- The Washington Times - Friday, December 26, 2003

They attend Mass in Latin, using a liturgy Rome abolished. They abstain from meat on Fridays and women cover their heads in church. For more than three decades, a small group of American Roman Catholics has been quietly worshipping in ways the Vatican told them to abandon.

Now their conservative beliefs are under scrutiny as the man they count as their most famous adherent, actor-director Mel Gibson, prepares to release a movie about the Crucifixion of Jesus Christ that’s stirring controversy.

The movement, known as traditionalist Catholicism, grew worldwide from opposition to the modernizing reforms of the Second Vatican Council, a series of meetings held from 1962 to 1965, that dramatically changed the church.

The council altered Catholic practices and teachings in myriad ways to make it more relevant to the wider world, such as having Mass said in local languages after centuries in which it was recited in Latin, having the priest celebrate Mass facing parishioners and distributing Communion in the hand instead of the mouth.

The council decreed that Christians other than Catholics can be saved. It also declared that Jews were not collectively responsible for Christ’s death: The notion of Jewish guilt had fueled anti-Semitism for centuries.

But traditionalists reject what the council decided.

Traditionalists believe that only Catholicism is the true path to salvation — and that by adhering to church teaching as it was before the council they are the only true Catholics, according to William Dinges, an expert on traditionalists and a professor at Catholic University of America.

“They are the Roman Catholic analog to Protestant fundamentalism,” Mr. Dinges said.

Mr. Gibson has said previously that he attends Latin Mass and recently even built his own chapel near Malibu, Calif., so he could worship closer to home. However, it is not clear what traditionalist beliefs he follows.

The movement is as diverse as the many splinter groups it has generated, from moderates who maintain some contact with the Vatican to the more militant who rejected outright the authority of the late Pope John XXIII — who convened the council — and every pope elected thereafter.

There is another, even more extreme faction that believes the council was a conspiracy between Jews and Masons to destroy the church. Some go as far as considering all the popes elected since that meeting “precursors to the anti-Christ,” according to Michael Cuneo, a Fordham University sociologist who wrote “The Smoke of Satan,” a book on traditionalists.

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