Catholic Culture News
Catholic Culture News

The SSPX, Rome and Armchair Negotiatiators

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | May 22, 2012

Having seen the news conference and read the reports of the unveiling of a new book on Pope Benedict’s keys to the interpretation of Vatican II, we can now breathe a collective sigh of relief that the negotiations between the SSPX and the Holy See are not in the hands of the books’ authors.

In the same rhetorical breath Cardinal Walter Brandmuller, one of the three authors, argued the following:

  1. “The two most controversial documents [on religious liberty and relations with non-Christian religions] do not have a binding doctrinal content, so one can dialogue about them.”
  2. “I don't understand why our friends in the Society of St. Pius X concentrate almost exclusively on these two texts. And I'm sorry that they do so, because these are the two that are most easy to accept if we consider their canonical nature.”
  3. “[All the conciliar documents] must be taken seriously as expressions of the living Magisterium.”
  4. “[The SSPX and the Old Catholilcs] have in common a rejection of the legitimate developments of the doctrine and life of the Church.”

I’m so glad Cardinal Brandmuller has cleared this up.

In his defense, Cardinal Brandmuller was responding to questions off the cuff, as it were, and did not have time to carefully consider his remarks. Given the topic of the book, however, one would have expected him to do better. (To understand this topic, see The Assent Owed to Vatican II.)

In fact, while it is certainly true that a “dogmatic constitution” is a weightier document than a “declaration”, and is more likely to deal extensively with doctrinal issues, this does not mean that a “declaration” cannot have doctrinal content to which the faithful must assent. Now, in the case of the very brief Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions (Nostra Aetate), Cardinal Brandmuller’s assessment holds. The heavy doctrinal lifting had already been done in the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium), which taught clearly about the availability of salvation to those who are not formal members of the Church. The later Declaration dealt with relationships and attitudes, not with teachings about faith and morals.

But in the Declaration on Religious Liberty (Dignitatis Humanae), there is some actual doctrine taught. We know this in exactly the same way we know what any Magisterial act intends, that is, by the nature of the expressions used. Thus Dignitatis Humanae states specifically that it “intends to develop the doctrine of recent popes on the inviolable rights of the human person and the constitutional order of society” (1). And then it goes on to teach explicitly:

This Vatican Council declares that the human person has a right to religious freedom. This freedom means that all men are to be immune from coercion on the part of individuals or of social groups and of any human power, in such wise that no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs, whether privately or publicly, whether alone or in association with others, within due limits. (2)

The argument that this is a mere Declaration and so must not be construed as teaching anything is completely vacuous. Perhaps this is why one of the other authors of the book at the press conference, Archbishop Agostino Marchetto, made a point of saying: “From what I have learned, there must be an acceptance of the Council by those who want to be reunited with the Church. I don't think the SSPX can say, ‘Well, we'll set this or that document aside.’”

Now it is true that there are many quarrels between the SSPX and the Church over such things as the importance of certain aspects of the liturgy, the pastoral cost-effectiveness of contemporary attitudes toward missionary work and ecumenism, the degree to which the Church can safely accommodate secular culture, and the huge problem of internal doctrinal and moral discipline (particularly with respect to Modernism). But while it is reasonable to suppose that huge differences in cultural perception, in liturgical sensibilities, and in tolerance for institutional weakness are involved in the SSPX reaction to the post-Vatican II Church, it is naïve to pretend that there are no concerns about the precise meaning of recently-articulated Catholic teaching.

The perception that the modern Magisterium has issued teachings contrary to the Catholic tradition is widespread among Traditionalists. Some (most notably members of the Society of St. Pius V) have actually adopted a more consistent position than the Society of St. Pius X. The former have argued, in effect, that the difference in teaching is so dramatic that it is impossible that the Magisterium has really taught what has been taught; rather, it must be the case that recent popes are all imposters and that the See of Peter is actually vacant (this is called sede vacantism). Yes, this is a wild assertion, but it is theologically consistent.

On the other hand, for anyone who recognizes the absurdity of the sede vacantist claim, the problem with these alleged doctrinal anomalies is that they rest on an impossibility. The Magisterium of the Church is quite simply unable to contradict itself. For this reason, any apparent contradictions must be firmly located in the misunderstanding of the beholder. The actual teachings must be carefully explored in order to find out exactly what they require us to accept or reject, and we must probe more deeply in order to figure out how the doctrine in question can be understood so that all Magisterial requirements are met at the same time.

To take an obvious example, the proposition that Jesus Christ has a human nature only appears to contradict the proposition that Jesus Christ is a Divine person. And so it is with all teachings of the Magisterium which have been alleged to be contradictory. Thus the invocation of the necessity defense by the SSPX—the defense that holds their disobedience acceptable because it arises out of a rare and unforeseen necessity to preserve the Church—actually depends on a necessity which, with a proper understanding of the Church’s magisterium, we know by Faith can never exist. No matter how weak and sinful her members, the Church cannot cease to be herself, unless we wish to assert that Christ’s promise to be with her has returned to Him void (Mt 28:20; cf. Is 55:11).

The vast majority of orthodox Catholics have remained within the Church, recognizing that the problem we face is twofold. First, there has been a rapid cultural shift which has at one and the same time evoked a fresh response from the Church and weakened her discipline and undermined her theology. It will take a long time to sort all of this out, at which time the Church will no doubt have to move on to new problems, as has always been the case. Second, there have been a few doctrinal developments which have been wrongly and unnecessarily interpreted as contradictions by those who misunderstand the requirements of either the development or the prior teachings on the same issue.

Now the negotiations between the Holy See and the SSPX must take both of these factors into account. There is something to correct and something to affirm. Clearly, the SSPX must be permitted to maintain in good faith its deep perception of the ways in which the larger secular culture has infected the contemporary Church. A failure to affirm Modernism or to applaud the breakdown of ecclesiastical discipline can never be held officially against the SSPX, no matter how many Church leaders may have held this against the organization in the past, or may do so in the future.

At the same time, the doctrinal issues have long since been clearly explained by sound theologians. We must hope that the negotiations will enable the SSPX to see that the teachings of the modern Magisterium actually better elucidate the Tradition in certain respects, that the doctrines in question are now better understood, and that the Church’s official teaching remains, as always, completely without internal contradiction.

But in the service of this aim, it does no good to pretend that the Second Vatican Council did not really intend to teach in those passages in which the text states clearly that it does intend to teach. Fortunately, every indication is that the negotiators for both parties are taking the divisive issues very seriously. And this, surely, is what mutual respect demands.

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: Justin8110 - May. 22, 2012 7:08 PM ET USA

    While I'm not involved with the SSPV they do indeed hold a more logically consistent position than the SSPX. Some of the most logical and rigorous thinkers I have ever met have been SSPV. This crisis is so serious there are many various places people go in good faith whether it is SSPX, SSPV or, in my case, FSSP. Let us pray for a return to sanity in the Church and a healing of all internal divisions.

  • Posted by: koinonia - May. 22, 2012 5:40 PM ET USA

    The fundamental issues involve Faith, Charity, and Justice. Pope Benedict has done much to accomodate the demands of the SSPX. Bishop Fellay has recognized that what has been done is worthy of full cooperation. Pope Benedict is "genuine." The sede vacantist position is the path of least resistance intellectually and is perhaps more consistent logically but it does not correlate to truth. The SSPX continues incessantly to ask for prayers for her leaders and for our pontiff. It's worth a shot.