Courting Schismatics?

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s June 29 statement on the ecclesial status of Christian communities outside the Catholic Church contains little that wasn’t already affirmed in Dominus Iesus and earlier declarations. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the major question raised by the document is simply “Why now?” In the statement, the CDF explains that many new “contributions” in the area of ecclesiology have given rise to “confusion and doubt,” but it does not specify which new contributions it has in mind. The statement was released only a few days before the motu proprio permitting wider use of the Tridentine rite, and some observers have speculated that there was a connection between the two. It has been suggested that the CDF’s emphatic statement was meant to rule out any accommodation with the followers of Archbishop Lefebvre, that tiny but vocal group of integralists who have made a symbolic totem of the Mass of St. Pius V.

This interpretation suggests a prescience on the part of the CDF that Catholics can only applaud. Its statement “regarding certain aspects of the doctrine on the church” indicates that Rome is not about to embrace the Lefebvrists. And surely it is reasonable to suppose that the well-informed members of the CDF, like thousands of Catholics worldwide, have become increasingly aware of the countless publications sponsored by Archbishop Lefebvre’s Society of St. Pius X—publications that openly espouse teachings condemned by all recent popes, including Benedict XVI.

On the official Web site of the Society of St. Pius X, the society’s Superior General, Bernard Fellay—who was validly consecrated by Archbishop Lefevbre-formally commended the pope for “reinstating the Tridentine Mass” and expressed “joy at seeing the church thus regaining her liturgical tradition.” But on the same site the following passage, excerpted from a lengthy tract, may also be read: “The term ‘anti-Semitism,’ with all its war-connotation in the minds of the unthinking, is being extended to include any form of opposition to the Jewish nation’s naturalistic aims and any exposure of the methods they adopt to achieve these aims.” This was written in 1955 by the notoriously anti-Semitic priest Denis Fahey, a close associate of Charles E. Coughlin, who was silenced by Rome in 1942.

Fellay goes on to note confidently that “the favorable climate established by the new dispositions of the Holy See will make it possible to consider more serenely the disputed doctrinal issues—after the decree of excommunication which still affects its bishops has been withdrawn.” Again, on the Web site, one can read the following declaration, which sounds as if it could have been written at the time of the Dreyfus affair: “If Christians wish to remain free, let them avoid entanglements with the Jewish people. It dominates in every branch of commerce and finance, in philosophy and the universities. Its action is felt in the consequences of the French Revolution, in the socialization of socialist countries, and in the slavery of communism.” This declaration, written in 1997, is presumably not indicative of the “disputed issues” to be considered, serenely or otherwise, if Fellay’s excommunication is ever lifted. Both in content and in tone, these words directly contradict the decisions of the only ecumenical council in recent history. No doubt the Lefebvrists still wish to dispute those decisions, but Rome does not consider them disputable.

When the CDF’s statement is read together with the motu proprio, it seems clear that the Vatican wanted to emphasize that the opinions expressed officially by the Society of St. Pius X are precisely among those that “give rise to confusion and doubt.” Possibly there will be some suspicious souls who will misread the motu proprio as a concession to the integralists—a concession based on the mere fact of their valid orders. But nothing could be further from the historic reality. “It has come to nothing”—so wrote Benjamin Jowett about the Old Catholic movement, in its day more widespread and more sympathetically regarded than the Society of St. Pius X is today. The Old Catholic movement had come to nothing because Rome disregarded issues relating to apostolic succession—which the Old Catholics had through Jansenist bishops—even as it brushed aside scores of dissident “churches” sometimes set up by legitimately consecrated bishops. (These groups are examined in two recently reissued works, Peter Anson’s classic Bishops at Large, and Episcopi Vagantes and the Anglican Church by Henry Brandreth.) To maintain that the CDF would proffer favored ecclesiastical status to the same people who had publicly slandered all popes for the last half century—and who still try to enkindle hatred of Jews—would be to insult the members of that venerable body at the very time when it is most in need of the support of the faithful.


Related: Between Reform and Rupture, by Richard R. Gaillardetz
A Step Backward, by Rita Ferrone
Why I Became Catholic, by John Wilkins
Trouble Ahead? by John R. Donohue
Group Dynamics, by John W. O'Malley

Published in the 2007-10-12 issue: 

Justus George Lawler is author of Popes and Politics: Reform, Resentment, and the Holocaust (Continuum).

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