Saturday, March 09, 2013

Traditionalist dissent? A longer response

The idea of a symmetry in the Church, with dissent from 'the left' and 'the right', has become a powerful meme among a certain kind of commentators, generally 'conservative' Catholics, the sorts of people liberals want to present as being extreme. Oh no, they say, we're not extreme: we're bang slap in the middle, the via media of orthodoxy between progressive and reactionary dissent. My post about George Weigel is a case in point: clearly he thinks that any critique of progressives is wasted if it doesn't include a good kicking directed towards those attached to the traditions of the Church.

But it ain't necessarily so. Theological debate is not like party politics, with moderate positions flanked by different kinds of extremes. Theological positions are far too complex and systematic for that kind of childish analysis. Our Lord Himself did not set Himself up as the Triangulator of other people's ideas: He was the Truth, and the Truth is radical. Whereas in politics compromises are often sensible and productive, in theology they tend to create positions which don't make sense.

Now it is true that those attached to Catholic tradition, like the Latin Mass Society, have to contend with the existence of groups who share many of their concerns but which are outside the structures of the Church: the SSPX, and heaven knows what complex fringes beyond. The same is, of course, true for progressives, many of whose concerns are shared with people who have incurred excommunication for participating in the feigned ordination of females, or the all-too-genuine termination of human life in the womb, not to mention the Anglicans. But one must take care to consider what the reasons are for these individuals or groups being outside the Church. Not only is heresy not the only possible reason, it is not even the most likely, immediate reason: when was the last time anyone was excommunicated for heresy? It is not for words, but for  actions, that the most serious canonical penalties are usually invoked. Some actions, of course, like that of attempting to ordain a woman, derive unmistakably from the denial of a doctrine of the Faith. Others might have no necessary connection with belief--sexual depravity, for example, or a refusal to obey the commands of a religious superior. Now, the SSPX are outside the structures of the Church in the very simple sense that they operate without canonical authorisation. If we want to say that they are guilty of heresy, then we need to do more than merely point to their canonical status. We need to say what dogmas of the Faith they are guilty of denying.

I don't say this is impossible, but I will say that this is almost never attempted. I would welcome an open debate about the theological position of the SSPX; I would like to see what must be believed, and what is open to debate. (I was obliged to point out recently (and here), that, obviously, the reform of the liturgy is an area for free discussion, not dogma - if that isn't obvious, one despairs.) In the interests of opening up such a debate I recommend a new article by Dr John Lamont; although not an SSPX insider, Dr Lamont defends the SSPX against the accusation of heresy in a systematic way. Admittedly these accusations are vague. If the SSPX's opponents want to do better, all they need to do is come up with more carefully targeted and documented accusations. I don't think it is fraternal charity which is holding them back. What are they waiting for?

Some extracts from Dr Lamont's article.

What is necessary to be Catholic is to believe and confess all the teachings of the Catholic faith. The SSPX does this, and therefore can rightly call itself Catholic. Cardinal Koch raises questions about the Catholicity of the SSPX on the basis of the claims that the Society rejects ‘central points of the teaching of the Holy Father’, “does not accept a council and does not accept a teaching”. The expression “central points of the teaching of the Holy Father” is too vague. A teaching’s being ‘central’ does not suffice to make it an infallible definition or a repetition of previous infallible teachings. The ‘central points’ that the SSPX does not accept have never been claimed or established to be doctrines of the faith, and their rejection of them thus does not mean that they are not Catholics.


 Fr. Umberto Betti claimed that the teachings of the dogmatic constitutionLumen gentium virtually reached the level of infallible teaching.[1] This claim was contested by the then Fr. Joseph Ratzinger,[2] who argued against Betti’s maximising interpretation. Even if Betti is correct, however, and we ignore the difficulties in the notion of a teaching being ‘virtually infallible’, his claim applies only to those conciliar teachings contained in dogmatic constitutions; he bases his argument above all on the application of the prefix ‘dogmatic’ to those constitutions.[3] The teachings that Koch mentions as being rejected by the SSPX are not found in the dogmatic constitutions of Vatican II, but in decrees or declarations of the council. 


...the SSPX rightly understands that fidelity to the papal magisterium does not consist only in fidelity to the teachings of the current pope. This fidelity is due to the office of the papacy itself, not to the individual that holds it, and the basis of this fidelity is the authority of the apostle Peter, which exists in all holders of the papal office. In the same way, fidelity to the entire college of bishops united under the Pope is based on fidelity to the authority of all the apostles, which is perpetuated in all the bishops throughout the history of the Church acting in unison under the Pope. This authority of Peter and the other apostles is thus present in all the magisterial teachings of the Church, not just in those of the current pope and bishops. Fidelity to the magisterium of the Pope and the bishops thus requires acceptance of all the teachings of all the popes and bishops since the death of the last apostle.


...the SSPX’s claim that the Second Vatican Council taught error on some matters; ... is not an assertion about faith and morals at all, and does not in itself contradict any magisterial teaching whether infallible or non-infallible. It is simply an assertion that a small proportion of the Church’s fallible teachings did, in fact, fail to be true. This assertion violates no canon or religious obligation at all, and variants of it are commonly held by theologians.


In addition, the claim that the Second Vatican Council taught error is actually quite hard to maintain if we look closely at the words of these documents. These are often framed in such a vague way that if their meaning is examined strictly, they say very little. The claim that some passages of the conciliar documents logically contradict previous teachings misses the subtlety of the problem they pose. It is almost never totally impossible to give the conciliar documents an orthodox meaning, which makes it possible to dismiss traditionalist criticisms of them as unfounded; but the fact that they naturally suggest heterodox interpretations makes it easy to use them to attack the faith when addressing audiences other than traditionalists. 


When it comes to the positions on religious truth held by the SSPX, we must also distinguish between the Society’s objections to doctrinal statements and its objections to practical policies. It is very hard to describe, for example, exactly what the position of the Second Vatican Council on ecumenism is. The practical policy that has been implemented since the council is however clear; it is no longer insisted that non-Catholic Christians must submit to the teaching and government of the Roman Catholic Church in order to do God’s will.


  1. Good article. I have given up on George Weigel, as he seems to be caught up in sound bites both in speech and writing. He is not a heavy-weight. As to your comment about the vague criticisms of the SSPX, bravo! One of the problems with the Net and media in general is the explosion of comments which end up in print and should not. Thoughtful commentary and discussions are frequently interrupted and even undermined by nonsensical knee-jerk reactions.

    As to the right being disobedient, sadly, this is sometimes a trend in human nature, is it not, either to be more Roman than Rome, or the opposite?

    As to the new ecumenism following Vat II, look at the fruits to determine whether the language of some theologians has been helpful or not. Your last sentence is a bomb in the crypt.

  2. Excellent posting Dr Shaw.