Friday, November 4, 2011

The super-magisterium of the SSPX


If you read in the same Catholic blogging circle I do, it must seem that the only Catholic dissidents in the world are political liberals out to make the Church an arm of the Democrat Party.

This isn’t the case; as Thomas Storck recently argued in The Distributist Review, it’s possible to read in the economic opinions of ostensibly orthodox conservative Catholics a dissent from the Church’s social justice teachings (although, if you follow the combox arguments, Storck may not have picked the best examples). Now into the news comes another reminder that not all dissent comes from progressivist innovators.

Some background: In 2009, after issuing the motu proprio Ecclesiae Unitatem, Pope Benedict urged the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei to open up talks with the Priestly Society of St. Pius X, a traditionalist organization founded by the late Abp. Marcel Lefebvre in 1970 which has been in formal schism since 1976 and juridical schism since 1988.[*] Later that year, the Commission opened up talks with leaders of the SSPX to try to work out a basis for reconciling the renegade order with the Church.

On October 7th, according to CNS, Cdl. William Levada, the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and president of the Commission, gave Bp. Bernard Fellay, the Society’s leader, a “Doctrinal Preamble” that the SSPX leadership must sign in order for reconciliation to move forward. The other day, the British district superior, Fr. Paul Morgan (according to Ches at The Sensible Bond), wrote a letter stating that the SSPX’s leadership had deemed the Preamble “clearly unacceptable and that the time has certainly not come” to purse methods of reconciliation.


It might help if, before we go further, we come up with a working definition of “dissent” as opposed to “faithful opposition”:

·         Church: P is true, for reasons X, Y and Z.
·         Faithful Opponent: P is true, but not for the reasons given, which are badly formulated and lend themselves to error. Or:
·         Faithful Skeptic: I’m willing to act on the presumption of P’s truth, but I don’t understand why it’s true.
·         Dissident: P is not true (or ~P is true), for reasons 1, 2 and 3.

According to Fr. Morgan, “… [It] was perhaps not surprising to learn that the proposed doctrinal basis for any canonical agreement in fact contained all those elements which the Society has consistently rejected, including acceptance of the New Mass and of Vatican II as expressed in the New Catechism. Indeed, the document itself conveys the impression that there is no crisis in the Church ….”

No, it isn’t surprising. What ought to be surprising is that the SSPX is under the impression Vatican II can be simply wiped off the books, that Pope Benedict can return us to the 1961 status quo by an apostolic constitution. That isn’t the case; that has never been the case. By the interior logic of infallibility, the definitive nature of conciliar statements has never hinged on whether it has called itself “dogmatic” or “pastoral”.

Although the individual bishops do not enjoy the prerogative of infallibility, they nevertheless proclaim Christ’s doctrine infallibly whenever, even though dispersed through the world, but still maintaining the bond of communion among themselves and with the successor of Peter, and authentically teaching matters of faith and morals, they are in agreement on one position as definitively to be held [Vatican I dogmatic constitution Dei Filius §3]. This is even more clearly verified when, gathered together in an ecumenical council, they are teachers and judges of faith and morals for the universal Church, whose definitions must be adhered to with the submission of faith [CIC 1322-1323 (1917)] (Lumen Gentium §25).

Ches, who by his own admission used to worship within the SSPX milieu, makes the indictment:

To act publicly on the grounds of discontinuity, to the point of denouncing the Magisterial teaching as contrary to the faith … makes one’s theological conclusions into practical norms not only for questioning but also for rejecting the Church’s authentic magisterial teachings. It is practically to say that in her authentic Magisterium the Church is not the authoritative agent which proposes Christian doctrine, or that the Church is only authoritative when defining solemnly.

The irony is that, to preserve that which they believe to be the authentic doctrine and worship of the faith, the Lefebvrites violate the tradition they claim to uphold by setting themselves up as a super-magisterium. Moreover, by appealing to (in Ches’ words) “some eternal Church of all time — ‘eternal Rome’ [+Lefebvre] called it — language that the SSPX continue to use,” the Lefebvrites echo the appeal certain Evangelical Protestants make to “the golden thread of true believers”: that is, to an idealized Church of the past that they represent and of which the Church of the present has no authentic share.

In creating the space for dialogue with the SSPX leadership and lifting the excommunications of the four bishops, Pope Benedict has gone far to encourage the Lefebvrites to come back home. Since 1988, several groups, such as the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter (FSSP),[†] have split off from the SSPX and reconciled with Rome, recognizing that the illicit and invalid episcopal consecrations which occasioned Ecclesia Dei was a wrong turn. And it’s true that the SSPX has issued an instruction reminding its members that “only the General House of the Society of Saint Pius X is entitled to make public an official communiqué or authorized commentary on this matter.”

But it still remains to be seen whether the communiqué is actually a preparation for an acceptance statement or a slap-down for stealing the General House’s thunder. Some small knowledge of history gives me few grounds for hope. Having arrogated the chair of Moses to themselves for this long, can they remember that it was supplanted by the Chair of Peter? And that the occupant of that seat is not Fellay but Ratzinger?


[*] The formal schism can be inferred not only from Abp. Lefebvre’s violation of canon law but also from his homily given at the illicit ordination of several priests into the Society on June 29, 1976: “We are of the religion of all time; we are of the Catholic religion. We are not of this ‘universal religion’ as they call it today – this is not the Catholic religion any more. We are not of this Liberal, Modernist religion which has its own worship, its own priests, its own faith, its own catechisms, its own Bible, the ‘ecumenical Bible’ – these things we do not accept” [emphasis mine.—TL].
[†] If it interests no one else, it interests me that the FSSP have a seminary in Denton, Nebraska, not far east of Lincoln and within an hour’s drive of my old hometown of Omaha.