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In Defense of Bishop Rifan?

Father Brian Harrison, Michael Matt and

Brian McCall debate the issue

Fr. Brian Harrison, Michael Matt, Brian McCall POSTED: T9/27/11

"To refuse to concelebrate the New Mass systematically, out of principle, may be a sign of not being in full communion." ... Bishop Fernando Rifan

Editor’s Note: The following exchange took place via email between Fr. Brian Harrison, Michael Matt and Brian McCall. It was not intended for publication; but after the exchange had concluded we decided to print it in The Remnant for the benefit of other readers who may share Fr. Harrison’s concerns.  Brian McCall's original article to which the following writers are responding can be found here.  MJM

From Father Harrison…

Dear Michael;

 I am really saddened again to see The Remnant expressing this hyper-hostility toward the Novus Ordo, in the form of Brian McCall’s attack on Bishop Rifan in the Aug. 31, 2011 issue of The Remnant.  I guess in consistency you’ll now have to add the Institute of Christ the King to The Remnant’s list of supposed traitors to Tradition (not to mention nearly all the hierarchy from the Pope on down, and priests like myself who presumably “should know better” than to offer the “illegitimate” NO Mass).  For the Institute’s policy is also that their priests can concelebrate the Novus Ordo on occasion. For the last 2 or 3 years, at the annual Chrism Mass in the St. Louis Cathedral, I myself have had the satisfaction of concelebrating the NO with my friend Canon Michael Wiener, along with the Archbishop and all the other priests of this archdiocese. (Canon Wiener is the rector of the Institute’s church in this city, the magnificent St. Francis de Sales Oratory, which draws 700-800 people to the two Traditional Masses they offer every Sunday.) Will you allow me space for a reply to Brian - “In Defense of Bishop Rifan”? If so, about how many words can I have?

    God bless,

    Fr. Brian Harrison

From Michael Matt…

Dear Fr. Harrison;

Each time you tell me you’re saddened by something that appeared in The Remnant I find myself surprised you’re saddened.   After all, the best kept secret that everyone knows about Brian Harrison is that he’s not a traditionalist.  You’ve been reminding folks of that for decades. 

I have no problem with your keeping clear the lines of demarcation between yourself and “bomb-throwers” like us.  In fact, I respect you for it, and have come to value having the input of a ‘non-traditionalist’ priest in The Remnant from time to time. But it seems to me that your status as a non-traditionalist should preclude any shock or sadness on your part when it comes to The Remnant expressing its traditionalist point of view on a given issue.  For our part, we regard you as a well-respected fellow traveller with whom we’re delighted to share our campfires whenever you pass through.  But there are fundamental differences between us, as you know.

Take, for example, the New Mass: If there is one issue which has defined The Remnant over the years it is our public opposition to the New Mass.  I see the New Mass exactly as my father did—a Trojan horse that unleashed an ecclesial horde against Tradition at the heart and bosom of the Church.   Why, then, should it sadden you when I publish the fact that The Remnant is not exactly thrilled by our traditionalist priests and bishops showing their “open mindedness” where concelebration of the New Mass is concerned?  Such an attitude goes directly contrary to The Remnant’s raison d’etre. 

 Rather than subject his children to the New Mass back in the 1980s, my father left the Roman Rite in order to find sanctuary in the Eastern Rite.   In turn, my own children never attend the New Mass, and never will.  Why?  Because their father is terrified of its potential to destroy their faith in the Real Presence, even as it has destroyed that of millions of Catholics over the past half century. I am opposed to it on principle, not because I am holier than those who attend it regularly, but rather because of its documented capacity to undermine the faith of believers.

Is it valid?  Sure it is, most of the time, anyway — and that’s precisely the problem!  Communion in the hand, women in the sanctuary, altar girls, the abandonment of sacrificial rubrics and references—it all constitutes an affront to the Real Presence of Our Lord and thus a gradual undermining of belief in those who must attend it Sunday after Sunday.

Still, I am only a layman. I do not judge you or any  good priests who find themselves in a position where they must offer the New Mass, and who thus offer it to the best of their priestly abilities—with reverence and respect—and with careful consideration for the faith of their flocks. 

The matter of Bishop Rifan is something altogether different.  As I see it, this prince of the Church has scandalized the Catholic heart not first and foremost by concelebrating a New Mass, but rather by picking a fight with his brother priests and publicly impugning their priestly dignity and standing within the Church.  These priests are persecuted enough without Bishop Rifan piling on in an apparent effort to gain “full communion” points with the Novus Ordo establishment.  It would seem that he is the aggressor here, not Brian McCall!

Apparently fearful of being perceived the centrist, Bishop Rifan has in effect lashed out against everyone to the right of himself, evidently in some attempt to make us all appear beyond the pale—lacking “full communion” to such an extent that we may not even be inside the Church anymore.  Our crime? Refusal to concelebrate (or otherwise endorse) the New Mass.  I respect you very much, Father, but I fail to see how I am duty bound to host a debate over whether or not Bishop Rifan was right to stab in the back those traditionalist priests who’ve taken the same stand against the New Mass he once did and we still do—it’s not invalid, but it is injurious to Faith (as Msgr. Gamber’s, Michael Davies’ and Kenneth Jones’ books (among so many others) have proved beyond shadow of a doubt), and thus will one day surely be recalled by Holy Mother Church for the good of Holy Mother Church. 

If you wish to register your disagreement with Brian in the letters column, fine!  I’ve never had a problem with printing that sort of thing.  But I hope you will not ask me to turn The Remnant into a forum for debate over something as fundamental as: Should traditionalist priests be offering the New Mass in order to show their full communion with Bishops who are either actively destroying the human element of Christ’s Church or doing nothing to stop those who are?

For us this would be sheer lunacy.

Please note that I was not now (nor have I ever been!) eager to take issue with Bishop Rifan.  There was a time not so long ago when the spiritual sons of the great Bishop de Castro Mayer had no bigger fan than The Remnant.  In addition, and, as you know, our strategy over the past fifteen years has been to use The Remnant wherever possible to unite tradition-leaning priests and faithful no matter where they’re situated on the traditionalist spectrum.   But when Bishop Rifan goes into the press and starts attacking priests I know and revere as champions of Tradition—merely because they choose in good conscience  not to concelebrate the New Mass—I cannot stand by and say nothing.  I know these priests he’s attacking. They can be found in the Fraternity of St. Peter, the Society of St. Pius X, even in many dioceses.  They are our right flank, and I’m sick and tired of “traditionalists” attacking that right flank in a transparent effort to curry favor with the overseers of our Church in total chaos.  

I believe I am being editorially consistent here, since as you’ll recall I have taken issue in The Remnant with folks in the SSPX who attack the “centrists and sell-outs” in the FSSP for failing to criticize the New Mass and Vatican II with the “proper” amount of vitriol.  Being counterproductive is being counterproductive, regardless of from which direction it comes, and, as I now see it, Bishop Rifan is being supremely counterproductive. There are plenty of real enemies of the Church for him to go after without resorting to broadsides against traditionalists who want nothing more to do with the disastrous Novus Ordo experiment gone wrong—something even Pope Benedict himself has admitted to.

As for the Institute of Christ the King, I haven’t noticed them attacking their brother priests for refusing to concelebrate the New Mass.  Should they start engaging in that sort of childish rot (which I’m confident they never will), you’re quite right—we would in fairness have to place them editorially in the same unfortunate company as Bishop Rifan.  In the meantime, it’s not my job to police the various orders of priests trying to restore/preserve the traditional Mass according to their wits. From all we hear and see, the Institute of Christ the King is doing great work providing the Mass and Sacraments to large numbers of tradition-minded Catholics.

Finally, I have many priest friends near and dear to my heart who offer the New Mass every day—priests very much in the same position you’re in, Father.   Like you, some of them are more tradition-minded than some who offer the traditional Mass every day. Many of these diocesan fellows, for example, offer the old Mass as often as they can, suffer real persecution at the hands of their liberal bishops, defend the SSPX against unjust attacks, even write for The Remnant as “Father X” and sometimes even under their own names. They, like us, are at war with Modernism and would never attack brother priests who are in a position to be more outspoken against the Modern Mass than they can afford to be. 

They long for the day when all priests will be traditionalists, and the last thing they want to see right now is a Bishop Rifan running around telling traditional priests they’re essentially obligated to concelebrate, bless and approve the New Mass. Their hope is for traditionalists to continue to fight for the day when there will be only one form of the Mass in the Roman Rite and they will be liberated from the Novus gulag.  As one closet traditionalist priest said to me years ago: “Keep doing exactly what you’re doing!  We can’t publicly back The Remnant, but we’re praying for your success every day.  Don’t back down!”

There’s a difference between actual juring priests, on the one hand, and those who’ve come up in the broken system and are now fighting against it, on the other.  I certainly don’t demand every priest offer the old Mass in order to pass some traditionalist litmus test.   I know a number of traditionalists who must offer the New Mass. Some of them were life-changing mentors of mine—Father Vincent Miceli comes to mind.  But when traditionalists themselves begin moving back the other way, and even start attacking fellow traditionalists for holding the ground we all fought so hard to take—well, that’s another matter.   Either we’re fighting for Tradition or we’re not; but for heaven’s sake let’s abandon this inverted Crusade for mediocrity, peaceful coexistence, and a lot of sounding brass and tinkling symbols over our little liturgical “preferences”! I’ve always loathed that attitude, and it’s certainly never been the position of The Remnant.

If you want to write a letter taking issue with Brian’s (and my) position, please feel free to do so! I’ll publish it with gratitude to you for taking the time to weigh in.  But a full-length article defending Bishop Rifan’s duplicitous attack on his brother priests?  No thanks…not until he issues a public apology for his reckless disregard for their good names.  I hope you understand my position, as I honestly revere and respect you as a good, holy and tradition-minded Catholic priest!

In Christo Rege,


From Brian McCall…

Dear Father,

The only thing I would add to Michael’s response is that I took no pleasure in writing what I did.  Having met His Excellency Bishop Rifan on several occasions, and having heard him say the opposite of what he is saying now, it was one of the saddest things I have had to do.  It is hard to watch someone you trusted repudiate his own principles and then turn on everyone with whom he used to share them.  My own son at one point dreamed of going down to serve Mass in Campos for Bishop Rifan.  When he inadvertently found out about the concelebration, he was heartbroken.  How could Bishop Rifan do this?, he asked.  My Remnant article had nothing to do with you or the Institute of Christ the King, who, as Michael points out, I have never known to attack any other priests for not saying the Novus Ordo.   If you missed it, my point was not simply that he concelebrated but what Bishop Rifan wrote about having done so.

In Christo,

Brian McCall

From Father Harrison…

Dear Michael 

    Thank you so much for taking the time out to reply to me so fully.   I hear what you are saying, and in fact agree with you a bit more than you might have supposed. The trouble was that in my previous short email, I didn’t go into any details as to why, and to what extent, I felt prompted to defend Bishop Rifan. As a result, some of your criticisms target positions that are further to the ‘left’ than those I actually hold.  So let me clarify a couple of points:

    1.   The ‘surprise’ and ‘sadness’ I’ve expressed lately is not due to the fact that The Remnant severely criticizes the Novus Ordo Missae.  Not at all. Of course everyone knows that is the whole raison d’etre of your newspaper, ever since your father broke with Al Matt Sr. and The Wanderer over 40 years ago. So I agree with you entirely that it should not surprise anyone, me included, to read in The Remnant unashamedly hostile comments regarding the post-conciliar liturgical changes. However, that’s not the point here. In my previous email I deliberately used the expression “hyper-hostility”, because the reason for my surprise and sadness is that this year, with the series of Brian’s articles you’ve been publishing, The Remnant appears to me to be adopting a more radical position than it has ever done in its previous 43-year history: one that is logically leading toward sedevacantism.  

     As you may remember, Brian brushed aside my comment to that effect as a mere “ad hominem” argument. It was not that at all. I was not trying to discredit his argument by pointing irrelevantly to his real or alleged personal defects (that’s what an ad hominem argument does). Rather, I was attacking his argument itself, claiming that even though Brian (and you and most Remnant readers) may personally have no desire or intention whatever to become sedevacantists, the premise Brian has set up leads logically toward sedevacantism as its conclusion. He and you don’t see this logical connection (I think that’s because you both have a defective grasp of the relevant traditional theological principles); but Bishop Rifan does see it, and it is on that point that I would want to defend him. (He doesn’t actually say that sedevacantism lies down that road, but I think he insinuates it.)   

2. That said, I would not defend Bishop Rifan if he is in fact saying that being prepared to concelebrate the Novus Ordo is a necessary condition for being in full communion with the Church. But is he actually saying that? All I see quoted in Brian’s article is Rifan’s statement that concelebrating the Novus Ordo “demonstrates that we are Catholics in full communion with the whole Church” (p. 8, top column 2). But it doesn’t follow logically from this statement that not being prepared to concelebrate the NO demonstrates that a priest is not in full communion with the Church. Such an inference is no more logical than the following: ”Signing up to make phone calls urging people to re-elect Obama demonstrates that you are on his side, not that of his Republican opponents; therefore declining  to make such pro-Obama phone calls demonstrates that you are not on Obama’s side, and won’t vote for him.”  “If A, then B” does not imply “If non-A, then non-B”.) 

However, I get the impression from what you say (about Rifan’s “lashing out” against priests to the right of himself. etc.) that what Brian reports Rifan as saying is perhaps not the only thing this bishop has been saying to attack priests who decline to say the Novus Ordo. As I said above, I would not defend him if he is really saying that a refusal to concelebrate the New Mass shows that a priest is “not in full communion” with the Church. For he can refuse to concelebrate the New Mass without going so far as to deny its legitimacy. And if that radical denial is not his reason for said refusal, it doesn’t follow that the only other reason that could be motivating him must be a merely aesthetic or subjective “preference” for the Traditional Rite. For an intermediate position is possible – one which I suspect is that of many traditional priests: they refuse to concelebrate the Novus Ordo because it does not express Catholic doctrine as clearly as the Traditional Rite, and involves them in practices like giving Communion in the hand, etc. Yet they do not consider those defects so grave as to render the Novus Ordo illegitimate –  i.e., forbidden by God’s law and therefore objectively sinful. (I don’t think anyone much is saying that celebrating the NO is “illegitimate” only in the sense of being against ecclesiastical [human] law. For Paul VI’s 1969 Apostolic Constitution was clearly legally sufficient to authorize priests to use the new missal, even though it wasn’t legally sufficient to require them to do so – i.e., it didn’t juridically abrogate the Traditional Rite.)

As should be clear from the above, you can rest assured that in asking for space to rebut Brian I was not in fact asking you to “turn The Remnant into a forum for debating the proposition that “traditionalist priests [should] be offering the New Mass in order to show their full communion with” the Church. I only wanted space to argue that Bishop Rifan is right in seeing the New Mass as legitimate, and in saying that the denial of this legitimacy – which unfortunately appears to be The Remnant’s new editorial position – is actually unorthodox.

With my prayers and best wishes as we honor the Exaltation of the Holy Cross tomorrow, when Bishop Fellay is due for an important meeting with Vatican officials. Oremus! 

     Fr. Harrison

From Brian McCall…

Dear Father Harrison,

Thank you for clarifying your position.  I still strongly disagree with your argument about sedevacantism.  I believe the conclusion that Joseph Ratzinger is not the pope often results not from my position, but rather from that of Bishop Rifan and others who espouse the same proposition.  He denies that a Pope or the other members of the hierarchy can persist in an erroneous position for decades even if this position is not covered by the protection of infallibility. This major premise forces those holding it to defend until the death the minor premise that unprecedented novelty is not erroneous.  If that minor premise collapses, however, they are then staring sedevacantism right in the face.  This is what happened to certain high profile traditional Catholic well known to Remnant readers, who has now gone down the SV road.  I could see it years ago when he was moving closer and closer to a hyper extensive understanding of the guaranty of infallibility.

My premise, and that of the Remnant generally, is that outside of acts clearly invoking infallibility the pope and bishops can err in matters of policy, personal theology and discipline (including discipline of the sacraments).  This does not mean every one of such errors needs to be resisted.  St. Thomas advises that even some unjust laws should be obeyed.  Yet, this major premise enables The Remnant and those holding it to face the reality of the minor.  The Novus Ordo, repeated interfaith prayer meetings at Assisi etc., are all errors that in no way change the fact that those engaging in them (John Paul II, Benedict XVI) are valid popes. 

 I think this major premise is a major reason why The Remnant has not been afraid to call a spade a spade all these years and denounce modern liturgical novelties as errors.  Holding fast to the correct major premise means that sedevacantism is not part and never will be part of the equation.  I believe, therefore, that holding Bishop Rifan’s premise is more likely to lead to sedevacantism when an adherent eventually meets a minor premise he cannot explain away as not an error. Also, I ask you to read Bishop Rifan’s statement in its entirety.  It is clear he is arguing that a persistent refusal to concelebrate the Novus Ordo is a sign of not being in full communion.  I look forward to seeing you in a few weeks.

Brian McCall

From Michael Matt…

Dear Father Harrison,

It goes without saying that I absolutely agree with Brian’s point regarding sedevacantism. It’s been my experience over the years that our approach—with its realistic evaluation of the tragic “auto-demolition” of the human element of the Church, as well as our ready recognition of the potential for prudential errors within the hierarchy—in fact prevents scandalized Catholics from taking the desperate plunge into the sedevacantist black hole.  Pollyanna’s Glad Game, on the other hand, leaves Catholics feeling trapped in a world of make-believe where they’re expected to ignore the abundant evidence of colossal crisis from top of the Church to bottom.   Sedevacantism is the easy way out and most often the result of, as Brian points out, an exaggerated understanding of papal infallibility. 

When I was still in diapers, by the way, my father was publishing some of the hardest-hitting attacks against the New Mass of those days.  “Questioning the Validity of the New Mass”, for example, by one Patrick Henry Omlor comes to mind. And that was long before the great Michael Davies had launched his 3-decades long holy war against the New Mass in the pages of The Remnant.  We’ve adopted no new position on the New Mass, as you suggest.  If anything we’ve tempered the old one in order to minimize any potential for further scandal among our readers.  But the New Mass has long since proven itself noxious to the faith of whole generations of Catholics, and we will not cease opposing it until the Holy Father officially abandons it—as he most assuredly will do in God’s good time! 

If this means I too am suspect of not being in “full communion” (whatever that means!) with certain hierarchs whose ineptitude and callous disregard for Catholic Tradition have left whole generations of Catholic children scandalized, if not sexually abused, caused our churches to close by the dozen, and left our wives with no alternative before God but to educate our children at home lest they lose both faith and Catholic identity in ‘Catholic’ schools—so be it!  I’ll answer to God for my “crime” and leave the rest in His hands.  I am sheep who is scandalized beyond words by the laxity and gross negligence of his shepherds, and before God I would ask the question:  Whose fault is that?


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