Speaking of traditionalist Catholics, the subject of William Doino’s earlier post, in the English weekly newspaper the Catholic Herald William Oddie notes that The SSPX is apparently about to go into schism over its leading bishop’s plan to return to full communion with the Church. The dissenting group, which includes the notorious Bishop Williamson, have declared their “formal opposition” to any accord with the Catholic Church.
The leader of the SSPX (the Society of St. Pius X), Bishop Bernard Fellay, seems inclined to return if his group’s concerns are met and reportedly has a reasonable idea of what “met” will mean. It will, for example, include the acceptance of the Second Vatican Council’s statements but not necessarily a particular and narrow interpretation of the ones, like that on religious liberty, that bother the SSPX. But, Oddie reports, “The three dissident bishops,”
seem to me to be not only talking utter rubbish but to be actually barking, positively up the wall (Vatican II, they say, represents “a total perversion of the mind, a new philosophy founded on subjectivism. Benedict XVI is no better than John Paul II in this regard… he puts human subjective fantasy in the place of God’s objective reality and subjects the Church to the modern world”; you see what I mean).
Oddie’s “barking,” as in “barking mad,” is hyperbole, of course, but when you read some SSPX material, of which Oddie’s sample is representative, you do get that disorienting feeling of having fallen into someone’s alternative universe where everyone else sees things in a very distorted way. Like, say, describing Benedict as a purveyor of “human subjective fantasy.”
A schism within the movement if some portion accept Benedict’s offer was certainly predictable and several people, including me, did predict it. Once a group goes into schism, some part of it will never come back and the longer the schism lasts the more firmly some will remain where they are, especially when so much of their identity is built not only on being outside the supposedly bad thing but on being the only ones who truly see the truth about it.
And then there are the connections that hold people in place, the friends and jobs and relationships that a return to the body they left will upset and perhaps end. Human institutions are built to last and for good reason. And for the clerics and leading laymen in such groups, small as they are, there is also on the one side the prospect of losing sheep they’ve been given to shepherd and on the other the prospect of losing the status they now have in the small body they’re in, though the pope’s offer of a personal prelature may remove this impediment.
These comments come from my experience, back when I was a conservative Episcopalian, with the various, no the many, groups that had left the Episcopal Church. As much sympathy as I had with the “Continuing Anglicans” and their reasons for leaving the Episcopal Church, and as theologically articulate as many of them were in explaining why they believed they had to do so, you didn’t have to spend much time talking with these groups to suspect that many were driven by a taste for battle and division, and this group included many in the clerical leadership — not to mention the clergy who wanted advancement (“purple fever,” it was often called, after the color shirt Episcopal bishops wear) denied them (sometimes for good reason) in the Episcopal Church and who thought they had a better chance in a much smaller and more conservative body. Others left for cultural and political reasons, like those ex-Episcopalians I heard who complained that all the problems started when the Episcopal Church endorsed the civil rights movement and who were clearly still upset, and saw the church’s activism as justifying departure.
And yet many of them so driven were very nice, mild-mannered, traditionally pious people, when they weren’t dealing with things Episcopal. That’s one sign of the problem with breaking away, even when you think you really have to do it. It can be a nice place to live, the breakaway body, with nice people, so that they never want to go home.
There are good reasons, based in human nature and the nature of human institutions, that it’s hard to think of church schisms that were ever healed, other than by the breakaway group withering away or becoming something else. And that’s not healing, exactly, more like getting used to living without a foot or an arm. Or without the other lung, some would say.
Anyway, cheers and kudos to Bishop Fellay. Here are some quotes from his response to the dissidents. There are more in the article, and the entire exchange can be found here. Fellay, writes Oddie, accuses the dissidents for a “lack of a supernatural view and a lack of realism,” and then says:
Your all too human and fatalistic attitude implies that we should not count on God’s help, his grace or the Holy Spirit. If Providence guides men’s actions, has it not been guiding the movement back to Tradition? It makes no sense to think God will let us fall now, especially since we only want to do his will and please him.
Likewise you lack realism, just as the liberals make the Council a superdogma, you are making the Council a superheresy. Archbishop Lefebvre made distinctions about liberal Catholics, and if you do not make them, your caricature of reality could lead to a true schism.
. . . [Archbishop Lefebvre] would have accepted what is proposed; we must not lose his sense of the Church. . . . Church history shows that we only recover gradually from heresies and crises, so it is not realistic to wait until everything is sorted out. If we refuse to work in this field, we fall foul of the parable of the wheat and the cockle in which Our Lord warns us that there would always be internal conflict.
As I say, cheers to Bishop Fellay.