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Wrong or right?
Conditions for the SSPX's future

A reply to Eleison Comments, #168

Brian McCall

Recently, His Excellency Bishop Richard Williamson opined in his weekly email commentary on the six conditions formulated by the General Chapter of the Society of St. Pius X applicable to any future official recognition of the Society by the Roman authorities. His Excellency concludes that these six conditions “demonstrate an alarming weakness on the part of the Society’s leaders.”

Although I have great respect for His Excellency and have benefited greatly from listening to his doctrinal conferences (which are a model of learning, clarity and wit), I believe his judgment on these practical matters is unjust and inaccurate. Before turning to consider his particular conclusions on each matter, it is necessary to establish several foundational principles.


Bishop Richard Williamson

First, the conditions established relate to action, the acknowledgment by the Society that the Vatican has corrected a grave injustice by recognizing the Society’s existence and work de jure and providing positive legal provisions for its continuation. The judgment of the General Chapter relates to the practical intellect rather than the speculative intellect. The speculative intellect judges the reality of things whereas the practical intellect judges the appropriateness of actions.

Capitularies of the SSPX's 2012 General Chapter
The SSPX's General Chapter, July 2012

The public Declaration of the Chapter treats mostly of speculative matters, judgments as to the reality of Truth, the Church and the current crisis. As St. Thomas teaches[1] the nature of true judgments differs for the speculative and practical intellect. Since the speculative intellect judges the reality of things, due to the principle of non-contradiction there can only be one true judgment of something proposed to the speculative intellect.

To use a favorite example of His Excellency, two plus two either equal four (a true speculative judgment) or they do not (a false speculative judgment). Although correct practical judgments depend upon true speculative knowledge, since practical judgments relate to the election of means among a variety of contingent matter the nature of truth differs. For the speculative intellect truth is the correspondence of the intellect with reality. For the practical intellect it is the correspondence of a chosen action with a right appetite. A right appetite is directed to, or proportioned to, the true end or good of man.

Practical judgments involve the election of proportionate means to a right appetite. Although Man is not free to choose his end, freedom exists in the election among means suited to that end. There may be more than one means suited to a true end and thus more than one action proportionate to the right end of Man. The rightness of a chosen action (its correspondence to a right appetite for a true end) does not preclude the truth of other proposed actions which also can be suited to the end.

For example, when grading a child’s spelling test, the proffered answer is either correct or incorrect as this is a matter of conformity to reality. A part of Man’s proper end is to attend Holy Mass devoutly and efficaciously. Yet, there are a multiplicity of means suited to that end the election of which by the practical intellect will depend on many factors such as the temperament and age of the person involved. They may include saying the rosary, following a Missal, visually following the action at the altar or reading a devotional book. Certain actions are per se excluded as false judgments such as texting on one’s phone during Mass since this does not conform to a right appetite.

Yet, after such exclusions there often remains more than one action which is suited to a right end. Within this permissible set, the election of means is governed not by truth (which is already satisfied as all permitted means are suited to the end) but by prudence (assisted by counsel) which attempts to select among the means in light of existing and possible future contingencies. For a society, a unity of people working towards a common end, decisions among a variety of actions all conformed to a right appetite are entrusted to the lawful superiors of that society. Legitimate disobedience to decisions of lawful superiors is not only permissible but even virtuous if and only if the lawful superior selects false means or actions which require members of the society to violate the law of God. Any other election of lawful superiors may not correspond to the choice of all members, yet so long as it does not compel violation of the law of God it must be accepted.

The second principle is one of justice. The Society and her members have suffered a grave injustice. Although under Natural and Divine law they possess de facto and de jure the power and authority to exist and to perform their sacred offices, the way in which ecclesiastical law has been executed, or carried out, has unjustly denied them de jure legal recognition through the normal means although they possess it by virtue of exceptions to the written law due to a state of necessity.[2]

Certain authorities in the Church have unjustly denied this reality by treating the Society as if it lacked de jure and de facto legal recognition. This discontinuity of the actions of certain human authorities in the Church on one hand and the reality of Divine and Natural law as well as the operation of exceptions within ecclesiastical law on the other is a grave injustice, one which those in authority within the Church are obligated to correct by conforming present execution of the ecclesiastical law to reality. Since there is more than one action which can correct this legal injustice, the manner in which the Society should accept such a correction of the legal injustice is an action thus governed by the practical intellect.

Having established these two principles we can turn to His Excellency’s specific commentary. The General Chapter acknowledges that there exist more than one method of correcting the legal injustice and establishing recognition of the true legal reality. Yet, for the elected action to remain proportionate to a right appetite, the good of the Church, six elements are identified as either necessary, sine qua non, or desirable.

The first condition contains two elements. The Society must be guaranteed freedom to proclaim and transmit the fullness of Catholic Truth. Secondly the Society must be unrestrained “to prohibit, correct and reprove, even publicly, those who foment the errors or innovations of modernism, liberalism, the Second Vatican Council and their consequences.”

Translating this condition into our discussion, the General Chapter has judged that for any action of Rome to truly be proportionate to a right appetite, it must provide such a guaranty. Since the Society has been unjustly persecuted precisely for prohibiting, correcting and reproving those who promote the “errors or innovations of modernism, liberalism, the Second Vatican Council and their consequences,” it is necessary to legally provide a method for preventing unjust persecution on such account in the future.

Bishop Williamsons’ assessment of this condition is:

[N]otice how the Chapter’s vision has changed from that of Archbishop Lefebvre. No longer 'Rome must convert because Truth is absolute', but now merely 'The SSPX demands freedom for itself to tell the Truth.' Instead of attacking the Conciliar treachery, the SSPX now wants the traitors to give it permission to tell the Truth? “O, what a fall was there!

His Excellency has misrepresented the first condition by only referring to its first half. Yet, the quoted language clearly addresses the need not only to preach the truth but to attack error, specifically the Conciliar errors.

Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre
Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre

His Excellency’s assessment of the first condition is not a true speculative judgment about the content of the condition because he ignores the second part. His Excellency’s criticism of this condition also claims that the condition lacks the necessary element of demanding the conversion of the authorities to Tradition. The condition does not deny the need for conversion to the Truth for the good of the Church or even for the salvation of the personal souls of the Roman authorities. In fact, the official Declaration of the General Chapter issued in conjunction with these six principles, and which must be read in conjunction with them, makes the statement of Archbishop Lefebvre quoted by Bishop Williamson the Chapter’s own. The Chapter reaffirmed that it is “waiting for the day when an open and serious debate will be possible which may allow the return to Tradition of the ecclesiastical authorities.” (emphasis added).

Essentially Bishop Williamson is stating that the Society cannot accept a correction of the injustice perpetrated on them until the perpetrators fully convert to Tradition. Yet, notwithstanding the necessity of the conversion of the perpetrators for their own sake and, given their position of authority, the good of the Church, such a conversion is not strictly necessary to address the specific issue at hand, the correction of an injustice. This demand would be equivalent to St. Thomas More demanding that before King Henry VIII overturn his unjust conviction and release him from the Tower, Henry VIII must renounce his schism and heresy and convert. Although St. Thomas would clearly have affirmed the need for such a conversion in itself, it is not necessary to the fulfillment of a duty in justice.

What is indispensable to the issue at hand, repairing past injustices, is assurance that the injustice will not be repeated. This first condition is not related to the speculative truth of the necessity of adherence to Tradition for the personal salvation of the Roman authorities or even for the restoration of the Church but rather to the correction of the legal injustice perpetrated against the Society, their persecution for attacking error. The Chapter judges that it is absolutely indispensable for a true correction of this legal wrong to be truly righted that those who perpetrated and continue to perpetrate the injustice make assurances that they will not correct the legal situation one day and commence persecution again the next.

Thus, the Society must be guaranteed freedom from persecution for both (1) preaching the truth and (2) attacking Conciliar errors. Put another way, any action of Rome which does not so guaranty this freedom from persecution does not truly restore the full official legal status of the Society unjustly denied to them. Rather than abstaining from “denouncing the Conciliar treachery” the Declaration and this first condition make clear that any correction of the legal injustice must not be conditioned on the Society refraining from denouncing error and those who promote error. His Excellency’s objection to the first condition does not accord with the facts.

The second indispensable condition is that the Society continue “use of the 1962 Liturgy” and must preserve “the sacramental practice that we presently have.” Bishop Williamson comments:

But do we not right now see Rome preparing to impose on Traditional Congregations that have submitted to its authority a 'mutual enrichment' Missal, mixing Tradition and the Novus Ordo? Once the SSPX were to have submitted to Rome, why should it be any more protected?

Yes, His Excellency is correct that it appears some Roman authorities may be planning to play with the Missal, mixing in Novus Ordo elements and options. Put another way, there appears to be a movement to replay the events of 1965-1969 all over again and gradually move the 1962 Mass to the Novus Ordo.

This real possibility explains the careful choice of wording by the Chapter. They state that the exclusive use of the 1962 Liturgy is to be guaranteed. They do not use the more ambiguous terms Latin Mass, Extraordinary Form, Ancient Rite, etc. which do not preclude a reissued 2013 Missal containing Novus Ordo intrusions.

The Chapter makes clear that it must have exclusive use of the 1962 Liturgy. They go on to clarify that this term includes all sacramental practices currently used by the Society. Since the Society does not currently use these yet-to-be promulgated changes and options apparently under consideration in Rome the condition makes clear the Society cannot be made to accept them. Again, His Excellency ignores the precise terms of the real condition and seems to be criticizing a differently worded condition, one that employs a less precise and more ambiguous terminology.

The Society’s sine qua non is that the 1962 version must remain in exclusive use by the Society. Again, since this very fact, refusal to compromise and in any way make use of any innovation dating after 1962 has been a source of persecution of the Society, the Chapter makes clear that the Roman authorities must foreswear future persecution on the basis of an exclusive use of the 1962 form of the entire Liturgy, including sacraments.


The SSPX's 1988 Episcopal Consecrations

The third condition is the sine qua non that the Society maintain “at least one bishop.” His Excellency’s criticism of this condition is merely a reminder of history. In 1988, Rome in practice did not act according to this commitment and gave the Archbishop reasonable grounds for concluding that the promise of a bishop had not been and would not in any reasonable time frame be met. All the Chapter does here is repeat the same requirement of Archbishop Lefebvre. They do not in any way suggest that their action would differ from his if, in fact, the Roman authorities of today repeated the behavior of those in 1988 (recognizing that one of them is the same person, the present Holy Father).

The difference now is that the Society already has four bishops. There is no need at present to consecrate a bishop. That day will come and the Chapter adheres to the true judgment that to preserve the Catholic priesthood at least one bishop is absolutely necessary. There is no rejection of the course of action of Archbishop Lefebvre in 1988, but rather a repetition of his own condition which he held fast to when Rome in practice rejected it. The Chapter says nothing to indicate that it would not follow his example if Rome de facto broke her promise and refused to facilitate the fulfillment of this requirement at a future date. Again Bishop Williamson’s complaint is not rightly against this condition but merely a fear that in the future the Society will not act prudently in face of a possible breach of promise.

The fourth condition described as desirable is that the Society should possess its own “ecclesiastical tribunals in the first instance.” Bishop Williamson criticizes this condition as not demanding enough.

But if any higher tribunal is of the official Church and can undo the lower tribunals’ decisions, what Catholic decision of any Society tribunal will still have any force at all?

He is effectively claiming that the Society must not only have primary tribunals but its own appellate courts not subject to any legal review even by the Holy Father himself. Such a demand is not consistent with Catholic ecclesiology. It essentially demands that the Society possess the supreme jurisdiction in the Church not subject to any higher earthly authority. But such a demand is to demand the Society be the Pope, the Vicar of Christ on earth.

All legal jurisdiction in the Church flows from Christ through the Vicar of Christ. All courts are courts of the Church. The Society rightly recognizes that in light of the crisis there is a real danger of her clerics (and laity attached to her) being treated unjustly by diocesan courts. This is fair enough in light of the unjust treatment in the past and the current crisis. To demand absolutely no appellate review even to the Holy See is not consistent with the constitution of the Church. Not even non-Roman Catholic particular churches with their own canon law can exist in such a vacuum.

Bishop Williamson’s demand is essentially that the Society become a Church unto itself, a distinct legal entity completely severed from the legal entity of the Church. Such a demand is beyond the realm of possibility. The Society is not the Church but only a part of the Church. If for prudence an unusual legal situation is warranted, independent tribunals, that system must at some level respect the constitution of the Church.

Finally, we must note that the possibility His Excellency fears, incorrect legal decisions being made by courts of the “official Church,” exists at present. The Society does not possess strictly speaking independent legal tribunals of first instance at present. Due to the unjust legal situation of the Society, anyone subjected to a disciplinary decision of a superior has the de jure legal ability to walk away from the Society and enter a Church court system notwithstanding the imprudence or moral fault in doing so.

The request of the Society is a request that her legal decisions be given force of positive law in the Church by being rendered by legally recognized tribunals. No person under her jurisdiction could simply walk away and avoid official Church legal sanction. The Church authorities would be required under law to respect and enforce the just decisions of her courts. At present Church officials feel legally free to utterly ignore decisions of the Society’s superiors and to give asylum to violators of the Society’s statutes.


Immaculate Heart of Mary seminary chapel at Econe, Switzerland

The fifth condition is a desire for “exemption of the houses of the Society of Saint Pius X in relation to the diocesan bishops.” Here is Bishop Williamson’s comment:

Unbelievable! For nigh on 40 years the SSPX has been fighting to save the Faith by protecting its true practice from interference by the local Conciliar bishops, and now comes the General Chapter merely desiring independence from them?

Bishop Williamson's criticism here appears disproportionate to the actual condition. This criticism occasions a need to consider why the Chapter labeled the first three conditions sine qua non and the final three desirable. The first three conditions relate to specific pretexts for past and present persecution of the Society: (1) attacking errors of Vatican II, (2) adhering exclusively to the 1962 form and (3) consecrating bishops. Thus, to correct the injustice it is indispensable that the three pretexts for persecution be removed.

The three final conditions relate to circumstances that will make the healing of the wounds of persecution more efficacious. Strictly speaking they do not do correction of injustices but to the establishment of better future relationships. Since they do not touch upon the specific issues involved in the unjust persecution but rather to future conducive conditions for preserving the peace, they cannot be considered indispensable.

This distinction between addressing specific past occasions of injustice and addressing prudent circumstances for the future explains the difference of terminology. The final three conditions are prudential means to ensure compliance with the ends of the sine qua non conditions. Means cannot be insisted on with the same absolute necessity as ends, a principle of Thomism of which I am certain His Excellency is well aware. The Society in no way denies the fact that in light of recent history and behavior, the first three sine qua non conditions may be rendered null de facto if diocesan bishops have authority over Society houses. This has been the experience of a variety of groups who muzzle themselves so as to avoid disfavor of and expulsion by diocesan bishops.

The Chapter recognized the seriousness of this problem. As with Summorum Pontificum, the first two conditions could become dead letters if diocesan bishops hostile to Tradition are able to circumvent them by illegitimate exercise of their authority. A means of avoiding such a tyranny is to exempt the Society houses. This condition, unlike the first three, is a matter of prudence. There is something objectively wrong with not speaking the Truth and not condemning error. There is something wrong with using the flawed Novus Ordo liturgy. There is not something in principle wrong with authority being exercised by a bishop; there has only been something wrong in the way that authority has been abused. Thus, the condition is worded in a more qualified manner so as not to deny in principle the authority of bishops. In light of current difficulties this condition is deemed prudentially desirable but it is not a matter of principle since His Excellency cannot deny the principle of the authority of bishops even if a derogation from the principle is desirable in the current crisis.


Ecclesia Dei Commission offices in Rome

The sixth condition is that there be established “[A] Pontifical Commission in Rome for Tradition answering directly to the Pope, with the majority of its members and governing board in favor of Tradition.” Again this is nothing but the demand of Archbishop Lefebvre. In fact it is even more rigorous than that of the Archbishop as it requests a majority of its members and not merely a representation come from Tradition. Having witnessed the operation of the Ecclesia Dei Commission over the past twenty years, it is true that the disposition of the members of the Commission towards Tradition is very important to the results produced.

SSPX's Roman Theological Commission members
SSPX's members of the Rome Theological Commission

In the past traditionally-minded groups have accepted being ruled by a Commission on which they have no seat. The point of such a Commission is to have an orderly forum for communication between the Society and the Holy See. One purpose of this Commission would be from the Society’s perspective to have a forum in which to continually echo the call for a conversion to Tradition at the highest levels of the Church. This is exactly what the doctrinal commission was designed to permit, the Society to present the case for Tradition in Rome. Yes, the doctrinal commission failed to convert the Roman authorities (at least to the best of our knowledge although it is possible some have been converted). This was not a fault of the forum or the Society but those listening to Truth. To believe otherwise would be equivalent to faulting Our Lord for the hardness of hearts of the Jews to whom he preached.

The presently reigning Ecclesia Dei Commission is nothing of the sort requested by this condition. It is a police force set over Tradition to regulate it often composed of a majority of clerics and hierarchs blatantly hostile to Tradition. The reason the Ecclesia Dei Commission was transformed from that requested by the Archbishop to its present one is that rarely do we hear the groups under its authority demand a fair representation on the Commission of members favorable to Tradition. After twenty years, not a single priest of any community favoring Tradition has ever sat on the Commission. Communication is thus a one way direction. Recognizing this failure of the Ecclesia Dei Commission, the Chapter renews and enhances the condition of the Archbishop by requesting majority representation.

To be fair to His Excellency, if his criticism of this condition had been merely that the formulation “a majority... in favor of Tradition” was not precise enough in its terminology. The phrase is open to some interpretation as to what it means to be favorable. Perhaps it might have been more clear to require membership coming from either the Society or a related group whose constitutions involve an adherence to Tradition. But, His Excellency’s criticism is not at this level of prudential detail but rather he focuses upon the fact that this commission is to be dependent upon the Pope.

Yet, Bishop Williamson objects:

Dependent on the Pope? But have the Conciliar Popes not been ringleaders of Conciliarism? Is Conciliarism no longer a problem?

Yet, all Catholic institutions must be dependent upon the Pope as the visible head of the Church. Bishop Williamson’s demand goes beyond Catholic ecclesiology. Any legal institution, and a Commission would be such, must be “dependent upon the Pope” to be Catholic. Otherwise it would not be under his authority. Even today the Society notwithstanding its unjust legal persecution is “dependent upon the Pope.”

Again, if this condition had accepted the current structure of the Ecclesia Dei Commission which has no requirement whatsoever to be drawn from people favorable to Tradition, Bishop Williamson could rightly object that this would ignore the experiences and betrayals of the past twenty years. If His Excellency had merely commented on a possible improvement in clarity by suggesting a more precise formulation of “in favor of Tradition,” his criticism would appear reasonable and even constructive. Yet, to criticize the chapter for acknowledging that an institution would be “dependent upon the Pope” misses the mark.

His Excellency’s criticism of this condition seems to indicate the root cause of his entire criticism of the Chapter’s decision. He appears to judge it to have been a mistake of groups which have accepted formal legal recognition from the authorities to be the mere fact of accepting formal legal recognition from them. He seems to make this assessment of the past a principle: To accept formal legal recognition under any circumstance is a betrayal of Archbishop Lefebvre, utterly imprudent, and a prelude to compromise on matters of principle such as the Faith and the Mass. Yet, again this is an assessment of the past forty years that lacks an important distinction.

In retrospect it would be reasonable of His Excellency to point out that accepting legal recognition before establishing clearly the status of the key sine qua non conditions to avoid explicit or implicit persecution for criticizing errors, including those of Vatican II, and exclusively holding to the 1962 Liturgy poses a real danger. Likewise, it is reasonable to point out that unless provisions for the succession of a bishop are clearly agreed in advance, the Vatican will never appoint one. In other words, it is one thing to argue that the approach of assuming the Vatican will in fact treat formally recognized groups justly after formal recognition has been proven to be naive. It is quite another to argue that accepting formal recognition on any terms is per se a compromise of the Faith, an argument suggested by His Excellency’s criticism.

The problems faced by traditionally minded groups formally recognized today is not the mere fact of their formal recognition but the fact that they may have underestimated and thus failed to legislate for the challenges, including the duplicity of Vatican officials in dealing with them, before accepting formal recognition. It is one thing to allege that in the past some people may have rushed too rashly into their canonical status, it is another to be opposed under all circumstances as a matter of principle. What led to Bishop Rifan’s embrace of concelebration of the Novus Ordo is not simply the fact that his priests are formally recognized by Rome but the fact that he did not make clear prior to the recognition that he and his priests would exclusively use the 1962 Liturgy.

What muzzles many good priests with official recognition is that their status was accepted without stating they had every intention to denounce the errors of Vatican II and its progeny after recognition. They relied on an ambiguous agreement to be free to preach the Truth without clarifying the concomitant freedom to denounce error. The General Chapter appears clearly aware that such haste and lack of clarity leads to compromise. That is why they insist it can only be accepted if the sine qua non conditions are accepted and if the desirable circumstances are considered. In light of the first two conditions, to say nothing of the two year detailed presentation of the contradictions contained within Vatican II, any official recognition would come in the context of clarity.

The Society will continue denouncing error and will continue exclusively using the 1962 Liturgy and will continue to have at least one bishop. If the Roman authorities will not accept these facts, then the unjust persecution will continue. No priest or group officially recognized thus far has ever been recognized on the basis of the combination of all of these clearly worded conditions and following two years of clarifying the details of the Society’s critique of Vatican II but only on an agreement containing either only limited aspects of them or ambiguously worded permission to prefer saying the Latin Mass and teaching the old way and living the old discipline if they choose. His Excellency places the level of principle at the wrong point. It is not the fact of official recognition that is a road to compromise but the acceptance of such official recognition on any terms. The General Chapter has been clear, if the unjust wrongs of the past are to be corrected, they must really be corrected and clear conditions fixed for preventing immediate relapse.


Elevation of the Precious Blood during the traditional Roman Mass

His Excellency concludes his commentary by stating that these conditions are “excessively grave.” By which he must mean gravely wrong. Yet, they are nothing other than the conditions of the Archbishop: to proclaim truth and denounce error; to use exclusively the 1962 Liturgy and Sacraments; to have the full sacramental channel of grace through a bishop; to have legal protection through independence from diocesan bishops; to have their own initial courts; and to have membership in any legal structure meant to foster communication. To call these conditions which in several respects demand more than Archbishop Lefebvre gravely wrong is equivalent to saying the same thing of the Archbishop.

Finally, we have seen that His Excellency does not even give some of the conditions a fair hearing by ignoring the actual wording of at least two of them. Now could these six demands have taken different form? Are there other possible conditions to be considered? Obviously, yes. Yet, the conditions have been shown to conform to a right appetite, the desire to facilitate the correction of an injustice and provide a workable solution for the future good of the Church. They maintain the balance between what is essential and what is prudentially warranted in times of crisis. They maintain the balance between caution and avoiding denial of the truth about the monarchial constitution of the Church.

Finally, the General Chapter has shown itself to be keenly aware of the mistakes of others in this context in the past. It makes clear that a Neville Chamberlain approach of “peace at any price” is doomed to failure. Peace is not rejected out of hand but peace at any price is so rejected. Given that the Chapter’s judgment is a true practical judgment, conforms to a right appetite, it should be accepted as the decision of a governing authority. His Excellency possesses a keen mind capable of drawing such appropriate distinctions. It is unfortunate that this particular assessment failed to do so. It seems that even the Roman authorities themselves see the Society’s position for what it is.

Since the General Chapter, every indication coming from Rome suggests there will in fact be no rapprochement any time soon. If the conditions were as big a blunder and betrayal of principle as His Excellency observes, would not the Roman authorities have easily accepted them?


Footnotes

1 See Summa Theologica, II, Q.57 Art. 5, Reply to Obj. 3.

2 See the ancient Roman law maxim: Necessity knows no law.

 
 
 

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