Some recent bad news for those of us who would like to see some sanity restored to the Church. Recently the Society of St Pius X (SSPX) issued a declaration reaffirming its criticisms of Vatican II and restating the reason for remaining essentially a schismatic group. The SSPX defines itself as “an international priestly society of common life without vows, whose purpose is to train, support, and encourage holy priests so that they may effectively spread the Catholic faith throughout the world”. As many travelers in the Catholic blogosphere are aware they objected in various ways to many of the changes in the Church that occurred following Vatican II. In this they are probably joined with a number of Catholics who would call themselves “traditionalist”.
It is an obvious fact that something went terribly wrong after Vatican II since by every meaningful measure, whether mass attendance, number of kids in Catholic school, number of clergy, etc. Catholic practice has been imploding. This does not necessarily mean the teachings of Vatican II are in error however. A Catholic cannot believe that and remain a Catholic, since it is an article of faith that the bishops in union with the Pope teach infallibly. I would argue that the documents of Vatican II are vague enough that they allowed those with a liberal, or rather modernist theological and political agenda to promote all manners of heterodoxy under the guise of the “Spirit of Vatican II” as opposed to the actual texts. This heterodoxy was never dealt with adequately and has infected the Church and is the cause of the current implosion. This however is a topic for another day.
The SSPX could have been a force for good as they bring a reminder that the Church did not begin after Vatican II. Pope Benedict XVI was sympathetic to their concerns, particularly their view that the Tridentine Latin Mass was a thing of beauty and should not have been totally discarded. He was also clearly sympathetic to the idea that much of the essential historical inheritance of the Church, its classic devotions, the metaphysics of Thomas Aquinas, the writings of the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, and more, was lost in the tsunami of practical heresy and dissent that roared through the Church in the last 50 years under the rubric of” the spirit of Vatican II”. Those of us of a traditional bent share this sympathy.
The SSPX is essentially schismatic not because of its concerns regarding the results of Vatican II but for issues of disobedience and doctrinal heterodoxy, which they share in a fundamental way with left wing dissenters such as… well take your pick, the Leadership council of Women’s religious, those who insist on the ordination of women, dissidents who dispute Humane Vitae.. So on and so forth. You see all these folks are essentially “Protestant” in outlook and illuminists in temperament.
This would probably shock both groups who for the most part would despise each other, but on the other hand believe fundamentally identical things which cannot possibly be true. Understanding this will help make sense of the current crisis within the Church and society at large and therefore merits some discussion.
To understand why the SSPX are essentially behaving like left wing radical nuns we need to recall a little history.
The proximate cause of the excommunications of Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre and the 4 Bishops who currently form the leadership of the SSPX is the act of consecrating these men as Bishops without papal approval. This is a violation of canon Law. It is a practice condemned by Pope Pius XII in his encyclical Ad Apostolorum Principis. Pius XII called the action of consecrating bishops without papal approval “criminal and sacrilegious”. The full encyclical can be read here
It is easy to understand why such a consecration would be a problem, since consecration of Bishops without papal approval has historically been used as a tool by despotic governments to gain control of the Church by controlling the appointment of her leadership. In fact Ad Apostolorum Principis is addressing the practice of the Communist Chinese in creating a government controlled “People’s Church”, beholden to the Communist party as an alternative to the Roman Catholic Church. Papal control of the appointment of Bishops is in fact a victory of religious freedom for the Catholic Church and is a guarantee of continued unity and integrity of doctrine throughout time and across continents. It is clearly something the Church cannot part with. It was a great presumption for the Archbishop Lefebvre to disregard this aspect of Canon law in spite of a plea from Blessed Pope John Paul II, and with the knowledge that such an action would lead to excommunication.
Still in view of the possible good the SSPX could do, and as an act of mercy Pope Benedict XVI lifted the excommunications. He did not regularize the society however until they recognized that Vatican II itself could not be in error, that is until they accepted the council. This they refuse to do! Now note they do not simply say much of the council is written in impenetrable prose that lends itself to error in interpretation. They do not say that some of the documents were left ambiguous through the efforts of liberals at the council who may have even intended that the texts would leave room for heterodox interpretations. If this is all they said, then they would be rejoined with the Church. No, what they say is that the texts themselves are incorrect regardless of interpretation. Specifically they state “we affirm that the cause of the grave errors which are in the process of demolishing the Church does not reside in a bad interpretation of the conciliar texts – a “hermeneutic of rupture” which would be opposed to a “hermeneutic of reform in continuity” – but truly in the texts themselves…”
Thus they remain schismatic. Their position is absurd. They are taking the position that Vatican II taught error. Now if we pull out our trusty Baltimore Catechism we see the following: “The Church teaches infallibly when it defines, through the Pope alone, as the teacher of all Christians, or through the Pope and the bishops, a doctrine of faith or morals to be held by all the faithful.” Now Church councils like Vatican II are occasions when the Pope and the Bishops are teaching in unity and thus infallibly. It makes no sense to deny Vatican II but accept Trent. In truth the only position that makes sense is that of Pope Benedict XVI and John Paul II. Vatican II must be interpreted in light of the entire tradition before it (something Vatican II explicitly states), that is what is meant by a “hermeneutic of reform in continuity”.
Unfortunately the SSPX has rejected this concept in favor of a conception of Vatican II analogous to say a group of radical nuns who favor ordaining women. Both would agree that Vatican II was a decisive break with the past. Both would agree that their own particular interpretation of Vatican II was definitive regardless of what the Pope would say, and in that sense reject Papal authority. Both think that the prerogative to ordain priests and consecrating Bishops is not done with permission of the Pope but could be done in opposition to him as long as you have a “good” reason. (That is its ok to do this, whether it is to avoid unjust sexism in the view of the feminist nuns ordaining womyn priestesses or to avoid loss of the traditional Latin mass in view of the SSPX) Undoubtedly both groups are certain their particular grievance outweighs the obedience owed to the Pope. At the end of the day this reliance on private religious judgment is the same approach taken by Protestants who reject magisterial authority and rely on private judgment in the interpretation of scripture as a source of religious truth. Of course it soon becomes clear there are lots of different private judgments on lots of different issues. Therefore unless one is of an illuminist bent, and thinks ones private judgment uniquely privileged,this approach devolves into religious and moral relativism. One can take such a position, but when you do, you are rejecting Catholicism, because Catholicism would hold that religious truth comes to us through the successors to the apostles, and particularly through the successor to Peter.
The Pope and the Bishops teaching in union with them are not always wise, and they have no particular insight into secular fields of expertise. If the Pope were to begin to give advice on how to build a bridge, or the best choice of cancer chemotherapy, or even the optimal economic policies to insure economic growth a devout Catholic would be free to disagree. When the Bishops united with the Pope teach formally something necessary for our salvation, that is something regarding doctrine or morals however, Catholicism would hold they are protected by God from error. As such once you disagree you place yourself outside the Church, you are in essence no longer Catholic. The dissident liberals on the left are certainly outside the Church. Unfortunately for the Church the SSPX remains there as well.
For now lets recall the words of St Pius X himself:
True, Jesus has loved us with an immense, infinite love, and He came on earth to suffer and die so that, gathered around Him in justice and love, motivated by the same sentiments of mutual charity, all men might live in peace and happiness. But for the realization of this temporal and eternal happiness, He has laid down with supreme authority the condition that we must belong to His Flock, that we must accept His doctrine, that we must practice virtue, and that we must accept the teaching and guidance of Peter and his successors.