Pope Stands with Traditionalists
Issues Remarkable Letter to Bishops of the World

Christopher A. Ferrara

(Posted 03/16/09 www.RemnantNewspaper.com)
 Pope Benedict’s letter of March 10, 2009 to the entire world episcopate “Concerning the Remission of the Excommunication of the Four Bishops Consecrated by Archbishop Lefebvre” is another in a series of historic developments beginning with the “liberation” of the traditional Latin Mass on July 7, 2007.  The letter comes in the midst of a relentless worldwide attack on the Pope by the mass media, pressure groups, and members of the Catholic hierarchy united in their determination to prevent the paralyzing “spirit of Vatican II” from losing its grip on the Church.

I do not want to dwell on the letter’s de rigueur nods to “ecumenism” and “interreligious dialogue,” ill-defined pastoral initiatives which have gone nowhere and produced nothing but confusion and inertia in the Church. Catholics remain free to express their objections to these novel concepts, whatever they mean, and the novel practices adopted in pursuit of them. As John Paul II declared in Redemptor hominis, “[s]ome even express the opinion that these [ecumenical] efforts are harmful to the cause of the Gospel, are leading to a further rupture in the Church, are causing confusion of ideas in questions of faith and morals and are ending up with a specific indifferentism. It is perhaps a good thing that the spokesmen for these opinions should express their fears.”  If that was true in 1979, it is all the more true today.

A Papal Rebuke of the Society’s Opponents

I want to focus, rather, on key passages in this subtly crafted missive which the discerning reader will recognize as auspicious for the Church at large and the traditional “movement” in particular.  First of all, responding to the vehement opposition, insults and near-rebellion he has endured on account of the lifting of the excommunications, the Pope offers this devastating comment on the way he and the “Lefebvrists” have been treated by their fellow members of the Church:

I was saddened by the fact that even Catholics who, after all, might have had a better knowledge of the situation, thought they had to attack me with open hostility…. At times one gets the impression that our society needs to have at least one group to which no tolerance may be shown; which one can easily attack and hate. And should someone dare to approach them – in this case the Pope – he too loses any right to tolerance; he too can be treated hatefully, without misgiving or restraint.

This unprecedented papal rebuke is dramatic enough to reverberate through the history of the Church until the end of time. Adding to its impact is the Pope’s further declaration (clearly intended to apply to the Society as well as himself) that “Whoever proclaims that God is Love ‘to the end’ has to bear witness to love: in loving devotion to the suffering, in the rejection of hatred and enmity…”

Even when His Holiness offers criticism of the Society, what he says is nothing compared to the charge he has leveled against its fanatical opponents.  The Pope notes that “some representatives” of the Society—some—have uttered “many unpleasant things—arrogance and presumptuousness, an obsession with one-sided positions, etc.” Honesty compels one to agree with that observation, while noting that none of us is immune to tendencies in that direction after so many years of suffering through the insane auto-demolition of the Church.  But the Pope adds immediately that “I have also received a number of touching testimonials of gratitude which clearly showed an openness of heart.” No such openness of heart is evident in the Society’s opponents, as the Pope makes clear.

The Society’s Canonical Status

Regarding the question of the Society’s canonical status, the Pope’s letter leaves no ground on which anyone can continue to calumniate its four bishops, much less its priests and lay faithful, as “schismatics.”  The Pope declares:

The excommunication affects individuals, not institutions. An episcopal ordination lacking a pontifical mandate raises the danger of a schism [!], since it jeopardizes [!] the unity of the College of Bishops with the Pope….

There needs to be a distinction, then, between the disciplinary level, which deals with individuals as such, and the doctrinal level, at which ministry and institution are involved. In order to make this clear once again: until the doctrinal questions are clarified, the Society has no canonical status in the Church, and its ministers – even though they have been freed of the ecclesiastical penalty – do not legitimately exercise any ministry in the Church.

The Pope’s words must be read with great attention to the distinction he draws between individuals and institutions: until “doctrinal questions are clarified” the Society has no canonical status in the Church and its ministers, while under no penalty, cannot “legitimately” exercise a ministry in the Church. The doctrinal issue relates to “ministry and institution,” not to membership in the Church as such. As individuals, the Society’s adherents are undeniably Catholics and ipso facto cannot be called “schismatic.” Moreover, the Pope chooses his words very carefully when he says that it was only the “danger of schism” that prompted the declared penalty of excommunication in 1988 as to the four bishops only.  Now that the penalty has been lifted from the bishops, only the positively malicious (of which there are many, as the Pope has learned) will continue to speak of the Society’s adherents as “a schismatic group.”

It is true that the Pope’s letter calls upon the four bishops to “return to unity” and that the aim of remitting the excommunications is to “invite the four Bishops once more to return.” But here too discernment is required.  First of all, the posited “return to unity” relates only to the bishops, not to the priests and laity associated with the Society. Secondly, the “return to unity” by the bishops is made contingent only on clarification of doctrinal questions.

In context, therefore, the “unity” of which the Pope speaks can mean only one thing: agreement on matters in which there is room for disagreement, not the four bishops’ unilateral recantation of errors against the Faith.  For if the matters at issue were clearly enunciated doctrines of the Magisterium no longer open to question, the Pope would not be speaking of doctrinal “questions” that need to be “clarified.”  Rather, for the good of the whole Church, and to end once and for all the confusion surrounding the Council, the Pope would have a duty to set forth those doctrines verbatim in a binding pronouncement and require that the bishops assent to them as stated. That is how the Church normally proceeds when it comes to enforcing the integrity of the doctrine of the Faith against public dissenters from it.

But nothing of the sort has been done with respect to Vatican II. Nor, I maintain, will it ever be done, because the fundamental doctrinal question that needs to be clarified concerning the Council is whether there is any doctrine—that is, any new doctrine—in its problematically ambiguous pronouncements.  If the Church has no power to reveal new doctrines, as the First Vatican Council teaches and all Tradition attests, the answer to that question can only be in the negative.

Hence I would suggest that the Society begin the discussions with the Vatican by posing this threshold question: Are there, in the first place, any putative doctrines (or “developments” of doctrine) promulgated by the Council or the post-conciliar Popes which the Church did not profess before the Council?  The second question to be clarified, if the answer to the first question were somehow in the affirmative, would be: What are these newly enunciated doctrines, and where can we find them explicitly set forth by the Magisterium in so many words?  If that evidence were ever forthcoming, then the third question would be: Are these doctrines  (or “developments” thereof) irreformable, or can a Catholic express reservations or even doubts about them without prejudice to his good standing in the Church?

The Pope himself has not even suggested that the discussions would ever yield a list of specific propositions demanding an assent that was not required of Catholics before the Council.  The very need for discussions demonstrates the improbability of that outcome. Quite the contrary, the Pope declares that while “The Church’s teaching authority cannot be frozen in the year 1962… some of those who put themselves forward as great defenders of the Council also need to be reminded that Vatican II embraces the entire doctrinal history of the Church. Anyone who wishes to be obedient to the Council has to accept the faith professed over the centuries, and cannot sever the roots from which the tree draws its life.”  It is impossible to see how, under this “hermeneutic of continuity,” the four bishops could ever be required to affirm as a condition for their exercise of ministry anything at variance with what Catholics had always believed before 1962.

Meanwhile, it would be the height of absurdity to hold that four bishops who are not excommunicated and who clearly profess their attachment to the Pope are “schismatics” pending clarification of doctrinal questions which have not even been specified.  Sad to say, however, I would not put it past the Modernist and neo-Catholic commentators who, even after the Pope’s letter, will probably continue to treat the Society as the “one group to which no tolerance may be shown; which one can easily attack and hate.”

A Stunning Papal Admission

Even more dramatic than the Pope’s rebuke of his and the Society’s attackers are his comments on the state of the faith in the world today, after more than forty years of post-conciliar “renewal”:

In our days, when in vast areas of the world the faith is in danger of dying out like a flame which no longer has fuel, the overriding priority is to make God present in this world and to show men and women the way to God…. The real problem at this moment of our history is that God is disappearing from the human horizon, and, with the dimming of the light which comes from God, humanity is losing its bearings, with increasingly evident destructive effects.

These words are stunning on their face—a clear abandonment at last of the Council’s foolhardy  “optimism” concerning “the modern world.” (Recall that Cardinal Ratzinger was openly critical of Gaudium et spes for its unrealistic and even Pelagian view of “contemporary man.”)  In the full context of the letter, however, what the Pope says is rich with other implications, none of them favorable toward what he rather scathingly describes as “some of those who put themselves forward as great defenders of the Council”—including those who have led the attacks on His Holiness and the Society.

For one thing, by “vast areas of the world” the Pope can only mean territory under the jurisdiction of the overwhelming majority of the episcopate, the implication being that the hierarchy has infinitely more to worry about than the canonical standing of four traditionalist bishops. In fact, if we are going to talk about a “return to unity” in the Church, is it not imperative to address, before all else, a return to unity by legions of laity and even clergy who exhibit what John Paul II rightly decried as “silent apostasy”?  Here we are dealing with massive dissent from clearly infallible teachings on faith and morals, as opposed to questions that need to be clarified—the Pope’s own word—concerning the ambiguous documents Vatican II!

Moreover, by connecting his recognition of a vast apostasy to his protest against intolerance of the Society,  and by calling that apostasy “the real problem” confronting the Church today, the Holy Father is implicitly arguing for the role the Society must play in reversing the apostasy.  Why else would His Holiness be at pains to note, only a few lines later, that the Church cannot be indifferent to the fate of “a community which has 491 priests, 215 seminarians, 6 seminaries, 88 schools, 2 university-level institutes, 117 religious brothers, 164 religious sisters and thousands of lay faithful”?  Note well: lay faithful.  That is, there is no apostasy in the Society, but rather a source of hope (of course not the only one) in a world that has turned its back on God.

The Society’s Reading of the Letter

In case anyone thinks my reading of the Pope’s letter is overly sanguine, the Society’s response should suffice to confirm that I have read it fairly.  As Bishop Fellay declares:

After “an avalanche of protests was unleashed” recently, we greatly thank the Holy Father for having placed the debate at the level on which it should take place, that of the faith. We fully share his utmost concern for preaching to “our age, when in vast areas of the world the faith is in danger of dying out like a flame which no longer has fuel”….

Far from wanting to stop Tradition in 1962, we wish to consider the Second Vatican Council and the post-Conciliar magisterium in the light of this Tradition which Saint Vincent of Lérins defined as that “which has been believed everywhere, always, by all” (Commonitorium), without rupture and in a perfectly homogenous development. It is thus that we will be able to contribute efficaciously to the evangelization asked for by the Savior (cf. Matthew, 28,19-20).

The Priestly Fraternity of Saint Pius X assures Benedict XVI of its will to address the doctrinal discussions considered “necessary” by the Decree of January 21, with the desire of serving the revealed Truth which is the first charity to be shown towards all men, Christian or not. It assures him of its prayers so that his faith may not fail and that he may confirm all his brethren (cf. Luke 22 32).

The Society has read the Pope’s words with the necessary discernment.  It understands that in the chess game being played against the Adversary for the proximate fate of the Church in our time, the Pope and the Society are on the same side of the board even if they might disagree on which moves to make, and that their side has the white pieces.


In this letter His Holiness, with an amazingly skillful blend of charity and firmness, has upbraided an intolerant ecclesial establishment that wears its own decay, decline and collapse as if it were Joseph’s coat of many colors and demonizes not only the Catholics who seek an ecclesial restoration but the very Pope who favors them. At the same time, acknowledging the true loyalty to the papacy of the Catholic traditionalists who have rallied to his side (while certain neo-Catholic commentators observe a conspicuous silence), the Pope expresses his “thanks to all the faithful who in these days have given me testimony of their constant fidelity to the Successor of Saint Peter.” It appears the Pope is referring to the Second International Declaration in Support of His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI, and the petition of the same tenor originated by French traditionalist Catholics.

Nothing I have said here should be taken to suggest, however, that the Pope’s letter is an occasion for gloating by traditionalists.  We must all bear in mind the Holy Father’s closing declaration: “Should we be surprised that we too are no better than the Galatians? That at the very least we are threatened by the same temptations? That we must always learn anew the proper use of freedom? And that we must always learn anew the supreme priority, which is love?”

For all these reasons, I join my learned colleague John Rao (whose magnificent article on this subject appears in the March 15th issue of The Remnant) in hailing the Pope’s letter, despite any reservations we might have, as a service to truth, charity and justice, and good news for the Church and indeed the world.