The True Meaning of the Vincentian Canon
Deflating Another ‘Resistance’ Myth: Can we reject Magisterial Teaching if it wasn’t believed “always, everywhere, and by all”?
“Cafeteria Catholicism” is a fitting label often used to describe the position taken by overt Modernists and other pseudo-Catholic liberals (such as Joe Biden, Nancy Pelosi, or John Kerry) who like to pick and choose which Church teachings to accept and which ones to reject. Usually what is accepted is those things perceived as politically correct, expedient, or simply non-offensive (for example, the existence of God, the importance and power of prayer, the reality of Heaven, or the importance of loving of neighbor), whereas what is rejected is those teachings that are politically incorrect, offensive to modern man, or somehow inconvenient or burdensome (for example, the necessity of the Catholic Church for salvation, the prohibition against worship with non-Catholics, the reality of hell, or the indissolubility of marriage or most other sins against the Sixth and Ninth Commandments).
But when it comes to the adherents of the traditionalist “recognize-and-resist” position (including well-known writers such as John Vennari, Michael Matt, Atila S. Guimaraes, clerics in the Society of St. Pius X, and others), who, although they recognize as valid and legitimate the “Popes” after Pius XII, nevertheless resist their doctrinal heresies and errors — we like to call them Semi-Traditionalists, Pseudo-Traditionalists, or Neo-Traditionalists — it is interesting to see that in essence they are really not doing anything different from their liberal counterparts: They are choosing to accept some teachings of the Church (all those from the beginning up until the death of Pope Pius XII in 1958, but not others, for anything after Pius XII (i.e. the teachings of the Second Vatican Council and the post-conciliar Magisterium) is either outright rejected or assented to only with grave reservations. (A third popular alternative, which is as clever as it is disingenuous, is to simply claim that there has been no discernible doctrinal content issued during or since Vatican II to which one could possibly be obliged or fail to adhere — a very convenient copout that spares one from the humiliation of having to admit that one is really no different from the liberals when it comes to refusing assent to what the supposedly legitimate Catholic hierarchy is teaching and legislating.)
Of course, the Semi-Traditionalists do not reject Vatican II and post-conciliar teaching without some attempt at justifying their resistance. In no wise do they believe themselves to be in the same boat as their liberal-Modernist counterparts, for their stated reason for resisting Novus Ordo church teaching is that it is not consonant with, but actually contradicts, Catholic Tradition. Hence they call themselves traditionalists, for they uphold — so they think — the Tradition of the Church.
But do they really?
While their motive might be a noble one (keeping themselves and others from being infected with heresy or profane novelty), and in this matter they would distinguish themselves significantly from their liberal counterparts, nevertheless their action is of the same nature as the open liberals’: They are refusing assent or compliance to what is imposed on them in terms of teaching, worship, and/or discipline by the institution they hold to be the Catholic Church of our Lord Jesus Christ.
In support of their position, the Resisters imagine themselves to have a friend in St. Vincent of Lerins, a fifth-century monk and author of a celebrated treatise defending the Catholic Faith against heretical novelty. His work, written in 434 A.D. under the pseudonym Peregrinus, is known as the Commonitorium Against Heresies, bearing as its subtitle: “For the Antiquity and Universality of the Catholic Faith against the Profane Novelties of All Heresies”. In this work, St. Vincent lays down what is known as the “Vincentian Canon” (“canon” meaning “rule”), a formula that serves as a measuring rod of orthodoxy during a time of doctrinal controversy. When a dispute arises about a particular theological opinion that has not yet been settled by the Church, applying the Canon of St. Vincent ensures that one will safely cling to true doctrine and not be led astray.
This canon is found in several places in the saint’s Commonitorium (see Chapters 2-4, 27, and 29), but we will quote only the two clearest and most insightful pericopes:
[From Chapter 2]
Moreover, in the Catholic Church itself, all possible care must be taken that we hold that faith which has been believed everywhere, always, by all. For that is truly and in the strictest sense Catholic, which, as the name itself and the reason of the thing declare, comprehends all universally. This rule we shall observe if we follow universality, antiquity and consensus. We shall follow universality if we confess that one faith to be true, which the whole Church throughout the world confesses; antiquity, if we in no wise depart from those interpretations which it is manifest were notoriously held by our holy ancestors and fathers; consent, in like manner, if in antiquity itself we adhere to the consentient definitions and determinations of all, or at the least of almost all priests and doctors.
[From Chapter 29]
We said likewise, that in the Church itself regard must be had to the consentient voice of universality equally with that of antiquity, lest we either be torn from the integrity of unity and carried away to schism, or be precipitated from the religion of antiquity into heretical novelties. We said, further, that in this same ecclesiastical antiquity two points are very carefully and earnestly to be held in view by those who would keep clear of heresy: first, they should ascertain whether any decision has been given in ancient times as to the matter in question by the whole priesthood of the Catholic Church, with the authority of a General Council: and, secondly, if some new question should arise on which no such decision has been given, they should then have recourse to the opinions of the holy Fathers, of those at least, who, each in his own time and place, remaining in the unity of communion and of the faith, were accepted as approved masters; and whatsoever these may be found to have held, with one mind and with one consent, this ought to be accounted the true and Catholic doctrine of the Church, without any doubt or scruple.
(St. Vincent of Lerins, Commonitorium Against Heresies [Sainte Croix du Mont: Tradibooks, 2008], pp. 18, 146; underlining added.)
The Canon of St. Vincent, then, holds that three criteria can establish the orthodoxy and catholicity of a teaching, rendering it entirely safe: It has been taught and believed “always, and everywhere, and by all” (quod semper, quod ubique, quod ab omnibus). It is actually more correct to say two criteria, rather than three, inasmuch as “by all” is included both in the “always” and the “everywhere”, and indeed in Chapter 29 St. Vincent himself condenses the criteria to two: universality and antiquity. Universality refers to a doctrine being believed and taught everywhere, whereas antiquity refers to it being believed and taught from the beginning. Another way of putting it would be to say that the criteria are universality in space and universality in time.
The crucial question that needs to be asked now is whether either condition — that of universality in space or that of universality in time — is of itself sufficient to allow one to safely accept a doctrine as Catholic, or whether bothconditions must be met, so that if a doctrine fails the test of even one of these two criteria, it can or must be rejected.
It is here that the Semi-Traditionalists err gravely, and they are in bad company, as we will see.
Indeed, the Semi-Trad Resisters hold that both criteria specified by St. Vincent must be met for a doctrine to be considered Catholic and legitimately part of the Church’s Magisterium: Only if a doctrine is universal in space and in time, so they claim, is it truly Catholic teaching that is binding on the faithful.
The importance of solving this difficulty correctly cannot be overestimated, not only because we are always obliged to submit to that which is taught by our legitimate shepherds, especially when there is unanimous agreement among them, but also because the ordinary universal Magisterium is infallible on matters it sets forth as divinely revealed — no less infallible than solemn definitions and ex cathedra pronouncements:
Further, by divine and Catholic faith, all those things must be believed which are contained in the written word of God and in tradition, and those which are proposed by the Church, either in a solemn pronouncement or in her ordinary and universal teaching power, to be believed as divinely revealed.
(First Vatican Council, Dogmatic Constitution Dei Filius, Ch. 3; Denz. 1792)
We see, then, that the ordinary Magisterium is infallible when it is exercised “universally” — all the more reason to understand whether by this “universality” is meant extension in space or extension through time.
Let us now have a look at how the adherents of the recognize-and-resist position answer this question:
The first source we will quote is Fr. Rene Berthod, whose 1980 essay on the ordinary Magisterium is cited and relied upon heavily by the Society of St. Pius X.
To summarize: the ordinary magisterium of the Church is infallible when it is truly universal (in space and in time), that is to say, when it is in conformity to and continuous with the teaching of Faith of the Church.
(Canon Rene Berthod, “The Infallibility of the Church’s Ordinary Magisterium”, in Pope or Church? [Kansas City, MO: Angelus Press, 2006], p. 61.)
It is not surprising that the founder of the SSPX, Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, disseminated this harmful error as well, making it a fundamental principle of his resistance theology:
What is the criterion to judge whether the ordinary Magisterium is infallible or not? It is fidelity to the whole of tradition. In the event of its not conforming to tradition we are not even bound to submit to the decrees of the Holy Father himself. The same applies to the Council. When it adheres to tradition it must be obeyed since it represents the ordinary Magisterium. But in the event of its introducing measures which are not in accord with tradition there is a far greater freedom of choice, we should therefore have no fear of assessing facts today because we cannot allow ourselves to be swept along on the wave of Modernism which would put our faith at risk and turn us unwittingly into Protestants.
(Abp. Marcel Lefebvre, Un Eveque Parle [Paris, 1974], p. 170; quoted in Michael Davies, Pope John’s Council [Dickinson, TX: Angelus Press, 1977], p. 213)
More recently, we find the same error repeated by the Novus Ordo Church historian Roberto de Mattei:
The conditions necessary for the infallibility of the Ordinary Universal Magisterium are that it concerns a doctrine with regard to faith or morals, taught authoritatively in repeated declarations by the Popes and bishops, with an unquestionable and binding character.
The word universal is meant not in the synchronic sense of an extension of space in a particular historical period, but in the diachronic sense of a continuity of time, in order to express a consensus that embraces all epochs of the Church (Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, Illustrative Doctrinal Note of the conclusive formula of Professio fidei, 29th June 1998, nota 17).
(Roberto de Mattei, “The Synod and the Ordinary Magisterium of the Church”, Corrispondenza Romana [Dec. 10, 2014]; translated by Francesca Romana for Rorate Caeli; underlining added.)
These quotes will suffice. Other sources where this error is stated or implied include Rev. Chad Ripperger, The Binding Force of Tradition (Sensus Traditionis Press, 2013), pp. 20, 30n.; Romano Amerio, Iota Unum: A Study of Changes in the Catholic Church in the XXth Century, 2nd ed., trans. by Fr. John P. Parsons (Sarto House, 1996), pp. 711-712; and Christopher A. Ferrara and Thomas E. Woods, Jr., The Great Facade (Wyoming, MN: The Remnant Press, 2002), p. 39.
It is clear, then, that the Resisters very much hold to and promote the idea that if antiquity (universality in time) is not found for a particular doctrine proposed by the Catholic Magisterium, then a Catholic is free — perhaps even obliged — to reject it. The reason why the Resisters are wedded to this error is clear — it is the necessary bedrock that legitimizes their entire theological position of accepting the Vatican II antipopes as valid while ridding themselves of the inconvenient burden of having to actually submit to their teaching. As John Lane has noted: “…the ability to reduce the ordinary magisterium to ‘whatever has been taught always, everywhere, and by all,’ is extremely attractive if one is trying to defend the Conciliar authorities as the hierarchy of the Catholic Church” (John Lane, “Concerning an SSPX Dossier on Sedevacantism”, p. 74).
Having established that the Canon of St. Vincent admits of more than one interpretation prima facie and that the Neo-Traditionalists have clearly chosen the interpretation that suits their resistance position, it now remains for us to prove our position, namely, that the rule given by St. Vincent holds that either condition — universality in space or in time — suffices to render a doctrine Catholic and part of the universal ordinary (and therefore infallible) Magisterium.
As always, we are not asking anyone to take our mere word for this. The eminent Cardinal Johannes B. Franzelin, S.J., wrote about the true meaning of the rule laid down by St. Vincent of Lerins in his great erudite work De Divina Traditione et Scriptura, published in Rome in 1875. We are making available the Latin original as well as an English translation of Thesis XXIV of Cardinal Franzelin’s study, in the following file:
“The True Sense of the Vincentian Canon”
by Cardinal Johann Baptist Franzelin, S.J.
(Click to Download / PDF Format; ~1.6 MB)
The English translation is by Prof. C. A. Heurtley, D.D., and is taken from the bilingual Latin-English edition of St. Vincent of Lerins’ Commonitorium Against Heresies (Sainte Croix du Mont: Tradibooks, 2008), pp. 166-173. We obtained the Latin original, which we have appended as part of the downloadable PDF file linked above, from a theological library, but there is a free electronic copy available online here.
In this treatise, which we hope everyone will read, His Eminence explains that the true sense of the Vincentian Canon is that the apostolicity of a doctrine is sufficiently established by either its antiquity or its universal consensus throughout the Church at any given point in time. This is evident, the cardinal explains, from the very words of St. Vincent when viewed in their immediate context but also in light of a study of the entire Commonitorium.
If the past is any indication, there will not be wanting now a number of individuals who object, “But this is just Cardinal Franzelin’s opinion!” To which we respond, first, that it is not simply Cardinal Franzelin’s “opinion”, as will be shown momentarily; and secondly, that even if it were merely his opinion, then it would behoove all of us — we, who are, shall we say, a little bit less educated in Sacred Theology than Cardinal Franzelin was — to adhere to his opinion rather than our own. The works of Cardinal Franzelin were used in the education of priests in the Roman Pontifical Universities — not something that can be said of the books of Abp. Lefebvre, or Michael Davies, or (ouch!) John Salza.
But of course the Austrian Jesuit cardinal is not alone in his correct understanding of the Vincentian Canon. Mgr. Gerard van Noort, writing in his third volume on dogmatic theology, likewise sets the record straight on the rule of St. Vincent — and notes that the people who have in the past interpreted it in the same restrictive sense as the Resisters do today, were the Old Catholic heretics in the 19th century, who rejected the First Vatican Council:
Scholion. The theological value of monuments of tradition in general. The canon of St. Vincent.
1. On the basis of the foregoing remarks, it is easy to solve the question of the value of ancient monuments [=Creeds, solemn definitions, liturgical books, writings of theologians, etc.—see p. 162] as a whole for the identification of a genuine tradition. Their value is proportionate to the proof they offer for the fact that at one time or other the ecclesiastical magisterium was in morally unanimous agreement on some doctrine or other as revealed. They constitute a compelling argument, then, (a) whenever they bear witness to a solemn definition of the infallible magisterium concerning a revealed truth; (b) whenever they offer sure proof for the morally universal agreement of the world-wide magisterium on a doctrine as revealed. To secure this effect it is enough at times to have monuments which may be few in number but which are known, because of special circumstances, to represent the belief of the universal Church.
On the other hand, when the available monuments are not of sufficient weight to prove the agreement of antiquity, or when they positively show that this agreement did not exist at one time, one may not immediately jump to the conclusion that this doctrine does not belong to apostolic Tradition. In the first case, there could have been a quite explicit and clear agreement without its being proved in written documents, since not everything found its way into writing and not everything which was ever written has been preserved. As for the second case, it must be pointed out that not everything which is formally contained in apostolic Tradition was always clearly and explicitly taught in the Church. There is a very real progress in the knowledge and formulation of Christian revelation, a point which will be taken up expressly in the Treatise on Faith. Again, a full explanation of matters contained in the deposit of revelation only rather vaguely or implicitly is not usually worked out without some discussion, and such discussion can sometimes go on for quite a while. In the case of truths like this, the one sure and reliable criterion of Tradition is the gradually growing and, finally, perfectly harmonious agreement of the living magisterium, to which the Holy Spirit was promised not only for the material safeguarding but also for the explanation of Tradition. The documents of antiquity then, are of value to the extent that they show that the luxuriant tree of present-day belief grew to its present estate, under the tender care of authorized gardeners, from the seed of the ancient faith.
2. It is in the light of the above that judgment must be passed on the canon drawn up by Vincent Lerins (434 A.D.), which came in for a great deal of abuse at the hands of our adversaries, especially at the time of the Vatican Council. The canon reads as follows: “Great care is to be taken that we hold that which has been believed everywhere, always, and by all, for this is truly and properly Catholic.” Vincent’s intention was to give private individuals a criterion for discerning the truth in the case of a controversy which had just arisen and had not yet been solemnly decided by the magisterium.
He enunciated the following principles: (a) if only a few disagree, one must follow the morally unanimous agreement of the churches as currently expressed: “agreement of totality”; but (b) if quite a few disagree (so that at the present time no morally unanimous consent is discernible), one ought to stand by the agreement which obtained before the controversy arose: “agreement of antiquity.”
Now this rule of thumb, while it is sometimes hard to apply, is quite all right in the affirmative sense: when agreement on a doctrine as revealed either exists at present or existed formerly, it must certainly be followed. But it is not valid in the exclusive sense: it is not antecedently impossible to have a “truly and properly Catholic,” i.e., a revealed, doctrine on which explicit agreement does not exist at the present time and did not formerly exist. St. Vincent himself certainly did not mean his canon to be taken in the exclusive sense, since in the same work he clearly acknowledges and, in fact, praises highly the development of faith by a progressively more distinct and lucid teaching of age-old truth.
It should be noted in addition that Vincent did not understand his canon, even in the affirmative sense, as requiring absolutely unanimous agreement, and even less did he propose it as a norm for the acceptance or rejection of the living magisterium’s doctrinal decisions. Any appeal to his authority on the part of the Old Catholic sect is, accordingly, misguided and pointless.
It may of course seem surprising that St. Vincent did not refer his readers to the judgment of the Roman pontiff. But it must be remembered, in the first place, that he was dealing with the case of a fresh controversy about which no solemn decision had as yet been issued. Recall, too, that at that time the doctrine of the infallibility of the Roman pontiff had not yet received the full and brilliant scientific treatment which later ages were to give it. Present-day Catholics are quite familiar with the fact that this prerogative belongs to the pope himself as distinct (but not separate) from the episcopal college; but those of an earlier age were more inclined to consider the supreme pontiff as he is conjoined with the body episcopal. It is largely a question of emphasis.
(Mgr. G. van Noort, Dogmatic Theology III: The Sources of Revelation [Westminster, MD: The Newman Press, 1961], pp. 163-166; nn. 159-160; italics given; footnotes removed; underlining added; available in part online here.)
So, we see that van Noort agrees entirely with Cardinal Franzelin, and even adds that it was the so-called Old Catholics who used the same false interpretation of the Canon of St. Vincent that the Semi-Trad Resisters use today — the difference only being that the Old Catholics used it to reject Vatican I and papal infallibility, while the Resisters use is to reject Vatican II and the postconciliar teachings!
Don’t believe it? We did some research and found that the most prominent Old Catholic, the heretic and schismatic Johann Joseph Ignaz von Döllinger — excommunicated in 1871 — used the Vincentian Canon precisely in the way the Semi-Traditionalists use it today: as requiring that the Church can only legitimately teach what has already been taught “always, everywhere, by all”. He makes this argument in a work he wrote under the pseudonym of “Janus”, entitled The Pope and the Council (see pp. 46, 89 of The Pope and the Council, 2nd ed. [New York: Scriber, Welford and Co., 1869]). We are deliberately not linking to this source because the book has been put on the Index of Forbidden Books by the Holy See, and is not permitted to be read by Catholics without special dispensation.
Dollinger’s book was refuted a year later by Cardinal Joseph Hergenrother’s Anti-Janus: An Historico-Theological Criticism of the Work entitled “The Pope and the Council”. On page 250, Hergenrother addresses Dollinger’s use of the Vincentian Canon and states: “The Canon of Vincent Lerins is not merely to be understood of what is to be believed explicitly; he, like other ecclesiastical authors, expressly assumes a progress even in matters of Faith.”
This is a key point, because neither Cardinal Franzelin, nor Mgr. van Noort, nor we are saying that the Catholic Magisterium can teach any doctrine that may strike the Pope’s or bishops’ fancy. Of course the doctrine must be contained in the ancient Deposit of Faith entrusted by our Lord Jesus Christ to His holy Apostles. But whether it is part of the Deposit of Faith or not is not for each believer to determine after the fact (a posteriori). Rather, what they teach is divinely guaranteed to be part of the Deposit of Faith (when infallible), or at least consonant with it (when non-infallible).
We may say thus that universality in time is not an a posteriori criterion to be applied to magisterial teaching by each individual Catholic after such teaching has been promulgated, which would make our private (and quite non-infallible!) determination of it being found in the Deposit of Faith into a condition on which hinges our acceptance of said doctrine. Rather, conformity with Tradition is the effect of a doctrine being taught universally in space (“everywhere… by all”) today.
When evaluating whether a doctrine set forth by the legitimate Catholic hierarchy in union with the Pope is to be accepted, one can hardly put as a condition the content of the doctrine, for this would involve us in circular reasoning, for it would require us to know the truth apart from the rightful Catholic teaching authority — not to mention ahead of time. But the position taken by the Resisters reduces the Church’s Magisterium to being no more than an organ of repeating what is already known, endowed with a useless pseudo-infallibility that is enjoyed whenever something is promulgated that is, well, correct. But this kind of “authority” and “infallibility” is enjoyed by everyone, even Protestants, Pagans, and atheists — according to the Semi-Trad understanding of things, these people too are infallible and must be listened to when what they say is correct, need they not?
This point is explained very well in an insightful talk by Fr. Gabriel Lavery, who touches on the whole controversy about the Vincentian Canon, and quotes even more sources than we have here that confirm the position of Cardinal Franzelin and Mgr. van Noort. He furthermore expounds beautifully the childlike trust and confidence a Catholic can and must have in the true Church:
“The Ordinary Magisterium and Devotion to the Pope”
by Fr. Gabriel Lavery, CMRI
(Click to Download or Stream / mp3 Format)
This lecture was given in 2011 at the annual Fatima Conference hosted by the sedevacantists at Mount Saint Michael in Spokane, Washington. We hope all our readers listen to this very rewarding audio, which is here made available free of charge, courtesy of Traditional Catholic Sermons.
As we have shown, the Semi-Trad Resisters have things entirely backwards. The Church guarantees that if all the bishops spread throughout the world in union with the Pope teach something as divinely revealed today, then it is not only binding but even infallible, and it is necessarily part the Deposit of Faith, that is, it was indeed believed and taught before, although not necessarily explicitly but perhaps merely implicitly.
We know that such teaching is contained in the Deposit of Faith because the bishops are teaching it in union with the Pope at any given point. This is how the Church works — this is the Church which our Lord established as the safe and infallible guide for our souls, “the pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Tim 3:15), “that henceforth we be no more children tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine by the wickedness of men, by cunning craftiness, by which they lie in wait to deceive” (Eph 4:14).
Don’t take our word for it — read it for yourself in the teachings of the Popes. For example:
In defining the limits of the obedience owed to the pastors of souls, but most of all to the authority of the Roman Pontiff, it must not be supposed that it is only to be yielded in relation to dogmas of which the obstinate denial cannot be disjoined from the crime of heresy. Nay, further, it is not enough sincerely and firmly to assent to doctrines which, though not defined by any solemn pronouncement of the Church, are by her proposed to belief, as divinely revealed, in her common and universal teaching, and which the [First] Vatican Council declared are to be believed “with Catholic and divine faith.” But this likewise must be reckoned amongst the duties of Christians, that they allow themselves to be ruled and directed by the authority and leadership of bishops, and, above all, of the Apostolic See.
And how fitting it is that this should be so any one can easily perceive. For the things contained in the divine oracles have reference to God in part, and in part to man, and to whatever is necessary for the attainment of his eternal salvation. Now, both these, that is to say, what we are bound to believe and what we are obliged to do, are laid down, as we have stated, by the Church using her divine right, and in the Church by the supreme Pontiff.
Wherefore it belongs to the Pope to judge authoritatively what things the sacred oracles contain, as well as what doctrines are in harmony, and what in disagreement, with them; and also, for the same reason, to show forth what things are to be accepted as right, and what to be rejected as worthless; what it is necessary to do and what to avoid doing, in order to attain eternal salvation. For, otherwise, there would be no sure interpreter of the commands of God, nor would there be any safe guide showing man the way he should live.
(Pope Leo XIII, Encyclical Sapientiae Christianae, n. 24)
…[I]n order that no falsification or corruption of the divine law but a true genuine knowledge of it may enlighten the minds of men and guide their conduct, it is necessary that a filial and humble obedience towards the Church should be combined with devotedness to God and the desire of submitting to Him. For Christ Himself made the Church the teacher of truth in those things also which concern the right regulation of moral conduct, even though some knowledge of the same is not beyond human reason. …[God] has constituted the Church the guardian and the teacher of the whole of the truth concerning religion and moral conduct; to her therefore should the faithful show obedience and subject their minds and hearts so as to be kept unharmed and free from error and moral corruption, and so that they shall not deprive themselves of that assistance given by God with such liberal bounty, they ought to show this due obedience not only when the Church defines something with solemn judgment, but also, in proper proportion, when by the constitutions and decrees of the Holy See, opinions are prescribed and condemned as dangerous or distorted.
Wherefore, let the faithful also be on their guard against the overrated independence of private judgment and that false autonomy of human reason. For it is quite foreign to everyone bearing the name of a Christian to trust his own mental powers with such pride as to agree only with those things which he can examine from their inner nature, and to imagine that the Church, sent by God to teach and guide all nations, is not conversant with present affairs and circumstances; or even that they must obey only in those matters which she has decreed by solemn definition as though her other decisions might be presumed to be false or putting forward insufficient motive for truth and honesty. Quite to the contrary, a characteristic of all true followers of Christ, lettered or unlettered, is to suffer themselves to be guided and led in all things that touch upon faith or morals by the Holy Church of God through its Supreme Pastor the Roman Pontiff, who is himself guided by Jesus Christ Our Lord.
(Pope Pius XI, Encyclical Casti Connubii, nn. 103-104)
People today tend to believe that the Church can oblige us to adhere to her teaching only in virtue of the fact (and to the extent) that such teaching is guaranteed to be free from error, so that truth, apparently discerned privately and obtained from a third source, becomes the only criterion. But such an idea entirely demolishes the teaching authority of the Church, for to say that a teacher can only make his students accept what he teaches when such teaching is true, is to say that the teacher, qua teacher, has no authority all — the obligation to accept the teaching then would come from the teaching itself, not from the teacher.
But our Lord established not just teaching, as the Protestants would have it, but a teacher as well, and not just any teacher — He established for us a Church with a genuine teaching office, which is at times infallible, at times not infallible, but always authoritative and binding, meaning she commands our assent, not in virtue of Faith or infallibility necessarily, but always at least in virtue of her status as the divinely-appointed Teacher to whom each member of the Church must be obedient, and to whom each of us has an obligation to submit his intellect and will.
Canon George Smith makes this very point quite compellingly:
It is important, I think, to distinguish two aspects of teaching authority. It may be regarded as an authority in dicendo or an authority in jubendo, that is, as an authority which commands intellectual assent or as a power which demands obedience; and the two aspects are by no means inseparable. I can imagine an authority which constitutes a sufficient motive to command assent, without however being able to impose belief as a moral obligation. A professor learned in some subject upon which I am ignorant (let me confess – astronomy) – may tell me wonderful things about the stars. He may be to my knowledge the leading authority – virtually infallible – on his own subject; but I am not bound to believe him. I may be foolish, I may be sceptical; but the professor does not possess that authority over me which makes it my bounden duty to accept his word. On the other hand the school-boy who dissents, even internally, from what his teacher tells him, is insufferably conceited, and if he disagrees openly he is insubordinate and deserves to be punished. By virtue of his position as authoritative teacher the schoolmaster has a right to demand the obedient assent of his pupils; not merely because he is likely to know more about the subject than those over whom he is set – he may be incompetent – but because he is deputed by a legitimate authority to teach them.
However, let us not exaggerate. Ad impossibile nemo tenetur.The human mind cannot accept statements which are absurd, nor can it be obliged to do so. A statement can be accepted by the mind only on condition that it is credible: that it involves no evident contradiction, and that the person who vouches for its truth is known to possess the knowledge and veracity which make it worthy of credence; and in the absence of such conditions the obligation of acceptance ceases. On the other hand, where a legitimately constituted teaching authority exists their absence will not lightly be presumed. On the contrary, obedience to authority (considered as authority in jubendo) will predispose to the assumption that they are present.
Turning now to the Church, and with this distinction still in mind, we are confronted by an institution to which Christ, the Word Incarnate, has entrusted the office of teaching all men: “Going therefore teach ye all nations…teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you” [Mt 28:19-20]. Herein lies the source of the obligation to believe what the Church teaches. The Church possesses the divine commission to teach, and hence there arises in the faithful a moral obligation to believe, which is founded ultimately, not upon the infallibility of the Church, but upon God’s sovereign right to the submission and intellectual allegiance (rationabile obsequium) of His creatures: “He that believeth…shall be saved, but he that believeth not shall be condemned” [Mk 16:16]. It is the God-given right of the Church to teach, and therefore it is the bounden duty of the faithful to believe.
But belief, however obligatory, is possible only on condition that the teaching proposed is guaranteed as credible. And therefore Christ added to His commission to teach the promise of the divine assistance: “Behold I am with you all days even to the consummation of the world” [Mt 28:20]. This divine assistance implies that, at any rate within a certain sphere, the Church teaches infallibly; and consequently, at least within those limits, the credibility of her teaching is beyond question. When the Church teaches infallibly the faithful know that what she teaches belongs, either directly or indirectly, to the depositum fideicommitted to her by Christ; and their faith thus becomes grounded, immediately or mediately, upon the divine authority. But the infallibility of the Church does not, precisely as such, render belief obligatory. It renders her teaching divinely credible. What makes belief obligatory is her divine commission to teach.
(Canon George Smith, “Must I Believe It?”, The Clergy Review, vol. 9 [April, 1935], pp. 296-309; underlining added.)
Through the grave errors spread the by the Resisters in our day, a great many who consider themselves true and traditional Catholics have lost sight of the fact that the real Catholic Church, the one established by our Blessed Lord, is beautiful — “not having spot or wrinkle, or any such thing”, but “holy, and without blemish” (Eph 5:27). She is His Bride, immaculate, entirely trustworthy, always leading her children safely to their eternal home. To this end, she enjoys “perfect and perpetual immunity … from error and heresy” (Pope Pius XI, Encyclical Quas Primas, n. 22).
Needless to say, this description obviously does not fit the Vatican II Church, and no Semi-Traditionalist treats the Novus Ordo institution in this manner.
But let’s assume for a moment that the Resisters are right in their treating the mark of antiquity as a self-verified condition for Church teaching being infallible or even binding, and apart from which positive verification each Catholic is permitted to suspend assent until someone can convince him otherwise. Then what? How do they envision this scenario to work in practice?
Think of the average Catholic farmer, day laborer, soldier, or carpenter in the year 1628. He receives his instruction in the Catholic Faith from the approved catechism in his diocese, typically through his pastor. How does he know that what he is being taught — for example, the necessity of actual grace for any work to be supernaturally meritorious — was always taught before? How would he know? Is he expected to suspend supporting his family and devote his time to educating himself, perhaps first in reading and writing in general, and then learning Latin, and then studying Church history and the ancient Fathers and all magisterial documents, copies of which are probably nowhere near him, and extremely expensive to produce? And is he then, if, for example, he cannot find any mention of indulgences between the years 536 and 819, supposed to reject what his pastor, his bishop, and his Pope are teaching him? Is this how Catholicism works — making each individual the final arbiter of what is to be believed or held? Is this not Protestantism with a Catholic veneer?
The Resistance error is clearly a novelty whose entire feasibility rests on the educational and technological advancements of our times. What is so casually claimed and taken for granted today (“Reject it if it’s not in Tradition!”) by people like John Salza, John Vennari, Michael Matt, or Christopher Ferrara, would have been a virtual impossibility for almost all Catholics during almost the entire history of the Church, until very recent times.
The “universal in time” error is also very convenient, as it allows for a rejection of Novus Ordo teaching while at the same time escaping the dreaded specter of Sedevacantism. But it is also extremely dangerous, not only because it distorts Catholic truth and twists the meaning of a dogma of the Faith, but also because it helps to keep alive the Novus Ordo Sect, which can only retain its force and credibility so long as people believe its leaders to be the legitimate authorities of the Catholic Church and successors of the Apostles. The Neo-Traditionalists, then, are not at all a threat to the Vatican II Church, for they continually feed the beast by their public declaration that this Modernist harlot is in fact the Bride of Christ — they just “resist” her impurity!
All this is not to say, of course, that the Church can teach anything she pleases, any heresy or novelty whatsoever, and we must swallow it, as we already saw. Rather, what it means is that the Church is divinely guaranteed not to lead her children astray, even when her teaching is not proposed infallibly, a thought that should fill us with love, gratitude, consolation, and devotion, for the Church is the true divinely-appointed Teacher over all the faithful, sometimes infallible, but always authoritative, and from her teaching no dissent is possible.
The idea promoted by the Resisters — which is driven by the stench of heresy, error, and impiety in Novus Ordo doctrine, law, and practice on the one hand and a stubborn refusal to consider Sedevacantism as an acceptable alternative on the other — that the Holy See is in need of a self-appointed doctrinal babysitter, such as the Society of St. Pius X, a newspaper editor in Minnesota, or a lawyer in Virginia, is wholly absurd, contrary to reason, contrary to Church teaching, and wholly unworkable. We have demonstated this to be the case many times in the past, but we will refer you to only three of our prior posts and articles on this topic:
- The Chair is Still Empty: A Refutation of John Salza’s Attempt to Debunk Sedevacantism
- Comedy Hour with John Salza: His Views on Papal Authority Refuted
- Demonstrating the Folly of the Recognize-and-Resist Position
To summarize: St. Vincent, with the approval of the Church, has given us two fundamental rules that allow us to discern the orthodoxy of a doctrine during a controversy the Holy See has not yet settled: If it has always been taught and believed in the past (universality in time); and if it is taught and believed by everyone (universality in space). Eitherof these two conditions suffices — thus says St. Vincent himself, and this explanation we have from weighty theological sources, and it admits of no reasonable alternative.
The Semi-Trad Resisters, in their confusion, mistake universality in time as a condition which all teaching must meet in order for the Church to be able to command assent — a condition which each believer must apparently verify for himself. Such a position, however, is not only absurd and unworkable, it also denies the teaching power the Church possesses by divine institution, a power with which Christ Jesus endowed her so as to enable her to command the assent of the faithful for the simple reason that she is the divinely appointed Teacher of whom it is true to say, “He who hears you, hears me” (Lk 10:16) and who has the divine mission to teach all nations (see Mt 28:19-20). Such a mission can only be fulfilled by the Church if her members have an obligation to adhere to her teaching.
The effect of the misunderstanding of the Vincentian Canon by the Neo-Traditionalists is that they hold, in theory as well as in practice, that the Church can simply teach anything whatsoever, and it is then incumbent upon each believer (or at least each cleric) to sift through this teaching and apply the (misunderstood) rule of St. Vincent each time to discern if the doctrine can safely be held. If universality in time (antiquity) cannot be verified for a given doctrine, then, according to the Resisters, it is to be discarded, ignored, minimzed, contradicted, refuted — often under pain of losing one’s soul. This, we have seen, is absurd, unworkable, and at grave odds with Catholic teaching.
Having thus expounded the true meaning of the Vincentian Canon, we can see what a frightening reality the Neo-Traditionalists must now face — for it is clear that the heresies and errors of Vatican II and the post-conciliar Magisterium, are clearly taught by the unanimous consent of all the people they acknowledge as valid shepherds and legitimate Catholic teaching authorities.
One simply cannot escape the conclusion: The Novus Ordo Church is not the Roman Catholic Church, and its “Popes” and “bishops” are false shepherds devoid of the True Faith and devoid of any legitimate ecclesiastical authority.
St. Vincent of Lerins, pray for us.
You bring up a good point in the last paragraph. Indeed it could not have worked that way. But much of the same can be said of the sedevacantist thesis, which is just as reliant on denzingers, documents, etc.
There is certainly a parallel in that both positions have to deal with the contradictions to prior teaching by the Vatican II Sect. But whereas the R&R position holds that such is life in the Catholic Church, within the framework of Catholic doctrine, the sedevacantist position insists that such a scenario is impossible and is NOT compatible with Catholic theology, for which reason the V2 Sect must be false.
Agreed. I think I’ve said the before. R&R doesn’t draw the only logical conclusion from being presented false teaching…that the presenter must also be false. They cannot simply be in error. Because they fail to make this conclusion, they end up inventing more or less a novel doctrine on authority and tradition unknown to orthodox Catholic theology, but which shares an alarming number of parallels to Gallicanism, Old Catholics, etc. which have been pointed out so many times and so well by NOW.
I am not sure if Peter Kwasniewski is relying on the same fundamental concept that you wrote about here, but in this podcast, he says that the refusal by some of the faithful to accept the new Mass of Paul VI was an example of the sensus fidelium to the point that they voted with their feet in some cases (effectively leaving the Church).
Discussion is here at about the one hour mark: https://onepeterfive.com/ep-41-peter-kwasniewski-on-liturgical-reform/
Isn’t this entirely backward? A true Pope supposedly promulgates documents from a Council and a new Mass, some Catholics reject it and in varying degrees, and they were right to do so because it isn’t Catholic after all.
They make it up as they go along, but then accuse us — who simply apply Catholic teaching to the situation today — of “private judgment”. Incredible.