Traditionalists are often accused of having a “hermeneutic of suspicion”, meaning that they don’t trust the hierarchy enough, that they are too critical of new ways of doing things, that they suspect whatever proceeds from the post-conciliar Church to be somehow an agent of Modernism. In fact, this criticism is fair, although there are as many degrees of suspicion as there are variants of traditional Catholics. This suspicion sometimes becomes irrational, uncharitable, and excessive, making a fine carciature for our enemies to toy with. But to some degree it is necessary. I myself automatically and reflexively distrust the USCCB, and find that most individual bishops are safely ignored (except when they must be opposed). I realize this attitude is totally backwards, and it goes completely against my establishmentarian instincts. I dread the day when my children, who piously pray for all bishops and priests, discover that most Catholic bishops and priests in this country are, shall we say, doctrinally challenged.
Today there is only one alternative to this contemptible “hermeneutic of suspicion”, and that is another, still more sinister “hermeneutic of suspicion” — the kind that looks upon two thousand years of Catholic history and expression as hopelessly infected with religious intolerance, excessive guilt, extreme asceticism, blind obedience, mechanical devotion, sexual repression, male chauvinism, clericalism, superstition, antisemitism, and all the rest. Nothing from our Catholic past is to be trusted; everything is contaminated. The old books must be discarded, the old hymns replaced, the old liturgy suppressed, the old devotions discouraged, the old architecture abolished, etc. Insofar as the past has any value, it must be filtered through enlightened modern sensibilities. So there is no escape from a hermeneutic of suspicion: the question is, will you apply this hermeneutic to the last forty years of unprecedented confusion, or to nineteen-hundred and sixty years of Catholic Christianity?
Please don’t get me wrong: the Church is still the Church, the Pope is still the Pope, and our bishops are still successors to the Apostles with real apostolic authority. And let me be clear: there are legitimate problems with past attitudes and practices that do indeed merit censure. All things should be examined in the light of the Gospel — but let us not imagine that our fathers did not also examine them, and that they did not know the Gospel at least as well as we do. The tension between the Catholic past and the Catholic present is too great to endure. If you try to put away a hermeneutic of suspicion altogether — an admirable project — you will fail in some degree and end up choosing one side or the other. May you choose sooner rather than later, and may you choose well.