One accusation against Catholic traditionalism is that it’s a bunch of LARPing — Live Action Role-Playing. Live Action Role-Playing means that self-identifying traditional Catholics adopt a number of signifiers of another time and place that they identify as more authentically Catholic than their own culture. They use these signifiers to escape into a fantasy world where they imagine themselves as Crusader knights, or latter-day Chestertons and Bellocs, etc.
What sorts of signifiers? For traditionalist priests, this is easy — maniples, Roman-style (aka “fiddleback”) chasubles, birettas, saturnos, etc. The sorts of things Pope Francis calls seminarians “women” for wanting to wear.* For lay people, you’ll get guys growing out their beards, wearing fedoras, sometimes capes, smoking pipes, speaking Latin (immo, conantes Latine loqui), and generally sticking out like sore thumbs. Women wearing mantillas that would make a Castilian Infanta blush. With groups like the American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family, Property (TFP), we see bagpipers, capes, flags, and assorted mediaevalia. Across the spectrum, you get a lot of identification with selected historical eras in Catholicism, typically European Catholicism. You’ll get your French Legitimists, your Habsburg restorationists, your Jacobites, your Papal Zouaves, your Carlists, and even your Neo-Confederates.** Basically, anything Charles Coulombe promotes falls under the accusation of LARPing.
My concern is not to assess the merits of the accusation, or to ascertain to what extent self-identifying traditional Catholics actually display any of the signifiers above. Rather, if you’re interested in either the accusation or the alleged phenomenon of traditional Catholic LARPing, I invite you to consider a noteworthy early instance that Dr. Robert Hickson recently documented over at the website of Saint Benedict Center. I refer you to his article “The Slow Fruitfulness of His Mercy: L. Brent Bozell, Jr.” (http://catholicism.org/slow-fruitfulness-heart-mercy-l-brent-bozell-jr.html).
First, who is Dr. Robert Hickson? I’ll write an incomplete biography based on what I have gleaned from the Internet over the past 13+ years. A military scholar, Dr. Hickson attended West Point Military Academy in the 1960s and subsequently fought the Communists in Indochina. Based on a reference made by Thomas Fleming of Chronicles Magazine, I believe Dr. Hickson did graduate work at UNC-Chapel Hill at some point. Starting in the 1970s, he became associated with a number of leaders in the nascent Catholic reaction to the “Spirit of Vatican II.” From what I can tell, he did not circulate in explicitly traditionalist, TLM-supporting groups, at least at first. Dr. Hickson was involved with the Triumph circle around the late L. Brent Bozell (brother-in-law of William F. Buckley), as well as Christendom College. He knew the late Fr. John Hardon, S.J. After the 9-11 attacks and during the Second Gulf War, Dr. Hickson wrote a number of articles for a Swiss journal that criticized neoconservatism and, tangentially, most other features of the modern world (i.e. things that currently exist). Over the past ten years or maybe longer, Dr. Hickson has gravitated toward the New Hampshire branch of the Slaves of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, which is the branch once led by Bro. Francis, M.I.C.M. (R.I.P.), and now by Bro. André Marie, M.I.C.M. Many (many) articles by Dr. Hickson are available on the Saint Benedict Center website (http://catholicism.org/?s=robert+hickson). Dr. Hickson is also the husband of Maike Hickson, who writes for the OnePeterFive blog (http://www.onepeterfive.com/author/mhickson/).***
So, despite keeping a relatively low profile himself, Dr. Hickson has known a lot of better-known names in traditional, or at least traditional-leaning, Catholic circles. The article I cited above focuses on his interactions with L. Brent Bozell, Jr., as well as Dr. Warren Carroll (before he founded Christendom College) and Dr. Frederick (Fritz) Wilhelmsen of the University of Dallas. Dr. Hickson relates an event that took place in Spain in the summer of 1975, a few months before Generalissimo Francisco Franco died. At the time, Bozell hosted a Triumph summer school in the Escorial, which Dr. Hickson attended. Fearing an outbreak of violence after Franco’s impending earthly demise (he’s still dead, by the way, to play on the Saturday Night Live joke), Wilhelmsen reached out to some obscure person claiming to be a Carlist military leader. He and Carroll then worked upon Dr. Hickson to agree to provide training in modern guerrilla warfare to a Carlist militia.
If you click the link above, I recommend you skip to p. 9 and start there. Suffice it to say, things did not go well that summer. The Carlist “militia leader” was a charlatan. He was not heard from for most of the summer, then suddenly appeared and said that Dr. Hickson had to head off to Navarra straightaway to train the militia (with two anti-Castro Cuban translators, for good measure). The so-called militia consisted of 5-10 youths and 50 or so men, many of them elderly, being veterans of the Spanish Civil War some 35+ plus years before. There were not enough potential fighters to even bother training them.**** Dr. Hickson was already scheduled to welcome Josef Pieper back at the Escorial (see! Dr. Hickson knows everybody), so he cut his losses and left. The would-be Carlist caudillo thereafter denounced Hickson as a deserter, and neither Wilhelmsen nor Carroll defended him. The whole venture was a sad joke.
Yet there’s a striking image that Dr. Hickson paints of the delusional Fritz Wilhelmsen (a scholar whose writings I have profited from) speaking at the final banquet with the Carlist recruits in Navarra: “[Wilhelmsen] had given a stirring talk in Spanish on Christ the King (“Viva Cristo Rey” — “Long Live Christ the King”), and he was vociferously acclaimed and cheered.” Answer me this, O ye chest-thumping would-be Crusaders/Cristeros/Carlists: in this scenario, would you have preferred to honor your commitment to a guest, as did Dr. Hickson, or to be cheered for giving an empty speech to an army that would never march in a war that would never be fought? Which does Christ the King prefer?
*Incidentally, regarding that anecdote, I actually thought it was funny. I think a lot of traditional priests and seminarians felt the sting of that one.
**Catholic Neo-Confederatism — one day I plan to debunk this facile and yet widely propagated fantasy.
***Sorry if this sounds like a Southern Poverty Legal Center profile. No aspersions here!
****Compare St. Luke’s Gospel 14:31-23: “31 Or what king, about to go to make war against another king, doth not first sit down, and think whether he be able, with ten thousand, to meet him that, with twenty thousand, cometh against him? 32 Or else, whilst the other is yet afar off, sending an embassy, he desireth conditions of peace.”