Thursday, November 30, 2017

The Psychology of Traditionalism

2009 06 27_2815_edited-1
Ordinations for the Fraternity of St Peter in Wigratzbad in 2009
Guide to this series:
The Psychology of the Rigid Personality
The Psychology of Military Incompetence
The Psychology of Ecclesiastical Incompetence
The Psychology of Traditionalism

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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  1. Don't be fooled Dr Shaw! Bishop Fellay may use smooth arguments in public but he is not tolerant of dissent, by any means (any more than is his friend Francis). Witness the case of the French priors who criticised his craven acceptance of Novus Ordo involvement in SSPX marriages. He immediately sacked all of them. Another prominent priest was ordered to retract private criticism on the same issue or be dismissed from the Society. Bishop Fellay did not hesitate to remove his fellow bishop, Williamson, when the latter became an obstacle to his rapprochement with Modernist Rome. Sadly, most SSPX priests these days are indeed conformists and not the principled, determined characters who resisted the false Vatican II sect from the beginning.

    1. An interesting perspective.

      My purpose is not to defend or to criticise Bishop Fellay or the SSPX. As far as the actions you mention go, they could be explained as those of a disciplinarian as opposed to of a conformist/ authoritarian.