Rome-SSPX Negotiations and the Infallibility of Liturgical Laws
Question: Should the SSPX accept or refuse Benedict XVI’s terms for reconciliation?
Answer: The biggest fish in the traditionalist pool is undoubtedly the Society of Saint Pius X. For some it is a savage piranha, for some a dollar-hungry shark, for others a juicy salmon or a blubbery jelly-fish, but there is no denying that it is big. That is why a Bavarian fisherman is currently casting his line in its direction. This fisherman even claims to be a successor of one who fished long ago in the sea of Galilee and whom God the Son called from his nets to make him a fisher of men. The Bavarian’s claim is shaky, but he certainly knows how to fish. Keeping discreetly in the shade to avoid giving alarm, he has baited his hook and cast his line and there is no doubt that he has caught his prey’s unblinking eye. Like every fish wondering whether to bite, the SSPX is evaluating the likelihood that the attractive bait contains an unseen hook and the gravity of the ensuing scenario if by any chance it does. Its finny friends are not backward in burbling their advice, but some are suspected of wanting the SSPX to be hooked, in the hope that there will be more room in the pool for the less gullible. We shall not be so churlish, and remembering that there are other fisherman as dangerous as the Bavarian one, whose guile no fish can be sure of resisting, we shall attempt to offer disinterested counsel.
Every wise fish should learn from experience. In 1984, the now deceased Polish angler…, but let us abandon metaphor: in 1984 John-Paul II made available an indult authorising some of his followers to use the Catholic Mass instead of the pseudo-Mass he used and recommended himself. However, he attached several conditions to this privilege, the main one being “that it be made publicly clear beyond all ambiguity that [participating] priests and their respective faithful in no way share the positions of those who call in question the legitimacy and doctrinal rectitude of the Roman Missal promulgated by Pope Paul VI in 1970.”
It will be recalled that Archbishop Lefebvre found it impossible in conscience to admit that the “New Mass” is legitimate and doctrinally correct. Hence the SSPX continued to function without the advantage of being authorised to do so by the man it believes to be the Pope, the Vicar of Christ, the fount of all ecclesiastical jurisdiction, the daily teacher of the faithful. It professed to find this situation acceptable.
Now Benedict XVI seems willing to clothe with his authority those traditionalists who wish to avail themselves of it, and the chief condition he insists on seems to be acceptance of the teaching of the Second Vatican Council (though he may grudgingly accept the addition of vague clauses as to the interpretation of this teaching). This at least is what emerges from Bishop Fellay’s account of his brief meeting with the new occupant of the Vatican, a meeting as carefully rigged in advance as any professional wrestling match.
Voices were raised in 1984 proclaiming the impossibility of accepting new Rome’s conditions. They are raised today to proclaim a similar impossibility. The New Mass is not doctrinally sound. Vatican II is not Catholic. Refusal of today’s condition is as imperative as was refusal of the 1984 condition.
This column’s message is that the situation is a good deal more complicated than this advice suggests. While it is imperative for the SSPX to say “No”, it is also entirely obligatory for it to say “Yes”, and there is no escaping from this paradox on the terms admitted by the SSPX.
Let us glance at why this was so in 1984 and leave readers to apply the same principles to the present situation: a word is enough to the wise.
Quite simply, any general liturgical law of the Catholic Church is necessarily in conformity with sound doctrine, for the Church herself teaches that her liturgy and her liturgical laws are protected by her infallibility. Hence refusal to recognise the orthodoxy of any liturgy approved for widespread use in the Catholic Church, is itself a betrayal of the Catholic faith. If the Catholic Church has authorised the “New Mass”, one might still prefer the old one, but one cannot deny that the new one is doctrinally sound. To do so is to expose oneself as doctrinally unsound.
Indeed in his celebrated Liturgical Institutions (tom. 2, p. 10, ed. 1878) Dom Guéranger writes that if it were permissible to contest liturgical laws, “…it would follow that the Church had erred in a general discipline, which is heretical.” So there is no exaggerating what is at stake. Nor can the objection be evaded by the claim that the New Mass is not obligatory: “Could the Church, which is the pillar and ground of the truth1 and manifestly receives without interruption from the Holy Ghost the teaching of all truth, command, grant or permit what would bring harm to souls and contempt or injury to a sacrament instituted by Christ?” is the rhetorical enquiry made by Pope Gregory XVI in Quo graviora (1833). And St. Thomas Aquinas commenting on the idea that there might be anything inappropriate in the Catholic manner of celebrating the Holy Eucharist writes that “this [idea] is opposed to the custom of the Church, which cannot err, being instructed by the Holy Ghost.” (Summa Theologiæ II-II, q. 83, a. 5)
There is no denying that the “New Mass” is permitted and customary in the Conciliar Church. Indeed it is the received and approved liturgy of that body, and the Council of Trent expressly teaches that “[i]f anyone should say that the received and approved rites of the Catholic Church which are accustomed to be used in the administration of sacraments can be despised or omitted without sin as the minister inclines…let him be anathema.” Similarly all dogmatic theologians quote Auctorem Fidei, Pope Pius VI’s condemnation of the pseudo-Synod of Pistoia, to show that the Church’s infallibility extends to her liturgical laws. By way of a single example we offer the following extract from Fr. Johann Herrmann’s Institutiones Theologicae Dogmaticae, a work which was especially approved by St. Pius X.
“The Church is infallible in her general discipline.
“By her general discipline are understood her laws and institutions concerning the external government of the whole Church, for instance what concerns external worship, such as the liturgy and rubrics, or the administration of the sacraments…
“The Church is said to be infallible in her discipline not as if her laws were immutable, for a change of circumstances often makes it opportune to abrogate or alter laws, nor as if her disciplinary laws were always the best and most useful… The Church is said to be infallible in her discipline in the sense that these disciplinary laws can contain nothing opposed to faith or good morals, nothing which could be detrimental to the Church or prejudicial to the faithful.
“This follows from her mission itself. The Church’s mission is to conserve the faith whole and lead the peoples to salvation by teaching them to observe what Christ ordained. If in disciplinary matters she could determine, impose or tolerate anything contrary to faith or morals or detrimental to the Church or to peoples, the Church could deviate from her divine mission, which is impossible.
“This is indicated by the Council of Trent… and by Pius VI in the constitution Auctorem Fidei commenting on the 78th proposition of Pistoia: ‘as if the Church, which is governed by the Spirit of God, could establish a discipline not only useless or too burdensome to be tolerated by Christian liberty, but also dangerous, harmful, liable to lead to superstition or materialism’ – a proposition condemned as ‘false, temerarious, scandalous, pernicious, offensive to pious ears, etc.’”(Vol. I, N° 258)
Such texts could be multiplied indefinitely: they show clearly that if the religion which authorises and habitually uses the “Novus Ordo” is the Catholic Church, the “Novus Ordo” is divinely guaranteed to be sound in doctrine and beneficial to the faithful.
Pointing out that the “Novus Ordo” patently is not doctrinally sound or beneficial to the faithful and that it has been the blunt instrument used for the spiritual assassination of many millions of former Catholics is not an answer to this difficulty. I repeat: it is not an answer to the difficulty.
Yes, the “Novus Ordo” corrupts the Catholic Faith. But so does anyone who claims that an approved liturgy of the Catholic Church can corrupt faith. Anyone who rejects as harmful or heterodox the “Novus Ordo” while recognising as Catholic and legitimate the authority imposing it and the religious denomination customarily using it, is himself guilty of what he accuses the “Novus Ordo” of. His position, as a whole, must be rejected by anyone wishing to keep the faith whole and entire, just as the “Novus Ordo” must be rejected.
What follows for the SSPX is that as long as they recognise the Vatican II claimants to the papacy as legitimate, they are in a cleft stick. To accept the orthodoxy of the “Novus Ordo” betrays the faith. To deny its orthodoxy betrays the faith also. If it is evidently impossible to accept the doctrinal rectitude of the “Novus Ordo”, our faith itself requires us to reject the authority that imposes it.
And of course comparable reasoning applies to Benedict XVI’s 2006 demand of accepting the orthodoxy of the Second Vatican Council.
That is why there is no right answer to the question with which the column opens. There is no right answer because there is no question to be asked. It is the Bavarian fisherman who needs to be reconciled with the Church, not Catholics truly faithful to tradition. He has no power to reconcile anyone with anything. Only the most undiscriminating of short-sighted sticklebacks would do himself the dishonour of appearing to toy with the mouldy maggots Benedict is dangling as bait. The SSPX must face the complete consequences of complete fidelity to the Church’s unchanging doctrine.
© John S. Daly 2006
This article originally appeared in The Four Marks.
1 1 Tim. 3: 15