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Dear visitors: This website from Catholic Answers, with all its many resources, is the world's largest source of explanations for Catholic beliefs and practices. A fully independent, lay-run, 501(c)(3) ministry that receives no funding from the institutional Church, we rely entirely on the generosity of everyday people like you to keep this website going with trustworthy , fresh, and relevant content. If everyone visiting this month gave just $1, would be fully funded for an entire year. Do you find helpful? Please make a gift today. SPECIAL PROMOTION FOR NEW MONTHLY DONATIONS! Thank you and God bless.

Dissent of a Traditionalist Stripe

Editor’s note: Last issue we published “What Dissenters Mean by ‘the Spirit of Vatican II,’” an analysis by Russell Shaw of how Catholic “progressives” superimposed over the letter of the Council their own agenda for radical change in the Church. Here Kenneth D. Whitehead presents a recap of liberal dissent and an analysis of the rebellion from the other side of the religious spectrum: the so-called “traditionalists,” especially those of the Society of St. Pius X.

Fifty years ago a new era in the history of the Catholic Church was inaugurated with the assembling in Rome of the then approximately 2,500 bishops from around the world for the first of the four annual sessions of the Second Vatican Council of 1962-65. This 21st in the series of ecumenical or general councils held by the Church enacted 16 official documents that covered nearly all aspects of the Church’s teaching and life and continue to form and govern how the Faith is presented and practiced.

Notably, each one of the popes elected to the Chair of Peter since the Council made a point of pledging to “implement” the Council as his first act. For the popes, this obviously had a high priority.

Most Catholics are aware that the “implementation” of the Council has not been without its troubles and vicissitudes. Although so much that was positive in what the Council decided and enacted has been assimilated into the teaching and life of the Church, it is also true that not everything that came out of the Council has been what Blessed Pope John XXIII, who convoked the Council, or the council fathers who participated in it, expected. There have been deviations and wrong turns. The Church in the post-conciliar era has, in fact, had quite a rocky road to tread.

What follows is a brief look at two post-conciliar trends from opposite ends of the ecclesiastical spectrum that have long plagued the Church and only now—a full half-century after the Council—finally show signs of beginning to be played out.

“The Spirit of Vatican II”

In his 2005 Christmas address to the Roman Curia, Pope Benedict XVI identified one of these trends when he spoke about problems that had arisen out of the implementation of the Council. These problems arose, at least in part, in the Pontiff’s view, “because two contrary hermeneutics,” or interpretations of what the Council was all about, “came face to face and quarreled with each other . . . [one] a hermeneutic of discontinuity or rupture [that] availed itself of the sympathies of the mass media and also one trend of modern theology.” Here the pope was identifying the post-conciliar school of thought that held that what the Council did was actually discontinuous with the Church’s tradition.

This false interpretation of the Council posited “a split between the pre-conciliar and the post-conciliar Church,” according to Pope Benedict XVI, and held that it would not be necessary “to follow the texts of the Council but its spirit [emphasis added]. In this way,” the pope said, “a vast margin was left open for the question of how this spirit should subsequently be defined, and room was constantly made for every whim.”

A number of what the pope describes as “whims” were not slow in making their appearance. Most Catholics who lived through the immediate post-conciliar years will remember how what the pope identifies as “the spirit of Vatican II” came to be used to justify virtually every change that was made, whether or not it was actually called for by the Council.

In his 2005 Christmas letter, Pope Benedict XVI also pointed out that what was always needed was what he called a “hermeneutic of reform,” an interpretation of the Council faithful to the deposit of faith and the authentic Tradition of the Church.

“Whenever this interpretation guided the implementation of the Council,” the pontiff declared, “new life developed and new fruit ripened,” evident in the many positive results that sprang from the Council.

Nearly 50 years after the opening of the Second Vatican Council, we are finally seeing that this positive interpretation of the meaning of the Council is increasingly coming to prevail. At the same time, some of the bad effects are beginning to fade. As Chicago Cardinal Francis George remarked a while back about liberal Catholicism in general, “the spirit of Vatican II” is finally coming to seem an “exhausted project.”

The other end of the spectrum

Following the Council there arose a trend opposite from the simplistic idea that everything was subject to change as a result of “the spirit of Vatican II”: the radical traditionalist position that held that nothing in the Church’s tradition was subject to change. The most prominent proponent of this latter position is the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX), an organization founded in Switzerland in 1969 by the late French Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre in reaction to what he considered to be the “errors” of Vatican II. There are a few other radical splinter groups that also reject the Council, but the SSPX is the principal and best organized of them.

The principal “errors” of the Council, according to Lefebvre and those of his mindset, are to be found primarily:

  • In its Declaration on Religious Liberty, Dignitatis Humanae, which they claim goes contrary to the Church’s traditional condemnation of religious indifferentism and the requirement of positive profession of and adherence to the true faith
  • In its teaching concerning the collegiality of the Catholic bishops as set forth in the Council’s two great constitutions, Lumen Gentium on the Church and Gaudium et Spes on the Church in the Modern World
  • And, finally, in the Council’s opening to ecumenism in a number of its documents, in particular its Decree on Ecumenism, Unitatis Redintegratio

It is not easy to understand how Catholics styling themselves “traditionalists” could come to consider a general council of the Church to be in fundamental error, since the tradition of the Church is that the formal acts of a general council of the Church ratified by a pope enjoy the guarantee of the Holy Spirit.

The traditionalists have nevertheless adopted a contrary position. Lefebvre believed that the Council’s errors were equivalent to the “liberty, equality, and fraternity” in the slogan of the French Revolution, which was so hostile to the Church.

The schismatic French prelate, by the way, did not reject the Council because of the liturgical reform it mandated. Rather, he championed and maintained the Latin Tridentine Mass—as the SSPX continues to do today—primarily because it was the Mass of the pre-conciliar Church uncorrupted by the “errors” of the Council.

The number of Catholics adhering to the SSPX is hard to come by, though a figure of some 600,000 residing in a number of countries, including the United States, is often mentioned. The SSPX also has its own schools, university-level institutes, and even several seminaries. There are nearly 500 ordained SSPX priests, along with four bishops.

It was the ordination of these four bishops by Lefebvre in 1988 that brought about under canon law the automatic excommunication of all of them. The archbishop himself had earlier been suspended by Pope Paul VI when he ordained the first 13 SSPX priests in 1976. Over the years various negotiations between the SSPX and the Holy See have been carried on, including a tentative agreement signed early in 1988 by Lefebvre and then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. In the end, however, all these negotiations and tentative agreements have failed, wrecked on the rock of the firm SSPX belief that Vatican II was mistaken and illegitimate. While claiming allegiance to what it continues to call “eternal Rome,” the organization has long since arrogated to itself the authority to declare what “the Catholic tradition” is.

In 1988, at the time of the excommunications, Pope John Paul II established a commission, Ecclesia Dei, headed by a cardinal, to keep working for a possible reconciliation. This Ecclesia Dei Commission has been successful in persuading some traditionalists to break from the SSPX, in particular the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter (FSSP), consisting of priests who celebrate the Tridentine Mass but who are now back in communion with the universal Church. Similarly, under the auspices of the Ecclesia Dei Commission, Pope John Paul II allowed wider celebration of “indult” Tridentine Masses, which since 1984 he had allowed under certain limited conditions. Still, no progress was achieved in reconciling the SSPX itself.

Benedict reaches out

Hoping to achieve such progress, on July 7, 2007, Pope Benedict XVI issued his motu proprio (“by his own word”) titled Summorum Pontificum (“of the supreme pontiffs”) that allowed a much wider celebration of the Tridentine Mass as what the pope called an “extraordinary form” of the Roman rite—the New Order of the Mass established after Vatican II remaining the “ordinary form.” For many years the traditionalists had contended that the Church’s “ban” on the Tridentine Mass, along with the fact that the four SSPX bishops remained automatically excommunicated, were major obstacles which prevented any reconciliation of the SSPX with the Church.

With the issuance of Summorum Pontificum, Pope Benedict XVI expressly acceded to the traditionalist demand that all Catholic priests should have the “right” to celebrate what the traditionalists like to call “the Mass of all time” (although it actually was promulgated in the year 1570). Pope Benedict’s motu proprio granted to all Catholic priests the right to celebrate the Mass in accordance with the (unreformed) Roman Missal of 1962 without any other permission being required. The pope was obviously listening to the traditionalist complaints.

Further, in January 2009, the pope responded to another traditionalist complaint by lifting the excommunications of the four SSPX bishops ordained by Levfebvre. This action immediately immersed him in a raging sea of new troubles, particularly with Jewish groups, but also with the media, when it turned out that—unbeknownst to the pope—one of these SSPX bishops, Richard Williamson, was a well-known public denier of the Nazi Holocaust against the Jews.

Pope Benedict XVI had already aroused the ire of Jewish groups when he revived the celebration of the Tridentine Mass with Summorum Pontificum, since the traditional Good Friday prayers had once included a wish for the conversion of perfidies Judaeis (“faithless Jews”). This phrase had been removed from the Good Friday prayers by Blessed Pope John XXIII, and was not even included in the re-authorized Roman Missal of 1962. Nevertheless it was recalled in connection with the lifting of the excommunication of a notorious Holocaust denier. The hue and cry against the pope and the Church went on for weeks.

Thus, Pope Benedict XVI paid a steep price for trying to bring the SSPX back into the Church. Even though his “extra mile” failed to bring about any reconciliation, negotiations between Rome and the SSPX continued. In September 2011, Bishop Bernard Fellay, superior general of the SSPX, traveled to Rome to meet with the American Cardinal William Levada, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, to assess the results of some two years of doctrinal dialogues carried on in 2009-2011.

These talks seem not to have resulted in any agreement—perhaps because the two parties had such different ends in view. While the position of the Holy See has been all along that the SSPX naturally has to recognize the magisterium of the pope and the Second Vatican Council, the SSPX saw the doctrinal dialogues rather as the means to make clear to Rome the claimed differences between the Church’s traditional teachings and the teachings and practices in evidence since Vatican II. Fellay even stated at one point that the SSPX objective was “really a matter of making the Catholic faith understood in Rome,”

That a body acting in a schismatic fashion should imagine itself competent to give lessons in the Catholic faith to the successor of Peter—the arbiter of the Catholic faith by the will of Jesus Christ—only demonstrated the radical gulf separating the two parties. At their meeting in Rome in September, Levada gave to Fellay what was styled a “Doctrinal Preamble.” The text of the document was not released, but it was described as containing the essence of what the SSPX would have to accept as a condition of any restoration of communion with the Church.

In December 2011, the SSPX delivered its response—which turned out to be no response at all, only further questions and quibbles concerning the Doctrinal Preamble itself, the same stance the organization has always taken in discussions with the Holy See. All along the SSPX has been waiting for Rome to recognize that it is in the wrongon the issues. Fellay gave the game away when he stated that the SSPX had achieved its objectives by making clear to Rome why “adherence to the Council is problematic” (

Rather, adherence to the Council is essential for any Catholic group. Nothing could be more antithetical to the true Catholic tradition than the SSPX denial of the legitimacy of a general council of the Catholic Church ratified by the bishop of Rome, the pope.

Private judgment prevails

What we see here in the post-conciliar era with regard to both “the spirit of Vatican II” and the Society of St. Pius X—on both the “right” and the “left,” if we may loosely apply these political terms to the ecclesiastical scene—is a form of “private judgment” exercised against the official teachings and enactments of the Church. Historically, the concept of “private judgment” has been associated with, precisely, Protestantism!

Certainly, neither the liberal Catholics enamored of the “the spirit of Vatican II” nor the radical traditionalists who reject the Council can be confident that their positions are in any way Catholic.

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