I read with interest the latest editorial of Fideliter , the review of the SSPX district in France, signed by Fr Régis de Caquecray. But what I read also stunned and amazed me for two reasons which I intend to unpack here.
We have seen various superiors of the SSPX (Germany, Benelux, South Asia, USA, etc) make encouraging noises about the apparently imminent accord with the Holy See. Of course we still do not know if Rome will accept the latest submission from Menzingen (SSPX HQ), though thanks to the letters leaked a couple of days ago we now clearly know Bishop Fellay's resolve in this direction. In the Menzingen press statement about the leaked letters, the leaker is accused of wishing to foment division among the SSPX. This is diplomatic language. The reality is that the divisions are alread quite deep, as indeed the letters showed.
Well, of course, we understand the division, and so should Bishop Fellay. Anyone whose organisation is based on a conscientious objection to certain orders of the Holy See cannot be surprised if one of his subordinates makes a conscientious objection to his actions. Nor can that fellow be surprised if one of his subordinates makes a conscientious objection to him. And so on, and so on, ad infinitum. The logic of fission is inexorable... But it is the timing and the content of Fr de Caquéray's intervention that has surprised me most.
Fr de Cacqueray's editorial, which asserts that Pope Benedict is suffering from grave illusions, has come out at the start of May, but was probably written at least two weeks ago at a time when Bishop Fellay was about to hand in the last submission to Rome. In other words, what we have here is something of a timebomb, calculated to go off during a delicate period of the negotiations. I'm sure Bishop Fellay appreciates this very much.
Now some people seem to think that allowing public support for Bishop Fellay but condemning opposition to Bishop Fellay require one to apply a double standard. I suppose if we are professed anarchists, it does! But if we still believe in the idea of hierarchy, we should be troubled by this editorial. It is a calculated blow, signalling at this difficult moment that there is serious opposition to an SSPX-Rome accord in what is after all the flagship district of the SSPX. Of course, the editorial says not a word about the accord, so it has what we might call perfect deniability. How, someone might ask, is Fr de Cacqueray's editorial different from many dozens which he or others have written?
Well, ITTS, as they say (it's the timing, stupid!).
All that said, let us be broad-minded about this for a moment and allow Fr de Cacqueray (from now on FrdeC) his intervention. What exactly is he saying in this editorial? It could after all be important.
The thesis of the editorial is that Pope Benedict XVI is suffering from two grave illusions:
(1) that there is any light in the Council for our dark times
(2) that there are any living movements in the degenerate Christianity of the postconciliar Church
Illusion No. 1
FrdeC begins by quoting from the Pope's Chrism Mass sermon this year and, after a brief and rather patronising moment of praise, cites these words of the Pope:
"The texts of the Second Vatican Council and the Catechism of the Catholic Church are essential tools which serve as an authentic guide to what the Church believes on the basis of God’s word. And of course this also includes the whole wealth of documents given to us by Pope John Paul II, still far from being fully explored."
FrdeC then provides the following gloss:
It is evidently clear that the references to "the words of the teaching Church" mentioned by Benedict XVI remain solely and always those of the Second Vatican Council, of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and of the documents of John Paul II. (my emphasis).
What FrdeC wants us to believe is that Benedict's reference points are uniquely and invariably those of the Council and the postconciliar era. What else could 'solely and always' actually mean? So, I went with curiosity to the pope's sermon and began looking at its sources. Now, Vatican II is indeed the only council mentioned, though since it was the most recent general council, that is hardly surprising.
But if FrdeC is trying to convince us that the Catholic teaching Benedict wants to pass on is soley and always that of Vatican II and afterwards, then this sermon is not going to help his case. In the same sermon, we find the following words:
We priests can call to mind a great throng of holy priests who have gone before us and shown us the way: from Polycarp of Smyrna and Ignatius of Antioch, from the great pastors Ambrose, Augustine and Gregory the Great, through to Ignatius of Loyola, Charles Borromeo, John Mary Vianney and the priest-martyrs of the 20th century, and finally Pope John Paul II, who gave us an example, through his activity and his suffering, of configuration to Christ as “gift and mystery”.
Whatever one thinks of the last example, Pope Benedict's vision of the Church's past extends well beyond Vatican II. What FrdeC's 'solely and always' actually means then is still not clear.
But there is something more than this in the sermon and astonishingly it comes directly after the passage which FrdeC has cited (as I noted above) about Vatican II. Yes, directly after this citation, Pope Benedict said the following:
All our preaching must measure itself against the saying of Jesus Christ: “My teaching is not mine” (Jn 7:16). We preach not private theories and opinions, but the faith of the Church, whose servants we are.
But, FrdeC might reply, the pope in this sermon restricts this teaching 'solely and always' to Vatican II and after. Well, it's somewhat unfair to expect a whole exposition of his thought from a sermon. If we turn to the pope's apostolic letters or exhortations, we do indeed find references to more recent teachings since the Council but we also find many other sources: St Thomas Aquinas, St Augustine, the Roman Breviary, St John Chrysostom, St Jerome, St Polycarp, etc.. The pope's research as a theologian focused on St Augustine but also on St Bonaventure. If I turn to Maximillian Heim's Joseph Ratzinger: Life in the Church and Living Theology, a major landmark in Ratzingerian scholarship, I find the following quotation taken from Introduction to Theology:
[The Council of] Chalcedon represents the boldest and most sublime simplification of the complex and many-layered data of tradition to a single central fact that is the basis of everything else: [Christ is the] Son of God possessed of the same nature as God and of the same nature as us.
Away with the nonsense of Fr Michel Gleize who (following Bishop Tissier de Mallerais) accuses Benedict of thinking that the Church's living subject justifies radical evolution of the deposit of faith. How could that be reconciled with such an understanding of Chalcedon?
Indeed, how could all the holy priests the pope mentioned in his Chrism Mass sermon be a model for Catholic priests unless the former shared the same faith as the latter: not just membership of the same Church but the same contact with God's truth? There are a lot of churchmen guilty of forgetting everything before Vatican II, but that is not an accusation that can in any way be levelled at Pope Benedict. For better or for worse, Pope Benedict knows his pre-Vatican II sources pretty well and directs our minds to them often.
FrdeC then goes on to argue that Pope Benedict, while he has complained about the poor state of the Church, sees some good in the postconciliar landscape. He quotes the following words from the pope's sermon:
"Anyone who considers the history of the post-conciliar era can recognize the process of true renewal, which often took unexpected forms in living movements and made almost tangible the inexhaustible vitality of holy Church, the presence and effectiveness of the Holy Spirit."
FrdeC then goes on to gloss the pope's words in the following way:
We do not know, in fairness, what are these living movements that the Pope perceives in the post-conciliar era. As for us, we instead perceive the extinction, and the scheduled death, due to the lack of vocations, of prestigious congregations and religious institutes. We witness the disappearance of whole parishes and dioceses. Populations have become pagan once again, children are no longer baptized. (emphasis in the original French)
It is hard to know what FrdeC's point is here. He concedes that the pope does not think everything is rosy in the garden, but then accuses him apparently of finding some good out there in the Church!Is it that for FrdeC, if someone has gone wrong, you absolutely must not praise anything about them? Must we be unremittingly negative about them until they reform whatever it is they have got wrong?
Joking aside, what a curious way to criticize the pope: 'we do not know what these living movements are': well ... dear father, why don't you inform yourself before taking the pope to task for acknowledging that the situation in the mainstream is not 100% negative?
In any case, if we again go back to the sermon, we are left in no doubt as to the pope's rather realistic understanding of the current situation in the Church. Near the beginning of the sermon he states:
I should be asking not what I stand to gain, but what I can give for him and so for others. Or to put it more specifically, this configuration to Christ, who came not to be served but to serve, who does not take, but rather gives – what form does it take in the often dramatic situation of the Church today? Recently a group of priests from a European country issued a summons to disobedience, and at the same time gave concrete examples of the forms this disobedience might take, even to the point of disregarding definitive decisions of the Church’s Magisterium, such as the question of women’s ordination, for which Blessed Pope John Paul II stated irrevocably that the Church has received no authority from the Lord... Do we sense here anything of that configuration to Christ which is the precondition for all true renewal, or do we merely sense a desperate push to do something to change the Church in accordance with one’s own preferences and ideas?
Further on in the sermon, he observes:
At the meeting of Cardinals on the occasion of the recent Consistory, several of the pastors of the Church spoke, from experience, of the growing religious illiteracy found in the midst of our sophisticated society. The foundations of faith, which at one time every child knew, are now known less and less.
Dissent and ignorance: these are the Church's enemies, says the pope. But because he finds some good in the contemporary Church, he is suffering from grave illusions, according to FrdeC.
So, after this long and tedious exposition of FrdeC's editorial for Fideliter, what are we left with? You will note that FrdeC's editorial basically moves around two poles: the doctrinal and the circumstancial. Doctrinally, he says, the pope is deluded - well, what else is one if one has grave illusions? Circumstantially, the pope is equally deluded - out in the contemporary Church, there is nothing but heresy, corruption, and wickedness, all amounting to what FrdeC calls 'degenerate Christianity'.
Does anyone else recognise the two tendencies of this editorial? Yes, you guessed it: give yourself a ceeeegar! FrdeC is basically making the same errors as the three SSPX bishops who were told off so thoroughly in Bishop Fellay's recent letter. This editorial was written several weeks before the leaks, but is it possible he saw the letters? We cannot say for sure. But since he is a member of the General Chapter, why would they be kept secret from him? At the very least his view concurs with theirs, but his modus operandi is different: he has declared his views openly!!
Isn't this the coming division in the SSPX's ranks? If Vatican II is a superheresy and there is no good in the Church, then it is logical to stay away from the Church. In this case, let me be the first to wish FrdeC bon voyage and, I sincerely hope, au revoir.
If, however, the doctrinal picture is a lot more mixed, and if there are some sparks of real, tangible goodness in the contemporary ecclesial landscape, then Bishop Fellay's argument about a fight intra mures is all the more plausible. Let him not delay.
And let Fr de Cacqueray and the three bishops take heed also. We need every mother's son of 'em - a view I dare say which is not far distant from that of the current incumbent of the Holy See.