Catholic Culture Overview
Catholic Culture Overview

Schism, Obedience and the Society of St. Pius X

by John Beaumont, John Walsh


It is the purpose of this article to describe and analyze the errors made by the Society of St. Pius X and by Michael Davies and other writers. These are many and serious and concern what is, in fact, a wholly misleading idea of the very nature of tradition in the Catholic Church. In the present context, the central and fundamental issues relate to two theses which Davies claims that a loyal Catholic can hold in the Church today. These two theses, which most supporters of the Society of St. Pius X hold implicitly, if not explicitly, are not only contrary to orthodox Catholic teaching, but also betray a complete lack of trust in the Church and in the promises of Christ to that body.

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Publisher & Date

Fidelity, October 1993

(The following article has been read and approved by Dr. Aidan Nichols OP, Professor at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas [the Angelicum] in Rome, and author of several major works, including The Shape of Catholic Theology and Rome and the Eastern Churches. In his response Dr. Nichols states: "I think your essay is excellent, and hope it will do much good." The present writers quote this statement, not for the purpose of drawing attention to themselves, but in order to show that the article is considered to be fully in accordance with the teaching of the Catholic Church by a leading theologian known for his orthodoxy.)

During the last twenty years a not inconsiderable number of Catholics have followed the lead given by the late Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre and the Society of St. Pius X founded by him, thinking that this was the way to defend what they believed to be the traditional Catholic faith in a time of crisis in the Church. That there is such a crisis is not really a matter for argument. Since the Second Vatican Council there has been a large decline in the number of Catholics practicing their faith. In addition, many priests and nuns have abandoned their vocations, piety and devotion. However, appearances can be deceptive and, in reality, Catholics who supported the Society of St. Pius X have been led into error by the Society, whose arguments have been articulated most notably by Michael Davies. The Society cannot dissociate itself from Davies, since Archbishop Lefebvre himself endorsed his writings. In his foreword to Volume One of Davies's Apologia Pro Marcel Lefebvre (1979), the Archbishop said this about Michael Davies:

"He merits praise for his erudition, his objectivity, and the wisdom and soundness of his judgments which are governed by his profound attachment to the Catholic Church among whose most faithful servants posterity will place him" (p vii).

In the same foreword the Archbishop also refers to Davies as "the most outstanding English writer" on the present-day state of the Church, whose books are "bearers of truth and light."

It is the purpose of this article to describe and analyze the errors made by the Society of St. Pius X and by Michael Davies and other writers. These are many and serious and concern what is, in fact, a wholly misleading idea of the very nature of tradition in the Catholic Church. In the present context, the central and fundamental issues relate to two theses which Davies claims that a loyal Catholic can hold in the Church today. These two theses, which most supporters of the Society of St. Pius X hold implicitly, if not explicitly, are not only contrary to orthodox Catholic teaching, but also betray a complete lack of trust in the Church and in the promises of Christ to that body.

It is important to state at the outset that in submitting the following thoughts for consideration, we have no intention of putting ourselves forward as yet another set of experts with the solution to the crisis in the Church. All that we wish to show is that in order to be a Catholic, one must be in communion with the pope and the bishops and that whatever the provocations (and there have been many in the history of the Church), one must never break with the unity of the Church. We have many friends among the ranks of those who support the Society of St. Pius X. To these good people we bear no ill will. We offer what follows as an account of the reasons why no Catholic loyal to the Church can support the Society.

The First Error

Davies first thesis relates to the question of obedience in the Church. What he claims is that one can be a traditional Catholic and yet, at the same time, have the right to disobey a command of the pope (and all of one's lawful superiors) when the action commanded is not forbidden by divine or natural law, if one is convinced that to obey would harm souls. In his pamphlet, "I Am With You Always" (1986), he expresses it as follows:

"The faithful have the right to refuse to obey (the pope) if they are convinced in conscience that a particular command will harm rather than build up the Mystical Body" (p. 50)

The same opinion is put forward in many other places in Davies' writings (e.g., Appendix IV to Pope Paul's New Mass (1980), p. 589; Appendix II to Volume One of Apologia Pro Marcel Lefebvre, p. 379). It Is also fundamental to the position of the Society of St. Plus X. Acting on the basis of this, many traditional Catholics look at the teaching of the pope and the bishops, at the Second Vatican Council and subsequently, judge it to be contrary to tradition and use this as a justification for disobeying it. However, this position is simply not supportable in the light of Catholic teaching and to adopt it is to undermine the very tradition one is attempting to defend because this approach is inconsistent with the whole notion of papal primacy and what flows from that.

As we know, if the pope is the successor of St. Peter, he is the visible head of the Church and represents Christ on earth. As such he is the Vicar of Christ. The pope possesses full and supreme power of Jurisdiction over the Church. not only in matters of faith and morals, but also in Church discipline and the government of the Church. This was proclaimed by the Second Council of Lyons (1274) and expressed by the Council of Florence (1439) as follows:

"We define that the holy Apostolic See and the Roman Pontiff have primacy over the whole world, and that the same Roman Pontiff is the successor of St. Peter, the Prince of the Apostles, and the true Vicar of Christ, the head of the whole Church, the father and teacher of all Christians; and that to him, in the person of St. Peter, was given by our Lord Jesus Christ the full power of feeding, ruling, and governing the whole Church" (Decretum pro Graecis, Denz. 694).

This teaching was stated in its most explicit form by the First Vatican Council (1870):

"If then any shall say that the Roman Pontiff has the office merely of inspection or direction, and not full and supreme power of jurisdiction over the universal Church, not only in things which belong to faith and morals, but also in those things which relate to the discipline and government of the Church spread throughout the world; or assert that he possesses merely the principal part, and not all the fullness of this supreme power; or that this power which he enjoys is not ordinary and immediate, both over each and all the Churches and over each and all the pastors of the faithful; let him be anathema" (Pastor Aeternus).Ch. III; Denz. 1831)

These same truths are reiterated by the Second Vatican Council, both in Chapter III of Lumen Gentium and in the preface to Christus Dominus.

The pope's power comes with his office and therefore, comes directly from Christ. He is the rock on which Christ built the Church. As St. Ambrose puts it: "Where Peter is, there is the Church" (Enarratio in Psalmum xl. 30; P.L 15. 1848). Further, the pope exercises his power in his own right and not as a delegate of a council or some other group.

The pope, then, possesses supreme legislative, executive, and juridical power. Because the pope is the supreme lawgiver of the Church, he is not legally bound by past ecclesiastical laws, but by divine law alone. As the supreme Judge of the Church, he himself is Judged by nobody because there is no higher judge on earth than he. He has the right to decide all Church disputes, and there is no appeal to a higher court against the Judgment of the pope. "Roma locuta est, causa finita est" (Rome has spoken, the cause is finished) is the Catholic standard.

Now, the relevance of all this in the present context is that corresponding to the primacy of the pope is the duty of subordination and obedience on the part of subjects. To be more specific, what the Church teaches and has always taught is that one must obey ones lawful superiors in all but sin. The right to disobey exists only when the superior gives a command which would involve a definite sin on the part of the person obeying. If the command given was the cause of sin in the superior by giving it, but involved no sin on the part of the person obeying it, one must obey. This is not a mere technical point of Canon Law. It is the teaching of the whole of Catholic tradition. It is exemplified in the Fourth Commandment and, as we have seen, in the whole notion of papal primacy in jurisdictional matters.

It is impossible in a short article such as this to set out all the authorities on this question. It must suffice to cite a few of these. St. Thomas Aquinas says that, after the virtue of religions obedience is the most perfect of all the moral virtues, because it unites us closer to God than any other virtue, inasmuch as obedience detaches us from our own will, which is the main obstacle to union with God (Summa Theologicae IIa, IIae, 104).

Obedience is rooted in the very example of Our Lord himself, who is obedient to the Father unto death (Phil. 2:8). As St. Ignatius of Antioch enjoined:

"Let all obey the bishop as Jesus Christ obeyed his Father" (Ad Smyrnaeos, viii, 1; P.G. 5. 708); "He who honors the bishop is honored by God; but he who does anything without the bishop s knowledge serves the devil" (Ibid, ix, 1); "Do nothing without the bishop, keep guard over your body as God's temple, love unity, flee discord, be imitators of Jesus Christ as he was of his Father (Ad Philadelphienses, vii, 2; P. G. 5. 697).

Pope Pius XII expressed this in his Apostolic Exhortation on the priestly life, Menti Nostrae (1950) stating:

Christ Himself established in the society which He founded a legitimate authority to perpetuate his own authority for ail time. Therefore, he who obeys the rulers of the Church, obeys our divine redeemer Himself" (para. 18)

Pius XII also stated that this obedience is not only the necessary safeguard of religion and society, but also the indispensable principle of our own sanctification (para. 19).

The First Vatican Council drew out the implications of the doctrine of papal primacy for the question of obedience:

"Hence we teach and declare that by the appointment of our Lord the Roman Church possesses a sovereignty of ordinary power over all other Churches, and that this power of jurisdiction of the Roman Pontiff, which is truly episcopal, is immediate to which ail, of whatsoever rite and dignity, both pastors and faithful, both individually and collectively, are bound, by their duty of hierarchical subordination and true obedience, to submit, not only in matters which belong to faith and morals, but also in those that appertain to the discipline and government of the Church throughout the world; so that the Church of Christ may be one flock under one supreme pastor through the preservation of unity, both of communion and of profession of the same faith, with the Roman pontiff." (Pastor Aeternus, Ch. III; Denz. 1827)

The teaching of the Church with regard to obedience to specific commands is stated powerfully by St. Francis de Sales:

"Obedience lovingly undertakes to do ail that is commanded it with simplicity and without ever considering whether the command is good or bad, provided that the person who orders has authority to order, and that the command serves to unite our mind to God." (Spiritual Conferences, XI, p 179)

He adds that if a superior orders what is evidently against the law of God, it is one's duty not to submit. Aside from this last case, however, the truly obedient person does not go astray even when the superior is wrong and commands what is less good than what we ourselves would choose. Then God, to whom the submission is given and who sees the heart, rewards this obedience by assuring success. Again, St. Francis de Sales, commenting upon the"the obedient man shall speak of victory," says:

"The truly obedient man will come out the conqueror in all the difficulties into which he may be led by obedience, and with honor from all the roads he has traversed, however dangerous." (Ibid, p. 199).

In other words, a superior may err tn commanding but we make no mistake in obeying, a conclusion which emerges just as clearly from the following statement of Pope Leo XIII:

"The only reason which men can have for not obeying is when anything is demanded of them which is openly repugnant to the natural or Divine law, for it is equally unlawful to command to do anything in which the law of nature or the will of God is violated." (Diuturnum Illud [1881], Denz. 1857).

All the detailed treatments on the virtue of obedience and its application to laws and commands of lawful authority, for example those of Suarez and of St. Robert Bellarmine, are to the same effect.

For completeness it should be added that even if one is in doubt as to whether obedience to the command is or is not sinful, one is obliged to obey, because the presumption is in favor of the superior. This also applies when compliance with a command appears to be probably sinful. Only when definite sin is involved is one entitled, and obliged, to disobey. The clear teaching of the Church on this point is summed up by St. Ignatius Loyola:

"When, in my opinion and judgment, the Superior bids me to do something which is against my conscience or sinful, and the Superior thinks the contrary, I ought to believe him unless he is manifestly wrong." (Monumenta Ignatian, series 1a, XII, 660).

The only position for a loyal Catholic to adopt, when faced with the true Catholic position on primacy and obedience set out above, is to accept John Paul II and the bishops in communion with him as our lawful pastors and obey them in all that is not sinful. Obedience and loyalty to Peter is the authentic Catholic attitude. This does not mean that one has to go along with abuses. One can quite properly oppose, for example, the use, in contravention of the necessary conditions for such use, of extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist, since this would be a breach of Rome's instructions, which are those of a higher authority. Similarly, one may petition, say, for a wider application by the bishops of those provisions of the pope's Apostolic Letter. Ecclesia Dei, concerning the use of the Tridentine Mass, in accordance with the pope's wishes. But, if a command is given by the supreme authority, then one must obey, except in the narrow circumstances discussed earlier. This is the only way to maintain tradition since it is the only attitude in line with tradition.

What cannot be justified, in the light of what has been stated above, is the position of the Society of St. Pius X, which insists in public that John Paul II is pope, but then decides for itself when to obey him, using its own reading and personal ideas to justify what it claims that tradition demands. However eminent the authorities relied on, such a process is essentially one of private judgment and, not surprisingly, leads to a corresponding variety of answers. The similarity to movements such as Protestantism and Jansenism is striking. To such people it is the individual who decides. not the Church. As a result, one is left to decide issues which one has neither authority nor competence to decide. What gives an individual the authority to decide that a rite of Mass is doubtful or invalid or the right to decide whether an excommunication is valid? As to competence the vast majority of such people are not canonists, theologians, or liturgists. Even those who are, notoriously disagree. There are dozens of positions: Lefebvre, de Nantes, Des Lauriers, Ngo Dinh Thuc, etc. It is not enough to say "I will read and study." Seeking to find the path to God by mere knowledge, without receiving the grace that comes from living in sacramental union with the Church can all too easily lead one out of the Church as in the case of Jansenism and Eastern Orthodoxy. It is for the living Church to show us the truth, not for us to tell the Church where the truth lies. Because we have no competence and no authority to judge these matters, we cannot be sure to arrive at the truth by studying them.

In addition, it is surely inconceivable for any Catholic who is loyal to the Magisterium of the Church to hold that tradition can be continued separate from the living authority of the Church as exercised by the bishops and under the primacy of the pope. So that when the supporters of the Society of St. Pius X look to the Society itself as the guarantor of Catholic truth and tradition, there is an easy refutation of their position. The Church teaches that there is only one guarantor of both Catholic truth and tradition and that is the pope. It is clear that the Society of St. Pius X wishes to have it both ways. It insists publicly on recognizing John Paul II as pope, but acts without observing any obedience or loyalty to him. It therefore reflects in practice the absolute necessity to be subject to the pope. The Society's position is simply not Catholic since the mark of Roman Catholicism is loyal acceptance of and obedience to the papacy and the hierarchy.

The Second Error

Davies's second thesis is concerned with the question of schism. His claim is that only a person who denies that he is subject to the pope is guilty of schism. He contrasts this with what he implies is "mere disobedience." For example, in his article, The Sede Vacantists (Christian Order, November 1982, p. 520), he adopts a definition of schism which states in part that "If . . . anyone denies that he is subject to the Supreme Pontiff . . . he is schismatic" (at p. 521).

In a letter to the Daily Telegraph of 6th July 1988, he writes:

"A Catholic who, for some grave reason, on a matter not involving faith or morals, feels bound in conscience to disobey the Pope in a particular instance without wishing to sever himself from the Church or deny the authority of the Pope, cannot be said to be in schism."

Finally, Davies claims in his article, "Who is Schismatic?," in the Angelus, December 1990, p. 10, that disobedience amounts to schism only when it includes besides the transgression of the command of the superiors a denial of their divine right to command (at p. 17).

When one examines the true Catholic teaching on schism, it becomes clear how different this is from the version given by Davies. However, in order to understand the nature of schism, it is first necessary to understand the idea of unity in the Church because the concept of schism is simply the reverse side of the concept of unity.

When Christ built on Peter as an unshakable foundation the indestructible edifice of his Church, He thereby indicated its essential unity and especially its hierarchical unity (Matthew 16:18). He expressed the same thought when he referred to the faithful as a Kingdom and as a flock:

"Other sheep I have, that are not of this fold; them also I must bring, and they shall hear my voice, and there shall be one fold and one shepherd" (John 10:16).

Those who violate the laws of unity shall become strangers to Christ and his spiritual family:

"And if he will not hear the Church, let him be to thee as the heathen and publican" (Matthew 18: 17).

In faithful imitation of Christ's teaching, St. Paul frequently refers to the unity of the Church describing it as one edifice, one body, a body between whose members exists the same solidarity as between the members of the human body (see I Cor. 12; Eph. 4).

The Fathers of the Church express the same point, seeing in Peter and the episcopal see founded by him the keystone of unity. A good example is St. Cyprian:

"God is one, Christ is one, one is the Church, and one the chair founded on Peter by the word of the Lord" {Epist. 43: CSEL: 3. 594).

Turning now to the question of schism, the traditional Catholic teaching is expressed by St. Thomas Aquinas:

"Schismatics are those who refuse obedience to the Sovereign Pontiff and who refuse to communicate with the members of the Church subject to him." {Summa Theologiae IIa, IIae, 39, emphasis added).

This definition is virtually identical to that in the 1983 Code of Canon Law:

"Schism is the refusal of submission to the Roman Pontiff or of communion with the members of the Church subject to him." (Canon 751, emphasis added).

The old 1917 Code of Canon Law is to the same effect:

"If anyone refuses to be subject to the Supreme Pontiff, or if he refuses communion with those members of the Church who are subject to him, he is schismatic." {Canon 1325, emphasis added).

There is a fundamental difference between these definitions and those used by Michael Davies. Of course, it is true to say that a person who denies that the pope has authority is a schismatic, but so also may be a person who refuses to submit to his authority, while believing him to possess authority in the matter in dispute. It all depends on whether the refusal of submission constitutes an attack on the unity of the Church, something which, as we have seen, is central to the idea of schism. St. Jerome expresses concisely this essential point:

"Schism separates from the Church through dissent from bishops." (Epistola ad Titum 3, 10-11; P. L. 26. 562).

At a later stage in his examination of schism, Aquinas expands on this:

"The essence of schism lies in rebelliously disobeying the commandments [of the Church]; I say rebelliously because the Schismatic shows obstinate scorn for the Church's commandments and refuses to submit to her Judgment." (Summa Theologiae IIA, IIae 39).

The essential nature of schism and examples of it in operation are examined in detail by Fr. Aidan Nichols in his study of the subject, Rome and the Eastern Churches (1992):

"The schismatic, then, attacks the unity of the Church. It is important that he actually has the intention of attacking that unity, or at least of acting in a way which he knows will lead to a break in unity. This means that he must refuse to act as part of the whole in a way which touches the unity of the Church as such. In effect, this means in some matter where a rule of faith or practice for communion with the Church has been duly expressed by the relevant authority. If, for example, I decide to invent a fresh gesture for the Mass liturgy and introduce it into my celebrations . . . my lack of rubrical self-discipline hardly touches the unity of the Church as such, and so could not lead to my being declared a schismatic. If, on the other hand, a particular Church within the Western patriarchate chose to re-order its entire public prayer without reference to the rest of the Church, or to construct a new form of the Creed without the backing of pope or general council, then such an action could well be called schismatic since the basic forms of Christian faith and action are to be determined by the whole Church, at least in the person of the pope. For one local church to redesign them 'off its own bat' attacks the Church's unity in an essential way." (pp. 13-14).

In this last example the schismatic does not deny the pope's right to rule. He simply refuses obedience to him on a matter affecting the unity of the Church. If Michael Davies ideas on this question were right, it would mean that no one who claimed to be subject to the pope, however untrue his claim might in reality be, could be regarded as a schismatic. But is not Davies aware that there are High Anglicans who recognize all the papal claims, and who thus regard themselves as in communion with the pope and, therefore, not schismatics since they recognize the office and its holder? The correct position, however, is that whether a person is a schismatic does not depend on his personal opinion of whether or not he is subject to the pope, but upon the objective reality of whether he acts in submission to and in union with the authority of the pope.

The Consequences of These Errors

If the true Catholic position on these questions is as is set out above, then very many things are to be seen in a wholly different light. In particular. the question arises: How can the Society of St. Pius X still be in communion with the pope and the Church? Consider the following facts:

1. The Society establishes seminaries, churches, chapels, and priories throughout the world without any reference to the local ordinaries in whose dioceses it carries out these acts. This is contrary to the Code of Canon Law (Canons 234, 237, 1215, 1223-1228).

2. It ordains priests without the dismissorial letters required by Canon Law (Canons 1015, 1018-1023).

3. It hears confessions and celebrates marriages without jurisdiction (Canons 966-976, 1108-1123).

4. It gives Holy Communion to persons who are well known sede vacantists (Canon 844). This is in spite of the fact that Archbishop Lefebvre himself regarded such movements as having a "schismatic spirit" (Open Letter to Confused Catholics (1986), p. 155).

5. It refused Pope Paul VI's command to close the seminary at Econe and wind up the Society (see theletter of the Commission of Cardinals to Archbishop Lefebvre and that of Pope Paul VI to the Archbishop, dated 6th May, 1975 and 29th June, 1975 respectively. both of which are reprinted, together with the Society s responses, in Apologia Pro Marcel Lefebvre, Volume One, pp. 57- 59; 112- 119).

6. It carries out confirmations in other bishops' dioceses. This is contrary to the Council of Trent which decrees that:

"No bishop is permitted under any pretext or privilege whatsoever to exercise episcopal functions in the diocese of another bishop, without the permission of the Ordinary of the place and with regard to persons subordinate to the same Ordinary. If any bishop does otherwise, he will be lawfully suspended from his episcopal functions . . ." (Sess. VII, cp. 5, emphasis supplied).

7. It purports to accept John Paul II as pope and yet rejects parts of the 1983 Code of Canon Law promulgated by him in his capacity as supreme legislator (see, e.g., Archbishop Lefebvre and the Vatican, ed. Fr. Francois Laisney (1988), pp. 176-178).

8. Finally, in 1988 the Society consecrated four bishops, knowing that this was against the express will of the pope, and then in 1991 proceeded to consecrate a further bishop in a diocese (Campos in Brazil) where, as the Society itself recognizes, there is already a valid bishop. This is contrary to Canon 1013. Furthermore, the Society of St. Pius X cites not a single declaration of a pope or a council (to say nothing of theologians and Church fathers) stating that there may be a legitimate episcopal consecration against the will of the pope. But according to Pope Pius XII, who was so revered by Archbishop Lefebvre. an episcopal consecration done against the will of the pope is an offense against divine law.

"No one may legitimately confer episcopal consecration unless in advance the particular papal authorization is in [the consecrating bishop's] possession. Through this criminal act there is carried out a most serious attack on the unity of the Church Itself. Therefore, for such a consecration performed against divine and human law, there is established the penalty of excommunication . . ." (Apostolorum Principis [1958]).

To sum up, then, here is an organization which pays no regard whatsoever to the commands and laws of legitimate authority in the Church and which refuses to do the express will of the supreme pontiff in matters of great importance for use visible unity of the Church. Put all of these things together and what we have is an autonomous organization, a petite eglise, an independent Church. If this does not constitute schism, what does?

The response of the Society of St. Pius X to accusations of schism has taken several forms, but one central theme runs through ail of them. This is the argument that the episcopal consecrations were in some way necessary. One variation of this is the claim that, because of the dire state of the Church, the consecrations were necessary to maintain both the Church and the faith. The answer to this is that even if things were as bad as is claimed, there still remain the words of Our Lord:

"Thou art Peter, a rock; and upon this rock I will build My Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against It." (Matthew 16:18).

In other words, we have a divine guarantee that the Church will not fail, because She is built on the foundation which is Peter. By its statements, however. the Society of St. Pius X implies that the Church is now built on Econe, rather than on Rome.

A similar argument frequently advanced by the Society is that the consecrations were necessary to provide for the salvation of souls. In other words, it is argued that it was lawful to go against the primacy of jurisdiction for the sake of a higher law, that of the salvation of souls ("Salus animarum suprema lex"). The answer here is that the defense of necessity does not apply when the law in question is a divine law which touches the divinely appointed structure of the Church; and primacy of jurisdiction goes back directly to divine institution. This last point has been denied by some apologists for the Society of St. Pius X, but it must be asserted that this very argument of the Society's was also used in the case of the illegitimate episcopal consecrations in China in the fifties, which gave rise to the encyclical by Pope Pius XII referred to earlier. There, this argument was expressly rejected by Pius XII, who himself cited the definition of primacy of jurisdiction given by the First Vatican Council.

It may also be added that the specific point of necessity in relation to the 1988 consecrations was decided by the Church Herself in an official communique of the Holy See shortly after they took place, in which it was ruled that necessity did not apply.

The attitude of the Society of St. Pius X towards this whole question of necessity is symptomatic of its attitude generally to legitimate authority. Whenever Canon Law obstructs what the Society considers to be the correct course of action for it to follow, it casually invokes a so-called higher law. The problem with this attitude, however, is that the maxim that the salvation of souls is the supreme law is a law that has to be classed among other laws, and it is not for the Society, nor for the individuals which make it up, to judge how this law should be applied. Only the Church Herself can make, interpret, and enforce the laws, because in Her alone are Christ and the Holy Spirit to guide Her, and especially to act through the Supreme Pontiff. To get round this, the Society has invented a new position of its own making, according to which the subject of a law enacted by the highest authority in the Catholic Church may now interpret the law and decide if it is valid or not. What this attitude does is to make each individual his own judge as to when he may obey or disobey the laws of those whom he recognizes as ecclesiastical authority. Such a position amounts to private judgment and is a recipe for anarchy. If you read it back into history, it would mean that every heretic or schismatic could "interpret" himself back into the Church. Where has the Church ever taught this doctrine? Let the Society produce Catholic authorities on this question. The fact is that the Society has invented a new teaching to justify its own position because of the alleged "necessity of the times," etc., which it then pronounces, purely on its own authority, to be a continuation of and in harmony with the living tradition of the Church. But, by its rejection of John Paul II, the Society has tragically severed itself from the living tradition continuing to govern the Church through the Holy Spirit.

This innovation by the Society of St. Pius X destroys Catholic order. What could be more un-Catholic than a situation where a traditionalist Catholic rejects the Church's decision against him, yet seeks to judge the Church and find her guilty of error and heresy? In practice, this means reversing Catholic order, which is that the Church judges us, not that we judge the Church.

Heresy and Schism

Now, some people may ask at this point, "What is so serious about schism anyway? Look at those heretical progressive theologians. Are they still in the Church when those in schism are outside it? Surely the important thing is to be orthodox, to have the true faith." This answer betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of how serious a matter schism is. The nature of schism is not to deny an article of Catholic faith although it may lead to that. It involves breaking with the Church. St. Augustine draws out the grave consequences of this position in one of his sermons, in which, referring to a Donatist bishop, he says:

"Outside the Church he can have everything except salvation. He can have honor, he can have sacraments, he can sing alleluia, he can respond with Amen, he can have the gospel, he can hold and preach the faith in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit; but nowhere else than in the Catholic Church can he find salvation." (Sermo ad Caesariensis ecclesiae plebem, 6;CSEL 53: 174-175).

In the light of this it is interesting to note how schism has generally been treated by the Church as more serious than heresy.

"People holding heretical opinions are to be found very widely scattered through the Catholic Church. In general, Church authorities take the charitable view that the existence of heretical opinion is a result of misinformation. Those holding heretical opinions would abandon them if they realized that they were contrary to the faith of the Church." (Nichols, op. cit., p. 1).

Of course, where a person is quite aware of the faith of the Church on a particular matter and yet rejects the Church's judgment about faith and encourages others to do the same, then the pope and bishops have usually reacted by excommunicating those involved. However, even here the patience of the Church can be considerable. In this context the case of Luther is particularly instructive. Luther started his rebellion in October 1517. His teachings were not condemned by the pope until 15th June, 1520. Even then he was given sixty days in which to recant his errors, and he was not finally excommunicated until 3rd January, 1521. Now, between 1517 and 1520 Luther had written pamphlets denying the priesthood and the hierarchy, saying the Bible is the only guide and that man is not free, among other errors. Yet, he was still a member of the Church (albeit a rebellious one) until officially expelled by legitimate authority. Those traditionalists who wish to blame the present pope for his lenient treatment of certain dissident theologians should bear this in mind.

What is so grave about schism is that, as was said earlier, it represents an attack on the unity of the Church. This is something seen by the Church as very serious indeed since she views that unity as a central feature of God's design for Her in the world. On the night before his passion Christ prayed that all his followers may be united with a unity as close as that which binds the Father and the Son to each other (John 17:20-22). Since unity is a gift of Christ to the Church an attack on that unity is an attack on Christ. Nothing could be more serious than that. To break with the unity of the Church whatever the seriousness of the situation is always gravely wrong.

One More Error

Once one starts to examine the real facts concerning Catholic truth and tradition many other arguments used by so-called traditionalists fall to the ground. This is not the place to deal with them in detail but as an illustration one notable example will be taken since it is highly relevant to the issues presently under consideration: the case of the so-called "fall" of Pope Liberius during the Arian crisis. This example has been used by Michael Davies on a number of occasions (e.g. Apologia Pro Marcel Lefebvre, Volume One (1979), pp. 369-371; St. Athanasius, Defender of the Faith (1985) pp. 7-9) to paint a picture of Liberius as a person who signed a formula designed to favor heresy and who excommunicated that champion of Catholic orthodoxy St. Athanasius leaving Athanasius to stand alone as almost the sole defender of the Catholic faith. The parallel intended between Paul VI and Archbishop Lefebvre is obvious. The truth is very different.

There is it is true a minority of scholars who have supported Davies position. There are also some who hold the more moderate view that Liberius signed an ambiguous formula genuinely believing that it was a statement of Catholic belief. However according to the majority of scholars Pope Liberius was in reality a firm opponent of Arianism who was himself sent into exile by the emperor because he refused to excommunicate Athanasius or accept a semi-Arian statement on the divinity of Christ. The people of Rome demonstrated in Liberius favor and he was finally allowed to return to Rome where he remained fully orthodox and in full communion with Athanasius.

All that Davies needed to know on the question of Liberius is contained in an article in the 1913 Catholic Encyclopedia by the great patristic scholar Dom John Chapman. Chapman's account is a moderate and judicious examination of the evidence. His conclusion is worth quoting in full:

"It should be carefully noted that the question of the fall of Liberius is one that has been and can be freely debated among Catholics. No one pretends that, if Liberius signed the most Arian formula in exile he did so freely; so that no question of his infallibility is involved. It is admitted on all sides that his noble attitude of resistance before his exile and during his exile was not belied by any act of his after his return; that he was in no way sullied when so many failed at the Council of Rimini, and that he acted vigorously for the healing of orthodoxy throughout the West from the grievous wound. If he really consorted with heretics, condemned Athanasius, or even denied the Son of God, it was a momentary human weakness which no more compromises the papacy than does that of St. Peter." (Volume IX, p. 222).

There are many other more detailed works which deal with the subject (e.g., Cardinal Hergenroether, Histoire de l'eglise (1880); Canon B. Jungmann, Dissertationes Selectae in Historiam Ecclesiasticam II (1881). Even if Davies had no access to these works, he does have access to the American journal, The Remnant, in which his own articles are published. A more accurate version of the Liberius question is set out in that publication in the issue for 15th September, 1991, p. 10. Yet even after this, Davies allows his pamphlet on the question, St. Athanasius, Defender of the Faith, to continue to be sold without any revision.

This matter relating to Pope Liberius is not atrivial one. Here we have what seems to be a gross calumny on the character of a saint, for that is how Pope Liberius is honored. The formal procedure of canonization had not then been instituted, but Liberius is given recognition in the ancient Latin Martyrology and in the Greek Menology, the Eastern equivalent to the martyrologies of the Western Church. If more evidence were needed, it could be found in the fact that numerous saints referred to Pope Liberius's sanctity and unfailing orthodoxy: for example, St. Ambrose, St. Basil, St. Epiphanius, St. Siricius, and Pope Anastasius I.

A Humbling Experience

An obvious question arises at this point. Why were the present writers misled for so long with regard to these matters? It would seem to be due to a combination of things. Firstly, relative ignorance of what the traditional teaching of the Church was on these matters, and secondly, the sin of intellectual pride, the thought that we could go it alone and put our views before the teaching of the Church. Basically, this attitude stemmed from a lack of trust on our part in Christ's promises to the Church. If the Church is the Body of Christ, then there is no need to despair. The abiding promises of Christ to the Church still stand. Ironically all the while, there have been plenty of authentic holy men and women to imitate, like Padre Pio and Sister Lucia at Fatima (who attends the New Mass and is in full communion with the pope), plus of course the saints down the ages who were in similar situations.

The restrictions put on Padre Pio, for example, were many and serious. In 1922 he was ordered by the Holy Office not to bless crowds or to show or talk of his stigmata. He was also directed not to answer letters and was deprived of his beloved spiritual director, Padre Benedetto, whom he was never to see again. Padre Pio submitted to these measures with holy resignation. The same was true of Padre Benedetto, who never spoke any word of complaint (see C. B. Ruffin, Padre Pio: The True Story (1982), p. 176). In addition, to one who opposed Rome's restrictions on him, Padre Pio said: "You did a wicked thing . . . We must respect the decrees of the Church. We must be silent and suffer." (Ibid, p. 180).

Padre Pio also accepted humbly the changes that came as a result of the Second Vatican Council. When his sister, who was a nun, left her order in opposition to liberal reforms, he did concede that she had valid grievances and that the changes of which she complained were certainly bad. Nothing, however, could excuse her breach of the precept of obedience. Speaking of the new liberal superiors, Padre Pio told her: "They are wrong and you are right, but still you must obey. You must return." (Ibid, p. 297).

Padre Pio's loyalty to the Church is all the more powerful since he lived during the present crisis in the Church and was greatly disturbed by some of the changes. He had taken his name from Pope St. Pius V and had a great devotion to Pope St. Pius X.

Some Questions for Traditionalists to Consider

In order to bring the issues discussed in this article into focus, it is proposed to ask the reader how he or she would respond to the following questions:

1. Suppose the opportunity arises for you to attend a Tridentine Mass offered by the pope in St. Peter's in Rome. Would you attend?

Before answering, consider who would want to attend, in particular which schismatic groups? Certainly the Old Catholics, some High Anglicans, and the Old Roman Catholics might want to attend. To them it would express what they consider to be their link with, and membership of, the universal Church. Who would definitely not want to attend? Certainly, the extreme Protestants, sede vacantists, and the most reactionary Eastern Orthodox. Consider also what the pope offering Mass in St. Peter's expresses. Firstly, the vicar of Jesus Christ, successor of St. Peter, would be saying the Holy Mass in the heart of the Catholic world, Rome. Secondly, as Pope Pius XI states in his encyclical, Mystici Corporis Christi (1943), the priest represents not only the Savior, but "the whole Mystical Body and each of Its members" (para. 81). The fact that the pope, the head of the Mystical Body on earth, would be offering the Mass would make the act even more representative of the whole Church.

Would you, therefore, choose to attend the Mass? If so, is there any reason why you would not wish to attend a Mass said on behalf of the Latin Mass Society, or one said by your parish priest? If you would not attend the papal Mass, how do you propose to rebut the charge of schism in view of the fact that you would be refusing to attend a Mass offered in the heart of the Catholic world by the vicar of Christ and the successor of Peter?

2. Bishop X is a liberal and progressive prelate, who is frustrated by what he considers to be the conservative attitude of Pope John Paul II. He considers that the Second Vatican Council should have been interpreted in a way very similar to the approach adopted by his friend, Hans Kung. Bishop X now proposes to consecrate four men as bishops in order to carry on his work and develop progressive Catholicism. The pope expressly forbids this. Bishop X goes ahead and carries out the consecrations. According to Canon Law (Canons 1013, 1364, and 1382), Bishop X would be automatically excommunicated for consecrating bishops without a papal mandate, and his act would be one of schism.

Now, consider Bishop Y. He is something of a conservative and is disturbed by what he considers to be the over-liberal attitude of the pope towards such things as religious liberty. In order to preserve his Movement for the Maintenance of the Catholic State, Bishop Y consecrates four men as bishops despite the fact that the pope orders him not to do so. Are these consecrations acts of schism? If not, why not? What is the distinction between the cases of Bishops X and Y and that of Archbishop Lefebvre?

3. In 1773 Pope Clement XIV suppressed the Jesuit order. All historians agree that his action was grossly unjust (the pope who re-created the order, Pius VI, himself said so). Now, the Jesuits must have had hundreds of expert theologians and canon lawyers at their disposal. Also, the Jesuits had no desire to have their order suppressed. Yet, never for a moment did they contest the suppression. Overnight they dispersed, most submitting to their diocesan bishops, the rest being accepted into other religious orders. How is the case of Pope Paul VI's suppression of the Society of St. Pius X any different?

4. Archbishop Lefebvre made three promises: (a) He promised that he would keep to what the Church has always done.

"This is why we are submissive and ready to accept everything that is in conformity with our Catholic Faith, as it has been taught for two thousand years. . ." ("Open Letter to Confused Catholics," p. 134).

(b) He promised to obey the pope each time that the pope confirmed the tradition.

"We are attached to the pope for as long as he echoes the apostolic traditions and the teachings of all his predecessors." (Ibid).

(c) He promised: "If a bishop breaks with Rome it will not be me." (letter to the Abbe Georges de Nantes, dated l9th March, 1975, reprinted in Apologia Pro Marcel Lefebvre, Volume One, pp. 50-51).

By consecrating bishops without a papal mandate, it was Archbishop Lefebvre who broke with Rome and was the innovator and Pope John Paul II who kept to what the Church has always done and confirmed the tradition.

Did not Archbishop Lefebvre go back on his word? In light of this, how can it be maintained that he was the defender of Catholic tradition?

5. Finally, the Society of St. Pius X denies that Archbishop Lefebvre was ever in a state of schism. The Society presumably accepts that there is, in fact, such a thing as schism; that there is some point when a schism is consummated. Our question for the Society and its supporters is: in their view, what exactly would Archbishop Lefebvre have to have done in order to have been in schism? What step would have put him in that position?


What we have attempted to show in this article is the sad position in which the Society of St. Pius X has placed itself. This is made all the more certain by some remarkable statements made since the 1988 consecrations by Archbishop Lefebvre himself. Notable examples were his claims that "we are the visible Church" and that "today we manifest the visibility of the Church" (both reported in the September-October 1989 issue of the French review, Itineraires). Archbishop Lefebvre has sadly trodden the path to separation from the Church, ending by believing that the Church is located in his own organization, the Society of St. Pius X. On the contrary, as we have said earlier we maintain along with Catholic tradition, "Where Peter is, there is the Church." What is more, the Church Herself has spoken on this question in the Apostolic Letter, Ecclesia Dei issued by Pope John Paul II after the episcopal consecrations in 1988. The following two passages from this document are of particular importance:

"In itself, this act was one of disobedience to the Roman Pontiff in a very grave matter and of supreme importance for the unity of the Church such as is the ordination of bishops whereby the apostolic succession is sacramentally perpetuated. Hence such disobedience – which implies in practice the rejection of the Roman primacy – constitutes a schismatic act.

Especially contradictory is a notion of Tradition which opposes the universal Magisterium of the Church possessed by the Bishop of Rome and the Body of the Bishops. It is impossible to remain faithful to the Tradition while breaking the ecclesial bond with him to whom, in the person of the Apostle Peter, Christ Himself entrusted the ministry of unity in His Church."

Even before the 1988 consecrations, the seriousness of such an action had been underlined by Cardinal Ratzinger, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, in a letter written to Archbishop Lefebvre on 28th July, 1987:

"By her divine institution, the Church has the promise of Christ's assistance until the end of time. The rupture of her unity by an act of grave disobedience on your part would cause her incalculable harm and destroy the future of your own work, because outside of union with Peter, there would be no future but only the ruin of all that you have desired and undertaken. History has often borne witness to the uselessness of an apostolate accomplished outside of submission to the Church and her Head.

By producing your own interpretation of the texts of the magisterium, you would paradoxically display the very liberalism which you have combated so strongly, and you would be acting against the aim which you are seeking. As the Lord entrusted the government of His Church to Peter, the principal architect of her unity is the Pope. Being assured of Christ s promise, he can never set up the authentic magisterium of the Church in opposition to the Sacred Tradition."

The serious nature of a crisis in the Church is never a reason for leaving her, which breaking communion with the whole Church and the Supreme Pontiff always amounts to. Great saints like St. Boniface have likened the Church to a great ship being pounded by the waves of life's different stresses. Our duty is not to abandon ship, but to keep her on her course. No matter what scandals afflict the Church, She is our only home, there is no other. This fundamental fact has never been put better than by Hilaire Belloc, that great champion in this century of the Catholic faith:

"There is a city full, as are all cities, of halt and maimed, blind and evil and the rest; but it is the City of God. There are not two such Cities on earth. There is one . . . One thing in this world is different from all other. It has a personality and a force. It is recognized, and (when recognized) most violently loved or hated. It is the Catholic Church. Within that household the human spirit has roof and hearth. Outside it, is the Night." (Essays of a Catholic, pp. 157. 305).

John Beaumont is Principal Lecturer in Law at Leeds Metropolitan University.

John Walsh is a history graduate of the University of Leeds and postgraduate in theology.


In the course of preparing this article the authors came across a wealth of quotations from the saints concerning obedience. The following is a selection of the voices of those souls who are closest to God, from the earliest days of the Church up to the present century. We invite the reader to reflect on these words of wisdom and sanctity and enquire as to whether his or her attitude is in conformity with them.

"In the first Adam we offended God by not performing His command; in the second Adam we have been reconciled, becoming 'obedient unto death.'" (Irenaeus).

"Christ was subject unto his most poor and humble mother and his putative father, obedient unto them and humbly serving until his thirtieth year. He was obedient in the midst of his disciples, who were few in number, ignorant, and poor. He said he was not come to be ministered unto but to minister unto them." (Bl. Angela of Foligno).

"Obedience is the only virtue that implants the other virtues in the heart and preserves them after they have been so implanted." (Gregory the Great).

"Obedience is the perfection of the religious life by it man submits to man for the love of God, as God rendered himself obedient unto men for their salvation." (Thomas Aquinas).

"Obedience is the mortification of the members while the mind remains alive. Obedience is unquestioned movement, death freely accepted, a simple life, danger faced without worry, an unprepared defense before God, fearlessness before death, a safe voyage, a sleeper's journey. Obedience is the sepulchre of the will and the resurrection of lowliness." (John Climacus).

"Isn't it extraordinary, mother, what a lot of nervous strain you can avoid by taking the vow of obedience? How enviable it is, the simple creed of the religious, who has only one compass to steer by, the will of her superiors. She knows for certain all the time, that she is on the right path; there's no fear that she can go wrong, even when she feels fairly certain that her superiors are wrong." (Therese de Lisieux).

"You should accept as a grace all those things that deter you from loving the Lord God and whoever has become an impediment to you whether they are brothers or sisters, even if they lay hands on you. And you should desire that things be this way and not otherwise. And let this be an expression of true obedience to the Lord God." (Francis of Assisi).

"If you are ordered to eat meat, be extremely careful not to make the slightest resistance to obedience, for you will render more honor to God by eating flesh meat through obedience than by fasting on bread and water of our own volition." (John Eudes).

"He who wishes to make an absolutely complete offering of himself must in addition to his will include his understanding, which is the third and highest degree of obedience. He not only identifies his will with that of his superior, but even his thought." (Ignatius of Loyola).

"If you begin to grieve at this, to judge your superior, to murmur in your heart, even though you outwardly fulfill what is commanded, this is not the virtue of obedience, but a cloak over your malice." (Bernard of Clairvaux).

"The virtue of obedience makes the will supple. It gives the power to conquer self, to overcome laziness, and to resist temptations. It inspires the courage with which to fulfill the most difficult tasks." (John Vianney).

"Obedience is a little dog that leads the blind." (Joseph of Copertino).

"Thus the Abbot John, without a single thought as to whether it would do any good or not, with great and prolonged labor watered a dry stick for a whole year on end when told to do so. Heaven sometimes approved this kind of obedience with miracles." (Ignatius of Loyola).

"In other sacrifices the flesh of another is slain, but in obedience our own will is sacrificed." (Gregory the Great).

"Obedience Is a whole burnt-offering in which the entire man, without the slightest reserve, is offered in the fire of charity to his Creator and Lord by the hands of his ministers." (Ignatius of Loyola).

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