Saturday, February 09, 2013

Letter in the Universe: Cafereteria traditional Catholics

Last weekend Mr Martin Elsworth wrote, in the Universe letters column, in part:

A general ecumenical council such as Vatican II is the highest expression of the magisterium of the Catholic Church.
    As such, the legitimacy of its teachings is beyond question for any true Catholic.
    In choosing what it wants to believe the SSPX is guilty of the 'cafeteria' Catholicism it would no doubt impute to those whom is would dismiss as liberal Catholics.

One of the difficulties in addressing this issue is that, even if it were my place to comment on the position of the SSPX - which it isn't - their precise position is not publicly known. We know that talks took place between their representatives and theologians of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and that these talks didn't lead (or haven't yet led) to the SSPX's regularisation, but we don't know what points of difference were identified, or what the sticking points were. All we have, in fact, are the public pronouncements of individuals within the SSPX. Even a sermon by the Superior General can't without further ado be described as 'the SSPX position', still less the words of anyone else.

So my concern in replying was to a more general point: the suggestion of a parallel between 'traditionalist' and 'liberal' dissidents. This is a common idea and it is worth making people stop to think about what is being said.


Martin Elsworth (Letters, 3rd Feb) accuses the SSPX of ‘cafeteria Catholicism’, and tells us, of the Second Vatican Council, that ‘the legitimacy of its teachings is beyond question for any true Catholic.’ While I cannot speak for the SSPX, I would suggest that anyone entering this minefield make a rather more careful use of language than Mr Elsworth.

What ‘true Catholics’ believe is the teaching of the Church. Unlike policies or prudential judgements, with which we are free to disagree (though not always to disobey), the teaching of the Church cannot change, though expressions of it may draw out more and more of its implications.

So, while the Second Vatican Council did not make any dogmatic definitions, it did reiterate many teachings defined earlier, whether by the Extraordinary or the Ordinary Magisterium. If we want to accuse anyone of not being a ‘true Catholic’, we should in justice point to specific teachings which that person clearly rejects, and the clear expression of them in the Magisterium as the constant teaching of the Church, and not just as a policy or ‘attitude’.

This is easy enough with real dissidents: modern theologians condemned by the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith have rejected teachings we can pinpoint as infallibly defined by Trent, Vatican I,
or in the constant teaching of Councils and Popes, on the priesthood, morality, or Papal infallibility. Where there is no such clarity, we should not be hasty to condemn.

Here is a challenge for anyone wanting to talk about the 'cafeteria Catholicism' of conservatives or traditionalists: what, exactly, are the doctrines supposedly being rejected by your targets, and where are they clearly and authoritatively defined in the Magisterium?

The fact is that these critics never bother doing this. While the theologians of the CDF toil away identifying passages in the works of notorious dissidents incompatible with the Ten Commandments - did it really take the Church's highest theological authority under the Pope to notice that Fr Tony Flannery was ski-ing off piste when he said that adultery was not a sin? - trads are condemned on the grounds of a faulty 'attitude'. What in heaven's name does that mean? Who defines the correct attitude? Are liberals given some gift of the Holy Ghost which enables them to discern attitudes?

It is time the gross injustice of rash judgement, the presumptuous labeling of our fellow Catholics as what amounts to heretics on imaginary grounds, ceased. Our Lord will judge us for our lightest word.

But I tell you that any man who is angry with his brother must answer for it before the court of justice, and any man who says Raca to his brother must answer for it before the Council; and any man who says to his brother, Thou fool, must answer for it in hell fire. (Matthew 5.22)


  1. Dear Joseph

    Thank you for your interesting blog. The topic of SSPX may be a complex chain of events that unravelled in the wake of Vatican 2 and I agree when criticising our brothers and sisters for falling short of being 'truly Catholic' we must be charitable. You stated that in order to criticise groups like the SSPX one must identify exactly what doctrine they are disagreeing with, which is a fair point.

    However, the fact that the SSPX are not in full communion with the Church reveals an element of cafeteria Catholicism and a lack of humility, which is a trait that our Western culture forgets far too easily.

    One can't reject the claim of being a Cafeteria Catholic if one is not in full communion with the Church - this of course applies to all of us; Jesus commanded that we be one.

    However, I would also like to acknowledge that admist the crisis in the Church there is an ability among many to articulate the varying gravity of issues facing the Church. For example, whilst one hopes the SSPX will some day return to full communion, we also have to more importantly be awake to heretical clergy and theologians who seem to get away with promoting heresy of the gravest nature by stating that gay marriage, contraception and abortion etc is morally ok - this is a far more seroius concern for the Church than the SSPX.

    At the end of the day we are called to be perfect and that is very difficult but it starts with Love, humility and a genuine openess to God's will

  2. NB there is a difference between schism and heresy. The question here is whether the lack of canonical standing stems from doctrinal issues or merely disciplinary ones.

  3. After reading 'Divine Love Made Flesh', Cardinal Raymond Burke states Vatican 2 was an Ecumenical Council.

    Maybe full communion may be achieved through an understanding that V2 was pastoral in the sense that there was no errors to address but the teachings have to be adhered to, as Pope Benedict 16 said in the Ratzinger Report: "it is impossible... to take a position for Vatican 2 but against Trent... likewise impossible to decide in favour of Trent and Vatican 1, but against Vatican 2"...

  4. ...Well what I've heard from a member of FSSP on EWTN last year is doctrinal issues are still part of it.

    Cardinal Raymond Burke in his awesome book 'Divine Love Made Flesh' states that Vatican 2 was an Ecumenical Council. Similarly (then) Cardinal Ratzinger states on p.28 of 'The Ratzinger Report' that it is impossible to be for Trent and Vatican 1 but against Vatican 2.

    Leave it God's hands, I guess.