Is Rome Treating the SSPX Unfairly? Credo’s Spiritual Adviser Fr. Brian Harrison, O.S. thinks not. As has been widely reported and commented-upon, it seems that the longstanding standoff between the Holy See and the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX) may finally be moving towards an understanding that will permit the “regularization” of the SSPX within the Church. But there is quite a way to go yet.
In a strongly worded essay published in The Remnant, author Christopher Ferrara restates the common complaint of the SSPX that Rome has a double standard when it comes to its treatment of small-o orthodox Catholics who refuse to participate in this or that, and says that the SSPX should be regularized “immediately – unilaterally and unconditionally” . What follows here is Fr. Harrison’s response to Ferrara, published in the April 19, 2012 edition of The Wanderer.
There are signs that the complex and long-standing rift between the See of Peter and the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX) may now be moving towards some sort of denouément. On March 16 the Vatican Press Office announced that the traditionalist fraternity’s response to the “Doctrinal Preamble” – a confidential document proposed by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) as a basis for reconciliation following the series of conversations between SSPX and Vatican theologians in 2009-2010 – was “not sufficient to overcome the doctrinal problems” that still stand in the way of canonical regularization. The announcement added, ominously, that while Pope Benedict XVI still hopes the rift can be healed, the Society has been asked to “clarify” its position by April 15, in order “to avoid an ecclesial rupture with painful and incalculable consequences”.
What exactly happens after April 15 remains to be seen, of course. But some Catholic traditionalists have already reacted with an energetic defense of the Society coupled with sharp criticism of the Holy See. Notable among them is Christopher A. Ferrara, Esq., who recently penned a strongly worded essay for The Remnant newspaper in response to this latest move by the Vatican. A great part of his indignation is directed at the persistent double standard he perceives in Rome’s application of disciplinary measures. The SSPX (which Mr. Ferrara sees as decidedly ‘not guilty’) and others on the ‘right’ are the targets of swift and severe crack-downs, while widespread grave and influential dissent and disobedience on the ‘left’ receives patient, kid-glove treatment decade after decade. Moreover, in those cases wherein some disciplinary action is finally taken against liberal, neo-modernist offenders, it is often a mere wrist-slap compared to the excommunications and suspensions from clerical functions meted out to recalcitrant traditionalists.
Well, is this a fair assessment of the situation? To be honest, I think that, if we look at the ‘big picture’ of the problems afflicting the Church since Vatican Council II, and of how the Catholic hierarchy in general has responded to them, there is a good deal of truth in Mr. Ferrara’s complaint. All too often we have seen church leaders show seemingly endless patience – if not covert or even overt collusion – with the kind of heterodoxy and disobedience that is widely seen as ‘forward-looking’ and ‘progressive’, while at the same time displaying minimal or zero tolerance for the slightest ecclesial offence committed by Catholics on the conservative side of the spectrum. Over the years this newspaper [Fr. Harrison refers here to The Wanderer, where this essay was first published] has not been afraid to criticize many cases of negligence and malfeasance on the part of liberal-leaning bishops – not excluding prelates representing the See of Peter. Many years ago, I wrote for The Wanderer a critique of the damage done to the Church in my native land, Australia, by the Vatican’s Pro-Nuncio there in the 1980s, Archbishop Luigi Barbarito. Like his 1970s counterpart in this country, Archbishop Jean Jadot, Barbarito was responsible for some disastrously liberal episcopal appointments, and for turning a deaf ear to repeated complaints from orthodox clergy and laity.
Fortunately, there now appear to be few Barbaritos and Jadots working in high places for the Vatican; but it is arguable that the double standard has not yet disappeared. One the one hand the SSPX bishops and priests, while not excommunicated, are still canonically prohibited from exercising their ministry even though, as Mr. Ferrara points out, no one is even accusing them of dissent from any definitive or de fide doctrine. On the other hand, consider the case of Bishop William Morris of Toowoomba, Australia. He was indeed finally removed from office last May for long-standing dissent that includes a continuing refusal to accept John Paul II’s definitive 1994 verdict that there can never be Catholic priestesses. However, the still-dissident Morris has not been suspended from the exercise of holy orders.
Nor has another Australian bishop, Geoffrey Robinson (a Barbarito appointment), whose dissent is even graver than Morris’s. Shortly after taking early retirement in 2006 as Auxiliary Bishop of Sydney, Robinson published a book that openly questions defined dogmas such as Our Lady’s Assumption and Papal Infallibility. The Australian bishops soon publicly declared the book to be unorthodox, but Robinson’s superiors in Rome have taken no disciplinary action, so that he, like Morris, remains a retired bishop in canonical good standing, fully entitled to receive and celebrate the sacraments. Many other examples could be given. In Germany, the notoriously dissident Hans Küng likewise remains a priest in good standing more than thirty years after Rome itself declared that he had “departed from the integral truth of the Catholic faith”.
Now, could the Holy See’s reluctance to impose canonical penalties on these two dissident bishops and Fr. Küng be motivated, at least in part, by “pastoral” sensitivity to the fact that they (in marked contrast to the SSPX clergy) continue to enjoy massive and highly vocal support from a great many influential theologians, priests and nuns, as well as hundreds of thousands of liberalized laity, the elite in academia, and the powerful secular and religious media?
The question really answers itself. Faced already with strong and vociferous popular and media indignation after taking minimal action, the Holy See is reluctant to stir up further turmoil and division by imposing the prescribed canonical penalties on these unworthy clerics, and seeing the media make heroes and even ‘martyrs’ of them as a result. Now, whether this reluctance constitutes necessary prudence or regrettable pusillanimity is something I personally would not dare to decide. Let God be the judge of that. But I do find such reluctance quite understandable. A case can be made in its defense. Mr. Ferrara likens the Holy See’s stern treatment of the SSPX to the Bush administration’s decision to invade Iraq: crushing a generally despised regime could be promoted as a noble venture in the ‘war on terror’, he argues, even though Saddam was really harboring no WMD’s or Al Qaeda camps. But if we’re going to use analogies from recent U.S. history, I think a more appropriate one would be to liken the Vatican’s relative lenience toward liberal dissenters to the 2008-2009 federal bailouts of tottering financial and industrial giants. This government solicitude for the ‘1%’ has been widely seen as very unfair to the ‘99%’. But again, it was at least understandable. Arguments were fielded by serious economists to the effect that these institutions were “too big to fail” – that letting them go under (as they probably deserved) would have even worse consequences for the whole economy and so for Americans in general.
Likewise, it is at least plausible to suggest that the ocean-spanning tsunami of “progressivist” dissent and disorder which for decades has wrought havoc throughout the Catholic Church has been “too big to discipline”: that some alternate, long-term, creative, from-the-ground-up, strategy would have to be worked out in order to overcome a crisis of that magnitude. The argument would be that just as a nation’s regular police force and court system cannot be expected to quell an all-out armed rebellion, so the Church’s disciplinary canons and procedures, which traditionally served quite well for handling the relatively few offences they were designed to correct, cannot be expected to deal effectively with the blazing wildfire of neo-modernist heresy, disobedience and liturgical abuse that has roared and crackled its way through most of the Church’s institutions since Vatican II.
So far I have been considering Christopher Ferrara’s complaint that the Holy See uses a disciplinary double standard: indulgence toward the ‘left’ and harshness toward the ‘right’. But Mr. Ferrara also thinks that even if we simply consider the Vatican’s dealings with the SSPX in itself – that is, prescinding from comparisons with how it treats liberal dissidents – the Society is still being given rough treatment. He believes it “should be regularized immediately – unilaterally and unconditionally, with permission to operate independently of bishops” who would place obstacles in its way. Here I really must beg to differ; and I offer the following considerations in defense of the Holy See’s position.
First, it should be recalled that, in drawing what looks like an April 15 deadline for compliance by the SSPX with the conditions proposed for reconciliation, Rome can scarcely be accused of acting precipitously or impatiently. Mr. Ferrara asks why the organized and effectively schismatic revolt of 329 neo-modernist Austrian priests – about 10% of the entire Austrian clergy – has not prompted similar Roman deadlines and demands for compliance. But this open rebellion, grave as it is, became organized only last year, whereas in the case of the SSPX we are looking at a rupture that has already lasted thirty-seven years. (The Society was suppressed by both the local Swiss bishop and Rome in 1975 for persisting in forming its Ecône seminarians according to exclusively pre-conciliar norms. Archbishop Lefebvre, claiming the suppression was unjust and illegal, went ahead and ordained twenty-seven men as priests the following year, and so was suspended from the exercise of his ministry. Since then, in spite of the recent lifting of the 1988 excommunications, all SSPX bishops and priests have been carrying out their ministries in a canonically irregular situation.)
Also, the Holy See, by not directly intervening so far against the Austrian rebels (although Pope Benedict severely rebuked them in his April 5 Chrism Mass homily), is simply following the orthodox and time-honored principle of subsidiarity. It is first allowing and encouraging the local bishops under Cardinal Schönborn to do what they can to find a solution to the problem. But that approach won’t work with the SSPX because it does not operate within the confines of a single country. It is a world-wide priestly organization, whose affairs, therefore, can be handled adequately only by the authorities of the universal Church. Moreover, nearly all the dissident Austrian priests remain within the parish and diocesan structures of their national Church: they are calling for disobedience only on a limited number of specified hot-button issues. In the case of the SSPX, however, the leaders are themselves bishops, not just priests; and in every diocese where the Society operates, it does so in total de facto independence of the local Ordinary, recognition of whom is pretty much limited to mentioning his name, like that of the Pope, in the Canon of the Mass.
We also need to consider carefully what would be involved in Mr. Ferrara’s proposal for immediate and unconditional regularization of the SSPX. All are agreed that doctrinal questions remain at the heart of the ongoing rift. Now, Mr. Ferrara has been arguing for quite a while, in The Remnant and elsewhere, that in view of the unresolved ambiguities in critical doctrinal texts of Vatican II, it is unreasonable for Rome to require the Society’s general acceptance of conciliar doctrine as a pre-condition for regularization. In his view, demanding such ‘blanket’ assent to the Council’s teachings is like asking the Society to sign a blank check. The See of Peter, he argues, should first officially clarify the meaning of the problematical conciliar passages, so that the Society (and, for that matter, everyone else in the Church) can know precisely what doctrinal propositions they are being asked to accept, and can see how these harmonize with traditional doctrine. So, according to Mr. Ferrara, the ball is now in the papal court; and as long as the Roman authorities choose to shy away from issuing these much-needed authoritative interpretations of the disputed conciliar texts, it is wrong for them to deny the SSPX its potentially valuable role in reviving the Church from within. Indeed, he concludes, we are watching a “ridiculous spectacle” as the Vatican persists in denying regularization to the Society “solely in order to continue dickering over the ambiguities in the Council nobody seems able to clarify”.
Well, once again, I and a great many other Catholics would agree to some extent with Mr. Ferrara. It would indeed be an excellent thing for the Supreme Pontiff to issue some further authoritative, clear and tradition-friendly interpretations of those conciliar texts that have led to still-unresolved controversy and division within the Church over nearly half a century. Nevertheless, I find his above critique of the Holy See’s handling of the SSPX faulty on two counts.
First, it has become clear that the SSPX itself does not accept Mr. Ferrara’s major premise, on which his criticism of the Vatican’s present approach depends for its cogency. Even though the text of the CDF’s crucial “Doctrinal Preamble” has not been made public, comments by the Society’s leaders leave little doubt as to its general outlines: according to a recent statement by Bishop Fellay, the Congregation has gone so far as to tell the SSPX that, as a general hermeneutical principle, any interpretation of the problematical conciliar texts which puts them in opposition to traditional doctrine must be judged ipso facto to be a false and unacceptable interpretation. Frankly, I find it hard to see how the Holy Father could be expected to lean much further in the Society’s direction than this. For on that basis, even in the absence (at present) of the hoped-for official clarifications of these disputed texts, the Society could be regularized with the assurance that they (and Catholics in general) will be free – nay, required – to continue giving their assent to traditional doctrine as expressed in papal documents like Mortalium Animos, Quanta Cura, Humani Generis, Lamentabili, Providentissimus Deus, and so on, and to read the Vatican II documents in a way that does not conflict with these earlier ones.
Why, then, is the Society still saying ‘No’ to this offer? Basically, because, unlike Mr. Ferrara, myself, and many others, it does not accept the premise that there is ambiguity in the conciliar texts under discussion! The present situation, pace Mr. Ferrara, is not one in which SSPX leaders are begging the Holy See for clarifications of these texts so they will know exactly what doctrinal theses they are being asked to accept as a condition of reconciliation. No, they believe they already know what the texts mean. They do not find them ambiguous, and so capable of an orthodox interpretation (if only Rome would kindly spell it out clearly and officially). Rather, the Society’s leadership is declaring the said texts unambigously heterodox. It is claiming there is just no way they can honestly be given a traditional interpretation: they are flat-out wrong and therefore irredeemable! This is the real heart of the problem in the present stand-off.
The evidence for this intransigence is, unfortunately, unmistakable. The Society’s most important theologian is Fr. Jean-Michel Gleize, professor of ecclesiology at the Ecône seminary and a key member of the four-man delegation in the recent series of doctrinal discussions with four Vatican-appointed theologians. One of the latter group, Msgr. Fernando Ocáriz, a long-time dogma professor, consultor for the CDF and a top official of Opus Dei, wrote a substantial article in L’Osservatore Romano (December 2, 2011) setting out the Holy See’s basic position: the controverted passages of Vatican II express authentic Catholic doctrine: while not proposed definitively, nor as demanding the assent of theological faith, they nevertheless require a genuine assent of mind and will from all the faithful, including, therefore, the SSPX clergy if they want corporate reconciliation.
The Ocáriz article immediately aroused extensive and sometimes heated commentary in the blogosphere, and soon elicited a response at a higher level by Fr. Gleize, in the French traditionalist publication Le Courrier de Rome (no. 150, December 2011). Fr. Gleize, who is clearly writing with the approval of the SSPX bishops and so acting as a de facto authorized mouthpiece of the Society, is nothing if not unambiguous in denying the Council’s ambiguity. He asserts that there are “at least four points on which the teachings of Vatican Council II are manifestly in logical contradiction with statements of the preceding traditional magisterium (évidemment en contradiction logique avec les énoncés du magistère traditionnel antérieur)”, so that “it is impossible to interpret them in conformity (il est impossible de les interpreter en conformité)” with those earlier teachings. Fr. Gleize, always obligingly up-front, specifies with equal clarity the four points he has in mind: (a) Dignitatis Humanae #2 on religious liberty; (b) Lumen Gentium #8 on the identity of the Church; (c) Lumen Gentium #8 and Unitatis Redintegratio #3 on ecumenism; and (d) Lumen Gentium #22 together with #3 of the Nota Praevia, on the Church’s supreme authority. This article, of course, is not the place to comment on Fr. Gleize’s own theology regarding these four points. But, particularly given the fact that many other Catholic scholars have offered serious interpretations of all these conciliar texts which insert them harmoniously into our doctrinal tradition, it seems perfectly reasonable, if not inevitable, that the Holy See should draw a line in the sand here. How can the Successor of Peter be reasonably expected to canonically regularize an entire community of bishops and priests that flatly and openly rejects certain doctrines taught authentically by an ecumenical council?
The second fault I find in Mr. Ferrara’s contention that the SSPX should be regularized “immediately – unilaterally and unconditionally” is his failure to take into account the Society’s equally harsh and uncompromising rejection of the Mass of Paul VI. In article 19 of the papally approved Ecclesia Dei Commission Instruction Universae Ecclesiae, issued less than a year ago as a follow-up to the 2007 Motu Proprio Summorum Pontificum, there is a quite reasonable requirement that Catholics wishing to worship according to the traditional Roman rite of Mass (the ‘extraordinary form’) must not support groups that challenge “the validity or legitimacy” of the ‘ordinary form’ (Novus Ordo). Now, it is true that the exact meaning of “legitimacy” needs clarification; and in fact Mr. Ferrara and I have had some friendly and quite fruitful private discussion over how that clarification might be sought by means of a formal dubium submitted to the ED Commission. But unfortunately the SSPX has again pre-empted the question: rather than seek a benign official explanation of how “legitimacy” is to be understood, the Society has been quick to reject absolutely the requirement of UE #19, openly and explicitly impugning on its website the legitimacy of the revised post-conciliar rite in any shape or form. It’s almost as if the Society proudly wished to paint a bulls-eye on itself as being the primary “group” targeted by the Vatican – a group beyond the liturgical pale which the faithful are exhorted not to support.
This whole question of the legitimacy of the revised (ordinary form) of the Roman-rite Mass is a very important one that I hope to address soon in another Wanderer article. But I think enough has already been said to show that Mr. Ferrara’s indictment of the Vatican’s supposed unfairness to the SSPX is itself unfair. I am far from being hostile to the Society, and quite often have amicable exchanges with both its priests and devout lay supporters. But I am deeply saddened by the intransigence of its leaders; and with the best will in the world, I don’t see how the See of Peter can be reasonably expected to grant immediate and full regularization and recognition to an organized community of bishops and priests whose collective and public stance is to defiantly reject certain teachings of an ecumenical council, and to treat the Church’s ordinary form of her most central and sacred act of worship as an abomination that should always be shunned by the faithful.