On authority

25 10 2019

I have toyed with the idea of writing some informal reflections on my time at the Society of St. Pius X seminary of La Reja, Argentina. As this happened half my life ago, it appears now that these were among the most formative years of my life so far. You only get to be young and foolish once, I suppose. This might be of particular interest to some as I am far from a Catholic traditionalist now, though I have not discarded this identity for any other equally certain worldview. In other words, I don’t have a negative view of Roman Catholic traditionalism, or at least I don’t view it in more of a negative light than I do any other ideology.

At the time I entered seminary, seminarians from the traditionalist diocese of Campos, Brazil, were still studying theology at La Reja. For those who don’t know the story, Dom Antonio de Castro Mayer was the only diocesan bishop in the world who didn’t go along with the reforms of the Second Vatican Council. He was also co-consecrator with Archbishop Lefebvre of four bishops in Econe, Switzerland, which led to their excommunication in 1988. A sort of “diocese within a diocese” persisted after de Castro Mayer’s death in 1991, and the SSPX and Campos had a working relationship when I arrived  a decade later.

In my initial year at La Reja, the two deacons of the seminary were from Campos. They were the “leaders” of the seminarians: one led the schola, and the other was head Master of Ceremonies. They were good-natured and laid back guys, as most Brazilians tend to be. They had their hands full with the consecration of the church that year, and at the end of the year they would return to Campos to be ordained. In early December (the end of the academic year in the Southern Hemisphere), they disappeared under a cloud of rumors. Shortly thereafter, the rector brought us in and told us the news: Campos had made a deal with Rome, and the SSPX viewed this as a betrayal of the resistance against the modernism of the Vatican. Relations with the priests of Campos had effectively ended.

The reason for the reconciliation emerged later. What happened was that de Castro Mayer’s successor had learned that some of the faithful his priests had married were going to the Vatican-approved diocesan officials once their marriages broke down only to be informed that they weren’t married because the priests who performed the ceremony lacked faculties. They were thus free to marry whoever they pleased. This spooked the traditionalist priests and they decided to enter into negotiations with the Vatican (against the advice of the SSPX, of course). The deal was that the traditionalist group would continue to have a personal prelature with their own bishop. Apparently the arrangement still exists, having been fortified with the liberalization of the traditional liturgy in 2007.

All of this came to mind around the current controversies surrounding the Amazon Synod taking place this month in Rome. Specifically, the somewhat exaggerated response of vocal laity and some clergy to the “idolatry” and modernism of the Vatican seems to be creating new traditionalists (who I would argue are decades late to the party). Here I am reflecting on the crisis of leadership in general. In the case of Campos, they came up against the distinction in the sacrament between being valid and being licit. In traditional Roman Catholic understanding, five sacraments can be valid but not licit (Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist, Holy Orders and Extreme Unction). That is, the sacrament confers a character or makes something come about even if the minister does not have permission to perform the sacrament. In two sacraments in particular, Confession and Matrimony, the minister needs jurisdiction from the local Ordinary (usually his bishop) for the sacrament to be valid at all (except in occasion of death or other extreme circumstance). If you don’t have permission or jurisdiction from the bishop, the sacrament didn’t take place.

The foundation of the “unofficial” traditionalist movement was the idea of supplied jurisdiction (a rabbit hole that I, as a good Catholic, had to go down before going over to the SSPX over two decades ago now). The basic premise is that, since the supreme law of the Church is the salvation of souls (salus animarum supremus lex), in the event of an emergency the Church “supplies” jurisdiction, allowing the sacraments to go on in an indefinite state of the emergency. For the SSPX and other “independent” traditionalists, the Vatican going over to modernism means that no one is steering the ship, but the work of baptizing, confirming, communing, forgiving, ordaining, marrying and burying Christians must go on. God would not allow the Christian people to go without His healing grace, so this extra-legal situation will continue until further notice.

This seems straightforward until one encounters it in practice. Again to La Reja: one day I was eating lunch and minding my own business when the rector came in and whispered to me to come into the kitchen (I must have thought I was in trouble). It turns out that there was someone on the phone from the United States, and as I was probably the only person fluent in English in the seminary except for one other person from the Philippines, I was told to go talk to him. The man was calling from Florida where he was on the board of an independent traditional chapel. One of their priests had embezzled church funds and disappeared, and since he was Argentine, it was assumed he had passed through our seminary. I brought this up to the rector, who said that, yes, the priest had studied there: for sixth months, and then he was thrown out. He was subsequently picked up by an “independent” bishop and the rest was history. It’s a clever way to get a green card at least.

This story indicates to me that being under the official hierarchy may be the worst option possible, except for all the others. While the SSPX seems to be thriving in spite of and perhaps now because of its separation from the Vatican, there are many instances like that traditional chapel where the clergy become wayward employees of ragtag groups of laity with more money than sense. The idea that there is a Deposit of Faith that the laity can preserve in spite of the hierarchy is somewhat absurd. The sheep cannot shepherd themselves, no matter how much they think they can.

In my opinion, such a view also seriously distorts the nature of the Church and the Christian message. As I have stated before, the Church as the Kingdom of God is spoken of more in Scripture than Jesus Himself. Jesus and the Holy Ghost are arguable a means to that end. I am not sure that one can separate the Christian message from the state of the Church, nor can one have grace on a regular basis without submission to God’s appointed ministers. If the hand is cut off from the body, it doesn’t grow a new head. While groups like the secret Japanese Catholics can exist for centuries without contact with the rest of the Church, this is far from a regular occurrence, and the level of virtue needed to survive that situation is almost supernatural. The fate of independent traditionalism is far from certain in my opinion.

In the aftermath of the Amazon Synod, in spite of how unfortunate some might think the whole affair is, I can’t help but think of my encounters in the ecclesiastical wilderness as a cautionary tale. I don’t think these critics, both laity and clergy alike, have any idea how quickly life without ecclesiastical authority can degenerate. It might make their own situation seem tolerable. The Gospel and Tradition without authority can often just become a set of personal preferences without much context. I am neither a “rad-trad” nor a newly minted ultramontanist. At this point, I just feel that a little more introspection is what is needed, and yes, perhaps a little respect for those selected as shepherds over you. You don’t have to agree, but some level of deference is appropriate. To think otherwise will probably take you to places you don’t want to go.




One response

26 10 2019

This is something I’ve come around on as well, ie to stop focusing so much on how much the hierarchy disappoints or how I’d do something better because it is simply not my place.

I am a lay husband/father. That is my place. That is my role. Certainly the majority of bishops or even clergy will not be canonized but it is very easy to criticize them for saying X or doing Y when we only know the decision and none of the details around it.

I work at a museum in rural Western Canada that focuses on the Ukrainian immigrants from Austrian Galicia and Bukovyna. I’ve read about a few of the religious movements on the prairies (the Seraphimite Church and his Tin Can Cathedral is wild!). The most Dysfunctional were often those that had the loosest ties to the official hierarchy. In one case of a Russo-Orthodox Church has two only two liturgies in 1928 because two fighting groups of parishioners each wanted their own preferred priest (who also disagreed with each other) exclusively.

I know Fr Ripperger has some odd opinions but he is absolutely on point when he says in his sermons that basically “the Trads” need to shut up and be holy. Another priest on the Regina Prophetarum sermon site recently had a sermon that was 8 responses to those making private judgments against those in authority.

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