The case of the imaginary schism

This essay from Thomas Aussenegg was extracted from the book, Is Tradition Excommunicated?

On June 30, 1988, the Society of St. Pius X gained four bishops to succeed the aging Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, who founded the Society in 1970 and who has ordained nearly 300 priests since then. The cost of this assurance of priestly continuity was a rupture of relations with the Holy See. This event is evaluated in various ways. Some people who supported Lefebvre for years now criticize him for consecrating bishops and thereby incurring excommunication. Without denying the merit of his resistance to modernism, they argue that it was rash to reject the compromise offered by Rome and that the rift is a disaster for the Society and for the Church. Others insist that the consecrations are a bold stroke to ensure the eventual triumph of the restored Faith.

Lawyers and historians can ponder this question for years without coming to a conclusion. History is not a science in which experiments can be repeated. The question is academic. The excommunications, valid or not, can be reversed; the consecrations cannot. The only concern for us is how to continue to live as Catholics in a hostile world. Let the scholars exercise their wits debating whether to call the consecrations rash or bold. Our task is simply to keep the Faith.

Even if it were clear that the drama of June 30 was an error, that would not change the fact that the Church is infected by the diseases of Modernism, Liberalism, and Communism, and we must protect ourselves against them. The accuracy of Archbishop Lefebvre's analysis of the sickness in the Church is unchanged by his subsequent actions. If he correctly diagnosed the loss of Tradition as a fatal disease in 1970, he is just as right now as he was then. Truth does not change, only falsehood.

A little strychnine in a cup of coffee is enough to make it fatal; it is useless to protest that it is still good coffee. The modern church, corrupted by alien ideologies, dispenses spiritual poison to the innocent faithful. Our course is to remain firmly attached to the holy priests who continue to give us our true spiritual nourishment. Lukewarm Catholics may return to their local modernist bishops because the pope threatens them with excommunication, but the majority will not be intimidated. This is no time to lose courage. Many people complain about the sad state the Church is in. Archbishop Lefebvre is one of the few who do anything about it. People who agree to keep their Mass at the price of giving up their freedom of speech will discover what their bargain is worth. When you beg for what rightfully belongs to you, you are conceding that others have the right to take it away again. Those who are content with their Mass without the right to defend the Faith are not traditional Catholics only sentimentalists.

The failure of the Society to reach an agreement with the Roman authorities was a disappointment, but not a defeat. The real defeat would have been the sacrifice of principle for the sake of transient political advantage. Such is the policy of the Vatican towards Communism since 1962 (consider the betrayal of Cardinal Mindzenty) but it is not the way of the Faith. The crisis of June 30 may make it harder for the Society to carry out its work, but the drawback of laboring under the stigma of schism is to some people of no importance compared to the value of retaining their integrity and their freedom. The existence of the Society as a body outside the control of the local bishops has been preserved, and for that we must be thankful. The terms of reconciliation dictated by Rome would have extinguished that independence. For sensing the trap and avoiding it, Archbishop Lefebvre is criticized by some. They say he lacks trust in the Roman authorities. It is a matter of opinion. But if the Roman authorities had wanted to build trust, they could have done so by first abolishing the unjust penalty of suspension against Archbishop Lefebvre.

The objective of reconciliation from the Roman point of view was to put the traditional movement back into the hands of the local bishops. But it is precisely because the local bishops are not providing any spiritual nourishment that Catholics support the Society in the first place. For refusing to abandon our faith, we need not fear the label of "schismatic" which is thrown at us by people who do not understand the full context of the events of June 30. One excommunication does not make a schism. The Greek schism took centuries to consummate.

People say that the Archbishop is excommunicated for his great disobedience of consecrating bishops on his own authority, and the law requires excommunication as the proper punishment. Perhaps, but there is more to consider: The law itself recognizes that a state of emergency requires emergency measures, during which the normal restrictions of church law are suspended for the sake of the care of souls. The present state of the Church is such an emergency. Anyone who doubts this is entitled to his optimism, but one cannot simply condemn those who hold a different view as schismatic. History will prove whose judgment is right. Even if a person is mistaken in perceiving an emergency, he is still not guilty and therefore cannot be punished.

We know that obedience is not an end in itself. Absolute obedience is not a Christian virtue, it is slavery. There is an order of virtues. Obedience is a moral virtue, and above the moral virtues there are the cardinal virtues, including justice. Above these there are the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity. It is wrong to obey a command contrary to justice and damaging to faith for the sake of the lesser virtue of obedience. Some people act as if the three theological virtues were obedience, obedience, and obedience. They forget that the violation of the Roman Mass is itself an act of profound disobedience. No one has any right to disobey the solemn legislation of St. Pius V. The only way to get around Quo primum is by deception, and that is how the hierarchy imposed the Novus Ordo.

Loyalty and obedience to the pope are of course essential marks of true Catholic identity. But it is an error to imagine that the pope cannot do unwise and even evil things. We love the pope, but history and common sense show that even a great and lovable man can make serious mistakes. The New Mass is such a mistake. It is a counterfeit made by Masons and Protestants. No Catholic has to apologize to anyone for refusing to accept it. Out of obedience, many people go along with the New Thing even though it causes them pain. They stoically "offer it up," as if a sacrilege could be offered as an atonement for itself.

Eventually the Church will be restored when there is a pope with the courage to condemn the errors of Vatican II and its fruits. But we don't have to wait forever. Pope Pius II already condemned Vatican II 500 years before it happened. In 1458, his decree Execrabilis condemned anyone who would presume to call a council to alter any Catholic dogmatic teaching. In the meantime, the pope can keep on trying to save the Church his own way, in the spirit of Vatican II. The trouble with the liberal is that he wants to please everybody. Eventually he must see the futility of being "in the extreme center." When he gets tired and wants help traditional Catholics will be there. We will preserve Catholic Tradition for a time when it will once again be welcome.

Our duty to disobey unlawful commands does not deny our loyalty to the Chair of Peter. But we do not make an idol of the papacy by a false exaggeration of the dogma of infallibility. The infallibility of the pope is limited to his office as teacher of the church, exercised within prescribed limits. That charisma does not prevent him from making serious errors in his personal conduct and in his public actions, including the exercise of his administrative authority.

When Pope St. Pius V issued the first laws regulating the Mass he did not violate the established rites of communities that had been using other missals for 200 years or more. He generously allowed valid customs to continue. But the New Mass of 1969 and its accompanying revision of Catholic life were imposed by a combination of deception and power closely resembling a communist dictatorship. This fundamental injustice renders the legislation of Paul VI null and void. In the same way the original order to suppress the Society was nullified by its injustice. The Catholic concept of authority is that it is given to men by God for the purpose of maintaining the common good and preserving the Faith. Whenever anyone gives an order that is contrary to reason or morality, or is harmful to the Faith, he is abusing his authority and must be disobeyed. Even the secular philosophy of western democracy recognizes the fact that authority is subject to moral limits. At Nuremberg, the Allies refused to accept "I was just obeying orders" as a valid excuse for people committing Nazi atrocities.

Similarly, Catholics must resist any attempt to make them diminish their faith even if it is ordered by the highest authority in the Church. Any command to stop saying or attending the Mass of all time is and always will be an abuse of papal authority and is rightfully resisted by Catholics who know the Mass is essential to their spiritual survival. Every Catholic has the right by natural law to the true worship of God. This right cannot be abrogated even by the authority of the pope, who receives his authority only for the advancement of the Faith and not for its suppression. Authority can be abused and justice denied, as it was in the original order to suppress the seminary of Econe in 1975 and the subsequent order to suspend Archbishop Lefebvre from his priestly faculties. The archbishop was condemned without a trial, and all legal recourse was suppressed by arbitrary bureaucratic power.

As long as Rome refuses to admit the error made by Paul VI in abusing his authority there will be no genuine peace. The present administration could have made a fresh start by revoking the suppression of the Society but has not done so. Unfortunately, executives often assert that the best correction for a mistake is to make it bigger. The Holy Father vigorously campaigns against injustice in Latin American and Africa while ignoring the injustice committed by his own administration in Rome.

The failure of the pope to come to grips with the reality of this conflict is illustrated by his apostolic letter, Ecclesia Dei:

BLK To all those Catholic faithful who feel attached to some previous liturgical and disciplinary forms of the Latin tradition I wish to manifest my will to facilitate their ecclesial communion by means of the necessary measures to guarantee respect for their rightful aspirations."

He does not see that our loyalty to the traditional Mass is not a matter of feeling but of reasoned conviction. We do not demand our Mass because we like it, but because it is the perfect expression of our Faith. To refer to our Mass, the expression of our Faith, as "some previous liturgical form" is absurd. The Mass of St. Pius V is not previous, it is current and perennial. Traditional Catholics will be unimpressed by the "measures to guarantee respect for their rightful aspirations" that the pope promises to provide "with the support of the bishops." Let him demonstrate this first by liberating the Old Mass and cancelling the suspension of Archbishop Lefebvre. Until then let us not be deceived by empty promises about "generous application of the directives… for the use of the Roman Missal." If the Holy Father cannot get his bishops to obey even a simple order like the ban against altar girls, how can he guarantee that the rights of traditional Catholics will be respected?

For the time being the true face of the Conciliar Church is shown by the recent action of the Archbishop of Ottawa. On the same day that new bishops were consecrated at Econe, Archbishop Plourde issued a letter to the Oratorian priests evicting them from his diocese after nearly two years of fruitful ministry. They were operating entirely within the letter of the law. But even their Novus Ordo Masses in Latin were too traditional for the bishop of Ottawa and so they had to be suppressed. He provides a good indication of how generous the bishops will be in respecting the rights of the faithful who are attached to Tradition.

The authority of the pope is not an end in itself, especially in the present situation where the pope is paralyzed by his commitment to collegiality and cannot make decisions with­ out the approval of the national hierarchies. The abdication of papal authority in the Hunthausen case proves that we are on our own in defending the Faith. Eventually the pope will have to revoke the excommunications of June 30 if his administration is to regain its credibility. No one can take seriously the punishment of this holy bishop while clown and witch doctor bishops rule with impunity. Excommunication is a stale joke when nuns and politicians can keep promoting abortion without losing their Catholic credentials. If the Holy Father cannot use the weapon of excommunication for its proper purpose then it has no meaning. Now that he has found the handle on this rusty sword, we hope he finds the courage to use it against those who really deserve it.

Schism is determined not by authority, but by faith. It is your faith that determines whether you are in the Church, not a letter from Cardinal Gantin. A decree of excommunication is not a sacrament! So if people say the archbishop is excommunicated for his denial of the Faith, they have no proof, except the worn-out slogan that he "rejects the teaching of Vatican II." Rome tolerates the disobedience of bishops all over the world who encourage the most brazen departures from decent liturgy and sound doctrine. The one thing they do not tolerate is any criticism of the documents of Vatican II and the liturgical reform. They have made a golden calf of Vatican II, and anyone who does not bow down to it is persecuted. But there is no warrant for this in the council itself, which is non-dogmatic and therefore not infallible, except insofar as it repeats teachings that were already infallible. Any Catholic has the right to make a reasonable judgment of the benefits of that council and draw his own conclusions from the facts.

The results of the decrees of Trent are historically well­known and were effectively implemented by St. Pius V. This was true reform, an increase in the vitality of the Faith. The results of the reform (as they call it) following Vatican II are equally well known: Millions of Catholics have quit going to Mass; millions more go to suffer rather than enjoy; and, most of all, millions of Catholics have no clear idea what their Faith is about. The vandalization of the Roman liturgy is even in clear defiance of the council's own decrees that "all ancient rites are to be venerated and treasured... Latin is to be preserved... Gregorian Chant is to be preserved...." It is ironic that Archbishop Lefebvre is condemned for defying the council while his seminaries alone obey these decrees.

The documents of Vatican II do contain some applicable material which summarizes the teachings of previous councils and papal decrees. It is absurd to argue that Archbishop Lefebvre rejects any of these teachings. In fact, he defends them as strongly as the pope himself. But for rejecting the doubtful novelties which were stirred into the documents, Lefebvre is condemned as a schismatic. Meanwhile, the modernists who reject the teachings which the council repeated from the immemorial past are not disciplined at all. In the final analysis Archbishop Lefebvre was excommunicated for the same reason he was suspended and his seminary condemned: Because he refuses to abandon the Faith of our fathers.

Cardinal Ratzinger has often stated that "It is not possible to question the authentic doctrine of the Second Vatican Council" as in his letter of January 20, 1986, to Archbishop Lefebvre. Recently he has begun to say that Vatican II cannot be treated as a super-dogma that erases all previous teachings, but this admission is too little, too late. When the Roman authorities actually start correcting the errors of Vatican II, then they will begin to recognize traditional Catholics as they are along with the value of their position. In the meantime, obsessed with the need to defend Vatican II and to pursue its drive towards agnostic ecumenism, they are cut off from the truth.

They have no arguments; they can only demand obedience. Since when has the Catholic Church been at a loss for logic in dealing with heretics and schismatics? Only in the case of Lefebvre; they cannot refute him, so instead they condemn him. This is not the Catholic way. So we ask, who is in schism? Who was outside the Church after Pope Liberius excommunicated Athanasius? History judged Athanasius a saint, and gave Liberius the distinction of being the first pope not to be canonized.

Let us pray that the Holy Father will avoid a similar dishonor by quickly recognizing his error and correcting it. For now he is content to repeat variations on the argument from authority. In his letter of July 2 the Holy Father argues that:

The root of this schismatic act can be discerned in an incomplete and contradictory notion of Tradition... It does not take into account the living character of Tradition... But especially contradictory is a notion of Tradition which opposes the universal Magisterium... It is impossible to remain faithful to Tradition while breaking the ecclesial bond with... the apostle Peter."

This view is, with all due respect, quite wrong. Breaking with Rome is exactly what Archbishop Lefebvre avoided all these years despite being persecuted. It is not Lefebvre who is excommunicating anyone! As he said in his address on June 30: "Far from us be the miserable thought of separation from Rome"─that is, the true Rome of Catholic Tradition. Instead of telling us that Tradition cannot exist in opposition to his authority, the Holy Father might ponder how it is truly possible to exercise the authority of Peter in opposition to Tradition. As the First Vatican Council clearly and dogmatically teaches:

The authority held by Peter and his successors was not given in order to proclaim any new doctrine, but only to expound and defend what was handed down to the Apostles."

It was not Archbishop Lefebvre who created the scandalous situation in which Tradition and Authority are now in conflict. That was done by the naive documents of Vatican II with all their studied obscurities and equivocations, under the pretext that it was only a pastoral council anyway. As long as Rome insists that Vatican II cannot be questioned and uses any means, fair or foul, to suppress criticism, the decomposition will continue. When Truth is banished from the Church, obedience cannot hold her together.

No Catholic can be condemned for refusing to give Vatican II a status it does not possess. Other ecumenical councils defined articles of Catholic Faith by making explicit what was previously unclear; Vatican II did the opposite, making obscure what was previously certain. If this were not enough to make us treat the teachings of Vatican II with prudent skepticism, there is also the ominous fact that a treaty between the Vatican and the Kremlin suppressed all criticism of communism, despite the efforts of several hundred bishops at the council. "This alone is enough to cover it with shame before all history," as Archbishop Lefebvre remarks in his Open Letter to Confused Catholics.

It is a common error to imagine that traditional Catholics reject all change absolutely. Not so, we accept change as long as it really is living change, which means: change that develops naturally, in accordance with the true nature of the thing that changes. A gardener accepts the changes of his fruit tree over the years as it increases in size. He may also influence its shape by careful pruning. But he does not rip the tree out by the roots and then replace it with a dry stick and call that a living change. It is such violence to the living Faith that traditional Catholics resist and have every right to resist. It is precisely because our Tradition is alive that we refuse to murder it.

Traditional Catholics are opposed neither to all changes absolutely nor to all authority in principle. Only if the Faith is endangered do we assert our right to disregard orders from our superiors. When the only alternative to the ministry of priests of the Society of St. Pius X is the ministry of a collection of clowns and social workers the local bishop has cultivated, then we have a right to choose spiritual survival rather than servile conformity.

We are like passengers on a sinking ship. The captain and most of the officers keep reassuring us that everything will be all right as long as we do not question the most recently updated navigation charts. But one officer has the sense to launch a lifeboat. He cannot be condemned for that. The pope cannot expect us to believe that the "living Tradition" of the church obliges us to accept the perverted religion that the local bishops offer us. The goal of his new commission is to develop programs to help the local bishops reabsorb the former followers of Archbishop Lefebvre. Eventually the pope must see that there have been very few former followers. Traditional Catholics have not come this far only to give up the battle in response to the same old appeal to blind obedience.

Eventually the "schism" will be seen for what it is: a figment of the imagination of the tyrants of liberalism and the zealots of Vatican II.