Amid reports of a possible rapprochement between the Society of St. Pius X, an “ultratraditionalist” group in the genuine, non-propagandistic sense of that term, and the Vatican, comes a letter from an SSPX branch in the United States rebuffing invocations of religious liberty in the contraception debate.
The bishops no doubt expected opposition to the forceful language of their latest statement (” Our First, Most Cherished Liberty “), but it’s probably a safe bet that they didn’t expect this kind of objection. Not that the SSPX document is easy to take seriously, as it comes loaded with so much old-timey, vintage rhetoric deployed with the solemnest of faces. There are invocations of Pius IX’s Syllabus of Errors (“error has no rights,” readers are reminded), warnings about the dangers of ‘assimilationism,’ and even a rather intriguing, vaguely-conspiratorial reading of American history (in which “America’s original Catholic soul [paid with the blood of first Spanish, then French missionaries]” was forcefully “supplanted” with a Calvinist one).
The statement has fast become a target of derision by many in the blogosphere , and fair enough. Though in a way it’s unfortunate, because nineteenth century Catholic political thought and engagement, particularly at the institutional level, deserves better than the curt dismissal both modernizers and even some conservatives are prone to give it. Swaths of it are certainly problematic today, not only in the eyes of our late-liberal society but within the Church itself. But neither is it fair nor accurate to blithely dismiss prior teachings—even when they did not, admittedly, rise to the level of dogma—as meaningless, useless, or unimportant for grasping the fullness of today’s arguments. Indeed, the writings of popes like Pius IX and Leo XIII on the subject of religious liberty are far more than historical curios deserving of a respectful bow—they’re integral to our understanding, and in many ways they live on in the documents of the Second Vatican Council (which, by the way, never “embraced” liberalism in the sense reactionaries imagine—the Church still holds the ideal of Catholicism as state religion, to name but one example—but instead attempts to work with it within certain bounds towards a greater respect for the dignity and liberty of every human being).
But the SSPX ‘counter-statement’ is hardly the place to look for such nuance. At bottom, it attempts to do the very thing it not-very-credibly accuses the bishops of doing: discarding uncomfortable parts of Catholic teaching in pursuit of their own little vision. Rather than make a serious effort to study the development of the Church’s understanding of religious liberty, an approach which would trash neither the pre- nor post-Conciliar teachings (but would involve much dedicated effort, thought, and reflection), these self-styled restorers have arrived at the same “hermeneutic of rupture” as the “modernists” and “progressives” they so decry. It’s merely that they see 1870 as the end of theology instead of 1970.