“Steeped in Romanity” — Fr. Victor-Alain Berto

Articles written, translated or selected by John S. Daly

The guiding star of this site is fidelity to Rome.

From torrid south to frozen north,
The wave harmonious stretches forth,
Yet strikes no chord more true to Rome’s,
Than rings within our hearts and homes.
Cardinal Wiseman

Cranks and Fanatics in Sedevacantist Ranks

Question: Why are there so many cranks and fanatics in sedevacantist ranks? It is not enough for these people to reject the false church: they also want us, generally on pain of excommunication or damnation, to agree with their “irrefutably proved” pet theories about anything from geocentrism or mercury fillings to the exact date of the Day of Judgment, including their view of the validity, orthodoxy and legitimacy of every priest, the status of various papal claimants, rejection of Baptism of Desire, etc.

Answer: The question is a very fair one. Moral fibre entails readiness to stand up for truth even in a small and ridiculed minority, but that is different from a positive taste for eccentricity and contempt for all that others are agreed about. Disorderly love of extremes and the urge to condemn others are easily recognised vices that some sedevacantists suffer from, but not widespread enough to provide a complete answer to the question. Another factor is surely that we live in the most under-educated and mis-educated period of Christian history. The crisis has placed untrained layfolk under the necessity of judging grave matters and even of rejecting many ecclesiastics as heretics. In some cases, awareness that this is a rare and exceptional necessity has been lost. All prudent doubt or hesitation is eschewed. An exaggerated idea of personal competence has been formed. Private opinions, often of the shakiest, have been erected into dogmas. All too often the ludicrous result is a man purporting to be a theological expert requiring everyone else to assent to various alleged truths when the self-appointed inquisitor has not yet mastered the elements of English grammar, has no knowledge of the Church’s language and has no background formation in philosophy or history, let alone a solid general theological training. Obviously such an individual is building on sand and no one should take any notice of him. Let him fulminate — only weak characters are impressed by the intellectual terrorists who use violent language and threats when they should be offering calm and clear proofs and replying lucidly to objections.

Such individuals often miss a fundamental category distinction: there is a difference between truths directly taught by the Church and the subsequent conclusions reached by human reason reflecting on and applying Catholic doctrine. That difference should be patent to all. It is a commonplace in St Thomas Aquinas and every serious theologian. Anyone, from bus-driver to bishop, who mixes the two categories and makes Church membership depend on the second category instead of the first, is indeed a sectarian and a fanatic. His truths may be true, but they are not in themselves Catholic doctrine. Our obligation to believe them depends on whether we in fact follow his reasoning and perceive its validity. God will indeed judge us on such matters, but He alone is competent to do so, for pending a direct judgment of the Church, they belong only to the internal forum. Conscious rejection of a dogma entails automatic excommunication, but there is no way of inadvertently “falling out of the Church” by the accident of failing to follow an argument presented, for good or ill, by some fallible mortal.

Let us consider in more detail the five species of knowledge we have mentioned whereby to test the credibility of anyone claiming to impose little-known doctrinal truths on others: 1. Correct English, 2. Ability to read Latin, 3. Philosophy, 4. History, 5. General theology (as opposed to detailed knowledge of some particular detail).

1. The first of these surely needs no proof. Sloppy English betrays sloppy thinking, insisted the late Fr. Oswald Baker (1915-2004), one of the world’s most highly respected sedevacantist priests. And the claim to have mastered some point of controversial theology on which salvation depends lacks credibility when made by one who has not fully mastered his mother-tongue.

2. Another necessity too often spurned is Latin. Yet the Holy See has pronounced clearly:

(a) “How is it possible to detect and refute the various fallacies speciously presented as science, especially in our days…without a thorough understanding of the meaning and force of the words in which solemn definitions are couched, i.e. unless one is skilled in the language which the Church herself uses?” (Apostolic Letter Officiorum Omnium, 1922)

(b) “Ignorance of Latin in any layman with the slightest pretension to learning…is a mark of lukwarmness in his love of the Church.” (Ibid.)

(c) “It is sad that most clerics and priests, insufficiently versed in Latin…, neglect the best works of Catholic writers in which the dogmas of the faith are solidly and lucidly propounded…preferring to learn doctrine from vernacular books and periodicals which very often lack clarity of expression, accuracy of presentation and sound understanding of dogma.” (Vixdum Haec Sacra, 1921)

What is at issue is not whether Latin is needed to save one’s soul or to recognize evident facts such as that Benedict XVI is a ravaging Modernist. It is whether Latin is needed to be sure of having correctly understood the recondite doctrines one is imposing on priests and layfolk. As a general rule it surely is, as the above texts prove.

3. As to philosophy, it is the foundation of all serious thought. Seminarians have to study it for several years before even beginning to address theology. And the lamented Fr. Berto famously observed, “I do not believe in the lasting fecundity of any apostolate unsupported by a solid armature of metaphysics.” Now if the formal and lengthy study of the laws of thought and the nature of being is so rigorously necessary in normal times as a prelude to understanding theology, one may well wonder how it can be safely bypassed by our self-appointed discoverers of lost truths and necessary means of salvation. Take for instance the late Fr. Guérard des Lauriers’ theory that Paul VI and his successors were “materially but not formally popes”. How many of those who have commented, favourably or unfavourably, upon this thesis can state what the words matter and form mean, can distinguish prime matter from secondary matter and know whether the thesis uses these words in their proper sense or analogically? Would not those who cannot answer these questions be better occupied in learning than in teaching on this sort of subject?

4. Last month’s column provided one example of why knowledge of history, especially Church history, is so valuable. While answering a question about the signatures of Archbishop Lefebvre and others on the documents of Vatican II, we saw that there have been cases in which bishops have been induced to sign heresy yet the Church has judged that their loss of office was not automatic. The claims of certain sectarians are reduced to rubble by that fact alone. History gives one a feel for the mind of the Church and a touchstone for the practical application of her laws and teaching. Thus it can often shortcut debates that would otherwise never reach a conclusion at all.

5. Finally, there is the need for directly theological knowledge, not limited to one or two pet bees in the zealot’s bonnet, but of a general kind. The difference is crucial: we expect a doctor to have a general knowledge of medicine and health before becoming a specialist in diseases of the liver. Very many of the fanatics mentioned by the questioner think they and their coterie are alone in having penetrated some essential theological truth on which Catholicism depends. There are cases in which, within certain limits, such claims may be defensible. For instance, woolliness about the conditions of salvation and the necessity of belonging to the true Church may well have contributed greatly to the errors of Vatican II and the ensuing crisis. Readiness to concede every claim scientists said they had proved in the fields of evolution, cosmology and relativity also played a part: the evolution of dogma, moral relativity and existentialism seemed easy to believe to Catholics who had already embraced equivalent claims in the order of natural science.

But when we see Catholics openly rejecting as erroneous or even heretical the consistent teaching of papal encyclicals and the morally unanimous doctrine of approved theologians on these issues, we know that they are misled. They are misled because they have failed to understand the nature and functioning of the Church’s infallible ordinary magisterium. They have plunged into some particular branch of theology before having grasped the general background which gives the particular its context.

For instance, the morally unanimous teaching of Catholic theologians over a significant period of time, known and approved of by the Church herself, bears infallible witness to the Church’s own teaching and is therefore infallibly true (See Cartechini de Valore, p. 39, for instance). No one who has understood this will squander time challenging any such teaching. That is why the Catholic instinct on controverted theological issues is first to consult the most respected theological writers to have discussed them. Attempts to “put the Church right” without having first understood the divinely guaranteed limits within which the Church can never go wrong are a sure sign of theological incompetence, recalling Alexander Pope’s famous aphorism that “fools rush in where angels fear to tread”.

Having established these five kinds of knowledge without which the would-be crusader is a mere Don Quixote, it is easy to apply them to such subjects as those raised by our questioner. For instance, concerning Baptism of Desire certain writers show themselves to be: 1. theologically illiterate in the cheerful rejection of the very plain teaching of St Thomas, St Alphonsus, St Robert Bellarmine and all approved theologians to have discussed the subject in detail in the last thousand years or so; 2. philosophically adrift, by failure to distinguish univocal and analogical use of the word “Baptism” in Catholic sources; 3. historically inept in being unaware of the numerous utterly undeniable examples of saints whom the Church inerrantly presents for our veneration as never having been baptised “in re”; 4. destitute of the least latinity in their failure to understand the only possible sense of Trent’s solemn teaching that man cannot be justified “without the laver of regeneration or the desire [‘votum’] for it”. As for their English – well, it is a sound bet that if a writer’s style reminds you of a ranting educationally subnormal Southern Baptist, his theology will be on about the same level.

Geocentrism versus Heliocentrism is a subject worthy of more attention, for it is one concerning which powerful minds, truly imbued with true doctrine, Catholic sense and sound judgment, continue to disagree. There is no doubt that geocentrists have a very strong scientific case and there is no doubt that it was for at least two centuries formally forbidden for Catholics to maintain a sun-centred universe with a moving earth. But it is equally inescapable that the Holy See has for the last two centuries permitted Catholics to hold either view. The present writer’s book on the topic: The Theological Status of Heliocentrism is available from tradibooks.com. The enquirer who wants to know, as a condition of trusting The Four Marks, if the editor accepts that it is a mortal sin not to be geocentrist is invited to consult this work before further discussion of the subject. If such an enquiry makes you smile, you are probably a truer disciple of that great geocentrist Saint Robert Bellarmine, who never lost his sense of proportion or his sense of humour.

This article first appeared in The Four Marks.

© Copyright John S. Daly 2006