Worshipers come to St. Mary, Mother of God in downtown Washington, D.C., for various reasons, but many say that a big draw is the Tridentine Latin mass that is said here every Sunday. Soon, St. Mary may be less well known for that distinctive liturgical offering than for the number of big-name government and media types that occupy its pews. Now that Pope Benedict XVI has loosened the restrictions on churches that want to observe the pre-Vatican II rite, more parishes are availing themselves of the option. Call it part of a larger conservative shift within the church—one that includes a renewed emphasis on such practices as personal confession and reciting the rosary as well as a resurgent interest in traditional monastic and religious orders.
Something curious is happening in the wide world of faith, something that defies easy explanation or quantification. More substantial than a trend but less organized than a movement, it has to do more with how people practice their religion than with what they believe, though people caught up in this change often find that their beliefs are influenced, if not subtly altered, by the changes in their practice.
Put simply, the development is a return to tradition and orthodoxy, to past practices, observances, and customary ways of worshiping. But it is not simply a return to the past—at least not in all cases. Even while drawing on deep traditional resources, many participants are creating something new within the old forms. They are engaging in what Penn State sociologist of religion Roger Finke calls "innovative returns to tradition."
In all faiths, the return to tradition has different meanings for different people. To some, it is a return to reassuring authority and absolutes; it is a buttress to conservative theological, social, and even political commitments. To others, it is a means of moving beyond fundamentalist literalism, troubling authority figures, and highly politicized religious positions (say on gay marriage and contraception or abortion) while retaining a hold on spiritual truths. In short, the new traditionalism is anything but straightforward.
And that is one reason it is so hard to quantify. Mary Bendyna, executive director of the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University, laments the lack of hard data on traditionalist developments in the Catholic Church but plans to launch a large study on sacramental life in January. Even without the numbers, though, Bendyna is confident that a change is afoot. "There has been a renewed interest in traditional life, in traditional devotions, even among young Catholics," she says. (Bendyna doubts, though, that the Latin mass will catch on in a big way. "There just aren't that many priests who are prepared to celebrate it," she says.) More broadly, Bendyna wonders whether a renewed interest in traditional devotions or religious orders correlates directly with conservatism on such matters as papal infallibility, contraception, or the exclusively male and celibate clergy. Determining that relationship, Bendyna says, is one of the greater investigative challenges.
"Hype." Some liberal Catholic clergy are completely skeptical about the scope and meaning of the traditionalist turn. "It's more hype than reality," says the Rev. Thomas Reese, a Jesuit priest and political scientist at Georgetown's Woodstock Theological Center. Reese thinks the church should focus less on the Latin mass than on the three things that draw most churchgoers: "good preaching, good music, and a welcoming community." He is equally dubious about all the attention being devoted to the habit-wearing Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia and a few other traditional religious orders that have enjoyed an uptick in younger members. "I have no problem with their habits," says Reese. "On the other hand, if the church ordained women, we'd have thousands more women coming forward."
But Sister Patricia Wittberg, a sociologist at Indiana University-Purdue University in Indianapolis, sees more substance in the new traditionalism. "I think churches that can articulate what they do and what they stand for tend to grow better." To that extent, she says, the conservative turn in the church makes sense. But she points out that there are two kinds of conservatives. "One group," she says, "would like to take things back to the [16th-century Counter-Reformation] Council of Trent, but I don't think the future's with them. I think the future is with a group that is interested in reviving the old stuff and traditions in a creative way. Sisters in traditional orders may wear habits, but they often live in coed communities." Sociologist Finke agrees: "Members of traditional religious orders want to be set apart, to have a more active spiritual formation and a strong community life. But while they are obedient, they are less submissive to authority and want to make more of their own decisions and be active professionally in outreach activities. It's a structured life, but it's a structure they are seeking and not simply submitting to authority." [...Snip] US News & World Report