Thursday, December 22, 2016

How Pope Benedict XVI dealt with disagreement

In 1988, Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre of the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX) consecrated four bishops against the express orders of Pope John Paul II.  The Vatican declared that the archbishop and the new bishops had, by virtue of this act, incurred a latae sententiae (or automatic) excommunication.  This brought to a head years of tension between the Society and the Vatican, occasioned by the Society’s disagreement with liturgical and doctrinal changes following Vatican II.  Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, then the chief doctrinal officer of the Church and later to become Pope Benedict XVI, had worked strenuously, if in vain, for a reconciliation.
On July 13 of that year Cardinal Ratzinger addressed the controversy in a talk in Santiago, Chile to that country’s bishops.  Naturally, he was very critical of the Archbishop, and insisted that the fault was ultimately Lefebvre’s rather than the Vatican’s.  Yet Ratzinger also called upon Lefebvre’s critics to consider how their own actions may have needlessly alienated those sympathetic to the SSPX.  Events following Vatican II, he suggested, had understandably “[led] a great number of people to ask themselves if the Church of today is really the same as that of yesterday, or if they have changed it for something else without telling people.”

To the extent that churchmen had fostered this impression, they bore, in Ratzinger’s view, some responsibility for the crisis with the SSPX.  He said:

[I]t is a duty for us to examine ourselves, as to what errors we have made, and which ones we are making even now…

[S]chisms can take place only when certain truths and certain values of the Christian faith are no longer lived and loved within the Church… It will not do to attribute everything to political motives, to nostalgia, or to cultural factors of minor importance

For all these reasons, we ought to see this matter primarily as the occasion for an examination of conscience.  We should allow ourselves to ask fundamental questions, about the defects in the pastoral life of the Church, which are exposed by these events…

[W]e want to ask ourselves where there is lack of clarity in ourselves

End quote.  So, according to Cardinal Ratzinger, churchmen can be guilty of scandalizing the faithful by virtue of (a) apparent surreptitious departures from truths and values traditionally upheld by the Church, (b) a lack of clarity, and (c) a tendency to dismiss criticism as politically motivated, an expression of mere nostalgia, etc.

Ring any bells?

After becoming pope himself, Ratzinger would lift the excommunications of the SSPX bishops, affirm the right of all Catholic priests to use the Extraordinary Form of the Mass (i.e. the “Latin Mass”), and begin doctrinal talks with the SPPX -- all in compliance with the conditions the SSPX had set on regularizing its position within the Church. 

This solicitude for critics of papal policy may seem odd coming from the man whom liberal journalists liked to describe as the “Panzer Cardinal.”  But the image of Ratzinger as a grim inquisitor ruthlessly quashing dissent is an urban legend.  As he complained in the 1988 Santiago talk:

The mythical harshness of the Vatican in the face of the deviations of the progressives is shown to be mere empty words.  Up until now, in fact, only warnings have been published; in no case have there been strict canonical penalties in the strict sense.

It is true that heterodox progressive theologians like Hans Küng and Charles Curran are not permitted to teach Catholic theology in an official capacity.  But these famous dissenters were never excommunicated or defrocked.  They maintained their academic careers, their influence within the Church, and the fawning attention of the media. 

In 1990, the CDF under Cardinal Ratzinger issued the instruction Donum Veritatis, addressing the issue of dissent among theologians.  As I had reason to note in a recent post, despite insisting on fidelity to the Magisterium, Donum Veritatis is very generous in recognizing the legitimacy and value of certain kinds of criticism of magisterial statements.  (See the passages quoted in that post.)

So, both as head of the CDF and as pope, while Ratzinger by no means gave away the store either to the SSPX or to the progressives, he did strive as far as possible to understand and accommodate their concerns. 

Naturally, he was no less reasonable when dealing with criticism and queries coming from more mainstream quarters.  An example: In its teaching on the morality of lying, the 1994 edition of the Catechism of the Catholic Church gave the impression that one was bound to refrain from lying only to “someone who has a right to know the truth.”  This seemed to depart from the more traditional teaching that lying is always and intrinsically wrong, whether or not the person lied to has a right to the truth.  Many Catholic theologians wrote to then-Cardinal Ratzinger at the time, asking that the text be changed to conform with the more traditional teaching.  He did not dismiss this criticism as rigid, or as insufficiently sensitive to the complexities of concrete circumstances requiring discernment, etc.  Rather, in the revised 1997 edition of the Catechism, the text was indeed changed to remove the problematic non-traditional formulation.  (I had reason to discuss the details of this case in an earlier post.)

Another example: In 1995, Pope John Paul II’s Evangelium Vitae appeared, and took a very restrictive position on the application of capital punishment.  Concerned about the impression that traditional Catholic doctrine on capital punishment was being overturned, Fr. Richard John Neuhaus wrote to Cardinal Ratzinger asking for clarification.  Ratzinger did not accuse Neuhaus of a bad spirit, of dissent, of trying to put the pope into a difficult situation, of quibbling about what was already perfectly clear, etc.  Rather, he straightforwardly answered the question, reassuring Neuhaus that “the Holy Father has not altered the doctrinal principles which pertain to this issue” but was merely “appl[ying the]… principles in the context of present-day historical circumstances.”  And in 2004, Ratzinger further reaffirmed the continuing validity of traditional teaching by making it clear that “there may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about… the death penalty” and that a Catholic could even be “at odds with” the pope on that subject – something that could not be the case if the relevant doctrinal principles had been reversed.

This willingness to allow for diverse opinions wherever that is consistent with orthodoxy, and as far as possible to engage those who are critical of papal policy and teaching non-polemically and at the level of rational argumentation rather than by authoritative diktat, plausibly stem from Benedict’s high regard for reason.  In his famous Regensburg address of 2006, Benedict emphasized the centrality of reason to the Catholic faith and to the Christian conception of God, contrasting it sharply with the voluntarist tendency to see God as an unfathomable will who issues arbitrary commands.  He approvingly quotes Byzantine emperor Manuel II Palaeologus’s remark that “whoever would lead someone to faith needs the ability to speak well and to reason properly,” and endorses the emperor’s view that (as Benedict paraphrases Manuel) “not to act in accordance with reason is contrary to God’s nature.”  Benedict added:

[T]he faith of the Church has always insisted that between God and us, between his eternal Creator Spirit and our created reason there exists a real analogy… God does not become more divine when we push him away from us in a sheer, impenetrable voluntarism; rather, the truly divine God is the God who has revealed himself as logos… Consequently, Christian worship is… worship in harmony with the eternal Word and with our reason.

This attitude toward reason contrasts sharply with that evinced by many of the critics of the four cardinals and others who have formally and politely asked Pope Francis to clarify Amoris Laetitia and to reaffirm the traditional Catholic teachings that some think are contradicted by that document.  Most of these critics have refused to address the substance of the four cardinals’ concerns.  They have preferred to question the cardinals’ motives and to issue insults and threats and false statements.  They have expressed scorn for the cardinals’ “intellectual discussion” and “sophisticated arguments.”  One critic opines that those who sympathize with the four cardinals tend to be “intellectuals” and “educated” people, “who put great store in their reason” and in “arguments, logically developed from absolute first principles… building to a case that cries out to be answered” – as if these were bad things!  Even Pope Francis himself has in the past criticized “trust in clear and logical reasoning” as a kind of “Gnosticism”! 

And yet it is only fair to note that Pope Francis has, like his predecessor, been surprisingly generous even to the SSPX.  Evidently his motivation has less to do with concern for doctrinal continuity and rational engagement than with charity and mercy.  But perhaps this same charity and mercy will, ultimately, lead him to respond to the four cardinals. 


  1. Mr. Feser,

    Is it okay to go to Mass at the SSPX?

    Are Novus Ordo Confessions valid?

    Is the Novus Ordo Mass valid?

    Is Francis Pope?

  2. Anonymous, the answers are: maybe leaning towards yes, yes, yes, yes. The only danger I see with going to the SSPX is that you're liable to eventually start answering no to the other questions, which is a problem.

    Other than that, the SSPX cannot be worse than the Orthodox, who are actually in schism, but have valid sacraments nonetheless.

  3. Dr Feser,

    Did you not read how Francis reacted to those who he says are trying to block his reformation of the Vatican? He said they are doing the "work of the devil" and need to be "permanently purified."

    My kind of pope: liberal in his teaching but harsh to his critics. It's going to be a good, long ride, unless, of course, right wing Catholic reactionaries take action against him. But I have a feeling he's considered that possibility. He dealt with far right politicians in Argentina for years.

  4. But I have a feeling he's considered that possibility. He dealt with far right politicians in Argentina for years.

    Did whining, complaining, and ultimately hiding work as good for him there as it's doing here? Because so far, that seems to be the only thing the Pope has been able to rely on. He tried to lecture Trump during the election, and ended up pleading through his subordinate that he was misunderstood.

    A good, long ride is exactly what this Pope is being treated to, hence his lashing out in frustration. It turns out the Holy Spirit has some plans for him, whose mercy he is at.

  5. I would advise against going to SSPX mass, especially if you have an FSSP alternative.
    The new mass is perfectly valid. So are the confessions. Francis has not committed any formal heresy yet and he is still the pope. Many, even most of the things he does and says are heterorthodox, but that doesn't mean he's no longer a pope. The best thing to hope for now is that God will give us a new pope who will walk in his light as Francis isn't backing down in his assault on the aesthetic which we know as Catholic and he has taken himself up as The Holy Spirit and his critics and servants of Satan.

  6. I have battled Reactionary Radtrads all my life. They are tedious extremists and their faults too tedious to rehash here. Given their track record and perchance to cause scandal I can see why Pope Francis would be suspicious of them.

    But that being said I have zero sympathy for any bishop who refused or refuses to allow at least one Latin Mass or St Pius V rite in his diocese but allows all other sorts of flake nonsense. Then he looks surprised when an SSPX or SSPV types show up at his door leading people astray cause they have no FSSP Mass to go too.

  7. Ivan, I hardly dare to comment here when there are so many intellectuals in the comment section - exception for "Son of Ya'Kov" unfortunately - however, with respect to which Mass to attend - might we look at this in a different way?

    In which Mass is TRUTH evident? I mean in which Mass is The Body and Blood of Jesus Christ treated with the respect that reflects belief in the Real Presence? Do we owe allegiance to this truth that Jesus is present, really and truly, and therefore feel we cannot be in the same room with others who scatter "Sacred Dust" on their person, on the floor, and elsewhere?

    For me, the answer is clear. All the discussion of what's licit, what's valid, what is allowed etc. is to obscure this truth.

    In keeping with the point of this post, Cardinal Ratzinger, when he was Pope, dealt with the above difficulties by distributing Holy Communion on the tongue in his later Masses, and was generous, publicly and forcefully, in approving the Latin Mass. In this way he swept excuses for sacrilege away and fostered a return to TRUTH.

  8. @Dr. Feser. My Brother! My Romanist!!!*

    What do you make of this? Is the Pope changing his mind?

    *I'm trying to replicate it when two black dudes uses a slur word that they can call each other but no non-black person can use, but I substituted it with the word "Romanist" way I am going to use that other word.

    Plus it would be silly anyway.

    Peace out!

  9. Hasn't Pope Francis, in the past, said that he appreciates disagreement with him? Bishop Athanasius Schneider recently wrote:

    Pope Francis often calls for an outspoken and fearless dialogue between all members of the Church in matters concerning the spiritual good of souls. In the Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia, the Pope speaks of a need for “open discussion of a number of doctrinal, moral, spiritual, and pastoral questions. The thinking of pastors and theologians, if faithful to the Church, honest, realistic and creative, will help us to achieve greater clarity” (n. 2). Furthermore, relationships at all levels within the Church must be free from a climate of fear and intimidation, as Pope Francis has requested in his various pronouncements.

    I seem to recall Pope Francis saying, perhaps after Cardinal Burke said some things after the first or second synod, that he appreciates, specifically, Burke's disagreement with him. But then he moved Burke to Malta.


  10. @Anon

    > He tried to lecture Trump during the election, and ended up pleading through his subordinate that he was misunderstood.

    That of course is a lie. If anything it was Trump who over-reacted and admitted as much the day after when he read the Pope's actual words unfiltered.

  11. @Greg see my Breitbart link right before your post.

  12. So the Pope makes a speech to the Roman Curia

    and different news sources "spin" it. Including Catholic ones.

    So the Pope is either welcoming resistance as long as it comes from good will or He is condemning all resistance as malevolent or this is just some backhanded attack on the four Cardinals who wrote the dubia?

    Why can't the press make up it's mind?

  13. Hi Son of Ya'Kov,

    I remember my dad once using the word "genuflecter" as a slur he was happy to own (as in "Yeah, damn right I'm a 'genuflecter' and proud of it"). I assume he must have had this label flung at him when he was a boy or something, though I've never heard it elsewhere.

  14. "genuflecter"? Reminds me of bead puller.

    I like "Romanist" better.

    Merry Christmas.

  15. Too bad everyone's running from "Papist" these days.

  16. Bunch of mackerel-snappers.

  17. Well, I think I killed this conversation. Sorry.

  18. @A Daughter of Mary
    Wine and bread become body and blood even within schismatic groups, primary example would be the Orthodox church. And they share the rite of Divine Liturgy as is, hence on those grounds it would be perfectly fine to go to mass with groups that are in some kind of a schism. But this isn't just about the rite itself, it's about fidelity to the Church. SSPX is in a very strange canonical situation, which Francis isn't helping as their priests now have valid Catholic confession, but are not in full communion with the Church which is a somewhat paradoxical situation. Until further notice, I would personally avoid going to their parishes, especially if you have the alternative. I have it, but only once or so a month and when in town try to attend the FSSP Latin mass (we now finally have a priest in our country who can celebrate it, before we had guests from Austria, Slovenia and other nearby countries).

  19. The SSPX is in a pickle(& I would say it was Benedict who did it too them by lifting the excommunications not Francis giving semi-faculties to their Priest to hear confession). They have three choices. 1) Stay in semi-schism and die out when all their Bishops die since they will have no legal authority to get new bishops. 2) Return to full Schism by having their remaining Bishops consecrate new Bishops in order to perpetuate themselves & keep their order alive. This would return them to square one and within a generation they will become a distinct sect like the Eastern Orthodox or the Polish National Catholic Church. 3)Return to the Catholic Church.

    Williamson the holocaust denier has already chosen 2.

  20. "It turns out the Holy Spirit has some plans for him, whose mercy he is at."

    We are all at the mercy of the Holy Spirit.

  21. within a generation they will become a distinct sect like the Eastern Orthodox or the Polish National Catholic Church

    That would be good for them, for instead of attacks for being too Catholic, they' would receive all those ecumenical warm feelings.

    Can't you imagine Pope Francis IV praising Archbishop Lefebvre the way Francis (I) praises Martin Luther?

  22. @Al

    I think you are kidding but I am going to answer you seriously cause......I'm bored right now.

    >That would be good for them, for instead of attacks for being too Catholic, they' would receive all those ecumenical warm feelings.

    Not really since their raison d'etre is opposition to Vatican II on Ecumenism. If they where into ecumenism they wouldn't schism in the first place. Also not all religions are into Ecumenism. We might have Ecumenism with the Mennonite World Conference but I doubt any Old Order Amish are going to show up. When relations between the Eastern Orthodox and the Church started to warm up the monks at Mount Athos and the Russians resisted for decades. Ultra-Orthodox Jews have a Halakha against any inter-religious dialog etc...

    >Can't you imagine Pope Francis IV praising Archbishop Lefebvre the way Francis (I) praises Martin Luther?

    Yes I can but I note the irony at the comparison between the two.

    Cheers buddy! Merry Christmas.

  23. Ivan Knezović, it reads like you're in Hungary. If so, I take my kids weekly to the TLM at Szent Mihaly's on Vaci utca; wonderful Mass, hyper excellent choir, and so on. I've never liked Baroque but when you attend a TLM High Mass in one, you realize what the design is for. It's exquisite.

    Generally, if you take into account the long history of "Modernists" trying to what, "take over" the Church or "reorient" the Church, "Protestantize" the Church, or however you want to say it, then perhaps what we're seeing now is the set up for a real fight as to what Catholicism is. If the Modernists win, then it's a sort of Anglicanism with some pasta and oregano, and thus not really very interesting, a sort of "Spiritual Body of the Holy Gonands". That sort of Modernist Church attracts no one, or very few (some wag said the Episcopal Church was the National Organization of Women at prayer.) I've seen stats such that only about 7 percent of "Millennial" US Catholics stay in the Church. An astounding number. That Church ought to die out (and no wonder the US bishops are so keen to encourage illegal immigration from Latin American countries as it props up US Catholics stats).

    But if the Trads win, then the "Magisterium" Catholics, those in the great middle, will mostly stay with the Church and we can go back to being distinctively Catholic. I don't think there's a scenario in which the Magisterium Catholics "win". JPII kept 'em alive (even, really created them; his election saved the Paul6 Church from implosion) and B16 seemed to be leading the way toward the Trads. Francis has jumped heavily on the Progressive/Modernist side, and he's doing us a favor, forcing us to "get off the fence". We either go "full Prot" or "full Trad", one or the other, no more mushy middle.

    And besides all of that, a looming problem is coming our way, revealed by the history of the Church, that no one wants to look at: the great East/West split mainly occurred because the West spoke Latin and the Greeks (surprise) spoke Greek. But even before 1054, the Copts (speaking Coptic) broke away from the Greeks, and the Syrians did too (not as completely, perhaps, as the Copts). If we try to keep a vernacular-language "Roman" Catholicism, in a relatively short time, we'll have an Anglo-Catholic Church, a Iglesia Católica Española, a Deutsch Katholische Kirche, a Église catholique française: all of them theoretically in full communion with each other but in reality no more friendly to one another than the Serbian Church is to the Bulgarian, or the Bulgarian to the Greeks, or the Greeks to the Russians. Here in Budapest the Greeks broke away from the Russians and set up their own chapel – they just couldn't get along. (As I understand it, if you go to Lourdes or Fatima, you get a massively strong sense of this, as the different language factions worship at different times and generally reduce these holy sites to a modern version of the Tower of Bable.)

    Interesting times, to say the least.

  24. @Raghn
    I think that we should get rid of the progressive/conservative label. We are primarily doing ourselves a disservice as we are not conservative, it being a protestant political ideology related to Burke, with whom we have very little in common, assuming we are thomists or augustinians or just adhere to the social teaching of the Church. We, the so called "traditionalists" (myself being often called one, as a 22 year old who went to TLM twice in total, fully a child of JPII. and Benedict XVI., never having read Pius X. and so on) simply adhere to the doctrine, without imposing our own arbitrary anti-doctrinal views for the sake of some vague notion of mercy, that is devoid from justice (reminds me of st. Faustina a lot, who never divorced the two- if we are outside the mercy that God offers us we will suffer his perfect justice, which is indeed terrible). The division is as an article on The Remnant said, between doctrinals and anti-doctrinals.
    The statistics are probably off in a few ways, as people move away from faith as they grow up and move back into it once they have a taste of the vapid secular life. Ed Feser is the perfect example of this really, as would Alasdair MacIntyre, the two of them being the leading thomists most of us philosophically minded Catholics turn to for answers on various topics.
    I am also from Croatia and not Hungary.

  25. @Ivan Knezović,
    Ah, yes, thanks! Croatia and Hungary had a long relationship and I've an American-Croatian friend who tells me how glad he is that they've parted ways. And I remember working with a Slovakian-American who was such a Spirit of Vatican II sort that he suffered no counter-opinions to the classic Progressive/Modernist Party Line. He asked me not to talk to him about religion, at one point. But he loathed the Magyar (even though his country has a large area of Hungarian-speaking people). Myself, I'm Irish, and thus hopelessly sardonic about it all. I would have hoped that Croatia had a stronger Trad movement, but rejoice to hear it is advancing there.

    In Hungary, the country has a strong Protestant element (Calvinist) and also the Church gave in to the Communists after Mindszenty was removed by Paul6. IIRC, the Hungarian Church caved to the Communist regime and lost a massive amount of respectability, all as a result of Paul's (or "Good Pope John's") "Realpolitic" or "Ostpolitic" or whatever it was called. (As I suggested earlier, JPII saved the Church from serious collapse, though if you read the Remnant (as you mention you do) Hilary White makes an excellent point that the collapse is long overdue. It is necessary to reboot, as it were, from Vatican II. Anyway, for Hungary, the Church is slowly regaining respect under Cardinal Erdo, or so it is said. But he's not much enamoured, shall we say, of the Trads.

    As for the Left/Right, Conservative/Liberal (or Progressive), or even (small 'o') orthodox vs. the heretics, we have to use some sort of terminology, and in many ways (not totally, of course) it does tend to mirror the political split. That's complicated by the fact that American Conservatives are Classical Lockean Liberals, whereas in Europe "the Right" can mean quite different things. So "Doctrinals" opposed to the "Anti-doctrinals" works quite well. Many thanks for that ref.

    And Edmund Burke was a great man, honestly; I don't think he'd be enamoured of John Lock's American avatars. His mother was Catholic and though I've no evidence of it, I'm sure he grew up speaking Irish as well as English. Ireland (and the US) could use a good few more Burkes, but Ireland has become "hard mission territory" for either the Faith or Burkean "Conservatism".

    And yes, let's thank God for Ed Feser and all the ones who've returned. But in my own extended family, I know of so many who've been lost, seemingly permanently. Hilary White has the right style of positivism about it all, and we can only pray God has mercy, indeed.

    Again, many thanks!

  26. Let us all not forget - the best case scenario is not thst a new pope comes in who's better thsn Francis. It's thst Francis repents and becomes a champion for orthodoxy. We must pray for him.