Enough of the nonsense!

Rethinking Peter Kwasniewski: A Sedevacantist Critique of his Anti-Papal Traditionalism

No Traditionalist when it comes to the Papacy: Philosopher Peter A. Kwasniewski, Ph.D.

Dr. Peter Kwasniewski has been busy “rethinking the Papacy”, and the results are not surprising.

Ever since he first identified, back in 2019, what he calls the “spirit of Vatican I” (that’s Vatican One, referring to the Vatican Council of 1870) as the fundamental problem in the church today “which it will take a mighty exorcism to drive away”, he has not ceased to attack the traditional Catholic teaching on the Papacy in one way or another.

What is often unceremoniously dismissed as “Ultramontanism”, when that is actually the term historically used to describe the orthodox doctrine opposed to Gallicanism, is in actual fact nothing other than the traditional Catholic teaching from before Vatican II: The teaching of the Popes on Faith and morals, although not always infallible, nevertheless always requires our assent and is always safe to follow. See for yourself:

Semi-traditionalists have been led to think that the actual pre-Vatican II doctrine is an undue exaggeration of the Papacy — labels such as “papolatry”, “hyperpapalism”, “papal maximalism”, etc. have been used to discredit the orthodox doctrine.

Kwasniewski against Pre-Vatican II Teaching

At first Kwasniewski simply demonstrated how clueless he is about the Catholic Papacy; but at some point down the road, he had to face the fact that what he was denouncing as some “false spirit” of “hyperpapalism”, supposedly the fruit of an overzealous interpretation or application of Vatican I, was in fact the actual teaching of the Roman Pontiffs, both before and after the celebrated Vatican Council.

Alas, in face of the overwhelming magisterial evidence against him, Kwasniewski did not adjust his position to accord with the actual traditional teaching of the Church. Instead, he dismissed it as irrelevant: “…if we are in an unprecedented meltdown, why should we think that digging up quotes from 100 or 150 years ago from papal maximalists — even those who occupy the seat — is going to clarify, much less resolve, our present crisis?” (Facebook post of Mar. 26, 2021 at 10:14 am).

This flippant response, not exactly exuding theological prowess, was chiefly meant as a “quick fix” to keep resistance traditionalists from concluding that Francis could not possibly be the Pope, after Steve Skojec, then editor of One Peter Five, for which Kwasniewski was writing, had posted a link to the teaching of Pope Leo XIII and acknowledged that it destroys the recognize-and-resist position.

Either way, Prof. K’s words reveal his slipshod approach to Sacred Theology. He dismissed the teaching of the Supreme Pontiff as “quotes from 100 or 150 years ago from papal maximalists”. We offered a substantial response to him back then:

Alas, things did not get better from there. On the contrary, Kwasniewski has been doubling down since. At this point he claims, in somewhat Modernist fashion, that the teaching on the Papacy enunciated by the Popes especially of the 19th and early 20th centuries, was really an accident of the times — not derived from the Deposit of Faith but rather from a silly exaggeration of the true teaching, which enjoyed a certain plausibility at the time but has since revealed itself to be a “historical embarrassment” for the Catholic Church.

What evidence does Kwasniewski adduce for this? Theologically, not much. Instead, his “evidence” is mostly empirical-historical: Look at ‘Pope’ Francis, and there is your evidence. Or, look at historical “papal lapses”, like Pope Honorius or Pope Liberius, and there you go. But things are not quite as Kwasniewski thinks:

We note, then, that for Kwasniewski and those who follow him, Catholic doctrine that the Popes themselves teach and have deduced from the sources of revelation is subject to correction by the faithful on account of subsequent historical events, or can be dismissed by them if prior Church history appears to present a problem for it. That is reminiscent of today’s Modernist ideas about “lived experience” as a data source for theology.

Ratzinger to the Rescue

For the last three years at least, Kwasniewski has been on a self-appointed mission to “recover”, supposedly, the “true” teaching on the Papacy. And in this unholy search for the “real tradition” he doesn’t mind enlisting — what do you know! — even one of the most influential protagonists of the Vatican II revolution insofar as he happens to agree with him. We are talking about Fr. Joseph Ratzinger, better known as “Pope” Benedict XVI, whom Kwasniewski quotes as follows:

The power that Christ conferred upon Peter and his Successors is, in an absolute sense, a mandate to serve. The power of teaching in the Church involves a commitment to the service of obedience to the Faith. The pope is not an absolute monarch whose thoughts and desires are law. On the contrary: the pope’s ministry is a guarantee of obedience to Christ and to his Word. He must not proclaim his own ideas, but rather constantly bind himself and the Church to obedience to God’s Word, in the face of every attempt to adapt it or water it down, and every form of opportunism. … The pope knows that in his important decisions, he is bound to the great community of faith of all times, to the binding interpretations that have developed throughout the Church’s pilgrimage. Thus, his power is not being above the Word of God, but at the service of it. It is incumbent upon him to ensure that this Word continues to be present in its greatness and to resound in its purity, so that it is not torn to pieces by continuous changes in usage.

(Antipope Benedict XVI, Homily at Basilica of St. John Lateran, May 7, 2005; quoted in Peter A. Kwasniewski, “Happy Catholics Don’t Make the Pope More than He Is”, One Peter Five, Feb. 13, 2019; bold print Kwasniewski’s.)

Ironically, this passage doesn’t help Kwasniewski as much as he thinks it does, because, if we read it attentively, Ratzinger does not merely say that the Pope ought to conform himself to the Deposit of Faith but that he is guaranteed to be doing so: “…the pope’s ministry is a guarantee of obedience to Christ and to his Word” (italics added). Dr. K seems to have missed that.

Interestingly enough, there is also a portion of the text that Kwasniewski left out, which is indicated by the three ellipsis dots (“…”) just before the bold print starts. What Kwasniewski left out is the following:

Pope John Paul II did this when, in front of all attempts, apparently benevolent to the human person, and in the face of erroneous interpretations of freedom, he unequivocally stressed the inviolability of the human being and of human life from the moment of conception until natural death. The freedom to kill is not true freedom, but a tyranny that reduces the human being to slavery.

These words of Benedict XVI were left out by Kwasniewski because they are not helpful to his case; if anything, they weaken it considerably. For just after Ratzinger says that the Pope’s ministry guarantees obedience to the Faith, he brings up as a concrete example of that “Pope” John Paul II‘s teaching regarding human life. This presents a problem for “the Kwas”, as some of his former students like to call him, because John Paul’s teaching on the inviolability of human life also opposed the death penalty in almost all cases, which is in clear contradiction to 1,900 years of Catholic teaching.

Thus we see that Kwasniewski’s appeal to Benedict XVI is problematic and intellectually inconsistent. It is evident we are supposed to agree with Benedict XVI only to the extent that he agrees with Peter Kwasniewski. But what kind of appeal to authority is that? Obviously, the actual “authority” being recognized here is Kwasniewski himself. The appeal to Benedict is for display purposes only.

What makes Doctrine authoritative?

This in fact demonstrates the utter silliness of the recognize-and-resist position: Follow the Pope when he’s right; don’t follow him when he’s wrong. Is there a single person on earth about whom one could not say the same thing? Is this not good advice also regarding your local grocery clerk’s mother-in-law? Follow her when she’s right; don’t follow her when she’s wrong? Is the authority of the Pope really nothing more, in essence, than that of any other person who is sometimes right and sometimes wrong?

Does the authority then ultimately lie in the truth and not in the person at all? That would be heresy, for it is clear that Christ gave His authority to actual men, not simply to what they would teach, as if it didn’t matter from whom the teaching came as long as it was true: “He that heareth you, heareth me; and he that despiseth you, despiseth me; and he that despiseth me, despiseth him that sent me” (Lk 10:16); “And if he will not hear them: tell the church. And if he will not hear the church, let him be to thee as the heathen and publican. Amen I say to you, whatsoever you shall bind upon earth, shall be bound also in heaven; and whatsoever you shall loose upon earth, shall be loosed also in heaven” (Mt 18:17-18).

St. Peter himself was the rock upon which the Church was to be built (see Mt 16:13-19), not simply St. Peter’s confession of Faith in Jesus Christ, as the Protestants would have it. It was St. Peter himself who was given unfailing Faith so as to strengthen His brethren (see Lk 22:31-32).

We must understand that Catholic doctrine is authoritative insofar as it comes from the lawful Catholic authority, not insofar as it is true. That it is true, or at least safe to follow, is the consequence of it being taught by the divinely-appointed teachers or their legitimate successors. It is the result of the divine assistance for the Catholic Church:

Peter still maintains the concern of all pastors in guarding their flocks, and his high rank does not fail even in an unworthy heir. In Peter then, as is aptly remarked by the same holy Doctor [St. Leo the Great], the courage of all is strengthened and the help of divine grace is so ordered that the constancy conferred on Peter through Christ is conferred on the apostles through Peter. It is clear that contempt of the Church’s authority is opposed to the command of Christ and consequently opposes the apostles and their successors, the Church’s ministers who speak as their representatives. He who hears you, hears me; and he who despises you, despises me [Lk 10:16]; and the Church is the pillar and firmament of truth, as the apostle Paul teaches [1 Tim 3:15]. In reference to these words St. Augustine says: “Whoever is without the Church will not be reckoned among the sons, and whoever does not want to have the Church as mother will not have God as father.”

Therefore, venerable brothers, keep all these words in mind and often reflect on them. Teach your people great reverence for the Church’s authority which has been directly established by God. Do not lose heart. With St. Augustine We say that “all around us the waters of the flood are roaring, that is, the multiplicity of conflicting teaching. We are not in the flood but it surrounds us. We are hard pressed but not overwhelmed, buffeted but not submerged.”

(Pope Leo XII, Encyclical Ubi Primum, nn. 22-23)

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)

We can see this also in the Gospel, where we are told that when our Blessed Lord taught the people, they “were in admiration at his doctrine. For he was teaching them as one having power, and not as the scribes and Pharisees” (Mt 7:28-29).

When the Jews challenged Jesus’ teaching, He answered: “My doctrine is not mine, but his that sent me” (Jn 7:16). That is, He pointed to God the Father as the Source of this doctrine and to Himself (God the Son) as the lawfully appointed Teacher, to establish the authority of the teaching and thereby guarantee its truth and safety. In other words, Christ’s doctrine is authoritative because it comes from God and is proposed by the lawful Teacher. Its truth and safety is a consequence of that.

This is also how it is in the Church. He whom the Father sent, Jesus Christ, delegated His teaching authority to the Apostles and their lawful successors: “As the Father hath sent me, I also send you” (Jn 20:21b). First and foremost, that authority belongs to St. Peter and his successors, who alone are guaranteed to have an unfailing Faith. Communion with the successor of Peter will forever be the ultimate guarantee of orthodoxy for all Catholic bishops and faithful:

So, this gift of truth and a never failing faith was divinely conferred upon Peter and his successors in this chair, that they might administer their high duty for the salvation of all; that the entire flock of Christ, turned away by them from the poisonous food of error, might be nourished on the sustenance of heavenly doctrine, that with the occasion of schism removed the whole Church might be saved as one, and relying on her foundation might stay firm against the gates of hell.

(Vatican Council, Dogmatic Constitution Pastor Aeternus, Ch. 4; Denz. 1837.)

Let us remember, then: Papal teaching requires our assent because it is the teaching of the Pope, who teaches with the authority of Christ.

Kwasniewski accuses Saint Pius X of — wait for it — Modernism!

Whereas in the past the mainstream traditionalists confined their recognizing-and-resisting to the “Popes” since Vatican II (i.e., after Pius XII), and one could sympathize with that to a large extent in the context of the post-Vatican II nightmare we have all been living through, Kwasniewski has kicked things up a notch and is now explicitly and unabashedly resisting also the Popes before Vatican II.

As an academic with a doctorate in philosophy but no degree in theology, and with no mandate to teach theology from what he recognizes to be the lawful ecclesiastical authority [UPDATE: Kwasniewski says he does or did have such a mandate], he has strangely found himself much more competent and reliable with regard to the Catholic theological tradition than even the Popes themselves. Not even SAINT Pius X, who reigned as Pope from 1903-1914, is safe from Kwasniewski’s hubris. Listen to this:

However, there is one blotch on his papal escutcheon: the violence he did to the Roman Breviary with his radical reforms of 1911. Many popes have added this or that small feature to the liturgy — a new feast, a new preface, a new octave, the prayers at the foot of the altar and the Last Gospel; many have modified the rubrics; very occasionally they have pruned elements deemed overgrowths, such as Pius V’s removal of certain obviously legendary saints from the calendar of the 1570 Missale Romanum. But never had a pope dared to alter in such a radical and thoroughgoing way any of the Latin Church’s ancient liturgical offices. When Pius X had the Breviarium Romanum dismantled and reconfigured in the early 20th century, he was not merely setting aside something that had been constructed in the 16th century, as liturgists can be found to assert; he was altering a rule of prayer so old its origins cannot be discerned. Indeed, there is strong reason to think that the daily recitation of the Laudate psalms (148–150), from which the very hour of Lauds derives its name, is traceable to the Jews of the time of Christ and therefore, with great likelihood, was practiced by Our Lord Himself in His prayers on earth.

There were problems with the breviary at the turn of the 20th century; no one disputes this point. But Pius X’s solution was not to retain the office as it stood while modifying its rubrics so that (e.g.) the weekly cursus of 150 psalms would be prioritized over the festal psalms, or perhaps some hours, such as Matins, would become optional for secular clergy, in order to conserve the integrity and harmony of the breviary as a whole. Instead, Pius X became the first pope in the history of the Latin Church who, freely spending the abundant capital of ultramontanism, threw the weight of his office behind the construction of a new Divine Office. In this way he provided the very premise of papal contructivism [sic] that offered Pius XII the precedent for revamping Holy Week in similar fashion from 1948 to 1955, and Paul VI for transmogrifying everything from 1963 to the mid-1970s. Paradoxically, the pope who fought valiantly against doctrinal modernism exemplified liturgical modernism by rupturing the principle of the inviolability of longstanding tradition in the name of easing up pastoral burdens. If this sounds eerily familiar, it should.

Thus, the very saint to whom the SSPX is dedicated shows us two sides in tension: the zealous promoter of Catholic dogma, and the larger-than-life pontiff who treated part of the liturgy as if it were a mechanism to be rebuilt rather than a living organism to be nurtured or an inheritance of the saints to be treasured.

(Peter A. Kwasniewski, “The Need for Mutual Humility and Support Between the SSPX and the FSSP”, New Liturgical Movement, Feb. 4, 2019; italics given; underlining added.)

Ladies and gentlemen, could it be that Dr. K has come to overestimate himself just a bit? He appears to have fallen victim to his own popularity and worldly success. Is he now the ultimate arbiter over all things Catholic? It looks like no one can escape being summoned before his tribunal — not the Pope himself, not even a canonized one!

Instead of humbly accepting what an incorrupt (!) canonized Pope decreed for the Universal Church, and allowing that to shape his understanding of the Sacred Liturgy, the Kwas has the gall to blast the Church’s great defender of the Faith against Modernism — for Modernism!

If there is a disagreement between a canonized Pope and an academic with no degree in theology, then obviously it’s the academic who must be right! Anything else would be an intolerable “hyperpapalism” that grants way too much competence to the Pope, to the point of needing to be exorcised. Good thing Kwasniewski isn’t overstepping his competence! How ironic that the Kwas wrote this in an article on the need for humility….

Pride and Heresy go together

Apparently Prof. K considers himself more informed, more traditional, and more theologically and liturgically sound than not only any Vicar of Christ but one who was so holy that he was incorrupt and canonized less than 40 years after his death! Should it not be frightfully obvious to the professor by now that he is in over his head on this?

Kwasniewski has forgotten that the Pope is his teacher and legislator, whereas he is but the Pope’s student and subject. Pope Leo XIII warned against the very attitude displayed by the Kwas back in 1885:

By certain indications it is not difficult to conclude that among Catholics – doubtless as a result of current evils – there are some who, far from satisfied with the condition of “subject” which is theirs in the Church, think themselves able to take some part in her government, or at least, think they are allowed to examine and judge after their own fashion the acts of authority. A misplaced opinion, certainly. If it were to prevail, it would do very grave harm to the Church of God, in which, by the manifest will of her Divine Founder, there are to be distinguished in the most absolute fashion two parties: the teaching and the taught, the Shepherd and the flock, among whom there is one who is the head and the Supreme Shepherd of all.

To the shepherds alone was given all power to teach, to judge, to direct; on the faithful was imposed the duty of following their teaching, of submitting with docility to their judgment, and of allowing themselves to be governed, corrected, and guided by them in the way of salvation. Thus, it is an absolute necessity for the simple faithful to submit in mind and heart to their own pastors, and for the latter to submit with them to the Head and Supreme Pastor. In this subordination and dependence lie the order and life of the Church; in it is to be found the indispensable condition of well-being and good government. On the contrary, if it should happen that those who have no right to do so should attribute authority to themselves, if they presume to become judges and teachers, if inferiors in the government of the universal Church attempt or try to exert an influence different from that of the supreme authority, there follows a reversal of the true order, many minds are thrown into confusion, and souls leave the right path.

(Pope Leo XIII, Apostolic Letter Epistola Tua; underlining added.)

We know, of course, how Dr. Kwasniewski will want to answer Pope Leo — simply by accusing him of that “hyperpapalism” and “ultramontanism” that it will “take a mighty exorcism to drive away”! In other words: The Pope does not teach the Kwas; the Kwas teaches the Pope! After all, someone has to “defend Tradition”, right?

Ladies and gentlemen, in Peter Kwasniewski we see someone who evidently does not believe in the Papacy. Under the guise of rediscovering the “authentic” Catholic Tradition on the Papacy, he is digging himself further and further into dangerous theological trouble and is ultimately on a road to Eastern Orthodoxy.

The so-called Eastern Orthodox accept the Pope only as a “first among equals” (primus inter pares) — a heresy also once proclaimed by the notorious ‘Fr.’ Thomas Rosica, C.S.B. — and thus not without a certain primacy; but they do not admit a primacy of jurisdiction, which is Catholic dogma unequivocally defined at Vatican I:

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.

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

Of course Kwasniewski will protest that he has no intention of becoming Orthodox, and that’s understood. However, it is nevertheless where he will ultimately find himself being led, considering his premises and argumentation.

Steve Skojec, too, did not originally set out to become an apostate, but it was clear that his theological reasoning would eventually lead him there. Tragically, it did. He too stumbled over the Papacy because he would not abandon his belief that Jorge Bergoglio was the Pope. Instead of abandoning Francis, he abandoned Catholicism. Kwasniewski is essentially going the same route — not to Agnosticism like Skojec, but to Orthodoxy or some other non-Catholic sect that rejects the truth about the Papacy.

Alas, 2023 has begun the same way 2022 ended: with Peter Kwasniewski pumping out articles and interviews in which he denies the true teaching on the Papacy.

In a follow-up post to this one, to be published soon, we will examine some of the latest Prof. K has argued against the Papacy and for Bergoglio.

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