Eminent Catholic historian: ‘The Church triumphs when her faithful members fight for her’
[Editor’s note: The following address was delivered at the Rome launch of the first book-length interview with Bishop Athanasius Schneider, titled ‘Christus Vincit: Christ’s Triumph Over the Darkness of the Age,’ held at the Palazzo Cardinal Cesi on Monday, October 14. The book, published by Angelico Press, is now available on Amazon.]
Christus Vincit: Christ’s Triumph Over the Darkness of the Age
14 October 2019 – Palazzo Cardinal Cesi, Rome
Prof. Roberto de Mattei
It is a great honor for me to participate alongside Cardinal Burke and Bishop Schneider, in the presentation of Diane Montagna’s book-interview with the same Msgr. Athanasius Schneider, entitled: Christus Vincit: Christ’s Triumph Over the Darkness of the Age.
The interview with Bishop Schneider is very beautiful and I congratulate not only the bishop, but also the journalist, who in her questions touched on every aspect of the contemporary religious debate. But I do not want to deprive you of the pleasure of reading the book by telling you what it says. I believe that the best way to present it is to insert it into historical horizon in which it was written and published, as a Synod is now underway that can rightly be described as one of the most dramatic events for the Church in recent centuries.
Cardinal Burke and Bishop Schneider have launched an appeal to pray and fast so that the Synod on the Amazon does not approve the errors and heresies contained in the Instrumentum laboris. And for that we thank them. They were among the few Pastors of the Church who broke the silence in which the worldwide episcopate is immersed amid the current crisis. By doing so they have fulfilled their mandate as successors of the Apostles. Saint Augustine says that those who do not publicly profess what they believe are only half faithful: “Non enim perfecte credunt, qui quod credunt loqui nolunt.”Not only those who abandon truth to embrace error, but also those who do not confess it publicly when necessary. For silent Pastors in times of darkness, such as the one in which we live, we recall the words of the prophet Isaiah: “Woe to me, for I have kept silent” (cf. Isaiah VI, 5).
As he recounts in his book, Bishop Schneider received from Divine Providence, at the hands of his religious superiors, the name Athanasius, and Athanasius is a name that is certainly a model for him.
Saint Athanasius was the indomitable defender of the Catholic faith against the Arians and Semi-Arians in the terrible religious crisis of the fourth century. When the Church’s first Ecumenical Council, convened by Emperor Constantine, opened in the city of Nicaea, in May 325, many errors and heresies regarding the persons of the Holy Trinity were circulating among the approximately three hundred Council fathers. The great historian of the Councils, Hefele, explains that in Nicaea the Orthodox bishops were a minority. Together with Athanasius and his friends, they constituted the right, or rather the ranks of the far right. Arius and his partisans formed the left, while the center-left was occupied by Eusebius of Nicomedia and the center-right by Eusebius of Caesarea.
Among these positions there was only one true position, only one Catholic position, that of St. Athanasius. But Athanasius, to whom Saint Hilary of Poitiers attributes the greatest influence over the formulation of the Nicaean creed,was then neither a bishop, nor a priest, nor a famous theologian, but only a young deacon who was just over 25 years old, and was a collaborator of Alexander, Bishop of Alexandria. Athanasius did not limit himself to praying, but organized, behind the scenes, the bishops’ resistance to Arianism. Thanks to him, the Nicaean Creed was formulated and constituted an impregnable bulwark against Arianism. This is proof of Holy Spirit’s action in the Church.
The Catholic Church is a mysterious organism, and it is important to strive to understand its physiology. Today nearly all of the mass media embraces a secularist ideology and does not understand the supernatural nature of the Church. The different theological positions are reduced to political positions and politics is in turn reduced to a clash of economic interests.
The Church has a visible body; it is a society formed by living men and endowed with a juridical structure. This society brings together all those who, having received Baptism, profess the faith taught by Jesus Christ, participate in the Sacraments and obey the authority established by Jesus himself. The Church, however, is not a society like any other. Its structure cannot be likened to that of a company, nor of a political, democratic or dictatorial regime. The Catholic Church is a Mystical Body, of which Christ is the Head, the faithful are the members and the Holy Spirit is the soul. Leo XIII (Satis Cognitum) and Pius XII (Mystici Corporis), but also Benedict XVI (Angelus 31 May 2009), have called the Holy Spirit the “Soul of the Church.” The presence of the Holy Spirit abides in each soul that is in the state of grace, but His indefectible presence also abides in the whole body of the Church, as the Spirit of truth and wisdom, until the end of the centuries.
To deny the human and visible element of the Church is to fall into Protestantism, but to deny its divine and invisible aspect is to equate the Church with any human society. To remove from the Church one of these two elements, the human or the divine, is to destroy it.
Those who ignore the Holy Spirit’s action on the Church will never be able to understand its reality. We often hear, for example, that the Popes are assisted by the Holy Spirit, and that is true. But all Christians, albeit in different ways, are assisted by the Holy Spirit. Through Baptism, they receive the gift of the Holy Spirit, which is the spirit of Christ.
The Holy Spirit not only assists the heads of the Church, but every baptized person. The least of the Amazonian Indians who receives Baptism is incorporated into the Church of Christ and is assisted by the Holy Spirit. For this reason, we cannot understand those, like Bishop Erwin Kräutler, bishop emeritus of Xingu, Brazil, who boast of never having baptized an Indian.
The Sacrament of Confirmation perfects Baptism and makes the Christian an authentic “soldier of Christ,” as it was once said: a son or daughter of the militant Church who fights courageously against the flesh, the devil and the spirit of the world. With Baptism and Confirmation, the Christian also receives a supernatural light that theologians call “Catholic common sense” or the “sensus fidei,” that is, the ability to adhere to the truths of faith by supernatural instinct, even prior to theological reasoning. St. Thomas teaches that the universal Church is governed by the Holy Spirit who, as Jesus Christ promised, “will teach [her] the whole truth” (Jn 16: 13).The supernatural capacity that the believer has to penetrate and apply in his life the revealed truth comes from the Holy Spirit.
In 2014, the International Theological Commission, chaired by Cardinal Gerhard Ludwig Müller, then Prefect of the Congregation for the Faith, published a study entitled “Sensus fidei in the life of the Church”,which explains that the sensus fidei is not a reflective knowledge of the mysteries of faith like the knowledge gained through theology, but a spontaneous intuition, by which the believer adheres to the true faith or rejects what is opposed to it.The faith of the faithful, like the doctrine of pastors, is influenced by the Holy Spirit, and the faithful, through their Christian sense and profession of faith, contribute to expounding, manifesting and attesting to Christian truth.
Every baptized member of the faithful has the sensus fidei, and this sensus fidei has a rational foundation, because the act of faith is, by its very nature, an act of the intellectual faculty. Today the true notion of faith has been lost, because it is reduced to sentimental experience, forgetting that it is an act of reason, which has truth as its object. Fideism was condemned by the Church. At the First Vatican Council, she instead defined as dogma the harmony between faith and reason (Denz-H, n. 3017).
Everything that appears irrational and contradictory repels true faith. Therefore, when the sensus fidei highlights a contrast between certain expressions articulate by ecclesiastical authorities and the Tradition of the Church, the believer must have recourse to the good use of logic, enlightened by grace. In such cases, the believer must reject any ambiguity or counterfeiting of the truth, relying on the unchangeable Tradition of the Church, which does not contrast with the Magisterium, but includes it.
The Vatican Theological Commission stated that: “alerted by their sensus fidei, individual believers may deny assent even to the teaching of legitimate pastors if they do not recognise in that teaching the voice of Christ, the Good Shepherd”. For this reason, the sensus fidei can lead the faithful, in some cases, to refuse their assent to certain ecclesiastical documents and to place themselves, before the supreme authorities, in a situation of resistance or apparent disobedience. Such disobedience is only apparent because in these cases of legitimate resistance the Gospel principle applies that one must obey God rather than men (Acts 5: 29).
Confronted with a proposition that contradicts faith or morals, we have a moral obligation to follow our conscience which opposes it, for as St. Cardinal Newman says, “conscience is the aboriginal vicar of Christ.”
Today those who, following their conscience, resist the words or acts of ecclesiastical authority which diverge from the Tradition of the Church are sometimes accused of being “enemies of the Pope,” or even “schismatics.” But these words must be weighed. The most serious faults for a Catholic are opposition to the doctrine of Christ, or separation from the Church that Christ founded. In the first case one is heretical, in the second case one is schismatic.
We are not heretics, for heresy repels us: we believe in the doctrine of Christ as it has been taught always and everywhere.
We are not schismatics, for schism repels us: we firmly believe in the papacy, which is today represented by Pope Francis whose supreme authority we recognize.
But if Pope Francis or any other Pope pronounces words or commits acts that seem to be at odds with the doctrine and customs of the Church, then we have the right to separate ourselves from these words and acts. Ours is not a juridical separation, but a moral separation, not from the Petrine office, which is an office of service to the Church, but a separation from the evil service that is given to the Church by those who hold this Petrine office.
We recognize the Pope’s primacy of jurisdiction over all the bishops of the world, but we suffer when we see the Pope, in the name of synodality, supporting claims of episcopal conferences which point him down a heretical or heretically leaning synodal path.
We recognize the highest charism that the Church attributes to the Pope, that of infallibility, and we would like the Pope to exercise it in all its breadth to define truths and condemn errors. But we suffer if the Pope refrains from exercising this charism to express himself in an extravagant way in interviews, letters, and even telephone calls.
We kneel before the Pope, because in him we recognize the Vicar of Christ, but we suffer when he does not kneel before the Blessed Sacrament, which is Christ himself — body, blood, soul and divinity.
We not only experience a kind of suffering; it is also a feeling of indignation that we feel when we see pagan ceremonies taking place in the presence of the Holy Father in the Vatican Gardens. It is the same indignation we felt when we saw Saint Peter’s Basilica desecrated by the images that were projected on its facade on December 8, 2015.
They accuse us of being enemies of Pope Francis, but this accusation is meaningless. We are neither enemies nor friends of Pope Francis. We are, and we wish to be, friends of truth and goodness, enemies of error and evil, friends of the Church’s friends and enemies of the Church’s enemies.
They accuse us of wanting to break the unity of the Church, but there can be no unity without truth. The Church is one, because she is unique, fashioned in the image of Christ, who is the same yesterday, today and forever. In his likeness, the nature of the Church must remain identical until the end of the world, for as St. Paul says, “There is only one Lord, one faith, one baptism, on God and Father of us all” (Eph 4:5).
I speak as a layman, on behalf of many laymen. The laity do not have the authority to teach anyone the Church’s doctrine, because they do not belong to the teaching Church. But they have the right and duty, which canon law accords them, to preserve, transmit and defend the faith they received at their Baptism.
As a simple layman, spiritually united with the successors of the Apostles present here, I believe I can say: Today we are the voice of Tradition, which is asking the Pope to be heard. Our voice transmits a teaching that comes from afar and it asks the Pope to listen with no less attention than he reserves for the so-called “ancestral wisdom” of the indigenous peoples. We too are the echo of an ancestral wisdom, an ancient wisdom that dates back to Jesus Christ, Incarnate Wisdom.
A wisdom, writes Saint Louis Marie Grignion of Montfort in his inspired work, L’amour de la sagesse eternelle, which is summed up in these words: Verbum caro factum est: “The Word became flesh, eternal Wisdom became incarnate, God became man without ceasing to be God: the Man-God’s name is Jesus Christ, that is, Savior.”How relevant are these words of the great French saint!
Let us regard with deep gratitude those men of the Church, such as Cardinal Burke and Bishop Schneider, who by their voices bear witness to Incarnate Wisdom. Every time they break the silence, our gratitude for them increases and our supernatural hope that other cardinals and bishops will soon join them increases. The book-interview with Bishop Schneider is a precious help in maintaining hope, but also balance, in these difficult hours.
In Christus Vincit, Bishop Schneider quotes this beautiful passage from St. Hilary of Poitiers, the Athanasius of the West: “In this consists the particular nature of the Church, that she triumphs when she is defeated, that she is better understood when she is attacked, that she rises up, when her unfaithful members desert her”.And, we might add, she triumphs when her faithful members fight for her.
Thank you, Cardinal Burke; thank you, Bishop Schneider; and thank you, Diane Montagna, for giving Bishop Schneider a voice through this book.
Christus Vincit: Christ’s Triumph Over the Darkness of the Age, Bishop Athanasius Schneider in conversation with Diane Montagna, Angelico Press, New York 2019.
St Augustine, Enarrationes in Psalmos,115, n. 12.
Charles Joseph Hefele, Histoire des Conciles d’après les documens originaux, Letouzey et Ané, Paris 1907, vol. I, 1, p. 431.
St Hilary ofPoitiers, Fragmenta, l. II, c. XXXIII.
St Thomas of Aquinas, Summa theologiae,II-IIae, q. 1, a. 9.
Commissione Teologica Internazionale,Il sensus fidei nella vita della Chiesa, Libreria Editrice Vaticana, Città del Vaticano 2014.
Ivi, n. 54.
Ivi, n. 63.
 Letter to the Duke of Norfork, it. tr. Paoline, Milan 1999, p. 219.
St Louis Marie Grignion of Montfort, L’amour de la Sagesse eternelle,in Oeuvres complètes, Seuil, Paris 1966, p. 152-153.
St. Hilary of Poitiers,De Trin., 7, 4.