TWENTY years ago or so, I was given a glimpse of something coming that sent chills down my spine.
I had been reading the arguments of several Sedevacantists—those who believe the “seat of Peter” is vacant. While they are divided even among themselves as to who the last “valid” pope was, many hold that it was St. Pius X or XII or…. I am not a theologian, but I was able to clearly see how their arguments failed to grasp theological nuances, how they pulled quotes out of context and distorted certain texts, such as the documents of Vatican II or even the teachings of St. John Paul II. I read with jaw-wide-open how the language of mercy and compassion was frequently twisted by them to mean “mediocrity” and “compromise”; how the need to revisit our pastoral approach in a rapidly changing world was viewed as accommodating worldliness; how the vision of the likes of St. John XXIII to “throw open the windows” of the Church to allow the fresh air of the Holy Spirit in was, to them, nothing short of apostasy. They spoke as if the Church was abandoning Christ, and in some quarters, that may have been true.
But that’s precisely what they did when unilaterally, and without authority, these men declared the seat of Peter to be vacant and themselves to be the authentic successors of Catholicism.
As if that was not shocking enough, I was disturbed by the frequent brutality of their words towards those who have remained in communion with Rome. I found their websites, bantor, and forums to be hostile, merciless, uncharitable, judgmental, self-righteous, impertinent and cold towards anyone who disagreed with their position.
…a tree is known by its fruit. (Matt 12:33)
That is a general assessment of what is known as the “ultra-Traditionalist” movement in the Catholic Church. To be certain, Pope Francis is not at odds with faithful “conservative” Catholics, but rather “those who ultimately trust only in their own powers and feel superior to others because they observe certain rules or remain intransigently faithful to a particular Catholic style from the past [and a] supposed soundness of doctrine or discipline [that] leads instead to a narcissistic and authoritarian elitism…” cf. Evangelii Gaudium, n. 94 In fact, Jesus was so deeply turned off by the Pharisees and their callousness that it was they—not the Roman butchers, thieving tax collectors, or adulterers —who were on the receiving end of His most blistering adjectives.
But I reject the term “Traditionalist” to describe this sect because any Catholic who holds fast to the 2000-year-old teachings of the Catholic Church is a traditionalist. That’s what makes us Catholic. No, this form of traditionalism is what I call “Catholic fundamentalism.” It is no different than Evangelical fundamentalism, which holds their interpretation of the Scriptures (or their traditions) to be the only correct ones. And the fruit of Evangelical fundamentalism looks much the same: outwardly pious, but ultimately, pharisaical too.
If I sound blunt it is because the warning I heard in my heart two decades ago is now unfolding before us. Sedevacantism is a growing force again, though this time, it holds that Benedict XVI is the last true pope.
COMMON GROUND—CLEAR DIFFERENCES
At this point, it is imperative to say that, yes, I agree: a vast portion of the Church is in a state of apostasy. To quote St. Pius X himself:
Who can fail to see that society is at the present time, more than in any past age, suffering from a terrible and deep-rooted malady which, developing every day and eating into its inmost being, is dragging it to destruction? You understand, Venerable Brethren, what this disease is—apostasy from God… —POPE ST. PIUS X, E Supremi, Encyclical On the Restoration of All Things in Christ, n. 3, 5; October 4th, 1903
But I quote his successor also—considered an “anti-pope” by the Sedevacantists:
Apostasy, the loss of the faith, is spreading throughout the world and into the highest levels within the Church. —POPE PAUL VI, Address on the Sixtieth Anniversary of the Fatima Apparitions, October 13, 1977
In truth, I am more than sympathetic to those who lament the state of affairs in the Body of Christ. But I am not entirely sympathetic to their schismatic solutions, which essentially throw the baby out with the bathwater on almost every point. Here I will address just two: the Mass and the papacy.
I. The Mass
There is no question that the Mass of the Roman Rite, particularly in the ’70s-’90s, had become greatly damaged by individual experimentation and unauthorized modifications. The discarding of all use of Latin, the introduction of unauthorized texts or improvisation, banal music, and the literal whitewashing and destruction of sacred art, statues, high altars, religious habits, altar rails and, most of all, simple respect for Jesus Christ present in the Tabernacle (which was moved to the side or out of the sanctuary altogether)… made liturgical reform appear more like the French or Communist revolutions. But this is to be blamed on modernist priests and bishops or rebellious lay leaders—not the Second Vatican Council, whose documents are clear.
Perhaps in no other area is there a greater distance (and even formal opposition) between what the Council worked out and what we actually have… —from The Desolate City, Revolution in the Catholic Church, Anne Roche Muggeridge, p. 126
What these fundamentalists sarcastically call the “Novus Ordo”—a term not used by the Church (the proper term, and that used by its initiator, St. Paul VI, is Ordo Missae or “Order of the Mass”)—has indeed been greatly impoverished, I agree. But it is not invalid—as much as a Mass in a concentration camp with bread crumbs, a bowl for a chalice and fermented grape juice, is not invalid. These fundamentalists hold that the Tridentine Mass, known as the “Extraordinary Form”, is practically the only noble form; that the organ is the only instrument capable of leading worship; and even those who do not wear a veil or a suit are somehow second-class Catholics. I am all for beautiful and contemplative liturgies too. But this is an overreaction, to say the least. What about all the ancient Eastern Rites that are arguably even more sublime than the Tridentine Rite?
Morever, they hold that if we just reintroduce the Tridentine liturgy that we will re-evangelize the culture. But wait a minute. The Tridentine Mass had its day, and at its height in the twentieth century, it not only did not stop the sexual revolution and paganization of the culture, but itself was subject to abuses by both the laity and the clergy (so, I have been told by those who lived back then).
By the 1960’s, it was time for a fresh revamping of the Liturgy, starting with letting the congregation hear the Gospel in their own language! So, I believe there is a happy “in between” that is still possible fifty years later that is a more organic revitilization of the Liturgy. Already, there are budding movements within the Church to restore some Latin, chant, incense, cassocks and albs and all the things that make the liturgy more beautiful and potent. And guess who is leading the way? Young people.
II. The Papacy
Perhaps the reason so many Catholic fundamentalists come across as bitter and uncharitable is that no one has really paid serious attention to them. Since the Society of St. Pius X had entered into schism,cf. Ecclesia Dei thousands of theologians, philosophers and intellects have repeatedly rejected the arguments that the seat of Peter is vacant (note: this is not the official position of SSPX, but individual members who have either split from them or who hold this position individually regarding Pope Francis, etc.). That’s because the arguments are, like the Pharisees of old, based on a myopic reading of the letter of the law. When Jesus performed miracles on the Sabbath setting people free from years of slavery, the Pharisees were incapable of seeing anything but their strict interpretation of the law.
History is repeating itself. When Adam and Eve fell, the sun began to set on humanity. In response to the growing darkness, God gave His people laws by which to govern themselves. But something unexpected happened: the further humanity departed from them, the more the Lord revealed His mercy. By the time Jesus was born, the darkness was great. But because of the darkness, the Scribes and Pharisees expected a Messiah who would come to overthrow the Romans and rule the people in justice. Instead, Mercy became incarnate.
…the people who sit in darkness have seen a great light, on those dwelling in a land overshadowed by death, light has arisen… I did not come to condemn the world but to save the world. (Matthew 4:16, John 12:47)
This is why the Pharisees hated Jesus. Not only did He not condemn the tax collectors and prostitutes, but He convicted the teachers of the law of their utter shallowness and lack of mercy.
Fast forward 2000 years later… the world has once again fallen into great darkness. The “Pharisees” of our times also expect God (and His popes) to put the hammer of the law down on a decadent generation. Instead, God sends us St. Faustina with the sublime and tender words of Divine Mercy. He sends us a string of pastors who, though not unconcerned with the law, are more preoccupied with reaching the wounded, the tax collectors and prostitutes of our time with the kerygma—the essentials of the Gospel first.
Enter: Pope Francis. Clearly, he has made manifest that this is the desire of his heart too. But has he gone too far? Some, if not many theologians believe he has; believe that perhaps Amoris Laetitia is far too nuanced to the point of falling into error. Other theologians point out that, while the document is ambiguous, it can be read in an orthodox manner if read as a whole. Both sides present reasonable arguments, and it may not be something that is resolved until a future papacy.
When Jesus was accused of crossing the thin line between mercy and heresy, almost none of the teachers of the law approached him to discover His intentions and understand His heart. Rather, they began to interpret everything He did through a “hermeneutic of suspicion” to the point that even the clear good He did was considered evil. Rather than try to understand Jesus, or at the very least—as the teachers of the law—try to gently correct Him according to their tradition, they instead sought to crucify Him.
Likewise, rather than seek to understand the heart of the last five popes (and the thrust of Vatican II) through honest, careful, and humble dialogue, the fundamentalists have sought to crucify them, or at least, Francis. There is a concerted effort rising now to invalidate his election to the papacy. They claim, among other things, that Emeritus Pope Benedict only “partially” renounced the office of Peter and was forced out (a claim which Benedict himself has said is “absurd”) and, therefore, they have found a loophole to “crucify” his successor. Does it all sound familiar, like something out of the Passion narratives? Well, as I’ve told you before, the Church is about to enter her own Passion, and this, it would seem, is part of that too.
GOING THROUGH THE PASSION
The prophecies regarding a terrible trial for the Church seem to be upon us. But it may not be entirely what you think. While many are fixated on the intolerance of “left-wing” political parties toward Christianity, they do not see what is rising on the far “right” in the Church: another schism. And it is just as harsh, judgmental, and uncharitable as anything I’ve read over the years from the Sedevacantists. Here, the words of Benedict XVI regarding persecution ring particularly true:
…today we see it in truly terrifying form: the greatest persecution of the Church does not come from external enemies, but is born of sin within the Church. —POPE BENEDICT XVI, interview on flight to Lisbon, Portugal; LifeSiteNews, May 12th, 2010
So, what now? Who is the true pope?
It’s simple. Most of you reading this are not a bishop or cardinal. You have not been charged with the governance of the Church. It is not within your or my capacity to make public declarations regarding the canonical legality of a papal election. That belongs to the legislative office of the Pope, or a future pope. Nor am I aware of a single bishop or member of the College of Cardinals, who elected Pope Francis, who has suggested that the papal election was invalid. In an article rebutting those arguing that Benedict’s resignation was not valid, Ryan Grant states:
If it is the case that Benedict is still pope and Francis is not, then this will be adjudicated by the Church, under the aegis of the current pontificate or a subsequent one. To formally declare, not to merely opine, feel, or secretly wonder, but to definitively declare Benedict’s resignation invalid and Francis to not be the valid occupant, is nothing short of schismatic and to be avoided by all true Catholics. — “Rise of the Benevacantists: Who is Pope?”, One Peter Five, December 14th, 2018
This does not mean that you cannot hold concerns, reservations, or disappointments; it does not mean that you cannot ask questions or that bishops cannot issue a “filial correction” where deemed appropriate… so long as all is done with proper respect, procedure and decorum whenever possible.
Moreover, even if some hold fast that Pope Francis’ election is invalid, his ordination is not. He is still a priest and bishop of Christ; he is still in persona Christi—in the person of Christ—and deserves to be treated as such, even when he falters. I continue to be shocked at the language used against this man that should not be tolerable against anyone, much less a priest. Some would do well to read this canon law:
Schism is the withdrawal of submission to the Supreme Pontiff or from communion with the members of the Church subject to him. —Can. 751
Satan wants to divide us. He does not want us to work out our differences or try to understand the other, or above all, show any charity that might shine as an example before the world. His greatest triumph is not this “culture of death” that has wreaked so much destruction. The reason is that the Church, in her united voice and witness as a “culture of life,” stands as a beacon of light against the darkness. But that light will fail to shine, and thus be Satan’s greatest victory, when we are set against each other, when “a father will be divided against his son and a son against his father, a mother against her daughter and a daughter against her mother, a mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law.” Luke 12:53
If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. (Today’s Gospel)
It is [Satan’s] policy to split us up and divide us, to dislodge us gradually from our rock of strength. And if there is to be a persecution, perhaps it will be then; then, perhaps, when we are all of us in all parts of Christendom so divided, and so reduced, so full of schism, so close upon heresy… then [Antichrist] will burst upon us in fury as far as God allows him… and Antichrist appear as a persecutor, and the barbarous nations around break in. —Blessed John Henry Newman, Sermon IV: The Persecution of Antichrist
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