Sunday, 6 March 2011

SSPX methodology: a question for Bishop Williamson

My post on The endgame of the SSPX last week attracted a lot of attention, mostly because of links provided by William Oddie and Fr Z. William Oddie then went on to give an unfortunately clumsy account of what the SSPX say about the New Mass. More of that perhaps another time.

But practically nobody dialogued with the logic of the obstacles, which makes me want to come back to restate them. John L. made an attempt in the comments below the original post, but then his list of documents missed the point about the distinction of expertise and pastoral authority. I note, furthermore, that in Bishop Williamson's latest Dinoscopus letter, he makes the argument that Rome can only survive by returning to the Truth - a Truth to which the SSPX has been faithful.

My view is that what Bishop Williamson and the SSPX confuse are the teachings of the Catholic Church and their own theological arguments (which deploy those teachings). Let's take the example of the Mass since William Oddie referenced it in his article a few days ago. When it is said that the New Mass 'expresses a new Faith, a Faith which is not ours, a Faith which is not the Catholic Faith' (Bishop Fellay's letter - citing Archbishop Lefebvre - to Pope John Paul II in The Problem of the Liturgical Reform , p. i), it is somehow thought that this position can be suitably justified through a theological analysis of the New Mass given by the SSPX's experts. Since, for example, they (following Oddi's and Bacci's earlier judgment) judge there to be no consistency between the Twenty-Second Session of the Council of Trent and the theology of the reformed missal, they believe this to be a sufficient proof (backed up by the decline in Catholicism in the West) of the latter's lack of Catholicity, regardless of what anyone else, inclding Rome, says. Indeed, the results of their analysis and the dogmatic premisses on which they are constructed are what Bishop Williamson calls 'Catholic Truth'. When he says that Rome must recognise Catholic Truth and be faithful to it, what he clearly implies is that since there is no questioning of the dogmatic premisses on which the SSPX build their criticism of the New Mass, the edifice of their analysis is itself absolutely sound.

But this position is both logically and methodologically unstable.

i) Logically, the authorities on which I base an argument are only part of my final analysis. All the minor premisses of my argument must also be sound: my observations, my interpretations of data, the way in which I categorise and conceptualise the problems I am trying to study, etc. In addition, my handling of the major premisses must be sound. By way of comparison, Protestant criticism of the Church cannot be justified simply by being based on Sacred Scripture, however Sacred it is. Likewise, the traditionalists can arrive in various ways at a theological view of the New Mass, or of other issues - indeed, one must arrive at the conclusions contained potentially in one's premisses - but they are wrong to treat that view as definitive, however theologically weighty their major premisses are. No Council has found the New Mass to be unCatholic; that view is the result of a theological argument. In other words, the fact I bang a big bass drum doesn't mean there is a brass band following behind me!

ii) Methodologically, this position is also weak because the theologians who have generated it, and their elders who promote it, appear ultimately unwilling to be moderated either by the criticism of their peers (in spite of some contacts in France, are any of the SSPX's theses being published and discussed in theological journals?) or by the judgment of the Church's authorities. In the recent doctrinal discussions, there was no sense in which the SSPX took their position to Rome for it to be assessed. They took it to Rome to convince Rome that it was already fundamentally sound, so fundamentally sound in fact that, for the SSPX, it has become the measuring stick for Rome's orthodoxy (or has put the SSPX in the driving seat, as Bishop Williamson says). Such a conclusion is only possible because the SSPX's methodology has become, as it were, invisible to the minds of its experts.

We have a crisis in the Church and lots of grave problems. Not everyone agrees with this view, but a lot of sensible people do. The problem is, then: whose reading of the problems should be our guiding light? And which experts can we trust? In the end there is no escaping the conclusion that every expert who is not willing to have his position moderated by Rome is not in fact serving any truth but his own; in the end, it is ironic that making the pastoral Magisterium of the Hierarchy {especially that of the chief pastor} subject to the Magisterium of the Experts involves exactly the kind of modernist assumption that the SSPX has declared itself opposed to. If Bishop Williamson cares about the Truth, as indeed I believe he does deeply, he must ultimately admit that there is a real distinction in re between the teachings of the Church and the results of the analyses by SSPX theologians. Sadly I see no sign of this distinction starting to dawn on him or on any of his colleagues. Let me hereby challenge him respectfully to address the argument.

Unlike a lot of people, I happen to think there is a place for Bishop Williamson and the SSPX in the mainstream, banging their big bass drums for all they are worth. They just have to realise that the percussion section cannot be a law unto itself, and that moving from a march to a waltz does not constitute the abandonment of rhythm.


Sixupman said...

From a person of the pew: my difficulty is the Mass as presented to me in a myriad of (C)atholic parish churches throughout the land - a proliferation of middle road CofE services, my own parish with actual CofE accretions and sermons against the Magisterium. Therefore anti-SSPX sermonising leaves me cold.

I agree with your final paragraph, but have doubts about +Williamson, who has created a cult of personality around himself.

Anonymous said...

Ches, so what you are saying is that there is room in the Church for the SSPX, BUT....

Indeed, that could apply to anyone ... Methodist, Anglican, Muslim. There is room for you in the Church, BUT...

It is the nature of the 'but' that is crucial. With regard to the SSPX, realistically, the Pope is hardly going to reconcile with a group which thinks that a council of the Church taught heresy, that an approved liturgy of the Church is evil and that the magisterium of the Church has embraced heresy ("Modernist Rome"). George

Ches said...


Anti-SSPX sermonizing leaves me cold as well. I'm actually trying to help the situation by not resorting simply to dismissing them, as I fear George would like to.


My point is to try to dissolve the assimilation of SSPX rhetoric and Catholic truth on which their position rests. I want them in. They Church needs them in. The pope is seeking to get them in. They are our brothers.

Anonymous said...

Sorry Ches, I did not make myself very clear in my first post. I did not intend simply to dismiss the SSPX, indeed I think they potentially have a lot to offer the church. What I was trying to point out is that their situation is far from straightforward to put it mildly.

The following is from Bishop Williamson:

"Now the Catholic Authority of the churchmen should be welded to the Catholic Truth of Our Lord, because that human Authority only exists to protect and teach that divine Truth. But at that dreadful Council (1962-1965), centuries of Protestant heresy and Liberal dissolution of truth had at last so wormed their way into the hearts and minds of a large majority of the Council Fathers that they gave up on the purity of Catholic Truth, and to this day they have been using all their Catholic Authority to impose on Catholics the Council’s new and false religion of man."

According to his arguments, Rome has erred, not simply in its prudential judgments, but in its teaching. Where does this leave the indefectibility of the Church?

To put it another way, I would ask: "Does "SSPX rhetoric" always conform to "Catholic Truth"?"


Ches said...

Agreed, George. What was sometimes intemperate rhetoric on the part of Archbishop Lefebvre often serves as impregnable principle on the part of his followers.

Anonymous said...

That's an excellent way of putting it, Ches. I'm sure we could cite numerous examples, but one of the most notable is the use of the expression "Conciliar Church". When questioned, we are told that it simply refers to a "spirit" - they don't actually think that those in good standing with the Pope constitute a separate Church. And yet, you do find some hardline SSPX supporters refusing to attend the TLM if celebrated by an "official" traditionalist group or by a diocesan priest on the grounds that they are part of the "Conciliar Church".

Again, the purpose of my comment was not to "bash" the SSPX, but to point out the very real difficulties in any reconciliation.

It was interesting that when the Pope wrote to the world’s bishops, explaining the reason for his decision to rescind the excommunications, he spoke of the benefits for both the Church and for the SSPX.

"I myself saw, in the years after 1988, how the return of communities which had been separated from Rome changed their interior attitudes; I saw how returning to the bigger and broader Church enabled them to move beyond one-sided positions and broke down rigidity so that positive energies could emerge for the whole."

How this rigidity is broken down, I do not know. Perhaps they need a gentle reminder that not everything is black and white.


Anonymous said...


Major and Minor premises!?! Syllogisms!?! How dare you!

You have hit this nail on the head, in a way, the SSPX arguments sound a whole heck of a lot like the Ressourcement movement...they just pick different fathers to construct "impregnable" syllogisms from (Why we need to have a fight between the likes of St. Cyril of Jerusalem and St. Alphonse de Liguori, I do not know).
If they are not total modernist in holding a Magisterium of experts over Rome, perhaps they are semi-modernists, something akin to semi-pelagians, so that, while some of them have great things to say and only occasionally slip into vague language.
As an analogy: John Cassian, who had a conference or two that caused some problems with the Augustinian mainstream, but overall was one of the great masters of the western spiritual life (As a Monk once told me "those particular conferences are not that interesting anyway"!).
On the other hand, others fall into outright language that seems to oppose not only Vatican II, but even Vatican I (I can only imagine that Dom Gueranger would see Bishop Williamson as an opponent if he had the Papal Monarchism argument to fight all over again).
Either way, I think you have this one correct Ches. Even when Rome is being its silliest (running off to Avignon, letting ridiculous Italian families to elect Popes, etc.,) to be Catholic is to think it will never lead us totally astray, and that any "oppression" or "difficulties" a later-vindicated movement receives from Rome is simply the God-ordained trials that all good things must go through to reach spiritual maturation. If we throw away Rome faculty of mediation, which is often times useful not because its astuteness in choosing the correct doctrine immediately but by the sheer fact of directing arguments in a certain direction, I do not see how we are not Protestant, or at least Eastern Orthodox.


Editor said...
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J. Christopher Pryor said...

Fantastic analysis. The Senisble Bond is definitely "my drug of choice." I'm glad you are back.

Anonymous said...

Ches, you wrote:

"The problem is, then: whose reading of the problems should be our guiding light? And which experts can we trust? In the end there is no escaping the conclusion that every expert who is not willing to have his position moderated by Rome is not in fact serving any truth but his own; in the end, it is ironic that making the pastoral Magisterium of the Hierarchy {especially that of the chief pastor} subject to the Magisterium of the Experts involves exactly the kind of modernist assumption that the SSPX has declared itself opposed to. "

My question: How do you know you can trust Rome? That is my difficulty.


Ches said...

Marion, I put my trust in God, but I also believe that his help is providentially made available to me in the visible institution of the Catholic Church. That doesn't mean we make everything the pope says into dogma, but it does mean that the buck stops in Rome somehow. That is what is missing from the SSPX's arguments. They say that only Rome can sort this out; but then what they mean is that Rome will only have sorted it out when it does what the SSPX says it should do.

W.C. Hoag said...


The SSPX modernist-esque double Magisterium elluded me for a very long time until I found myself trying to refute Modernist academics while witnessing myself--those were my post-seminary SSPX days--using the same theological methology as they.

The startling realisation of a faulty theological method contributed to my exit from Society-land.

John said...

Good Morning,
I find your analysis intriguing, Ches. I'm inclined to agree with your assessment: Bringing SSPX back into full communion within the Church WILL be tough.
Years before Summorum Pontificum, I had the "option" of attending a reverent, traditional Mass, not SSPX, but CMRI. Much of the same mentality though. I didn't join them, but continued attending the Novus Ordo, despite serious misgivings about the local Church.
For me, it came down to one simple question:
Did I accept or reject the teachings of the Church's Councils?

Joining the traditional parish would've essentially meant ignoring the idea that Vatican II..happened. I couldn't see how I could reject Vatican II without summarily rejecting Vatican I as well. That Council taught that the Pope was infallible when teaching as Pope to the world on matters of faith and morals. I've read all 4 of the Constitutions of Vatican II. They all appear to teach something to the world regarding faith and morals. What's more, each one lists His Holiness, the Pope, as the author. Some canonist might discern some weird loophole somewhere, but I can't see it.

If Vatican II was wrong, how would Vatican I be valid?

It's sad to see the Church hammered so hard within Her own ranks by dissent, but She hasn't fallen yet, so I guess we need to keep on marching.

We'll also need to keep praying for SSPX, CMRI, and others to come back into the fold.

Thank God for Benedict XVI!

Anonymous said...

Question for anyone who would like to answer:

If you have doubts regarding the Vatican II popes, can you in good conscience attend a Mass at a CMRI chapel without risking the loss of your soul?

Or are you required to grin and bear it in the novus ordo Church and give the popes the benefit of the doubt?


K Gurries said...

Ches, great analysis as usual! If there is a "dialogue of the deaf" going on then it probably because hearts and minds are not sufficiently open. I like how the Holy Father put it in the letter accompanying the Motu Proprio Summorum Pontificum:

I think of a sentence in the Second Letter to the Corinthians, where Paul writes: "Our mouth is open to you, Corinthians; our heart is wide. You are not restricted by us, but you are restricted in your own affections. In return, widen your hearts also!" (II Cor 6:11-13).

Pachomius said...

"According to his arguments, Rome has erred, not simply in its prudential judgments, but in its teaching. Where does this leave the indefectibility of the Church?"

Quite. And this is the question no SSPX-er ever answers.

Marion: In answer to your question about how we can trust Rome, the answer is in the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 16, verses 18-20. Either scripture can be trusted, or it can't. And if it can't, then the whole edifice of Christianity is but a ludicrous charade, and there is no truth in it at all. And in that case, then the type of Mass would hardly matter, because it would all be nonsense.

In answer to your second, I propose two questions: First, what does my opinion of the Mass matter? And second, who am I to grant the benefit of the doubt to the Vicar of Christ?

Capt. Morgan said...

While dashing Bishop Williamson and the SSPX are seen as quite the proper tone by many, I must ask those who are so quick to deny the arguments that the Bishops of the SSPX make concerning the documents of the second Vatican Council; What are we to make of the Arian crisis? Were the dissenters correct? Or the Heretical Bishops who manifestly held the seats of power?
Have we not been warned by Our Lady at Fatima, Lourdes, La Salette and Ecuador as to what we can expect? Do we not see the need for constant Prayer and Fasting offered to Our Lord to Restore His Church?
I fear we have become so "enlightened" that we would rather argue semantics and personalities rather than lead Chaste lives in communion with the Gospel.

John L said...

A couple of initial comments; Bishop Williamson is not a spokesman for the SSPX, so his views are not relevant to a consideration of the Society's position. The criticism that the Society is reluctant to be subject to theological criticism because its theologians do not publish their views in theological journals is silly. Theologians of the Society publish their views in a range of outlets aimed at both popular and scholarly audiences. Academic theological journals would not publish papers arguing for the SSPX's position, because they reject this position a priori as unworthy of consideration; I am an academic, and I can assure you that this is the case.

The main point to be made however is that you misconstrue the Society's position in two ways.

1. You make a kindly mention of the list of documents I gave in a previous comment. These documents were all issued in Rome; they were not written by Archbishop Lefebvre or anyone else in the SSPX. So when the Society tells the Roman authorities that they accept the teaching in these documents, they are not telling Rome that Rome should accept the Society's views. They are telling the Roman authorities that those authorities should be following their own teachings, and that they are falling down on the job by not doing so.

2) The reply that will be made to this point is that it is the Roman authorities that decide what counts as being in accord or not in accord with Catholic tradition, and that the SSPX does not have the authority to determine what Catholic tradition is. This is quite true; but it is exactly the point that the Society is making. Their point is that the Roman authorities are not doing this, and that they should be doing this. There is on the face of it an incompatibility between some earlier Roman teachings, and other later ones. I pointed out one such seeming incompatibility in my list of documents on religious freedom and church/state relations. When you have different Church teachings that on the face of it make contradictory claims, then what is needed to decide what Catholic tradition says is a further clear statement with the highest degree of authority that explains what should be believed about the topic of the seemingly contradictory statements. The SSPX position is that such seeming contraditions exist, and that an authoritative statement by Rome is needed to resolve them. The website of the SSPX's St. Thomas Aquinas Seminary has recently published a translation of a long article by Don Davide Pagliarani that makes exactly this point.

The only reply that can be offered to this second point by the Roman authorities is that there are no seeming contradictions between earlier and later statements, so that no decision is needed. But this reply leaves in explicable the now admitted 'hermeneutic of rupture', the widely held interpretation of Vatican II as having rejected and replaced earlier teachings. How could this hermeneutic have ever existed if there were no appearance of contradiction betwen teachings? That is the point made by the SSPX, and it is a strong one.

John said...

John L,
While I think I understand your point, I disagree with your assessment.
Every statement I've heard from SSPX the past few years, especially those by Bishop Fellay, make clear to me they believe Rome has strayed, while SSPX, have remained faithful.

Then again, I don't believe Vatican II actualy contradicted any prior teaching, especially with regard to the Church's teachings. If anything, the "Spirit of Vatican II" has been used to routinely mis-cast the Council's actual teachings, so the "hermeneutic of rupture" has come about from wildly straying from what the Council Fathers actually taught.
Yes, the Council DID challenge every Catholic to understand the faith from a more deeply intellectual standpoint and some of the concepts presented come across more ambiguously than might've been strictly needed. Even so, I think it incorrect to declare that Vatican II can be correctly interpreted to have contradicted something.

Then again, I think Rome has tried explaining this or that regarding the faith and the Council on several occasions. Part of the problem has been that..neither "modern" nor "traditional" factions have always been precisely willing to listen with humility....

Cruise the Groove. said...

All I know is that my wife and I are very grateful to the FSSPX who offer the TLM in our diocese where no other TLM is available.
We are attached to the TLM and unfortunately many of the NO offered in our diocese are horrific to assist at.
I have been told by my spiritual advisor, an regularised FSSP priest, that it is a near occasion of sin form me to go to these NO Masses [which it is] and that since the P.C.E.D. has stated that we can fulfill our holyday obligations at FSSPX Mass without incurring any penalty or committing any sin, we do so.
I now pray for near day when the Holy See will officially acknowledge that Society confessions are valid.
Thank the good Lord for the FSSPX!

Anonymous said...

As a result of the reform of the Mass, was not the nature of the ordained priesthood changed and diminished? If so, did not a dogmatic reform take place?

Actually, since the reform of the Mass was accomplished by a committee and approved by Paul VI it was not even a conciliar act although the Council recommended the reform.

Anonymous said...

I echo Fr. Z's comment here: There's not much difference between SSPX & Fr Hans Kung's positions. One drives off the road on the right, the other on the left but they both end up in the ditch. Sad.

Anonymous said...

Anon 3:42, don't tell that to an SSPX-er! You'll have your head handed to you.

Michael379 said...

Since I haven't seen it addressed yet: those who cite the indefectability of the Church when defending Vatican II seem to overlook two very important facts:

1. Widespread defection from the truth at the highest levels is not unheard of in the history of Mother Church. Look at what happened with the Arian heresy! But the minority won out in that one, because they were right.

2. Both Blessed Pope John XXIII and Pope Paul VI expressly and publicly stated that the Second Vatican Council was not intended to have any doctrinal or dogmatic weight. When Archbishop Lefebvre and other conservatives raised objections during the council on doctrinal grounds, they were reminded of this fact. So how is it that we automatically assume that this council enjoyed the protection of the Holy Spirit and is therefore above questioning?

As to the Novus Ordo...well, I'm sure you've all done your research on its roots and observed its fruits. Tell me: is it holy? Really?

7/10 split said...

You keep putting forward the same reasoning in many of your posts. It seems very straightforward and correct to me. I appreciate what you have written. It has helped me very much. Thank you.