Rebel for the Sake of Tradition

"The Foundation Mass of the Order of Trinitarians" (or "Mass of St John of Matha") (detail) (1666), a 500 x 315 cm oil on canvas by Juan Carreño de Miranda (1614-1685), located in the Louvre Museum.

How does one weather a cultural revolution, especially when one is directly in the line of fire? How does one stay grounded while everything around is unravelling and crumbling? Some will find refuge in real or feigned obedience to the new gods, or perhaps in apathy, seeking to avoid reprisals in the hope of being left alone to enjoy a quiet life unmolested. Revolution can drive both its victims and its perpetrators mad.

The 1960s were, of course, the era of the Chinese Cultural Revolution and, in the West, the Summer of Love and the radical student protests from Berkeley to Paris. It was the age of Che Guevara and the Tupamaros. It was also a time when terrorism from the Middle East was not at all Islamic, but rather revolutionary and leftist. Revolution, less violent but far more disruptive than the student mayhem, also came that same decade to that most ancient and successful of institutions, the Roman Catholic Church.

The revolution in the Catholic Church that followed the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), and the resistance against this revolutionary chaos, mark the great themes of Father Bryan Houghton’s autobiography, first published in French in 1990 as Pretre rejeté. Three of Houghton’s four books have recently been republished by Angelico Press, a traditionalist Catholic publishing house based in Brooklyn, New York. While Houghton (1911-1992) is best known for his 1979 epistolary novel Mitre and Crook, which was reprinted several times in English and French, the other two books, Unwanted Priest and his 1984 novel Judith’s Marriage have for the first time been made accessible in English by Angelico Press. His fourth book, a children’s book of Saint Edmund, King and Martyr, was published in 1970 and is long out of print.

Houghton’s autobiography is, mostly, a delightful tale, well told by an erudite and clear minded man of God. Houghton was a convert to Roman Catholicism, having grown up in a wealthy, not particularly religious, Anglican household. His parents held the prejudiced views about the “RCs” that were typical among the middle class at that time. The Francophone Houghton became very “pro-Catholic” as a teenager at an elite British boarding school. In his last year at Stowe, he bought the complete works of Joseph de Maistre, Saint Francis de Sales, the English texts of Saint Teresa of Avila, the sermons of Jacques-Benigne Bossuet, and writings by the Benedictine mystic Augustine Baker. Houghton remembers those books because sixty years later, when he wrote his autobiography, he still had them.

His closest friend at Stowe became a Catholic at Oxford where Houghton followed at Christ Church college. Oxford was “a sort of paradise, an experience of heaven before one had faced the world, instead of the reward after having faced it.” At such an august place, he heard Gandhi and Einstein, and knew Monsignor Ronald Knox, the Catholic chaplain. As head of the French club, Houghton hosted visiting Gallic dignitaries and one of them, the Catholic man of letters Stanislas Fumet (1896-1983), would play a key role in his conversion. Another push towards this conversion was, paradoxically, a visit to atheist Soviet Russia in 1932. Deciding against a diplomatic career, he became a banker in France after his graduation. Received into the Church in 1934 in Paris, most of the Catholics he knew were French. Fumet’s wife congratulated Houghton at a celebratory champagne breakfast after Mass: “Isn’t it wonderful, Bryan, now you are a Catholic, you will be able to fast!” Thirty years later Stanislas and Aniouta Fumet would provide a sort of literary refuge for a young philosopher named Pierre Manent who was abandoning Communism for Catholicism.

What was it that attracted Houghton to Catholicism almost a century ago? First of all, it was the Holy Mass. If the beautiful Anglican service was a memorial of the Passion of Christ in gratitude for our redemption, the Catholic Mass was “a divine act.” It was a liturgy “where God acts, not man.” The papacy itself, the church’s defense of moral law, and the “holiness and discipline in a number of Catholic families” he knew were other powerful components that lead to his conversion.

Houghton didn’t become a priest right away. He thought seriously about marriage and he also had a dying mother to care for (who converted to Catholicism on her death bed). He read a great deal while caring for her, including the works of many modernists, which he felt prepared him, and thus insulated and protected him “when the Neo-Modernism of Vatican Two began to raise its ugly head” decades later. While studying for the priesthood in Rome, he developed a deep respect for the humble piety of the people, “a pure emotion—non-intellectual—that puts us in contact with the divine and holy.” Often sneered at by both lay and clerical intellectuals, “piety is a great gift and a great source of action. I acquired what little I have in Rome.”

Ordained a priest in 1940, he was assigned to the parish of Slough, near London, and many years later, appointed parish priest at Bury St. Edmunds. By all accounts, a model, dutiful priest, he learned to appreciate the sturdy faith of working-class Catholics who did not know much but knew what was important: “the focal point of their knowledge, and consequently of their piety, was the Mass.” His experiences recall those of Father Smith, the eponymous hero in Bruce Marshall’s marvelous 1945 novel The World, the Flesh and Father Smith

After 1964, when it was promulgated that Mass could be celebrated in the vernacular, “experiment was in the air” and life became increasingly difficult. Out of 270 priests in his diocese, only four continued to say the old Mass. Ninety out of those 270 signed a petition to allow the old Mass to continue but this was rejected. It was very much a clerical revolution, imposed from above. Houghton includes letters in which he answered questions from parishioners who were troubled by the changes. One writes to him about how “the turbulence in the church has checked the spiritual growth one should or could have acquired in old age.” Another letter notes the change that the new Mass has imposed: at Mass, the letter says, the priest likes to experiment, imposing “his wretched self” on those who have no choice but to be there. The priest is free to do as he pleases whilst the laity are bound. The only thing they could do was leave altogether, and many did just that. With the Latin Mass, it was the faithful who were free, and the priest constrained; the laity who could follow along in a missalette, or say their rosary, or even sleep.

Houghton does not idealize either the Church or the priesthood. He asks why it is that 98% of priests were willing to go along with the changes? The “vast seemingly monolithic structure” collapsed because priests did not love the Mass. An attitude of mind inimical to the Latin Mass had built up through the years even before Vatican II. “They were fed up with a liturgy in which they had nothing to do”—instead of adoration and contemplation, they wanted activity. “This is exactly what they have got.”

Refusing to offer the new Mass, Houghton retired at the age of 58, after 29 years as a parish priest. A loophole in the implementation of the new vernacular Mass allowed old and retired priests to continue to say the old Mass. His retirement, the reasons for it, were national news and the correspondence he received was extensive, “most of it abusive.” The fact that he was independently wealthy and that he was a fluent French speaker gave him options that many other priests may not have had.

From the first alarm, “I took up what arms I could.” Houghton was, in 1965, the only priest present at the first public meeting of the Latin Mass Society of England and Wales, an organization dedicated to promoting the Church’s liturgical traditions. Houghton’s view, radical at the time but generally viewed as commonsensical today—after Pope Benedict XVI eased access to the old Mass in 2007, with Pope Francis (experiencing great push-back) then trying to restrict it in 2021—is that “there is no reason why Mass in its permanent form (the Latin Mass) and Mass in its ephemeral form (the “new” Mass) should not coexist.” That is a theme underscored in his poignant novel Mitre and Crook, in which a dying bishop decides to turn the clock back so to speak, offering both types of Masses while seeking to restore orthodoxy in a diocese that had lost its way, having found itself in a Church that seemed to be in a state of permanent revolution—a revolution that “hides its ends but is adamant in its means.” He saw “the Peace of the Church” as something precious and important to preserve: “hopelessness is dangerous, it engenders bitterness, which begets hatred.” Peace—that peace which comes from Jesus Christ—was something he believed a Church infatuated with innovation had too easily abandoned.

The “Four Marks of the Church” had shifted from One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic to Pluralistic, Permissive, Ecumenical, and Progressive. What had once been the Ark of Salvation had morphed into “a vast, sprawling mass of discussion groups.” Instead of trying to stand against the tide of modernity which swept away all before it, the fateful decision was taken to compromise with the spirit of the age.

In France, Houghton, the “unwanted priest,” found himself strangely in demand. He bought a grand old house in “slummy” neighborhood of Viviers in the Rhone Valley. The local bishop gave him permission to celebrate alone the Latin Mass in the 12th century cathedral: “there is one cathedral in France where none but the old Mass is said every day.” Even better was the network of private chapels owned by the old aristocracy who were eager to welcome him. These small churches had been bought by the upper class faithful to protect them from destruction during the years after the French Revolution and following the anti-clerical laws of 1901 and 1905. An arrangement was arrived at, with the connivance of the hardly traditional local bishop, for Houghton to restore and use for his purposes a 12th century leper chapel, Notre Dame de la Rose, at Montelimar. People soon came to “a primitive Romanesque church just big enough to contain my congregation of over eighty.” After his death, this small white-washed church along the path of the Roman via Agrippa was returned to the diocese of Valence and suffered serious water damage but was fortunately restored by private benefactors in 2016. This chapel still features the Latin Mass, now offered by the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter (FSSP). Upon the completion of the recent restoration, one parishioner wrote that “Monsieur l’Abbé Houghton” must be very happy from heaven to see this!

As “a resistance priest” friendly to, but independent of, groups like Archbishop Lefebvre’s traditionalist Society of St. Pius X (SSPX), Houghton was a fixture in the lively traditionalist scene in Southern France for more than twenty years. He mostly revered the controversial Lefebvre, describing him as “holy, guileless, frank, and French.” However, Houghton was highly critical of Lefebvre’s decision (for which Lefebvre was excommunicated) to ordain bishops in 1988 in defiance of Rome, seeing the step as an understandable one but a major mistake. He archly described Lefebvre as “a very good man but rather a stupid one,” upbraiding him once in person by saying, “you cannot save the faith by destroying the church.” Above all, Houghton comes across as a man filled with a deep peace and gratitude for his life, “astounded at the way divine Providence has arranged things for me.”

Houghton saw that the religious outlook tailored to the age of the 1960s would eventually recede. “That world is crumbling before our eyes.” He expected that something better would eventually emerge within the Church, despite the persistent presence of philistines in senior ecclesiastical offices. He saw barbarism everywhere, but also the flourishing of some few, faithful abbeys that radiated “spirituality and culture…I have great trust in abbeys.” Like Pope Benedict XVI, he expected that the church of the future would be a smaller church but maybe a more faithful one. His hope that the old Mass would endure seems to have been proven right, despite its many powerful opponents to this day.

Defending an ancient and beloved institution from the assaults of modernists and liberals brings very real dangers, for the experience can be so bitter and traumatizing as to drive people to extremes. If Lefebvre avoided such extremism, he did so only barely. Houghton, however, certainly did. He has an enduring message, which remains relevant for the Church and for society in the West today: “tradition is not nostalgia for the past but precisely the transmission of one’s inheritance to the future.” A fierce defense of tradition, along lines similar to those taken by this disciplined and humble man—namely winsome, hopeful, and joy-filled—is the best path to take. To echo Psalm 100, and the poet William Wordsworth for that matter, God seems to love a happy warrior.

Alberto M. Fernandez is a former U.S. diplomat and Vice President of the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) in Washington, D.C.