Where Do We Stand?
Tradition and the Holy Father Pope Benedict XVI

Michael J. Matt
Editor, The Remnant

Pope offers Mass ad orientem,

Sistine Chapel, Sunday January 13, 2008

Full Disclosure

Editor, The Remnant: Yes, there is much good in the Holy Father’s new encyclical on hope.  But there is at least one apparent problem.  Paragraph 46 implies that “the great majority of people” are admitted to Purgatory, and thus, eventually, to eternal life.  Such an assumption conflicts with Our Lord’s dire warnings in Matthew chapters 7 & 20.  Our Savior has a very different perspective on salvation than, for example, Hans Urs von Balthasaar.  The Church needs a clarification from the Holy Father on this item. …A Remnant Reader

Response by MJM: Many thanks for your note.  I’m happy to publish it since I agree this could be a flaw in an otherwise welcome development.  As a friend recently observed of Spe Salvi, “Who would have ever dreamed that, following a pope who made us apologize for Galileo, we would get an attack on Martin Luther, Francis Bacon and the whole of the Enlightenment such as the one found  in Benedict’s new encyclical?” 

In addition, a well respected priest recently sent us these comments on the seemingly problematic passage:

The Pope doesn't teach in #46 that the great majority of mankind definitely will be saved. The English version says "we may suppose" that the great majority will make it to Purgatory rather than Hell. However, I looked up the Latin original and it seems to me they have opted for a stronger translation than necessary here. In English, "suppose" sounds almost as strong as "presume". But the official text says "sic opinari possumus". The verb "opinari" basically means "to hold as an opinion", with the implication being that the view in question is uncertain and debatable. The trouble is that "opinari" CAN be translated by stronger words, such as "suppose", "believe" "judge" or "deem" something to be the case. But it can also be translated by weaker words, according to Lewis & Short's authoritative Latin dictionary, such as "conjecture" or even "imagine". So it's really pretty hard to say exactly what would be the most accurate vernacular translation, when the original word is so flexible in meaning! But on the basis of the general principle that magisterial documents, if ambiguous, should be interpreted in the way that most fits in with Tradition, I would use a weaker word than "suppose" here to translate "opinari": For instance, "we may hypothesize", or "we may conjecture". There is nothing strictly unorthodox about such speculation, since the Church has never formally taught as doctrine that the majority of mankind is damned. Nor did Jesus Himself ever teach that unambiguously. However, most Fathers and Saints held as an opinion ("opinari" again!) that this will unfortunately be the case. The fact that Our Lord said "few there be that find" the narrow path leading to salvation could possibly mean simply that at any given time, only a minority of folks out there living their lives is in the state of grace (on the road to Heaven). But that doesn't rule out the possibility of many last-minute conversions when those folks finally find themselves approaching death and judgment.

In general, there has been some degree of misunderstanding among friends and critics alike over The Remnant’s position vis-à-vis Pope Benedict XVI.  I would like, therefore, to take this opportunity to share some thoughts on the matter.  I’d hoped that our strategy would be self evident, and that, for obvious reasons, it would not become necessary to spell it out in the public eye.  But as some of our friends have expressed sincere concerns, I would like to divulge some of the thinking behind the strategy.

First of all, Pope Benedict is not a Traditionalist in the traditional sense of the word. His words and actions do still at times give off that whiff of progressivism so pungent and so prevalent in the Church during the previous pontificate.  However, there can be little doubt that the current Pope is keenly aware that something has gone awry in the Church. As every recovering alcoholic knows, the most important step on the road to recovery is to admit there’s a problem.  This Benedict has done, and in no uncertain terms. Some Traditionalists insist he’s not gone far enough to be completely convincing, however, so let’s consider where we stand.

For many years, we have written about what Sister Lucy termed “diabolical orientation” in the Church and in the world. Benedict, having been at the nerve center of Vatican II and its aftermath from the very beginning, would almost certainly remain affected to some extent by that disorientation. We all are to varying degrees, but surely churchmen more than most. Paragraph 46 of the new encyclical, therefore, should not be surprising, nor does it constitute sufficient reason to abandon hope in Pope Benedict’s overall efforts at reform.

When considering the overtures he’s made to Traditionalists, as well as his initiatives to undo at least some of the madness of the past 40 years, it would be shortsighted to dismiss his courageous efforts thus far as nothing more than the work of a committed modernist merely because of occasional outcroppings of that disorientation.

In addition, the Holy Father is under enormous political pressure. The embarrassingly public opposition from the powerful French and German episcopates during the run up to the release of his motu proprio has removed this contention from the realm of mere speculation. Benedict has enemies in the Church. He must face the relentless opposition of the ambitious, the liberal and the powerful--men for whom Benedict is as much a “dangerous” Traditionalist as Archbishop Lefebvre himself.

Thus it has not been difficult to detect the ecclesiastical tug of war taking place inside the Vatican since April 2005. Just this past Christmas it seemed to quite literally spill into the public square, in fact. The Nativity scene erected on St. Peter’s piazza depicted a radical departure from the Biblical account of the birth of Christ by placing the first Christmas in Joseph’s house in Nazareth rather than in Bethlehem’s stable. The controversy raged in the Italian press before and after Christmas.  

By contrast, the Pope’s official Christmas messages adhered strictly and repeatedly to the Biblical account: “Like the shepherds, let us hasten toward Bethlehem,” Benedict said during his Wednesday audience on December 17. “In the heart of the Holy Night, we too will be able to contemplate the Babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger, together with Mary and Joseph.”

 “How important it is, then, to proclaim this mystery in all its saving power: the Son of Mary, born in Bethlehem…”

 “Christmas makes us commemorate the incredible miracle of the birth of the Only-Begotten Son of God from the Virgin Mary in the Bethlehem Grotto…” 

 “The Child whom the shepherds adored in a grotto on the night of Bethlehem about 2,000 years ago, never tires of visiting us in our daily lives while we journey on as pilgrims towards the Kingdom…”

 “In Bethlehem, the Light which brightens our lives was manifested to the world…”  (See the Vatican’s website:  (http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/benedict_xvi/audiences/2007/documents/hf_ben-xvi_aud_20071219_en.html )

Benedict has plenty of opposition, which makes his overtures toward Traditionalism all the more serious.  According to John Allen, opposition to Benedict's motu proprio is heating up dramatically outside of the Catholic Church, as well:

If a reminder were needed of Jewish sensitivities about the Good Friday prayer, which among other things asks God to “lift the veil from their hearts,” the Anti-Defamation League included it on a late December list of “Top Ten Issues Affecting Jews in 2007.” The ADL called the possible revival of the prayer “a theological setback to the reforms of Vatican II, and a challenge to Catholic-Jewish relations.”

(To be sure, the ADL statement did not go down well in some Catholic circles. Putting Benedict XVI on the same list of anti-Semitic offenders as Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, for example, struck even some Catholics deeply committed to Jewish/Christian dialogue, and who are themselves concerned about the Good Friday prayer, as excessive. Nonetheless, it’s an indicator that the prayer remains a live issue.)

Nevertheless, the latest news out of Rome is that the Holy Father is preparing yet another document that will only reinforce his motu proprio because, according to Monsignor Albert Malcolm Ranjith, secretary of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Divine Cult and Discipline of Sacraments, implementation of the motu proprio has thus far been uneven, with some bishops “issuing rules that practically annul or twist the intention of the pope.” 

Benedict is obviously quite serious about his tradition-leaning reforms. With Europe falling into total hedonism and the human element of the Church a largely irrelevant and scandal-ridden shadow of its former self, this should hardly come as a surprise. The Pope is no longer a young man.  His beloved Europe has become a fascist cesspool of anti-Catholic bigotry, with abortion, homosexuality and immorality running rampant. Why would it come as any surprise that an aging Pope, reflecting (as all old men do) on the days of his childhood and Catholic home, might at this juncture begin reconsidering the disastrous course the Church has followed these past four decades?  He’s not ready to recall the New Mass or the Council, true; but he is keenly interested in at least reinterpreting them both in light of Tradition, while making the Traditional Mass itself a vital part of the Church’s life.

But even if this is not the case, and Pope Benedict’s Tradition-friendly initiatives are part of some Machiavellian plot to squelch the traditional Catholic resistance (as some so-called 'sedevacantists' now maintain), would it not still behoove us to “force the issue”, to use the Pope’s recent words and actions to help advance the Cause, to encourage as many of our coreligionists as possible to recognize that Tradition is the only way out of this novus nightmare—a notion even the Holy Father no longer considers unreasonable. After all, Benedict’s words and actions in 2007 have made it a simple matter for us to do just that. The media mock him; the liberals despise him; the progressives are openly hostile—and yet he continues to plod ahead with initiatives that enrage the liberals and give hope to the tradition-minded. These initiatives, it must be said, make little sense unless the most famous peritus at Vatican II is becoming disillusioned with the conciliarist course. Should we not exploit this apparent change of heart for all it’s worth and for the good of the Cause?

As the impression takes root in the media that Tradition is storming back at the highest echelons of Church governance, are we not presented with a golden opportunity to frustrate the designs of  the enemies of Tradition by rallying around the “traditionalist” pope and defending his pro-Tradition concessions as loudly and as publicly as we can? Already since September 2007, thousands of Catholics have moved away from the Novus Ordo and towards Tradition, at least liturgically.  The New York Times included Benedict’s motu proprio on its list of most significant news stories of 2007.  Newsweek, US News and World Report, USA Today, the LA Times, The Washington Post and dozens of major news organizations have front-paged this apparent return to Tradition as a seismic shift inside the Church, if not an actual rolling back of the clock on Vatican II. 

What ground can possibly be gained for the Cause, then, by traditionalists caterwauling that this is not so, that Benedict isn’t traditional at all, and that we see through such “modernist schemes”? What does this achieve!  The perception of an imminent rise of traditional Catholicism throughout the universal Church could lead to the reality of it. Such a perception could change history. No doubt the skeptics and critics of Constantine issued plenty of dire warnings about a trap and an Emperor who wasn’t pro-Christian enough to be trusted, and yet God used the non-Christian Constantine to Catholicize the pagan Roman Empire.

But even if things aren’t what they seem, and our cautiously optimistic outlook is still too rosy, it can nevertheless be argued that we are not the ones most deceived. In such a scenario, the liberals, progressives and modernists will have been completely bamboozled. They see “Benedict the Traditionalist” as a new Torquemada—the man who is single-handedly dismantling Vatican II. “I will obey the Pontiff,” sobbed Bishop Luca Brandolini, former secretary to Annibale Bugnini, when Summorum Pontificum was released, “but it is a day of grief. The reform [of Vatican II] is canceled.” 

We must, it seems to us, take advantage of this perception and earnestly work to make it the reality.

And, finally, history teaches us of the folly of underestimating the grace of the papal office.  Blessed Pius IX—the “liberal” whose Syllabus would famously condemn the errors of the liberals—should immediately come to mind. It remains a distinct possibility that Benedict, responding to the grace of his office, may be the Pope chosen by God to initiate at least the beginning of the end of the Reign of Terror brought on by the spirit of Vatican II. As the Church is not merely a human institution, serious Catholics must at least allow for this possibility, and pray that it is so.

In any event, Benedict’s intentions where Tradition is concerned are quite telling. If the Pope wishes, for example, to actually give the Church an official interpretation of Vatican II that will be in accord with Tradition, why in heaven’s name should we balk? If he manages to accomplish such a seemingly impossible feat, praise God! Again, what ground can be gained by Traditionalists shouting: “It can’t be done!”, especially after years of our contending that Vatican II was deceptively orthodox, mined with “time bombs”, and susceptible to dangerous interpretations as a result of its ambiguity?  (See Michael Davies’ article on Page 14 of the Dec. 31, 2007 issue of The Remnant).

Archbishop Lefebvre signed the documents of Vatican II. Why? Because he, like the majority of the Council Fathers, interpreted them in light of Tradition. When it became apparent that the conciliarists were not interested in doing the same, he raised his historic resistance to the modernist interpretation of Vatican II. In other words, the documents themselves were sufficiently ambiguous at worst to justify a traditional/orthodox interpretation even by Archbishop Lefebvre.

If, forty years later, Pope Benedict wishes to diffuse the time bombs and offer only one interpretation of the problematic passages of Vatican II—the traditional one—on what grounds would we base our objection?  And even if this were to prove an impossibility, shouldn’t the mere effort on the part of a post-conciliar pope be regarded as a staggering victory for traditionalists? The Rhineland bishops at Vatican II would surely roll in their graves at the mere thought of such a thing!

The same could be said of Benedict’s efforts where the New Mass is concerned.  If he intends to actually restore Latin, sacred music, the correct translation of pro multis, and a sense of the sacred to the New Mass—for God’s sake and ours, let him carry on! Traditionalists wouldn’t settle for a “reform of the reform” liturgy, but if the Pope can pull it off we should be the first to celebrate the fact that millions of Catholics would then be attending a Mass that at least begins to look, sound and feel Catholic again. Let the Holy Father use the old Mass, if he so desires, as a benchmark of reform for the new one.  At the very least we have a pope who recognizes that after a mere forty years of existence, the Novus Ordo is in crisis and in need of total reformation, and this is no small victory.

Whiffs of progressivism still creep into the Pope’s writings, yes, but whiffs are an improvement over the winds of it that were blowing about before his election. Perhaps what is key to this discussion are those things growing more and more conspicuous by their absence—multiple references to Vatican II in his encyclical, heavy reliance on the teachings of John Paul II, kneeling at the altar of the insane ecumenism of Cardinal Kasper, etc.  Do these omissions not perhaps shed more light on Benedict’s designs than a few inaccuracies (e.g., Paragraph 46) in his new encyclical?  

Again, he’s not a Traditionalist.  We cannot expect the language of an Archbishop Lefebvre to immediately flow from his pen. But through the grace of God, and, despite whatever disorientation he may still suffer, Benedict is making moves in the right direction.  Given the diabolical success of the revolution these past 40 years, is it really such a stretch to suggest that there is evidence herein of the workings of the Holy Ghost?  They'd seemingly won already!  The Church was theirs!  The Mass was nearly destroyed!  So why this sudden turnaround? Why is sacred music, Latin and the old Mass storming back into prominence in the Church the progressivists thought they'd conquered completely?

As the Holy Father undertakes the Herculean task of dragging the post-conciliar Church inch by inch back into the light of Tradition, it would be wildly unrealistic for us to expect to see no sign of his efforts being hampered by the effects of several decades of conciliarist disorientation. And if and when we do detect those signs, it would be recklessly myopic to see in them grounds for the total dismissal of the Pontiff’s efforts to initiate some degree of course correction against all odds and substantial opposition.

Perhaps it would be beneficial for the sake of this discussion to think of Pope Benedict as a man coming out of a coma. His thought processes may not yet be completely free of the effects of his condition, but it cannot be denied that the patient is showing signs of coming to. And, rather than blasting him for not yet being fully awake, perhaps we should thank God for hopeful signs as we pray for complete recovery. Let’s not forget where we could be right now, and where we were prior to April 2005. We’re still in the woods, surely, but did anyone expect to get this far this fast?  

If we will only use our heads there are ample ways to apply Pope Benedict’s recent initiatives (despite whatever deficiencies, real or imagined, they may contain) to the advantage of the entire Catholic counterrevolution. What is needed are strategists, not self-absorbed crape hangers! The vitality and rapid growth of the worldwide Traditional Mass movement since July 2007 simply cannot be dismissed.  As this boom continues, it is not at all beyond the realm of possibility that Benedict will begin to see  total restoration as the only answer, and traditional Catholics as his best allies.  And if that happens there’s no telling where this could lead.

It serves no purpose, then, to attack Father Ratzinger, Cardinal Ratzinger or even Pope Benedict XVI at this critical juncture. We have nothing to lose from adopting a wait-and-see attitude, especially since no one is suggesting that the war is over or the catacomb can be sealed. Patience, prayer and time, my friends!  Patience, prayer and time!

The world is in desperate need of hope, and, at the very least, Benedict has provided that much.  People who have hope do not despair, but rather get down on their knees and pray.  Let us, then, get down on ours and pray that Benedict continues his program of reform in the direction of Tradition, that the Holy Ghost will provide the grace necessary for him to overcome the effects of diabolical disorientation, to recognize more fully the colossal crisis that resulted from Vatican II, as well as the complete folly that is the liturgical revolution of the post-conciliar era.

Long live Pope Benedict XVI!