Catholic Culture Overview
Catholic Culture Overview

The Church of Williamson and the Futility of the Necessity Defense

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Mar 19, 2015

Bishop Richard Williamson’s ordination of a new bishop for his relatively new breakaway church is a case study in the separatist principle, and an illustration of the absurdity of the “necessity defense”. This is not the first splintering among those who fail to understand the Keys to the Kingdom, nor will it be the last. The reason is obvious.

There have always been those who would rather form a church of one than compromise their own proud perceptions of reality. In the history of Christianity, this tendency reached its zenith in Protestantism. The narrowing of Christian authority to Scripture alone inescapably made “every man his own pope” (or at least every reader). Consequently, Protestants were separatists. They believed it was perfectly legitimate, and even obligatory in conscience, to create a new church if the old contradicted their own infallibility.

There was, after all, no principle of authority that they recognized in the original Church, and certainly none in the various Protestant churches, which have continued to splinter ever since. American readers will remember their elementary school education on this point, having learned to venerate one Roger Williams of Massachusetts for insisting on founding his own church to fully separate from all other (corrupt) churches.

Is there anything in these names? From the Puritan Roger Williams in seventeenth-century Massachusetts to the Traditionalist Richard Williamson today!

Every breach, of course, has been justified by the necessity of upholding conscience against ecclesiastical corruption. Traditionalists who claim to recognize papal authority but refuse to follow it in their own case are simply another study in separatism. Tradition alone nurtures the separatist seed as surely as Scripture alone. Both attitudes fail to see that the Catholic Church was deliberately constituted by Christ in a way that eliminates any such confusion. In fact, the establishment of an alternative spiritual authority can be justified only by destroying the cornerstone on which the Church is built—that is, by denying Christ’s presence in the Church until the end of the age.

When Our Lord established the Church, He knew that it was not enough to base it on some original Revelation. It must also have within it an infallible means of explicating Revelation properly in the face of new questions, new arguments, new temptations, and new divisions. Without these powers, guaranteed by the special presence of Christ Himself, the Church would cease to be His mystical body. However the Church might be disfigured by the inescapable sinfulness of her members, Christ knew He must guarantee that her essential identity could not, in fact, be lost.

No faithful Catholic can ever make the argument that in certain extreme conditions it is necessary to create an alternative religious authority. To ensure that such an argument would always be false, Our Lord gave St. Peter the power of the keys (Mt 16:19) and guaranteed that his faith would not fail so that he and his successors would always be able to confirm their brethren (Lk 22:32).

Indeed, the very nature of the authority principle in Catholicism renders the necessity defense, and with it all separatism, totally absurd. No other Church claims to possess such a principle of authority. Once we grasp this, all that remains are complaints about discipline and deficiencies of zeal, which cannot touch the identity of the Church. Moreover, any damage caused by such deficiencies pales in comparison with the damage of separatism, which is in its essence either heretical or schismatic, or both.

In any case, Bishop Williamson has now become a caricature of the separatist principle. He clearly displays its absurd distortions so that everyone can see them for what they are. The sadness in a caricature, however, is that those invested in the errors cannot see the joke. If they could they might “repent and turn again”, that their “sins may be blotted out”, and “that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord” (Acts 3:19).

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.

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  • Posted by: claude-ccc2991 - Nov. 24, 2016 4:56 PM ET USA

    Let me see if I can help. Although "left" and "right" are based on Scripture and magisterial teachings, it is a sign of rigidity that you insist on them. Instead, you need to go through a process of accompaniment, discernment and integration to come to the understanding that the best you have to offer God in the moment is to get to where you want to go any damn way you please. Anything else is legalism.

  • Posted by: dover beachcomber - Nov. 22, 2016 8:16 PM ET USA

    That made my day!

  • Posted by: grateful1 - Nov. 22, 2016 8:11 PM ET USA

    Superb. Just superb.

  • Posted by: feedback - Nov. 22, 2016 12:25 AM ET USA

    1) I checked with coworkers, hoping they would have had accurate directions from you. And, what a relief, they had precise directions! Some said with great confidence: Go to the right, while others said with equally firm confidence: No, no, go to the left. 2) I have no other choice but to work for you, however I pray for you even more.

  • Posted by: shrink - Nov. 21, 2016 5:32 PM ET USA

    How do I feel working for you? Well, I say that I feel fine, when I have two personalities, one for the right, the other for the left. But for those who have a simple personality, well, that is a psychological problem, isn't it.

  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Nov. 21, 2016 4:25 PM ET USA

    Brilliant satire!

  • Posted by: Gil125 - Nov. 21, 2016 3:46 PM ET USA

    You should have been a carpenter, Phil. Once again, you have hit the nail squarely on the head.

  • Posted by: bertha - Nov. 21, 2016 3:19 PM ET USA

    Bravo, Phil! To respond directly, I still do not know whether to turn right or left and I surely not want to work for you. Your assumptions aside, my desire to serve and do an excellent job are confounded by your own lack of leadership skills.