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Articles: Traditionalist Controversy

Bickering Priests
Most Rev. Donald J. Sanborn
Disagreements among traditionalist clergy: Causes and cures.

Every year of the traditional movement seems to have its “hot topic,” this past year (1993) being no exception. Every year, it seems, the lay people are bombarded by articles, magazines, and pamphlets which try to draw them to a particular side in what is always portrayed as a desperate battle. No sooner do these same lay people take a side in one of these battles than another arises, always with the same stakes of life and death for the Church, life and death for their souls. Needless to say, this atmosphere of perpetual warfare profoundly disturbs the peace of the average lay person, not only because he usually cannot fully understand the issues of the warring parties, but also because the warring parties happen to be priests.

      What is perhaps the most disheartening factor of the whole mess is that the priests will attack each other on a personal basis, accusing each other of sometimes the most horrid crimes against the Faith, of base ulterior motives, of pride, ambition, and of many other vices which are far removed from the dignity of their priestly character.

      The irony lies in the fact that most people end up taking their sides based on motives far different from the heavy theological arguments contained in the articles they read. More than ninety percent of the lay people, in my opinion, are not capable of making an informed decision of true and false, right and wrong, when faced with the onslaught of two debating sides.

      This comment is not meant as a criticism. The lay people are not obliged, by their state in life, to delve into theology and canon law. These subjects are left for the “professionals” to study — priests — and for the hierarchy to decide. By analogy, the priest is a lay person when it comes to the medical profession. The priest must go to his doctor with little or no knowledge of biology and medicine, and must trust his doctor to diagnose him accurately and to prescribe the proper remedies. Imagine if priests received from local hospitals every year in the mail an exchange of tracts, laced with piercing sarcasm, denouncing the medical ability and practices of other local hospitals, in which names of particular doctors were named, and accused of the most despicable crimes in the most inflammatory terms. Imagine further if the tracts were written in convoluted and technical medical language, but at the end the message was clear: “If you continue to frequent these doctors, they are going to poison you, and you are going to die a horrible death!”

      In such a case, the priest, unable to make an informed decision, would naturally continue to go to the doctor in whom he had confidence, and try to prescind from the controversy as much as possible. The lay people do this same thing when it comes to the seemingly endless theological debates which rage among traditional priests, and in so doing, they do not act unreasonably.

      Other lay people have become so disheartened or even disgusted by the perpetual “idea-wars,” that they have taken the route of avoiding priests altogether. They stay home and say their rosaries on Sunday. These are the “Home Aloners.”

      A few actually follow the controversy, and do manage to make informed decisions about which side they wish to be on.

      No matter what their reaction to the controversy, or the loyalty they choose, a common denominator among all lay persons is that they are sickened by the personal invective and spirit of hatred which they find in the priests’ attacks on each other. The more frequent these wars become, the more their ability to tolerate it becomes frazzled.

      This being the unfortunate state of affairs of the Catholic Church, what remains of it, I would like now to comment on some of the causes of the problem, and suggest some soothing remedies.


Causes of Priestly Warfare

      The sickened lay people are wont to dismiss the controversies among priests as “bickering,” as if it were motivated purely by personal animosity, with no basis in theological fact. This certainly is not the case. While personal animosity may sometimes be the principal cause of disagreement, and while many priests, including myself, are guilty of descending occasionally into sarcasm, vituperation, and satire, nevertheless in most cases the issues are real and concern very important aspects of the Faith which touch, obviously, on eternal salvation.

      The very reason why the priesthood exists is so that there will be a class of persons in the society of the Church, and indirectly in civil society, whose function it is to direct souls to eternal salvation. For this end, priests undergo a rather lengthy training, both intellectual and moral, whereby they become fit for this purpose, and then, at ordination, are given the physical power to sanctify souls, principally by the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and the Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist.

      But a priest who has been well-trained and validly ordained, does not, by that fact, have the power to teach, rule, and sanctify the Church. This power, this legal right to teach, to rule and sanctify the faithful is known as jurisdiction. This right to teach, rule and sanctify, which creates an obligation in the faithful to believe and obey, is given to the priesthood by God Himself, Our Lord Jesus Christ. It is confided not to every ordained priest, nor even to every consecrated bishop, but to the pope. The pope has universal jurisdiction to teach, to rule, and to sanctify the faithful; all of the power confided to the Church for these functions rests in him. This power of the pope is the same as that of Christ; it is a single power which does not change from pope to pope, but which remains the same no matter who should occupy the papal office.

      Since the Church is too vast for the pope to rule directly, a certain portion of the flock of Christ is confided to bishops, who in turn confide a certain portion of their flocks to pastors of local parishes. Hence the three levels of jurisdiction in the Catholic Church are those of pope, bishop, and pastor.

      The office of teaching the Church belongs to the pope alone acting in his capacity as head of the Church, or to the pope together with all the bishops, whether dispersed throughout the world, or united in a general council. When the teaching office of the Church is thus exercised, the faithful have the obligation to assent to the doctrines which they set forth.

      The office of ruling the Church belongs likewise to the pope, and to bishops to whom a certain portion of the faithful has been entrusted. When the pope or bishops make laws within the realm and scope of their jurisdiction, the faithful are bound to obey. Pastors of parish churches may not make laws.

      The office of sanctifying the faithful by means of distributing the sacraments and preaching is also the pope’s, who again distributes this power to bishops of dioceses, who in turn distribute it to pastors of churches. From this distribution of authority comes a priest’s right to say Mass, distribute the sacraments, and preach, by which right he is an agent of the Catholic Church in the performance of these tasks.

      The description of this magnificent and jewel-like structure of the Catholic Church, which is based on Our Lord’s roles as priest, prophet and king, brings us to the first and principal cause of the priestly warfare: the lack of jurisdiction in the present crisis.


Hottest of the Hot

      Although one of the hot topics, indeed the hottest of the hot, is the pope issue, namely, whether John Paul II is the pope or not, it remains that in the practical order no one treats John Paul II as if he had jurisdiction either to teach, to rule or to sanctify the Catholic Church. This is true even of those who make the recognition of his jurisdiction, his papacy, the very test of Catholicism.

      For example, all traditional priests, of whatever flavor or variety, consider Vatican II to be “fair game,” in the sense that they feel free to criticize it, interpret it their way, or even reject it. This is true even though it meets all of the necessary conditions of universal ordinary magisterium, which is the infallible exercise of the Church’s teaching authority. Furthermore the diverse doctrinal and moral pronouncements of John Paul II are either ignored, rejected, or, at best, filtered for something Catholic. In no case, however, do traditional priests accept what he says on authority, that is, the way the Church would have accepted the teaching of Pope Pius XII. In practice, all traditional priests, including those of the Society of Saint Pius X, reject the teaching authority of John Paul II, all the while accepting with the assent of faith that the pope has the authority to teach. The only conclusion is that all traditional priests treat John Paul II as if he were not a true pope.

      The same is true of John Paul’s power to rule. Traditional priests act as if he does not exist. Even those who claim that he is a true pope do not submit to him in practice, nor to his bishops in respective dioceses. They simply carry on an apostolate as if Rome and the local diocesan chancery were non-existent. They either reject the New Code of Canon Law outright, or they filter it for laws which seem Catholic, rejecting others which they deem non-catholic or harmful to souls. In neither case is John Paul II’s authority to rule recognized. Nor is it recognized when he applies penalties. The Society of Saint Pius X continues to function, as if nothing happened, after having been excommunicated by John Paul II. Again, all traditional priests treat him as if he does not exist.

      They also ignore him and his bishops in the area of sanctification of souls. All traditional priests, whether in a group or on their own, go into dioceses, and, paying no attention even to the existence of the local bishop, set up Mass centers, say Mass, distribute the sacraments, preach, hear confessions, establish seminaries, schools, convents, religious houses, etc.

      I am not saying these things as a criticism but simply to point out a fact: that those who have retained the Catholic Faith after Vatican II in fact do not recognize the Novus Ordo hierarchy as having authority either to teach, to rule, or to sanctify.

      This absence of authority places the Church in a deplorable state. The Catholic Church is essentially hierarchical, that is, by nature it operates on authority. The Catholic knows both what to think and what to do by the authority of the Church. In following the Catholic Church, the Catholic has certitude that he is following the truth and the will of Christ. When this authority is absent, the Catholic no longer has this link with the authority of Christ confided to the hierarchy. Yes, it is true that he has the pronouncements of the Church in the past to guide him. It is true that he knows what he must believe in order to be saved. The Faith does not change. It is also true that he has the Code of Canon Law as set down by previous popes. What he lacks, however, is the living authority of the hierarchy. Like Sacred Scripture, the pronouncements and laws of the Church need an authentic interpreter in order that they be applied in an authoritative manner to the various dogmatic, moral, and legal problems which present themselves in the course of time. Without this daily, here-and-now application of the Church’s teachings and disciplines, chaos results.

      In the absence of the authority, the only course left to the priest, and to the lay person for that matter, is to examine the traditional teachings, laws and practices of the Church, and to apply them to the present needs and problems. This application, however, is totally unauthoritative, as no one has any authority whatsoever to bind another to his view.

      Because the controversies concern not the price of beans, but matters of eternal life and eternal death, the very path of eternal salvation, they understandably become very acrid.


Two Extremes

      The lack of authority in the Catholic Church obviously induces Catholics to seek temporary solutions, so that Catholic life can go on with a modicum of peace and security. There are two extreme solutions which, sorry to say, most Catholics have opted for. These are (1) surrogate authority and (2) the free-for-all.


I.     Surrogate Authority

      The Catholic Church operates in a manner which is intensely dependent on authority. While it may be asserted that all institutions and societies operate on authority, and become chaotic in the absence of it, this fact is especially true of the Catholic Church. For in the Catholic Church, the authority has not only the right to tell you what to do, but also the right to tell you what to think. Thus without the operation of the teaching authority of the Catholic Church, the Catholic becomes incapable of deciding with certitude of faith what should be thought about a particular point of doctrine or moral teaching.

      True, there is the entire deposit of faith, the pronouncements of popes and councils. About these things there is no dispute and no lack of certitude. Where the problems arise is in the interpretation and application of what has already been set down. Thus we have seen a great deal of dispute about what to think about Vatican II, about whether the post-Vatican II popes are true popes or not, about whether to accept the New Code of Canon Law or not, about whether to accept Novus Ordo marriage annulments or not, about the validity of Novus Ordo sacraments, and so forth.

      Because of the great divergence of opinion on these and other issues, many have sought refuge in the surrogate authority solution, that is, they have assigned the teaching and disciplinary authority of the Church to someone else besides John Paul II.

      Such, essentially, is the position of the Society of Saint Pius X. As best I can analyze it, they perceive Archbishop Lefebvre as someone sent by God to lead the faithful Catholics through this crisis in the Church. He thus had, in their view, an extraordinary mission from God, different from and independent of the mission confided to the successor of St. Peter, whereby the Archbishop would filter or sift the teachings and disciplines of the Vatican II religion, selecting what was Catholic, rejecting what was non-catholic or harmful to souls. For the Catholic to survive the crisis, it is necessary, in their view, that he submit to the authority of John Paul II and of Archbishop Lefebvre, accepting as true and good only those things to which Archbishop Lefebvre gives the nod. The faithful thus have the comfort of knowing that they are under the guidance both of the Church (John Paul II) and of God’s special protection (Archbishop Lefebvre) in this special crisis. The Archbishop’s mission from God, therefore, created a throne of authority which continues to exist after his death. It is shared by the Superior General, who succeeds to the Archbishop’s administrative, doctrinal and disciplinary authority, and by the four bishops who were consecrated, who carry on the mission of the Archbishop to sanctify souls.

      In keeping with this system, the “hierarchy” of the Society expects an interior, intellectual assent of its clergy-members to its various positions and pronouncements, as well as a submission to its policies and disciplines. Failure to comply leads to the same sanctions which the Church would have imposed on recalcitrant heretics and schismatics. For they actually perceive their dissenters as those who have broken from Catholic unity, it being impossible to adhere to tradition without adhering to Archbishop Lefebvre’s mission from God.

      This system provides a strong and stable sense of security. On the one hand, they say that they recognize the authority of John Paul II. This fact soothes the nerves of the uncomfortable Catholic who obviously does not want to be “against the Pope.” On the other hand, the system provides them with the divine right to reject certain teachings of Vatican II, to ignore excommunications, and to distribute sacraments — even consecrate bishops — without authorization, all because of the “mission from God” which Archbishop Lefebvre possesses. It sounds great. It is the best of both worlds. Unfortunately it isn’t true.

      Thus the surrogate authority solution is appealing to the Catholic reacting to the modernists in the Vatican. It makes for dogmatic and disciplinary unity in a time of utter chaos. It gives them the assurance of being right with God and right with the Church, even though they are disobeying the (putative) Pope. Needless to say, this security is illusionary, downright false. It is impossible to even conceive of an a religious authority which is not that of the Roman Pontiff, without completely destroying the very nature and essence of the Roman Catholic Church. Purely and simply, you cannot have any authority or power to do or teach anything in the Catholic Church, unless you have received it from the Roman Pontiff. The authority of the Roman Pontiff is the authority of Christ; it is one and the same authority, not two authorities. To claim, therefore, a mission from God to teach, rule, and sanctify the faithful, which has not been confided to you by the Roman Pontiff, is to claim a mission from God which is separate from Our Lord Jesus Christ.

      Groups other than that of the Society of Saint Pius X have also adopted the surrogate authority approach. They usually involve a personality cult of some prelate or priest. The tell-tale characteristic of such groups are the fulminations against those who disagree with them, as if the dissenters were in some way opposing the authority of God or of the Church.


II.  The Free-for-All

      Opposite to surrogate authority is the free-for-all solution. Aware of the absence of authority, some priests adopt an “anything goes” attitude, as if no order or reason should prevail. Assuming that everyone is in good conscience, no matter what error they profess or disciplinary aberration they practice, they become “ecumenical” with all. This position has often been described as “pan-traditionalism.” In this system, all that counts is some vague common denominator: usually that you are for the traditional Mass. All other considerations, such as what Church you belong to, who is the Pope or who is not, who is validly ordained, whether Vatican II is acceptable or not, what conciliar reforms you accept or reject, what you think about the New Code, whether you are una cum or not, to mention only a few major points, become meaningless trifles which are distracting from the main issues. Unlike the surrogate authority approach which seeks unity through dogmatism, this solution seeks unity through anti-dogmatism, as if the Church itself had no dogmas, no disciplines, and no morals. This solution is obviously unacceptable, since it seeks not to dispel the chaos of lack of authority, and severely compromises the unity and sanctity of the Catholic Church by the recognition of error in both the speculative and practical orders.


A Middle Ground

      Deprived temporarily of the authority of the Church, the traditional priest or bishop must strike a balance between the need, on the one hand, to maintain order in the Church and to avoid, on the other hand, claiming a false, non-existent authority over laity or even over other priests or bishops.

      The problem becomes clear when one considers that there can be no order without some authority which is both claimed by its bearer and recognized by those who are subject to it. In the absence of the authority of the hierarchy, however, no priest or bishop may claim to have a jurisdiction over the faithful, beyond that which is conceded by the Church in the confessional or in other cases of necessity in a very transitory manner. Even in the case of the traditional priest hearing confessions, claiming jurisdiction owing to the necessity of the faithful to be absolved, in no way does he receive the power to make laws, or teach, or settle theological disputes. It is merely a passing authorization to dispense a sacrament.

      The traditional priest or bishop cannot, therefore, make any claim to authority, since it can only proceed from the hierarchy of the Catholic Church.

      What he can do, however, is request that the people who come to him for sacraments respect his conscience as to the conditions he perceives necessary both for him to distribute the sacraments, and for the faithful to receive them.

      He may also point out, like a teacher in a classroom, how certain conclusions flow from the deposit of faith. In this he is obviously not an infallible teacher, but he may legitimately point out to people the necessity to think or believe something due to its connection with the faith.

      Thus to point out that John Paul II’s papacy is incompatible with the indefectibility of the Church is not to dogmatize that John Paul II is not the pope. The priest obviously cannot dogmatize, but he may, unauthoritatively, point out the connection of John Paul II’s non-papacy with a revealed dogma of the Catholic Faith. What then presses on the conscience is not the authority of the priest who is proposing, because he has none, but the teaching authority of the Church when the connection is perceived by the light of reason illumined by the faith.

      The apostolate of the traditional priest or bishop is to carry on the Church’s work of sanctifying the faithful, by means of the sacraments primarily, in the presence of the breakdown of the Faith in the Novus Ordo churches. I say by the sacraments primarily, since it also necessary to prepare those who will receive the sacraments by giving them the truth. The role of the traditional priest, therefore, is not merely to be a sacrament-machine, but to proclaim the truth, to preach it and to teach it. This role includes the teaching of not only the truths of the Faith, to which everyone adheres, but also of those truths which flow from the Faith as applied to these times. The priest must therefore condemn the New Mass and sacraments, Vatican II, the New Code, and the aberrations which flow therefrom, since his obligation to the truth forces him to condemn error.

      In the lack of authoritative teaching on these subjects, a great deal of controversy may arise. Thus some may say that Vatican II may be accepted in the light of tradition, whereas others say it must be rejected outright.

      Because sacraments, furthermore, are very sacred things, the Holy Eucharist being Our Blessed Lord Himself, it is obvious that the priest cannot administer the sacraments to just anyone, but must apply the norms of the Church.

      While this sounds very simple, the problem frequently arises in this chaos in the Church that her laws are in need of interpretation, practical application, and of dispensation. This is where the fighting begins. One priest interprets, applies, or dispenses differently from another, which causes acrimonious exchanges, even to the point of accusing each other of being non-catholic.

      Take an example: marriage annulments. In normal times, this sticky problem was handled by the hierarchy of the Church, which did a thorough investigation into the whole matter and adjudicated it in an authoritative manner. Thus once the certificate of annulment came through, all Catholics, whether clergy or lay people, had to recognize it.

      Since the “hierarchy” now lacks the authority to grant annulments, due to their adherence to and promotion of heresy, the sticky problem is now passed to the conscience of the individual priest. There are three differing opinions concerning this problem: (a) no annulment can be given in this time, since to annul a marriage is an act requiring a type of jurisdiction which was never granted to the individual priest; (b) while the Novus Ordo has not the power to give them, the individual priest, after a thorough examination, can presume to grant one, if he should see just cause, using a supplied, transitory jurisdiction; (c) the Novus Ordo has the power to grant them, but each annulment must be “sifted” by a traditional priest or group to see if it was done correctly.

      Each of these three opinions is held by diverse priests, all of whom say the traditional Mass, could be described as serious and holy, and would submit to the authority of the Church, were it present and functioning.

      The obvious crisis which arises from this difference of opinion, however, is that a couple may be married in one priest’s chapel, while considered to be living in sin in another priest’s chapel. What happens at the communion rail when you go to the other priest’s chapel?

      This is but one of many “hot topics” about which priests “bicker.” It is not bickering at all, but in fact is a very serious disagreement about a very serious topic, which concerns the eternal salvation of many persons, not the least of whom being the priest himself. To bicker is to quarrel over banal, inconsequential differences.

      Other “hot topics” include: (a) whether John Paul II is the Pope or not, which has enormous practical consequences, (b) whether the New Code of Canon Law is acceptable or not, an equally important topic; (c) whether Vatican II is acceptable or not; (d) whether the John XXIII liturgy is acceptable or not; (e) whether the Novus Ordo sacraments are valid or not; (f) whether or not Archbishop Lefebvre had the authority to teach, rule, and sanctify the faithful; (g) the status of the CMRI; (h) the consecrations of Abp. Thuc. To argue about such things is not merely “bickering,” and the faithful should not dismiss the exchanges between priests by an off-hand comment such as, “Oh, the priests are fighting again.”

      If the priests are fighting, they are fighting for the good of the Church, for Catholic truth, and to protect the faithful from deviation, whether perceived or real. The faithful have the obligation to educate themselves as best they can about what is being discussed, to make a decision based on their knowledge, and then to live by it. To do anything less would be willful ignorance.

      How does one strike a balance, then, between usurping authority and a chaotic free-for-all?


Suggested Principles

1.   Nothing can take the place of the authority of the Roman Catholic Church.

Nothing. No priest or bishop, devoid of the Church’s authority, can presume to have the teaching authority of the Catholic Church, whereby to bind the consciences of other priests or the faithful to a theological position which he has taken, or to make laws which oblige the faithful under pain of sin. This principle should be applied in both orders, speculative and practical. While some would unhesitatingly agree with this principle, in the practical order they violate it either by imposing sanctions upon those who disagree with them, or by public denunciation of their opponents as non-catholics or evildoers.


2.   The absence of authority does not mean that truth is relative.

The purpose of the Catholic Church is to infallibly propose to us the truth. In the absence of this authority, truth, the mind’s conformity to reality, obviously still exists, is objective, and must be sought. The difference is that our theological conclusions, no matter how objectively certain they may be, do not carry the stamp of the Church’s authority. This fact does not make them any less true, but means that they impose themselves in the minds of the faithful by virtue of their own evidence, and not by virtue of the authority of the Church.

      Take the example of the New Mass. There has never been an authoritative declaration of the Roman Catholic Church that the New Mass is evil and must be avoided. Yet nearly every traditional priest would hold that to assist at it actively is a mortal sin. This conclusion, that it is evil and must be avoided, imposes itself on the consciences of the faithful as soon as they perceive, through the instruction of the traditional priest, that there is a substantial distortion of the doctrine of the Mass and the Holy Eucharist in the New Mass. The moral doctrine that it is a sin to assist at false worship is imposed by the authority of the Church; the fact that the New Mass is false worship is not imposed by this same authority, but is merely pointed out to the faithful in an unauthoritative but convincing manner.

      The same principle may be applied to the John Paul II problem. That a true pope cannot authoritatively teach false doctrine to the Church is imposed on our consciences by the infallible teaching of the Church. The fact that the conciliar “popes” have done just that, though not declared by the authority of any true pope, is nonetheless proven by the writings of traditional bishops, priests, and laymen alike. The conclusion is obvious: if he has “authoritatively” taught false doctrine to the Church, then he cannot be a true pope This conclusion, that the conciliar “pope” cannot be a true pope, while not de fide, is certainly attached to the faith, since once the fact of his false doctrine is ascertained in the mind, the faith urges the conclusion. Similarly, once the mind seizes that the New Mass is false worship, the faith urges, nay requires, the conclusion that it must be avoided under pain of mortal sin.

      Parenthetically, opposition to the New Mass has always been considered the “lowest common denominator” or “bottom line” of the traditional Catholic, other issues being up for grabs. In fact the rejection of the New Mass as false worship logically demands the non-papacy of the conciliar “popes,” and thus their non-papacy deserves to have the same “lowest common denominator” status. The two, false worship and false pope, go inseparably hand in hand. Realizing this, Archbishop Lefebvre steered away from calling the New Mass “intrinsically evil,” and said that it tends to lead people into error, and should be avoided. At other times, however, he said that all of the rules that apply to attendance at non-catholic worship should be applied to the New Mass.


3.   Priests’ groups should avoid making “rules” or “policies” which usurp the Church’s authority to teach, rule, and sanctify.

This problem has been the plague of the traditional movement. While it is a blessed thing that traditional priests should come together in groups and cooperate, these groups tend to be fraught with conflict and dissension owing, ultimately, to the lack of authority in the Catholic Church at the present time. Typically they form at the beginning with a certain success, but fail to be clear about the theological principles upon which they operate, and the limits of the “authority” of their leaders. Without fail, dissent erupts, parties form, priests leave, denunciations are made, and splits occur. Then the group, in an effort to consolidate itself, becomes a type of cult, in which the member priests are expected to give assent to “rules” and “policies” as if they came from the authority of the Church.

      The obvious problem is that while the priest may and must submit his conscience and/or his obedience to the pope, his bishop, or lawful superior in normal times, he cannot feel justified in so doing to a group of priests or organization. For example, if the competent authority of the Church, in normal times, tells a priest to recognize an annulment, the priest must recognize the annulment, since he is instructed to do so by the authority of the Church. He need not bother his conscience as to its validity. A traditional group or an organization, however, lacking authority, cannot tell a priest to recognize an annulment, and the priest then must fall back on his own conscience, as he must answer to God for what he does. The conflict then arises: the group seeks to impose its “policy” on marriage annulments, and the priest feels obliged to resist in conscience. Typically the priest is tarred and feathered by the group for being a renegade, is thrown out onto the street without support or sustenance, and is denounced from the pulpits to the lay people as being an evildoer, a schismatic, or a heretic. This is absolutely sickening behavior.

      While it is necessary that priests’ groups achieve a certain unity of thought and of action, they must work out some mechanism to deal with the legitimate dissent of some if its members, and in all cases refrain from abusive denunciations of their disagreeing brother priests. Expelling them to live in misery for the rest of their lives, for the sole reason that they cannot reconcile their consciences with the “party-line,” does not seem to be in keeping with the law of charity. How will young men ever be attracted to the priesthood, if they see that they might have to spend fifty years of their lives in a never-ending dog fight? How could we expect a young man to give his life to a cause in which he is likely to lose both his reputation, through vicious attacks, and his livelihood, because of the need to follow his conscience?


4.   A priest is responsible to God for the sacraments he distributes.

The priest cannot distribute the sacraments in an irresponsible manner, under the pretext that there is no authority to determine who should and should not receive them. He is obliged to study the norms of Canon Law and apply them as best he can to the diverse thorny situations which present themselves today. The very absence of authority, however, means that the rules he makes concerning his distribution of the sacraments are between him and God. He cannot cite the “authority” of a priests’ group or organization to justify something that is contrary to his conscience.

      In order to avoid such conflicts, priests’ groups should either (a) be very clear about their theological and practical principles from the outset, requiring explicit agreement from their would-be members to their principles; or (b) be content to be a very loose association, one which maintains merely friendship or contact among priests who may disagree about a lot of things. Anything in-between (as most are) will lead either to a disintegration of the group for lack of internal unity or to a formation of fanatical cult which usurps the authority of the Church. My point in enunciating this principle, however, is that the individual priest’s exercise of his priesthood, his saying of Mass and distribution of the sacraments, cannot legitimately fall under any other authority than that of the Catholic Church. Whatever the nature of the group or organization, it cannot presume to dictate rules concerning or limit the individual priest’s distribution of the sacraments. Priests may voluntarily agree to certain common practices, but they may never be legitimately constrained by so-called “rules” or “policies” made by such groups, for the reason that these groups, purely and simply, lack the authority to make them.

      It is truly a troublesome problem, for on the one hand there is the need to maintain a certain order; on the other hand the group lacks the authority to impose regulations. It seems to me that the only way to solve the problem is either to ask the priest-members to explicitly agree to many speculative and practical principles, or to be content with a very loose friendship association, as I stated above.


5.   Give the benefit of the doubt, wherever possible.

The effect of being deprived of authority is doubt about what to think and what to do, not, obviously about the truths of the Faith, but concerning the application of these truths and of the constant practice of the Church to the current problems. Thus many people, including priests and bishops, say and do things which others find false or offensive. In such cases, it is prudent, in my opinion, that the opposing sides at least presume good will in each other, in that each has a disposition to follow the teaching and discipline of the Catholic Church. I say “wherever possible,” however, since sometimes the deviations are so extreme that no reasonable person could presume good will in the wrongdoer.


6.   It is only the competent authority of the Catholic Church which can sever a baptized Catholic from the communion of the faithful.

It is an effect of baptism that one is incorporated into the Catholic Church, and one does not lose this effect unless he voluntarily and knowingly quits the Catholic Church through heresy or schism, or is severed from the Catholic Church through an excommunication inflicted by competent authority. Accusations of schism and heresy are hurled continually in these priest-battles, as well as applications of automatic excommunications for this or that crime. A private bishop, priest or layman, lacking authority, has no right whatsoever to authoritatively declare other Catholics to be outside the Catholic Church. A priest may make a private judgement that someone has culpably defected from the Faith, and act upon that judgement in a private sphere, but he may not force others to observe the same judgement. To do so would be to usurp the authority of the Catholic Church.


7.   A Catholic does not incur a censure if he has done something wrong in good conscience.

While it is true that Canon Law presumes guilt and bad conscience when someone does something wrong, it is also true that presumption yields to fact. If we should see our fellow traditional Catholics saying or doing things which are objectively wrong, even objectively heretical or schismatic, if there is evidence that they are in good conscience about what they are saying or doing, they should be given the benefit of this evidence. This is a time of confusion and doubt, and it is probable that in most cases Catholics who are objectively erring are doing so in all good conscience. Fulminations of anathema and excommunication should be avoided in such cases.

      Certainly there are cases where good will or good conscience seem to be lacking. The judgement about such things is up to the individual priest, but it must always be remembered that his judgement is not authoritative, and another could legitimately disagree.

      We see this principle in operation by the fact that Catholics who have defected to the Novus Ordo are nearly universally received back to the Faith without any need of abjuration. Why? Because nearly every priest thinks that they became involved in the Novus Ordo through invincible ignorance, and therefore did not incur the censure of adhering to a false religion. On the other hand, if a JP 2 or an Hans Küng wanted to return, it would be a different story. This “good conscience” principle, however, must be considered in the context of the next one.


8.   Good conscience is an excusing cause, but not a justifying cause.

The very use of the “good conscience” argument in defense of what someone is doing is an admission that what he is doing is objectively wrong. Some, especially of the “free-for-all” persuasion, have a tendency to say that because someone is acting is good conscience, nothing else matters, as if their good conscience makes good what is actually wrong. This is the basis of an “I’m OK, you’re OK” attitude, which is certainly not a Catholic attitude. The toleration of another’s wrongdoing, or even the recognition of their innocence due to ignorance, does in no way justify what is wrong. Despite the innocence of the wrongdoer due to ignorance, Catholics must always continue to condemn what is objectively evil, and avoid it.


9.   When criticism is justified, let priests criticize each other without sarcasm or personal invective.

Many priests descend into personal attacks on their fellow priests, and I am certainly not an exception to this. Priests are human beings like anyone else, and they have tempers and pride, and when these get together they can do a great deal of damage.

      Let us all resolve to keep to the topic of discussion and put down the flame throwers. What troubles the laity is not the theological debate itself, but the flow of contempt and bitterness which inevitably accompanies these debates. As I said earlier, the lay people should understand that the debates do become heated owing to the fact that the stakes are very high in most cases: the truths of the faith, the validity of the sacraments, communion with heretics or schismatics, communion with the Novus Ordo, the identity of the Church, and so forth.

      I specify personal invective, that is, attacks upon the person of your opponent. To attack the false ideas of others in a forceful way is by no means incompatible with charity, but is many times demanded by charity. The Church has spared no invective when it has condemned heresies and other errors. Nor is light sarcasm uncharitable, particularly if it has the intent of fraternal correction.

      St. Thomas Aquinas was often the object of practical jokes because of his childlike simplicity. His fellow students once told him to come to the window quickly, because a cow was flying in the air. He went at once to the window, looked up, and saw nothing. His guffawing friends asked him, “Come now, Thomas, did you really think that a cow could fly?” He responded, “I would have sooner thought that a cow could fly than that a monk would lie.”


10. The lay people should ignore the priestly sarcasm and invective, and sift out the arguments.

Realizing that their priests are human, they should try to put aside, as much as they can, the human failings of these men who have given their lives to serve them. The arguments, and not the personalities, of each side should be weighed, and the mind of each person should be thus formed. Even if, later, one should change his mind, no one could be held accountable for his error, if he has approached the problem in a reasonable way.


11. A saint supported a false pope.

St. Vincent Ferrer supported what has proven to be a false pope in Avignon, France, against the true pope in Rome. At the time, the identity of the true Pope was in doubt. It was easy to make a mistake, and most of the people of both France and Spain supported the wrong one. Fortunately St. Vincent changed his mind and withdrew support from him, but even when he was supporting the wrong one, God graced him with being a veritable wonder-worker wherever he went preaching. I cite this fact not in order to preach a relativism about JP 2 — God forbid — but simply to point out that God does not withhold his graces from people who act in good conscience in confused times, even if they should choose what is objectively wrong. This fact should give everyone a certain reserve about the tone of criticism he hurls against his opponent, since the person you have criticized to death might end up being canonized. While it was correct to have pointed out to St. Vincent his error, and certainly many did, a respect is due to a person’s good will and holiness of life, particularly in the context of the confusion which we daily live.


12. Canonized doctors of the Church have changed their minds.

One of the accusations frequently heard lately is “You changed your mind about this!” Well, a lot of famous and holy people have changed their minds about things.

      St. Augustine, a canonized doctor of the Church, changed his mind about so many things that he wrote a book, called the Retractationes or Retractions. Saint Augustine writes in  the prologue of this work:

 “The time has come to  accomplish, with the help of God, and without delaying any longer, a plan and a resolution which I have thought about for a long time. I want to submit to a severe examination everything which I have written, books, letters or treatises, and to call attention to their defects in a critical manner. Who could, without imprudence, condemn me for having condemned my errors?”

      In St. Thomas Aquinas we see a definite development and even change on some points as he gets older, and St. Alphonsus changed his mind about a number of issues. It is not a sin to change one’s mind, as long as there is a good reason to change it. In fact, to resist changing one’s mind, in the face of new and contradictory evidence, would be the very definition of stubbornness. While we should not be flighty about what we think, we should all have the humility to move our minds to even an opposite conclusion, should the evidence present itself after careful and prayerful examination.



      It should be recalled that if the voice of Peter could be heard, there would be no “bickering” at all. Even those antagonists who have fought it out most fiercely over the years, Bishop Williamson, Fr. Kelly, Fr. Cekada, Fr. Scott, Fr. Laisney, and myself, to mention only a few, would be on good terms if only they could hear the voice of Peter. They would have no argument among themselves, if only there was the authority of the Church to guide them and inform their consciences. This fact is very important, for it points to the bond of the Catholic Faith which unites the contenders, even the most vituperative. It is this willingness to believe what the Church teaches and to do what the Church commands which is the essence of the faith and of the submission to the Church. The fighting priests should always keep this fact in mind, and cherish and respect the bond of faith and charity which is the very soul of the Catholic Church.

      The “bickering” of the past ten or so years may be replaced by peace and concord in the future. I see gradually forming an international entente of many priests who are of like mind on the essentials, and who, even more importantly, have learned to disagree politely on non -essentials. The very ability to distinguish between essential and non-essential points of accord is, I hope, a breakthrough for the traditional movement. I hope and pray that this unity among uncompromising traditional clergy will grow, and have the effect of producing large international seminaries which will provide for the Church’s acute needs of the future.

(Sacerdotium 10, Winter 1994)

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