Archbishop Lefebvre, Vatican II and the Signatures Controversy
This month’s column is devoted to answering a serious objection raised by more than one reader. Here is how one of them expresses the difficulty in a letter to the editor:
“…while your intention to unite Catholics is commendable, I would like to address a serious problem you have overlooked. You have indicated that the common denominator among the various groups and individuals listed is their rejection of Vatican II and the Modernists. What happens when in the genealogy of at least two of the entities mentioned…we find prelates who did not reject Vatican II and the modernists but instead actually signed the documents of this spurious Council? The answer to this question is found in the Bull Cum Ex Apostolatus of Pope Paul IV. Having signed these documents, Archbishops Lefebvre and Thuc fell under censure and lost the authority of their office for all time. Any subsequent attempt to ordain or consecrate would be illegitimate and would produce only illicit offspring, whose Masses would be sacrilegious and sacraments unavailing to salvation. As a result, there exists neither Apostolicity nor other marks of the true Church. Without all four marks there cannot be unity.”
As always in this column our intention is to give replies that are solidly researched and founded on solid authority. No slick answers, no second-hand, unproved allegations: instead, the desire to present Catholic truth as clearly and accurately as possible, stating as certain what is certain and as doubtful what is doubtful. Anathema in the face of heresy, but calm debate where honest disagreement is the problem: and no rash confusion of the two. In this spirit we shall today consider the exact import of signing the documents of the Second Vatican Council.
But before doing so, one clarification is necessary. At no stage has the editor claimed that all those who reject Vatican II and the Modernists are therefore themselves legitimate, orthodox and (if ordained) suitable sources of the sacraments. At no stage has she either pre-judged the often difficult issues dividing traditional groups or affirmed that all such issues are a matter of free opinion. And in fact that is not her conviction. What she does believe is that the rejection of Vatican II and Modernism constitutes a suitable common denominator for readership of a useful monthly journal, one of whose roles is to permit charitable and serious discussion of the points readers are not yet all agreed on. And this columnist shares that view.
Against that background, let us re-state the objection in question form: when a bishop signed one or more documents of the Second Vatican Council, is it certain that he by that very fact forfeited all offices in the Church? Without hope of re-instatement? And in consequence cannot legitimately ordain priests having the right to offer Mass? So that any priests so ordained and the groups they serve constitute or are part of a religious body lacking the four marks of the Catholic Church after which this Catholic newspaper is named?
The present writer has some modest claim to be listened to on these subjects, for it was he who in 1984 first discovered the signatures of Archbishops Lefebvre and Thuc and Bishop de Castro Mayer in the Acta Synodalia of the Second Vatican Council and published photocopies of them in a sedevacantist periodical. (The Rev. Dr. Brian Harrison, a scholarly but wrong-headed defender of Vatican II’s orthodoxy, has attributed this discovery to French priest Fr de Blignières, but de Blignières in fact independently made the same discovery several years later.) It was also the present writer who made, in 1983, the most widely circulated translation of Pope Paul IV’s Bull Cum Ex Apostolatus Officio (1559) on which the objector relies.
Nonetheless I do not think it possible to sustain as certain all the objector’s conclusions. Let me state some of the main difficulties that stand in the way:
1. Vatican II promulgated sixteen different documents, but there are only six lists of signatures appended to them. This is by any standards a curious proceeding if the signatures are intended to express consent to the whole of the Council’s teaching. There is no doubt that all three bishops who later came to be associated with the traditional resistance to Vatican II signed these six lists (except the first, which seems to relate exclusively to the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy and which does not bear Archbishop Thuc’s signature). Archbishop Lefebvre spoke inaccurately in saying that he had not signed them, but the cause of his error may have been sincere confusion as to what these lists of signatures in fact meant. There is thus a serious doubt of fact at the heart of the issue: what documents do the six signature lists relate to and what did the bishops understand their signatures to imply?
2. There have been other historical cases in which bishops, united in council or not, have been induced to sign statements incompatible with the Catholic faith, yet the Church has not formed in their regard precisely the same judgment as the objector. One obvious example was that of the Council of Rimini in the year 357 when almost all of the Western bishops were prevailed upon to sign a heretical semi-Arian formula, which, however, some of them had believed to be still compatible with orthodoxy. In his brief Quod Aliquantum of 10th March 1791, Pope Pius VI had occasion to summarize the Church’s attitude on that occasion: “Neither do we wish to allow the Bishop of Autun [Talleyrand] and those who may meanwhile have forsworn themselves after his example, to be ignorant of the Church’s pronouncement upon those Bishops who were present at the Council of Rimini and who, yielding to fear of the threats made by the Emperor Constantius, signed the equivocal and captious formula invented by the Arians to deceive them. Pope Liberius warned them that if they persisted in this error he would deploy to punish them all the authority that the Catholic Church gave him. Saint Hilary of Poitiers had Bishop Saturninus driven out of the church of Arles as he pertinaciously defended the doctrine of the Arian bishops. Finally the judgment of Liberius was confirmed by Pope Damasus…so that even the bishops of the East could publicly retract their errors if they wished to be Catholics and counted as such. ‘We believe,’ says Saint Damasus, ‘that those whose weakness does not allow them to take this step, must be separated as soon as possible from our communion and deprived of the episcopal dignity, so that the people of their dioceses may breathe in freedom from error.’ It cannot be denied that the bishop of Autun and his imitators are in the same situation as the bishops condemned by Liberius and Damasus. For this reason, if they do not retract their oath, they know what they must expect.”
In short, while the Church utterly condemned the heretical council, she did not consider the bishops who had been induced to sign the subtly heretical statement to be automatically deposed and excommunicated. One would say rather that she treated them as vehemently suspect of heresy and formally enjoined them to recant. Those who refused to withdraw the error when the pope condemned it, and to re-affirm the true faith, were considered to be plainly heretical and duly deprived of their offices.
On the other hand, there was a group which held that all the Rimini signatories were necessarily, permanently and automatically deprived of Catholic communion and authority and that no recantation could save them. A certain school of sedevacantists in our days seem to be animated by the same spirit. But unfortunately this group, known as Luciferians after the name of their leader, Bishop Lucifer of Cagliari (Sardinia), are considered as schismatics by the Church!
Now can it not at least be reasonably argued that the case of Vatican II is very similar to that of Rimini, and at least no worse? If so, we have a more complicated situation than the objector realises. We have bishops who had made themselves legitimately suspect of heresy but who, allowing for subtle arguments used to argue that the decrees were orthodox, may not have been manifestly pertinacious heretics even if they actually voted for the decrees. A true pope would have demanded recantation, but none in fact did. And in any event their interventions on the Council floor and their statements and actions after the Council show clear disapproval and rejection of the errors that Vatican II in fact contains – at least in the case of Archbishop Lefebvre and Bishop de Castro Mayer, if not in that of Archbishop Thuc. And all subsequently expressed public disapproval of Vatican II and its errors.
On this understanding, those who insist, as a condition of Catholicism, on rejection of all those ordained since the Council by any bishop who participated in it, may be closer to the schismatic Luciferian position than to the mind of the Church. For St Thomas Aquinas reminds us that “doubt as to whether certain persons are excommunicated either precedes the sentence of the judges or else follows it. If it comes before, for instance when it has not yet been declared by the consensus of the judges that certain persons are excommunicated, they are not to be avoided until the matter has been closed by definitive judgment. For in this case it is true that we ought to follow the milder interpretation.” (Quodlibet IV, art. xiv)
3. Automatic excommunication and automatic loss of all ecclesiastical offices are effects of public or manifest heresy. That is the doctrine of Saint Robert Bellarmine, which most sedevacantists regard as one of the clearest authorities authorising, or rather compelling, them to reject the pseudo-popes of the Vatican II revolution. And it is enshrined in the 1917 Code of Canon Law (Canons 2314 and 188). Now the definition of the act of heresy given by Saint Thomas and adopted by the Code is pertinacious dissent from a dogma on the part of a baptised person. “If, after disputed issues have been settled by the authority of the universal Church, one were pertinaciously to reject her ordinance, he would be considered a heretic.” (Summa Theologiæ, II-II, q. 11, a.3) See also Canon 1325§2: “…if someone pertinaciously denies or doubts any of those truths that are to be believed with divine and Catholic faith…” And Canon 2197§4 also emphasizes that a public delict is one of which not only the act but also the imputability is public.
Here too the truth falls between two extremes. Quite false is the claim often made by supporters of the SSPX that pertinacity can be known only by official monition and sentence. But no less false is the notion that pertinacity is invariably presumed whenever an erroneous statement is made or accepted by one who sincerely wants to be orthodox. This pertinacity is the awareness that one’s expressed beliefs are not in accordance with Catholic doctrine. When it is truly clear that someone is thus pertinacious, he is no longer a Catholic and no longer holds any office in the Catholic Church (to which he no longer belongs). But there can be no side-stepping the condition of pertinacity. Pope Paul IV was an eminent scholar, theologian and canonist. When he refers in his celebrated bull to the consequences of falling into heresy, he obviously means heresy as defined by the Church. Mere doctrinal confusion does not trigger excommunication or deprivation and Cum Ex Apostolatus Officio does not suggest that it does.
4. True, some have quoted authors such as Beste and Mackenzie to justify their opinion that by Canon 2200§2 this pertinacity is always canonically presumed. But Cardinal Billot, a much higher authority, demolishes this claim and calls it “absurd” in his de Ecclesia (see Appendix below). Pertinacity is presumed when there are solid grounds for presuming it, and it is presumed in the case of all public members of condemned sects. In the present writer’s judgment, Josef Ratzinger, like Karol Wojtyla and Giovanni-Battista Montini before him, is clearly pertinacious in the rejection of numerous Catholic dogmas and indeed in rejecting the very foundation of all dogma. The same applies to the bulk of the bishops who enforced the post-conciliar apostasy. But it is much more questionable whether that was the case of every single bishop who signed the mysterious six lists at Vatican II. And it is positively out of the question to allege it of all those who deign to receive the sacraments from priests ordained after Vatican II by one or other of the traditional bishops.
I would therefore reply to the questioner and to those who think as she does, that doubtful opinions can be courteously discussed by faithful Catholics who find themselves in disagreement, but should not be erected into dogmas. Those sedevacantists who have most seriously studied the relevant theology, philosophy, Canon Law and Church history are seldom those most vociferous in laying down the law with certitude on every point and declaring all who differ from them to be outside the Church. There may be good reasons for avoiding one or more of the groups she refers to, but the case she presents is not sufficient in itself to impose that conclusion and in any event there can be no reducing the limits of the Catholic Church to “the communion of all those who agree with me in rejecting Fr. X.”
More on the vexed question of establishing pertinacity in heresy for another month: there is enough of it about without having to imagine it to exist among those who are merely confused.
Billot on the Nature of Heresy
“Heretics are divided into formal and material. Formal heretics are those to whom the authority of the Church is sufficiently known; while material heretics are those who, being in invincible ignorance of the Church herself, in good faith choose some other guiding rule. So the heresy of material heretics is not imputable as sin and indeed it is not necessarily incompatible with that supernatural faith which is the beginning and root of all justification. For they may explicitly believe the principal articles, and believe the others, though not explicitly, yet implicitly, through their disposition of mind and good will to adhere to whatever is sufficiently proposed to them as having been revealed by God. In fact they can still belong to the body of the Church by desire and fulfil the other conditions necessary for salvation. Nonetheless, as to their actual incorporation in the visible Church of Christ, which is our present subject, our thesis makes no distinction between formal and material heretics, understanding everything in accordance with the notion of material heresy just given, which indeed is the only true and genuine one. (1) For, if you understand by the expression material heretic one who, while professing subjection to the Church's Magisterium in matters of faith, nevertheless still denies something defined by the Church because he did not know it was defined, or, by the same token, holds an opinion opposed to Catholic doctrine because he falsely thinks that the Church teaches it, it would be quite absurd to place material heretics outside the body of the true Church; but on this understanding the legitimate use of the expression would be entirely perverted. For a material sin is said to exist only when what belongs to the nature of the sin takes place materially, but without advertence or deliberate will. But the nature of heresy consists in withdrawal from the rule of the ecclesiastical Magisterium and this does not take place in the case mentioned [of someone who is resolved to believe all that the Church teaches but makes a mistake as to what her teaching consists in — JSD], since this is a simple error of fact concerning what the rule dictates. And therefore there is no scope for heresy, even materially.” (Cardinal Louis Billot S.J. [1846-1931] widely held to have been the foremost Thomistic theologian of recent centuries, in his De Ecclesia Christi, 4th edition, pp. 289-290)
It is clear from this text that a simple error of fact as to what the Church teaches or who is her pope does not constitute even material heresy or schism. A heretic is not one who makes a mistake about what the Church teaches, but one who does not admit the principle of submission to the Magisterium at all. Similarly a schismatic is not one who errs in judging whether a given individual legitimately occupies the Holy See, but one who recognizes no duty of submission to the legitimate occupant of the Holy See. So when Canon 731§2 forbids the sacraments to be given to heretics and schismatics who err in good faith, it is referring to those who are in invincible ignorance of the duty of belonging to the Church, not to those who inadvertently err on a point of doctrine or in evaluating the claim of a given individual to be pope. Priests may not administer the sacraments to schismatics even if they were raised in schism and are not culpable. But it would be a total misunderstanding to equate such persons with Catholics who are confused in evaluating the present status of John Paul II.
(1) Cardinal Billot is writing in explanation of his eleventh thesis under question 7 of the work in question. This thesis reads as follows:
“Although the baptismal character is sufficient of itself to incorporate a man into the true Catholic Church, nevertheless a two-fold condition is required for this effect in adults. And the first condition is that the social bond of the unity of the faith be not impeded by formal or even material heresy...”
© John S. Daly 2007-2017
This article originally appeared in The Four Marks.