Essay: The 'Radical Traditionalist Catholic' Movement

By Heidi Beirich

Though tiny in comparison with the approximately 70 million Americans who are mainstream Catholics, "radical traditionalist Catholics" may form the single largest group of hard-core anti-Semites in America.

With more than 100,000 followers in the United States – famously including actor Mel Gibson and his father Hutton Gibson – the radical traditionalist movement embraces a host of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. It has significant financial and publishing resources, and, in a growing number of cases, is interacting with white supremacist and Holocaust denial extremist groups. Leaders of the growing, energetic movement routinely pillory the Jews as "the perpetual enemy of Christ" and worse. 

Also known as "integrism" or Catholic separatism, radical traditionalism is largely unknown to mainstream Catholics. Radical traditionalists are also unrelated to the many Catholics who call themselves "traditionalist" because they prefer the ancient Latin Mass, though radical traditionalists also prefer their liturgy in Latin. The official Roman Catholic Church condemns radical traditionalists for their anti-Semitism. In turn, radical traditionalists generally reject the modern Roman Catholic Church and its universalistic theology.

The radical traditionalists' understanding of what has gone wrong with the world boils down to a few basic issues. They are incensed by the Second Vatican Council's (1962-1965) historic declaration, "Nostra Aetate," which condemned "all hatreds, persecutions, displays of anti-Semitism leveled at any time or from any source against the Jews." 

They believe that most of the theological developments within the church since Vatican II have been egregiously wrong, especially with regard to reconciling with Jews and the followers of other faiths. They despise the Vatican's ecumenical outreach efforts to other religions. And they lament the fall of the Latin Mass and argue that the new Mass, "Novus Ordo," does not guarantee salvation. 

The radical traditionalist subculture is notable for its conspiracy mongering. The most popular conspiracy theory dwells on the perils of the much-feared "Judeo-Masonic" plot. The alleged conspiracy involves ancient, shadowy fraternities such as the Masons and the Illuminati, who are seen as puppets in a Jewish master plan to destroy the Catholic Church. The theory is laid out in great detail in John Venarri's Alta Vendita, which has been compared to The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, an infamous tract also alleging a global plot by the Jews. Other plots abound in radical traditionalist circles, including a "Marxist-Jewish" scheme that is ruining American schools, a "Jewish-homosexual" alliance destroying the priesthood, and a 9/11 conspiracy that maintains the 2001 terrorist attacks were actually "predicted by the Blessed Virgin Mary 84 years ago."

Some radical traditionalists, including Hutton Gibson, embrace "sedevacantism," a word derived from Latin that refers to a period when "the see [or seat] is vacant." While the term is the official Roman Catholic word for the period between a pope's death and the election of his successor, many radicals are sedevacantists in the sense that they believe that there has not been a real pope for years (typically, since 1958). Some have adopted theories about rigged papal elections and even the idea that the authentic pope is secretly being held in captivity.

If radical traditionalists belong to a particular sect – and many do not – it is typically the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX). This sprawling international group, based in Kansas City, Kan., has published reams of anti-Semitic writings. In the late 1980s, Pope John Paul II excommunicated all SSPX priests and declared the sect formally in schism. Nevertheless, it has continued to grow. The sect reportedly has 20,000 to 30,000 members in the United States.  

In 2009, Pope Benedict XVI moved to regularize SSPX with the church, though his announcement was marred by revelations of Holocaust denial by SSPX Bishop Richard Williamson. SSPX ordered Williamson to stop articulating his historical views about the Holocaust and, in the months after the pope's announcement, began purging its website of anti-Semitic material.

Two deceased priests – Father Denis Fahey and Father Leonard Feeney – serve as the primary inspiration for today's radical traditionalist Catholics.

Fahey, an Irish priest who died in 1954, was a prolific author whose main topic was the inherent evil of the "Jewish Nation." Repeating classic anti-Semitic allegations, Fahey blamed nearly all iniquity on Jews. According to an article by Sandra Miesel in Crisis, a conservative Catholic magazine, Fahey "enjoyed quoting papal policy statements against Jews, coyly refused to reject the long-debunked Protocols [of the Elders of Zion], praised the anti-Semitic activities of [automaker] Henry Ford, and denied the death toll from the Holocaust." Taking on the church's main bogeyman in the early 1900s, Fahey laid atheistic communism directly at the feet of the Jews: "The real forces behind Bolshevism are Jewish forces, and Bolshevism is really an instrument in the hands of the Jews for their establishment of their future Messianic kingdom."

While spouting the same kind of anti-Jewish propaganda as the Nazis, Fahey crafted an argument that he believed should exempt him from the label of anti-Semite. Fahey claimed he didn't hate the Jews per se, but merely opposed their "naturalistic aims." Since he also argued that Jews can't help but work to further those aims – communism, the destruction of Christianity and the like – this was a distinction without a difference. Today, radical traditionalists, including the Society of St. Pius X, continue to claim they are not anti-Semitic, just against "Jewish naturalism."

Fahey was much admired by the most famous American Catholic anti-Semite of the pre-war period, Father Charles Coughlin, whose highly successful radio program was shut down before the war by CBS because of Coughlin's anti-Semitism and sympathy for the Nazis. Like Coughlin, Fahey is admired by today's neo-Nazis, some of whom have contributed a number of his quotes to "1,001 Quotes By and About Jews," a feature on the racist Stormfront website.

Along with Coughlin, Fahey is the main source for The Plot Against the Church, a 1967 book supposedly written by 12 clerics under the pen name "Maurice Pinay." Similar to the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the book blames Jews, also referred to as the "synagogue of Satan," for every evil that has befallen Catholics from Roman times to the present. Citing ancient papal writings, the book suggests that Jews be expelled or enslaved, segregated and forced to wear visible marks. It's little wonder that modern neo-Nazis praise Pinay's work. But the book is also embraced by large numbers of radical traditionalist Catholics. It is sold by Omni Christian Book Club, the favorite bookseller of today's radical traditionalists.

Father Leonard Feeney is best known in Catholic circles for his especially hard-line version of the "no salvation outside the church" doctrine. He was for years a leader of Boston's St. Benedict Center, a Jesuit institution. 

Feeney also preached against Jews, often on the Boston Common with his followers. Although he was finally excommunicated for disobedience in 1953, he rapidly founded his own order, Slaves of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, and started a newsletter, The Point, that was suffused with anti-Semitism. Feeney's newsletter blamed Jews for controlling and biasing the press and for creating communism. One article lambasted Jews for their role in "anti-hate" initiatives. Another, published in April 1958, was entitled "Newspapers and The New York Times: Other Jews and Minister Sulzberger" and summed up the Jewish "problem" like this: "Essential to the understanding of our chaotic times is the knowledge that the Jewish race constitutes a united anti-Christian bloc within Christian society, and is working for the overthrow of that society by every means at its disposal."

Feeney reconciled with the church in 1974, four years before his death. But his anti-Semitic ideas remain popular in radical traditionalist Catholic circles and in the New Hampshire monastery founded by his followers. The monastery still endorses Feeney's anti-Semitic ideology, to the point that a New Hampshire bishop criticized it in 2004 as "blatantly anti-Semitic" and "offensive." The bishop isn't the only one who sees Feeney as anti-Semitic. One white supremacist has created an online archive of Feeney's writings (www.fatherfeeney.org) for the benefit of fellow Aryans. It is part of the so-called "World White Web."

Heidi Beirich, Ph.D., is the director of research and special projects for the Southern Poverty Law Center's Intelligence Project.