Culture Wars Feature Article

Traditionalism at the End of its Tether

by E. Michael Jones




June 22, 2010


When the Eye of Sauron that goes by the name of mass communication first fastened its fiery gaze on Bishop Richard Williamson in the wake of the pope’s attempt to bring the Society of St Pius X back into communion with the Church by lifting the excommunications that followed latae sententiae from the act that made Williamson a bishop, his excellency was living in Argentina, where he was rector of one of the society’s seminaries. He now lives in Wimbledon, England, home of the famous tennis tournament. If home is the place that has to take you in when no one else wants you, it’s clear that the SSPX headquarters on Arthur Road was his home.


The lifting of the excommunications as a prelude to healing the schism gave birth to the hope that Bishop Williamson might find a home in the Church again, but, as I approached Wimbledon, the signals were mixed. The lifting of the excommunications signaled the start of negotiations, but the signals emanating from the negotiations were also mixed. Walter Cardinal Kasper announced a few days before my arrival that the negotiations were going nowhere; indications from the other side were equally gloomy. Bishop Fellay, another of the four bishops, had been interviewed at the SSPX seminary in Winona, Minnesota and the interview had been posted on YouTube. Fellay began the interview by throwing Williamson under the bus, and it went downhill from there. “The Church has cancer,” Bishop Fellay opined, “and if we embrace the Church we’ll get cancer.” He went on to say that the SSPX reserved the right to consecrate other bishops if the negotiations turned out to be unsatisfactory.  Hope for unity seemed a long way off as I gazed at the preparations for this year’s Wimbledon tennis tournament from a passing train.  The fields surrounding Wimbledon were full of people, many of whom were pitching tents on this blazingly hot day in late June.


The hubbub surrounding the tennis match seemed particularly distant because at this particular moment a Ugandan by the name of Jasper was shouting the letter of Paul to the Hebrews into my ear above the din of the train. Jasper began the conversation by informing me that he used to be a Catholic. He was, in fact, a seminarian, until he was captured by the Ugandan revolutionary movement known as The Lord’s Army and marched off to God knows where. As Ugandan armies go, the Lord’s Army was probably not as bad as the army of Idi Amin, which murdered hundreds of thousands of Ugandans and dumped them into the Nile. There were so many corpses in the water that even the crocodiles couldn’t eat them all. As a result, they began clogging the intake pipes of the local power plant. So being a captive of the Lord’s Army wasn’t as bad as the situation a few years before, but it was no picnic either. Jasper and his fellow captives were marching somewhere or other when they ran into the current regime’s army, the successors of Idi Amin, at which a point a firefight ensued and Jasper was wounded in the leg.


At this point he paused in his autobiographical narrative to reach down and pull up the left leg of his trousers to reveal a number of coin size scars on his chocolate-brown leg.


“That’s where the bullets entered my leg,” he says.


At this point everyone in the train stops what they are doing and takes a look at his leg. Then they gaze away and go back to their newspapers or gaze off into space listening to their I-pods. Jasper in similar fashion goes back to reading the epistle of Paul to the Hebrews, pausing for emphasis to read “and remember always to welcome strangers, for by doing this some people have entertained angels without knowing it.”  It’s clear that Jasper feels that this passage has some special relevance to our situation.


Text Box: “The Church has cancer,” Bishop Fellay opined, “and if we embrace the Church we’ll get cancer.”The scripture passage gets caught on a branch of my consciousness like a valuable article of clothing being washed downstream in the torrent of words which has been spouting from Jasper’s mouth ever since I suggested that he rejoin the Church. Everyone, it seems, is a spiritual Robinson Crusoe these days, willfully marooning himself on a spiritual island of his own choosing and declaring himself his own pope.  I try hard to concentrate on what he is saying, especially when he refers our present encounter to the angel quote in Hebrews, but at he moment I can’t figure out whether I’m supposed to be the angel to him or he the angel to me.


“You need faith,” he tells me.


“No,” I reply, half wondering what the London commuters are making of our conversation. “I have faith. You need the Church.” My reply unleashes another torrent of Bible verses of the sort I have heard more than once from ardent fundamentalists in America.  When I bring up, “You are Peter and upon this rock I will build my church and the gates of Hell will not prevail against it,” Jasper goes etymological on me, claiming that “ecclesia” means “assembly,” which is true enough, and that therefore any assembly which proclaims the word of God is the Church.


“You and I are church,” Jasper tells me earnestly, omitting the definite article like someone in the liturgy program at Notre Dame.


“No, we’re not,” I reply. “I am a member of the Church and you are an ex-member, and that’s the point of this whole discussion.”


This too elicits another torrent of scripture, which pours forth from his mouth like the flood-swollen river in Brazil which I saw the night before on the BBC. The theological equivalent of refrigerators, cars, hen houses, etc., sweep past my ears as I try to assess the theological significance of it all. This must be happening for a reason, I keep telling myself, but all I can say to Jasper is, “You’re not listing to what I’m saying,” which, of course, releases another torrent of scriptural passages, which would still be pouring forth as I write this if the train hadn’t arrived at Wimbledon Park station, at which point I get up and disembark.


At some point during our conversation, I told Jasper that I was going to give a talk on the priest sex abuse crisis in Ireland. The image this conjures in Jasper’s mind must be fertile because it mutates over the course of our train ride together into a scene in which he envisions me arriving in a house full of pedophile priests with nothing more in my spiritual arsenal than the talk I’ve prepared to defend myself.  It’s clear he doesn’t think much of giving talks. He urges me instead to cast out demons in the name of Our Lord Jesus Christ. For a moment I consider taking him at his ill-informed word. Pedophilia, schism, whatever: chuck the talk and drive out the demons with a command. The idea would recur to me throughout the day.


When I got to St. George’s House on Arthur Road, the headquarters of the SSPX in England, Bishop Williamson greeted me at the door. It’s been roughly ten years since we last met in person, at the SSPX seminary in Winona, Minnesota, where I gave a talk to the seminarians on horror movies. This time the conversation was more focused on the situation in the Church. After the initial pleasantries, his excellency informed me that, as a result of the media circus of 2009, he had been stripped of all assignments in the SSPX.  This comes as no surprise because I had seen the Bishop Fellay interview on YouTube. So, after being expelled from Argentina, Bishop Williamson returned to England, where he now resides, all dressed up with no place to go.  Whatever hopes which the lifting of the excommunications in January 2009 engendered were superceded by the uproar surrounding the media lynch mob which attempted to derail any reunification of the society and the Church by bringing up the issue of holocaust denial. By now the waves of that storm have subsided, but it looks as if the chances of reconciliation have subsided with them.


Text Box: Both the SSPX and Professor Schockenhoff are arguing that their interpretation of Vatican II should be taken as normative.As I mentioned, shortly before I arrived in England, Walter Cardinal Kasper announced that Rome’s negotiations with the SSPX were not going well. Writing on the Website, Sandro Magistro wrote that Kasper’s misgivings were amplified in an article written by Eberhard Schockenhoff, one of Kasper’s former students, and now professor of moral theology at the University of Freiburg. The article appeared in the April 2010 issue of the German Jesuit magazine Stimmen der Zeit, and in it Schockenhoff claimed “that the real disagreement between the Church of Rome and the Lefebvrists does not concern the Mass in Latin, but the teaching of Vatican II, especially on ecclesiology and on freedom of conscience and religion.” Both Schockendorf and Kasper fear that the readmission of the SSPX will doom their interpretation of Vatican II and all of the projects of the past forty-some years which have been based on it. Schockenhoff fears that “exegetical manipulation of the conciliar texts” will allow both Rome and the SSPX to marginalize the true meaning of the council by misrepresenting what Schockenhoff and presumably Kasper consider genuine reforms as postconciliar misunderstandings and aborted experiments. This would allow an “antimodern protest movement based on preconciliar Catholicism” to be smuggled into the Church. It would also mark the end (although Schockenhoff doesn’t say this) of the hegemony of the German professors, whose interpretation has been dominant but fading since the end of the council. The influence of the German professors has faded even more, parodoxically, since the accession of Benedict XVI (the quintessential German professor) to the chair of Peter. Schockenhoff compares the negotiations with the SSPX to “a hermeneutic tightrope walk, which attempts to square the circle.” He also compares it to “playing with fire.” The issue is interpretation: Whose interpretation of the council is going to prevail? Put another way, readmitting the SSPX would mean the end of the hegemony of the German professors’ interpretation of the Council, which the German professors like to portray as “the will of the majority of the Council fathers”:


By proposing an official interpretation, another meaning gets imposed on central conciliar texts other than the meaning which the will of the majority of the Council fathers intended. . . . . What’s at stake here is the direction of the future path of the Church, a direction which the Council chose when it decided to open itself up to the modern world, when it chose ecumenical solidarity with the orthodox and reformation churches as well as dialogue with the Jews and other world religions.


The main person responsible for wanting to “square the circle,” i.e., make the council documents compatible with both modernity and tradition is, in Schockenhoff’s view, Pope Benedict XVI. Magister claims that “In explaining how to interpret the Council correctly, Benedict XVI shows how it did in fact introduce new developments with respect to the past, but always in continuity with ‘the deepest patrimony of the Church.’” And as an example of this interplay between newness and continuity, the pope illustrates precisely the conciliar ideas on freedom of religion: the main point of division between the Church and the Lefebvrists.”


On December 22, 2005, Pope Benedict gave a speech to the curia in which he tried to explain the Zeitgeist which was regnant when the council was in session:


The Council had to find a new definition of the relationship between the Church and the modern age. This relationship started out difficultly with the Galileo trial. It broke completely, when Kant defined “religion within pure reason” and when, in the radical phase of the French Revolution, an image of the state and of man was spread that practically intended to crowd out the Church and faith. The clash of the Church's faith with a radical liberalism and also with natural sciences that claimed to embrace, with its knowledge, the totality of reality to its outmost borders, stubbornly setting itself to make the “hypothesis of God” superfluous, had provoked in the 19th century under Pius IX, on the part of the Church, a harsh and radical condemnation of this spirit of the modern age. Thus, there were apparently no grounds for any positive and fruitful agreement, and drastic were also the refusals on the part of those who felt they were the representatives of the modern age.


However, in the meantime, the modern age also had its development. It was becoming clear that the American Revolution had offered a model of the modern state that was different from that theorized by the radical tendencies that had emerged from the second phase of the French Revolution. Natural sciences began, in a more and more clear way, to reflect their own limits, imposed by their own method which, though achieving great things, was nevertheless not able to comprehend the totality of reality.


Thus, both sides began to progressively open up to each other. In the period between the two world wars and even more after the second world war, Catholic statesmen had shown that a modern lay state can exist, which nevertheless is not neutral with respect to values, but lives tapping into the great ethical fonts of Christianity. Catholic social doctrine, as it developed, had become an important model between radical liberalism and the Marxist theory of the state.


As a result of this opening to the modern world, discontinuities began to emerge. Catholics began condemning things that the Saints of previous eras considered praiseworthy. Similarly, things that the Council considered praiseworthy—things like Schockenhoff’s “dialogue with the Jews”—would have been condemned as pernicious by Church fathers like St. John Chrysostom. Before long the discontinuities became too big and too important to ignore, or as Pope Benedict put it:


It is clear that in all these sectors, which together are one problem, some discontinuities would emerge. Although this may not have been fully appreciated at first, the discontinuities that did emerge – notwithstanding distinct concrete historical situations and their needs – did prevent continuity at the level of principles.


The Church now finds herself in the process of reconciling those discontinuities, and it is this process of re-establishing continuity with tradition which Schockenhoff sees as a betrayal of the meaning of the Council.  The SSPX, on the other hand, sees the process of reconciliation as a betrayal of Church doctrine, and it is at precisely this impasse that the negotiations with the SSPX stand at the moment.


The pope feels that the Council succeeded at being both new and connected with the past:


By defining in a new way the relationship between the faith of the Church and some essential elements of modern thinking, the Second Vatican Council revised and even corrected some past decisions. But in an apparent discontinuity it has instead preserved and reinforced its intimate nature and true identity. The Church is One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic both before and after the Council, throughout time. It “presses forward amid the persecutions of the world and the consolations of God,” announcing the cross and death of the Lord until he comes (cf. Lumen Gentium, 8).


Yet those who expected that with this fundamental “Yes” to the modern age, all tensions would melt away, and that this “opening up to the world” would render everything harmonious, underestimated the inner tensions and contradictions of the modern age; they underestimated the internal tensions and the dangerous fragility of human nature, which have threatened man’s journey throughout all historical periods and configurations. Given man’s new power over himself and over matter, these dangers have not disappeared; instead, they have acquired a new dimension. We can clearly illustrate this by looking at current history.


Text Box: Bishop Fellay
At this point an uncanny similarity emerges between the SSPX and the liberals who want to keep them out of the Church. Both the SSPX and Professor Schockenhoff are arguing that their interpretation of Vatican II should be taken as normative. Both the SSPX and Professor Schockenhoff (for obviously different reasons) would claim that the pope was “attempting to square the circle,” by thinking that modernity and Church tradition were reconcilable. Both the SSPX and Professor Schockenhoff have made a particular interpretation of a particular council as the litmus test for membership in the Church. Neither the SSPX nor Professor Schockenhoff seems capable of entertaining the idea that the Church had embarked upon projects in the wake of the council which were based in some sense or other on council documents but which went way beyond what the council documents authorized. “Gespräch mit dem Judentum” or dialogue with the Jews is one example cited by Schockenhoff which has led to an almost total discontinuity with the past, something the American bishops discovered when they had to revise their catechism. Should the Church perdure in this particular implementation of the council? Or should she admit that this and other projects which the council spawned, unlike the documents themselves, are nothing more than failed experiments based on an inadequate understanding of what was really happening during the revolutionary ‘60s? Is the Church committed to repudiating the Gospel in the name of dialogue? One would hope not, but the question needs to be contextualized before it can be answered. If we identify the Council with “Gespräch mit dem Judentum,” as Professor Schockenhoff does, then the answer is far from clear. Schockenhoff might go so far as to endorse postconciliar aberrations like the claim that “the Mosaic covenant is eternally valid,” a claim both made and repudiated by the American bishops, but would the pope go that far? Probably not. But the pope’s track record on continuity in this regard is far from clear. He seems unaware that dialogue with the Jews, as currently practiced, entails repudiating the Gospel, and that proclaiming the Gospel is antithetical to dialogue with the Jews. As things stand now, the issue is far from resolved, and the only thing that unites both the German professors and the SSPX at this point seems to be their belief that the pope is determined to square the circle.


It was clear that there were people within the Church who didn’t want reunification to happen because it threatened their interpretation of Vatican II as the normative view. George Weigel was one of the people who felt threatened. “It is not easy,” he wrote in an editorial in Newsweek in February 2009, “to see how the unity of the Catholic Church will be advanced if the Lefebrvist faction does not publicly and unambiguously affirm Vatican Council II’s teaching on the nature of the Church, on religious freedom, and on the sin of anti-Semitism. Absent such an affirmation, pick-and-choose cafeteria Catholicism will be reborn on the far fringes of the Catholic right, just when it was fading into insignificance on the dwindling Catholic left, its longtime home.” Having a Neocon like George Weigel accuse the SSPX of “pick-and-choose cafeteria Catholicism” was  a  classic instance of the pot calling the kettle black. Weigel had been picking and choosing his peculiar brand of Catholicism according to Neocon principles for years, beginning with his justification of the war in Iraq all the way up to his reading of Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical on church social teaching Caritas in Veritatem. When Weigel put on his magic neocon glasses to read the pope’s encyclical, some passages appeared in gold, which is to say, they were congruent with the neocon agenda, while some passages appeared in red, which meant that they were not and could safely be ignored  by real Catholics, which is to say, those  who followed the neocon agenda as articulated by George Weigel. To people like this, the holocaust denial brouhaha was the answer to a maiden’s prayer because it provided a way to shut down unwelcome discussion of suppressed topics.  But by June 2010, the time of my meeting with Bishop Williamson, it looked as if the holocaust issue had been resolved. In the spring of 2010 Williamson was convicted in a German count and fined 180,000 euros, a sum that was later reduced to 10,000 and is now being appealed. Bishop Williamson had  “put that issue behind him,” as the politicians like to say. He was now “ready to move on with his life.”


Or was he? At the height of the media cycle, Williamson wrote to the pope and suggested that he be thrown, like Jonah, into the sea to calm the waves.  That is a fairly close approximation of what happened, but it wasn’t the pope who threw his excellency into the sea, it was Bishop Fellay, who threw him under the bus. Richard Williamson is now a bishop without a portfolio. In addition to removing him from the seminary in Argentina, Bishop Fellay has forbidden Williamson from saying anything in public, including presumably granting interviews to people like me.


If there was an assumption on my part behind this meeting it was that the lifting of the excommunications and the subsequent holocaust denial brouhaha had changed the situation. The only evidence I had to go on was Williamson volunteering to be thrown into the sea, but that seemed indication enough that the situation had changed him. The lifting of the excommunications had certainly changed my attitude toward the SSPX—from accusations of the sort that we had leveled in the investigative pieces we had run in the ‘90s to a desire to do whatever it took to restore full communion. Actually, that desire had come into existence long before the excommunications had been lifted. When we had met at the SSPX seminary in Winona in the ‘90s, I had asked his excellency what I could do to help end the schism. His reply was simple enough, “Get Rome to revoke Vatican II.”


“Is that all?” I said jokingly back then.


The more we talked, however, the more I had the sinking feeling that nothing had changed.  “Semper idem” (always the same) was the motto of Cardinal Ottaviani and the phrase had always seemed appealing in dealing with the modernists, but now it began to recur in a different, less positive light, which is to say, not so much as a reaffirmation of tradition, but as the theological version of Groundhog Day, the movie in which Bill Murray plays a weatherman from Pittsburgh who finds himself repeating the same day over and over again. The SSPX had been claiming for over 20 years that the issue was doctrine, specifically doctrinal issues concerning Vatican II, and in the wake of the excommunications, they had persuaded Rome to engage in dialogue under those auspices, but now it was clear, as Cardinal Kasper had pointed out, that the dialogue was going nowhere.


This is not surprising because doctrine was never the heart of the matter. In fact, by allowing the dialogue on doctrine to proceed, Rome had fatally undermined its own position. The real issue is schism, not doctrine. Heresy is a sin against doctrine, and in the negotiations which followed the lifting of the excommunications, the SSPX was engaged in an attempt to turn the tables on Rome and convince them that they were guilty of heresy. Before entering into dialogue with the SSPX, Rome would have done better to watch Bishop Fellay’s interview on YouTube. In it, Fellay gets to the heart of the matter when he says, “The Church has cancer. We don’t want to embrace the Church because then we’ll get cancer too.”


Text Box: If anyone had any doubts about the SSPX being in schism, this interview should have laid them to rest.If anyone had any doubts about the SSPX being in schism, this interview should have laid them to rest.  As St. Augustine pointed out in both his treatises on Baptism and the Donatists, schism has nothing to do with doctrine. Schism is a sin against charity. It involves breaking communion out of fear of contamination—which is precisely how Bishop Fellay framed the issue in his YouTube interview.  Bishop Williamson has his own YouTube interview, filmed in January 2010, in which he says essentially the same thing. The only difference is that in his interview Williamson claims that the Church has leprosy. In medical terms, the analogy is more apt because leprosy is contagious, but the thought is essentially the same. The SSPX broke communion with the Church when Archbishop Lefebvre consecrated Williamson and Fellay and two other bishops. Refusal of communion out of fear of contamination is, as anyone who has read St. Augustine knows, the classic expression of schism, but evidently no one in Rome noticed this when they began their negotiations with the SSPX because instead of dealing with the issue at hand, Rome embarked upon the theological equivalent of Mission Impossible, which is to say a theological discussion of the documents of Vatican with a group of people who were using doctrine as a pretext to avoid talking about their own lack of charity.


What Rome overlooked in this matter was the psychological need on the part of the SSPX to divert the negotiations into a discussion of doctrine. That need is based more on guilt than anything in the documents of Vatican II. The SSPX committed a sin against charity when Archbishop Lefebvre, claiming that a state of emergency existed in the Church, broke communion by consecrating the four bishops. Their justification for breaking communion is ultimately irrelevant because the Church is always to some extent or other in a state of emergency because the Church is always at the mercy of the venal and wicked men who rise to positions of power in it because such men always rise to positions of power in human institutions, but no state of emergency (real or imagined) ever justifies breaking communion.  The Irish priest sex abuse crisis is a case in point, and it was the invitation to discuss that crisis in the light of tradition which brought me to the SSPX headquarters in Wimbledon in the first place.


The Church and Her Enemies


In talking with Bishop Williamson, it becomes clear that the doctrinal issue is uppermost in his mind, but that’s only because he refuses to admit the real cause of the problem, namely, that the SSPX broke communion. Schism is a word that never gets mentioned in traditional circles. It is only with difficulty that I can broach the topic in our conversation. Bishop Williamson wants to talk about the pope instead, who, according to his view, sometimes says 2 plus 2 equals four and sometimes says 2 plus 2 equals five.


The pope’s views of the Council are certainly tied to a view particular Zeitgeist, the Zeitgeist of the ‘60s.  When he claims that “It was becoming clear that the American Revolution had offered a model of the modern state that was different from that theorized by the radical tendencies that had emerged from the second phase of the French Revolution. . . . Thus, both sides began to progressively open up to each other” what he is really telling us is that he had fallen under the influence of John Courtney Murray and therefore under the influence of Time Magazine, which was responsible for Murray’s celebrity status, as well as C.D. Jackson, who was the CIA controller/liaison with Time/Life. We are talking about the widespread promotion of the self-induced illusion that the Church no long had enemies.


During the 1930s, the Church had enemies. When the Church was strong, which is to say when it was united, the Church won the battles against her enemies. In 1933, the Church in America took on the Jews in Hollywood when Cardinal Dougherty of Philadelphia called for a boycott of all Warner Brothers theaters in his diocese. The success of that boycott led to the institution of the Hollywood production code. In 1935 the Catholic Church led by Msgr. John A. Ryan, head of the National Catholic Welfare Conference, defeated the WASP ruling class’s attempt to get the federal government involved in the funding of contraception. If you ask yourself what had changed in the 30 years between 1933 and 1963, it wasn’t Church teaching.  Because of Vatican II, the Church believed that she no longer had enemies. In fact, because of a magical  process known as  dialogue, our former enemies had been transformed into our friends.


Needless to say, this was not the traditional teaching of the Catholic Church. The traditional teaching of the Church had been articulated some 1500 years earlier, when St. Augustine wrote that “Heretics, Jews and Pagans have made a unity against Unity.” The loss of its enemies turned the Church against itself. In the absence of external enemies, the presence of evil in the Church had to be attributed to the Church itself. The Church, to cite Bishop Fellay, developed “cancer.”


Benjamin Franklin once wrote that “Experience keeps an  expensive  school, but fools will learn in no other.” What the Church had to learn in the expensive school which experience has conducted for the past 45 years is that nothing has changed. Our enemies were still our enemies. The only thing that had changed was the sophistication of their tactics.


What the pope’s 2005 speech to the Curia shows is that Joseph Ratzinger was influenced by a sophisticated disinformation campaign orchestrated by Henry Luce, the publisher of Time/Life, and his Catholic agent, John Courtney Murray. What it does not show is that there are flaws in the conciliar documents.  The same is true of Nostra Aetate and the Jews, who were paying Malachi Martin to act as a double agent at the council.  Now as in the past, the Church continues digesting the documents, which is to say it continues to interpret them in light of tradition, which is what the Church has always done. Archbishop Lefebvre accepted the idea; but, as I was to learn in the course of our conversation, evidently Bishop Williamson cannot.


What we’re talking about is the background of council documents like target="_blank"Dignitatis Humanae and Nostra Aetate, but not the documents themselves, which were vetted by the world’s bishops.  Having attended more than one synod in Rome, it’s easy to see how an individual bishop (or a bishops’ conference) might introduce a political agenda into the Church’s deliberations, but it is not easy to see how this agenda could prevail. In my experience the only thing that the world’s bishops could possibly agree upon is Catholicism. Bishop Williamson claims that there are ambiguous statements in the documents of Vatican II, and that this fact justifies his separation. The former statement is undeniably true; the latter undeniably false.


Maynooth, Ireland, June 19, 2010


Four days before our meeting, I attended a conference on “Fertility, Infertility, Gender,” sponsored by the Linacre Centre for Healthcare Ethics at Maynooth, the home of the seminary for Ireland’s Catholic priests. The participants at the conference are congenial enough, but looming behind the conference is a pall of both sexual and economic crisis in Ireland and the Irish Church. A bishop freshly deposed by the pope for his negligent handling of the crisis is in attendance. The seminary itself was criticized for its tolerance of homosexuality in recent articles in the Irish press.


One of the most powerful presentations at the Linacre Conference was given by a Jesuit by the name of Kevin Flannery. Twenty-five years ago, he and Paul Mankowski, another Jesuit speaker at the conference, showed up at my house as newly ordained priests. At the time I took it as a sign of hope for a bright future in the Church that the Jesuits would ordain dedicated men like this. What I should have told these bright young men back then is “if you wish to serve the Lord, prepare for suffering.” Paul Mankowski, who would go on to receive a degree in Semitic philology at Harvard while serving as boxing coach there, would spend the next 25 years circling the ring with his Jesuit superiors, fending them off with theological jabs like “I accept the authority of my Jesuit superiors insofar as it is congruent with the teaching of the Catholic Church.” Father Mankowski spent years teaching at the Biblicum, but as part of the ongoing battle over his allegiance to the Jesuits and his final vows he was summarily dismissed and sent to teach freshman Latin at a ghetto high school in Chicago.


Father Flannery fared better at the Gregorian University in Rome, where he is now a dean, but that only enabled him to become involved in abstruse bioethical doctrinal battles at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. His talk was about one of those battles. Paragraph #12 of Dignitas Personae, the most recent document on fertility technology issued by the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, has been taken to imply that procedures like GIFT (or Gamete Intrafallopian Transfer) are morally acceptable. Father Flannery feels that they are not because they “involve a third active factor” which violates the integrity of the sexual act. Father Flannery used the rest of his talk to explain how this contradiction arose and how he as a faithful Catholic had to deal with it:


How has the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith gotten into this tangle of setting out conditions for morally acceptable procedures and then saying that procedures that cannot meet those conditions are acceptable?  In my opinion, what has happened is that, when the Church first began to consider these issues and her thinking was more clear than it is now, she set out sound principles for their analysis.  She has also always been aware of couples—both within the Church and without—who experience difficulties in conceiving and who desperately want children: a very natural and, therefore, good desire in itself.  So, while continuing to propound the sound principles at the core of the Church’s teaching, the Congregation has seized upon whatever opportunity the language with which those principles are formulated affords—or appears to afford—in order to approve procedures that might allow couples to have children.


Father Flannery bolstered his case by citing one document after another which showed that “In this regard, the teaching of the magisterium is already explicit” [“Ad rem quod attinet, magisterii doctrina iam explicata est”]. He then attempts to explain how a doctrine that is “already explicit” could undergo corruption by giving a close analysis of Pius XII’s 1949 address to midwives:


He first says that artificial fertilization outside of marriage is to be condemned as immoral and that the child resulting from such a procedure would be illegitimate.  (Repeatedly in his addresses regarding this issue Pius XII expresses concern for the upbringing of progeny and so also for their legitimacy.)  He then says that artificial fertilization “within marriage, but effected by the active factor of a third party, is equally immoral and, as such, to be condemned out of hand.” The problem with such a procedure, he says, is that, “between the legitimate husband and the child, fruit of the active factor of a third party (even were the husband consenting), there exists no connection of origin: no moral and juridical connection of conjugal procreation.” In effect, the problem is that the husband in this marriage has not generated the child who results from the procedure, for generation has been effected by the third party.  It is clear that the problem here for Pius XII is not illegitimacy, for he speaks of the husband as legitimate; the problem is rather, who has generated the child: who is the initiator, the agent, whose action results in the generation of a child?


How then did the corruption of doctrine come about?


The small word iam inserted into the paraphrase makes all the difference.  Where Pius XII speaks simply of “the natural act performed in a normal manner” [“l’acte naturel normalement accompli”], the paraphrase, imposing a meaning upon the participle “accompli” it can hardly bear, speaks of an act that has been normally performed in the past.  The Supreme Pontiff is suddenly not condemning all types of fertilization but approving one type—a type in which clearly the act of generation is not the conjugal act but an act performed by technicians in a lab.


Father Flannery, as a result, finds himself in a dilemma.


This all places individuals (such as myself) who believe that they owe to the teachings of the magisterium religiosum voluntatis et intellectus obsequium in something of a dilemma.  One welcome way out of the dilemma would be to discover that we (I) am simply wrong: there is something wrong with the present analysis and there is nothing contradictory about the teaching of DP§12 (and the related teaching in Donum vitae). 


But let us say that I am not wrong.  It is logically impossible to give obsequium (of any sort) to a set of ideas that are contradictory and recognized as such: obsequium involves at the very least acknowledgement that a set of ideas could be true, but a contradiction cannot be true.


The way out of this dilemma is not to be found by leaving the Church because:


. . . finding such a contradiction does not leave obedient sons and daughters of the Church completely in the lurch, for the teaching office of the Church is exercised within a tradition of moral reflection inspired by the Holy Spirit.  An incoherent paragraph or two in a magisterial document—such as are inevitable when human beings are writing the documents—do not cancel out the tradition, but quite the converse: the offending paragraphs (if they truly are such) ought to be judged from the perspective of the tradition.  This is the proper attitude to adopt toward Dignitas personae §12, derived as it is from Donum vitae, which states that “in this regard”—that is, in regard to homologous artificial fertilization—“the teaching of the magisterium is already explicit.”


New Light


Father Flannery’s struggle throws a new light on the complaints of Bishop Williamson. To begin with, unlike Bishop Williamson, who complains about ambiguous statements in council documents, Father Flannery believes he has come across an actual contradiction of Church teaching. The only way the contradiction in DH 12 is going to be resolved is the way the Church has resolved issues in the past, which is to say, by going over the issue again and reconstruing it in the light of tradition. Non datur tertius. There is no other way. To pretend there is is to be radically anti-traditional.


This is precisely what the SSPX is refusing to do by refusing to affirm their acceptance of the documents of Vatican II as interpreted in the light of tradition. All that Bishop Williamson and the SSPX have to do to be readmitted to the Church is affirm the statement, “I accept the documents of Vatican II in the light of tradition.” He does not have to affirm that x number of Jews died in the holocaust. He does not have to affirm Professor Schockenhoff’s interpretation of Vatican II or his endorsement of “Gespraech mit dem Judentum.”


When Bishop Williamson tells me this affirmation of Vatican II in the light of tradition is the condition which Rome has set for readmission to the Church, I blurt out, “It’s that simple?”


“It’s not that simple,” Williams replies.


“Yes, it is.” I feel like saying, but do not.


“If we sign this document, we are affirming the validity of Vatican II which means that we are affirming the very thing which is destroying the Church.”


The statement is patently preposterous, but I bite my tongue and attempt to steer the conversation in another direction.


“Has the Church failed in its mission?” I ask.


“No,” Bishop Williamson replies.


“Then there’s no reason to separate from the Church.”


“We haven’t separated from the Church..”


“Then what are the negotiations about then?”


Before long it becomes apparent that they are about bringing Rome around to the point of view of the SSPX. As another sign that the discussions are doomed to go nowhere, Bishop Williamson told me that an SSPX priest is planning to use their meeting with the Ecclesia Dei commission in the Spring of 2011 as an opportunity to the explain to Rome the errors in Dignitatis Humanae. By now it is clear that this dialogue became Mission Impossible for a number of reasons. First of all, by concentrating on doctrinal issues in general and Vatican II in particular, it avoided the main issue that needed to be resolved, namely, schism, which has nothing to do with doctrine. Secondly, there are large segments of the hierarchy which confuse the documents of Vatican II with the spirit of Vatican II and as a result want to make readmission to the Church contingent on a particular theological interpretation of council documents rather than an affirmation of the documents themselves “in the light of tradition.” Bishop Williamson seems determined to conflate Rome with that group of people, thereby granting an unearned victory to the George Weigels and Professor Schockenhoffs, and allowing them by default to impose a neocon litmus test on the rest of the Church.


Text Box: Bishop Williamson
As if to answer my question about the purpose of the negotiations, Bishop Williamson gets up to look for a large piece of paper. I volunteer a page from my notebook, but it’s not large enough to convey the sweep of his idea, which is that throughout history movements have broken off from the Church, as did the Arians, the Protestants, the revolutionaries in France, but through it all the Church has maintained its commitment to tradition and the scriptures. This sounds like an argument against the SSPX position to me, but that’s only because I see the Church and the SSPX as two separate entities.  For Bishop Williamson, they are one and the same thing. The frustrating thing about conversation with him lies in his inability to acknowledge the premises upon which his argument is based.  So when I ask if the SSPX is the Church, he immediately says no.


Our conversation goes back and forth over church history. His excellency brings up the Inquisition, intimating that if it were re-established, he would rejoin the Church. I point out that there was a time when there was no Inquistion, but there has never been a time since when Christ walked the earth that there has been no Church. He brings up doctrine, but the same applies here. There was a time when no Christian could say for certain that Christ was true God and true man, because the formula hadn’t been articulated, but there was never a time when there was no Church. I then bring up the Church’s position on usury, which is still awaiting its definitive explication.


By now it’s time for lunch and the theological discussion lurches to an unresolved end. After lunch, his excellency takes a nap and I prepare my talk by walking around the gravel track in their lower garden, making mental notes about the talk which gradually get supplanted with thoughts about what I would do if it were my garden. When Father Morgan, the English SSPX superior, appears to give the timetable for the rest of the afternoon, I tell him that the middle of the garden would be the ideal place for a fountain.


“My mother said the same thing,” he replied.


In the end the talk went well, there was a lively question and answer period afterward, but no one in attendance address the talk’s conclusion, which I reproduce here in its entirety: 


Yes, the Church was derelict in not preaching the gospel, especially on sexual matters. Yes, the Church chose therapy over the penal sanctions required by canon law. Yes, the Church is being punished for following the advice  of the psychologists. Yes, the current scandals are being orchestrated by the Church’s traditional enemies, Protestants and Jews in order to destroy traditional cultures and make the world safe for Capitalism and the universal rule of Mammon. But what is the proper response.


Let’s answer that question by explaining what is not the proper response. In a recent interview, Bishop Fellay talked about the current state of the Society of St. Pius X. After throwing Bishop Williamson under the bus, Bishop Fellay went on to say that “the Church has cancer” and that “we do not want to embrace the Church because we might contract cancer.”


There are a number of things one might say about such a statement. First of all, cancer is not contagious. Secondly, this image—the Church has cancer—can be found nowhere in the tradition of the Church, not in the Gospels, not in the acts of the Apostles, not in the Epistles and not in the writing of the Church Fathers.  The reason is simple enough: it does not and cannot correspond to reality.


If the cancer image is faulty, anti-traditional and unscriptural, what image does correspond to the situation of the Church in our time? The answer is the story in Mark 4:35-41, the story of Jesus calming the storm.  We are told that


It began to blow a gale, and the waves were breaking into the boat so that it was almost swamped. But  [Jesus] was in the stern, his head  on the cushion, asleep. They woke him and said to him, “Master, do you not care? We are going down!” And he woke up and rebuked the wind and said to the sea, “Quiet now! Be calm!” And the wind dropped and all was calm again.  Then he said to them, “Why are you so frightened? How is it that you have no faith?” They were filled with awe and said to one another, “Who can this be? Even the wind and the sea obey him.”


All of the Church Fathers are unanimous in saying that the boat is the Church and that the boat is going to be tossed about by storms, which is to say, campaigns orchestrated to destroy the Church.


St. Hilary of Poitiers writes that Christ “bids us to be within the Church, and to be in peril until such time as returning in His splendor He shall give salvation to all the people ... Meanwhile the disciples are tossed by the wind and the waves; struggling against all the storms of this world, raised by the opposition of the unclean spirit.”


St. Augustine tells us to “Think of the boat as the Church, and the stormy sea as this world. . . . For when any of a wicked will and of great power, proclaims a persecution against the Church, then it is that a mighty wave rises against the boat of Christ.” We are to remain in that storm-tossed boat until, “when the night is nearly ended, He shall come, in the end of the world, when the night of iniquity is past, to judge the quick and the dead.”


When Christ finally does come, according to St. Hilary, he will


find His Church wearied, and tossed by the spirit of the Anti-Christ, and by the troubles of this world. And because by long experience of Anti-Christ they will be troubled at every novelty of trial, they shall have fear even at the approach of the Lord, suspecting deceitful appearances. But the good Lord banishes their fear saying, It is I; and by proof of His presence takes away their dread of impending shipwreck.


From the perspective of the faithful who have to endure these storms, it always seems as if Jesus is asleep, which is to say, unconcerned with their plight.


This is, of course, not the case. God is always with his Church, even when it appears that he is not. Jumping ship means instant death. Because God can calm any storm, the real issue is not the magnitude of the storm, but rather as Jesus points out, the magnitude of our faith.


As things stand now, the only thing holding back the reconciliation of the SSPX and the Church is Bishop Williamson’s (and three other SSPX bishops’) signature on a document that he himself admits Archbishop Lefebvre would have signed. Four days after I gave my talk at SSPX headquarters in Wimbledon, it was clear that my overture to Bishop Williamson had failed. On June 28, 2010, his excellency wrote on his blog that:


Archbishop Lefebvre chose a third way, in between the two extremes of either Truth or Authority. His way, in which he has been followed by that SSPX, was to cling to Catholic Truth, but with no disrespect towards Church Authority, nor any blanket disbelief in the status of its officials. It is a balance certainly not always easy to keep, but it has borne Catholic fruit all over the world, and it has sustained a faithful remnant of Catholics with true doctrine and the true sacraments for the 40 years we have so far spent in the Conciliar desert (1970-2010).

In that desert we Catholic sheep may have to be scattered for a while yet, as long as the Shepherd in Rome is struck (Zech.XIII,7, quoted by Our Lord in the Garden of Gethsemane –Mt.XXVI,31). In this Gethsemane of the Church, we do need compassion on our fellow sheep. . . . But that no way means that the third way as traced out by Archbishop Lefebvre has ceased to be the right way.


Non datur tertius. When it comes to the Church there is no third way. Bishop Williamson affirms here all of the propositions—the Church has failed in its mission, the SSPX is the Church—that he denied in our conversation. The only thing that remains the same is his adamant refusal to restore communion, not even on terms that Archbishop Lefebvre would have accepted. 


In his history of the Hussite rebellion in Bohemia, Aeneas Silvio Piccolomini, who took the name Pius II when he became pope, referred to Jan Zizka, the one-eyed military genius who lost both eyes leading the invincible Hussite armies, as “the blind leader of a blind people.” The phrase kept popping into my mind during the course of our interview, but especially when Bishop Williamson said that the society was going to break apart, for it seems as if he is determined to stick by an organization that is doomed to self-destruct anyway.


JRS CoverAs a gesture of friendship, I gave Bishop Williamson a copy of The Jewish Revolutionary Spirit and its Impact on World History. On the first page of the book, I wrote a dedication “To Bishop Williamson,” and then added “Ut unum sint.” He laughed when he read it, and everyone else at the table laughed when I said that an artifact like this was destined to end up in the holocaust museum in Washington. What occurred to me later is that the SSPX is more like the Jews than either of us were willing to admit at the time. Like the Jews, the time of their visitation has arrived and the SSPX is too blind to see it. They were unable to sign a document that Archbishop Lefebvre could have signed without hesitation, and in failing to sign it they were unable to see that they were doing more to enhance the modernist agenda they ostensibly oppose than would have been the case if they had accepted their rightful position as docile members of the Church.


Ultimately, the inscription was no laughing matter. Unity in the Church is not some optional feature, like white wall tires on a car. It goes to the very heart of Christ’s conception of the church and it goes to the very heart as well of the woes that have been inflicted on the world since the cataclysmic violation of that unity which followed from the events of 1517. That situation was not improved by the events of 1988.


Bishop Williamson is 69 years old. That is one year short of the Biblical allotment of years granted to men.  If the society is going to break up anyway, I argued, then let it be through his unilateral signing of the agreement with Rome. At this suggestion, he simply throws up his hands, as if to say the suggestion is too preposterous for words. The suggestion is far from preposterous. In fact, as live options go, it’s the only option he has left.CW


E. Michael Jones is the editor of Culture Wars. This piece is an excerpt from a lengthy feature article published in the September 2010 issue of Culture Wars.

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Index of SSPX articles

L'affaire Williamson: The Catholic Church and Holocaust Denial, an e-book by E. Michael Jones. As soon as the news leaked that the Catholic Church was going to lift the excommunications of four Society of St. Pius X bishops, reports that one, Bishop Richard Williamson, was a "Holocaust denier" began circulating. News reports kept confusing the Church’s focus on the sin of schism with the unforgivable secular sins, "Holocaust denial" and anti-Semitism. Why? Holocaust denial is another word for Jewish control of discourse, especially historical discourse about World War II. A historian who publishes something a powerful Jew, which is to say a Jew with powerful backers, dislikes, will be punished. Blacking listing and firing are typical punishments. L'affaire Williamson describes and defies the artificial rules that control discourse, exposing fissions within society and the Church. $4.99. Read More/Buy


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