What comes first: obedience or fidelity?

February 27, 2014
Source: District of the USA

This article shows how the proper practice of obedience to authorities predicated on fidelity to the Catholic Faith has caused a difference of principle between the SSPX and Ecclesia Dei Communities, despite that both adhere to the traditional Roman Mass.

We are pleased to offer this article by Brian McCall which ably demonstrates the distinctive difference in how the SSPX has responded to the post-conciliar crisis versus the Ecclesia Dei Communities.

What comes first: obedience or fidelity?

A fundamental difference of principle exists between the Society of St. Pius X and the Ecclesia Dei Communities. Both sides accept the importance of both the principle of fidelity to what the Church has always done and taught and the principle of obedience to the Pope and the bishops. Yet, when the two principles come into conflict, the Society ranks fidelity to Tradition first and the Ecclesia Dei Communities place obedience to those in hierarchical offices first. Thus there is a difference in the principle for resolving this conflict of principles. The fundamental reason Bishop Fellay had to reject Benedict XVI’s offer of regularization in 2012 is that it required a reordering of these principles for the Society by requiring an acceptance of Vatican II as in complete continuity with Tradition, something fidelity to Tradition precludes one from saying.

We also must be true to history. If both sides are in some way heirs of Archbishop Lefebvre, it must be acknowledged that the Ecclesia Dei Communities are the ones who broke the initial family unity. Although it is true that such a division was encouraged and welcomed by the Progressives, the choice (even if made in conscience) to break that unity was not on the part of the Archbishop or those who remained in the Society who continued to do as they had since their founding. The choice to give priority to obedience to the authorities over fidelity to the Tradition of the Church when they conflict is what gave rise to the breaking of unity.

Finally, from personal experience I have certainly seen first-hand the “if you set foot in an SSPX chapel you are going to hell” approach of the Ecclesia Dei communities. On the contrary, I have found the SSPX’s position on the Ecclesia Dei Communities to be more nuanced than “You’ll lose your Faith there.”

Certainly, with respect to the New Mass that is the position of the SSPX, as it was of Archbishop Lefebvre. With respect to traditional Masses of the Ecclesia Dei institutes, the Society’s position is not as represented. Rather, it is more prudential. Due to a differing ordering of priorities, the faithful are advised to be prudent in attending Masses because depending on the circumstances it might produce confusion in their understanding of the crisis and the principles necessary in such a circumstance. The position publicly stated is

we think it is not advisable to regularly attend the “extraordinary form” offered by the diocese or under the aegis of the Ecclesia Dei Commission."

Such tempered prudential counsel is in stark contrast from “you are outside the Church if you go there” or “you are excommunicated if you set foot in their chapel” both of which I have personally heard as the position of certain Ecclesia Dei communities. Whereas, the Society maintains that the New Mass is bad in itself and therefore one should never actively participate in it under any circumstances, they recognize that there is a difference with traditional Masses offered by diocesan priests and Ecclesia Dei communities. There are even recognized differences between these latter situations. Masses offered in some of these settings are often held in “bi-ritual” parishes which can lead to confusion particularly for children. Often Communion hosts from New Rite Masses are distributed at the traditional Masses which requires a manifestation of communion with the New Rite, something one who understands the integral deficiencies of which cannot do in conscience.

Finally, due to the inversion of principles (obedience over fidelity) the only solution to a conflict between fidelity to Tradition and unquestioning obedience to authorities is silence. To protect canonical recognition and obedience to one who flagrantly disregards or attacks the Faith, one in this position is forced to close one’s eyes to the event and speak nothing of it. One district superior of an Ecclesia Dei community even published an explanation around the time of the renewal of the Assisi events on the theme of simply casting a veil over such attacks on tradition and ignoring them:

If [a Catholic] unfortunately happens to believe that the pope is erring dangerously or acting against Faith and Morals, he closes his mouth, if necessary he draws a veil over what seems a betrayal or a scandal to him...."[1]

The danger that this silence brings is a risk of erosion of fidelity to the Faith. We are creatures of habits. Habits build virtues or vices. To continually accept through silence offenses against the Faith leads to a habit of becoming accustomed to them. We lose the sensitivity for the honor of God and His truth that should motivate our charity. Obviously attending a single Mass where a sermon does not touch on such matters will not destroy one’s faith. Obviously Society priests do not explain such matters every week or even regularly each month. Yet, a prolonged period of silence and covering scandal with a veil will have its corrosive effect. That which shocked our sense of the faith becomes routine because our sensitivity is not enforced with prudential warning. The danger is not of one Mass but of a habit. Scandals such as Assisi need not be discussed at every moment. Each thing has its proper season. Yet, to hide the danger to the Faith prevents defenses against it.

As a result, the Society does not convert this nuanced counsel into an absolute prohibition on such Masses. I once heard a high ranking superior within the Society respond to a question about the Fraternity of St. Peter. His response was very balanced. Although he disagreed with their willingness to compromise the defense of doctrine for canonical regularity he recognized that they were bringing the true sacraments to some people who might otherwise not receive them. Yet, he found it troubling that with so much of the world deprived of the traditional Mass, they tend almost exclusively to open chapels in diocese where the Society has an established presence. We should all admit that there is much work to be done in the vineyard and would not the work of Ecclesia Dei Communities be better spent entering dioceses where nobody else is offering the traditional Mass and Sacraments?


1 See: Is St. Peter's on the way to Assisi?