Are Traditionalists Guilty of Pharisaism?

One of the most reoccurring and stinging accusations made against Traditional Catholics is the charge of “Pharisaism” or “legalism.” This is a very serious claim: after all, the Pharisees were the human agents responsible for the crucifixion of Christ and were referred to as a “brood of vipers” by Our Lord Himself (Matt. 22:33). It was of the Pharisees that Jesus asked the terrifying question, “How can any of you escape damnation?” Therefore, Traditionalist Catholics ought to respond to this charge with utmost seriousness and not just take it when liberal Catholics, Protestants or conservative Catholics start hurling the “P” word around.

The derogatory power inherent in the label “Pharisee” consists not in the word itself, but in what this word symbolically brings to mind. When someone calls a Trad a Pharisee, they are of course not saying that we are adherents to a powerful sect of 1st century Judaism. Rather, they are leveling the same criticisms that Christ leveled against the religious hierarchy of His day: that we care too much for externals, that our piety is all show, that our adherence to tradition is rigid and lifeless. Yet all these accusations are very fluid and open to much interpretation. Let’s go back to the Scriptures and define what exactly the essence of a Pharisee is, and then compare that to Traditional Catholics to see if our calumniators have a point. According to the Scriptures, the following are applied to the Pharisees by our Lord:

  • “They preach, but do not practice” (Matt. 23:3).
  • “They do all their deeds to be seen by men” (v. 5).
  • “neglected justice, mercy and faith” (v. 23).
  • “cleanse the outside of the cup and plate, but inside are full of extortion” (v. 25)
  • “outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanliness” (v. 27).
  • Kill, crucify and persecute those sent to them (v. 34).
  • “makes void the word of God through traditions” (Mark 7:13).
  • “seek a sign” (Mark 8:11-12).

These are but a few of the statements said about the Pharisees in the Scriptures. But do Traditional Catholics behave the same way? Do Traditionalists preach but not practice? I understand that there may be individual Traditionalists out there who can fall into Pharisaism. I will not only grant that this does happen, but I can even see how one could argue that a traditionalism focused on regulations apart from the working of grace could in fact lead to this. But despite this, I think there is no more “practicing” group of Catholics on the earth than Traditionalists. Piety is more alive among Traditionalists than among many progressive parishes. Do Trads “do their deeds to be seen by men?” If we apply this to the liturgy, then the answer is certainly no. Everybody knows that the Tridentine Mass is focused on God, not on men. With the priest celebrating ad orientam, the supreme mystery of the Mass is not even visible to the people at all. The host is consecrated hidden from view, until suddenly it is elevated for the veneration of all like the sun bursting forth from over the mountains in the morning.

If anything, it is the Novus Ordo and progressive types of liturgies that are done to be “seen by men.” The principle behind these liturgies is horizontalism- that the purpose of the liturgy is to edify and celebrate our fellow men. How can a liturgy whose emphasis, like the TLM, is on adoration of God, be accused of being “to be seen by men” while one whose express purpose is often defined as being about the community is hailed as being more sincere and God centered? This is backwards thinking.

What about the accusation that Pharisees “neglect justice, mercy and faith.”? This is the perennial temptation to keep the external precepts of religion without the necessary accompanying interior dispositions. Nobody can judge the heart of a man, and for this reason we cannot make any blanket statement about whether Trads or conservatives or liberals are more or less “charitable”: I have met real beasts in each category. However, one point to think about is this: which Catholic is likely to be more charitable - he whose entire liturgical and sacramental structure is symbolically and ceremonially ordered towards elevating his thoughts towards the God Who is Love, or he whose liturgy and sacramental life are devoid of symbolism or tradition and are carried out with minimalist tendencies in a banal manner? But besides this, a real argument has also been made that Traditional Catholicism is more beneficial to the poor (see here).

What about Christ’s words that Pharisees “outwardly appear beautiful” but are full of emptiness and evil inside? Does this apply to Traditionalists? Some may say that this could be interpreted as condemning the degree of artistic, architectural and liturgical excellence found in Traditional Latin Masses (i.e., that outwardly, our Masses appear beautiful but inwardly they are empty). If this is the argument, then it is a classic confusion between legitimate excellence and “showing off.” If a priest wears beautiful and costly vestments, he is accused of being showy; if liturgical utensils are made of precious metals, the accusation is that the priest/parish is wasting money on something non-essential when it could have been better spent elsewhere (echoing Judas' complaint in John 12:5); if homilies are preached that communicate the pure doctrine of Christ, they are too exclusivist, academic, divisive, etc. If liturgical music is executed beautifully and according to the tradition of the Church, the music director is accused of wanting to "show off." In short, anybody who thinks that liturgy ought to be done well is looked down upon as having a "holier than thou" attitude.

Catholic commentator Mark Shea takes the same approach regarding people who insist that the liturgical rubrics be followed and that the dignity of the liturgy be upheld. He says, "Some people are hypochondriacs who imagine injury where there is none or who grossly exaggerate small irritations into great big ones" and that frustration about the problems with the Novus Ordo are simply due to "oversensitivity" (click here for Shea's entire article).

How do we respond? We ought to realize that it is not at all about being holier than thou. In fact, quite the opposite. To insist on doing the liturgy well is an act of humility, for several reasons (1) It acknowledges the profound humility of man before the awesome mystery taking place on the altar (2) It is humility because it graciously accepts what was handed on from the Fathers and does not presume to arrogantly change and alter it to fit with the spirit of the times, and (3) It is always humility to obey rather than to find fault, which is what the 1970 Reform was: a finding fault with the traditional liturgy of the Church and the assumption that modern man could do better than what was in place for 1500 years. This is arrogance and holier than thou, for modern man asserts that he is holier and wiser than the saints and doctors of the Church's history.

Pharisaism is an excessive focus on rules for the rules’ sake, which is the exact opposite of what Traditionalists want. We do not desire to multiply rules, or burden Catholics under regulations: we simply want God honored and things done right. Is it Pharisaism to expect Catholics to abide by the very rules that they profess to adhere to? I think we are in great danger today of too great an over-familiarization with God, and we must realize that things we do in the liturgy can and do offend Him if they are not done properly, and that doing things properly is not “showing off.” Were the Jewish priests showing off when they overlaid the Ark with pure gold? When they fashioned the High Priests' breastplate with costly jewels? When they expended enormous sums of money for the construction of the Temple? Of course not. In the Old Testament, it was God Himself Who demanded such things, for the simple fact that what is most costly and precious to man is what most adequately reflects the awesome glory and purity of God. It's not about showing off anymore than overlaying the Ark with gold was about showing off. It is about a simple statement about the Reality to which these costly liturgical items point us toward. Rules alone cannot save us; but they form a starting point.

How about persecution? Are Traditionalist Catholics “persecuting” non-Traditionalists? On the contrary, it is Traditionalists who for the past twenty years have been told that they are schismatics, rebels, etc. and have been treated like second-class Catholics. If anybody could be accused of persecuting anyone, it would be those with a vested interest in relentlessly pushing the spirit of Vatican II upon Catholics of the world.

Finally, do Traditionalists make the word of God “void” through their traditions? The context of this statement is Jesus’ condemnation of the Pharisees for their tradition of donating money to the Temple that should have been put towards supporting elderly parents, which was referred to as Corban (Mark 7:11). In other words, the Pharisaic tradition contradicts and nullifies the commandment of God to honor one’s mother and father. This accusation is so often leveled against Catholics by Protestants that I am surprised that any Catholic would turn around and use it against another Catholic. Besides, if the Traditionalist is condemned on this account, so is every other Catholic, because the Traditionalist holds to the Faith as it was practiced by all Catholics until a few decades ago. Therefore, if we make God’s commandment void, then so did all the saints and doctors who used the same liturgy and practiced the same disciplines. They ought to remember St. Edmund Campion’s words at his trial to his Protestant captors: “In condemning us, you condemn your own ancestors.”

 In the end, the accusation of “Pharisaism” against Traditionalists is based on the misguided notion that it is wrong to expect something to be done right. It is a sad statement on the condition of our Church when those who simply want decency observed and order maintained to be lumped in with the same rogues who killed Christ.