Tres Viae

It seems that a lot of the problems within the Church today stem from Catholics, who have vastly different ideologies, thinking every Catholic thinks as they do. This simply isn’t true. Within the Church today there are at least three distinct ideologies in use. What are these ideologies? Well, I hope to explain that. Now, the names used are arbitrary. Just because you call yourself “traditionalist” doesn’t make you one. Furthermore, these distinctions have little to do with politics. Conservative Catholics may be quite liberal politically. And please, bear in mind, “liberal” is not synonymous with “heretic”. While the liberal position may constitute heresy, we can’t assume that right off the bat.  The greater portion of “liberals”, for example, oppose abortion, and if they don’t it’s because nobody has explained abortion to them in their terms.

Oh, and most Catholics in the pews fit into none of these, they just go to Mass on Sunday.


The liberal camp forms the left wing of the Catholic Church. They often seem to deny indefectibility (that the Church will never cease to be, or have any defect in its nature, even if some of its members are deficient in virtue). This, however, is not entirely fair. Liberals do generally believe that the Catholic Church is given to the world by God. Whether they believe that it is the only means to salvation is shakier, but not clearly irreconcilable with the Church’s teaching on the matter. The basic premise of Liberal Catholicism is that subjective reality is primary in any consideration. They believe that the Church must drastically change its Liturgy and Theology, but to a liberal these things are not essential. The essence of the Church’s mission is to continue giving to the people of this day the experience on a personal level that it has to the people of the past. Thus, a liberal doesn’t think that essentials have changed in the Church, just that its externals. While the right wing (and all of tradition) say that Liturgy and Theology are essential, a liberal will simply say, “Of course that was important at one time, but not now”. It should, of course, be noted there’s nothing wrong with some subjectivism. Moral Theology has a lot of it (“mortal sin” is a subjective class, that is it exists only as regards a subject or actor; only “grave matter” exists objectively, that is in what is apart from the subject under consideration). The right wing places primacy on objective reality, but the fact that liberals don’t does not make them wrong per se. Whether subjective reality should play the role liberals would like it to is up for debate, but it can’t be assumed that subjectivism is to be disregarded.


In practice, traditionalists pick a time period, somewhat at random, and set that up as the ideal by which all changes are to be measured. A lot of the old guard  (50+) set the ideal in the 1950’s. Younger traditionalists (are you surprised there are younger traditionalists?) are often more archaizing than their forebears. I myself probably put the mark somewhere in the 1200’s or 1300’s, after the Franciscans (oh fine, and the Dominicans) fixed things up, but before things went to pot again, necessitating the Council of Trent. Most traditionalists now either set the ideal with Pius X or sometimes Pius XII (pre-Pian reforms, e.g., Holy Week, new Latin Psalter, etc.).  What is interesting to see is that Traditionalists are now analyzing why they choose one time period for an ideal. When traditionalists quit arguing that things should be like 1950, and start to realize what about 1950 appeals to them, and arguing that as the good to be sought, they’ll be a force to recon with. Because traditionalism is in flux right now, the ideology is hard to pin down, and only generalizations can be made. Traditionalists do not like theological change (most are dyed in the wool Thomists). Liturgical change is usually circumspect (a lot of traddies don’t like dialogue Masses). Discipline and public policy could change in theory, but few actual changes are well received. In fairness, most traditionalists today did not experience pre-conciliar Catholicism, and so they view their chosen time-period in contrast to the present situation, which can lead to false impressions. Nonetheless, traditionalists are true idealists. They believe that there is an ideal objective reality for the Church, and any deviation from that ideal is a step away from the Divine Perfections. Traditionalists (all?) support the Tridentine Mass. However, it is no longer the case that this is the defining characteristic of the group. Most traditionalists would not be happy with just dropping the Old Mass into a “New Mass mentality”. They want a return to traditional discipline, theology, piety, sociology, public policy, and, oh yeah, liturgy.


This camp is the hardest to define. and is best understood by reference to typical conservatives (e.g., John Paul II, Scott Hahn, Mother Angelica, etc.). Conservatives are also not exactly an ideological group, unlike traditionalists and liberals. They’re about practicality. In theory they agree almost completely with traditionalists; in practice they cooperate far better and more often with liberals. Conservatives believe in pragmatism. While most like traditional things, they opt for “what the people want” above all else. Unfortunately, conservatives take for granted that liberals are right about what the people want. Traditionalists, one the other hand, want to form the people’s likes and dislikes according to ideals. Actually, so do liberals. Of course, the liberal view of people has scant little do to with what liberals want done. Conservatives think that liberals go to far in changing things. To them people’s wants do not necessitate the changes liberals make. Now, many conservatives’ personal tastes are quite traditional. What differentiates conservatives and traditionalists is whether traditional things should be mandatory. For a conservative it’s a matter of taste, for a traditionalist a matter of objective reality. Because the traditionalists often have very strong opinions, which leave no room for the sort of softening that Conservatives prefer, these groups often don’t get along very well. In fact, if a traditionalist, a conservative, and a liberal are working together the conservative and traditionalist will be at each other’s throat long before either will run into a problem with the liberal. Sure, they have plenty to fight about with the liberal, but such arguments will rarely come up. Conservatives and traditionalists both put a high value on ideologies (even as conservatives are pragmatists), and their ideologies are quite different. It doesn’t matter that their positions on most issues are virtually identical.

Typical Class Members

Liberals: Roger Cardinal Mahoney (Los Angeles), Bishop Donald Trautman (Erie), Duquesne University

Conservatives: Pope John Paul II (probably the defining type of conservatism), Bishop Donald Wuerl (Pittsburgh), Francis Cardinal George (Chicago)

Traditionalists: Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz, kinda (Lincoln),  Carnegie Mellon Newman Club

20 thoughts on “Tres Viae

  1. John

    One thing that always confuses me a little with Traditionalists is that they pick such late periods to draw from. The Epistles give us a reasonably good sense of how the early Church worked, and this can be suplemented by other evidence. It would seem that if someone’s arguing that older is better, that’s the place to look.

  2. rat

    Heh. Out of the entire Church, the CMU Newman Club gets picked as an example? Thanks, Anthrakeus, for exposing the secret of our traditionalism to the entire internet… 😉

  3. edey

    “Just because you call yourself “traditionalist” doesn’t make you one.”

    however, anthrakeus calling you one does 😉

  4. Steve Nicoloso

    If deem willing assent and obedience to Catholic teaching optional on all matters except those which have been “infallibly defined”, and wait in anxious hope that Rome will eventually come around to your way of thinking, then you’re a Latin-rite ‘Piscopalian.

    If you wait in anxious hope for Rome to put the smackdown on Bishops, (over which Rome already has more control by universal appointment than at any time in her history) you happen to disagree with, then your a Latin-rite ‘Piscopalian… of a different stripe.

  5. Anthrakeus Post author

    The New Testament actually gives very little detail regarding how the church was run. St. Paul and Acts both use terms like “episkopos” and “presbyteros”, but to what degree these are like bishops and priests today is somewhat debatable. Furthermore, these groups more or less agree on ecclesiology. Liberals place more authority in local bishops, Conservatives and Traditionalists in the Pope, but that’s about it. The disagreements come regarding liturgy and theology, which are not clearly explained in the New Testament.

    You are correct that Traditionalists rarely seek to “get back to the New Testament Church” (principally because that ideology arose from Liberal Protestants in the 17th and 18th centuries, who wanted to abolish sacraments and hierarchy). However, more and more traditionalists are not arguing that “older is better”. In general, the arguement was that any change must be legitimate (and that those over the past 50 years were illegitimate). Today, traditionalists will usually argue that traditional things are better in and of themselves, not by virtue of being older. It’s just coincidence that we stumbled upon them before now.

    “Thinking with the mind of the Church” is one thing, but the Church doesn’t receive her inspiration direct from heaven. The Holy Spirit works through the faithful to move the Church towards the work of God in any time and place. Just as the body receives sensation from its members. Sometimes that means opposing statements from the Church (but never coming from a spirit of dissent). The faithful may dissent from official (but non-De Fide) teachings… with good reason. The bad dissent comes from those who presuppose the Church is wrong. If after a thourough investigation you find some flaw in a Church statement, that’s a different animal, altogether.

  6. Steve Nicoloso

    Regarding infallibly defined doctrines…

    Can. 749 p1. By virtue of his office, the Supreme Pontiff possesses infallibility in teaching when as the supreme pastor and teacher of all the Christian faithful, who strengthens his brothers and sisters in the faith, he proclaims by definitive act that a doctrine of faith or morals is to be held.

    p2. The college of bishops also possesses infallibility in teaching when the bishops gathered together in an ecumenical council exercise the magisterium as teachers and judges of faith and morals who declare for the universal Church that a doctrine of faith or morals is to be held definitively; or when dispersed throughout the world but preserving the bond of communion among themselves and with the successor of Peter and teaching authentically together with the Roman Pontiff matters of faith or morals, they agree that a particular proposition is to be held definitively.

    p3. No doctrine is understood as defined infallibly unless this is manifestly evident.

    Can. 750 p1. A person must believe with divine and Catholic faith all those things contained in the word of God, written or handed on, that is, in the one deposit of faith entrusted to the Church, and at the same time proposed as divinely revealed either by the solemn magisterium of the Church or by its ordinary and universal magisterium which is manifested by the common adherence of the Christian faithful under the leadership of the sacred magisterium; therefore all are bound to avoid any doctrines whatsoever contrary to them.

    p2. Each and every thing which is proposed definitively by the magisterium of the Church concerning the doctrine of faith and morals, that is, each and every thing which is required to safeguard reverently and to expound faithfully the same deposit of faith, is also to be firm-ly embraced and retained; therefore, one who rejects those propositions which are to be held definitively is opposed to the doctrine of the Catholic Church.

    Regarding not infallibly defined doctrines…

    Can. 752 Although not an assent of faith, a religious submission of the intellect and will must be given to a doctrine which the Supreme Pontiff or the college of bishops declares concerning faith or morals when they exercise the authentic magisterium, even if they do not intend to proclaim it by definitive act; therefore, the Christian faithful are to take care to avoid those things which do not agree with it.

    Can. 753 Although the bishops who are in communion with the head and members of the college, whether individually or joined together in conferences of bishops or in particular councils, do not possess infallibility in teaching, they are authentic teachers and instructors of the faith for the Christian faithful entrusted to their care; the Christian faithful are bound to adhere with religious submission of mind to the authentic magisterium of their bishops.

    Can. 754 All the Christian faithful are obliged to observe the constitutions and decrees which the legitimate authority of the Church issues in order to propose doctrine and to proscribe erroneous opinions, particularly those which the Roman Pontiff or the college of bishops puts forth.

    Which of the above sets of teachings may the faithful legitimately dissent? Which may we disobey? To which, in other words, may the faithful, “with good reason”, refuse “to adhere with religious submission of mind”?? And if the answer is “Canon Law of the RCC is not infallible”, well then… QED.

    To complicate matters, what does it mean for the infallibility of a doctrine to be “manifestly evident”? To hear dissidents tell it, only the dogmas of the IC and Assumption of the BVM meet the test. What of the divinity of Christ? the Trinity? Well, you say, those have always and everywhere been believed, and you’d be mostly right. Well, what then of the Church’s teaching on contraception? Women’s ordination? JPII in Ordinatio Sacerdotalis essentially declared the Church’s teaching on the latter issue to be already infallibly defined by virtue of its being taught always and everywhere, and refused therefore to issue an infallible pronouncement on the matter.

  7. Dennis


    I stumbled on your blog and have liked what I’ve read so far.

    I think you missed one type of Catholic. (Which I like to think I am…when I’m not sinning.)

    orthodox…(with a small “o”)

    The orthodox Catholic is where I would put JPII. Too far right or too far left is always a bad thing.

    I think that JPII adhered to the strict teachings of the Church and asked all Catholics to do the same.

    Again, great site…although I keep getting some kind of stack error.


  8. Funky Dung

    Well, the problem is that different folks define orthodoxy differently. A lot of it has to do with which teachings folks believe are binding and how to interpret/apply the ones they believe are.

  9. Anthrakeus Post author


    First of all, many of the disagreements within the church are pastoral or liturgical, and do not fall under the statements of canon law cited. There is no guarantee of infallibility on such matters. Canon Law, as you say, is not infallible per se. However, Canon Law does represent a form of ordinary magisterium, and as such often contains things which are infallible. The same is true of the two universal Catechisms. The Liturgical books have traditionally been given weight in dogmatic theology, but I think that’s more by virtue of their age (deposits of tradition).

    It is never permitted to dissent from extraordinary magisterium. The Pope has exercised extraordinary magisterium only twice, but Councils also constitute extraordinary magisterium (by which such things as the divinity of Christ have been defined).

    To dissent licitly from ordinary magisterium depends on a number of things. First of all, there must be some reason. Thus, a theologian might dissent from Humanae Vitae’s complete ban on contraception saying that AIDS is very bad (the gravity of the AIDS epidemic is indeed great). Then, one must consider the weight of the teaching (HV was pretty strong, but there have certainly been stronger penalties, e.g., reading books on the Index- another ordinary magisterial teaching). Next, one must account for the effect one’s position would have on other areas (if AIDS patients can use condoms, why not everyone else. Perhaps the double effect principle?). Finally, one must avoid scandal (generally, by not questioning every document that comes from the Vatican, just this one in particular). All this, of course, requires more knowledge than the average Catholic tends to have. Thus, all decisions must await study.

    Notice that in this, the argument is not theological (that condoms are morally licit), but pastoral (in a given case the immorality does not apply). The Church would not normally try to define such a narrow issue, anyway. A Liberal Catholic would tend to want the most permissive stance possible. However, a person who, say, denies that abortion is immoral (at least materially) is not a Liberal Catholic. They’re not a Catholic, at all- they’re a heretic.

    I should note, I don’t like the idea of sanctioning condom use by AIDS patients, but it seems the Vatican may clarify HV’s teaching to allow for such use.

  10. Anthrakeus Post author


    Properly speaking, orthodox simply describes those professed Catholics who are not heretics. It comes from the Greek for “right-praise” (as those who were heretics back in the day also worshipped incorrectly). All three groups here described are orthodox (I’ve been vacilating a bit, but when I say “Liberal Catholic” I exclude the heretics; “Traditionalist Catholic” excludes schismatics; generally Conservatives are prone only to tepidity).

    The question at hand is not one of heresy, but whether their positions should be normative. Just because we don’t kick people out of the Church for their beliefs doesn’t mean we recommend their positions.

    To call the middle road “orthodox” implies that the other groups are heretical, or at least wrong. As a traditionalist, I’d have to disagree with that assertion. Most people, however, simply assume that what the Pope is you should be too. This isn’t the worst rule of thumb in the world, but there have been occasions where the personal positions of the Popes (even fairly public ones) have not been the best chosen. While John Paul II wasn’t anywhere near as off the mark as, say, Popes during the Avignon Captivity or the handful of immoral Popes we’ve had, I did disagree with him from time to time. I disagree with St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Cyril of Alexandria from time to time, too (as do you, in all likelihood). That doesn’t make them bad people.

  11. Dennis


    Thanks for giving me a better understanding. I totally agree with you.

    One thing about the Church is it does allow a lot of flexibility in being orthodox.


  12. Tom Smith


    “If you wait in anxious hope for Rome to put the smackdown on Bishops, (over which Rome already has more control by universal appointment than at any time in her history) you happen to disagree with, then your a Latin-rite ‘Piscopalian… of a different stripe.”

    I take issue with this. Firstly, is there really a problem with desiring Peter to cause bishops to be more adherent to Peter’s own mandates?

    Secondly, I would contend that Rome, indeed, does *not* have more control over the episcopal college than it has in the past. Yes, it’s true that the Pope reserves to himself the right to appoint bishops. This right, however, gets limited by the fact that one man simply can’t be familiar with every candidate for the episcopacy throughout the world. The nuncio to a particular nation speaks to the diocesan bishop about his replacement, and the bishop gives him a list of names. The nuncio then recommends one name to the Pope. If either the bishop or the nuncio is a bad apple, there really is no way to stop the wrong man from being consecrated.

    Also, once a man has been raised to the episcopacy, the Pope seemingly has no control. When was the last time a bishop clearly in violation of decrees from Rome was disciplined or removed? Recently, how many bishops in material heresy have been made to retract error? Even during the period of investiture, Popes were able to exercise a high degree of control over bishops through the brandishing of canonical penalties. When was the last time a Pope took care of a bad bishop by putting his diocese under interdict, or excommunicating him?

  13. Publius

    If you wait in anxious hope for Rome to put the smackdown on Bishops, (over which Rome already has more control by universal appointment than at any time in her history) you happen to disagree with, then your a Latin-rite ‘Piscopalian… of a different stripe.

    Since when are Episcopalians of any stripe in favor of the Pope cracking down? And how would the Pope crack down on a group of bishops that doesn’t recognize his authority, anyway?

  14. Publius

    Okay, is the Archbishop of Canterbury in the habit of cracking down in the Anglican Church? Are there Anglicans waiting in anxious hope for him to do so?

    Perpetual malcontents on the conservative/traditionalist side in the Catholic Church may be deficient in their trust of the hierarchy not letting things “go to the dogs,” but I still don’t see that they have that much in common with Anglicans — ecclesiologically or otherwise. After all, things have gotten pretty bad in the past (see the period contemporaneous with Luther).

  15. Funky Dung

    “Okay, is the Archbishop of Canterbury in the habit of cracking down in the Anglican Church? Are there Anglicans waiting in anxious hope for him to do so?”

    Well, I’m not sure they’re hoping for Canterbury to smack anyone down, but I think the orthodox few who oppose gay bishops and similar nonsense might wish *someone* would do *something* to stop the madness.

    “Perpetual malcontents on the conservative/traditionalist side in the Catholic Church may be deficient in their trust of the hierarchy not letting things ‘go to the dogs,’ but I still don’t see that they have that much in common with Anglicans — ecclesiologically or otherwise.”

    I think few Anglicans expect the hierarchy to do much of anything useful. Most high church types seem to chose to see and hear no evil. I think Steve was implying (and he should correct me if I’m wrong) that to bank on the hierarchy to act against troublemakers and heretics is to have an impoverished sense of ecclesiology. Instead of leaving everyone to their own devices (see/hear no evil) or whining that bishops do too little, the orthodox faithful should seek to be evangelists within the Church. The episcopacy has a legitimate place in Christ’s Church and I’m not advocating rebellion among the laity, but individual Church members, have a duty to do more than point out problems; they are to be part of the solution.

    Then again, perhaps Steve was just trying to point out the indefectability of the Church. Acting like Chicken Little about the Church’s woes would seem to indicate a lack of faith in that.

  16. Anthrakeus Post author

    Instead of leaving everyone to their own devices (see/hear no evil) or whining that bishops do too little, the orthodox faithful should seek to be evangelists within the Church.

    I agree whole-heartedly. Many traditionalists get impatient and decide to just leave (jump ship to the Society and whatnot). This is the sort of thing that Luther and the like did. It is only staying within the Church that one can get anything accomplished.

    Oddly enough, we see even less lay involvement in the debates within the Church today than 50 years ago. What debate there is usually focuses on things no one is at liberty to change (abortion, gay marriage, women clergy, etc.) Most good Catholics seem to have fallen into the opinion that only bad Catholics disagree with a bishop. The pointy hat doesn’t come with infalliblity (the tiara only comes with limited error insurance).

    Christ’s faithful are at liberty to make known their needs, especially their spiritual needs, and their wishes to the Pastors of the Church. Canon 212 §2

  17. Brennan

    Enjoyed this post. Peter Kreeft has an interesting article along quite similar lines here:

    It’s a good read.

    I also agree that a Traditionalist will butt heads with a conservative quicker than a liberal. At least liberals understand the importance of art, liturgy, and architecture, even if I completely disagree with their goals and what ends up happening to all three when they try to implement those goals.

    Conservatives seem to be fine with whatever comes down the pike from the Vatican (or the local Bishop) as long as it is official. Thus they may decry abuses in the new liturgy, but you won’t hear them decrying the actual reform itself, as traditionalists will. One example of the flexibiity of conservatives’ architectural sensibilities is the article Our Sunday Visitor ran on the new Los Angeles Cathedral about a year ago. The article simply discussed the cathedral as if it was right in line with other great Cathedrals like Lourdes or Chartres. Which I found rather unbelievable, to say the least.

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