A Matter of Principle

by Fr. Jean-Michel Gleize, SSPX

Editor’s Note: The following theological article is written in an expressly technical style. Therefore, the author’s original formatting of paragraphs by number has been retained following the introduction.


Introduction to the Problem

The post-synodal Exhortation Amoris Laetitia has left none indifferent. But apparently, according to the pope himself, the only possible interpretation of Chapter 8 of the document is that given by the bishops of Buenos Aires in Argentina, who openly claim that certain divorced and remarried couples can be granted access to the sacraments. “The document is very good and completely explains the meaning of Chapter VIII of Amoris Laetitia; there are no other interpretations,” responded the pope in a letter written in September 2016. And last June, the Vatican Secretariat of State recognized this response as part of the “authentic magisterium.”

This will not fail to raise another question, that has been the subject of studies for a long time already. Given that the authorities of the ecclesial hierarchy remain in possession of their magisterial power, we can wonder what value is to be attributed to the teachings dispensed by these authorities in the Church, the pope and the bishops, since Vatican Council II? Must we see them as before, as the exercise of the true Magisterium, even though they wholly or partially abandon the Tradition of the Church? The position of the Society of Saint Pius X is that at Vatican II and ever since, a “new type of magisterium, imbued with Modernist principles, vitiating the nature, the contents, the role and the exercise of the ecclesiastical Magisterium”, has taken over in Holy Mother Church.

This position drew the attention of an official representative of the Sovereign Pontiff, the Secretary of the Pontifical Ecclesia Dei Commission, Archbishop Guido Pozzo, and inspired his main approach, which is similar to that of Pope Benedict XVI. The point of this approach is to bring the Society to consider the conciliar teachings as properly magisterial, and eventually accept them. For the Society must accept them. Even before the doctrinal discussions from 2009 to 2011, Benedict XVI clearly announced this intention: “The problems now to be addressed are essentially doctrinal in nature and concern primarily the acceptance of the Second Vatican Council and the post-conciliar magisterium of the popes…The Church’s teaching authority cannot be frozen in the year 1962—this must be quite clear to the Society.”1 Which goes to show the urgency of this crucial question that is a matter of principle. We shall reexamine it here under the synthetic form of a disputed question, exposing the different arguments on either side, in order to highlight the soundness of the Society’s position.


Arguments on Both Sides: Are the Conciliar Teachings Magisterial Properly Speaking?

It would seem so.

1. First of all, the true nature of the teachings of Vatican Council II and since is, as it were, on a summit, above two very opposite errors, and for this reason, we must lay down two impassable white lines to the left and right of the road that leads the intelligence to the truth. To the left, the white line must eliminate the maximalist approach that sees Vatican Council II as a sort of pastoral super-dogma, next to which the Traditional Catholic doctrine becomes less absolute. To the right, it must eliminate the minimalist position according to which Vatican II is nothing more than a pastoral council and therefore has no doctrinal or magisterial value. Refusing both the maximalist and the minimalist approach, “we must read and understand the documents of the Magisterium of Vatican II and the pontiffs that have reigned since directly according to what they really mean to teach (the mens of the author), and not let ourselves be influenced by the virtual or altered reality spread by other unauthorized human interpreters.”2 We must also hold that even if the Council did not wish to propose new dogmatic definitions, it did give a magisterial teaching on Faith and morals that requires the interior consent of the intellect and the will, as well as other practical, pastoral teachings that require a different, but respectful compliance.

2. Secondly, it is clear, in fact, that there are teachings from Vatican Council II and the following popes that are properly magisterial—the sacramentality of the episcopate in chapter 3 of the constitution Lumen Gentium for example, or the condemnation of female priesthood in John Paul II’s Apostolic Letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis—since the content, the tone, and the finality of these acts clearly manifest that the pope intends them as a real use of his magisterial authority in the most traditional sense of the word.

3. Thirdly, the Magisterium is, as Pius XII teaches, the guideline for the truth in matters of Faith and morals. Just as the Church could not remain indefectible over a long period of time without a pope truly reigning, neither can she do so without the Magisterium being truly exercised. For this reason, denying that the post-conciliar teachings are properly magisterial and denying that there is a truly reigning pope at the head of the Church lead to exactly the same consequences: both denials question the promises made by Our Lord and deny the indefectibility of the Church.

4. Fourthly, Archbishop Lefebvre declared in speaking of Vatican Council II that there is an “Ordinary Magisterium which can contain error or express simple opinions.” He also declared that the documents of the Council are to be judged in the light of Tradition, and those in keeping with Tradition accepted. In his eyes, therefore, Vatican Council II represents a “Magisterium” properly speaking.

It would seem not.


5. In a conference given in Ecône, Archbishop Lefebvre declared, “We have Pope John XXIII, Pope Paul VI, and Pope John Paul II…They are liberals. They have liberal minds…So how can minds like that accomplish acts that they themselves consider definitive and oblige all the faithful to adhere to them definitively? They cannot accomplish such acts. That is why there are always restrictions in their commentaries, in the letters and official statements they have made, both in consistories and in public meetings…So there is a whole group in Rome now that did not exist before and that cannot give us laws in the way the popes used to give them to us, because they no longer have a truly Catholic spirit in this regard. They do not have a clearly Catholic conception of infallibility, the immutability of dogma, the permanence of Tradition, the permanence of Revelation, nor even, I would say, of doctrinal obedience…So this idea they have, you see, keeps them from accomplishing acts in exactly the same conditions and with the same mindset as the popes from before. This seems clear to me. And that is why we all find ourselves in the midst of an unbelievable confusion.” Archbishop Lefebvre had serious doubts, at the very least, as to the magisterial nature of the new conciliar teachings.

6. Sixthly, during the celebrations for the 25th anniversary of the 1988 episcopal consecrations, Bishop Fellay declared, “We are forced to see that this atypical Council that wished to be only pastoral and not dogmatic, inaugurated a new type of magisterium, hitherto unknown in the Church, and that has no roots in Tradition; a magisterium that has resolved to reconcile Catholic doctrine with the liberal ideas: a magisterium imbued with the Modernist principles of subjectivism, immanentism, and that is in perpetual evolution according to the false concept of living tradition, vitiating the nature, the contents, the role and the exercise of the ecclesiastical Magisterium.”

We draw from this remark the same conclusion as in the fifth argument.


The Principle of the Answer

7. In order to give an answer, we must first define the terms of the question.

8. Allow us to define the predicate of our question and consider what exactly a “properly magisterial” act is. An act of the ecclesiastical Magisterium is that of a testimony given with authority in the name of Christ: it is essentially the act of a vicariate authority. This act is therefore defined and limited by its object, the safeguard and explanation of the divinely revealed truths. Without this object, an act of the ecclesiastical authority cannot be an act of Magisterium properly speaking.3 Right reason enlightened by Faith is capable of confirming in certain cases that the ecclesiastical authority is being carried beyond its limits, when it sees precisely that this authority is contradicting the proper object of the Magisterium that it knows as such. This is a negative criterion given by St. Paul in his Epistle to the Galatians:4 the ecclesiastical authorities go beyond their limits when they proffer a teaching contrary to the truths already defined by the infallible Magisterium or constantly proposed by the ordinary Magisterium, even the simply authentic ordinary Magisterium. In such cases, it is possible to confirm the illegitimacy and non-magisterial nature of a teaching with an a posteriori argument, by examining the object of the teaching in its relation to the other objects of other previous acts of the Magisterium. But this then raises the question of the properly magisterial nature of the teaching, for, if its very object (its “quod”, to use the scholastic term) is the negation of the object of the Magisterium, even if only on certain points, one may well wonder whether the formal motive of this teaching (the “quo”) is habitually (that is, in all other acts) that of the Magisterium; indeed, there is a necessary relation of consistency between the two. Of course, a pope can teach in an isolated act something that is not the object of his Magisterium (for example, a theological opinion) without this being a proof that his habitual teachings are not magisterial. However, when the pope teaches, even in an isolated act, something that contradicts the object of his Magisterium (a grave error or even a heresy), it is not unreasonable to wonder whether this is a sign that his habitual teaching is no longer magisterial. Indeed, the negation of the “quod” (which is more than its simple absence) is ordinarily a sign of the absence of the “quo” in the acts of a power, not in the power itself.

9. We shall now define the subject of our question and explain what we mean by “conciliar teachings”. The teachings of Vatican II and those of the popes who have reigned since are, in the first place, teachings that contradict, at least on several important points (religious liberty and State indifferentism, the new latitudinarian “subsistit” ecclesiology, ecumenism and inter-religious dialogue, collegiality and the common priesthood, the new liturgy, the Code of Canon Law), the objective teachings of the constant Magisterium that had already been clarified with the requisite authority. Secondly, they are teachings whose practical consequence is a generalized Protestantization of the Catholic faithful. Thirdly, they are teachings that present themselves as belonging to a new “magisterium”, that Popes John XXIII and Paul VI presented as pastoral and concerning which Pope Benedict XVI explained that he intended to redefine the relation between the Faith of the Church and essential elements of modern thought.

10. It is therefore possible to conclude by saying that: first of all, the conciliar teachings are certainly not magisterial on all the particular and isolated points on which they contradict the truths already defined by the infallible Magisterium or constantly proposed by the ordinary Magisterium; secondly, on all other points, we remain in doubt, for the conciliar teachings globally proceed from a new pastoral “magisterium” and it is doubtful that its intention, that “vitiates the nature, the contents, the role and the exercise of the ecclesiastical Magisterium”, is that of the Magisterium properly speaking. For this reason, if we consider them formally as the expression of this new “magisterium” (and not simply insofar as they can be materially in conformity with Tradition and even benefit from the authority of the preceding Magisterium), it is doubtful that these conciliar teachings are of a magisterial nature. Because of this doubt, it seems prudent, as a general rule, to avoid presenting in our preaching the declarations of the new “magisterium” as arguments invested with a properly magisterial authority, in order to avoid inspiring a trust in these conciliar and post-conciliar teachings that would in the long run be harmful for the spirit of our faithful. This being said, on all the isolated points on which these teachings are materially and apparently in keeping with Tradition (the condemnation of female priesthood in Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, for example) the same prudence does not forbid us from taking advantage of them insofar as is reasonably possible and using them in one way or another without attributing to them the degree of magisterial authority, especially as ad hominem arguments or as information or material for theological reflection.

11. This double conclusion imposes itself by the very fact that a tree is judged by its fruits, according to the method recommended and practiced by Archbishop Lefebvre: “Without rejecting this Council wholesale, I think that it is the greatest disaster of this century and of all the past centuries, since the founding of the Church. In this, I am doing nothing but judging it by its fruits, making use of the criterion that Our Lord gave us (Mt. 7:16).” This judgment is the conclusion of an a posteriori argument, that goes from the object of the teaching to the doubtfulness of this teaching’s magisterial nature, as from an effect to its formal cause. This doubtful nature of the teaching grows stronger when those in authority add the claim of a change in their intentions and it seems even more well-founded when we consider the liberal mentality that infects their minds.

12. This double conclusion is to be taken as true not speculatively, but practically speaking. This is not a dogmatic conclusion established by faith or even by theology. It is a conclusion laid out by supernatural prudence and the gift of counsel. It is therefore true until proven otherwise and depending on the future judgment of the Magisterium of the Church that God will certainly raise up to clarify all the doubts presented by the current crisis.


Answer to the Arguments

13. To the first, we answer that this argument, in contesting the so-called “minimalist” position, is logically based on a double postulate. The first postulate is that all the conciliar teachings are systematically in keeping with Tradition, the reason being that the Council is inerrant; this is a postulate, that is to say, an unproved position that is also unprovable, since the facts contradict it. The second postulate is that of the mens, the claim that the authors of the conciliar teachings have the intention of accomplishing an act of Magisterium even if it is not infallible; this, too, is a postulate, since this intention is not proven. We have more serious reason to assume that all the successors of John XXIII and Paul VI have had the radical and ordinary intention of remaining attached to the liberal and personalist presuppositions of modern thought. In his book published in 1982, Principles of Catholic Theology, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger claimed that the fundamental intention of Vatican Council II is contained in the pastoral constitution Gaudium et Spes.5 The prefect of the Faith explained, “This text plays the role of a counter-Syllabus to the measure that it represents an attempt to officially reconcile the Church with the world as it had become after 1789.” In 1984, the same Cardinal Ratzinger declared that the Council was called in order to bring into the Church doctrines born outside of her, doctrines that come from the world.6 His speech on December 22, 2005, likewise declared that Vatican Council II intended to define in a new way “the relation between the faith of the Church and certain essential elements of modern thought.” Vatican II therefore was determined to bring the Church’s preaching into harmony with the principles of modern and liberal thought, born of 1789. Such was the observation made by Archbishop Lefebvre at the end of the Council: “We have lived to see the marriage of the Catholic Church with liberal ideas. It would be to deny the evidence, to be willfully blind, not to state courageously that the Council has allowed those who profess the errors and tendencies condemned by the popes named above, legitimately to believe that their doctrines were approved and sanctioned.”7 Later on, in Ecône, he would say: “So this conception they have, you see, keeps them from accomplishing acts in exactly the same conditions and the same mindset as the popes from before.” This fundamental intention has not been rejected, in fact, it is still implicitly maintained in the habitual (and most often exclusive) reference Churchmen make to Vatican Council II. It makes the magisterial nature of the habitual predication of these Churchmen doubtful.

14. To the second, we answer that even if as a pure hypothesis (dato non concesso), we imagine that the conciliar teachings are in keeping with Tradition on some points, these points are part of a global synthesis that goes against the Catholic Tradition of all times. We can use the principle of analysis Archbishop Lefebvre left us: “The Council was deflected from its purposes by a group of conspirators and it is impossible for us to take any part in this conspiracy despite the fact that there may be many satisfactory declarations in Vatican II. The good texts have served as cover to get those texts which are snares, equivocal, and denuded of meaning, accepted and passed.”8 What Archbishop Lefebvre says of the Council on a global level can apply analogically to all the post-conciliar teachings taken as a whole; we cannot ratify this new “Magisterium” even if there are many materially satisfactory texts, for these materially good texts formally belong to an evil logic and serve as a cover to get other texts that are snares, equivocal, and denuded of meaning accepted. What is more, even on the points we have mentioned as examples, it is easy to show that their conformity to the teachings of Tradition is more apparent than real. The sacramentality of the episcopate as taught by Lumen Gentium and the epistemological presuppositions of Ordinatio sacerdotalis are part of a perspective that is scarcely that of Tradition.

15. To the third, we grant that the indefectibility of the Church makes the existence and perpetual exercise of a living Magisterium necessary, but we deny that the consequence of the doubtful magisterial nature of the teachings of the hierarchy since Vatican II is an absolute absence of all exercise of the Magisterium in the entire Church, and this for two reasons. First of all, and fundamentally speaking, because the living Magisterium whose exercise is necessary to the indefectibility of the Church is not limited to the present Magisterium, for it includes all the acts of the past Magisterium. Secondly, because the present Magisterium is exercised as such in a common ordered action and is not limited to the pope’s activity alone or to the activity of the bishops alone. The unity and perpetuity of the exercise of the Magisterium continue so long as at least some of the pastors, or even a single one, remains faithful to transmitting the Faith. And the doubt we have voiced applies to all teachings since Vatican II from a precisely logical, and not chronological, point of view: all formally conciliar teachings are doubtful, in that they proceed from the formal intention explained in our principle that responds and are generally adopted by the hierarchy, willy nilly, in its official preaching. The objection proposes a dilemma that can be resumed as follows: either the present conciliar “magisterium” is the Magisterium of the Church, or the Magisterium of the Church no longer exists; but the Magisterium of the Church cannot no longer exist; therefore, the present conciliar “magisterium” is the Magisterium of the Church. This argument forgets that the rule of truth in matters of Faith and morals is sufficiently established in the Church in a way well-suited to the human condition; the Magisterium is exercised through a few acts of teaching by a few pastors at least from the past, if not in the present, but not necessarily through all the acts of teaching of all the pastors. Every faithful Catholic can turn to these few acts, and cling to them with the necessary certitude that he will find in them the guarantees he needs to profess his Faith in the Catholic unity of the Church, even when Providence authorizes for a given amount of time a certain lack in all the other acts. The Arian times are a serious proof of the possibility of a similar situation.

16. To the fourth, we answer that the quote attributed to Archbishop Lefebvre is taken out of context. It is part of a note written to explain the meaning of certain points brought up in an exchange of letters between Archbishop Lefebvre and Cardinal Ratzinger: “Assuming that the texts of Vatican II are magisterial acts, three facts remain undeniable. Firstly, unlike all the previous ecumenical councils, Vatican II wished to be a ‘pastoral Council’ and did not define any point of doctrine in the sense of an unreformable definition. Consequently, the documents of this council belong at the best to the Ordinary Magisterium which can contain error or express simple opinions.” This “assuming that” (dato non concesso) gives the quote its true meaning. It clearly cannot provide the argument proposed by the objection. And the end of the note adds: “Updating the Church, that is, conforming her to modern errors in order to bring her out of her ghetto by turning her back on Tradition, the vehicle of the Faith, is a monstrous heresy. That is what Vatican II brought about: a marriage between the Church and the ideology of 1789.” Archbishop Lefebvre’s true position was far more complex and finely tuned than it can seem in an isolated note taken out of context. One has only to look through the different conferences by the Society’s founder over the years. Archbishop Lefebvre rarely spoke of Vatican II as a Magisterium. When he did so, his explanations showed that this word cannot be applied to the last Council in its proper and habitual sense. He spoke, for example of “a magisterium that destroys this Magisterium (of all time), that destroys this Tradition”; “a new magisterium or a new conception of the Church’s Magisterium, a conception that is a Modernist conception”; “a new magisterium”. In an official letter addressed to the Prefect of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Archbishop Lefebvre voiced the following judgment: “A new magisterium, without roots in the past, and what is more, contrary to the Magisterium of all time, can only be schismatic, if not heretical.” Now that is an expression of Archbishop Lefebvre’s reflections in the face of the amplitude of this unprecedented phenomenon ushered into the Church by Vatican II.

17. We grant the fifth and the sixth, as a practical truth and a prudent conclusion, not a speculative truth or a dogmatic or theological conclusion—salvo future judicio Ecclesiae.

1 Letter of His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI to the bishops of the Catholic Church, March 10, 2009.

2 Archbishop Pozzo, speech on April 4, 2014.

3 St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, IIa IIae, question 104, article 5, corpus and ad 3.

4 Gal. 1:8.

5 Principles of Catholic Theology, Building Stones for a Fundamental Theology (Ignatius Press, 1987).

6 Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, The Ratzinger Report (Ignatius Press, 1986)

7 Archbishop Lefebvre, Letter on December 20, 1966, to Cardinal Ottaviani, in I Accuse the Council, Angelus Press, 1998, p. 81.

8 Archbishop Lefebvre, I Accuse the Council (Angelus Press, 1998).