,” it is not a self-descriptor. All I say as to your two titles is that tradition-minded Catholics are not going to see them as addressing their concerns.
Thanks so much for stopping by, and for your helpful comment. I understand (now even more so) that you were making generalizations about “traditionalists” and being an observer. Why they think this way (if indeed they do) is what I’m trying to figure out. My comments were, accordingly, not primarily directed at you, but rather, at the phenomenon you describe. But I will change the title and a few lines that implied you were making the charge, rather than observing that others might make it.
Why would that be annoying to them, though? Why would anyone be “annoyed” by a book title or its content, simply because it doesn’t deal with what they are most concerned about? It’d be like saying, “I love bananas and don’t like pears so much. It annoys me that Mr. X over there is eating and (worst of all!) enjoying a pear!” What relation do the two have to each other? None . . . it’s like the proverbial apples and oranges.
If there is any “critique” of your work in that statement, it is not mine; mine is but a description of how one side might react to the other. Both you and so-called “traditionalists” each have your own proper vocations and spheres of concern. Though there may be little overlaps in terms of specific areas I focus on here, they are not incompatible and each is important. But they are different. That aside, they share massively a common commitment to the Catholic Faith.
This is exactly my view, too. I’m glad to hear you say this. I am quite happy to let traditionalists do what they do (live and let live; I encourage it), as long as it doesn’t cross certain lines, which I consider “quasi-schismatic” or bashing the Church (where I myself will start to criticize it as imprudent and slanderous, etc.). Many if not most traditionalist concerns, I share myself. I write about liturgical abuse and moral laxity and a host of things that traditionalists can and do resonate with. I don’t write much about bishops and the “politics” in the Church; never have, for a variety of reasons: the main reason being that it has little or nothing to do with my vocation of apologetics.
What I object to is this notion that I must do all this sort of “airing dirty laundry” and sociological / muckraking journalistic-type analysis of Church problems, just because traditionalists do. I’m under no such obligation. I have a plate more than full enough, with all the doctrines and dogmas and misunderstandings that apologists routinely deal with. I’m also a big believer in not spreading oneself too thin. As it is, I have more than 1,600 papers, so I’ve covered quite a few topics; but I can’t do everything.
I’d like to hear from traditionalists who would actually be annoyed (as you surmised) at two of my book titles, and the fact that they didn’t deal with their own leading concerns. That would be a fascinating discussion . . .
Excellent! Excellent! All good. Any pressing market for books on indulgences and how to get them?
Not that I know of! Even my Quotable Newman that you like (thanks) has not sold well (though, no doubt it will if he is canonized). It’s a tough market. I survive as a full-time apologist only by God’s grace and unforeseen good opportunities that come my way; certainly not because people are buying apologetics in droves.
Hey Mr. Armstrong. Nice to be in touch. You do good work, and — I repeat yourself — I have no criticism of your work (that’s putting it too negatively: I admire your work — even the prolific — and prolix?? ha! — output).
Just to be clear, in one sense, I think all Catholics are by definition “traditionalists,” in the sense that they are (or should be) “deep into history” and “holding fast to the traditions” that have been passed down to us in apostolic tradition. I don’t know about you, but I remember being shocked by the icy reception my interest in Catholic pre-1970 publications received in some circles when I first came into the Church — shocked because it was the historical credentials of the Church which first began to win me over. The attitude I encountered all-too-frequently was either oblivion or disdainful disinterest in Catholic history, tradition, antiquity. In this sense, I say all Catholics are (or should be) traditionalists.
But as you know, the term “traditionalist” is now used as a pejorative term, somewhat like “fundamentalist” (think “Islamic fundamentalist” — and you know that’s intended to mean something very bad) (and it’s also absurd, given the historical advent of the term, but that’s another story). I can even remember an occasion when one of my friends at the seminary where I teach let slip a comment in which he referred to “traditionalist” troublemaker in one of his classes, and there was no mistaking the derision in his tone. If I’m not mistaken, there might even be a whiff of such a tone in your reference to the “usual litany often heard from traditionalists and radical Catholic reactionaries.”
I was objecting much more so to the later, radical category, but traditionalists, too, can become annoying if they constantly talk in doom-and-gloom terms.
Granted, there are pleasant and cantankerous people in any community or grouping — including computer analysts, analytic philosophers, and church custodial workers, so that part isn’t surprising.
But I wonder, why should Catholics in love with the work of the Holy Spirit throughout the history and development of the Church be especially singled out to be labelled thusly? Why should they be thought to have an exclusive monopoly on “usual litanies” of complaints and be identified with “radical Catholic reactionaries”?
Radical Catholic reactionaries [see my definition] are, in my thinking, a far more radical and objectionable group than traditionalists.
Now granted, you’ve said that you’re prolix. But couldn’t your response to my remark that some tradition-minded Catholics might possibly be mildly annoyed by a couple of your titles be considered — simply in terms of the voluminous response you’ve given here — “reactionary”? Isn’t the very nature of writing that is “occasioned” by eruptions of various and sundry news-worthy statements of opinion “reactionary”? Hopefully you see my point. I think we both would share a similar reaction to good Presbyterian theologians like J. Gresham Machen or B.B. Warfield being derisively dismissed as “fanatic fundamentalists.”
I’m confused by the statement you make in parentheses at the beginning of your response, where you say that, as I “later explained,” I was “merely observing, not agreeing.” Not “agreeing”? I don’t know what this means. Agreeing with whom? With you? With so-called “traditionalists”? With “normal” conservative Catholics?
Not agreeing with traditionalists who think apologetics is not useful or misguided . . .
To reiterate my main point. I think what most “normal” conservative Catholics find so annoying about those they term “traditionalists,” is the latter’s less-than-enthusiastic response to many things the former takes for granted as part of a “normal” conservative Catholic life — things of the sort I mention. By making this point, as I develop it, I am merely pointing out a disconnect between these groups. They are both Catholic. They talk past one another. I find this highly unfortunate, since I think they could learn something from one another.
Same here (and you gotta call me Dave!). Thanks for your very kind words. I have enjoyed your work for many years, too (and your son Chris’s), but we don’t seem to have talked to each other much.
I agree all down the line. I came into the Church because of history (development of doctrine and a study of the 16th century) and history is my big love alongside theology. A local library at a Catholic college — some years ago now — was giving away hundreds of older Catholic books because they were considered antiquated. I thought they were the best books in the library, and so I got ’em all for free!
As for “traditionalist”” I understand why the term is used, but I think it is ultimately unnecessary and prefer “orthodox Catholic” if I must further explain “Catholic.”
In the last year, I have adopted the term “radical Catholic reactionary” precisely to distinguish that position from mainstream traditionalists.
As for labels, I realize they’re somewhat unavoidable, despite all our good intentions, like “profiling” in general. Peter Kreeft once used the qualifier “nonrevisionist Catholic” for himself, which I somewhat like.
“Orthodox” is good, too, although it tends to a) connote Eastern Orthodoxy and confuse some, and b) it limits its reference to the propositional content of one’s adherence to dogma, which may be the bedrock of The Faith, although there’s much more.
I once wrote a post distinguishing between several kinds of Catholicism, among which two were (a) propositional Catholicism, and (b) cultural Catholicism. One of my contentions recently has been that the latter gets a bad rap. It’s true, of course, that when it refers to people who are only Catholic in the vaguest sense that they are ethnically Polish or Italian or Irish, or are even ‘sacramentalized pagans’, it’s only an empty shell of Catholicism, if that. But my brief on behalf of cultural Catholicism comes from my experience with several converts I’ve sponsored for reception into the Church at various times (I’ve sponsored 20 or more). A very few of them came from Evangelical backgrounds and became believing Catholics in the sense that they affirmed and assented to all the regular propositions of The Faith that are “de fide.” However (and this is the relevant point), their Catholicism remains essentially a composite of their former Evangelical Christianity with some additional propositions added on to it.
That’s what I’ve been accused of many times by anti-Catholics, but there is no truth to it. All that I have retained of Protestantism was already true in Catholicism, and was before Protestantism came along (similar to Louis Bouyer’s argument about all the good elements of Protestantism, in his great book, The Spirit and Forms of Protestantism).
So, e.g., if I use the Bible to bolster arguments for some Catholic doctrine (as I do all the time), I get accused of adopting sola Scriptura as my methodology. But that is plainly fallacious. Sola Scriptura means that the Bible is the only infallible rule of faith. To simply quote the Bible does not entail that premise at all. Protestants don’t own the Bible. The fathers massively cited Scripture; so do papal encyclicals and conciliar documents. It’s simply being Catholic.
I may emphasize the Bible relatively more in my arguments, but that’s just being ecumenical and smart in argument, when addressing Protestants. I appeal to the document that both of us regard as inspired. That’s the Pauline “be all things to all people” and Vatican II’s urging that we share our faith in terms that others can relate to.
All entirely, quintessentially Catholic; not “Protestant” at all. It only is if Protestant premises are casually assumed and projected wrongly onto me.
Why does this matter? I remember reading Abraham Kuyper’s Lectures on Calvinism years ago and being forcibly struck by the that Calvinist Christianity (perhaps like some other forms of Protestantism) is very much a pure, spiritual Faith, in the sense that it is “portable” and not really tied down to an earthly institution or expressed in tangible physical ways that Catholicism is. It essentially lacks the “sacramentalized” and “incarnational” world view that Thomas Howard articulates so magnificently in his little book, Chance, or the Dance (which Kreeft calls his favorite book).
I think this is more true of evangelicalism and non-denominationalism than of Calvinism.
Which let me to start thinking about how Catholic traditions — even beyond the deposit of propositional truths passed down from the Apostles in Sacred Tradition — are outward expressions (in stone, in music, in liturgy, in painting, in gesture, etc.) of the work of the Holy Spirit throughout the development of the Church — every bit as much the work of the Holy Spirit as dogmatic formulations of doctrine, even if the former aren’t “infallible” or “irreformable” in quite the same way. In other words, I began to arrive at the conviction that it’s not just assenting to propositions of Catholic doctrine that is important to shaping and sustaining The Faith among the faithful, but Catholic culture as well.
I agree. But these expressions, as you concede, are not dogmatic and can change over time.
Although Catholic “traditionalists” don’t always put things in such terms, the view that I’m coming to is that just as a “sacrament” is an outward sign of an inward grace, so Catholic culture is intended by the Holy Spirit to be an outward sign of the inward grace of faith, which is an intellectual assent to the propositions of Catholic doctrine.
I agree again, though I think the average person in today’s culture is too “spiritually dense” and secularized to grasp such things.
As Thomas Howard says in his beautiful other little book, Evangelical Is Not Enough, the spirit was never intended to be divorced from the flesh. Thus we can err on either side by thinking that we can sever (1) spirit from flesh in a purely spiritualized religion like Calvinism, in which Christianity essentially consists of propositions we assent to and carry around in our heads, or (2) flesh from spirit, by thinking that we can simply have the outward forms of Catholicism without the inward faith.
This is probably why many traditional Catholics get so bent out of shape by things that other Catholics may not find problematic in the least, like Communion in the hand, versus populum liturgies, lay eucharistic ministers, and the like.
Yes, I understand that this is how they think, but they usually make them more dogmatic and “non-negotiable” than history or canon law warrants. So, e.g., though I always receive communion on the tongue kneeling at an altar rail in my parish, I know that in the first six centuries of the Church (even up to nine centuries in some places), Holy Communion was received standing, in the hand. Some people, when I’ve pointed out this historical fact (with documentation), then resorted to saying that they were using the palm of their hand only. So I asked, “so what? What’s the essential difference between fingers and the palm of a hand?” Thus, they are (like the Pharisees) majoring on the minors and missing the larger point: which is that neither way is more intrinsically reverent than the other; though I also argue that in various cultural contexts, one way tends to be more reverent in practice (and I believe this about tongue reception today). I avoid the legalistic analysis and over-dogmatism that divides Catholics from each other.
As for eucharistic ministers, I’ve written a lot about that. I object to the overuse, clearly contrary to canon law. I learned about that mostly from non-traditionalists (Akin, Fr. Stravinskas), so that concern is not solely a traditionalist one. I also have written about how I prefer to receive from the priest, because he is the alter Christus. No one can say I shouldn’t do so, by canon law and the general freedom of worship. Yet a lot of people (including priests) wanted to argue with me about it. Nor does this necessarily entail a “hostility” towards eucharistic ministers. More legalistic thinking that I oppose. But in this case, I am thinking like a traditionalist: minus the legalistic tendencies.
Anyway, you’re not the only one who’s prolix. I could write a book about this stuff.
But I’ve got a day job, just as you do, even if it’s self-imposed.
My day job pays me about 30 cents an hour, but at least I love what I do and have much time to devote myself to it.
I think “normal” conservative and tradition-minded Catholics are both concerned with some of the problems we all see in the Church. I think these concerns may attach to slightly different diagnoses sometimes, even if both are accurate, as far as they go.
For example, somebody (let’s call him “Joe”) concerned with nothing more than the canonical licitness of a liturgical action may concern himself with various liturgical abuses such as departing from the rubric into ad hoc performances. Yet Joe may find altogether unmproblematic some liturgical innovations that, while canonically licit, represent a significant rupture with liturgical tradition as well as carrying questionable theological implications. (Let’s call the person concerned with these latter issues “Jim.”) [More detailed examples can be found HERE.]
Now Jim is no less concerned with the abuses involving canonical violations of the liturgical rubrics that concern Joe, but these abuses can seem almost beside-the-point in light of the concerns that animate Jim. Thus when Joe expresses satisfaction that some canonical abuses have been corrected by in his parish, Jim’s response to his satisfaction may seem less than enthusiastic, and this may strike him as strange and annoying. Why shouldn’t he rejoice? But Jim isn’t concerned so much with questions like “Is this Mass valid?” or “Is this action canonically illicit?” Rather, his questions run more along the lines of “Is this expression of liturgy authentically Catholic?” or “What does this liturgical action convey theologically?”
I think this is an example of the sort of disconnect we get between what I’ve called (for lack of a better distinction) “normal” conservative Catholics and “tradition-minded” Catholics.
As for how this impacts your question about why the latter could find those two book titles of yours annoying, my hunch is that some among them (to put it in extreme terms to make it more obvious) might be inclined to view honing one’s skills as an apologist in meeting various Protestant objections as a sort of parlour game being played on the deck of the sinking Titanic.
Now we know the Church is not a “Titanic” that’s going to sink, and we know that honest answers of the sort you provide to honest questions are invaluable to the quest for truth. But maybe this can help to see how the sides may fall out, when they could really serve the Church much better by cooperating or at least seeing one another as co-belligerents in the same army.
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Robert Allen wrote:
As a traditionalist, I see your apologetic as irrelevant and, yes, off-putting because you fail to realize that the most serious problem facing the HMC, entailing even the moral issues you address, is the continued abandonment of venerable liturgical rites wrought by V2. If you would like your work to resonate with me, try criticizing the powers that be who trumpet ecumenism while eroding the sense of what it means to be a Roman Catholic, i.e., those who would placate rather than attack our enemies.
Thanks for your feedback and for having the guts to refrain from anonymity.
Of course, your comment tells me nothing about why my apologetics is bad, or why two of my book titles are deficient. It’s no argument or true response at all.
All it tells us is that the only things you think are important are liturgy and a commitment against ecumenism: both classic traditionalist and radical Catholic reactionary distinctives.
My response, thought admittedly terse, does tell you everything you need to know about my pique: you folks are failing to get at the root of the problem, viz., the Protestanization of our liturgy and its insidious effect upon the life of the faithful. I must say though, in labeling my concerns ‘classic …’ you do manage to commit one of the best tu quoques of all time. Of course that appellation fits my concerns: I ALREADY TOLD YOU THAT I’M A TRADITIONALIST.
You apparently see no importance in apologetics or defense of doctrine. I find that fascinating, in that it seems to presuppose that apologetics was irrelevant before the notorious, evil, wicked Vatican II, as well as after.
That would be big news to St. Francis de Sales, Pascal, Bishop Bossuet, Cardinal Gibbons, St. Thomas More, Erasmus, St. Robert Bellarmine, Cardinal Wiseman, Blessed Cardinal Newman, Ronald Knox, G. K. Chesterton, Frank Sheed, Robert Hugh Benson, Hilaire Belloc, and many others.
I have read and greatly admire the works of all of those writers, especially FDS, BB, and HB. (I just discovered RHB and plan on reading BWA this summer.) The difference between them and you is that they were (or at least would have been had the question arose) staunch defenders of the Mass of the Ages and for that reason reliable guides as to what it means to be a RC.
But to you (if you are consistent with your present remarks) that is all “bad” because it’s not what you are most concerned about. It’s your way or the highway. Nothing else matters. That is the classic pharisaical attitude: so roundly condemned by our Lord.
To borrow a phrase from Barry Goldwater, extremism in the defense of tradition is no vice. Moreover it is most definitely not MY way for which I advocate, but the Mass of St. Gregory the Great and St. Pious V, as handed down from the Apostles who were with our Lord in the Upper Room when He 1st said ‘Do this in memory of me.’
Lastly, bad liturgy was not “wrought by V2”. It had nothing to do with that (V2 called for the retention of Latin), but everything to do with liturgical liberals who hijacked the council and put their own junk into place. The Pauline liturgy is not a bad thing; it’s a reformed thing, and if rightly done (this is the problem), every bit as orthodox and reverent as the Old Mass. Thus, I have attended a very traditional, reverent, Novus Ordo Latin Mass at my parish since 1991.
Ah the old intentions vs. implementation distinction. But here we do get to the heart of the matter. St. Pious V, in combating Protestantism, codified the Sacred Liturgy and thence declared that anyone attempting to alter any of its aspects, including the language in which it was to be prayed, should be anathema. The fact that you do not regard the NO as a violation of this papal edict is what (sadly) divides us.
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