Catholic Culture Podcasts
Catholic Culture Podcasts

Bishop Fellay’s Rhetoric

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Jun 11, 2012

Last Friday’s headline, Bishop Fellay: ‘total acceptance of Vatican II’ no longer prerequisite for full communion with Holy See, has provoked a variety of reactions. What the Superior General of the Society of St. Pius X has said is undoubtedly face-saving and even to some degree disingenuous. But it is also strategically brilliant.

Let us take the worst possible judgment first. It is disingenuous of Bishop Fellay to proclaim that “Rome no longer makes total acceptance of Vatican II a prerequisite for the canonical solution.” This is disingenuous because, in fact, Rome has never made “total acceptance of Vatican II”, in such a general and non-distinct form of expression, a precondition for full communion. Sadly, both Traditionalists and Modernists have erroneously used “acceptance of Vatican II” to refer, willy-nilly, not just to the Council’s Magisterium but to its every observation and recommendation, as well as to all that has been done since under its name and in its alleged “spirit”. (For more on this, see my 2010 essay Drinking the Kool Aid on Vatican II.)

Let us face the truth. Many of the chief battles of the last fifty years have been based upon a myth. The reality, as with any council, is that only what the Council taught on faith and morals must be accepted in Faith, and exactly what that involves is known only from the text, through its precise manner of expression. It is only through a careful reading of the text that we know (a) when the Council intended to teach, and (b) precisely what it intended to teach. On matters of faith and morals, the Magisterium of the Council must be accepted in accordance with its letter. This has always been the case, and it has not changed (in fact, it cannot change).

Other observations of the Council fathers are to be respectfully received, but these are not doctrinal exercises of the Magisterium. The Council’s reading of the possibilities for successful engagement with the modern world, and even the Council’s specific disciplinary recommendations, carry no claim of infallibility, though one can hardly argue with the Council’s consistent call for genuine renewal throughout the Church. Moreover, it goes without saying that nobody is required to accept everything that has been done in the name of Vatican II, or under its alleged “spirit”, except for those things which have been promulgated by the papal Magisterium since that time, which likewise must be accepted. And with regard to subsequent disciplinary measures enacted under papal authority, these are obviously to be obeyed except where dispensation is given, but they need not be regarded as perfect. None of this is news.

I further stated that Bishop Fellay’s remarks are face-saving. He made a point of stating that Rome desired reunion even through the SSPX had not approached Rome with a changed agenda. This is true. Pope Benedict hoped that strict doctrinal agreement could be reached, even if broader agreement concerning trends, disciplines, or recommendations for engaging the culture (and so on) could not be reached. Strict doctrinal agreement coupled with ordinary obedience to the Holy See has always been an adequate basis for Catholic unity, and the Pope—recognizing the many injustices that committed Catholics have suffered at the hands of secularized or Modernist members of the hierarchy—hoped that it would be possible to sort through the issues and agree on those things which are essential to the Faith.

Now it may be unseemly for Bishop Fellay to appear to crow in this manner, and it is again somewhat disingenuous for him to speak as if there are no doctrinal concerns to be clarified, especially as this has been the whole point of the process. We have yet to see the principal document of reunion, the Doctrinal Preamble. But it is understandable that Bishop Fellay would want to assure the SSPX as a whole that he has not in any way betrayed the principles of the SSPX in moving toward the hoped-for reunion with Rome. This is what I mean by saving face. Why this should be so important will be immediately obvious in my third point.

Thus I asserted that Bishop Fellay’s remarks were strategically brilliant. To understand this, we need to pay attention to the context. These remarks were not directed to the Church as a whole but to the SSPX. Moreover, there is a grave danger, which Bishop Fellay seriously wishes to avoid, of the SSPX splintering if and when Bishop Fellay finalizes an agreement to restore full communion with the Church.

Under these circumstances Bishop Fellay must do his best to impress two important points on the Society. First, he must stress that the Society has neither offered nor been asked to give up anything essential to the Catholic Faith to reunite with Rome. This goes without saying, of course, for anyone with a proper understanding of the Church, and it is certainly not inconceivable that the SSPX does not wish to formally commit itself to any doctrinal or moral positions which Rome insists are incompatible with the formal Magisterium of Vatican II and the modern papacy. This, indeed, is what Pope Benedict hoped could be sorted out by crafting a very precise doctrinal statement as a basis for the canonical reunion. It is certainly to be hoped that the acceptance of the Doctrinal Preamble will prove him right.

Second, Bishop Fellay must stress that the Church always suffers from internal wounds, not least because of serious errors among her members, and that it would betray a monstrously false vision of the Church to presume that the SSPX should not enter into full communion simply because the Church, considered in her members, is not perfect. One of the great dangers for separatist organizations is that they have a way of regarding themselves as perfect in every respect, while refusing to associate with sinners. It is to Bishop Fellay’s credit that he distinguishes between the Church as the Bride of Christ, without spot or wrinkle, and the members of the Church, who are beset by many sins and failings.

Consequently, he has rightly placed the emphasis on what the reforming saints of old have done. They have not broken with the Church, but have embraced her ever more fervently in their desire to purify her members, including her members who hold high ecclesiastical office, and their policies as well. At another time, it will be important for Bishop Fellay to emphasize to the members of the SSPX that they are poor sinners, too, and that neither they nor their policies have any sort of exclusive claim to perfection. But for now his first task must be to convince the Society that its true and proper mission is to join others in working for the authentic renewal of the Church, rather than disfiguring the Church further through divisions which may in themselves be justly regarded, on all sides, as sinful.

Those who have remained, through thick and thin, in the bosom of the Church may dislike certain expressions used by Bishop Fellay in thus making his case to the SSPX as a whole. Yet these remarks appear to be carefully calculated to bring the SSPX back into full communion with Rome, without further splintering along the way. By the mercy of God, neither perfectly pure hearts nor flawless personal judgments have ever been required for full communion with the Catholic Church. There is time enough to grow into one heart and one mind as we all struggle, within the Church, to respond to the grace of Christ which only she can offer.

Here we have in view not personal perfection but rather one very significant canonical step. For my part, I do not intend to be thin-skinned in these rhetorical skirmishes. I will rather pray that Bishop Fellay’s rhetoric is equal to the task at hand.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

Sound Off! supporters weigh in.

All comments are moderated. To lighten our editing burden, only current donors are allowed to Sound Off. If you are a current donor, log in to see the comment form; otherwise please support our work, and Sound Off!

  • Posted by: Contrary1995 - Jun. 12, 2012 4:00 PM ET USA

    Now who is drinking the Kool Aid?

  • Posted by: demark8616 - Jun. 12, 2012 2:31 AM ET USA

    Bishop Fellay contradicts himself when he claims that Rome approached them!!! "DICI: Your Excellency, you requested an audience with Pope Benedict XVI which took place last August 29. What was the purpose of your request?" Interview with Bishop Fellay concerning his August 29,2005 meeting with Pope Benedict XVI. Quote from this interview by DICI, was published on SSPX website on September 17, 2005.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Jun. 11, 2012 8:28 PM ET USA

    Well done. If Our Lord is the example, we know what might happen to skin in bearing witness to Truth. The reality is that the Church is charged to teach, govern and sanctify souls. This is a mission that is animated by the undying supernatural love of the Blessed Trinity for each member of Christ's Mystical Body. This necessarily involves a certain generosity. This generosity is readily apparent in both Bishop Fellay and Pope Benedict. It suggests the workings of grace, and it is promising.