‘All changed; changed utterly…’ Observations on the Church as it is today.

By Father David Watt


For over half a century the Church has been pursuing a policy of aggiornamento. Here I offer a few reflections on the Church as we have it now; reflections having no authority beyond that of one unspectacular priest, 15 years ordained. It is my hope and prayer that these thoughts will receive any necessary correction and supplementation from wiser heads than mine, especially as there are many important aspects of the modern Church which I must perforce pass over in silence. (These omissions were partially supplied by my most recent article in Matrix, ‘Grace, Freewill and Predestination’, Nov. 2012.) Also, in speaking of how I have found a particular group, I do not mean to extrapolate; the situation of that body world-wide may be either worse or, as I devoutly hope, better, than my experience of it.


  1. The Dissidents


This group typically regards Vatican II as a good start, but thinks we should go much further in modernizing the Church. Some of the issues raised are lifting the requirement of celibacy for priests, and allowing contraception and female clergy.


One thing dissidents have in common with many who are avowedly non-Catholic is confusion regarding which things the Church can change, and which she cannot. Any policy or custom the Church has introduced, she can also revoke, but things she has inherited from her Spouse she can only pass on intact, with the plea ‘Don’t shoot the messenger!’ For example, the teaching against contraception and women priests is so firmly entrenched in the Ordinary Magisterium that a volte face by the Church on these issues would effectively negate her claim to be the Spouse of Christ. Besides, on each of these matters there is also an intervention of the Extraordinary Magisterium: Humanae Vitae (Venerable Paul VI) and Ordinatio Sacerdotalis (St John Paul II). See the superb article by my very good friend Fr Brian Harrison OS ‘The Ex Cathedra Status of the Encyclical Humanae Vitae’. There are also other theological works arguing for the same conclusion, but nothing, to my knowledge, shorter or more accessible than the article by Fr Harrison. Applying his principles to the document Ordinatio Sacerdotalis we can easily see that it too contains an intrinsically infallible definition; this time against the possibility of the Church ever ordaining women.


The case of clerical celibacy is not so clear. I, for one, cannot exclude the possibility of the Church one day relaxing her discipline in this matter, though I devoutly hope and pray this never takes place. It should be noted that Cardinal Stickler RIP has done much historical work on the basis for requiring celibacy of priests.


Similarly, Pope Francis has I believe rightly repudiated the notion of women cardinals. However, were they to be introduced by a subsequent Pope it would be crucial to precede this with a clearly infallible declaration that no female cardinal would ever be eligible for the Papacy, in saecula saeculorum.


When considering dissidentsa sine qua non is to bear in mind the distinction between material and formal heresy. For example, a believer in the ordination of women could still be a good Catholic – and indeed a far better one than myself – if his ignorance of the weight of Church teaching on this matter is not culpable.


  1. The Ultramontanists

This is a very sizable portion of the devout Catholics today. Their motto is Roma locuta est, causa finita est. Once a decision has been made by the Pope or his legitimate representatives – say to allow altar girls – then questioning the wisdom of that decision, even internally, is disloyal.


We will touch again on this group later; for now suffice it to say that it is much safer, on the whole, than the preceding one. For the ultramontanist can never go completely off the rails. We know a priori that God will never permit a Pope to command the whole Church to believe something which is false, or to do something which is sinful. It is also to the credit of ultramontanists that in a time of such confusion in the Church, and consequent erosion of respect for those in authority, they should lay such stress on this respect. Better, by far, that some expressions of respect should be exaggerated, than that we should err in the opposite direction.


  1. The Caros and the Neo Cats

These orthodox-minded groups would seem, on the whole, to be a force for good. To be sure, just as you can pick holes in any individual, you can do so with any group. In the case of the charismatics, or as I affectionately term them, the caros, there is sometimes an exaggerated emphasis on the marvellous – praying in tongues, prophesizing etc. It is noteworthy that the Blessed Virgin, in Her appearances, to my knowledge never asks for any such extraordinary practices. Instead, what does She request? The ‘boring’, humdrum prayer of the Rosary. Therefore I was very pleased to hear about a caro group which started its prayer meetings with the Rosary. Unfortunately however I believe this would be the exception rather than the rule.


What are we to make of all the allegedly charismatic phenomena – praying in tongues and so forth?   We know they were common in Apostolic times, presumably to give the Church a kick-start in the midst of a hostile pagan culture. It is possible, I believe, to view the current explosion of such occurrences in the same light – once again, we are surrounded by a hostile culture – ‘the absoluteness of relativism’ – in addition to which the Church has been so devastated by heresy and disobedience that it is almost like starting again. Nevertheless, it is obviously possible for the devil to counterfeit these extraordinary things. So if having a spiritual director is invaluable for anyone (see my Internet article on the subject), how much more in the case of someone purporting to have charismatic gifts. I do not seem to have any myself; nor do I feel called down that particular path.


Nonetheless, we can all learn a great deal from caros – particularly concerning the need to be child-like and if need be ‘fools for Christ’ – and that ‘the joy of the Lord is our strength’. Caros often impress with their energy and enthusiasm for the Lord. Interestingly, the most significant book I have read for years, Will Many Be Saved?, is by a caro, Dr Ralph Martin. I have steered people towards caro groups if that seems to be their bent.


Like the caros, Neo Cats are zealous and often successful evangelizers of pagans or less than keen Catholics. The only real weakness I can see in Neo Cats is an exaggerated and romantic emphasis on the Early Church – or what they think was the Early Church. (With so many documents having perished, any reconstruction of those times will often be conjectural, extrapolating from quite sketchy data. For example, some think Communion in the hand was universal for the first 1000 years of the Church, and yet I, for one, am aware of only one document from one bishop, indicating that it was practised in his diocese.)


Having attended Neo Cat Masses I found them quite edifying in their fervour, and that is the main thing. The Communion arrangements, however, left something to be desired. For example, everyone received on the hand – as if there were no other way – and not ordinary Hosts either but chunky pieces of ex-bread – an absolute nightmare from the perspective of particles.   There are some comments on the underlying issues in my article ‘God be in my hand – or on my tongue?’ (New Oxford Review, June 1999, pp23-25). In that article I promote the receiving of Communion kneeling and on the tongue. (NOR was the main forum for my articles before I started writing for Matrix.)


  1. The Traddies

The space I devote to this section might appear disproportionate; however there is a reason for that. By far the group with which I have had most contact, it includes some of my closest friends, which would be impossible did I not believe there is a great deal of truth in what they say. Nevertheless, even here the primeval serpent has managed to worm his way in; indeed he is having a field-day.


Traddies basically regard aggiornamento as an experiment which has failed. As one of my long-time friends put it to me, when Coke changed the formula for their drink, sales and shares diminished, so they reverted to the original formula whereupon sales and shares reverted as well. The clear implication being that we should revert to the pre-Vatican ‘formula’.


It is difficult not to recognize here the fallacy of post hoc ergo propter hoc; the situation pre-and –post Vatican II being enormously more complex than that of Coke. For a start, if Vatican II was such a terrible thing, well, it was the pre-Vatican Church which produced it!   Also, the mere fact that the Church suffered such catastrophic haemorrhaging immediately after Vatican II, proves that we cannot lay all the blame at the feet of the Council. A sound oak does not rot overnight.


Here are some concrete indications from about 1955 which confirm that, despite the imposing edifice of the pre-Vatican II Church, all was not well. One priest told me that when he was in the seminary, the instructor asked the class ‘Can we say that anyone is in Hell?’ Our priest-to-be bravely put up his hand, saying ‘Judas’, whereupon he was torn to shreds. (Significantly, in my experience, those who claim Judas was or might have been saved, a) never say they are praying to or for him; lex orandi lex credendi; b) never provide any alternative explanation how, of someone who, let us suppose, did not go to Hell, it could still be truly said (Mt 26:24, Mk 14:21) that it were better for that man had he not been born.)


Another priest told me that when it came time to take the Oath against Modernism, his class was told ‘This is just a formality – close your eyes and rattle it off; you don’t have to mean it’. Another proof that, despite the heroic efforts of Pope St Pius X against Modernism, the many-headed Hydra was not totally vanquished.


Since the traddy is in reaction to directions taken by the Church – even officially – for more than half a century, he is subject to the human tendency, when reacting, to over-react. And in fact this is exactly how the devil assaults those in the traditionalist movement. As St Ignatius Loyola says in his Spiritual Exercises, Satan, before he attacks us, first determines our natural bent, and then tries to push that to excess. So in the case of a traddy he will not propose support for women priests; instead he will try to make the person more and more “traditional” so that eventually he winds up as the only true Catholic. And this demonic deception is a splendid success; eg witness all the traddies who have become sedevacantists, including some I knew and whose excellent talks I had attended. [The simplest refutation of sedevacantism (for which credit goes to a traddy friend of mine) is this: how do we get out of it? All the appointments of a soi-disant Pope are invalid, so how do we elect a valid one? Rival sedevacantist groups have each resolved the matter by electing their own Pope; every one of these claimants is operating simultaneously with the others, complete with his own Cardinals and other entourage. How ever to know which is the true Pope? Clearly, in such a case, Christ would have abandoned His Church – contrary to His promise.] I remember once reading a long traddy screed, the whole point of which was to attack the Society of St Pius X and other traddy groups for being insufficiently “traditional”!


One might think that, because of traditional esteem for the priesthood, a traddy, on meeting a priest, would be very respectful and eager to learn from him. My own experience, though, is the exact opposite – he is eager toteach the priest, especially that he should say the Old Mass. You might hope that, if he must judge the priest at all, he would ask how devout he is, how humble, obedient, chaste, mortified, zealous and – very much in the last place – how learned. But no; it’s all about the Old Mass.


Ironically, all this emphasis on the Old Mass is actually quite untraditional. For a Catholic ‘It’s the Mass which matters’, far more than any particular form of it. We are perfectly entitled to have a preference, whether for the New Mass or the Old, but when we neglect to attend Mass on a particular day – even if not of obligation – simply because we cannot obtain it in our preferred form, something is terribly awry. (Of course, this point applies also to those with a preference for the Novus Ordo whose only way of attending Mass on a particular day is to do so in the Old Rite.) One young man challenged his fellow-traddies in these words: ‘Jesus   becomes present; what’s your excuse?’


Of course, some traddies deny – or doubt – that Jesus does become present in the Novus Ordo. This is an example of the centrifugal force wielded so successfully by the devil in the whole traddy movement. For while we are not obliged as Catholics to accept that the New Mass is an improvement, we are  obliged to believe that it is valid.   There is a clearly ex cathedra pronouncement to that effect in the way the Novus Ordo was promulgated, to say nothing of the sensus fidei in the acceptance of this validity throughout the Catholic world.


In theory there could be a celebration of the Mass so bad that to attend it would actually be sinful. However traddies exaggerate here, for instance posting pictures of clown Masses as if they were anything other than extremely rare. Likewise with the issue of heresy from the pulpit. For example, it is comparatively rare that a priest says ‘There is no Hell’ or ‘No one goes to Hell’. Much more common is to err by omission eg never to mention Hell from one end of the year to the next.


Even if the priest is actually preaching heresy, it does not necessarily follow, for example, that a home-schooling mother must always keep her children away. Each case must be judged individually. It could be that some children have been sufficiently inoculated against heresy by what they heard at home, and from orthodox priests, and that taking them to the Mass, warts and all, is preferable to having them miss out on Mass that day.


In any case, sooner or later the children will have to deal with the fact that there are priests offering valid Masses who nonetheless teach error on occasion. Also the problem of heresy from the pulpit is more one for Sunday Masses. I am always pleased when I hear of home-schooling families who, attending Latin Mass on Sundays but having limited opportunity to do so on weekdays, use the Novus Ordo instead.


Often the errors made by traddies can be ascribed, ironically enough, to ignorance of Church Tradition. Take for example traddy websites attacking Pope Francis, seemingly in blissful ignorance of eg St Ignatius Loyola’s Tenth Rule for Thinking with the Church.


Another instance is the traddy appeal to Pope St Pius V having promulgated their Mass ‘in perpetuity’; oblivious to the fact that in matters purely of Church discipline, anything introduced by one Pope can be abrogated by another. It is only in doctrinal matters that one Pope can tie the hands of all his successors.   Thus we knows, from Ordinatio Sacerdotalis if for no other reason, that if the Church lasts a million years, we will never have women priests, whereas we have no assurance that in a million years any of the current forms of the Mass will have survived. So when a Pope makes a non-doctrinal decision ‘for perpetuity’, that phrase must be understood as containing some such implicit condition as this ‘Provided no successor of mine revokes this declaration’.


Another fallacious argument is used when traddies ‘set up shop’ in a particular diocese without their priests having gone through the normal process of applying to the bishop for faculties to hear Confessions, conduct marriages and so forth.   The argument is ‘We’re in a state of emergency, so there’s no time to dot all the ‘i’s and cross all the ‘t’s; thus faculties are provided by the principle Ecclesia supplet.’ Though I agree with the premise of this argument – we are in a state of emergency – I would turn the conclusion on its head. Precisely because we are in a state of emergency, we must be even more careful to show respect for Church authority – and with even greater reason, when we disagree with it. (It is only then that our respect is really tested.) Otherwise, we risk scandalizing the faithful by our defiance. This is the lesson taught us by the Saints.   For example, when an excommunication was purportedly fulminated against St Mary Mackillop, though she was assured by her Jesuit confessors of its invalidity due to the lack of canonical form and so forth, to avoid scandal she complied with the decree in public, receiving the Sacraments only privately.


Yet another error is made by traddies in confounding what is not in Tradition with what is against Tradition. For example, Eucharistic Prayer III is not in Tradition, but that does not mean it is “untraditional”. In fact the history of the Roman Rite over the centuries is to a considerable degree one of additions which ex hypothesi were not in the liturgy before – and yet traddies themselves accept those accretions.


Sometimes however they do not accept deletions, even in the Old Rite. For example some traddy priests will say Mass in its pre-1962 form– with Octaves, Third Confiteor and so forth – justifying themselves with the Thomistic principle that an unjust law is no law.   But while this principle is very important, it is misapplied here. For even assuming the deletions made to reach the 1962 form were unjust, there is, once again, the question of scandal. No priest in 1962 would have thought himself entitled to use a pre-1962 form of the Mass, whatever his personal attitude to the changes. And if it is admissible, now, for a priest to use a pre-1962 form, where does it all end? Can he say Mass as it was said in 1900? 1600? 1500?


In general, the challenge for traddies is to accept the validity of changes in Church law, despite there being no obligation to like or to agree with these developments. To give only a few examples, as Catholics we are obliged to accept, whether we like it or not, the validity of satisfying our Sunday obligation by attending Mass on Saturday evening; the legitimacy of using lay ministers of Communion in the circumstances spelled out by Vatican documents; and the fact that many preconciliar indulgences have been abrogated.


In speaking of traddy errors I am of course presenting a composite picture; not every traddy falls into every error. For example, not a few traddy priests eschew saying Mass in its pre-1962 form, and will not operate anywhere without the consent of the Bishop. However, one problem that seems to cut across a wide spectrum of traddies is the lack of spiritual direction; interestingly, this lack was commented upon by someone I knew, a traddy seminarian, regarding the traddy church in which he was serving. To be fair, the proportion of traddies without a spiritual director is not necessarily greater than in the Church at large. However, in the case of traddies, the need for SD is even more pressing than for the average Catholic, precisely because they are strong-minded enough to reject much of the broad-scale spiritual direction provided by Church leaders for over fifty years.


Notwithstanding all of the above, traddies perform many sterling services for the Church. Ironically, given all their emphasis on the Latin Mass, their greatest contribution, I believe, is not liturgical but doctrinal. Traddies remind us that Catholic belief is like a ratchet, or a skyscraper – it proceeds in only one direction. We can add further floors (new canonizations and so forth) but we can never take anything away. Furthermore, pace ultramontanists, aggiornamento, as a mere policy, does not participate in this infallibility. And yet, as Fr John Parsons shrewdly observes, while belief in Catholic doctrine has often become optional, belief in aggiornamento is not optional, at least for anyone wanting to go places in the Church.


With only a minute fraction of the conciliar-cum-postconciliar Magisterium being in the extraordinary form guaranteeing that it is infallible per se, there is no a priori impossibility of an inconsistency between some of this (voluminous!) corpus and infallible pre-conciliar belief. Traddies labour especially to demonstrate a contradiction between Vatican II and what the Church has held since time immemorial. However, from what I have seen of their efforts, I am unconvinced. As far as I can tell, the relevant statements of Vatican II are simply too vague to be clearly convicted of error. In this connection I alert readers to a very important book, Religious Freedom, by Arnold T. Guminski and Fr Brian Harrison OS, St Augustine’s Press, South Bend, Indiana USA, 2013. Guminski mounts a traddy-style argument for the inconsistency of Vatican II with preconciliar doctrine, while Fr Harrison maintains the opposite. I believe Fr Harrison wins this debate.


The important thing traddies show us, however, is that there can be a debate. Every statement – even Magisterial – which is not infallible in its own right, must be assessed by reference to the previous, weightier, Magisterium, and if found to be inconsistent with it, rejected.


On the liturgical front also we can learn much from traddies. Firstly, as I believe has been demonstrated by Count Neri Capponi, Advocate of the Roman Rota, the Old Mass was never validly abrogated. Count Capponi points out that an immemorial custom – in this case, saying the Old Mass – cannot be revoked by any authority – such as a Vatican Congregation – lower than the Pope. The Holy Father must do it himself, not through any of his representatives, and since this never happened, the Old Mass was never illegal. In the promulgation of the New Mass banning of the Old Mass was conspicuously absent. To be sure, when the Pope revises the Order of Mass, this can be taken as a tacit banning of the previous, unrevised version; however this argument will not work in the case of the Old Mass, because the difference between the two Rites is too great. [Count Capponi, I am glad to say, would not be accounted a ‘hard-line’ traddy, since he told me he attended the Latin Mass on Sundays and the Novus Ordo on weekdays (perhaps faute de mieux).]


Secondly, traddies recapture a sense of decorum for the liturgy and for Church architecture and internal furnishings. Tragically, after Vatican II, there was much re-inventing of the wheel. For instance, so much beautiful Church music was ditched in favour of the tawdry and banal. Another instance (one could go on and on, but it would be too depressing) was the ripping out of the altar rails. Often such changes were justified by the “spirit of Vatican II”; the word “spirit” conveniently avoiding any need to defend the innovation by a specific quotation from the Council documents.

External beauty in everything connected with Divine worship obviously has a value per se but also because of the weakness of our faith. It is harder to perceive the One who is Supreme Beauty in the midst of so much that is trite, commonplace, or even downright ugly.

Traddies however need to be reminded that ‘all the glory of the King’s daughter is within’ (Ps 44:14; sometimes given as Psalm 45, but I am a traddy when it comes to Scripture!). A Novus Ordo celebration in a hideous church, with painfully bad music and so on, may actually give more glory to God than a beautifully conducted Old Mass in an exquisite church, if the hearts of those present are not so much on fire for God. And it may sometimes be advisable to trade one form of beauty against another, eg forgo some additional time enhancing the celebration, for the sake of bringing extra people to it.



The Church of today is indeed a sorry sight. With souls falling into Hell like autumn leaves, we fritter away precious time and energy in bitter internecine strife. One might almost be tempted to despair, were it not for Our Lady’s promise at Fatima: ‘In the end My Immaculate Heart will triumph’.


I do not mean we should not oppose error; indeed, much of my priesthood has been spent attempting to do just that. But when someone formulates an assertion ‘savouring of heresy’, then as St Ignatius Loyola says at the beginning of his Spiritual Exercises, we should be more ready to save the proposition than to condemn it, and if after due enquiry as to what the person meant, there is no possible interpretation in which the statement is correct, still wherever possible we should attack the error, not the errer.


If we should be chary of ascribing material heresy to anyone, our reluctance should be intensified one thousand fold when it is a question of formal heresy, because of the moral judgment involved. I always tell people angry at hearing heresy from a priest ‘Don’t judge him; pray for him. Ten to one he’s been taught that heresy in the seminary!’. He might believe in good faith that the Church has changed her teaching on this point.


Quite apart from that issue, priests need the support of penance and prayer, being subject to concentrated attacks from the devil on account of their position of leadership in the Church. But if support for priests in this regard has been lacking since time immemorial, still, it is really hard to be a priest today, in the astute observation of a traddy priest and very close friend of mine, since in so far as there was, traditionally, support for priests, in the world as we have it today, this support has largely dissipated.


The charity needed towards priests is merely an intensification of what is required in a Church far more variegated than it was 60 years ago, and presenting greatly increased demands on our tolerance. The Catholic way is to look for good in every individual and group, being far more interested in learning from them than in finding something to criticize. Whereas worldly people are very critical of others, but lazy to improve themselves.


The groups within the Church need more readiness to see that not everyone is called to join them. Rather than a blinkered focus on promoting just one’s own movement, there is sometimes a willingness to look and see what other groups are doing, lest one impinge on that. Where this fails to occur there may be, in the same town, three retreats organized for the same weekend, and then nothing else for months. In the face of so much ‘tunnel vision’ I am always heartened to come across individuals who are ‘interdisciplinary’; one surprising example, in my experience, being self-confessed caros with a penchant for the Latin Mass.


Even if one does not feel oneself drawn towards a particular group, we must recognize how the Spirit is moving there. For instance, since Vatican II, while long-standing Orders often rejected traditional expressions of religious life such as the habit, literally hundreds of new religious communities have sprung up emphasizing precisely those discarded expressions. Laus Deo semper et Mariae!


In general, what attitude should we take towards aggiornamento? Many official directions are prudential and such that it is not immediately evident whether or not the decision is correct. Take for example the decision to allow greatly extended use of vernacular in the Mass. I am no liturgical peritus, but even if I were, and I made a lifetime study of this point, I doubt I could attain certainty on the matter. In such cases the better policy, I submit, is to go along with the way the Church has been moving – at least until such time as there is an official volte face. (On the particular issue of changes in the liturgy it is I believe significant that even though the Latin Mass is often promoted by those with no experience of the preconciliar Church, most of those I have found who do have such experience are glad the Mass has changed. They feel they can participate better in the New Mass.) This way of ‘thinking with the Church’ was recommendable even before the canonization of Saints John XXIII and John Paul II – and all the more now.


Of course, holiness is quite compatible even with grave error; to give just one kind of historical instance, Saints have sometimes erred on even such a fundamental question as who was legitimate Pope. So the mere fact that as Catholics we are now required to believe that John XXIII and John Paul II are in Heaven does not exclude the possibility of one or other Pope sometimes making even sizable faux pas. (More generally, an overall preparedness to go along with aggiornamento does not preclude a belief that the policy has been mistaken on some individual points, and in fact I have this belief; details are beyond the scope of this article.) However, if on a particular point it cannot be proved they were wrong, but neither can it be shown they were right, the more logical course is a provisional acceptance of the direction they provide. With the proponents of aggiornamento working miracles, it is reasonable to ask that the opponents begin working them also.


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