The Society of St. Pius X and Vatican II:
Where's the Beef?

Christopher A. Ferrara

Doctrinal Council?

(Posted 03/05/09 The letter of February 3, 2009 from the four bishops of the Society of Saint Pius X to Pope Benedict XVI contains a commendable expression of gratitude to the Pope for his “paternal  kindness and for the apostolic courage” he displayed in lifting the excommunications of 1988. It did indeed require apostolic courage for the Pope to make a gesture so clearly opposed to the one thing the world demands of the Pope these days: conformity to Vatican II, the Council that has become an idol among the enemies of the Faith both within and without the Church.

Assuming the English translation of the letter at is accurate, however, in my view the Society inadvertently lends credence to the cult of the Council by advising the Pope that “we desire to begin, as soon as possible, exchanges with representatives of Your Holiness concerning doctrines opposed to the Magisterium of all time.” I believe it is a grave mistake to enter into discussions with Vatican on the assumption that doctrines contrary to the Magisterium are what is under discussion. The Council, for all its vexing ambiguity, excessive irenicism, and wholly unwarranted optimism about “the modern world,” imposed no new doctrine or dogma on the Church and thus could not have proposed any doctrines contrary to prior Church teaching.  Ambiguity, optimism and irenicism do not a single doctrine make.

For one thing, the Council’s introduction of “ecumenism” did not involve a Catholic doctrine but rather a neologism that signifies nothing but a collection of pastoral activities that were supposed to “promote Christian unity.”  Ecumenism is a flop, not a doctrine of the Faith. As for “dialogue” and “inter-religious dialogue,” these too are only novel terms for pastoral activity consisting of interminable palaver with people who have no intention of becoming Catholics or otherwise adhering to the divine or even the natural law. Dialogue and inter-religious dialogue are likewise flops, not doctrines. The most massive flop of all, of course, is the “liturgical renewal” supposedly inspired, but in no way required, by the Council’s ambiguity-laden  Sacrosanctum Concilium. Here too not a word of Catholic doctrine was imposed upon us.

Nor is there any binding doctrinal novelty in Lumen Gentium’s statement that outside the Church’s organizational structure are “elements of truth and sanctification” which belong to her of right and lead to her.  First of all, this is simply a statement of the obvious, as the Church has always recognized that Protestant baptisms and marriages and all the sacraments administered by Orthodox priests are valid (if not licit).  Secondly, the CDF declared in 2007 that it is merely “possible to affirm correctly” the “presence and operation” of the Church in these dissociated “elements,” which in no way means that any Catholic is obliged to affirm this manner of speaking as if it were some new article of the Faith.

Finally, the Council’s teaching on “religious liberty” in Dignitatis humanae (DH), read in light of Tradition, including the teaching of Pius XII in Ci Riesce, would appear to say nothing more than that in particular concrete circumstances (the “due limits” mentioned in Article 1) the civil authority ought to tolerate erring religionists in their public acts when it deems toleration necessary with due regard to the common good and the objective moral order.  As Pius XII taught, in Catholic states this is a “question of fact” for “the Catholic statesman” to determine.  But once the Catholic statesman determines that he ought to exercise toleration—typically because repression would cause more harm than good in the commonwealth—there arises a correlative right to immunity from coercion in the person or persons who are the objects of toleration.  The ruler’s duty is the subject’s right.

Hence the principle that in Catholic states the civil authority has a right to repress error remains intact, even if the ruler, who is above all responsible for protecting the common good, may have a moral duty not to repress error in a given case. As Pius XII explains in Ci Riesce:

First: that which does not correspond to truth or to the norm of morality objectively has no right to exist, to be spread or to be activated. Secondly: failure to impede this with civil laws and coercive measures can nevertheless be justified in the interests of a higher and more general good….

Hence the affirmation: religious and moral error must always be impeded, when it is possible, because toleration of them is in itself immoral, is not valid <absolutely and unconditionally.>

Moreover, God has not given even to human authority such an absolute and universal command in matters of faith and morality. Such a command is unknown to the common convictions of mankind, to Christian conscience, to the sources of Revelation and to the practice of the Church….

The duty of repressing moral and religious error cannot therefore be an ultimate norm of action. It must be subordinate to <higher and more general> norms, which <in some circumstances> permit, and even perhaps seem to indicate as the better policy, toleration of error in order to promote a <greater good.>

It can hardly be suggested that in teaching that the right to repress error is not absolute and unconditional Pius XII was teaching a doctrine opposed to the Magisterium.  And the teaching of Pius XII is that of DH, if DH is to be read consistently with prior teaching. On this point we await clarification by the Magisterium, without which it is not for anyone to say that DH definitely teaches error.[1]

Here a little historical recollection is in order. Archbishop Lefebvre, the saintly founder of the Society who confirmed my own wife in the Faith in 1983, voted for and subscribed to every one of the Council’s sixteen documents, including (ultimately) DH. Did Archbishop Lefebvre knowingly participate in promulgating doctrines opposed to the perennial Magisterium? If he really believed that to be the case after the Council, it is reasonable to assume he would have formally recanted his approbation of the Council documents for which he was directly responsible before God.  But no such recantation exists, even if the Archbishop lived to regret the exploitation of the Council’s ambiguities, for which he did indeed “accuse the Council.”  One can only conclude that the Archbishop did not recant his approbation of the Council documents because he understood that the documents as such, read in light of Tradition, do not teach or impose doctrines contrary to the Magisterium.

Nor am I aware of a single papal pronouncement since the death of Pius XII that requires Catholics to believe even one doctrine opposed to the perennial Magisterium, much less an indeterminate number of them.  True, Paul VI and John Paul II approved, tolerated and even encouraged unprecedented ecclesial innovations which—by permission or omission only and not by any mandate imposed on the universal Church—departed from the Church’s traditional liturgy, evangelical approach and condemnation of error. But these changes, however harmful their effects, lie in the pastoral rather than the doctrinal realm; they involve prudential judgments, not binding doctrinal pronouncements on matters of faith and morals.

We traditionalists must keep our eye on the bouncing ball: The idea that Vatican II or the conciliar Popes have imposed new doctrines which contradict previous Church teaching is a myth promoted by neo-Modernists, not by the Magisterium.  Hence I would suggest that the Society take as its starting point for the discussions with the Vatican the very words of the Pope when he was Cardinal Ratzinger: “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…” That is the truth about Vatican II. So why would we wish to make more of the Council than it really was?

A further suggestion: In the impending discussions, rather than assuming it is dealing with doctrines opposed to the Magisterium—thereby creating a lot of unnecessary work for itself—the Society should simply declare that it assumes, on the contrary, that neither the Council nor the Popes since then have changed in any way what Catholics must believe in order to be members of the Church in good standing, and that the Society respectfully requests to be corrected if that assumption is in error. The Society might be pleasantly surprised to find that no correction is forthcoming from the Pope or any organ of the Magisterium (such as the CDF) speaking with his approval. The discussions would end right there, leaving no basis for demanding that the Society “affirm” anything but what Catholics have always believed. All that would remain is the details of canonical regularization. (I am not addressing here the Bishop Williamson affair, which presents an entirely different problem for the Society which must somehow be addressed.)

The Latin Mass has been liberated with a papal confirmation that it was never prohibited in the first place.  The Pope himself insists that Vatican II, a “merely pastoral council,” created no “rupture” with the past.  The excommunications, so long exploited as an “excommunication of Tradition” by its enemies, have now been lifted.  The traditionalist seminaries, orders and parishes are flourishing, while the Novus Ordo, ravaged by scandal, heterodoxy, liturgical collapse and contraception among the laity, is dwindling toward an extinction that is only a matter of time. There is no reason we should be unwilling to recognize that, by the will of the Holy Ghost, Tradition has already won in principle, that the bogeyman of the “newness of Vatican II” is just that, and that like all bogeymen it will go away if we simply stand up to it and declare with complete conviction: “You don’t exist.”

No Council, no Pope could ever impose upon the faithful doctrines which really contradict what the Church has always taught. The Holy Ghost would not allow it.  That is all we know, and all we need to know. I would urge the Society to stand fast on that undeniable truth, rather than appearing to concede at the outset the very point the cult of Vatican II insists upon.



[1]In The Great Façade (p. 299) I noted that no Pope before Vatican II had ever stated that there could be “a natural right not to be restrained from propagating a false religion even publicly,” but further noted (pp. 301, 302) that “only the Magisterium can resolve the issue” of whether DH actually contradicts prior teaching. I did not contend that there is a contradiction, and I would argue today there is no contradiction given the reading of DH proposed here.  But a clarification at the level of the Magisterium, as opposed to mere opinions by theologians or laymen such as myself, is still needed.