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Lefebvrist leadership misleads souls again…

Better to be Wrong with the Pope – or Right with Tradition against Him?

Response to a recent SSPX Article

On March 10, the official news and communications web site of the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX), founded by Abp. Marcel Lefebvre in 1970, posted a brief article entitled, “Is It Preferable to Be Wrong with the Pope or to Be Right with Tradition against Him?” Predictably, what they offered as argumentation in support of their position is nothing short of a theological disaster.

Let’s go ahead and dissect their little propaganda piece:

This is an objection that is often made to “Tradition”: a Catholic must be in complete union with the pope. He should prefer to be mistaken with him rather than to be right against him. He will even be judged based on this attachment to the pope before he is judged on his adherence to the truth!—How do we answer this?

This objection could appeal to the authority of St. Ambrose: “Ubi Petrus, ibi Ecclesia; where Peter is, there also is the Church.” Or of St. Cyprian: “There is only one God, one Christ, one Church, and one Chair founded upon Peter.” And it is indeed essential to the Church to be directed by the pope, the Vicar of Christ. We might even quote the words of Christ Himself: “And I say to thee that thou art Peter; and upon this rock I will build My Church, and the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give to thee the keys of the kingdom of Heaven. And whatsoever thou shalt bind upon earth, it shall be bound also in Heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose upon earth, it shall be loosed also in Heaven” (Mt. 16:18-19).

But was it not also to the same St. Peter that Our Lord said, “Get behind me, Satan” (Mk. 8:33), words that He only ever addressed to the devil himself? Was it not St. Peter who denied his Master three times? The purposes of these remarks is not to diminish the dignity of Peter’s successor, but to recall that he holds an office that is indeed of an incomparable dignity, but that, like every office, comes with its rights and duties.

(“Is It Preferable to Be Wrong with the Pope or to Be Right with Tradition against Him?”FSSPX.news, Mar. 10, 2019; bold print and italics given.)

Right off the bat we notice that the SSPX uses a term favorable to heresy in its tendentious description of the papal office. The above snippet says that “it is indeed essential to the Church to be directed by the pope” (italics added). Directed? There’s a lot more to the Papacy than direction. In fact, the idea that the Papacy’s essential function is merely one of direction — rather than jurisdiction — has been solemnly condemned as the heretical “primacy of honor” doctrine:

From this text [Mt 16:18] it is clear that by the will and command of God the Church rests upon St. Peter, just as a building rests on its foundation. Now the proper nature of a foundation is to be a principle of cohesion for the various parts of the building. It must be the necessary condition of stability and strength. Remove it and the whole building falls. It is consequently the office of St. Peter to support the Church, and to guard it in all its strength and indestructible unity. How could he fulfil this office without the power of commanding, forbidding, and judging, which is properly called jurisdiction? It is only by this power of jurisdiction that nations and commonwealths are held together. A primacy of honour and the shadowy right of giving advice and admonition, which is called direction, could never secure to any society of men unity or strength. The words – and the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it proclaim and establish the authority of which we speak. “What is the it?” (writes Origen). “Is it the rock upon which Christ builds the Church or the Church? The expression indeed is ambiguous, as if the rock and the Church were one and the same. I indeed think that this is so, and that neither against the rock upon which Christ builds His Church nor against the Church shall the gates of Hell prevail” (Origenes, Comment. in Matt., tom. xii., n. ii). The meaning of this divine utterance is, that, notwithstanding the wiles and intrigues which they bring to bear against the Church, it can never be that the church committed to the care of Peter shall succumb or in any wise fail. “For the Church, as the edifice of Christ who has wisely built ‘His house upon a rock,’ cannot be conquered by the gates of Hell, which may prevail over any man who shall be off the rock and outside the Church, but shall be powerless against it” (Ibid.). Therefore God confided His Church to Peter so that he might safely guard it with his unconquerable power. He invested him, therefore, with the needful authority; since the right to rule is absolutely required by him who has to guard human society really and effectively….

(Pope Leo XIII, Encyclical Satis Cognitum, n. 12; underlining added.)

If anyone thus speaks, that the Roman Pontiff has only the office of inspection or direction, but not the full and supreme power of jurisdiction over the universal Church, not only in things which pertain to faith and morals, but also in those which pertain to the discipline and government of the Church spread over the whole world; or, that he possesses only the more important parts, but not the whole plenitude of this supreme power; or that this power of his is not ordinary and immediate, or over the churches altogether and individually, and over the pastors and the faithful altogether and individually: let him be anathema.

(First Vatican Council, Dogmatic Constitution Pastor Aeternus, Ch. 3; Denz. 1831; underlining added.)

Ah yes, Tradition — as they euphemistically call the one and only true Roman Catholic Faith — is a two-edged sword.

All verbal protestations to the contrary, a mere primacy of honor is exactly what the SSPX accords the Pope. The Novus Ordo papal claimant in Rome gets a nice picture in the SSPX sacristy, public prayers, and some lipservice — but true submission is nowhere to be found.

The Lefebvrists have long considered themselves, de facto, the final arbiter of all things Catholic. In effect they all believe that the Holy See must submit to the SSPX, rather than the other way around, because the SSPX “stands for Tradition”, so they think, whereas (the Modernist entity they consider to be) the Holy See has gone astray and defected from the Faith. That such an idea runs afoul of Catholic Tradition does not seem to bother them in the least, for they seem either not to care or not to know about what the Catholic Church “has always taught” — to use one of their favorite phrases — about the Papacy and the necessity of being in union with the Roman See as the ultimate criterion for Catholic orthodoxy: “Union with the Roman See of Peter is … always the public criterion of a Catholic …. ‘You are not to be looked upon as holding the true Catholic faith if you do not teach that the faith of Rome is to be held'” (Leo XIII, Satis Cognitum, n. 13).

But, did our Lord not call St. Peter “Satan” (see Mk 8:33; Mt 16:23), as the SSPX says above, and did Simon Peter not deny His Lord three times? Yes, indeed, this is true. However, both of these things took place before St. Peter became the Pope of the Catholic Church. St. Robert Bellarmine, the Doctor of the Papacy, pointed out:

When St. Peter denied Christ, he had not yet begun to be the Supreme Pontiff, for it is certain that Ecclesiastical rule was handed to him by Christ in the last chapter of John, since the Lord said to him after the resurrection: “Simon, son of John, feed my sheep.” Therefore, that denial of Peter cannot be numbered among errors of the Roman Pontiffs. Besides, I add that Peter denied Christ with words, but not truly in his heart: hence Peter did not throw off the confession of faith, nor faith itself, as we showed previously.

(St. Robert Bellarmine, On the Roman Pontiff, vol. 2, trans. by Ryan Grant [Mediatrix Press, 2016], Book IV, Ch. 8, p. 175; underlining added. A single-volume edition of the whole work is now also available.)

The First Vatican Council taught likewise: “And upon Simon Peter alone Jesus after His resurrection conferred the jurisdiction of the highest pastor and rector over his entire fold, saying: ‘Feed my lambs,’ ‘Feed my sheep’ [Jn 21:15ff.]” (Pastor Aeternus, Ch. 1; Denz. 1822; underlining added). The traditional Catholic Haydock commentary on Matthew 16:23 is also illuminating. Why did the SSPX not quote those things?

Returning now to the SSPX propaganda piece:

As the First Vatican Council explained, “the Holy Spirit was promised to the successors of Peter not so that they might, by His revelation, make known some new doctrine, but that, by His assistance, they might religiously guard and faithfully expound the revelation or deposit of faith transmitted by the apostles” (Constitution Pastor Aeternus, Ch. 4). The power of the sovereign pontiff is thus regulated by Revelation, and the words St. Paul applied to himself can also be applied to him: “But though we, or an angel from Heaven, preach a gospel to you besides that which we have preached to you, let him be anathema” (Gal. 1:8).

Here we see the Lefebvrists perpetuate a grave error concerning the meaning of this passage in Chapter 4 of Pastor Aeternus. Time and again, they and those who parrot their argumentation claim that this passage regulates or conditions the Pope’s Magisterium in a normative way. In other words, they’re saying that the council teaches that the Pope is not supposed to teach anything at variance with Divine Revelation, but that he is nevertheless quite capable of doing so.

The truth is, as we have pointed out before on this web site, that Vatican I is teaching that the Pope cannot in fact do so, precisely because the Holy Ghost was not given him for the spreading of heresy but for the dissemination of the truth revealed by God. In other words, the passage in question is not normative but descriptive.

The surrounding context given in Chapter 4 of Pastor Aeternus establishes the prerogatives and uniqueness of the Papacy, protected by the Holy Ghost. What sort of divine protection would the Holy Ghost provide if the Pope were merely “not supposed to” invent new doctrines but nevertheless be quite capable of doing so? Wouldn’t that be true also of your local grocery store clerk and the grumpy bus driver on your morning commute? Aren’t they, too, “not supposed to” come up with a new gospel but quite capable of doing precisely that?

It is manifest, therefore, that Vatican I teaches, not that the Pope ought not to teach new (or false) doctrine, but that he actually does not. That is the significance of the special assistance of the Holy Ghost for the Pope. Thus we can say that the council’s doctrine about the Holy Ghost’s assistance for the Pope is descriptive — it describes a truth about the Papacy — and not merely normative — establishing a norm the Pope is expected to follow. The Holy Ghost acts a prioribefore the Pope does anything, by preventing him from teaching or legislating grave errors such as heresy — not a posteriori, by means of the SSPX (or anyone else) correcting his magisterium after the fact.

The Lefebvrist article continues by drawing a false conclusion from the error just enunciated, and then some:

Submission to the pope, therefore, is conditioned by obedience to Revelation, of which he is the servant and protector. But the history of the Church shows that, outside of the case of an infallible exercise of the Magisterium, whose conditions were laid out by this same Council, a pope can stray from the truth or the right path, although this has always been rare. In this case, the faithful can—and must—obey God rather than men. Take the example of St. Paul: “But when Cephas (St. Peter) was come to Antioch, I withstood him to the face, because he was to be blamed” (Gal. 2:11). There is also St. Athanasius, who was excommunicated by Pope Liberius. And Pope John XII [sic] who preached a false doctrine on the beatific vision in a church in Avignon.

Let no one say the Lefebvrists don’t recycle: At least as far as worn-out, long-refuted false theological arguments go, they use the same ones over and over again. Impressive!

Regarding the case of St. Paul rebuking St. Peter at Antioch, please see our powerful rebuttal here, which shows how the Church has always understood the incident.

Regarding the case of Pope Liberius and St. Athanasius, we can let Pope Pius IX speak: “…the Arians falsely accused Liberius, also Our predecessor, to the Emperor Constantine, because Liberius refused to condemn St. Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria, and refused to support their heresy” (Encyclical Quartus Supra, n. 16). For those interested in an elaborate analysis of the controversy, please see “The Alleged Fall of Pope Liberius” here.

And regarding the case of “Pope John XII” (they meant Pope John XXII), that is another old hat we have preliminarily refuted here, with a more elaborate study currently being in preparation for publication on this blog.

The SSPX propaganda then continues:

According to the objector, it would be better to have adhered to moderate Arianism with Liberius than to have remained firm with St. Athanasius. To have believed with John XXII that the souls of the faithful departed have to wait for the resurrection before receiving the beatific vision, rather than to have maintained, with the immense majority of doctors and theologians, that this reward is already granted to those who are worthy to appear before God—a doctrine that was defined by John XXII’s successor, Blessed Benedict XII. Or to have preferred to judaize with St. Peter rather than sharing St. Paul’s disapproval.

What utter sophistry! The truth is: Pope Liberius always remained orthodox and was not in disagreement with St. Athanasius. Pope John XXII had advanced his error not as part of his Magisterium but as a private theologian, “only to treat to discover the truth”, as Bellarmine says (On the Roman Pontiff, Book IV, Ch. 7), for the doctrine had not yet been defined. In fact, Pope John had “severely commanded the Cardinals and others, all teachers, that they should sincerely give their opinion, that the truth could be discovered”, as likewise attested to by Bellarmine in the same place. The “judaizing” of St. Peter is another straw man, for there it was not a question of submitting to the Pope, either concerning his teachings or his laws, but of (not) imitating the personal moral fault of a Pope.

The dilletantish SSPX post ends with the following paragraph:

Indeed, an opposition to the pope must have very serious grounds and must follow very particular rules of prudence. But when two teachings are clearly opposed, as are that of today’s drift and that of the past popes, which must be considered the right one? St. Vincent of Lérins’ Commonitorium answers: “What will the Catholic Christian do if…some new contagion seeks to empoison…the entire Church at once? In this case, his greatest care will be to cling to antiquity that obviously can no longer be seduced by any deceitful novelty whatsoever” (III, 1, 2).

But of course! For the grand finale, they bring up St. Vincent of Lerins and quote him selectively so as to conveniently distort his true position. Even if this rule by St. Vincent — called the “Vincentian Canon” — were correctly presented and applied by the SSPX here, the argument really does not make much sense: Why should a Catholic be permitted to contradict a reigning Pope but somehow be obliged to adhere to a principle put forward by St. Vincent? If the Pope can be ignored or resisted, why not also St. Vincent?

Here is what Pope Leo XIII had to say on contradicting a reigning Pope in order to “stick with the past”:

…[I]t is to give proof of a submission which is far from sincere to set up some kind of opposition between one Pontiff and another. Those who, faced with two differing directives, reject the present one to hold to the past, are not giving proof of obedience to the authority which has the right and duty to guide them; and in some ways they resemble those who, on receiving a condemnation, would wish to appeal to a future council, or to a Pope who is better informed.

(Pope Leo XIII, Apostolic Letter Epistola Tua)

In a nutshell, the truth about the Vincentian Canon is this:

  • St. Vincent proposed his rule of sticking to what has been believed always and everywhere only as a criterion for those cases the Church had not yet settled through her Magisterium
  • Therefore the Canon of St. Vincent can never be used against the Magisterium
  • The so-called Old Catholic heretics who rejected the dogma of papal infallibility in 1870 did so using the same false argumentation about the Vincentian Canon the SSPX uses today

The true sense of the Vincentian Canon has been explained by theological heavyweights such as Cardinal Johannes Franzelin and Mgr. Gerard van Noort. All the documentation and argumentation on the issue can be found in our extensive post:

Once again, the SSPX resorts to theological sophistry to defend its false “traditionalist” position, misleading countless souls. By contrast, readers of this web site are not only given the orthodox doctrine but also ample documentation and resources to see for themselves what the true traditional Catholic teaching is on this and so many other issues.

The Society of St. Pius X is a theological madhouse. The following posts show how much at odds with traditional Roman Catholicism the Lefebvrists really are:

Another fine example of the utter theological junk these “resistance traditionalists” put out is the recent claptrap proposed by Christopher Ferrara and “Fr.” John Hunwicke, exposed beautifully here by Peter Chojnowski, who himself used to be in Ferrara’s theological camp but has now come to see the light.

Resistance to the Pope on matters of doctrine is a perennial Catholic no-no. SSPXers are by no means the first who have tried to justify it — Pope Pius IX’s 1873 encyclical Quartus Supra is basically a point-by-point refutation of Lefebvrism — and so we can simply let the true Popes speak to refute them. Such as Pope Pius XI, for instance:

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, n. 104; underlining added.)

To sum up: The question, “Is it better to be wrong about Tradition with the Pope or right about Tradition without him?”, simply does not present itself. In the words of Pope Pius IX, spoken off the record while the First Vatican Council was in session: “I am Tradition!” (John W. O’Malley, Vatican I: The Council and the Making of the Ultramontane Church, p. 212; bold print added).

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