Latin Mass Society

Chairman's Blog

19/12/2017 - 10:00

Islam and the Extraordinary Form

A glimpse of a transcendant mystery.

Today I am publishing a new Position Paper from FIUV, on the subject of Islam, on Rorate Caeli. Go over there to read it in full.

It sets out a very simple argument which seems difficult to deny. It goes like this.

1. Engagement with Islam (whether with a view to mutual understanding or evangelisation) is facilitated by common ground with Islam. The more common ground one has, whether cultural or theological, the better one can talk productively with people of other religions.

2. There is a great deal more common ground between Islam and that aspect of Catholicism exemplified by the Traditional liturgy, than there is between Islam and what is manifested by the reformed liturgy. In this, the Traditional Catholics are close to the situation of the ancient Christian churches in majority-Muslim countries.

What do I have in mind? Well, the ancient liturgy, and to a large extent the people who attend it, like the ancient churches of the Middle East, take (more) seriously the differences between the sexes; they use a sacred language, chant, and ritual; and they have more to say about fasting. The Novus Ordo has, from a strictly liturgical and also from a cultural standpoint, systematically eroded this common ground with Islam, just as it has eroded the common ground with the Oriental Churches.

Another point the paper makes is that Evangelical Christianity has its own approach to engaging with Islam which takes the opposite tack. They have common ground with Islam in placing great emphasis on a holy book, and in downplaying sacramental and incarnational theology and practice. They have an interesting, if adversarial, dialogue with Muslim apologists, in which the Muslims criticise Evangelical Christianity for giving God a super-human 'partner' and mediator, Jesus Christ, and the Evangelicals criticise Islam for giving a role in religious practice to a holy place (Mecca), and for an attitude to the Qu'ran which places its sacredness as a text (for example, in ritual proclamation) above its comprehension.

This approach is obviously not available to Catholics, and it is apparant that the general atmosphere and attitude to be found in the Church today falls between the two stools. It neither engages effectively with the ritual, aesetic, and 'family values' side of Islam, nor with what we might call the 'Low Church' side of Islam. Even the common ground the Holy See finds with Muslim countries in debates in the United Nations, notably about 'reproductive rights', is undermined by liberal Catholic attitudes to moral questions.

Since Islam is clearly going to be of major importance in the West as well as in traditionally-Muslim countries for the forseeable future, this is of no small importance.

A historical issue which is worth noting along the way is the retreat of Sufism and the advance of Salafism and Wahhabism in Sunni Islam in the 20th century. Until the early 20th century Sufism was a major and normal part of Muslim life in the Sunni world. Like Shia Islam, Sufism acknowledges 'saints' and encourages pilgrimages to their shrines. It elaborates Muslim ritual, most famously with the 'whirling' dances of the Dervishes. And its mystical theology emphasises a disinterested love of God, and the possibility of union with God, which contrasts with a literal-minded reading of the paradise offered to good Muslims in the Qu'ran. Like syncretistic 'folk' Islam in Africa and Asia, this is opposed by, and to an extent, has been successfully cleared away by, the purifying, reformist project represented by Salafism and Wahhabism.

It would be simplistic to look at this through the lens of Catholic and Protestant conflict within Christianity, but the net result is a form of Islam where the common ground with Evangelical Protestantism has been somewhat expanded, and the common ground with Catholicism somewhat contracted. In engaging with Islam, it is worth bearing in mind that some of the things Muslim apologists criticise in Christianity, and particularly in Catholicism, can be found in widespread Muslim practice of the recent past.

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16/12/2017 - 18:12

Shakespeare on the Traditional Mass


The idea that Shakespeare was a secret Catholic, and put coded messages into his plays about the Faith, is so attractive to me as a Catholic and a lover of Shakespeare that I have to be careful about confirmation bias. However, as I've noted before on this blog, Clare Asquith (in Shadowplay) and others have made a very serious historical case for it. Once you see it, you can't look at the plays in quite the same way again.


Shakespeare was writing at a time when pomp and ceremony in the liturgy were under intense attack. It had been stripped down to the bare minimum in the Anglican liturgy, and even that was too much for the Puritans. Yet this is what he wrote about a fantasy, ideal liturgy, in Ancient Delphi. The ambassador Dion speaks, in A Winter's Tale.

I shall report,
For most it caught me, the celestial habits,
Methinks I so should term them, and the reverence
Of the grave wearers. O, the sacrifice!
How ceremonious, solemn and unearthly
It was i' the offering!

A common theme in the plays is the murder near or before the beginning of an old king, in the course of some kind of revolution. What kind of revolution had turned Shakespeare's world upside down within living memory? Well, what sort of king was it? What attitude does the ghost of 'Old Hamlet' evoke in his viewers?

We do it wrong, being so majestical, to offer it the show of violence.


The doomed King Duncan in Macbeth combines humility with angelic power:

Besides, this Duncan
Hath borne his faculties so meek, hath been
So clear in his great office, that his virtues
Will plead like angels, trumpet-tongued, against
The deep damnation of his taking-off;
And pity, like a naked new-born babe,
Striding the blast, or heaven's cherubim, horsed
Upon the sightless couriers of the air,
Shall blow the horrid deed in every eye,
That tears shall drown the wind.

What has been kept safe in a private chapel for twenty years, in A Winter's Tale? Something to look at: a holy statue, which comes to life.


Let no man mock me,
For I will kiss her.

... Shall I draw the curtain?

No, not these twenty years.

So long could I
Stand by, a looker on.

Again: 'It is required
You do awake your faith'


Shakespeare, like all of his contemporaries, lived surrounded by the imposing ruins of Catholic religious houses. He did not view them with triumph or contempt. They suggested to him, rather, what would once have taken place within them. (Sonnet 73):

Bare ruin'd choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.

What we have in the Traditional liturgy of the Church is something we can see and, particularly when sung, hear. It is above all majestic, it fills us with awe, but it is something also gentle, comforting, and sustaining. It compels us to look within ourselves and repent of our sins, with a combination of fearfulness, piteousness, and confidence in God's mercy, which can more easily be experienced than described: though Shakespeare does a pretty good job.


And we have that liturgy still, in spite of all revolutions: still largely hidden, but there for those who seek it out.

(Photos: High Mass for the feast of the Immaculate Conception, SS Gregory & Augustine's, Oxford.)

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15/12/2017 - 13:17

Pierantoni answers Buttiglione

This article by Prof Claudio Pierantoni, one of the signatories of the Filial Correction, is very helpful, certainly to me, not least because Pierantoni expresses the problem in a way slightly differently from the way I have been doing. Pierantoni is a long-term acquaintance of Rocco Buttiglione, and not only knows his thinking well and sympathetically, but has corresponded with him on these precise issues.

Here is a key passage; do go over to LifeSite to see the whole thing.

 Buttiglione writes: 
There are therefore some cases in which remarried divorcees can (through their confessor and after suitable spiritual discernment) be considered to be in God’s grace and therefore deserving of receiving the sacraments. It seems a shocking novelty, but it is a doctrine that is entirely, and I dare say rock-solidly, traditional.
Note the rush and superficiality (certainly not justified by the mitigating circumstance of a lack of intelligence) with which Buttiglione jumps to the twofold consequence: in the first passage, he draws from the general doctrine of extenuating circumstances the immediate consequence that “remarried divorces can be considered to be in God’s grace.” With this, he skips over the strong objections that we critics have raised without even responding to them.

The mitigating circumstances would be based, as AL states and Buttiglione reiterates, on an inadequate understanding of the norm. Now, AL proposes a “suitable spiritual discernment.” But we would say that, for this spiritual discernment to be “suitable,” it must necessarily lead to a proper understanding of the norm. A poor understanding of the norm could perhaps be invoked by those who, left to themselves, do not have access to a confessor or spiritual guide. But to suggest that it would be invoked by someone who has access to this spiritual formation is a contradiction.
When someone confesses a sin, even if the confessor is able to assess that there have been mitigating circumstances in the past, the logical consequence is that the sinner renounces committing the sin in the future. If this were not the case, he would not be dealing with a sin, and so it wouldn’t make sense to speak of mitigating circumstances. If the penitent thinks he can continue to act in this way, he is affirming that “given the situation” the action wasn’t really, in fact, a sin, but rather the right thing to do. And this is precisely what situational ethics says, which in vain Buttiglione seeks to separate from AL. In this case, adultery wouldn’t be intrinsically evil, as Catholic moral theology states, but would be so “according to the case.”
Ultimately we are faced with a clear dilemma: either the irregular situation is sinful, or it isn’t.
If we say that it is sinful, then even though it might be mitigated by circumstances in the past, it must be forsaken in future. If instead, we say that it is not sinful, then we aren’t talking about extenuating circumstances anymore, but rather we fall head-on into situational ethics, which states that adultery is not always evil, but only in certain cases. And if this is true for adultery, then there’s no reason why it can’t be true for other actions which are considered to be intrinsically evil in Catholic doctrine. This would be the “atomic bomb” effect of which Joseph Seifert spoke.

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11/12/2017 - 19:24

More thoughts about the Buenos Aires letter: on ecclesial politics

With apologies to my readers, my thoughts have been particularly slow in forming on this blog in recent days. Still, further to my last post, here's a couple more: about the impact of this move on ecclesial politics.

A while ago I was asked by a journalist to comment on an article in L'Ossovertore Romano by Cardinal Ouellet, so I looked at this in some detail. Ouellet, like Cardinal Mueller, has been consistently putting out a very careful 'conservative' interpretation of Amoris laetitia. It is not so very different from the interpretation I gave on this blog when Amoris first came out.

His strategy has four parts.

1. He criticises conservatives worried about AL as misinterpreting it.
2. He also rejects those interpretations of AL which allow reception of Holy Communion, in circumstances condemned by the previous discipline, as misinterpretations ‘equally… (if not more so)’.
3. He stresses that what is really important in ‘pastoral accompaniment’ is listening and counselling, not access to the sacraments.
4. When he does turn to cases of access to the sacraments, his description of legitimate cases is such that they could be allowed under Pope St John Paul II’s Familiaris consortio.

What, then, can we take from AL, according to Cardinal Ouellet?

What is new, as I have noted, is the broadening of cases that are exceptional by virtue of the degree of subjective imputability of an objective fault, a degree influenced by the reasons noted above, especially unawareness of sin, and the weight of extenuating circumstances.
This could mean, for example, that just as Familiaris consortio envisaged the reception of Communion by couples living in an illicit second union if they had undertaken to live ‘as brother and sister’, so a determination by pastors that a couple were not in a state of mortal sin, for example for psychological reasons (lack of awareness of the gravity of the act, lack of consent), could lead to their reception of Communion, perhaps in private to avoid scandal.

However, when it comes to applying this conception of exceptional cases, Cardinal Ouellet becomes ‘hesitant’:

Some do exactly that, holding that a sincere intention of changing, even if it is not yet carried out because of limits in a person’s capacity for decisions, is enough to allow them to be admitted to the sacraments of Penance and Eucharist, on condition however of avoiding scandal. Such openness may be discerned in certain cases in the internal forum but must not be elevated to a general rule. I am personally hesitant about this approach because I am sensitive to the sacramental logic which demands sacramental coherence of persons who are communing with the faithfulness of Christ the Bridegroom giving Himself to His Bride the Church.

What Cardinal Ouellet is doing here is allowing Amoris some scope to make a difference, without it making too much, or the wrong kind, of a difference. Pointing out that psychological reasons could make an objectively gravely wrong act not mortally sinful is not, of course, new, and I fancy that the only reason this kind of thing hasn't been discussed with more prominence before is that it is (a) obvious, and (b) of exceedingly limited application. However, if this is what Amoris is about, then we can be gracious about it, and certainly don't need to panic.
Cardinal Ouellet's interpretation, however, is at right angles to that of Pope Francis' more liberal supporters. This isn't what they want it to mean at all. And those supporters include bishops, and groups of bishops. His Eminence does not shy away from this reality: 

Certain immediate statements, even those of bishops’ assemblies, either opening the door broadly to communion or opposing the direction taken by the Pontiff, must be recalibrated on the basis of the Holy Father’s own text which seeks a genuine formation in the truth of the Gospel, one which certainly gives greater importance to individual conscience (AL 303), but not for all that encouraging the risk that “the exception might become the rule”

A number of people immediately worried - not without some reason, given already existing practices - that this would result in a general provision and a trivialization of Communion in many cases. Certain hasty statements by bishops may have given such an impression. This is neither the spirit nor the letter of the text.

Now, of whom does he speak, when he refers to 'hasty statements by bishops' and to 'bishops' assemblies'? The most obvious examples are the guidlines offered by the bishops of Malta and of Buenos Aires. It seems significant, indeed, that Cardinal Ouellet uses an expression, 'groups of bishops', rather than the more obvious 'bishops' conferences', since the Bishops of Buenos Aires, unlike those of Malta, do not constitute a conference.
What the appearance of Pope Francis' letter to the Bishops of Buenos Aires in the Acta Apostolicis Sedis means, for Cardinal Ouellet, is that his claim that more liberal interpretations do not represent 'the Pope’s line', has become extremely difficult to maintain.

Cardinal Müller has been put in a similar, though not identical, position. His claim has consistently been not so much about Pope Francis' will, but about objective magisterial reality. He remarked some time ago, about the appearance of Pope's letter to the Bishops of Buenos Aires on the Vatican website:

The website of the Vatican has some weight, but it’s not a magisterial authority, and if you look at what the Argentine bishops wrote in their directive, you can interpret this in an orthodox way.

This is a very interesting statement, because if there were no theological problem with the Argentinian guidlines, then it would hardly be necessary to point out that Pope Francis' endorsment lacks magisterial authority. 
The appearance of the Pope's letter in the Acta puts pressure on Müller's position. It is, of course, still open to him to say (correctly, in my view) that simply because something appears in the Acta, that does not make it Magisterial. (Edward Peters agrees and expresses the argument very well.) And he can still insist that the Buenos Aires guidlines are sufficiently vague as to be patient of an orthodox interpretation. But the attempt to hold this position without direct confrontation with the will of Pope Francis has become that much more difficult.
These two Cardinals are far from endorsing the standard, liberal, interpretation of Amoris, and one can see them as the other arm of a pincer movement against this, alongside the Filial Correction. Either Pope Francis' nods and hints should be taken as the interpretive key to Amoris, or Amoris should be understood as in line with the previous magisterium. In either case, the liberalising consequences drawn out by various bishops around the world are wrong and must be opposed.
But if things can be difficult for those who signed the Correction, things aren't much easier for Cardinals Ouellet and Müller. I am reminded of Bishop Gardiner, during the reign of King Edward VI, insisting that Cranmer's Book of Common Prayer could be interpreted in line with Catholic teaching. Indeed it can be, since it is by silence rather than by open contradiction that it changed theology (with the exception perhaps of the 'black rubric'). However, this assertion served only to annoy the Protestantising faction even more, and Gardiner found himself in the Tower of London.
I hope Cardinals Müller and Ouellet do not suffer a similar fate.
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05/12/2017 - 10:39

Some thoughts about the Buenos Aires letter

In this post I address two questions.
The first is: what does it mean for Pope Francis to promulgate his letter to the Bishops of Buenons Aires, on their guidlines for the application of Amoris laetitia, in the Acta Apostolicae Sedis (AAS), the official record of Papal acts?
The second question is: does this procedure create an obligation on Catholic to believe something they were not previously obliged to believe?

So, on the first question. The Pope can speak as Pope and as a private person. In the latter capacity what he says may be of interest as an indication of his thinking, but it wouldn’t bind the faithful to believe anything. Normally private letters wouldn’t be considered part of the magisterium. Putting something in the AAS is a way of making it part of the magisterium. It is a bit surprising to do this with a private letter but I think there are precedents. Certainly many things are in the AAS which were addressed in the first place to particular groups, such as Pius XII’s famous talk to midwives authorising NFP. Putting such things in the AAS is a way of directing them to the whole Faithful.

On the second question: There is, however, more to making something part of the magisterium, and therefore binding on the consciences of Catholics, than simply asserting that it is magisterial. The content of the document is also relevant. ‘Legal positivists’ claim that laws are valid just by virtue of a valid procedure approving them, but this is false and has never been accepted by the Church. Even in the case of human laws, a law will fail to bind in conscience if it is impossible to follow, for example if it is incomprehensible, retroactive, or totally unreasonable. In those cases it fails to be a binding law, or, really, a law at all. Law is by definition something which guides action, and such putative laws are incapable of doing that.

In a similar way, if we are to talk of a papal magisterial act binding Catholics to believe something, then it must be in accordance with the existing magisterium, and it must be possible to understand what it means. Pope Francis’ letter fails on both counts.

Let's consider the content of the letter in more detail. The letter makes it clear that Pope Francis approves of the guidelines produced by the Bishops of Buenos Aires, but it does not say that these are doctrinally precise and binding on everyone, as opposed to being a reasonable local adaptation of general principles. The attitude of Pope Francis expressed on other occasions, in fact, points more to the latter interpretation. Cf. Amoris laetitia 3:

Each country or region, moreover, can seek solutions better suited to its culture and sensitive to its traditions and local needs.
So the most the letter says is that these guidelines are not in error.

The guidelines themselves are not entirely clear. They appear to say that a couple living in a state of objective sin may receive Holy Communion without repenting of their sin, since repentence would involve an intention not to return to the sin, and the guidlines' key scenario is one in which the couple have no such intention. The guidlines do not, however, propose the theological presuppositions which would have to be true if this position were to be possible. For example, they do not say that unrepentant mortal sin is not an impediment to the fruitful reception of Holy Communion; nor that Canon 915 (forbidding the giving of Holy Communion to those in objective states of grave sin) is invalid or somehow innaplicable; nor that penitents can be sacramentally absolved of deliberate sins without expressing contrition; nor that the category of mortal sin does not exist; nor that genital sexuality outside marriage is not gravely sinful; nor that a civil union lacking the form necessary for a valid Catholic marriage (let alone: in the absence of the annullment of a previous marriage of one or more of the parties), is a 'marriage' in the sense that sex for the couple is not gravely sinful.

It wouldn't, of course, have to say all of these things, but on the face of it one or more of them, or other equally impossible claims, would have to be true if it were to be true that couples in illicit unions should be allowed to receive Holy Communion.

On their most natural interpretation, the guidelines, in short, imply a contradiction with one or more of some very fundamental legal and moral principles, which Catholics are obliged to believe. Pope Francis has never attempted to deny these principles directly; on the contrary, Amoris laetitia implies strongly (in section 3) that it is not concerned with changing the teaching of the Church, and this has often been reiterated by the Pope’s supporters since then. In light of this, giving magisterial authority to this letter of approval of these guidelines seems besides the point. 

It is also innacurate to say that this latest papal act 'answers the dubia', since the dubia were precisely about these underlying principles which, on the face of it, rule out the position which appears to be implied by a natural reading of Amoris (and, still more clearly, by the Buenos Aires guidlines). Pope Francis' letter, and the guidlines themselves, steadfastly decline to say which, if any, of those principles are false, or how their truth might be compatible with the position which they appear to propose.

To summarise, there is no act this or any pope can perform which can free Catholics from the obligation to believe those truths of Faith and Morals which are taught infallibly by the Ordinary and Extraordinary Magisterium. Among those truths are many which appear to conflict with the Buenos Aires guidelines - though exactly which ones will depend on how those guidelines are defended. (Herein lies the unclarity.) Insofar as the guidlines are incompatible with those principles, including Canon 915, the publication of Pope Francis' letter in the AAS does not make it any more possible for Catholics to accept them as doctrinally sound.

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02/12/2017 - 20:49

A reason to be cheerful

Thanks for all the prayers!

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01/12/2017 - 11:23

Mgr Loftus: pro-lifers are 'terrorists'

Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas

I've waited to see if there if would be any reaction in the Letters page to Mgr Basil Loftus' latest outrage: an attack on Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City, in which he described the Archbishop, and any anyone like him who was actively pro-life, as a terrorist. (Catholic Times, 24th November 2017.)

His column is, as usual, both bizarre and incoherent. Remember, as you read it, that the Catholic Times is sold in the backs of Catholic churches every weekend: this is a newspaper, in other words, with ecclesiastical approval. I transcribe the key section for the record, since the paper has no online presence, even for subscribers.

No-one is more supportive [than Pope Francis] of the rights and paramountcy of all marginalised people, including the unborn - but he is totally opposed to the purportednly pro-life antics of men such as Archbishop Naumann, the recently elected head of the American bishops' 'pro-life committee'.

Where Naumann would erect marquees in papal colours in front of every abortion clinic, and staff them with a 24-hour guard of what Francis calls "prune-faced" people reciting the rosary round the clock, Francis for his part would have smiling and empathetic women there, who khow what it feels like to lose a baby, ready to offer support to the mothers who come out of those clinics, to accompany them in the awful journey of their post-abortion realisation, and to help them to discern what this means. Francis' ideas are clearly articulated by Blase Cupich, the Archbishop of Chicago, who recently lost the contest for chairmanship of that episcopal committee. He told his peers, and everyone else, that while strenuously defending the rights of the unborn child: "We should be no less appalled by the indifference towards the thousands of people who die daily for lack of decent medical care; who are denied rights by a broken immigration system and by racism; who suffer in hunger, joblessness and want; who pay the price of violence in gun-saturated neighbourhoods; or who are exectuted by the state in the name of justice." The US bishops preferred the argument advanced by Naumann, ...

Single-issue fanatics, whether they are exercised about sex and marriage, about maniples and Communion-on-the-tongue, about celibacy of the clergy, about contraception, or about the right to carry loaded firearms in America while attending Mass, are at heart essentially zealots. Sadly, too, it seems that those who insist on wearing birettas are often selfsame individuals who want to carry Berettas. All these fanatical partisans are by definition biased and prejudiced against any attempt to reason with them in a way that would seek to integrate their sometimes, but not always, rightful concerns within a wider context. Their extremist and sometimes violent propensities make them, in all but name, terrorists.

And sometimes worse. It is said, after all, that one can sometimes reason with a terrorist, but never with a liturgist! The priest who sweeps a child's teddy-bear off the tiny white coffin because it is forbidden by liturgical law, or who excludes females from the role of altar-servers, or refuses to wash their feet on Maundy Thursday, or who turns away from Communion a politician who voted not to criminalise abortion, or a bishop who refuses to back Pope Francis' plea for discernment in the matter of Communion for the divorced and remarried, and for those who live in non-conventional domestic situations, all of them are crypto-terrorists. They are numbered among those whom Paul condemns as ignoring the God's ways of righteousness in favour of their own ill-informed zeal (Romans, 10:3). ...

I hardly think it necessary to point out the contradictions and scandalous assertions in this article. But isn't it funny that he wants to bundle together so many positions he dislikes, in order to discredit them all, and then label people holding them as 'single issue zealots'?

The accusation of terrorism, though not larded with the casual racism which characterised his attack on Cardinal Ranjith ('the Sri Lankan cappa magna fetishist and Tridentine-rite devotee'), and not as theologically fundamental as his denial of the Bodily Resurrection of Our Lord or His Real Presence in the Blessed Sacrament, is in itself the most serious insult of a named prelate that I have read in his columns, and also perhaps the most insane. It seems Loftus, who was a canon lawyer, has forgotten the right of Archbishops, like lesser folk, to their good name (Canon 220).

I detect in this extract the instinctive anti-abortion sentiments common in Catholic liberals of his generation: the hand-wringing refusal to do anything to oppose what they think of as this dreadful, dreadful thing. It makes his attack on Archbishop Naumann all the more morally troubling.

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30/11/2017 - 10:00

The Psychology of Traditionalism

2009 06 27_2815_edited-1
Ordinations for the Fraternity of St Peter in Wigratzbad in 2009

Before my series of posts about Norman Dixon's Psychology of Military Incompetence, I'd been writing about Mgr Basil Loftus, who exemplifies the attitude that respect for rules indicates a conformist, 'anal', weak-ego individual. This inference enables him, and many others, to conclude that theological and liturgical conservatism and traditionalism manifests a kind of 'rigidity' incompatible with pastoral effectiveness.

I have shown what is wrong with this argument in general terms. It is a truism that people with weak egos and an unhealthy fear of failure will be risk-averse, and will seek the approval of their peers and superiors by conforming. In the post-conciliar situation, however, this approval is not forthcoming to conservatives and traditionalists in mainstream Catholic or non-Catholic institutions: it is, rather, given to those who toe the liberal line. It is rather remarkable that Loftus and his like have not noticed this, but as I have observed that classical presentations of the psychological theory they draw from, including Norman Dixon's, are prone to confuse the risk-taking non-conformism of a person with a strong ego and moral courage, with the liberal violation of traditional norms, and with the norm-violation of the merely self-indulgent.

So to address Loftus' claim, which one also hears from Pope Francis, directly, what sort of people become traditionally-minded priests? It is people of a 'rigid' mentality, seeking safety and predictability in rules and stereotypes? No, it isn't, because conformists want to conform, and you can't conform through a set of views and preferences rejected by almost all your peers and superiors.

That's not to say that traditional Catholics are all perfect and wonderful; they are heir to all the weaknesses of humanity like everyone else. It is just to point out the obvious. It takes moral courage to defend conservative or traditional views in Catholic schools, in Catholic universities or university chaplaincies, and in seminaries. It is sometimes possible to survive by keeping one's head down, but that still requires a high degree of mental toughness, and a willingness to exercise one's own judgement in defiance of the consensus. In a thousand institutions in the West, it is the odd, isolated conservative who acts as the only brake on group-think.

What of conservative or traditional institutions? Surely there one can conform by being conservative or traditional? Yes indeed. But that means that they are no different from any institution with an identifiable character. Conformists will try to conform. It doesn't follow that those in charge of these institutions are seeking to admit or to create conformists. They would be hard put to do it, indeed, because the vast majority of those entering these institutions have spent a lifetime not conforming, up to that point. If they were conformists, they wouldn't be there.

Another factor is the kind of life traditional priests tend to lead: the missionary type. Their distance from headquarters, and immersion in an environment which is at least partly hostile, requires initiative, resourcefulness, and self-confidence. Conformists wouldn't be able to cope. It is obvious to anyone with any personal knowledge of the Traditional institutes that superiors are concerned to produce priests who are self-confident, who can cope, who can deal with unexpected situations.

In an earlier post I considered Dixon's distinction between the authoritarian and the autocratic. I don't think he does a good job of it but it remains important. The structure of conformism may be confused with, but clearly isn't the same as, a strictly disciplined, hierarchical structure. Think of an elite military unit, trained to go behind enemy lines. They will be as disciplined as possible and as flexible-minded as possible. They'll weed out people with the pathological fear of failure which renders them incapable of using their initiative, and also the people who break rules just to please themselves. There is no conflict here. Discipline and routine can be a screen for the conformist to hide behind, but need not be. What specialist military training aims to produce is a focus on the objective (blowing up a bridge, say) with complete open-mindedness about means. It aims to produce people capable of thinking in unconventional ways, but good trainers will not confuse this with self-indulgent norm-violation.

It is not a coincidence that Archbishop Lefebvre was a missionary, the product of an institution, the Holy Ghost Fathers, which was, thanks to its missionary purpose, less geared to producing weak-ego conformists than others of its time. Put a weak-ego conformist in a 1930s bush-station and he would wouldn't last a week. And what do we find in the Archbishop's later career? That he was able to resist group-think, that he had the strength of character to defy the consensus, and that he sacrificed the comforts and honours of a well-deserved retirement to do what he thought was right by those below him in the hierarchy: priests, seminarians, and faithful.

To ram this point really home consider the example of the SSPX which he founded. Aren't they terribly strict and fierce? And don't they draw many vocations from inward-looking communities in which traditionalism is the norm? Well, maybe, but as I've been saying, discipline is not the same as the kind of authoritarianism, seeking conformism, we have been considering. Can this be tested? Why yes. Anyone with the smallest knowledge of the history of the SSPX knows perfectly well that the priests of the Society are not, in general, weak-ego conformists.

How so? The individualism and resourcefulness of these priests has good consequences, but to make this argument convincing to those who dislike the SSPX, let us focus on something they will be less inclined to deny: a bad consequence. Every few years there is some kind of eruption in the Society leading to the departure of a group of them, and individual priests depart on a regular basis. Some want to be reconciled with the Holy See. Some become sede vacantists. Most recently a group has renounced its affiliation for fear that the SSPX as a whole will be reconciled with the Pope. What does this tell us? That we have a group of men highly motivated by principle, and not highly motivated by the safety and comforts of institutional life, or the soothing approval of peers and superiors.

Bishop Fellay, the superior, must sometimes feel that he is herding cats. It is interesting that his talks, which appear on the internet every now and then, seek to explain and defend his attitude and policies by extended rational argument, not by banging the table or denouncing traitors. It's not a cult he's running, but a group of individuals who very much want to follow their own convictions.

The SSPX is under particular pressures because of its canonical situation. Other traditional groups, lay as well as clerical, can exhibit similar fissipariousness when under pressure of one kind or another. Particularly when things don't seem to be going well, people disagree about means to the end, and if you end up with factions advocating incompatible strategies, you can get a split. This isn't something to boast about, but it demonstrates that members are, to repeat, motivated by principle and not by the ego-soothing benefits of conformism. Personally, I'd rather deal with a group of eccentrics determined to get the job done, than the other extreme, a bunch of people who enjoy the comforts of institutional life, and are terrified of rocking the boat.

I'm not going to succeed in opening the eyes of the likes of Basil Loftus, but the next time someone links traditionalism with rigidity, I hope I have given you, dear reader, the resources to understand where that accusation comes from, what it means, and why it doesn't fit the facts. If we can point this out to the more open-minded segment of opinion, that will be victory enough.

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29/11/2017 - 10:00

The psychology of Ecclesiastical Incompetence

Bishop Mark Jabale at the LMS Annual Requiem in Westminster Cathedral

The reason I've been writing about Norman Dixon's theory of 'rigid' personalities and military incompetence, is that the Church has certain interesting parallels with the military. The Church is hierarchical and authoritarian; the Church's training institutions are places where people can enjoy the predictability of institutional life (particularly in religious communities) and the rewards of conformism. It is inevitable, therefore, that the Church, like the army, will attract conformists, and that good superiors in both cases must be on the look-out for those whose conformity to the necessary discipline of the institution hides a debilitating lack of self-confidence. Priests lacking in self-confidence will be useless in the field, so if they don't gain the necessary maturity they must be weeded out. Things will go very wrong if, on the other hand, the conformists gain the upper hand. In that scenario it is the self-confident ones who will be weeded out, and pastoral effectiveness will suffer across the board.

The tensions just described are built into the nature of things, and so the psychology of the use of authority in the Church, and especially in seminaries, could remain constant, in certain ways, through the Vatican II revolution. Institutions which had been taken over by conformists under the Old Regime could change their theology without, necessarily, changing their psychological dynamic, for the New Regime. Liberals might think that their 'let-it-all-hang-out' ideology had banished the authoritarianism/ conformism pattern of the past, but it didn't: it simply meant that instead of conformism meaning slavish adherence to late 19th century neo-scholasticism and the ruthless weeding out of liberals, it now meant slavish adherence to Hans Kung and his friends and the ruthless weeding out of conservatives. And indeed, since the products of such a system were priests who were conformists first, and conservatives or liberals second, a change of ideology would not even necessarily require a change of personnel.

I put forward these theoretical observations as a way to interpret certain historical patterns. Not all Catholic seminaries and communities were or are the same; nor were all the products of these institutions the same, with people bucking the trend in both good and bad ways. Nevertheless, I think few will dispute generalisations such as the following:

1. There was an exaggerated emphasis on conformism in many seminaries and communities before Vatican II.

2. This exaggerated conformism both fed the liberal critique of these institutions, and facilitated their flipping overnight from demanding conservative conformism to demanding liberal conformism.

3. The secular and religious clergy of the 1960s and 1970s were, let us say, more than one would wish, characterised by conformism, that is a lack of moral courage, than by rebellious, innovative, getting-the-job done, to-hell-with-others'-opinions, non-conformism.

Now what happens when weak-ego conformists are actually in charge of things? Can we find parallels in the behaviour of bishops for the patterns identified by Norman Dixon in his incompetent military commanders?

What we would expect to find, on Dixon's principles, are things like the following: bishops having regard for the opinions of each other, and of their superiors, at the expense of the wisdom or indeed the suffering of their priests and people; bishops seemingly incapable of absorbing or reacting to new and unwelcome information; bishops focusing on the appearance rather than the reality of success; bishops surrounding themselves with yes-men; bishops preferring easy or impossible tasks to difficult ones.

Readers with detailed knowledge of the history of the Church since 1960 will know well enough how widespread these tendencies have been. I will limit myself to two examples.

The Congregation for Divine Worship, in allowing bishops to permit altar girls, noted the importance of male altar serving in fostering vocations to the priesthood. This point has been vindicated by the experience of Lincoln, Nebraska, which is almost unique in the developed world in never permitting altar girls; by the isolated parishes which have maintained male-only altar serving; by the Traditional Institutes which recruit from chaplaincies with male-only servers; and by research on the influential experiences of seminarians.

It is theoretically possible for any bishop in the world to forbid altar females in his diocese. Almost all the diocese of the Western world are desperately short of vocations. Forbidding altar girls is a proven way to boost vocations, as shown by experience and affirmed by authority. A lack of vocations is posing an existential challenge to these dioceses. And yet they have not forbidden altar girls.

It is sometimes claimed that the reason for this is that these bishops - almost all the bishops of the developed world - don't actually want vocations. This is not so, however, as can be seen by the lengths they are going to in other ways to find priests: getting them in from overseas, for example, allowing in all kinds of new movements and religious institutes, and even giving parishes to traditionalist groups. No, nearly all of them want vocations, but they have lacked the moral courage to do the one thing proven to be effective in getting them, because there would have been a stink.

I'm not saying that this or that bishop should be accused of wrongdoing. Bishops are under all kinds of pressure and their circumstances are particular. What I'd say is that that fact that not a single one of the hundreds and hundreds of bishops who could copy Lincoln's example, has done so, suggests that as a group there is an unhealthy degree of conformism at work in the group as a whole. If a few did it, then many others, whom we could excuse now, would be able to follow.

Here's my second case. After Vatican II Cardinal Heenan set up a teacher-training institution in his diocese called Corpus Christi College, to re-educate Catholic school teachers in the new approach to Catechetics supposedly mandated by Vatican II. It was taken over by more or less open heretics who told the teachers not to teach the Faith at all. Daphne MacLeod and Michael Davies investigated it in detail and sent the necessary information to the Cardinal. Catholic teachers were being told, for example, not to affirm the Divinity of Christ or the Real Presence: pretty basic stuff.

Heenan, however, either refused to believe the reports, or refused to act on them. In the end, after years of pressure, the prospect of public scandal forced his hand and he closed the place down, but rather than distance himself from its teaching he claimed that the reason for the closure was financial. This allowed everyone involved to continue to claim that the content of the courses was officially approved.

Now it might be claimed, again, that Heenan acted this way because he agreed with the content of the teaching at Corpus Christi. This explanation does not fit the facts, however, for Heenan was quite clearly a theological conservative. The problem was the acute embarrassment and conflict which Heenan expected if he had acted against the College, which would no doubt have been supported by all the liberal intellectuals of the country and beyond. He lacked the moral courage to do it.

The history of the Church in the West in the first decades after Vatican II provides a vast number of parallels for these two cases. Collectively and individually, with exceptions notable for being exceptional, bishops failed to do what they knew could and should be done, even while priests and religious were leaving their vocations in droves, and the number of Catholics attending Mass dropped by as much as half in one decade. This was the Passchendaele of the Church in Europe and North America, and the bishops were the generals: stubborn in their weakness, refusing to see the problem, refusing to act, safe in the knowledge that they were following the policy of everyone else.

I write this happy in the knowledge that, outside certain institutional bubbles where denial is still maintained, everyone will agree with my analysis. Not because everyone will accept my diagnosis of the post-conciliar crisis, but because what I have been saying fits in, in a very obvious way, with something I've not yet mentioned, but which was reaching its fullest extent in this very time-period: the clerical sex-abuse crisis.

It is a truism to say that the clerical sex-abuse crisis was made possible by a culture of authoritarianism / conformism, and demonstrated a lack of moral courage on the part of many in the Church, but above all of bishops and religious superiors. It follows that, in these crucial decades, before and after 1970, the Church was characterised by this kind of culture. I'm afraid, dear reader, however much you may have been resistant to my argument so far, you will now have to admit that, even if my examples are wrong, my conclusion is correct.

Furthermore, as I noted in the last post, the liberal idea that breaking down the old rules would end this culture, is false. The authoritarian / conformist culture quite evidently did not end with Vatican II. The new rules were able to form the basis of authoritarianism and conformism too.

Finally, the liberal conflation of moral courage with self-indulgent rule-breaking finds its ultimate, painful, refutation, in the tragic cases of the abuse crisis. The stories of these cases precisely show how liberal norm-violation can coexist with authoritarianism.

May God forgive those whose moral courage failed when confronting these abusers.

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28/11/2017 - 10:00

The Psychology of Military Incompetence

The last stand on the retreat from Kabul (Wikipedia)

In my last post, I described part of the theory of the 'anal personality' widely used by psychologists of the 1960s and 1970s, and to an extent both before and after. Stripped of its Freudian explanatory basis (which is a lot of outdated and indeed laughable stuff about potty-training), the theory says that people with a 'weak ego' and a fear of failure will seek the approval of superiors and peers by conformism and playing it safe. This is not so much a theory, in fact, as a statement of the obvious.

I described how this observation has been applied in a one-sided way, by looking for conformism solely in terms of strict adherence to traditional rules. If attention is fixated upon this specific model of conformism, then it can seem inconceivable that a person opposed to traditional morality or social forms could be a conformist. This is the state of mind of seminary rectors, for example, who see theological or liturgical conservatism in seminarians as prima facie evidence of a weak ego, which would in turn indicate that the seminarians in question would be incapable of the flexibility of mind necessary for pastoral work.

This also seems to be the way that Pope Francis thinks. I don't want to pick him out, however: this is a very widespread attitude among senior clerics of his generation. The situation in seminaries and religious communities is beginning to change as a result of the retirement of this generation.

One of the ironies here is that so many practitioners of this psychological theory, and those influenced by it, exhibit the inflexibility of mind, and the rigid use of stereotypes, which they condemn in others.

In any case, things become more interesting once one notices that the core insight - that those who fear failure will play it safe - means that people with weak egos will comform with whatever are the dominant values of the environment in which they find themselves. In light of this rather obvious fact, the observations of Norman Dixon, in The Pyschology of Military Incompetence, are particularly helpful. Here is a summary of his conclusions.

Military establishments are, by necessity, hierarchical and authoritarian, and in their training environments, and in general in peace-time, they offer the predictability of institutional life and rewards for conformism. They are thus attractive for people with weak egos: people whose fear of failure makes them want to play things safe. In a well-run army, it will be a constant struggle to avoid promoting only the conformist goody-goodies, and conflict between them and risk-taking non-conformists, people who don't care too much about the opinions of their peers and superiors, but want to get the job done, will be a fact of life. In badly-run armies the conformists will take over completely and establish a culture of conformism which will lead to military ineffectiveness.

The next question is what happens to weak-ego conformists when they are promoted to positions of authority. When they have the freedom and authority to do their own thing, at least to an extent, what do they do? Here Dixon is at his most interesting, because it is here we can see the irrational and counter-productive aspects of the pathological fear of failure.

The incompetent generals Dixon considers have in common a concern for the respect of their fellow-officers and a disregard for the welfare of their troops. When it comes to conducting operations, they combine weakness and dithering, and a failure to give orders, with being closed-minded to unwelcome information, which can look like stubbornness.

On the first point, their self-image depends on the opinions of their peers (and superiors), rather than their inferiors. Thus General Elphinstone, during the retreat from Kabul of 1842, refused to allow his men, literally dying of cold, to improvise puttees from horse blankets. Elphinstone said it would look scruffy.

We should not get fixated on the subject of Elphinstone's obsession: the smart appearance of the British soldier. What is critical is that a scruffy army was a way in which he might lose face with his fellow officers. For him, that was more important than the welfare of his men.

On the second point, the generals' stubborn weakness, the crucial issue is the desire, manifested in a irrational, self-defeating, form, first to avoid blame (by not giving orders), and second, to hide from the possibility or the reality of failure by refusing to face up to disturbing information. Lord Raglan, famously, failed to give any orders at all during the battle of Alma, during the Crimean War, after his first one ('Advance to the river'). The most extreme example of the failure to look information in the face must be General Percival, who was warned repeatedly, not only by inferiors but even by his superior, that the Japanese attack on Singapore could come from the north, the land-ward side. He refused to build defences or move guns into the area, as he could easily have done.

When asked why, Percival revealingly replied that it would be 'bad for civilian morale' if the possibility of a Japanese attack from the north was acknowledged. But it wasn't civilians' morale which was really at issue: it was his own. He couldn't bear to face the possibility that the Japanese could invade from the undefended, land side of Singapore. It would have crushed his fragile self-confidence.

Another characteristic of incompetent conformists is taking on (when there is a choice) only tasks which are either easy or impossible. This might seem surprising, but fragile egos like these tasks because either they will succeed, or they will avoid blame for failure. They also like to assign blame, if possible, either to inferiors, or to forces outside their control.

Dixon's explanations make sense. The competent general is prepared to take responsibility, not by backside-covering conformity to conventional procedures, nor by burying his head in the sand, nor by diverting his energy to impossible tasks, but by facing squarely the difficult and necessary job at hand in an open-minded way. Since force conservation is a military necessity, the welfare and morale of his troops occupies an important place in his priorities, and he will not hide from the ordinary soldiers in headquarters. He will take responsibility for failure as well as for success, and he will be able to learn from his own, and others', mistakes.

Dixon makes the point that, tempting as it is, it is a mistake to attribute the military failures he considers to stupidity. Many of the generals he considers were highly intelligent. Nor were they cowards under fire: in many cases physical courage was among the factors which led to their promotion. Nor, again, did they necessarily lack compassion. Field Marshall Haig was physically ill when he saw the dressing stations, and resolved to preserve his health by not visiting them.

No: the thing they lacked was moral courage: the strength of character to do the right thing at the risk of failure, rejection, disgrace, and ridicule. Moral courage is the quality which led great commanders to break the rules, on those occasions on which they did so: Nelson's blind eye to the command to retreat at the battle of Copenhagen, for example, or the young officer James Wolf, later the great General Wolf, who refused the order to kill the wounded and prostrate Macleod of Glenelg in the aftermath of Culloden. He said to the appalling 'Butcher' Duke of Cumberland:

My commission is at the disposal of your Royal Highness, but I decline to become a butcher.

And here's something which nails the liberal narrative which is developed out of the general theory Dixon is applying, and with which Dixon himself agrees: viz. that taking rules seriously indicates a weak-ego, 'anal', conformist, character, whether the rules are military orders, moral obligations, or social norms. It should be obvious that there is a very important difference between breaking rules (such as orders) which are of only subordinate importance, because one has the moral courage to realise that they conflict, in the circumstances, with the right thing to do, and, on the other hand, breaking fundamental moral rules out of self indulgence. The self-indulgent breaking of sexual norms, for example, is not an example of moral courage, even if a some famous commanders combined moral courage in military matters with sexual self-indulgence.

The confusion of rule-breaking moral courage with rule-breaking self-indulgence has been particularly unfortunate for the Church. But this and other applications of these matters for the Church will require another blog post.

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