Ferrara Responds to Lawler
On those “further talks” between
SSPX and the Vatican
|REMNANT COLUMNIST, New Jersey|
will be enhanced unless the Lefebvrists
accept Vatican II’s teaching..." ...George Weigel
"We are stunned that the Vatican has ignored our
concerns by welcoming back into the fold a bishop who...
rejects the seminal reforms of Vatican II."
(Posted 1/15/09 www.RemnantNewspaper.com) In a related article on Pope Benedict’s historic annulment of the excommunications of the Bishops of the Society of Saint Pius X (see Neo-Catholic Sour Grapes), I promised to devote a separate essay to a response to Philip Lawler’s commentary at Catholicculture.org on the upcoming “talks” between Society and the Vatican. (See Why Further Talks Between Vatican and SSPX Are Crucial, CWNews, January 28, 2009). This is that essay.
First of all, we must recall that the Society itself requested talks with the Vatican in order to address issues it has raised (along with Catholics around the world) respecting the documents of Vatican II and their continuity with Tradition. No one knows better than Pope Benedict that the conciliar documents are laced with problematical ambiguities the likes of which are not seen in any previous Council.
In my related article I mentioned that Tracey Rowland’s new book, Ratzinger’s Faith, devotes an entire chapter to the Pope’s serious and indeed rather scathing criticisms (when he was Cardinal Ratzinger) of the Council’s supposed “landmark” document, Gaudium et spes.
As Pope, the former head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has called for a “hermeneutic of continuity” in order to counter the “hermeneutics of discontinuity and rupture… between the pre-conciliar and post-conciliar Church” which has arisen in the name of the Council. That the Pope has seen fit to call for a special “hermeneutic” just for Vatican II, in order to cure the “rupture” its prevailing interpretation has caused, is in itself a demonstration that the Council documents are a serious problem for the Church.
After all, the very purpose of an ecumenical council is to present the Church’s teaching in a clear and definitive way that can command the assent of the faithful ex sese. When a Council has to be interpreted long after the fact, instead of giving the definitive content of the Church’s teaching, something surely has gone wrong with that Council, even if no outright doctrinal error has been imposed on the faithful (which is impossible, given the promises of Christ). And surely at this stage of post-conciliar history no reasonable observer can say that the Council’s documents are not, at least to some extent, uniquely problematic in the history of the Church, with Cardinal Ratzinger being perhaps the foremost theologian to say so.
Getting over the Council
It was, after all, the Pope himself who said back in 1988, when discussing precisely the situation of the Society, that
The Second Vatican Council has not been treated as a part of the entire living Tradition of the Church, but as an end of Tradition, a new start from zero. The truth is that this particular Council defined no dogma at all, and deliberately chose to remain on a modest level, as a merely pastoral council; and yet many treat it as though it had made itself into a sort of superdogma which takes away the importance of all the rest.[i]
One would think the Pope’s own remark provides the basis for laying the Council to rest and moving on with the life of Church. But, alas, the Council continues to weigh upon us like a boulder. This is painfully apparent in the Bishop Williamson affair, which has prompted some of the Church’s worst enemies, such as Abe Foxman and John Cornwell (author of “Hitler’s Pope,” that vicious hatchet job on Pius XII) to demand Catholic conformity to “Vatican II,” by which they mean continued Catholic acquiescence in the effective neutralization of the Church since 1965.
As Foxman made clear, the ADL’s problem is not limited to Bishop Williamson’s remarks on the Holocaust, which SSPX has rightly repudiated, but also “the re-admittance to full communion of a bishop who appears to publicly reject key teachings of the Second Vatican Council…”
Cornwell likewise deplores the lifting of the excommunications of the SSPX bishops as a sign that “Benedict’s thinking, [puts] him closer to the Society of Saint Pius X than the Catholic majority that honours Vatican II.” Pope Benedict, Cornwell warns, is an “ultra-reactionary” who has formed “alliances… with a politically obnoxious group which, given half a chance, would return the Church to the authoritarian auspices of their sainted patron, Pius X.”
How many more times must Catholics hear liberal demands that the Church conform herself to Vatican II and abandon the teaching of the pre-Conciliar Popes before they understand that the Council, although it taught no heresy, was a disaster from which the Church needs to recover? Philip Lawler’s piece is a prime example of why we must get over the Council, and soon.
Lawler is a man of evident high intelligence who is rightly considered a Catholic journalist of the first rank. Yet, quite frankly, his commentary on the anticipated SSPX-Vatican discussions on Vatican II only demonstrates the utter futility of the endless debate over the Council’s continuity with Tradition. To read Lawler’s analysis is to appreciate anew the distinct possibility that we have heard quite enough about this vexed Council, and that its many ambiguities of uncertain doctrinal import should now be allowed to pass into history without further comment.
Lawler unfurls the argument that despite annulment of the excommunications of 1988, the “process of reconciling the SSPX with the Holy See is far from complete.” This “process,” he contends, will require talks with the Holy See in order to insure the Society’s adherence to—what else?—Vatican II. But it is Lawler’s own discussion of this “reconciliation” with the Council which demonstrates that there is nothing in the conciliar documents reducible to a proposition demanding assent to something other than what Catholics already believed before the Council. And it would be quite impossible in any event for the Church to demand such assent, for as the First Vatican Council famously teaches: “[T]he Holy Spirit was not promised to the Successors of Peter that by His revelation they might disclose new doctrine, but that by His help they might guard the revelation transmitted through the apostles and the deposit of faith, and might faithfully set it forth.”
What, then, does Lawler think the Council requires of the Society? As the following discussion shows, he is quite unable to say. I will quote Lawler and offer my comments:
· “From the traditionalists’ perspective, a key problem is the authority of Dignitatis Humanae, the Vatican II statement on religious freedom. Portions of that document, the SSPX argues, are in conflict with previous authoritative teachings of the Catholic Church. Nor is the SSPX alone in making that claim. Liberal Catholics, too, have described the Vatican II document as a sharp break in Church teaching…”
According to Lawler, the Society and the liberals agree that Dignitatis Humanae (DH) is a break with Church teaching. Evidently, then, he means to argue that both parties are wrong, that there is no break with the past. If so, then how precisely should DH be read to avoid such a break? Lawler does not explain.
Now, one possible answer to the question is that since Article 1 of DH affirms that the Council “leaves untouched traditional Catholic doctrine on the moral duty of men and societies toward the true religion and toward the one Church of Christ,” everything that follows, as governed by Article 7 in particular, is but an argument for juridical tolerance of the public manifestations of false religions to the extent that, in the judgment of civil authorities, the common good would not be harmed. Indeed, Article 7 speaks of “the need for an adequate care of genuine public peace, which comes about when men live together in good order and in true justice, and finally out of the need for a proper guardianship of public morality.” That reading of DH would render it consistent with the teaching of both Leo XIII and Pius XII on the prerogative of civil authorities to tolerate evil within due limits—the very phrase Article 2 of DH employs to limit the right to “religious freedom.” And, concomitantly, there would be a natural right of the individual to be immune from state coercion regarding religious manifestations which, according to the judgment of civil authority, pose no threat to the common good—just as one could say there is a natural right not to be punished by the state for any other form of trivial public behavior. Unless one wishes to insist upon finding a contradiction between DH and the prior teaching, why not simply leave the matter at that?
But instead of actually explaining how DH can be reconciled with prior teaching, Lawler declares that Pope Benedict “rejects that interpretation of Dignitatis Humanae” which sees a break with the past and that the Pope has “insisted that the documents of Vatican II must be interpreted using a ‘hermeneutic of continuity.’” According to Lawler, then, we will avoid the error of both the Society and the Liberals by applying the Hermeneutic of Continuity (HOC) to avoid a Discontinuity of Teaching (DOT). But how exactly does HOC prevent DOT with respect to DH, or indeed any other conciliar document that appears problematical? Again, Lawler does not explain. Rather, he writes:
· “If a conciliar document appears to conflict with previous Church teachings, then something is wrong—either with our reading of that document or with our understanding of tradition. The Church teaches the truth, and the truth does not change, so by finding the continuity between old and new expressions we can attain a better understanding of that truth.”
Agreed: the Church cannot change her own teaching because the truth does not change. So, by applying HOC to what merely appears to be DOT, we can arrive at a Reconciliation of Teaching (ROT) between a conciliar document and a prior document of the Magisterium. Note carefully, however, what Lawler is proposing here: Under HOC, we could find that the problem is merely the misreading of a conciliar document that is really perfectly traditional. Fair enough. But he also says that under HOC we could find that there is a problem with our understanding of tradition itself. That is, according to him, HOC could lead to a Revised Understanding of Tradition (RUT). But it is hard to see how Lawler’s idea—which is certainly not taught by the Pope in any document that I have seen—can be reconciled with Saint Pius X’s Oath Against Modernism, which is premised on the Church’s own infallible teaching that Tradition is not some mysterious, evolving thing but rather a permanent deposit of doctrine that has always had the same meaning and sense as expressed in the irreformable extraordinary definitions of Popes and Councils or the constant teaching of the “universal ordinary” Magisterium:
I sincerely accept the doctrine of Faith in the same sense and always with the same meaning as it has been handed down to us from the Apostles through the officially approved Fathers. And therefore, I wholly reject the heretical notion of the evolution of dogmas, according to which doctrines pass from one sense to another sense alien to that which the Church held from the start.
One might object that DH does not involve the strict deposit of Faith as such, which is the object of the Oath, but only a “development” of the Church’s traditional doctrine on Church-State relations to address “modern circumstances.” But then DH would fall into the category of a contingent teaching no more irreformable than the “modern circumstances” it purports to address. The faithful would thus be at liberty to express doubts about whether DH was a wise response to political modernity and to argue that a reaffirmation of the teaching of Blessed Pius IX in the Syllabus Errorum is urgently necessary, given the alarming trajectory of the “dictatorship of relativism” created by the very principles the Syllabus condemned. And if one were to respond to that suggestion with the objection that the Syllabus is “outdated,” why would DH be immune to that same objection?
It is clear, however, that the Syllabus has never been declared “repealed” by the Magisterium (nor could it be) and that its formal condemnations of error remain binding in conscience, whereas DH, with its ambiguous and seemingly self-contradictory “compromise” formulations and its uncertain doctrinal status, remains a source of confusion and contention in the Church. Is this not precisely why the Vatican has invited the Society to engage in discussions concerning DH and other “open” questions arising from the Council?
At any rate, rather than explain how the Society dissents from DH as reconciled with prior teaching by HOC, Lawler merely observes that “the purpose of this ‘hermeneutic of continuity’ is to understand the Church as she understands herself.” Well, of course we must understand the Church’s teaching as the Church understands it. I rather doubt that is an issue for the Society. But the question—in case we have forgotten it—is precisely what is the mind of the Church concerning a reconciliation of DH (not to mention other problematic Council documents) with prior teaching in accordance with HOC?
Since Lawler proposes no answer—because, in fact, no official answer has yet been given—he fails to demonstrate where the Society is guilty of a deviation concerning whatever assent is required to the teaching of DH.
· “To date, at least, the Lefebvrists have refused to accept correction from the Holy See.”
What correction from the Holy See? When has the Holy See issued any document of the CDF or made any statement whatever correcting purported doctrinal errors of the Society? What exactly are these errors? Lawler fails to cite any. Perhaps that is because there are none. Lawler’s own failure of proof suggests that the problem with Vatican II is not doctrinal after all, but only linguistic.
· “The deadly mistake that Archbishop Lefebvre made—the mistake for which the SSPX is still paying—was the decision to set himself up as a teaching authority separate from the Holy See.”
But Lefebvre never made any such “deadly mistake.” Quite the contrary, he insisted that he was simply adhering to what the Church has always taught. Today the Society points to the encyclicals of a long line of Popes from the 17th to the 20th centuries, who consistently condemned the tenets of Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment liberalism which are the chickens that have come home to roost with a vengeance in the modern nation state.
The Society professes its adherence, for example, to the Syllabus of Pius IX, to the teaching of Leo XIII (Libertas, Immortale Dei) condemning “modern liberties” and the religiously “neutral” state and affirming the obligatory doctrinal character of the Social Kingship of Christ (which even DH purports to affirm in Article I), to the teaching Saint Pius X against Modernism (Pascendi) and his Oath and Syllabus against it, to the teaching of Pius XI (Mortalium animos) that the return of the separated brethren is the only way to Christian unity, to the teaching of Pius XII (Humani generis, Mystici corporis) that the Mystical Body of Christ and the Roman Catholic Church are “one and the same thing,” so that non-Catholics are not members as such of the Mystical Body.
Having affirmed these solemn pronouncements of the Popes, which have never been rescinded, the Society asks simply how it is possible that the Council did away with them. Does Lawler maintain that the Council broke with this prior teaching in whole or in part? If he does, then how can HOC save us from DOT except by ROT that is a RUT?
On the other hand, if he admits that all pre-conciliar papal teachings remain in full force after the Council, and indeed that under HOC there is no conflict between those teachings and the Council’s teaching, then what precisely is the doctrinal problem with the Society vis-à-vis the Council? I would like to know. The Society would like to know. We all would like to know.
· “To complicate matters for themselves, the Lefebvrists have maintained that the Church founded by Jesus Christ exists only in the institutional Catholic Church.”
It doesn’t? Since when? Is that what the Council teaches—that the Church founded by Christ exists elsewhere besides the visible Catholic Church? Evidently, Lawler thinks the Council’s use of the locution in Lumen Gentium that the Church of Christ “subsists in” the Catholic Church, rather than simply “is” the Catholic Church, means precisely that. But he is wrong.
In 2007 the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith finally resolved the ambiguity of the term by declaring definitively that “The use of this expression, which indicates the full identity of the Church of Christ with the Catholic Church, does not change the doctrine on the Church.”[ii] Rather, says the CDF, Vatican II meant to teach only that there are “‘numerous elements of sanctification and of truth’ which are found outside her structure, but which ‘as gifts properly belonging to the Church of Christ, impel towards Catholic Unity’…”[iii]
But that is manifestly the case and always has been. For example, the Church has always recognized that valid baptisms are effected by non-Catholic ministers if the proper formula and intent are present. Such baptisms are obviously an “element of sanctification” to be found outside the visible Church. Indeed, baptized Protestants who die as infants go straight to heaven as Catholics. They have been “impelled toward Catholic unity” by a baptismal grace which could also impel an adult toward Catholic unity if he is in good faith.
Likewise, no one would deny that “elements of truth” are possessed by non-Catholic confessions in their versions of the Bible and in their preaching, for whatever those elements are worth in their deracinated context. These elements of truth can and have led Protestants to the one true Church, as many have testified.
Therefore, says the CDF, “It is possible, according to Catholic doctrine, to affirm correctly that the Church of Christ is present and operative in the churches and ecclesial Communities not yet fully in communion with the Catholic Church…”[iv]
There we have it: The CDF teaches that it is merely possible to affirm correctly—I repeat, merely possible—that there is a “presence” and “operation” of the Church in these dissociated “elements.” I think Mr. Lawler would agree that the Society is not required to affirm what it is merely possible to affirm about this signification of “subsists.” Hence in this respect, too, the Council imposes no new article of belief, but merely proposes a possible manner of speaking, a point of linguistics rather than strict doctrine. And if the Council had meant to propose anything more than what I suggest here, why did Archbishop Lefebvre vote for and subscribe to Lumen Gentium?
On the subject of “ecumenism”—a vague pastoral term whose actual doctrinal content is nil—Lawler levels this accusation of infidelity against the Society:
· “Unhappy with the Vatican II formulation that the universal Church founded by Christ ‘subsists’ in the Catholic Church, they have insisted that all other Christian bodies are lost in error, and the only practical goal of ecumenical affairs is to convince these erring Christians of their errors, so as to bring them back into the Catholic fold.”
Having made the accusation, it was incumbent on Mr. Lawler to identify which “Christian bodies” other than the Catholic Church are not lost in error. Could any Catholic seriously propose, for example, that the Anglican Church of Rowan Williams, the Vatican’s principal Protestant “dialogue partner” since the Council, is not lost—hopelessly lost—in a welter of moral and doctrinal errors?
Concerning the separated Eastern churches, what of the declaration of Saint Pius X that Catholics must work to “hasten the day when the nations of the East shall return to Catholic unity, and, united to the Apostolic See, after casting away their errors, shall enter the port of everlasting salvation”?[v] Have the errors of the Eastern Orthodox churches disappeared since St. Pius X wrote those words? Are the Eastern churches not still outside “the port of everlasting salvation,” and thus objectively lost in error? Was Pius X wrong in 1908? Or is it perhaps the “Catholic ecumenism” that first emerged in 1964 (with Vatican II’s Unitatis Redintegratio) that needs to be reconsidered?
Mr. Lawler should also explain how Vatican II could reject the idea that “the only practical goal of ecumenical affairs is to convince these erring Christians of their errors, so as to bring them back into the Catholic fold.” Are Catholics no longer to be concerned about the eternal consequences of error for souls outside the Church? Since when did the salvation of souls cease to be the sine qua non of the Church’s pastoral approach to the baptized who are separated from her unity? On the Vatican website itself one can still find the following declaration of Pius XI in his encyclical Mortalium animos:
So, Venerable Brethren, it is clear why this Apostolic See has never allowed its subjects to take part in the assemblies of non-Catholics: for the union of Christians can only be promoted by promoting the return to the one true Church of Christ of those who are separated from it, for in the past they have unhappily left it.
Did Vatican II overrule this most emphatic teaching of Pope Pius XI? If so, once again, how could HOC save us from DOT without ROT that puts us in a RUT? I don’t see how it can. Then again, if one were to say that Pius XI’s teaching was a mere prudential counsel, and that Vatican II proposed a new and different prudential counsel rather than (per impossible) a new and different doctrine, then the “problem” with the Society vis-à-vis the Council’s teaching on the elusive concept of “ecumenism” resides in a perfectly permissible dubium concerning a prudential judgment rather than Catholic doctrine. And with regard to that dubium, does anyone still seriously maintain that after some forty-five years of “ecumenical dialogue” our “dialogue partners” in the Protestant denominations are closer to the truth than they were in 1964? Is it not perfectly obvious that precisely the opposite is the case?
· “…Are the traditionalists ready to acknowledge their own grievous error, which set them apart from the universal Church?”
Excuse me: What grievous error? And notice that here Lawler asserts that traditionalists in general, not just the Society, have set themselves apart from the Church. How so? The accusation is utterly gratuitous.
· “This is the central theological struggle of our time: to understand the nature of Christ's Church. On this crucial question, the views of SSPX leaders remain at odds with the authoritative teachings of the magisterium.”
What authoritative teachings of the Magisterium? See previous discussion.
· “[U]nlike the SSPX, the liberals have not been excommunicated. The Vatican has openly rejected their views… but invariably the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has urged erring theologians to reconsider their views.”
Lawler fails to perceive how devastating his own statement is to an argument that already founders for lack of proof. When it comes to the liberals, the CDF has indeed identified specific theological errors and formally condemned them in binding doctrinal pronouncements such as Cardinal Ratzinger’s Dominus Iesus. But no such pronouncements exist in the case of the Society, from which one might be inclined to conclude that there are no “erring theologians” in the Society and thus no errors to condemn.
· “No doubt traditionalists will be uncomfortable when they are compared with liberals, and vice versa. So much the better! They should be uncomfortable, since they are at odds with the authority of the Church.”
Yet another gratuitous accusation against traditionalists in general. How are traditionalists at odds with the authority of the Church? Which authoritative teachings are they accused of rejecting? Lawler provides no examples. He provides no examples because he does not have any. Evidently, he just feels that traditionalists are dissenters from “the authority of the Church,” even if he cannot put his finger on the exact source of his impression.
Remarking on the participation of Orthodox representatives in “dialogues” with Catholics on ecclesiology, Lawler’s argument moves from the unproven to what I must say is the incoherent:
· “The debates over the nature of Christ’s Church are not restricted to Roman Catholic prelates and theologians.”
Are we now to understand that the very nature of Christ’s Church is a matter of debate with non-Catholics after 2,000 years of her existence? But if, in light of the Council, the nature of the Church has become a debatable theological subject—so debatable that even the indubitably schismatic Orthodox are asked for their contribution to the debate—how can the Society be said to be dissenting from any precise and binding teaching of the Council on the nature of the Church? Has not Lawler implicitly refuted himself?
Or perhaps the proposition that the nature of the Church is debatable is the very “doctrine” from which the Society is alleged to be dissenting by adhering to what Pope Pius XII, in Mystici Corporis, called “the doctrine, explained in Our Encyclical Letter of a few years ago,[vi] and based on the Sources of Revelation, which teaches that the Mystical Body of Christ and the Roman Catholic Church are one and the same thing [quae quidem docet corpus Christi mysticum et Ecclesiam Catholicam Romanam unum idemque esse].”
Has the Council overruled Pius XII’s teaching that the Mystical Body and the Catholic Church are identical, even though Pius declared his teaching to be based on Revelation? As I have just shown, the CDF appears to have answered in the negative. But if it were the case that Pius XII was (at least partially) “overruled” by Vatican II, how could HOC save us from DOT without concluding that “one and the same thing” really means “not one and the same thing”—that is, more ROT that would leave us in a RUT? On the other hand, if the Council imposed no change at all in Pius XII’s teaching, just as the CDF suggests, then once again I ask: What is the doctrinal problem with the Society?
We have no answer to any of the questions posed here for the very reason Lawler himself indicates: there is a “debate” over the meaning of the Council’s teaching that must be resolved by the talks in which the Society itself will participate now that the excommunications have been lifted. Here the incoherency of his argument mounts:
So let me say it again: The struggle to attain a proper understanding of the nature of Christ’s Church is the central theological challenge of our time. As we wait to see what changes the new Patriarch might bring within the Russian Orthodox Church, we Catholics can be thankful that another critical discussion is underway closer to home, and pray for the successful resolution of the talks between the Vatican and the SSPX. May those talks lead to true reconciliation for the traditionalists. And for all of us, may they yield a better understanding of what it means to belong to the one true Church.
Notice that Lawler has proposed in one and the same commentary that (a) the Society’s leaders “remain at odds with the authoritative teachings of the magisterium” concerning “the central theological struggle of our time: to understand the nature of Christ’s Church,” and (b) that the Society’s talks with the Vatican will help all of us in the “struggle” to attain that same understanding!
With all due respect to Mr. Lawler, it seems he has wandered deep into that gnostic fog known as “the Spirit of the Council” and has lost his bearings, along with countless other victims. Clearly he is sincerely convinced there is something about the teaching of the Council the Society is obliged to affirm—he just knows it—but he cannot quite articulate the ineffable new doctrine or “development” of doctrine. Like actual fog, it slips through his fingers as he reaches for it. And in all of this foggy confusion about the Council’s teaching, he looks to talks between the Society and the Vatican to shed light on the very doctrine from which he accuses the Society of dissenting!
No wonder Bishop Fellay, writing to Cardinal Hoyos just before the excommunications were revoked, declared on behalf of the Society that “We are ready to write the Creed with our own blood, sign the anti-Modernist oath, the Profession of Faith of Pope Pius IV, we accept and make our own all the Councils up to the First Vatican Council. Yet we cannot but confess reservations concerning the Second Vatican Council, which intended to be a Council ‘different from the others.’” Given Lawler’s incoherent argumentation—and this from a man of high intelligence— given Cardinal Ratzinger’s own critical comments on the Council, given the very need for a special “hermeneutic of continuity” even to approach the project of reconciling the problematical conciliar texts with prior teaching, can anyone fail to appreciate the Society’s position these past twenty years?
Let the talks proceed. But I predict they will go nowhere, because no one on the Vatican’s side will ever be able to identify any specific doctrinal proposition the Society must embrace to achieve this mysterious “reconciliation” Lawler is talking about, and that in the end the Society will not be required to profess anything other than what it has already professed, which is all that any Catholic need profess to be a member of the Church in good standing.
Soon enough, perhaps very soon, the “process of reconciliation” will be forgotten and the parties will get down to the business of hammering out the mere details of canonical regularity for the Society. We need only wait and see. And while we wait, may God protect Pope Benedict XVI, who at this very moment is the object of worldwide hatred and fury over the prospect that the Roman Pontiff might actually help the Church recover from the Second Vatican Council.
[i]Address to the Bishops of Chile, 13 July 1988, http://www.unavoce.org/cardinal_ratzinger_chile.htm, accessed January 29, 2009.
[ii]Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Responses to Some Questions Regarding Certain Aspects of The Doctrine on the Church (2007), Response to Third Question.
[iv]Ibid., Response to Second Question.
[v]Quidquid consilii (1908).
[vi]That is, Mystici Corporis.