SSPX: Who Cares?

Readers of Chant Café have probably been following the news reports of a possible reconciliation between the Vatican and the Society of St Pius X with interest.  Given that the SSPX has been the most vociferous proponent of the classical Roman liturgy and its music, it has been a source of consternation and sorrow that they have been out of visible communion with the hierarchical Church for going on twenty-five years.  In 1988, the fateful decision of Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre and Bishop De Castro Mayer to consecrate four bishops on their own initiative resulted in those bishops’ excommunication, and was the result of a long process of mutual alienation that went back to the 1970s.

On the side of the SSPX, there are those who realize that it is an untenable situation to remain outside the visible communion of a Church whose very essence requires visible communion.  The peculiar situation of the SSPX, to them, was necessary because of what they perceive to be the crisis in the Church, but none of them I think wants to be separated from Rome.  On the side of the Vatican, throughout this tortured history, there have been so many different postures taken vis-à-vis the Society, and those who have returned to full communion with the Church over the years, that it is hard to discern one line of thought on them.  Pope Benedict XVI, who has been particularly solicitous for bringing into the fold those whose hearts belong to Rome, has very wisely chosen to adopt a policy of encouraging reconciliation without trying to straitjacket either the SSPX or the Vatican into a position which would only harden the division.

What has been interesting to note, however, is that resistance to this movement of the Holy Father has come from opposing quarters.  There are some self-styled progressive Catholics who fear that the reconciliation of the SSPX is a move in a sinister plot to “turn back the clock” to a pre-Vatican II Church.  They have raised the usual objections of anti-feminism, anti-Semitism, anti-modernism, and more, in an effort to turn the opinion of many Catholics, whose knowledge of the SSPX is often very scant, against this exercise of the ministry of unity of the Roman Pontiff.  But there have also been cries of disbelief and discomfort from Catholics who count themselves faithful to the Magisterium and to Pope Benedict XVI.  They seem not to be able to understand why he is doing this and fear, like the progressives, that the Pope is determined to return the Catholic Church to a status quo ante 1962.

So what are we to believe about all this?  The acerbic discussions over the SSPX have revealed much about the contemporary topography of Catholic thought and practice.  And in particular about two questions: the interpretation of an ecumenical council and the role of authority in the Church. 

First of all, we must point out that it is obvious to any historian of Councils that Vatican II is markedly different in some ways then the other twenty ecumenical councils of the Church.  While the idea of having a council was floated around during the pontificate of Ven. Pius XII, it was decided against. But Bl.  John XXIII had no such qualms, and with his ebullient optimism sought to put a Council whose implementation he knew he would never see into motion. 

The personality and intention of Bl. John XXIII is not irrelevant to a proper understanding of Vatican II.  He wanted a council that was different.  He purposely called what he wished as a “pastoral” council, as a means of discerning how to better proclaim the timeless message of the Gospel to modern man.  The “pastoral” character of the council has been one of the chief sources of the problematic as to its interpretation.  Bl. John XXIII was confident that council could be had which would promote a sincere dialogue towards the truth, and as such, no anathemas were needed or desirable to excoriate opposing views.  The Pope also intuited that the mentality of modern man (which as a category is rather ambiguous itself) was hardly suited to heeding anathemas anyway.

But of course, Vatican II was not just a council which dealt with pastoral life.  In some ways, it reflected the theological development latent in the encyclicals of Pius XII and the various biblical, liturgical and theological movements of the day.  It dealt with dogmatic issues as well.  Yet, even before the end of the Council, it was apparent that there was a “spirit of Vatican II” which was emerging, but was hard to put into words.  What was it, exactly?  The implementation of the Council has been particularly difficult due to its declension through the prism of this spirit of Vatican II.

When dealing with all of the other councils of the Church, the fact that their formulations were often pithy, directly dogmatic or canonical in language, meant that what it meant to assent to those formulations and to the council as a whole tended to be clear.  Now, of course, any council is an end to a period of reflection as well as a beginning, so those formulations often opened up more discussion and reflection.  But can we expect the same level of assent to a council which in its very inception was meant to be different than that kind of council, and whose language does not lend itself to anathematizing those who disagree with it?

Vatican II does contain dogmatic statements of fact.  It also contains indications for the reform of ecclesiastical discipline.  But there are also passages which are not as easily classifiable into either category. 

The manualist tradition on the eve of Vatican II had developed a system by which statements of the Magisterium could be weighed, as it were, according to the weight of their authority.  Not everything could be considered as having the same weight.  The divinity of Christ, for example, could be classified as divinely revealed, and if you reject that teaching, you can hardly be considered an orthodox Christian.  The assertion that St Joseph had no other children other than Jesus from a possible previous marriage to the Blessed Mother is a pious thought, and as such, there can be legitimate disagreement as to it.  There are those things which lie in between, some of which can be classified as theologoumena.  These can be described as statements which flow from doctrinal truths, but are themselves not the object of the same kind of assent.  As such, they are not irreformable as such.

The SSPX, immersed in that manualist tradition, used the classification system to present a very nuanced view of Vatican II, one which would come to flatly reject certain formulations.  Progressive Catholics, who by and large rejected that system, still were aware that there were these different levels, and used their existence to argue for the reformability of certain teachings of the Church.  The increasing confusion and the breaking of visible bonds of communion and mutual charity throughout the Church led some Catholics to argue that ecclesiastical authority alone could decide these things.

Now, any convert from Protestantism knows that the issue of authority is one of the big issues which brings someone to the Catholic Church.  But the exercise of that authority is not all the same, on every level and in every occasion.  One interesting phenomenon to watch in the post-Vatican II period has been on the one hand, the development of a perceived right to resistance to the institutional Church (affirmed by SSPX and progressives alike for different things) and on the other, the attitude that authority is the most important category in theology and the Church’s life.

This is important for understanding, not only contemporary life and theology in the Church, but also liturgy and music.  Many people who insist that the Church maintain her treasure of liturgy and music appeal to the authority of Church documents.  But this appeal has produced some odd juxtapositions.  There are those who classified aficionados of the Extraordinary Form as schismatics before the 1988 indult on the basis that it was not allowed, and after Summorum pontificum have loudly criticized those who refuse to implement it.  Progressives and traditionalists alike have produced tenable yet also mutually exclusive interpretations of liturgical law based on the torrent of verbiage which has issued from the Vatican in the post-Vatican II period.

Yet, the life of the Church cannot be reduced to authority alone.  The SSPX have rightly insisted that custom and culture have weight, and that the well-meaning whims of popes and bishops and priests and laypeople cannot be automatically translated into authority which must be accepted on all kinds of different levels.  The situation is more complicated.  Now, their view of how that authority should be accepted has been different than that of conservative and liberal Catholics.

So the thorny question becomes: what does it mean to accept Vatican II?  How does the acceptance of an ecumenical council determine one’s communion with the Church?  There are those who argue that the SSPX “should not be accepted back into the Church” because “they still reject Vatican II.”  But should they be excommunicated, anathematized and excoriated all in the name of a Council which intentionally avoided excommunications, anathemas and excoriations, even if some SSPX adherents would like to see excommunications, anathemas and excoriations thundered from the Throne of Peter? 

We are reminded that there are two notably discernable trends in the traditionalist critique of Vatican II and its aftermath.  On the one hand, we have the personality and heritage of Archbishop Lefebvre.  But we also have that of Giuseppe Cardinal Siri, the long-time Archbishop of Genoa.  It is well known that Siri held many of the same views that Lefebvre did.  But he also knew that communion in charity and with legitimate ecclesiastical authority had to coexist with a critique which respected the varying levels of weight that apply to any papal document as much as to an ecumenical council.  Anyone who has read his book Gethsemane is aware of a profound critique of the life and theology of the Church after Vatican II.  But for all of that, he refused just as much to break the bonds of communion. 

We are reminded by all of this that, just as Catholics are not biblical fundamentalists, we are also not conciliar fundamentalists.  Pope Benedict XVI, whose ministry as Peter is to confirm the brethren and foster unity, has told us that the interpretation of Vatican II has been travailed.  The legacy of the hermeneutic of rupture vs. the hermeneutic of continuity is a torturous one.  Continuing to level accusations of schismatic tendencies against an SSPX whose firmest desire is to be deeply united to Christ and to Peter is unhelpful, at least until the various components of a proper interpretation of Vatican II in the Church’s life are all put into sharper focus.  Once that happens, and if any glance at the Church today is an indication, it is far away, charity and communion and dialogue is the safest bet for the unity of Christians.  We must care about the union of the SSPX in visible communion of the Church, not because we want to foist a status quo ante on the Church, or even because we agree with them, but because Jesus prayed, ut unum sint.