I have long argued that the rebellion against the Holy Father is at its core the same rebellion staged by the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX) and other extreme traditionalists since the 1970s.
A recently released transcript of a meeting between Pope Paul VI further confirms my position, that radical traditionalists long ago cast aside any convincing pretense of respecting papal primacy, and demonstrates that the same line of argumentation used against Pope Paul VI is used against Pope Francis today. Instead of the today’s controversy about two synods and a footnote, Pope Paul’s dissenters rebelled over a council, its documents, and the liturgical reform that followed.
Ironically, as the SSPX is reportedly nearing an agreement with the Vatican to bring the Society back into full communion with the Church, a great number of Catholics who are currently in communion have adopted a philosophy very similar to the one that led to the SSPX finding itself in an irregular canonical position. Signs of recent progress between Rome and the Society include concessions by the Vatican on sacramental matters and the SSPX’s Bishop Fellay referring several canonical matters to Rome.
In some ways, today’s critics appropriating aspects of the old SSPX position is not surprising. Many of Pope Francis’ greatest detractors have long been sympathetic to the demands of the Society, whether they were liturgical traditionalists, had qualms with Vatican II, or have inculturated the strong anti-episcopal views of certain “attack dog” publications and websites (the outlets that are ready to pounce the moment any bishop mentions the words “social justice” or comes within 15 feet of a liberal politician or heterodox Catholic).
Critics of Pope Francis contend that they are orthodox, hold fast to the traditions of the Church, and view the papacy in its proper, historical context. While their views of Pope Francis vary from “I find him confusing sometimes” to outright sedevacantism, the most commonly shared view is that popes can make serious doctrinal errors or even promulgate heresy in the exercise of their ordinary (non-infallible) magisterium. This goes contrary to the traditional teachings of the Church on papal primacy, as we have demonstrated in the past, and as Stephen Walford discusses convincingly in this February 2017 piece for La Stampa.
As I wrote in a recent piece, those who oppose Pope Francis’s teachings appeal to their private reading of the Tradition as more authoritative than that of the Magisterium, and argue that plain reason or common sense should convince any halfway intelligent person to see the doctrinal contradiction between what St. John Paul II taught and what Pope Francis is teaching. This ignores the fact that Francis has assured us many times that the document itself is orthodox and completely in line with Church teaching. In other words, it is impossible to take the pope at his word.
Following this to its logical consequences, for the typical critic of Pope Francis, the primacy of the pope provides no certainty and no assurance that the official teachings promulgated by the pope or the Vatican are orthodox. What is true for this pope must also be true for his predecessors. Apparently our only assurance of orthodoxy is to rely upon those who claim the mantle of “Traditional” Catholicism. In other words, we must trust their assessment of the words and documents and disciplines coming from Rome. Unfortunately, finding two traditionalist or conservative Catholics who believe exactly the same about every doctrine is impossible. Some accept Vatican II, others reject part or all of it. Some reject the new Mass, others have no problems with it. Some think Pope Francis is a heretic or promulgating error, others believe he is either confused or confusing, and still others believe that malicious forces in the Vatican are manipulating him.
Pedro Gabriel talks about the serious flaw in the “Sola Traditio” mindset here.
This is nothing new.
Early last week, the official Vatican transcript of a September 1976 meeting between Bl. Paul VI and Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre was published in the Italian newspaper La Stampa. The account is fascinating because it reveals an unfiltered, emotional exchange between two men with dramatically different approaches to ecclesiology, Tradition, and papal authority. I must point out that the view of the Magisterium and the papacy that Paul VI advocates is identical to our own at Where Peter Is, whereas arguments almost identical to Lefebvre’s are being employed again to undermine the reforms of Pope Francis.
The French Archbishop Lefebvre founded the SSPX in the 1970s as a fraternal society of priests ostensibly dedicated to preserving the practice and teaching of the Catholic Church as it was prior to the second Vatican Council. Throughout its existence, the Society and its leaders have resisted both the teachings of the post-conciliar popes and the hierarchy’s attempts to enforce discipline upon the society.
The Society was officially dissolved (with the approval of Pope Paul VI) in 1975, and its seminary in Ecône, Switzerland was ordered to be closed. The SSPX refused to obey papal and episcopal authority, however, and remains in operation today. Our own Pete Vere provides much more historical background and recounts his own journey out of the movement here.
Lefebvre was summoned to Castel Gandolfo on September 11, 1976 to meet with Paul VI in the midst of the drama surrounding Lefebvre’s refusal to submit to papal authority and close the seminary. He had recently been suspended a divinis by Pope Paul, meaning he no longer had the approval of the Church to be an active bishop. He was not allowed to say Mass, hear confessions, or ordain priests, let alone run a seminary or oversee a priestly society. He was not yet excommunicated at that point – that would come in 1988, when St. John Paul II excommunicated him for the illicit ordinations of four bishops.
Father John Zuhlsdorf blogged about the meeting and provided a rough translation of the original Italian and French transcript. Fr. Z also provides a link to Lefebvre’s account of the meeting, which was made public years ago.
When analyzing the transcript of the meeting and the letters and documents that followed, it’s clear that the soon-to-be-canonized Paul held what I earlier described as the “Ecclesial” position on the Church, while the not-yet-excommunicated Lefebvre held the position that I described in my original piece as “fundamentalist,” but will call the Sola Traditio position going forward.
This deserves a much more in-depth analysis, which I will provide in the future, but here are some key quotes from Lefebvre and Paul that illustrate my point (quotes are from Google Translate, corrected for grammar and clarity [with added text in brackets]):
“The situation in the Church after the Council [is] such that we no longer know what to do. With all these changes or we risk losing faith or we give the impression of disobeying. I would like to get on my knees and accept everything; but I can not go against my conscience.”
“We [traditionalists] do not see how what is affirmed [by the Council] is consistent with the healthy Tradition of the Church. And again, I’m not alone in thinking it. There are so many people who think so. People who cling to me and push me, often against my will, not to leave them.”
(The above quote is eerily similar to Cardinal Raymond Burke’s oft-repeated “Everywhere I go people are saying to me…” )
“I am not against the Council … but I am against some of its texts”
“It is necessary to choose between what the Council said and what your predecessors said.”
“Today everything is permitted for everyone: why not allow something for us too?”
“I do not say that everything [that has come from the Council] is negative. I would like to collaborate in the building up of the Church.”
“You have judged the Pope as unfaithful to the Faith of which he is supreme guarantor. Perhaps this is the first time in history that this happens. You told the whole world that the Pope has no faith, that he does not believe, that he is modernist, and so on. I must, yes, be humble. But you are in a terrible position. Performing acts, before the world, of extreme gravity.”
“We are the first to deplore excesses. We are the first and the most prompt to look for a remedy. But this remedy can not be found in a challenge to the authority of the Church. I wrote it repeatedly. You did not take my words into account.”
“How can you consider yourselves in communion with Us, when you take a stand against Us, facing the world, to accuse us of unfaithfulness, of the will to destroy the Church?”
“If you are not against the Council, you must adhere to it, to all of its documents.”
“We are a community. We can not allow autonomous behavior to various parties”
“But it is not so, of course, that you contribute to the building up of the Church. Are you aware of what you are doing? Are you conscious that this goes directly against the Church, the Pope, the Ecumenical Council? How do you have the right to judge a Council? A Council, after all, whose decrees, in large part, were signed by you. We must pray and reflect, subordinating everything to Christ and to his Church.”
The conflicting views of the Church between the two men deserves much more discussion. Consider the above a foretaste. But I will leave you with this, from the letter that Paul VI sent to Archbishop Lefebvre one month after the meeting. I have said repeatedly that the main problem with the position of Pope Francis’s critics is a distorted view of the doctrine of Papal Primacy. Paul takes it one step further in his critique of Lefebvre and accuses him of holding to a “warped ecclesiology.” As Pope Paul explains in his refusal to accommodate Lefebvre’s demands:
“We cannot go back on the juridical suppression of the Priestly Fraternity of Saint Pius X. This has inculcated a spirit of opposition to the Council and to its implementation such as the Vicar of Christ was endeavoring to promote.
….Upon such a foundation, … one cannot build an institution or a priestly formation in conformity with the requirements of the Church of Christ. This in no way invalidates the good element in your seminaries, but one must also take into consideration the ecclesiological deficiencies of which We have spoken and the capacity of exercising a pastoral ministry in the Church of today. Faced with these unfortunately mixed realities, We shall take care not to destroy but to correct and to save as far as possible.
This is why, as supreme guarantor of the faith and of the formation of the clergy, We require you first of all to hand over to Us the responsibility of your work, and particularly for your seminaries. This is undoubtedly a heavy sacrifice for you, but it is also a test of your trust, of your obedience and it is a necessary condition in order that these seminaries, which have no canonical existence in the Church, may in the future take their place therein.”
In a future piece, I will delve deeper into the similarities of thought between the Archbishop Lefebvre and many of Pope Francis’s critics today.
Mike Lewis is a writer and graphic designer from Maryland, having worked for many years in Catholic publishing. He’s a husband, father of four, and a lifelong Catholic. He’s active in his parish and community. He is a founding editor for Where Peter Is.