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A Quarter Century of Schism

Schismatic bishops have once more laid down the law to the Catholic Church. Abjure your teachings or we are never coming back.

The recent statement of the three remaining bishops of the traditionalist Society of Saint Pius (SSPX) puts even further off any hope that the Church will reconcile with them any time soon. Notice that I say the Church reconciles with them, rather than they reconcile with the Church, because for them the reconciliation is all one way.

In a statement released on the twenty-fifth anniversary of their schism, the three bishops insist the problem is not with any misinterpretation of the documents of the Second Vatican Council, but with the documents themselves. They say the documents are quite clear and quite heretical.

Among the most important work of the last two pontificates was wrestling the meaning of Vatican II away from Church crazies and placing the documents strongly within the tradition of the Church. Benedict XVI insisted that they must be seen only through what he called the “hermeneutic of continuity.”

SSPX sees Vatican II through a “hermeneutic of rupture.” It says the Council initiated “a new kind of Magisterium, hitherto unheard of in the Church, without roots in Tradition.” It takes aim, as it has from the beginning of its outright revolt in 1988, at “religious liberty, ecumenism, collegiality and the New Mass.”

SSPX insists that religious liberty is no more than demanding that God renounce His reign over man and is the “equivalent to dissolving Christ.”

Ecumenism and inter-religious dialogue have led to a point where “a large part of the clergy and the faithful no longer see in Our Lord and the Catholic Church the unique way of salvation.”

SSPX also hates what it calls the “New Mass,” which “diminishes the affirmation of the reign of Christ by the Cross. Indeed the rite itself curtails and obscures the sacrificial and propitiatory nature of the Eucharist Sacrifice.” The SSPX bishops’ statement says that the Mass destroys “Catholic spirituality.”

There is some truth to the criticism of how things have sometimes spooled out in the Church since the close of Vatican II. Ecumenism has been a bust except where it has been practiced by faithful Catholics working with Evangelicals on social issues.

And for me there is no question that the Tridentine Mass is more beautiful in almost every way than the new Mass. It is also true that many Catholics today believe that all roads lead to God and therefore evangelism is not necessary. And you sure do wish that individual bishops would be stronger on their own and that reliance on episcopal conferences would fade.

        Abp. Marcel Lefebvre, founder of the Society of Saint Pius X

But not all these problems are the fault of the Second Vatican Council. In several respects, the Council made the Church supple enough to withstand the cultural blows that have largely destroyed mainline Protestantism.

I wrote on this site more than two years ago that the talks between the Society and the Church would never really go forward for two reasons. First, because the Society is asking too much. It wants more than the universal approval of the Traditional Latin Mass. They want the Church to renounce the teachings of an ecumenical council. Then Cardinal Ratzinger said in the Ratzinger Report that if you reject Vatican II, you also reject Trent because you reject the authority of both, which is to say the teachings of the bishops of the world in communion with the pope.

The second reason SSPX will probably never come back is even more ticklish than the first. It is more than simply the rejection of Catholic teaching. There is also pride: dug-in pride, pride that will likely not allow for reconciliation no matter what.

Even if the Church renounced the Second Vatican Council and mandated the universal imposition of the Traditional Latin Mass, it’s likely that the hardcore SSPXers will never return. They are used to their own authority now.  And one of the hardest things is real obedience.

Return is improbable, but not impossible. Only a few weeks ago, a formerly schismatic group saw their seminarians laying facedown in a Roman Church as they were being ordained to the priesthood by a Vatican-based archbishop.  

The Sons of the Most Holy Redeemer were once closely allied with Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, founder of the Society of Saint Pius X. In fact, when they were founded in 1987 they went to Lefebvre for his blessing.

They lived in the ecclesial wilderness until 2007, when Pope Benedict XVI issued the motu proprio, Summorum Pontificum, which allowed for the universal use of the traditional Latin Mass. The group petitioned Rome for reconciliation. Visitations took place. Cardinal Levada of the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei got involved. And the pope granted regularization a year ago.

But as might be expected, even though the group came back to Rome some of the individual members chose to remain separated in schism with the Society of Pius X.

For those who insist the Society is not schismatic, consider this: In the document regularizing this group, the official text mentions the ending of their “schismatic state.”

Traditionalist Catholics are not strange beings from another planet. They are our brothers and sisters who in many ways are as faithful as any Catholics in the Church – except for ecclesial obedience. Their energy, both physical and intellectual, is something to behold and to be admired, and they are much missed in the Church today.

Would that this energy was aimed at targets other than the Catholic Church.  

Austin Ruse

Austin Ruse is the President of the New York and Washington, D.C.-based Center for Family & Human Rights (C-Fam), a research institute that focuses exclusively on international social policy. The opinions expressed here are Mr. Ruse’s alone and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of C-Fam.