(LifeSiteNews) — Since the beginning of the pontificate of Pope Francis, many conservative Catholics who used to criticize the Society of St. Pius X for their “disobedience” toward Church authorities, and here most importantly the pope, have started to realize that there are, after all, moments where one has to disobey a pope.
The post-synodal exhortation Amoris laetitia, which gave permission to give Holy Communion to public adulterers, was a pivotal point in this recent history. Many faithful Catholics today hold that a priest has the right and even the duty to disobey his bishop should he tell him to give Communion to public adulterers.
This question now arises more urgently in light of Traditionis Custodes, its subsequent documents, and the increasing rumors that Francis plans very soon to publish an Apostolic Constitution that would further try to eliminate the traditional Latin Rite (both the traditional Mass and all the traditional Sacraments) for good. For many Catholics who have grown to love this ancient rite, however, this poses grave moral challenges, especially if they have also realized that the traditional Sacraments (such as baptism) are much richer in doctrine, but also in grace.
Catholics are faced with considering whether they ought to disobey these new demands coming from Rome.
But what are the foundations for such a morally upright and legitimate disobedience? LifeSite has given in the past a platform to some excellent authors, such as Bishop Athanasius Schneider and Dr. Peter Kwasniewski, both of whom have amply discussed the question of obedience, and even of “holy disobedience,” in my own words.
After all, if it comes to questions pertaining to the salvation of souls, we must “obey God rather than man,” even if we lose much respect among men.
As I have described elsewhere, since the 2020 COVID lockdowns, my little family and I have been mostly attending a chapel of the Society of St. Pius X, which has sprung up out of that situation of a spiritual desert. It is now that we also more deeply learn about their own theological studies and reflections on the foundations and limits of obedience. After all, they had four decades and more time to study these matters.
Lately, Father Alexander Wiseman, a professor at the SSPX’ Thomas Aquinas Seminary in Dillwyn, Virginia, has been giving several catechism classes to our chapel, in which he touched upon the question of obedience. I was so thrilled by the clarity and depth of his reasoning that I thought that many Catholic faithful who are grappling with this question would benefit from his insights (some of which he has also once presented in a podcast). Therefore, I asked Father whether he could write a text (see full text below) for LifeSite, in which he can lay out his reasons.
Obedience in this framework – such as a priest’s obedience toward his bishop – is in general a virtue and willed by God, and to disobey is a serious act and must be well-reasoned. Some acts of disobedience might not be virtuous, some acts of obedience might not be, either. This is where for us Catholics comes in the need, and even the duty, to study the foundations of obedience and its limits, so that we are standing on solid ground.
Father Wiseman insists on this point, too, when he writes, for example, that if a priest disobeys, “then he must offer an explanation for why what seems like disobedience is not actually against the virtue of obedience.”
Disobedience does not mean here to become schismatic. One’s loyalty and love for Rome remains.
Discussing the situation of the SSPX within the Catholic Church, for example, Bishop Athanasius Schneider recently pointed out in an interview with LifeSite’s John-Henry Westen, that the SSPX is “in no way schismatic.”
Insisting that Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre desired to be “fully recognized by the Holy See,” Bishop Schneider pointed to the “emergency situation” in the Church – even quoting Cardinal Gerhard Müller’s words about the “hostile takeover of the Church” – as an explanation for the irregular status of the SSPX. In his view, that the SSPX “is not able currently, temporarily, to be fully under the control and submission of the Holy See is justified and is in no way schismatic.” Here, he pointed out that the SSPX priests and bishops always pray in their Masses for the Pope and for the local bishops of their respective chapels.
It is my hope that many of us will learn more about the history of the Church crisis, as well as the SSPX position with regard to it and that this article enriches our current debate on the correct response to our crisis. My family and I certainly have much profited in the last two years from the wealth of study and experience on the part of the SSPX, and I thank Father Wiseman for writing this article for us.
Please see below for the full text of Father Alexander Wiseman’s essay.
‘We should obey God rather than men’
On March 19, 2016, the release of the post-synodal apostolic exhortation Amoris laetitia (AL)1 threw the Catholic world into confusion. One of the main questions which the document raised concerned giving Holy Communion to those who had been civilly divorced and had attempted remarriage. According to the Church’s clear moral teaching, such persons would be living in a state of sin. To the extent that they are living in that state publicly, they would normally be considered as public sinners and therefore refused Holy Communion. AL seems to open up the question, however, and make it possible, under certain circumstances, for these persons to present themselves for communion and receive Our Lord’s body.
The doubts surrounding what the document actually means drove a group of theologians to submit a study of it privately to the College of Cardinals. This study identifies statements in AL, which, taken according to their natural sense, would fall under censure because they contradict previous Catholic teaching.2 The purpose of the private submission was to allow for the clarification and correction of the document. In addition to this study, four Cardinals submitted privately to the Pope a list of dubia, or formal “doubts,” about the post-synodal document.3
Neither of these documents ever met with an official response. On the contrary, the Pope seemed to issue a kind of interpretation of his own document in a letter to the Buenos Aires bishops. The Argentinian bishops had issued pastoral guidelines to their dioceses based on the newly-released AL. Included in these guidelines was the clear statement that AL now allows for communion to be given to the divorced and “remarried.” In his letter to these bishops, Pope Francis approves their guidelines and states unequivocally that “there is no other interpretation” of his document.4 This letter would later be added to the official acts of the Holy See. (Acta Apostolicae Sedis)5
The letter of Pope Francis, other remarks that he made in reference to AL, and his silence regarding both the theological study and the dubia, finally elicited another response from clergy and laity: the Correctio filialis, sent privately to him in August 2017 and released publicly (since it received no reply) about a month later.6 The “filial correction” does not mince its words. It states directly that the Pope has given “scandal concerning faith and morals” to the Church by the publication of AL and other acts. Guarding all due respect to the Pope, the authors claim to show “how several passages of Amoris laetitia, in conjunction with acts, words, and omissions of Your Holiness, serve to propagate seven heretical propositions.”
Despite the public release of the Correctio and many other critiques of AL, bishops in various dioceses began implementing changes to their pastoral directives to match the “spirit” of AL. This led to priests being commanded by their bishops to give communion to those divorced and “remarried.”7
Cases such as these show that AL comes right down into the practical sphere and presents a difficult dilemma to priests who desire to be faithful to the Church’s teaching. On the one hand, a legitimate superior issues a command. On the other hand, this command would involve an action that seems to be contrary to the traditional practice and doctrine of the Church concerning Holy Communion. What is the priest to do? If he follows the command of his superior, he seems to contradict the doctrine of the Church. If he refuses to follow the command, then he seems to disobey the legitimate authority.
In examining this dilemma, we see that there are only two courses of action that are possible: the priest either does or does not follow the directive of his superior. The important thing to realize is that either course of action requires an explanation. No one can seem to contradict Church teaching without giving some justification. Likewise, no one can seem to disobey his superior without giving a reason for it.
Looking at the history of such dilemmas in the Church reveals that, broadly speaking, one of two reasons is given for following the directive of the superior, and one of two reasons is given for refusing to follow it. This gives a total of four “positions” on an issue such as AL and communion to the divorced and “remarried.”
If a priest decides to follow the directive of his superior, then he could:
- Explain that it is not his job to determine whether there is or is not a contradiction between the command of his superior and the Church’s teaching – his job is merely to obey.
- Explain that, in reality, there is no contradiction between the two, either because such a contradiction is an impossibility (an appeal to the charism of infallibility) or because he thinks he can reconcile the two positions.
If, on the other hand, a priest decides not to follow the directive of his superior, then he could:
- Explain that this person is not really his superior because he has in some way forfeited his office by issuing the command, or by holding a heretical position.
- Explain that, where a contradiction exists between a lower authority and a higher authority, one must “obey God rather than men.” In this way, he claims that he is not disobeying the lower authority, but in reality, he obeys the higher.
With respect to AL, the Correctio filialis takes the fourth position: respectfully to inform the Pope that he has no authority to change Church teaching, and that therefore, clergy and faithful must obey God rather than men. To quote the Correctio: “Most Holy Father, the Petrine ministry has not been entrusted to you that you might impose strange doctrines on the faithful, but so that you may, as a faithful steward, guard the deposit against the day of the Lord’s return.”
The examination of AL and the response to it from the Catholic world is instructive, because it is a “microcosm” of the current crisis in the Church. It is undeniable that the crisis of today is much broader than this single issue. What we see issuing from Rome today finds its full explanation in what came before Pope Francis. Even Pope Francis himself would agree with this: he repeatedly appeals to Vatican II and to his immediate predecessors as justification for his actions.
The document Traditionis custodes (TC)8 is an example of how Pope Francis sees himself as “in continuity” with what came before. TC has the additional merit of bringing out into the open a conflict that has already been present for many years – the essential conflict, in fact, that has defined the positions in the Church for the last fifty years.
TC and its accompanying letter from the Pope can therefore give us a very good perspective on the current situation in the Church and the various responses to it over the past years. Let’s begin by looking at a few quotations from TC and the adjoined letter.
In Article 1 of TC, the Pope lays down the rule as regards the liturgy: “The liturgical books promulgated by Saint Paul VI and Saint John Paul II, in conformity with the decrees of Vatican Council II, are the unique expression of the lex orandi of the Roman Rite.” This article effectively denies the distinction which Benedict XVI had tried to make, distinguishing two “rites” within the Roman Rite. Pope Francis is here simply following what seems to have been the intention of Paul VI when promulgating the Novus Ordo Missae: “We decree that these laws and prescriptions be firm and effective now and in the future, notwithstanding, to the extent necessary, the apostolic constitutions and ordinances issued by our predecessors and other prescriptions, even those deserving particular mention and amendment.” (Missale Romanum, 1969)9
Article 3 is surprising in that it makes the continued celebration of the Traditional Latin Mass depend on accepting a doctrinal position about the Novus Ordo Missae: “The bishop of the diocese… is to determine that these groups do not deny the validity and the legitimacy of the liturgical reform, dictated by Vatican Council II.”
In the accompanying letter, Pope Francis expresses his disappointment that some who attach themselves to the Traditional Latin Mass also seem to reject Vatican II. Taken together with Article 3 of TC, his comments here seem to make another doctrinal position the precondition for continuing to celebrate or attend the old rite: “I am nonetheless saddened that the instrumental use of Missale Romanum of 1962 is often characterized by a rejection not only of the liturgical reform, but of the Vatican Council II itself… To doubt the Council is to doubt the intentions of those very Fathers who exercised their collegial power in a solemn manner cum Petro et sub Petro in an ecumenical council, and, in the final analysis, to doubt the Holy Spirit himself who guides the Church.”
We thus have two doctrinal assertions which are, for the Pope, a condition for the celebration of the old rite of Mass. Anyone who wishes to celebrate the Traditional Latin Mass (and therefore anyone who wishes to attend such a Mass) must acknowledge:
- That the Novus Ordo Missae is valid and legitimate, and represents such a continuity with the Church’s liturgical tradition that it is, in fact, the unique expression of the Roman Rite.
- That everything taught in Vatican II was guided by the Holy Spirit such that the council, in its entirety, is in perfect conformity with Tradition.
Pope Francis is here expressing “out loud” what has been the de facto situation in the Church since Vatican II and the promulgation of the Novus Ordo. One has only to look at the early history of the Society of St. Pius X and the exchanges between Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre and Rome during the early 1970s to realize that these two statements have always been the source of disagreement. Whether anyone agrees or disagrees with the position of the SSPX is immaterial as regards this point. What is clear is that the price of holding to the Traditional Latin Mass is and always has been the complete acknowledgement of the liturgical reform of Paul VI and the teachings of Vatican Council II.
Once we recognize this, we can fruitfully apply the distinctions made above, in the case of Amoris laetitia, to begin to make sense of the various reactions to the current situation in the Church.
Just as with AL, we are faced with a direct command from a legitimate superior: in order to celebrate the Traditional Latin Mass, you are commanded to accept the doctrinal statements mentioned above.
Now, as long as there is no apparent contradiction between these doctrinal statements and what the Church has always taught, no one can take any issue with this. It is obvious that direct and legitimate orders of a superior must be obeyed. But it does not take much investigation to realize that, at least on the face of it, there seem to be some real differences between Vatican II and previous Church teaching, and between the Novus Ordo and the liturgical tradition of the Church. The
pontificate of Pope Francis and, indeed, the pontificates of nearly all the recent Popes, have made these differences much more apparent. For example, in the name of the ecumenism expressly taught by Vatican II, we have witnessed Popes acknowledging the legitimacy and “truth” of other religions such as Islam, Judaism, and even paganism. In the name of the liturgical reform, we have witnessed appalling demonstrations even during Papal Masses. A simple side-by-side comparison of the Novus Ordo Missae and the old rite likewise seems to give the lie to Pope Francis’ confident assertion in the letter accompanying TC: “Whoever wishes to celebrate with devotion according to earlier forms of the liturgy can find in the reformed Roman Missal according to Vatican Council II all the elements of the Roman Rite, in particular the Roman Canon which constitutes one of its more distinctive elements.” If all the elements of the Roman Rite are present, what happened to the traditional offertory? And if a priest chooses to say eucharistic prayer 2 (one of his multiple options while celebrating the Mass), then where would the Roman Canon be?
We have, then, a situation that is very similar to the drama surrounding AL: a command from a legitimate superior which, at the very least, seems not to wholly square with what came before. A priest who wishes to celebrate the Traditional Latin Mass can either: (a) accept the two doctrinal statements and hope to receive approval from his bishop to be able to say the old rite, or (b) refuse the doctrinal statements and continue to celebrate Mass according to the old rite anyway. If the priest chooses the first option, then it is incumbent upon him to give some kind of justification for his action, explaining why it does not contradict any of the Church’s previous teachings. Likewise, if a priest refuses, according to the second option, then he must offer an explanation for why what seems like disobedience is not actually against the virtue of obedience.
The faithful are faced with a similar dilemma: will they attend only the Masses and sacraments offered by priests who accept the doctrinal positions? Or will they consider themselves free also to receive the sacraments from those priests who have refused them? In the aftermath of TC, as bishops shut down many Latin Masses across their dioceses, we are seeing this dilemma become very concrete for many faithful.
If we continue the parallel with AL, we see that the responses to this dilemma can also be grouped broadly into four positions.
If priests or faithful accept the conditions of TC, then they could explain:
- That it is not their responsibility to determine whether or not there exists a contradiction. Their job is simply to obey. This is a position of “blind obedience”: in all cases, it is better to obey.
- That in fact everything can be reconciled: what seemed to be contradictory was actually not opposed. Or else that there can be no contradiction between Vatican II and previous Church teaching and between the new liturgical discipline and what came before due to the charism of infallibility.
If priests or faithful refuse to accept the two doctrinal statements, then they could explain:
- That the Pope, due to his statements, his actions, or both, has in some way forfeited his office and is no longer the Pope. Therefore, he is not the legitimate superior and need not be obeyed.
- That even the Pope does not have the authority to contradict the past teachings of the Church, and therefore we must obey God rather than men. Here, the burden of proof again rests with the one taking this position: he must be able to point out the real contradiction. This is the position which the Society of St. Pius X and others have taken. We might note in passing that this lines up also with the limits placed on infallibility as explained by Vatican Council I in Pastor aeternus (cap. 4): “The Holy Spirit was not promised to the successors of Peter 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.”10
These four positions do not simply represent a response to Traditionis custodes, but really define the landscape in the Church today with respect to the crisis in the Church. Many, for example, are at the very least uncomfortable with the irregular canonical situation of the Society of St. Pius X. Yet, this very irregularity was a direct consequence of the Society’s stance on Vatican II and the Novus Ordo Missae. Others think that the SSPX does not go far enough, and that we must hold that Pope Francis is not the true Pope. Still others are just “entering” the debate because they find themselves attached to the Traditional Latin Mass – they are offended that Pope Francis would take such a strong position in the name of so-called “unity.” But if the Novus Ordo Missae is valid and legitimate, what justification can they offer for continuing to celebrate or attend the Traditional Latin Mass? It is the will of the Supreme Pontiff to make this old rite disappear: the provisions in TC are “to provide for the good of those who are rooted in the previous form of celebration and need to return in due time to the Roman Rite promulgated by Saints Paul VI and John Paul II.” Even if this is a “lesser good,” as long as it is indeed good, then there is no ground to refuse the will of the legitimate superior.
As Catholics who wish to be faithful, and in the face of the disturbing things which we are witnessing today, it is incumbent upon us to examine these four positions closely. We cannot simply “fall into” one of these positions. We must enter it with our eyes open, and give our reasons for holding to it. It is only in this way that we will be able to navigate the confusion of the current situation in the Church and hold fast to the faith, without which “it is impossible to please God.” (Heb. 11:6)
2The study would later be made public: https://onepeterfive.com/theological-censures-amoris-laetitia-revealed/
3The Cardinals later made their dubia public: https://www.ncregister.com/blog/full-text-and-explanatory-notes-ofcardinals-questions-on-amoris-laetitia
6The official website of the Correctio is here: https://www.correctiofilialis.org/
The actual document be found here:
7See, for example, the case of the Archdiocese of Paderborn: https://www.catholicnewsagency.com/news/38777/german-bishop-announces-communion-for-protestant-spouses-in-individual-cases
Some of the priests of the archdiocese rejected these directives: https://www.kath.net/news/64338