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Eternal Rome vs. the Magisterium: A Contemporary Myth

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Jul 17, 2012

One may still hope that the Society of Saint Pius X will seek to return to full communion with the Catholic Church. Bishop Bernard Fellay’s comments following the General Chapter of the Society could indicate acceptance of an arrangement similar to that of the Fraternity of St. Peter, or they could indicate a continuing insistence on every aspect of their current identity, including the SSPX rejection of the Magisterium of the Second Vatican Council and the modern papacy (which would make full communion impossible). But there is one very dangerous expression in these remarks which puts clearly on display a myth often perpetuated by Traditionalists—a myth which must be exploded if authentic reconciliation is to be achieved. Let us call this the myth of “eternal Rome”.

Bishop Fellay states: “It is not us [sic] who will break with Rome, the Eternal Rome, mistress of wisdom and truth.” But of course the SSPX has already broken with Rome through a refusal of obedience, including the consecration of bishops without the consent of the Holy Father. And the reason for this breach is the myth which Traditionalists have concocted of “eternal Rome”. Another name for this myth is “perennial doctrine” or “perennial teaching”.

I call this a myth because it is used by Traditionalists generally to create a false dichotomy between “eternal Rome” and the authority of the Magisterium today, or between “perennial doctrine” and what the Magisterium has taught since, say, 1960. The myth says that there can be a difference between these two things, and that the former is the rule of faith. But the truth is that there can be no difference between these two things, and that a proper understanding of the Catholic faith is achieved only by obedience to all of the relevant statements of the Magisterium of all times, including our own times.

This is why proper theological method demands that we find an understanding of any particular Catholic doctrine that fits all the information guaranteed by the Holy Spirit to be free from error, including every teaching of the Magisterium of the Church, which was specifically established by Christ to confirm us in our Faith, when He said to Peter: “Satan has desired to sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail; and when you have turned again, strengthen your brethren” (Lk 22:32).

Critical Distinctions

Now, it is perfectly legitimate for a good Catholic to say with Bishop Fellay: “we maintain the faith in the primacy of the Roman Pontiff and in the Church founded upon Peter, but we refuse all which contributes to the ‘self-demolition of the Church’”—unless that little word “but” implies a contradiction. For this statement is legitimate only if we mean to identify two different things—the primacy of the Roman Pontiff and all that he teaches on the one hand, and that which weakens the Church by deviating from that teaching on the other. If we mean instead that something the Roman Pontiff teaches Magisterially is in the class of things that promote the “self-demolition” of the Church, then we fall into an inescapable contradiction.

Again, it is one thing to decry and combat the inroads of Modernism and secularism into the Church, even in high places. God knows that the Church, even in high places, has been weakened and frustrated by the worldliness of her members since the first century. This has taken many forms; the problems of our own day are but a variation on a constant human theme. But it is quite another to assert that this or that teaching of the Magisterium is not really part of “eternal Rome” or “perennial doctrine” and therefore may be rejected; or, for that matter, that one may disobey the Holy Father in the clear exercise of his proper jurisdiction (which he may at times exercise imprudently) such as in the appointment of bishops or the celebration of the liturgy—as if such a cure would not be worse than any perceived disease.

The key principle is simply this: The Catholic Faith is unique among all religions in that it contains within it a divinely guaranteed principle of authority, namely the Magisterium of the successors of Peter, and their universal jurisdiction over the entire Church. Against this authority, which comes from God Himself, it is impossible to appeal. And it is precisely her possession of this authority which makes Catholicism unique among all religions, the only faith which is guaranteed by God Himself to be true.

Moreover, a corollary is equally clear: Those who reject the Magisterium in their own time, when it is teaching about the questions with which they themselves are intimately engaged, in fact reject the Magisterium whole and entire, the Magisterium of every age, the authority of Christ himself.

The Truth about the Magisterium

The Magisterium cannot be set against itself without destroying the fundamental claims of Catholicism. What many or most Traditionalists claim—that the Magisterium since 1960 has contradicted the Magisterium of “eternal Rome” by teaching errors as distinct from “perennial doctrine” is a clear and total subversion of the authority principle which animates Catholicism, which makes it wholly unique, and which alone guarantees its veracity.

This is so true that the bizarre sede vacantists among Traditionalists actually make more theological sense by arguing that the See of Peter has been vacant since Pius XII, which is at least theoretically possible. Unfortunately, the sede vacantist judgment is made not on historical evidence (e.g., as if we could point to some historical circumstance which shows that modern popes are mere puppets of some evil power, and have never been properly elected according to the rules laid down by a previous pontiff). Rather, the reasoning is the same as we encountered before: The recent Magisterium contradicts “perennial doctrine”; therefore “we” can tell that recent popes are imposters.

Once again I remind everyone: The Magisterium cannot contradict itself. Nearly every time the Magisterium settles some dispute, it sheds light on a heretofore imperfectly understand aspect of Catholic doctrine. In that respect, the Magisterium is always highlighting some particular aspect of the truth that seems, to the many who have not yet understood it properly, in some way new and different. But it is not really new and different; it is a clarification of what is already in Scripture and Tradition, the twin sources of Divine Revelation. And it is precisely on these ongoing elucidations and clarifications that a proper intellectual grasp of the Catholic Faith depends. Necessarily, then, it is precisely the rejection of these ongoing elucidations and clarifications which leaves one clinging to a purely human set of ideas, devoid of any sort of Divine guarantee.

“Eternal Rome” may be cited (bombastic and inaccurate as the term is, for Rome clearly had a beginning, and will have an end) against the bad personal behavior of anyone in the Church, including popes, but it cannot be cited against an exercise of the Magisterium. “Perennial doctrine” may be cited against the novelties of a Modernist theologian, a secularist politician, or even a pope speaking privately to his friends—but it cannot be cited against an exercise of the Magisterium, which alone determines what the perennial Catholic doctrine really is.

This whole myth is simply a rationalization by which dogmatic personalities conceal even from themselves the elevation of their own private judgment against the authority of the Church. When a Traditionalist eschews Modernism and secularism (and many other sins and evils of the present age), he does no more than any well-formed Catholic should do. When he resists the Magisterium in the name of “eternal Rome” or “perennial doctrine”, however, he does exactly what Martin Luther did, and he becomes a Protestant. Moreover, in so doing he has the very same authority as the Protestant: Himself and only himself, which is to say no authority at all.

Impossible Contradictions

It is alleged, of course, that recent contradictions in certain Magisterial teachings have been clearly demonstrable, but this is simply false. Those following proper method have shown again and again how particular teachings, which at first glance have appeared to some to be changes in a negative sense, are really developments in a positive sense, developments which provide a more complete understanding of the entire doctrine in question.

But self-serving over-simplifications are legion. For example, I constantly hear from Traditionalists who almost scream in frustration that Vatican II and popes since that time have taught that everyone is saved—atheists, pagans, Protestants, schismatics (take care!), and above all (it seems) Jews. But of course the modern Magisterium has taught nothing of the kind. The Church has, however, taught that it is possible for any person to be saved who sincerely seeks God and the good and lives according to all that he has been able to understand of God and the good.

And why? Well, for the same reason that St. Paul was the first to explain: Each person is called to respond to what the Holy Spirit writes in his heart (that is, what the Holy Spirit gives him genuinely to understand, of which only God can judge). Faith is essentially confidence in, trust in and obedience to what God has written there. This response in faith joins us to Christ, which is the same as being joined to His body the Church. Any knowing rejection of the good, God, Christ and the Church (“knowing” being something that only God can judge) prevents, weakens or severs that connection. But while the Holy Spirit does not enlighten us in contradictory ways, He does enlighten us to different degrees, and from him who has received more, more will be required (Lk 12:48).

It is an incomparable blessing to know the fullness of the Catholic faith and the life of the Church, which provides every grace for union with God in this world and happiness in His presence forever in Heaven. But it is also possible to be joined to the Church in a substantial way, without formal membership, so that, through the merits of Christ and the many graces His Church showers throughout the world, those who are not formal members of the Church have the possibility of attaining salvation through Christ and the Church. Again, this does not mean that all are saved. It simply means that all, no matter what their condition and no matter how much they know, may be saved, and if they are saved, this is accomplished through a mysterious joining to Christ and the Church. This is consistent with everything the Magisterium has ever taught, even if a more complete understanding has developed over time through the intervention of the Magisterium in various controversies.

As with this question of salvation—often distorted by those determined to find a rupture in “perennial” Catholic teaching—so too with every question that has been raised. Those who follow proper theological method can come to an understanding which is consistent with the truth of each datum of Revelation which proper method requires that a theologian accept: The deposit of faith in Scripture and Sacred Tradition, and the Magisterial teachings which determine what is really part of the Tradition and what is not, what Scripture really means and what it does not, and how (as varying questions arise) the content of Divine Revelation is to be properly understood.

The Truth and the Falsity of the Myth

It is certainly true, as Bishop Fellay says, that both Pope John Paul II and Pope Paul VI lamented the great inroads of the world into the Church. With the rapid secularization of Western culture in the modern period, her members suffered yet another wave of infection with worldly values and ideas. Against this Traditionalists have rightly reacted. Unfortunately, on all sides, human pride has prevented too many Catholics (so weak in otherwise different ways) from accepting the legitimate correction of the Magisterium itself. Some have, as the expression goes, thrown the baby out with the bathwater.

After all, every serious Catholic has lamented this same problem, yet most have accepted the Magisterium as their guide and not (impossibly) as their betrayer. Moreover, throughout history, every zealous pope and every saint has lamented, in one form or another, the very same thing—the perennial (if you like) worldliness of Catholics. But it is not true that the Magisterium of our own time can be set against the Magisterium of former times, that more recent authoritative elucidations of Catholic doctrine contradict earlier statements properly understood, or that the authority of the vicar of Christ today can be proved either non-existent or invalid by presumed differences with “eternal Rome”, “perennial doctrine” or (as is often claimed, for obvious reasons, by Traditionalists) “Catholic Tradition.”

Indeed, let us remember what else Pope Paul VI said, in a consistory of cardinals on May 24, 1976, in a direct and visibly frustrated response to the illicit challenge posed precisely by Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre and his followers:

It is even affirmed that the Second Vatican Council is not binding; that the faith would be in danger also because of the post-conciliar reforms and guidelines, which there is a duty to disobey to preserve certain traditions. What traditions? Does it belong to this group, and not the Pope, not the Episcopal College, not an Ecumenical Council, to establish which of the countless traditions must be regarded as the norm of faith!

It is not enough, my friends, to accept only the Magisterium of some congenial earlier period, or to obey only those judgments of the successor of Peter as were handed down in some bygone age. The real test is always the test of our own ideas, in present controversies, here and now. And the governing principle is crystal clear: It is not for us to judge the Magisterium. It is for the Magisterium to judge us.

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: koinonia - Aug. 25, 2012 9:37 PM ET USA

    "But the truth is that there can be no difference between these two things, and that a proper understanding of the Catholic faith is achieved only by obedience to all of the relevant statements of the Magisterium of all times, including our own times...This is so true that the bizarre sede vacantists among Traditionalists actually make more theological sense by arguing that the See of Peter has been vacant since Pius XII..." Excellent! Bishop Fellay is one stubborn fellow for good, or for ill?

  • Posted by: demark8616 - Jul. 25, 2012 4:00 AM ET USA

    It certainly appears that the SSPX disobeys & challenges both the Magisterium and the Ecclesiastical Authority of the Church. This they justify by claiming an erroneous & self-arrogated 'right' to do so, & want further 'rights' viz. "..the freedom to accuse and even to correct the promoters of the errors or the innovations of modernism, liberalism, and Vatican II and its aftermath.” They should begin with their 'protestant' selves!

  • Posted by: koinonia - Jul. 23, 2012 10:13 PM ET USA

    The struggle is not one of ideas. It is primarily a struggle of reconciliation. Bishop Di Noia admits that he sees things that he did not once see with regard to the SSPX concerns. He admits that Pope Benedict has granted a certain freedom not previously enjoyed in discussing the documents of Vatican II. Pope Benedict once called Vatican II a "counter-syllabus." Bishop Fellay calls it a "mystery." This process remains a dynamic one, and if the Holy Father can wait it out, so should we.

  • Posted by: Jeff Mirus - Jul. 23, 2012 11:36 AM ET USA

    justinswanton2559 raises a good question. There are two issues: (1) the Magisterium (which for our purposes can be defined as the pope or an ecumenical council teaching by its supreme authority to the whole Church on a matter of faith or morals); sticking points include religious liberty, the subsistence of the one true Church in the Catholic Church, and aspects of salvation for non-Catholics. (2) The exclusive ecclesiastical authority of the pope to order the essential constitutive elements of the Church (such as the appointment of bishops the rite of the liturgy, etc.).

  • Posted by: justinswanton2559 - Jul. 22, 2012 12:05 PM ET USA

    Interesting, but there is need for a distinction between the Magisterium itself and every kind of Ecclesiastical pronouncement and practical reform that does not form part of that Magisterium. Does the SSPX (as opposed to individual Traditionalists) oppose the Magisterium as such? Can you cite any examples? For instance, does the New Mass, a liturgical reform, in its whole and details constitute part of the Magisterium? There is a grey area here.

  • Posted by: John J Plick - Jul. 21, 2012 7:48 AM ET USA

    Too much intellectualism and too little love. Reconcile the heart and the mind will follow.

  • Posted by: demark8616 - Jul. 20, 2012 2:39 AM ET USA

    A big THANK YOU Dr Mirus - clears away the fog of the "eternal Rome" subject. It is their sole jutification when marketing their brand of religion, which is not Catholic "When a Traditionalist eschews Modernism and secularism (and many other sins and evils of the present age), he does no more than any well-formed Catholic should do. When he resists the Magisterium in the name of “eternal Rome” or “perennial doctrine”, however, he does exactly what Martin Luther did, and he becomes a Protestant

  • Posted by: BLRallo3059 - Jul. 19, 2012 9:39 AM ET USA

    Oh, this one hits home. A friend of my son's, who nearly grew up in my house, was recently ordained by Bishop Fellay. My son had to refuse to attend his "ordination" because of the split with sad. This boy came from a wonderful traditional Catholic family. The parents were alienated by very liberal Catholc clergy members in Florida and stumbled on to SSPX. Now what? Can we afford to lose more dedicated Catholics because the liberal clergy hate them? It's a BIG problem.

  • Posted by: Justin8110 - Jul. 18, 2012 4:16 PM ET USA

    Father Riiperger has a good article in the Latin Mass magazine called "Operative positions of traditionalists and neo-conservatives" or something like that where he explains it well. You can get it through a link of Fathers site It's worth reading because it touches on this topic. Vatican II is still being interpreted 50 plus years later. I think some of the traditionalist critiques are valid and let's be honest here, it's not just the SSPX making them but the FSSP too