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Kazakhstan Bishop Athanasius Schneider

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Bishop Schneider’s handbook for correcting errors in life of Church today

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November 18, 2019 (LifeSiteNews) – Bishop Athanasius Schneider, the auxiliary bishop of Astana, Kazakhstan, has just published a new book titled Christus Vincit: Christ's Triumph Over the Darkness of the Age. In this wide-ranging book-length interview with LifeSite Rome correspondent Diane Montagna, this prelate covers first his own biography and spiritual formation and then discusses in separate parts some problems of our time in the Church and in the world. In a sense, he presents in his book a sort of handbook for the necessary correction of mistakes in the life of the Church in the recent decades.

Since this book is so fertile in spiritual guidance and inspiration, this book review desires to concentrate mostly on certain aspects of Schneider's presentation, namely his thoughtful, calm, differentiated, faithful, but truthful critique of some statements of the Second Vatican Council and its application in theory and practice in the past decades of the life of the Church, to include Religious Liberty, the 1986 Day of Interreligious Prayer at Assisi, interreligious meetings and instances of “false ecumenism,” the radical reform of the rite of the Mass (Novus Ordo), Communion in the hand, as well as ambiguities regarding the terminology and the use of natural family planning and the ends of marriage.

While Bishop Schneider shows himself a loyal son of the Church and of the Pope, he at the same time shows us that we must first and foremost be loyal to the deposit of faith, unchangeably transmitted to us by the Church, and, in this light, we need to raise our voice, in those instances, where by statements or by practical norms the integrity of the doctrine of the faith and the Apostolic tradition is obfuscated within the life of the Church; and we should do this precisely out of love for the truth and for the Church herself. Bishop Schneider does so carefully, without rejecting the documents or the teaching of the Second Vatican Council as a whole. Instead, he proposes to correct only some ambiguities and errors that have crept into the life of the Church after the Council. 

First, Bishop Schneider presents us with a principle: “God is more important, and eternity is more important, than the creature and the temporal realities, just as the soul is in itself more important than the body, for the soul is immortal.” 

Out of this principle flows the conviction that the Church should always have the supernatural at the center of her activities. Yet, Bishop Schneider sees that Modernism – which is a “denial or the weakening of the supernatural” and the inordinate stressing of history and reason – has entered the life of the Catholic Church: “Since the Second Vatican Council,” he states, “the Church in her life has yielded in large measure to the influence of secularism and naturalism.” In this sense, he adds, there has currently taken place “an eclipse” of the “primacy of God, of eternity, of the primacy of grace, of prayer, of sacredness, and of adoration.” 

Before going into more detail about his concerns regarding some affirmations of the Second Vatican Council, Bishop Schneider explains that as a teenager, he instinctively rejected the idea of standing and receiving Holy Communion in the hand when in 1973 he came out of the underground Church in the Soviet Union and started to live in Germany. When he was 15 years of age, he started to read some texts written by Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, the founder of the Society of St. Pius X, but he “experienced a dilemma.” His own veneration for the reigning pope was in conflict with the insights of Lefebvre that he found “substantially right.” Since he at the time did not read the texts of the 1962-1965 Council directly, but, rather, commentaries by conservative authors presenting them, he had at first “no concern or suspicion that there might be problems with the texts of the Council.” At the time, he practiced a “total 'infallibilization' of the Council.” 

Now Bishop Schneider sees that this conclusion was wrong. He says: “Nowadays, I realize that I 'turned off' my reason. However, such an attitude is not healthy and contradicts the tradition of the Church, as we observe in the Fathers, the Doctors, and the great theologians of the Church over the course of two thousand years.”

Such an attitude to “turn off” reason the bishop now calls “extreme ultramontanism” as well as a “blind defense of everything that was said by the Council, which seemed sometimes to require mental acrobatics and a 'squaring of the circle.'”

Here, Bishop Schneider tells us that we should cautiously drop such an attitude: “But criticism has always been present and allowed within Church tradition, since it is the truth and faithfulness to divine revelation and tradition that we should seek, which in itself implies the use of reason and rationality and avoiding erroneous acrobatics. Some explanations of certain obviously ambiguous and erroneous expressions contained in the Council’s texts now seem to me to be artificial and unconvincing, especially when I reflect upon them in a more balanced and intellectually honest manner.”

That is to say, we are called to approach with a true sense of the Church (sensus ecclesiae) those potentially ambiguous and erroneous expressions of the Council, and to do so with an “intellectually honest manner.” When he himself became a bishop, that is to say a teacher of the Catholic faith, Bishop Schneider started looking at these Council texts more in detail, also based on his knowledge of the Church Fathers. He also was called by the Holy See to visit different houses of the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX) four years ago, in 2015, which helped him study the problems of the Council more in detail. Bishop Schneider also noticed that the Vatican, in dealing with the SSPX, did not take their arguments “seriously.” But he himself earnestly realized that “we need to take the objections offered by Archbishop Lefebvre more seriously.” 

In dealing with the Vatican and the SSPX, Bishop Schneider then realized that the Vatican used “a kind of argument from authority, but not rooted in a deeper theological reasoning, and without going into the substance of the arguments.” The Vatican said, according to Schneider: “You are wrong, our position is the only correct one and it represents the continuity with the previous tradition of the Church.”

Further developments strengthened Bishop Schneider's conviction that we need to listen more carefully to the arguments of the SSPX: “With the growing crisis in the Church, and especially given the situation created after the two Synods on the Family, the publication of Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis’s approval of the pastoral guidelines of the bishops of the Buenos Aires region (which foresee, among other things, the admittance to Holy Communion of unrepentant adulterers), and the declaration on diversity of religions he signed in Abu Dhabi, I realized that we need to take the arguments of the SSPX more seriously.”

As he states later in the book: “This pontificate is a logical consequence of the so-called 'spirit of the Council' and of the ambiguous elements in some of the Council texts.”

Bishop Schneider now realizes that “some expressions of the Council could not so easily be reconciled with the constant doctrinal tradition of the Church." He says: "I noticed that some teachings—let us say, on the topics of religious freedom, collegiality, the attitude towards non-Christian religions, and the attitude towards the world—were not in an organic continuum with previous tradition.”

Schneider adds that the resistance against any debate about these matters exists perhaps also because “there is an unconscious fear that if one were to accept that some of the non-definitive teachings of the Council are ruptures with the constant previous tradition of the Church, then the era of a blind ultra-montanism-as-a-substitute-for-orthodoxy will collapse.”

For Bishop Schneider it is now clear that there does exist a certain form of discontinuity and rupture: “An honest examination shows that in some expressions of the Council texts there is a rupture with the previous constant tradition of the Magisterium.” And here he stresses that the Second Vatican Council “was pastoral in character, and that the Council did not intend to propose its own definitive teachings.” 

While the prelate now thinks that the majority of the Council texts are no rupture, certain elements very well might have to be corrected or amended by a “future pope or a council.” When asked as to whether the Council was a mistake or not, Bishop Schneider especially answers that “history will tell us this from a distance.” 

However, “from the point of view of the facts, of the evidence, from a global point of view,” Bishop Schneider goes on to say, “Vatican II did not bring real spiritual progress in the life of the Church. After the Council, a disaster occurred at almost every level of the Church’s life. The plan and intentions of the Council were primarily pastoral, yet, despite its pastoral aim, there followed disastrous consequences that we still see today.” 

At the same time, the prelate insists that the “Council had many beautiful and valuable texts. But the negative consequences and the abuses committed in the name of the Council were so strong that they overshadowed the positive elements which are there.”

The positive elements of this Council are in his eyes its “universal call to holiness”; the teaching on Our Lady; “the teaching on the family as a domestic church”; and the importance of the laity. Schneider says, for example: “It was the first time that an ecumenical council spoke so extensively and deeply about the role of Our Lady in the Church and in the history of salvation.” And about the laity, the bishop says that this time is “the hour of Catholic families, large families” and he adds that “a very positive contribution of the Council was the beautiful doctrine of the family as a domestic church.”

In studying some problematic affirmations of the Council, the Kazakh bishop rejects the thematic principle of the “hermeneutic of continuity,” which “cannot be used blindly in order to eliminate unquestioningly any evidently existing problems.” He further comments on this principle and its application, saying that it “would transmit artificially and unconvincingly the message that every word of the Second Vatican Council is infallible and in perfect doctrinal continuity with the previous Magisterium.” 

Such a method, Schneider explains, would “violate reason, evidence, and honesty, and would not do honor to the Church, for sooner or later (maybe after a hundred years) the truth will be stated as it really is.”

This conclusion is, I believe, a very important aspect of Bishop Schneider's overall reasoning. Any major mistakes committed by the Shepherds of the Church in the last six decades will one day be openly known to us – and they are already known to God – and the Church in our days does best in honoring truth about herself, especially in light of her duty to lead souls to heaven. Any distortion of truth may well have a devastating effect on souls and their yearned-for eternal life. Let us together face the truth and thus help to purify the life of the Church from errors so that the Catholic faith might be revived in its beauty and integrity.

Bishop Schneider recommends several books for our further study of the Second Vatican Council, among them Roberto de Mattei's The Second Vatican Council – An Unwritten Story (2012) and Romano Amerio, Iota Unum: A Study of Changes in the Catholic Church in the Twentieth Century (1996). 

Moreover, the Kazakh prelate points out that the Council itself had stated that “the Magisterium is not above the Word of God, but serves it.” Yet, at the same time, the Council itself showed an “ecclesiocentrism” (which is a “hidden anthropocentrism”) that had come into the life of the Church since the Second Vatican Council, whereas before that time there was the phenomenon of an “insane ultramontanism.” 

When asked as to whether this principle also applies to Pope Paul VI's “abusing papal power in his implementation of Vatican II,” especially by changing the liturgy “in a way that had never occurred before,” Bishop Schneider agrees. “Human and administrative elements were put at the center of the life of the Church and above the constant tradition of the Church.” An example can be seen in the “liturgical reform of Paul VI,” who in certain ways “put himself above Tradition,” the “great liturgical Tradition, which is inseparably linked to doctrine.”

With the Council, the bishop sees that the Church started to “flirt with the world” and to “beg for sympathy and recognition of the world.” One could say that this spirit affects not only some documents of the Second Vatican Council, but also many documents of Pope Francis like Laudato Si or Amoris Laetitia

However, Bishop Schneider insists about these documents that “I will not reject the entire document but receive from it what is good.” He points to historical examples where later popes corrected errors in other councils (such as the Council of Florence in its decree for the Armenians), but also to St. Thomas Aquinas who “accepted many philosophical insights from Aristotle in spite of the fact that not all things in Aristotle are perfect.” 

Unfortunately, the spirit of Modernism, Bishop Schneider explains, has been infiltrating into the Church for quite some time before the Second Vatican Council – even though Pope Pius X had tried to fight it at the beginning of the 20th century – so much so that Pope Pius XII, in 1950, had to intervene by condemning (without naming them by name) “well-known theologians of the so-called 'nouvelle théologie' (Chenu, Congar, de Lubac, etc.) and by publishing the encyclical Humani Generis.” Bishop Schneider also praises Pope Pius X's encyclical Pascendi, saying that it is still “relevant” and that clearly states that “Modernism is the most dangerous phenomenon in the entire history of the Church.”

For Bishop Schneider, God allows to happen this darkening of the life of the Church today in order to bring out of it a greater good. He is convinced that the Church will shine brighter after this period of crisis. He also sees that “even in midst of so many clerical Judases inside the Church today, we have to maintain always a supernatural vision of the victory of Christ, who will triumph through the suffering of His Bride, who will triumph through the suffering of the pure and little ones in all ranks of the members of the Church: children, youth, families, religious, priests, bishops, and cardinals. When they remain faithful to Christ, when they keep unblemished the Catholic faith, when they live in chastity and humility, they are the pure and little ones in the Church.”

And he does now already see many “snowdrops” growing in the Church, announcing a new and true springtime. These “snowdrops” are the “little ones” of the Church: “We can see many little spiritual snowdrops: these are the little ones in the Church, those who do not belong to the administrative and power structure of ecclesiastical 'nomenklatura.' These spiritual snowdrops are little children, innocent boys and girls, young chaste men and virgins, true Catholic spouses, fathers and mothers of families, single persons, widows, monks, cloistered nuns, who are the spiritual 'gems' of the Church—and also simple priests who, because of their fidelity to the faith, are oftentimes marginalized and humiliated. There are also lay people and members of the clergy who courageously defend Christ the Truth in the middle of the battlefield at the cost of personal and temporal advantage. I would call them the spiritual 'salmon' of our day, since they are swimming against the tide and jumping over obstacles towards the pure waters of their origin.” 

Therefore, Bishop Schneider insists that Christ is winning. He reminds us that “on the obelisk in St. Peter’s Square are inscribed the words Christus vincit, and the tip of that obelisk contains a relic of the true Cross. The Roman Church, the Apostolic See of St. Peter, is crowned, so to speak, with these luminous words Christus vincit, and with the power of the Holy Cross of Christ. Even if during the present crisis and spiritual obfuscation one might have the impression that the enemies of Christ and His Cross have to a certain extent occupied the Holy See, Christ will defeat them.  Christus vincit!

The healing path in the life of the Church will be, according to Bishop Schneider, a path “which puts Christ—the Incarnate Word, Incarnate Truth, the Incarnate Son of God—unmistakably in the center of the doctrinal teaching, the celebration of the liturgy, the moral life, and especially at the center of the missionary zeal and activity of the entire Church.” Here, the “path to victory for the Catholic Church has to begin with a thorough renewal of the Eucharistic liturgy and the Eucharistic life of the Church,” since “the sacrament of the Eucharist is the heart of the Church, from which her entire life is built up and vitally sustained.”

We have to center our lives on Christ. And “Christ will overcome the current crisis of His Church in and through the Eucharist.” 

At the end of this book, Bishop Schneider places a longer quote from St. Peter Julian Eymard on this very topic. This saint insists that the Eucharist is the center of the Church, for example when he says: “In our own day He still goes out to uncivilized nations; and wherever the Eucharist is brought, the people are converted to Christianity. That is the secret of the triumph of our Catholic missionaries and of the failure of the Protestant preachers. For them, man is battling alone; for us, Jesus is battling, and He is sure to triumph.”

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Maike Hickson

Dr. Maike Hickson was born and raised in Germany. She holds a PhD from the University of Hannover, Germany, after having written in Switzerland her doctoral dissertation on the history of Swiss intellectuals before and during World War II. She now lives in the U.S. and is married to Dr. Robert Hickson, and they have been blessed with two beautiful children. She is a happy housewife who likes to write articles when time permits.

Dr. Hickson published in 2014 a Festschrift, a collection of some thirty essays written by thoughtful authors in honor of her husband upon his 70th birthday, which is entitled A Catholic Witness in Our Time.

Hickson has closely followed the papacy of Pope Francis and the developments in the Catholic Church in Germany, and she has been writing articles on religion and politics for U.S. and European publications and websites such as LifeSiteNews, OnePeterFive, The Wanderer, Rorate Caeli, Catholicism.org, Catholic Family News, Christian Order, Notizie Pro-Vita, Corrispondenza Romana, Katholisches.info, Der Dreizehnte,  Zeit-Fragen, and Westfalen-Blatt.