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Bishop Fellay Says No: The Scandal Continues

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Apr 22, 2008

Bishop Bernard Fellay, the schismatic and excommunicated head of the Society of St. Pius X, has stated that Pope Benedict XVI’s Summorum Pontificum, which mandated wider use of the 1962 Roman Missal, is not nearly enough to bring about a reconciliation between the SSPX and the Holy See. This is exactly the same, of course, as stating that his group will not reconcile with the Catholic Church. It’s a continuing scandal.

Bishop Fellay states that nothing has really changed under Benedict, because what he regards as the doctrinal deficiencies of the Church have not been corrected (see SSPX leader rejects hopes for reconciliation with Rome). Specifically, Bishop Fellay rejects Vatican II’s teaching that the one true church of Christ “subsists in” the Catholic Church, insisting on the word “is” instead of “subsists in”, no matter how many times the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith explains to him what the expression means. He also rejects Vatican II’s teaching on religious liberty, a freedom to which, one can only presume, Bishop Fellay believes people have no right.

Let’s pause on this point for a moment, for Catholics emphasizing the need to combat error used to be very fond of stating that “error has no rights”. I grant that even if all Catholics understood that expression today, they would be reluctant to make it their slogan. But we might at least expect those who are still fond of saying it to know what it means. In my experience this is generally not the case with members of the SSPX, who imagine that the modern emphasis on religious liberty violates some long-standing teaching of the Church. Surely rights come from God, for they are invested by Him in the very nature of the things He has created. And surely God imparts no positive right to any person to adhere to error. But what does this mean? All it means is that nobody can rightly claim to reject truth and deliberately adhere to error as a matter of personal right.

But all persons have the right to be free of coercion in their beliefs. And so they may be permitted to live unmolested in an error, not because they have a personal right in God’s eyes to adhere to what is false even when they know what is true, but simply because they have a right in God’s eyes to be free of human coercion in forming their religious beliefs. Let me get at this another way: If I am wrong about anything significant, I hope to be able to explain to God at the Judgement that I held my error because I believed it to be true. But I equally hope I would not be so foolish as to try to tell God that, though I knew what was true and what He wanted me to believe, I elected to exercise the right He had given me to adhere to a more delightful error instead. It is precisely in this sense that error has no rights.

It is astonishing that this is still a sticking point for Traditionalists today, especially in view of the problems with Islam, a religion whose political adherents frequently exercise coercion in religion, and in view of Pope Benedict’s stellar effort to get Muslims to think deeply about the freedom required by reason with regard to religious assent. This freedom is necessary to the very nature of belief; it derives, like all rights, from how human nature was designed. The problems we face with Islam should be sufficient to shock Bishop Fellay and his followers into thinking again about what all this means, and into expending a greater effort to reconcile any confusing Magisterial texts on the subject.

In truth, all apparent contradictions between later and earlier statements of the Magisterium on this point have long since been thoroughly explained in the usual way: by seeking an understanding which is compatible with every inspiration of the Holy Spirit in both Scripture and the Magisterium on each given topic, and conversely by resolutely refusing to accept any facile understanding of a particular Magisterial statement which would force us to reject the clear meaning of another such statement. Many Traditionalists, including many former adherents of the Society of St. Pius X, have paved the way for Bishop Fellay by freely admitting that this is so, and by seeking the very reconciliation with the Church which Bishop Fellay so roundly rejects.

Thus was the Priestly Fraternity of Saint Peter formed with pontifical approval in 1988, the Personal Apostolic Administration of Saint John Mary Vianney in 2002, and the Good Shepherd Community in 2006. It is worth noting that some very traditional Catholics never left the fold at all, finding deep spiritual fulfillment in the Institute of Christ the King Sovereign Priest beginning in 1990. But Bishop Fellay announces he “cannot sign an agreement” with the Holy See. In other words, he cannot accept the authority of the Successor of Peter. In other words, he does not choose to be in communion with the Church of Christ. This may not be grounds for coercion, but it really is a continuing scandal.

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