On Friday, Crisis Magazine released a new podcast episode entitled, “How to Properly Understand the Role of the Papacy,” in which editor and host Eric Sammons discussed papal authority with Peter Kwasniewski, a traditionalist author and speaker who has recently published a two-book set entitled The Road from Hyperpapalism to Catholicism: Rethinking the Papacy in a Time of Ecclesial Disintegration. Volume 1 is called “Theological Reflections on the Rock of the Church” and Volume 2 is “Chronological Responses to an Unfolding Pontificate.”
Understandably, Dr. Kwasniewski is not a fan of Where Peter Is, and he takes a couple of swipes at us in the podcast interview, describing this site’s position on the papacy as “complete subjectivist irrationalism.” Now, I’m not certain what he means by this. First of all, we’re not a monolith. Our contributors don’t all agree about everything, and although I wouldn’t say our internal disagreements are filled with backstage drama, some of us do have strong disagreements on certain things. Even still, I think it’s fair to say that most of our contributors are not “subjectivist” (and certainly none are complete subjectivists). I don’t think anything we’ve published opposes the Church’s doctrines on the existence of objective morality and intrinsic evil. As for “irrationalism,” I suppose that’s up to the reader, but based on Dr. Kwasniewski’s claim of “complete subjectivist,” I doubt he reads our site frequently enough to make a well-informed judgement on that.
In this podcast, I think Sammons did a fairly good job at playing “devil’s advocate” on a couple of issues, specifically on traditionalists’ lack of adherence to the teaching in Lumen Gentium 25 that the faithful are to grant assent to non-infallible teachings of the pope on matters of faith and morals. Early in the podcast, Dr. Kwasniewski insists, “I’m not a dissenter at all.” He then spends the rest of the hour echoing the arguments of self-described dissenters, as well as Protestant reformers, those who influenced them, and other opponents of the authority of the Church’s hierarchy in defending his rejection of the pope’s official teachings.
Unlike the many breakaway groups who have offered contrary claims about what constitutes “orthodox Catholicism” (such as the SSPX, sedevacantists, and certain Anglican and Old Catholic groups), Dr. Kwasniewski continues to enjoy canonical “cover” and promote dissident views within mainstream Catholicism even as his views become more extreme. For example, he is still invited to speak at mainstream Catholic parishes and he has been featured prominently in the first two installments of the Mass of the Ages trilogy (he was even credited as a writer for the second film).
Some might question my use of the words “dissident,” “extremist,” and “dissenter” to describe Dr. Kwasniewski and his views. After all, Dr. Kwasniewski seems friendly and certainly tries to frame his arguments charitably and with respect (jabs taken at Where Peter Is notwithstanding). But the fact is that his views on the papacy, the liturgy, and the Second Vatican Council stray far beyond the boundaries of orthodox Catholic discourse. He openly encourages priests and bishops to disobey the pope, and he has openly accused Pope Francis of heresy. His trajectory mirrors that of many who eventually break communion with the Church (whether involuntarily or of their own volition).
For the sake of clarity, here are several examples of what I mean when I say that Dr. Kwasniewski’s views have become “more extreme.” One example is that in June 2021, he announced that he believes that “Sacrosanctum Concilium is not only not a safe document, it was the greatest Trojan Horse ever introduced into the Church.” In this essay, he is saying that he no longer holds to the mainstream traditionalist view that the Vatican II constitution on the liturgy was implemented poorly or inaccurately, but that the document itself is “chock-full of problematic statements and loopholes big enough to drive a fleet of Mack trucks through.”
Secondly, he now believes that the actions of the Society of St. Pius X and their founder were justified, writing in October 2021, “I can no longer accept the opinion that Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre was guilty of ‘wrongful disobedience.’” He then extends the logic of this conclusion to advance the view that “If the Vatican, following on the heels of Traditionis Custodes, should dare to prohibit traditional priestly ordinations, it would be entirely justifiable for a bishop who understands what is at stake to continue to ordain priests traditionally but clandestinely, without any permission requested or obtained.”
In the same article, he explains why he is so strident in his views: “Even if the new rite of ordination is valid (as is the new rite of Mass), it is severely defective, unfitting and inauthentic in liturgical terms. The authoritative witness, priority, and superiority of the lex orandi of the traditional rite must be maintained in the life of the Church until such time as the Tridentine Pontificale Romanum can be universally restored.” I don’t think it’s unreasonable to assert that – even if he concedes that the normative liturgical rites of the Church are “valid” – bashing the reformed liturgy constantly and unreservedly from many directions is an extreme position. Furthermore, I think it’s reasonable to believe that his advancing the idea that the Church’s liturgical rites are so corrupted that the problem can only be fixed when they are tossed out altogether, while imposing the older forms (or “restored to its immemorial and venerable form, in accord with the sovereign law of Christian Providence,” as he wrote in June of this year) to be extreme as well.
Religious Submission to the Ordinary Magisterium
One specific argument made by Dr. Kwasniewski during the podcast jumped out at me because I came across it recently in a different context. He makes an assertion about the correct translation of the Latin term “obsequium religiosum,” which is used to describe how we are to regard the pope’s non-definitive teachings on faith and morals. In most English translations, this term is translated to “religious submission” or “religious assent,” but Dr. Kwasniewski argues in favor of a third translation:
“The word that’s translated ‘submission’ in the English translation is a poor translation. The word in Latin, the meaning ‘submission’ isn’t even one of the meanings given for it in a typical Latin dictionary, it means ‘respect’. It means respect. So then you have to ask, what does it mean for a person to give respect to what a Pope is teaching? And there are some very good articles about this: Christian Brugger, Jeremy Holmes, Michael Sirilla. You can find these articles online that talk about Lumen Gentium 25 and really unpack the meaning of those words.”
Dr. Kwasniewski makes a few linguistic claims here that merited further exploration. By his own admission, he’s not a Latinist (for that matter, neither am I, although I do have a few Latinists on speed dial; as does he, I suspect). He says that in Latin dictionaries, “the meaning ‘submission’ isn’t even one of the meanings given for it in a typical Latin dictionary, it means ‘respect’. It means respect.”
Was he correct about “respect” being the more typical translation? After hearing him say this, I spent much more time going through Latin/English dictionaries to see how they translated obsequium than any person should. After about two hours of searching through the various dictionaries, I found that the most prevalent translation was “compliance,” with “obedience” and “submission” appearing less frequently. I never saw “respect” provided as a translation for obsequium. Examples of dictionaries I searched through were Cassell’s Standard Latin Dictionary (compliance, complaisance, submission), the Chambers/Murray Latin-English Dictionary (a. compliance, complaisance. b. obedience, allegiance), and The White Latin Dictionary (compliance, complaisance). Likewise, Google Translate gives “compliance” as its primary translation, with “submission” as an alternate. I didn’t see the word “respect” anywhere. And the meaning of compliance is much closer to “submission” than “respect.”
Additionally, one of my Latinists-on-call responded to my question regarding submission or respect, writing, “It’s certainly more than respect. It’s more in the ballpark of obedience and submission. The etymology is literally, ‘on account of following after.’ It’s the mindset one has toward another in whose path I’m carefully following. Discipleship mindset, follow after me.”
Finally, in his book Magisterium, the late Jesuit theologian Francis A. Sullivan discusses this question of “submission” versus “respect,” responding to a Bishop BC Butler who had been promoting the latter translation. Sullivan writes, “The English translations edited by Abbott and by Flannery render obsequium by ‘submission’, but Bishop Butler finds this too strong a term.” Sullivan goes on to address the claim of Bishop Butler that obsequium is used in three different ways in Lumen Gentium 25 – as a response to the teaching of one’s bishop, in response to the teaching of the pope, and then the obsequium fidei that must be given to an ecumenical council’s dogmatic teachings. Sullivan responds, “Obviously, different degrees of obsequium are called for by these three levels of teaching authority. Butler insists on the ‘variable’ sense of the term as used here, and concludes that when it is used of the response due to papal teaching, obsequium means no more than ‘due respect.'”
“With all due respect for the opinion of the Bishop, I must say that I believe that the published English translations are correct in using the word ‘submission’ when they render the phrase: ‘religiosum voluntatis et intellectus obsequium‘. First of all, according to the authoritative Latin Dictionary of Lewis and Short, the word obsequium, from obsequi, ‘to follow’ or ‘to yield to’, means ‘compliance, yielding, consent, obedience, allegiance’, and not mere ‘respect’. Secondly, it is really difficult to see what would be meant by ‘religious respect of will and mind’; whereas this phrase makes good sense when obsequium is translated by ‘submission’. Thirdly, while there are certainly different degrees of obsequium required by the three kinds of magisterium that are mentioned in Lumen gentium 25, they can all be understood as degrees of ‘submission’, but ‘due respect’ is certainly not the meaning of obsequium in the term obsequium fidei.”
It seems that Kwasniewski’s claim that “submission isn’t even one of the meanings given for it in a typical Latin dictionary” isn’t true, nor is his suggestion that the word is typically defined as “respect.” Of course, he was likely just relying on the expertise of one of his ideological allies when he made this claim, and he mentions three in the podcast.
The show notes helpfully provided links to the Sirilla and Holmes articles, and I can only assume that he’s referring to Brugger’s recent article in Catholic World Report, to which Dr. Robert Fastiggi and I both responded. I reviewed all three articles, and Holmes’s 2017 article was the only one of the three that addressed the translation of obsequium religiosum. (Sirilla’s article was little more than a cynical attempt to justify public attacks on teachings of the ordinary Magisterium using wordplay similar to that of the dubia cardinals, and Brugger’s was a nightmare effort by a marginal theologian to overrule and usurp papal authority.)
Holmes’s article begins with a problem: “Sometimes ‘religious obsequium’ is translated ‘religious assent,’ at other times ‘religious submission,’ and at other times ‘religious respect’. What exactly are we being asked to do?”
Holmes then puts forth a lengthy argument that “respect” is the only correct translation. For example, he writes, “some translations of Lumen Gentium render the word obsequium as ‘respect’ which is a decent attempt to describe the nature of the act. In fact, the word obsequium survives in Italian as ‘ossequio,’ which retains only the meaning of ‘respect’ or ‘deference.’ Hence the official Vatican translation of the Oath of Fidelity renders obsequium religiosum as ‘religioso ossequio,’ which can only be translated ‘religious respect.’”
Holmes is correct, in part, about the Italian word ossequio, but he is misleading. There is a debate over the correct translation of the term obsequium in various contexts, however he performs a little trick in this passage of his essay, by referring to the Italian translation of the Oath of Fidelity. This discussion had heretofore mostly centered around the Vatican II document Lumen Gentium (from which the phrase obsequium religiosum originates), but suddenly Holmes brings up how it is translated in another document. Why the sudden shift?
The answer is likely because the Vatican’s Italian translation of Lumen Gentium 25 does not use “ossequio,” but “assenso,” meaning “assent.” It says, “e i fedeli devono accettare il giudizio dal loro vescovo dato a nome di Cristo in cose di fede e morale, e dargli l’assenso religioso del loro spirito. Ma questo assenso religioso della volontà e della intelligenza lo si deve in modo particolare prestare al magistero autentico del romano Pontefice.” Translating it into English, it says, “the faithful are to accept the judgment from their bishop given in the name of Christ in matters of faith and morals, and to give him the religious assent of their spirit. But this religious assent of the will and intellect is especially to be given to the authentic magisterium of the Roman Pontiff.”
Why all the games? Honestly, I am beginning to think that there’s no intellectual honesty to be found among traditionalist “scholars.”
Where had I heard this before?
As I mentioned before, Dr. Kwasniewski’s claim about “religious respect” jumped out at me because I came across arguments in favor of that translation several times while researching my response to Christian Brugger’s article. In fact, one of the examples came from an article from Crisis Magazine, albeit deep in the archives. It was not given in a conservative or traditionalist context. Quite the contrary.
Here is how the argument was presented in the January 1, 1987 edition of Crisis:
Noninfallible teaching calls for obsequium religiosum (religious submission or assent or respect) of intellect and will. However, unlike the assent of faith this assent is not absolute or metaphysically certain. According to generally accepted theological interpretations, there is a presumption of truth in favor of such teaching and the Catholic must make a sincere effort to give it intellectual assent; but such teaching can be erroneous. In 1967 the German bishops explained the religious submission of intellect and will due to noninfallible teaching in this way: “In order to maintain the true and ultimate substance of faith, she (the church) must, even at the risk of error in points of detail, give expression to doctrinal directives which have a certain degree of binding force and yet, since they are not de fide definitions, involve a certain element of the provisional even to the point of being capable of including error.” The English translation of the new code of canon law approved by the Executive Committee of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops translates obsequium religiosum as a “religious respect of intellect and will.” Such a translation seems to capture the flavor of the German bishops’ understanding. Thus the authoritative noninfallible teaching of the pope and bishops has a special character about it and a presumption in its favor, but it can be erroneous. In other words, it is fallible.
The author of the article was Charles Curran, and in his article (adapted from an address he gave a few weeks prior) he argues in favor of “the legitimacy of theological dissent from some noninfallible hierarchical teachings.” The “religious respect” argument was popular with progressive Catholics who dissented from Saint Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae and the Church’s prohibition of contraception. In Catholics circles where orthodoxy is of primary importance, the “religious respect” translation has historically been a red flag indicating dissent – such as when it appeared in the 1985 version of the New Commentary on the Code of Canon Law.
Suddenly traditionalist and conservative Catholic figures are employing the same tactics as outspoken liberal dissenters from earlier generations. They make clear that their reconsideration of these questions is due to their disapproval of Pope Francis’s teachings. Holmes begins his article, “Pope Francis’ many controversial statements have brought with them a new interest in how Catholics should respond to non-infallible teachings of the Magisterium.” Eric Sammons begins the podcast with the words, “The controversy surrounding Pope Francis have led many Catholics to rethink the papacy itself.” The unfortunate and sad reality is that their obedience to the Magisterium of the Church is contingent on what they personally think about what the pope teaches. That’s neither submission nor respect.
Yet unlike figures such as Curran – who had no problem admitting to dissenting views – they push back hard against the notion that they oppose the official teachings of the Church. Such intellectual dishonesty can’t possibly end well.
 Cassell’s Standard Latin Dictionary – Latin/English – English/Latin. Chichester, England: John Wiley & Sons, 1977, 404.
 Smith, William. Chambers/Murray Latin-English Dictionary. Edited by William Smith and John Lockwood. London, England: Chambers, 1976, 480.
 The White Latin Dictionary: Latin-English and English-Latin. Chicago: Follett Pub. Co., 1958, 415.
 Sullivan, Francis A. The Magisterium: Teaching Authority in the Catholic Church. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2002, 159.
Image: Adobe Stock. By Ivan.