Confessions of a Nobody or why I left the SSPX Milieu
I originally wrote these lines in 2008 in answer to libellous explanations for why I had left the SSPX milieu. Since many people have told me that they have found them useful to their own thinking about these matters, I have decided to make them available again on a stand-alone page on this blog.
I do not offer these lines as a refutation of the SSPX case. Nor are they offered because I particularly like talking about myself, though I am as prone to what Bishop Williamson used to call Number-One-itis as the next man. I am simply thinking of other people who have made the same journey, and of others who would contemplate the same journey if only they thought it was possible.
I’ve made the journey, and this is how.
Imagine me in 2003, a younger and certainly a thinner chap, on the point of completing the translation of the biography of Archbishop Lefebvre (ABL from now on). It was a huge task which I still feel honoured to have undertaken, for however one disagrees with ABL, he was for most of his life an undoubtedly great servant of the Church. His errors, when they were errors, were made out of love for the Church. It was about this time that Fr Paul Aulagnier, the very first seminarian to ask ABL for help in the late 1960s, and these days with the Institute of the Good Shepherd, was drummed out of the SSPX. There were various reasons for this expulsion but one of these was an interview he gave to The Wanderer in which he said something that, for once, broke through my traditionalist view of the Church: he said that on their current course, the SSPX were on, or risked following, a schismatic trajectory.
It seems such an obvious thing now, but then it contradicted so many of my assumptions about how the SSPX would come to reconciliation. Not that these things were articulated clearly. Until the late 1990s I think I assumed that one of these days Rome would realise the great errors of the Council and turn to the SSPX for help, and the SSPX would come riding to the rescue. After the moment came and went for a potential reconciliation in 2001, I changed this view and began to imagine that the future reform of the Church might be something more piecemeal, and certainly not as glorious as a full vindication of ABL.
In the light of Aulagnier’s remarks, however, one thought began to press itself upon me: how does this SSPX story end? What logic actually brings the SSPX situation to a final conclusion? When the Church corrects all her errors, presumably …?
But is it not possible, I wondered, that in never coming to meet Rome, not necessarily halfway but at least somewhere along the path, the SSPX might never reconcile? Does the position of the SSPX not ignore the fact that solutions can often be very messy and painful? When I look back now, the SSPX position reminds me of the French monarchists who were invited to get involved in French Republican politics by Leo XIII. Many refused. Many still do. Their descendents are often, though not always, found among the ranks of the SSPX. They still hope for a restoration of the French monarchy, and they have done so for nearly 120 years since Leo XIII’s letter Au Milieu des Sollicitudes; indeed, since the death of the Duc de Chambord, the last of the Legitimists’ line. Only a few years ago, and even now, I imagine, vendors of Action française 2000, the latest publication of the neo-royalists, would stand outside St Nicolas du Chardonnet, the SSPX church on the Parisian Left Bank, on a Sunday morning. The most potent insult SSPX traditionalists throw at the Ecclesia Dei communities is that they are ‘ralliés’: they have rallied to what is called the Conciliar Church, like the treacherous monarchists rallying to the French Republic.
What stopped me facing up to this thought of a ‘schismatic trajectory’ at the time were all the horrors one could read about in the Catholic papers, the weakness of the diocesan bishops, the regular papal inter-religious jamborees under John Paul II with Animist skull ticklers from East Timor — I jest, but you know what I mean — and occasionally having to attend mainstream liturgies for weddings or funerals, all celebrated with varying degrees of cringe-making banality or abuse. Who could live with all that, day in and day out? Wouldn’t I be risking my soul to walk into such a situation? No, the SSPX seemed to be, to use a perennial tautology, a ‘safe haven’ for a Catholic in the current climate.
I suppose it was early in 2004 that I began to look again at this issue. I ran across several people I had once known in the SSPX circles, and in arguing with them about various points it began to dawn on me that there were problems in the SSPX analysis. It also began to dawn on me that perhaps the situation for the SSPX and for the Church was not quite as I had thought it to be.
As I say, it is hard now to retrace every step of that path but I want to give a structure to the considerations that follow, so I will organise them very much in the order which they occurred to me. My initial considerations concerned the episcopal consecrations of 1988 and so were connected to canonical issues. The second body of considerations concerned theological points of controversy, and were connected to the Church’s teachings and to Vatican II. My final considerations concerned the liturgy, and were thus connected to the Church’s worship. What horrified many of my friends and family at the time was not merely my separating from the SSPX, but my questioning the SSPX theses almost right across the board. What they did not understand was my realization that, in each of these three areas — canonical, theological, liturgical — the SSPX had, albeit very worthily and with serious reasons, made the same false step. That at least is my opinion. I hope to make their false step clearer in due course.
Part 1 Canonical considerations
One of the conversations that I had at this time was with a man who I had known many years ago in Manchester. He too, unbeknown to me, had quit the SSPX circles, and an accidental meeting one day led us into a debate. I don’t remember the terms of what we said, but I do remember coming away with a reference to look at Pius XII’s letter condemning the episcopal consecrations in the Chinese Church in 1958. The reasoning ultimately suggested that whatever the problems faced by the SSPX, ABL had no right to hand on the Apostolic Succession in the way he did. I thought I had the answer to that objection, but still I went back over the issue.
The SSPX were not slow in advancing complex and convincing canonical arguments in defence of their episcopal consecrations (I know you mainstreamers prefer episcopal ‘ordinations’ but just bear with me). If I attempted to go into these issues in detail, it was not because I believed I was especially competent to do so, but because I could not start anywhere else than where I was. Not only am I an academic type, but I spent nearly four years in SSPX seminaries, and it was my habit to go into things at some length, much to the dismay of my friends!
Argue up hill, down dale and all day long — recite all the worst horrors and abuses of the Vatican Council, and the 1970s and 1980s — and the keystone in the canonical defence of ABL’s consecrations is this: a canonical State of Necessity exists, and episcopal consecrations can be performed without mandate, when the lawgiver (the Pope) cannot be consulted. Now, according to the SSPX — take a deep breath, you lovers of JPII — John Paul II could not be consulted over the proposed episcopal consecrations, not because he was physically inaccessible but because he was morally inaccessible, i.e. according to the SSPX, so little did JPII grasp the Catholic Faith, so full was his mind of the error of universal salvation, so enamoured was he with his East Timorese skull-tickling interlocutors at Assisi, that he could not do his duty with regard to the faithful who depended on ABL for orthodox priests, sacraments in the 1962 rites, traditional schools and sound catechesis. Theoretically speaking, the CDF's response to the SSPX's 'dubia' concerning religious liberty, and practically speaking, the 1986 meeting in Assisi of the world religions, convinced ABL that JPII was beyond the pale. That is, as I say, the keystone of the argument which justified the decision to consecrate bishops without papal mandate.
Beside which, ABL always said he was consecrating bishops just to administer the sacraments and not for any other reason. It was not a parallel Church. ‘Loin de moi, loin de moi de m’ériger en pape!’ (Be it far, far from me to set myself up as a pope), he said in his beautifully limpid French on the day of the consecrations in 1988.
But two things began to dawn on me at this stage.
Much later, what I read about JPII in George Weigel’s biography and other sources convinced me that the Polish pope was far from careless about the salvation of souls. Still, firstly, even if the SSPX were right about JPII, was the keystone argument safe? On reflection, it seemed quite shaky. It was not completely illogical to say JPII was not ‘morally inaccessible’, but the conclusion was surely a form of practical sedevacantism: for the SSPX the candles were lit in the Vatican but nobody was at home, so to speak. Wasn't this actually the thin end of the wedge? What other decisions of the pope might be discarded if he were considered juridically incompetent? Moreover, this keystone argument takes no other circumstance into account. For example, at least two of the candidates ordained on 30 June 1988 might not have made it through any terna process: Bishop Williamson (a convert and not that long a Catholic) and Bishop Fellay (six years below canonical age). It was quite possible that JPII was thoroughly keen on reconciling the SSPX — he certainly was in 2001 — but as an old-fashioned Polish cleric, he wasn’t about to let ABL have it all his own way. It’s a point of principle for anyone in authority! After all, WHO was the pope? ‘Loin de moi, loin de moi de m’eriger en pape!’
I should add that in canon law the pope is not ultimately bound except by the Divine Law (though it may be imprudent to change other lower laws). But in this case, I thought, in order to justify the consecrations, wouldn't you have to argue that Rome's refusal to sanction the consecration of these four men on that date (a refusal made by public by Cardinal Gantin's formal canonical warning of 18 June 1988, I think) was contrary to Divine Law? And how was that possible? And if it be argued that the consecrations were necessary for the defence of the faith — Operation Survival, as it was called by ABL — what did this say about the rest of the Church? Could nobody keep the faith except on the terms guaranteed by ABL's action?
The second thing that began to dawn on me was that there was a connection between the passing on of episcopal orders and the nature of the Church. ABL said he wanted to consecrate bishops just for the sacraments. In fact, he believed he was obliged to do that. Still, this idea of bishops just for the sacraments also started looking shaky. Bishops are not sacrament machines. In fact, even for auxiliaries, a bishop’s orders orientate him — order him — towards the teaching of the faith, the governance of the flock and the administration of the sacraments. A bishop’s powers are not deployed in a sacramental context alone, but in the context of the life of a local church (and potentially of the entire Church). Moreover, if a bishop could be ordained just for the sacraments as in the case of an auxiliary (bear with the approximation, all you theological purists), it was also because the governance and teaching of a particular flock were already taken care of by the ordinary. The episcopal consecrations might not have created a parallel Church as such, but they were correlative with the ecclesially autonomous life of the SSPX in which teaching, governance and sacraments were not dependent on any other visible Church authority. In handing on episcopal orders without papal mandate, ABL crystallised, liturgically and sacramentally, an autonomous ecclesial existence.
Part 2 Theological considerations
Imagine me now coming to the conclusion that the consecrations were just not safe anymore. Whatever the situation of the SSPX and whatever the wider problems in the Church, the judgement that had led to the decision to consecrate and the implications of an autonomous ecclesial life were no longer acceptable solutions to the crisis.
In which case, where was I to go, and what was I to do? And how could I accept Vatican II and the New Mass, an acceptance which was required of me to attend what we then called the ‘indult masses’? As so many people said to me, and as I feared myself, accepting such things was contrary to the Catholic conscience.
Again it is hard to retrace the steps that advanced my thinking on this point, but I think what made the difference was that whenever I argued the SSPX case with others, they had to remind me that what I was stating was my opinion, and not necessarily Church teaching. In this respect, one important document that I came across at the time was the CDF instruction on the Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian. Two distinctions emerged from this reading that have served me well ever since in all these debates.
Firstly, there is a difference between individual theological opinion and the Church’s magisterial judgment. It hadn’t really occurred to me before, probably because I regarded any teaching not solemnly defined, as susceptible of criticism (every post-1962 teaching, of course!). One important example of this confusion in my mind was the Ottaviani and Bacci Intervention on the New Mass. In this document, the authors claim that the New Mass departs significantly from the doctrine on the Sacrifice of the Mass ‘as formulated at the 22nd Session of the Council of Trent’. Traditionalists hold onto this statement as a solid basis from which to resist moves to make them attend the New Mass. The trouble with this, however, is that while we are bound to accept the 22nd Session of the Council of Trent, what the Ottaviani and Bacci Intervention asserts are deductions based on a whole set of premises; the Intervention is thus a statement of theological opinion, eminently susceptible of criticism by other theologians, however distinguished its signatories were. In other words, in using such documents, traditionalists were ignoring their own theological processes or methodologies. This in itself was bad enough, though the human mind cannot help coming to the conclusions contained potentially in its reasoning. What was worse, however, was that the traditionalist critics appeared to transfer the authority of magisterial judgements — in this case from the Council of Trent — to their own theological conclusions. The idea that the New Mass was contrary to the faith could be found in no Church document; it was a theological deduction. The traditionalist case against the New Mass, however, is not merely theological, and I'll come back to it later on.
This insight began to change the way I read what traditionalist critics wrote. When I read the words, ‘the Church condemns this practice which is now so widespread,’ I began mentally adding in the words, ‘in the reasoning of this writer’. In some cases, of course, they are correct but still, there is a subtle nuance that needs recognising between theological opinion and magisterial judgment.
I cannot insist too much on the importance of this distinction for working through so much traditionalist writing. In each case, it seems sufficient for the traditionalist critic to be able to refer to a teaching in the past to conclude that Vatican II’s teachings can forthwith be dismissed as erroneous. It is as if, for the traditionalist critic, his own conclusions become as axiomatic as the documents on which they are based. I am not here saying that his working out is wrong, but that the value he attaches to his conclusion needs to be corroborated by the Church, not himself! As an aside, I should say that it is interesting to note the difference here between ABLs stance — that Vatican II must be read in the light of Tradition — with the current SSPX stance: Vatican II cannot be read in the light of Tradition.
The second insight, which is a corollary of this first one, was that the body of Church teachings was something different from the body of theological writings in the Church. As the CDF document noted above makes clear (quoting St Thomas Aquinas), a distinction exists between the Magisterium of the Teachers (or, experts) (magisterium cathedrae magisterialis) and the Magisterium of the Pastors (bishops and pope) (magisterium cathedrae pastoralis) (Note 27). The former normally feeds the reflection of the latter; moreover, the former must conduct its research in the context of the latter, and when they diverge, then it is the Magisterium of the Pastors which takes priority. To take an example from the other wing of the Church, it doesn’t matter that many distinguished professors of theology argue with mountains of cogent syllogisms that Humanae Vitae was wrong. The Magisterium of the Pastors, on this occasion in the person of Paul VI, ruled otherwise.
How then could I come to accept Vatican II, especially the points which I thought were contrary to previous teaching? It was at this stage that I also came to understand that even though Vatican II was, in its own language, a ‘pastoral’ and not a ‘dogmatic’ council, that doesn’t mean it was not a doctrinal council. What then were my obligations towards the doctrines taught in the conciliar documents? The answer came in reading Lumen Gentium, one of the dogmatic constitutions of the Council:
25. Among the principal duties of bishops the preaching of the Gospel occupies an eminent place.(39*) For bishops are preachers of the faith, who lead new disciples to Christ, and they are authentic teachers, that is, teachers endowed with the authority of Christ, who preach to the people committed to them the faith they must believe and put into practice, and by the light of the Holy Spirit illustrate that faith. They bring forth from the treasury of Revelation new things and old,(164) making it bear fruit and vigilantly warding off any errors that threaten their flock.(165) Bishops, teaching in communion with the Roman Pontiff, are to be respected by all as witnesses to divine and Catholic truth. In matters of faith and morals, the bishops speak in the name of Christ and the faithful are to accept their teaching and adhere to it with a religious assent. This religious submission of mind and will must be shown in a special way to the authentic magisterium of the Roman Pontiff, even when he is not speaking ex cathedra; that is, it must be shown in such a way that his supreme magisterium is acknowledged with reverence, the judgments made by him are sincerely adhered to, according to his manifest mind and will. His mind and will in the matter may be known either from the character of the documents, from his frequent repetition of the same doctrine, or from his manner of speaking. Although the individual bishops do not enjoy the prerogative of infallibility, they nevertheless proclaim Christ's doctrine infallibly whenever, even though dispersed through the world, but still maintaining the bond of communion among themselves and with the successor of Peter, and authentically teaching matters of faith and morals, they are in agreement on one position as definitively to be held.(40*) This is even more clearly verified when, gathered together in an ecumenical council, they are teachers and judges of faith and morals for the universal Church, whose definitions must be adhered to with the submission of faith.(41*)
(39*) Cfr. Conc. Trid., Decr. de I reform., Sess. V, c. 2, n. 9; et Sess. I XXlV, can. 4; Conc. Oec. Decr. pp. 645 et 739.
(40*) Cfr. Conc. Vat. I, Const. dogm. Dei Filius, 3: Denz. 1712l (3011). Cfr. nota adiecta ad Schema I de Eccl. (desumpta ex.S. Rob. Bellarmino): Mansi 51, I 579 C, necnon Schema reformatum I Const. II de Ecclesia Christi, cum I commentario Kleutgen: Mansi 53, 313 AB. Pius IX, Epist. Tuas libener: Denz. 1683 (2879).
(41*) Cfr. Cod. Iur. Can., c. 1322-1323
164 Cf. Mt. 13, 52.
165 Cf.2 Tim. 4, 1-4.
What I gleaned from reading this was as follow. Those points where we do not recognise continuity must continue to be matters of reflection. But the promulgation of teachings by the Magisterium, even if they are only part of the authentic Magisterium, requires us to give religious assent of mind and will to their contents. Their promulgation makes them become a kind of theological datum which can no longer be treated as a mere theological opinion.
I want to be very clear here since in previous versions of this story I explained my thinking badly on this point. There are two important points that are worth bearing in mind. The first is a question of analysis and the second is a question of authority.
Firstly, there is a kind of assumption in traditionalist methodology that leads straight from analysis to denunciation of the errors which analysis claims to have uncovered. This thinking is supported, for example, by Abbé Berto’s essay on the Ordinary Magisterium, published by Angelus Press. You would think in reading this essay that continuity with previous teachings, as demonstrated through the Church’s teaching documents, sums up the Magisterium’s actions, and that this continuity is an unproblematic affair. And so it is, in the sense of the dictum of St Vincent of Lerins about what has always been believed, everywhere, by everyone. But the problem here is in thinking that if I — me, moi, yours truly — judge there to be no continuity, then there is no continuity in fact. What, however, if other critics come to other conclusions? Abbé Berto names 'objectivity' and 'sensus fidei'as the two guiding criteria for continuity, but neither of these guarantees which analysis or whose analysis concords with the authentic sense of the doctrine.
The second problem is that I believed that unless a Church doctrine was defined infallibly, or unless I could subject it to the test of St Vincent of Lerins, then it was susceptible of what amounts to free criticism. Now, it is true that the teachings of the authentic Magisterium are not in themselves infallible. They are, then, not protected from error. This should not surprise us. Even in an extraordinary definition, only the definition itself (e.g. Mary was assumed into heaven) is 'infallible' as such; the theological arguments that contribute to the definition are not infallible. It is then possible that one might come to believe an authentic Magisterial teaching to be erroneous. In this case, however, surely the greatest care must be taken. The question ought to be raised with theologians and philosophers and the merits of the argument should be weighed and tested. Presumption rests in favour of the Church's teaching authority, and against the conclusion of any individual theologian or individual until clarification is sought from the Pastoral Magisterium. A theological conclusion compels by logic; a magisterial teaching compels by the duty of religious assent.
To act publicly on the grounds of discontinuity, to the point of denouncing the Magisterial teaching as contrary to the faith, seems to go a step further. It makes one's theological conclusions into practical norms not only for questioning but also for rejecting the Church's authentic magisterial teachings. It is practically to say that in her authentic Magisterium the Church is not the authoritative agent which proposes Christian doctrine, or that the Church is only authoritative when defining solemnly. When I say it is to privatise the teaching role of the Church — to relocate it within one’s own deductions — this is what I mean.
I think that Pope Benedict did a lot for traditionalist critics when he offered them the ‘hermeneutic of continuity’ as a methodological lifeline. Still I am very aware of the vulnerability of this position and it is something that I reflect on often. It seems to make me guilty of what Protestants have long accused Catholics: the error of handing over their minds to the Church. As I see it, however, I pray that the Church clarifies the issues that most concern me, most particularly, the obscurity that has descended upon Leo XIII’s teachings concerning the nature of liberty and the religious duties of the State, the latter being anticipated by Gregory XVI, Pius IX and echoed by later popes. If I were a theologian, I would be working at pushing debate in that direction. Such was the endeavour that John Paul II called for in his Motu Proprio Ecclesia Dei; and I see no reason why a confessional State and religious liberty, not in the Enlightenment sense but as understood by Dignitatis Humanae, cannot be reconciled.
That thought process, then, was what made it possible for me not necessarily to abandon the SSPX theses, but to cast them in a new light, in a light which I dare to venture can be called ecclesial, because it refers ultimately back to the manner in which my conscience is bound by the Church. It did not mean that I had to accept every deviation and abuse that I saw before me. I did not have to think JPII’s inter-religious activities a great boon to Christian civilisation. In fact, there were many aspects of the traditionalist theses about the current situation that I could keep if I decided they were indeed true. I was not about to lose my right, as defined in Canon Law, to present my reservations to the hierarchy.
But the difference now was this: I recognised that in my criticism I had to acknowledge the magisterial character of certain teachings which hitherto I had regarded as freely open to criticism. And insofar as they bound my conscience, then I had to give them religious assent of mind and will. One still keeps one’s wits about one, using one’s God given intelligence. The practical awareness of heresy, so much an element in St Paul's thinking, is a dead letter in many contemporary Catholic minds. We have to be wary. But when the Church says magisterially ‘this is how it is’, then we listen.
At this point, I know some people are saying: what about St Athanasius? Well, St Athanasius’s actions were based on the fact that a general council, the Council of Nicea, had defined solemnly the consubstantial union of the Father and the Son in 325 AD before the Arian crisis began. Athanasius was fighting, therefore, to defend the doctrine of a general council.
Others will say: yes, but Vatican II was a complete stitch up by liberal moles who undermined everything. This seems to me to be a reductionist version of the history of the Council. Every Council has its weakness and its controversies, and Vatican II’s arguably exceed all others. But there it is, in all its appalling reality. And unless we are prepared to get up a theory of an impostor Church, it has to be faced. Personally, I think we ought to give the benefit of the doubt to the Holy Ghost.
A third objection has it that St Thomas's question on fraternal correction (II II, Q33, a.4, ad 2) justifies the action of ABL. But this involves a huge extrapolation. St Peter in Galations Chapter 2 was compromising over the practices of the Judaisers whose attempts to force the Jewish Law on the Gentiles were rejected by the Council of Jerusalem (Acts, 15). There is no suggestion in the Letter to the Galatians that St Peter was teaching with apostolic authority, and with the approval of the entire Church except St Paul, the contrary of what had been decided at Jerusalem, even if his actions were unfaithful to it.
These considerations made me think it was not only possible to give religious assent of mind and will to the teachings of Vatican II, but that in some sense I had been unfaithful to the Church by holding them to be open to free criticism. That did not, and does not, solve the objections and difficulties, but it does change the stance one adopts with regard to those teachings.
But what then of the New Mass? How could I live with that?
Part 3 Thinking liturgically
This was a truly difficult issue to deal with, not merely because I thought the traditionalist arguments against the New Mass were extremely strong — in 2000 I was responsible for translating most of the SSPX study called The Problem of the Liturgical Reform — but also because liturgy is intimately bound to our interior lives as Catholics.
Ironically, the beginning of my thinking on this issue came from reading Michael Davies’s book against the sedevacantists I Will Be with you Always. In this work, which I no longer have to hand, Davies, a major English-speaking critic of the New Mass, argued that the reformed liturgical books, those of the Roman Pontiff, had to be considered as integrally Catholic in their original Latin versions. This was, he argued, because the Church’s mission to sanctify her children was indefectible. Therefore, putting aside the appalling errors of her ministers or the inadequacies of 1960s reforms, the effects of that ecclesial charism (of indefectibility) must be available through her liturgical books. If, to use Fr Z’s dictum, the priest says the black and does the red, then those rites must be able to sanctify us.
This, it seemed to me, was a very different argument than the one normally followed by the traditionalists. They argued for the defectiveness of the new rites due to omissions of prayers and gestures, changes in words and rites, etc. The SSPX’s official study on the Mass, The Problem of the Liturgical Reform, the translation of most of which I was also responsible for, argued that the changes followed on from a heterodox theology of the Paschal Mystery, and that all the reforms could be associated with a loss of belief in the atoning nature of Christ’s death. Davies’s argument, on the other hand, suggested that whatever changes had been made to the rites of the Church, we must regard the liturgical books themselves as integral, otherwise the Church could be said to poison her children.
As with the canonical and the theological issues, what was emerging was the ‘ecclesial’ dimension of this liturgical question. And in this light, another thought came upon me that was key in my thinking: if the New Mass is a rite of the Church, and it undeniably is, then should I not try to understand the rite in the light of the teachings of the Church, and not in the light of any interpretations which might be laid on those rites, either by liberals on the left or traditionalists on the right? There seemed to be precedents for this, e.g. in the old liturgy we genuflect more to the cross on Good Friday than to the Eucharist on ordinary days. But nobody would think we are honouring the cross more than the Eucharist. The deacon in the old rite says the prayer for the offering of the chalice with the priest. But nobody thereby thinks that the deacon’s ministry is to consecrate the chalice. Why? Well, lex orandi, lex credendi, of course, but we understand the liturgical action with the mind of the Church which is not possessed by the outsider.
Therefore, I thought, instead of sitting there grumbling to myself through what seemed to be the banality of the Responsorial Psalm, should I not try to pray in the spirit of the Church, with the meaning that the Church invests in these rites? And instead of picking out what wasn’t there, shouldn’t I listen for what was there? And lo and behold, it struck me for the first time that the doctrine of the sacrificial death of Christ and of the reparational character of the Church’s offering, were better expressed in Eucharistic Prayer III than in the Roman Canon (just my opinion of course) — Eucharistic Prayer III which was written by an expert!
In such a process, however, it occurred to me that here lay the solution to the many complaints of the traditionalists against the new rite. They were right to complain against the secular atmosphere in many liturgies, the irreverence, the experimentation, etc. Surely, what was lacking in these abusive liturgies was fidelity to the mind of the Church concerning the rites and concerning their doctrinal meaning. Yet that fidelity, and faith, could be made available even within the context of the new rite. This explained to me why, far from my finding all adherents of the new rites to be salivating, hysterical liberals, there were many faithful Catholics attending the new liturgy and thereby sanctifying their lives. The same conditions seemed to prevail: wherever the faith was preached in a plenary way, wherever the liturgy was celebrated with dignity and reverence and commitment to the works of mercy was in place, then, there was Catholic life, even though the rites were those of Paul VI.
I have gone a lot farther than many traditionalists who have come my way. In fact, I have gone a lot farther even than the Church requires me or anyone else to do, since nobody is required to attend or to celebrate the New Mass, only to confess its validity and Catholic character. In fact, by confessing such things, one is in a much stronger position to criticise its weaknesses. For then, the criticism no longer comes from outside of the ecclesial context but from within it. This to me explains why people who might not entertain the arguments of The Problem of the Liturgical Reform listen to what various mainstream theologians have written about the New Mass (Reid, Gamber, Nichols, Lang and even Ratzinger himself). For example, one can still hold the new rite to be integrally Catholic, and yet consider that the culture of the extraordinary form, where the people are supposedly passive, tends to teach people to pray independently, while the culture of the ordinary form often tends to create a dynamic in which people just chat to each other in church unless they are being actively animated by a minister.
In light of what has been said about my thinking on this issue, I think it worth adding here that holding the new rites to be integrally Catholic is not an excuse for turning a blind eye to abuse or to any malpractice within the mainstream. An integral rite does not mean an integral minister. Most traditionalists who walk along this path stop happily and securely with the Ecclesia Dei communities. The current attitude of Rome to those who attend the SSPX masses is that they can fulfil their Sunday obligation. I take this as a tacit acknowledgement of the problems that exist on the ground. Every situation is different and calls for the exercise of supernatural prudence and wisdom. My argument, however, does not mean that the mainstream is a valley of peace and happiness. Use your head!
None of this process has led to me approving liturgical abuse, heretical catechisms, bad leadership, papal misdeeds or anything else in the abundant catalogue of our contemporary ills. It is true I look at some cases differently because I look at them in a different context. I have had to learn not to rush to judgment at every turn. I have also had to learn that you have to have some credibility before you weigh in and give your opinions. I have been made to think about the parable in which the Lord forbids us to rip up the cockle from the wheat field because of the damage we can do to the wheat. I have also learnt that things might never be quite as I want them to be. So be it. We all have to suffer. Corruption didn’t come with the 1960s, and neither did heresy. These are all lessons which any traditionalist in quieter moments might admit that they ought to learn.
To return to the thread of my story, however, having begun thinking that the New Mass and Vatican II could not be accepted by the Catholic conscience, I now understood that the Catholic conscience was bound to recognise at least the Catholic character of the former and to assent religiously with mind and will to the latter.
And so, just before Easter 2004, I went to confession to a local priest who had become a friend and with whom I had discussed many of these issues. He heard my confession, and then very gently asked me:
‘Are you in communion with the Bishop of Rome?’
‘Communion,’ he said … that word that appears on all the front pages of papal encyclicals ‘to the bishops in peace and communion with the Apostolic See’
‘I think I am,’ I said. ‘I consider that I am in communion with him.’
‘But,’ he said very kindly, ‘it doesn’t matter what you think; it matters what the Bishop of Rome says.’
It was if anything in that moment of grace that I began to recognise the one error that ran through all the SSPX theses: a kind of privatisation of judgment. I’ll say it again: they live by a privatisation of judgment in their canonical, theological and liturgical life which leads them into an autonomous situation with regard to these three areas of ecclesial life. It is well meant. It is an instinct of self preservation. It seems to be the most logical and the most effective means of keeping the faith in a time of serious disintegration. But it is, nevertheless, a line of thought and conduct which is self-authenticating.
And what is wrong with self-authentification in the Church? The traditionalists very often quote that line of St Paul who, when he came to Jerusalem, ‘withstood Peter to the face’ because St Peter was equivocating with Judaic practices. They rarely, if ever, mention that other journey which St Paul made to Jerusalem — or was it Damascus? — after he had been taught the gospel by Christ himself in the wilderness. For on that journey, Paul went to the other apostles to have his gospel authenticated. It was not enough for him to have had visions from heaven itself. As a minister and servant of the gospel, his action required the Church’s approval.
And if privatisation was the prime error I could see running through the SSPX theses, the other thing I noticed was that time and time again, their references to the Church were always to some eternal Church of all time — ‘eternal Rome’ ABL called it — language that the SSPX continue to use. And yet, neither their canonical nor their theological nor their liturgical thinking seemed to be conceived in an ecclesial context, as I have tried to show above. If adhering to what they call the Church of all time is the key, why is the Church so absent from their thinking, in the episcopal consecrations, in their theological theses, and their criticism of the new liturgy?
And so, I upped sticks at the Easter of 2004, shook the dust from my feet, and went back home to the House of the Lord.
I do not argue with anger against the SSPX. I do not hate them and all their works, as some people have said. In fact I recognise that I owe an immense amount to them, and much even to the notorious Bishop Williamson who told my eldest nephew and godson in India in 2008 that I had been ‘a very naughty boy’! I can understand why people might fulfil their Sunday obligations there. I can understand why people trust their pastoral guidance. I appreciate how desperate Catholics can become when faced with everything from the Assisi of John Paul II to the Blue Mosque of Benedict XVI. I do, however, think, the SSPX have created in the long run a false solution to a real problem. This is the key.
Many of the problems they identify are real. But they are not contributing except tangentially to changing those problems. And the more Bishop Williamson and Bishop Tissier announce apocalyptic dramas as the only possible outcome to the situation, the more ordinary folk must look to better counsel.
It is not those who reconcile who have become tired with the fight. They have understood that unless they undertake the fight within the Church, in that unity which comes from the Holy Ghost and is visibly inscribed in hierarchical structures, then they will end up like every other individual who has loved the Church so much he wanted her conformed to his own image of the Church.
Reconciling does of course require the acknowledgment of certain errors on which the SSPX position is dependent. Yet recognising these things does not involve confessing that the errors and evils abroad in the mainstream are good things. Still, it does mean the SSPX must renounce privatised ecclesial thought, autonomous governance, and at the very least confess the Catholic character of the reformed missal (they do not have to celebrate it!). Only then can their voice acquire the authentic ecclesial character which will make them persuasive witnesses of those things they rightly remind the rest of the Church about.
Such then was the path that led me back to where I am today. I am sure I have omitted several insights that helped me. Like any human story there are undoubtedly mistakes I have made along the way, and there are various nuances that could be added in mitigation of the traditional position. Still, that’s the story. Make of it what you will.