A Treacherous Dilemma
The summer of 1976 hit record temperatures. The Catholic Church was having heated issues. TV announcers, in discussing Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, explained that insubordination was not the privilege of hot headed teenagers. One bishop had openly refused to go along with the drastic move initiated at Vatican II by the whole Church Body and was facing the ire of Pope Paul VI.
Earlier on, in 1974, upset by the scandalous visit of Roman officials checking-in on his Swiss seminary, he had written his November 21 Declaration:
“We hold fast, with all our heart and with all our soul, to Catholic Rome, Guardian of the Catholic Faith and of the traditions necessary to preserve this faith, to Eternal Rome, Mistress of wisdom and truth. We refuse, on the other hand, and have always refused to follow the Rome of neo-Modernist and neo-Protestant tendencies which were clearly evident in the Second Vatican Council and, after the Council, in all the reforms which issued from it.”
Wasn’t this rhetoric an act of rebellion against the established authority? May one ever oppose the established authority? Can the cutting the branch on which we sit be done with impunity? Is not scolding our lawful superiors an act of insubordination against the very authority we wished to safeguard? This situation is delicate enough in civil affairs. When applied to the Catholic Church, the case gains transcendental dimensions, as we are dealing with God’s glory and the salvation of souls. It is this dilemma which this article wishes to address.
The Church, society of the faithful founded by Christ, is divine and human. Being divine, it is endowed with indefectibility and Papal infallibility and even the mark of sanctity. Yet, being human, the same Church is composed of fallible men who, often enough, have failed in their God given duties. This twin nature is exclusive to the true Church of Christ and some properties flow from it. Some are called necessary properties in that, if any of these were missing in a given group, they would disqualify it ipso facto. They are four: authority, indefectibility, perpetuity, and visibility. Without a visible authority, no society can exist, let alone survive. Likewise, without indefectibility—or said positively, without perpetuity—no church can pretend to be divine since God would have abandoned it!
Added to these necessary qualities, we have exclusive properties. The Nicene Creed enumerates them thus: “I believe…the Church, one, holy, Catholic, and Apostolic.” We call them the marks of the Church because they are like sign posts to recognize the true Church of Christ. The last three marks describe what we could loosely call the “outer” causes (efficience—apostolicity; finality—sanctity; numbers—catholicity).
On the other hand, unity defines formally and essentially the Catholic Church. We could dare say that proper church unity is the mark of marks of the Catholic Church. The Church is triply united. It holds unity of government, of faith, and of sacraments. Or, said eloquently by St. Jerome: “In the Church there is only one altar, one faith, one baptism. St. Paul teaches this. And the heretics have abandoned this unity by raising many altars and, far from appeasing God, this has added to the number of their sins” (on Osea ch 8 v.12; PL XXV 888). It may be well to delve into each of these three elements.
Christ as invisible Head of the Church instituted it upon one visible person: “You are Peter (Rock) and upon this rock, I shall build my Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” Christ, who is One, founded one Church, and intended to safeguard this unity through one Pope, the rock and the visible head of this single society. The Pope is no figure head. He enjoys papal primacy with the universal power of jurisdiction—from the Latin jus dicere: to set laws. We call it the power of the keys from the words of Christ said to Peter: “whatever you shall loosen on earth...” And the Acts of the Apostles (ch. 1-11) make it clear that St. Peter held the Church keys by taking the initiative of all major decisions of the nascent Church.
Along with the unity of government comes the unity of the faith. St. Paul is the champion of unity (I Cor. 1:10-12) Anathema to all who resist the truth (II Tim. 3). The Church, throughout her history, has always borne witness of this doctrinal unity. Her works and her councils, her struggles and persecutions have maintained the deposit of her faith. She preferred to suffer persecution than sacrifice the least of her dogmas. History has shown time and again that the Church was willing to have whole branches cut off and suffer an temporary eclipse of her catholicity rather than any loss of her doctrine.
The last element of Church unity is the sacraments. There is a large diversity of Catholic rituals adopted between the East and the West, often rooted in apostolic times. And yet, despite this legitimate variety, there is essential unity in the sacramental system and the doctrine taught through the rituals. Dom Guéranger explained, in his Liturgical Institutions that the liturgy is the most perfect expression of tradition, and gave the axiom, repeated by Pius XII’s Mediator Dei: “ut legem credendi lex statuat supplicandi”—“Let the law of prayer fix the law of the faith.” Like the communicating vases, they grow harmoniously and sustain each other. There is is circular connection between the faith which begets liturgical prayer and the latter which expresses in its purity that faith.
Consequences of a Defective Church Authority
The charismatics have falsely opposed the Church of the institution from the spiritual Church, the hierarchical Church and the pneumatic Church. No! This divorce is suited for nothing but the devil who divides and conquers: both elements, the human and divine are meant to coexist and live. Going back to the question at hand of the three elements of unity, we want to know whether they are hierarchically joined. It is axiomatic that there can be no coordination without subordination. If we speak of a triple unity, of government, of faith, and of sacraments, there must be an ultimate unifying cause between them all, and it is of the utmost importance to set them in the proper order. Which, then, comes first: government or faith and sacraments?
Once posed, the question is readily answered for we soon realize that the governing power is not an end in itself. Its purpose is to serve Christ’s flock and guide it towards its supernatural destiny. It does this by keeping the treasures handed over by its Founder: the deposit of Revelation and the sacraments. Hence, the unity of government, which rests in the Pope, is at the service of the unity of the Faith and the sacraments, and not the other way around.
From this follow important consequences, for both superiors and subjects. The superiors have authority over Church members in all that pertains to the spiritual good of the faithful and stimulates their faith and the sacramental practice. This their privilege and duty is correlative to the right and duties of their subjects. The latter indeed are duty bound to pay respect and obedience to their legitimate superiors in spiritual matters. They also enjoy also the right to be governed properly by superiors whose office is—we can never stress this enough—to teach them the faith, the morals and the proper sacraments. Along with this, the subjects have the right—nay, the duty!—to resist those superiors who fail them in their office. Indeed, what should we say of a prelate who would be wielding his God given authority to deregulate the sacraments and denigrate the faith? Worse even if, under cover of his supreme infallible authority, the pope were allegedly to teach the opposite of what has always and everywhere been believed and practiced. Not only should he not be followed, but he should be publicly rebuked for publicly misleading the flock.
Unfortunately, the question which we just raised is not a purely academic debate. Church history has been long enough to reveal to us these human foibles common especially among high ranking men, including Popes, acting more like Machiavellian politicians than saintly pastors. History teaches too us that it took saints of the highest teak to confront their failing superiors and uphold the Gospel message against more powerful men. Yet, this right for Catholics to request a frank discussion from a superior, suspected of failing in his religious duties, is like walking on an alpine crest. If the superior is failing in his authoritative duty, how can that society maintain proper order? On the other hand, by what authority may a subject scold his failing superior? This was the delicate situation which Archbishop Lefebvre faced in 1976. This is the situation which traditionalists are still facing today.
Is Tradition Guilty of Disobedience?
It is said that during the doctrinal meetings between both the Roman and the SSPX theological commissions in 2012, the Romans accused us of being Protestant, and we retorted by accusing them of being Modernists! On a more serious note, the Traditionalist movement has steadily been accused of being a sect, a schismatic group, witness the paradoxical, if humoristic, title of an Italian newspaper in the year 2000: “Six thousand schismatics pray at St. Peter’s.”
What, we ask then, constitutes properly a schism? Canon Law defines it as the pertinacious rejection of the authority of the Supreme Pontiff. This supposes the recognition that the man on Peter’s throne is legitimately considered as Pope but, along with it, the schismatics stubbornly refuse to recognize his Papal authority over them. Take the typical example of the Orthodox churches which, although they maintain much of the Revelation, stumble on the block of the universal Papal authority power the Pope over them, and prefer to give allegiance to a local Patriarch in defiance of the Pope.
But, there can be less clear cases. Can we call schismatic one who accepts the principle of the papal authority but, for some strange reason, refuses to recognize the man on Peter’s throne? It does not seem so because, when he says that this man is usurping the papacy, he has no problem with the papacy itself but with the man using it. It is like the son who, for some odd reason, thinks this man is not his real father, and has no paternal powers over him. He would love to be under the authority of his real father, but he mistrusts this man who pretends he is his father. Present day sedevacantists, whichever their rationale, de facto and always refuse him authority over them, although they accept the principle of Papal authority and will submit to the legitimate Pope when he appears on the scene. For them, the man on Peter’s throne is a usurper.
Another borderline case comes to mind. Can we call schismatic someone who accepts the papal power but refuses to obey him on one given instance? No, because schism consists in the rejection of the Papal authority absolutely, and not only partially. Likewise, a son who refuses to obey his father’s command does not break ties with his family but simply disobeys here and there. He recognizes his parents’ authority over him by right, but chooses to disobey it in fact, although he will have no problem obeying the next command.
Where do traditionalists stand in relation to the Pope? Are they schismatics as the Orthodox churches are, rejecting in principle the universal jurisdiction of the Bishop of Rome? The answer is clearly no. Are they, like the sedevacantists, saying that the present man on Peter’s throne is no Pope, but is a usurper? This is clearly not the traditionalists position who do recognize Jorge Bergoglio as legitimate Pope. Yet, do they not refuse him the authority which is due to him? Do they not sin by disobeying the rightful superior? This case inded is like that of the son disobeying his father’s order, and so, the traditionalists go against the wishes of their lawful Pope. Yet, they do so grounded on superior principles, the protection of their faith and the sacraments. They argue that the present Church situation, ever since Vatican II, has seen the promotion of the modernist agenda condemned by all Popes from Pius X till Pius XII. They oppose a “Non possumus” to a Pope who disrupts the faith and life of the Church. As the Archbishop wrote 40 years ago, the masterstroke of Satan was to lead the Church away from the faith under the guise of obedience.
A bishop said one day to Archbishop Lefebvre: “I would rather be wrong with the Pope than true against him.” He replied that Christ was the truth, and thus, he would rather be right with Christ than wrong with the Pope. Confronted with the formidable dilemma offered him: join Modernist Rome or secede from Rome, the crestline held by Archbishop has always been: “Neither heretic nor schismatic.” This is no comfortable position: to recognize a failing superior is like consulting a contagiously sick doctor who alone can give you the right prescription. You want to honor his authority and good counsels and, yet, preserve yourself from his lethal virus. Hence, Bishop Bernard Fellay, in the footsteps of our founder, has always responded to Rome’s call while making clear demands so as to protect our traditional identity.
There is a real danger for us as traditional Catholics to ignore at least practically the divinely constituted authority of the Pope and bishops because we are comfortable in our current situation and deem it inconvenient to accommodate even the legitimate commands of our ecclesiastical superiors. The danger of turning our small communities into religious ghettos lurks on the horizon, and this danger is prevalent within the so-called resistance movement. Of course, we can never cooperate in the errors running rampant through the modern Church. Yet at the same time, if we hesitate to acknowledge the authority of the Pope as head of the Universal Church, if we refuse to exhibit the proper respect, reverence and obedience to our ecclesiastical superiors, do we not practically deny our ties to the Roman hierarchy in order to seek our own secluded ease and personal convenience? Does this attitude not draw near to a schismatic attitude in its own right?
And, closer to home, the attitude of turning on all sides every single word coming out of the mouth of a Superior General can only raise suspicion and the spirit of critique among subordinates. Does this foment peace and concord among souls? Is this really harmonizing the simplicity of the dove with the prudence of the serpent? Is this not rather ruining the vital channels of grace for each one of us?