“No Canonical Agreement Prior to a Doctrinal Resolution” Is a Catholic Principle
Since especially after the 1988 Episcopal Consecrations, Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre held to the principle that he would not negotiate with Rome for a canonical regularization until she accepted the teachings of the pre-Vatican II Magisterium:
“I shall not accept being in the position where I was put during the dialogue. No more. I will place the discussion at the doctrinal level: ‘Do you agree with the great encyclicals of all the popes who preceded you? Do you agree with Quanta Cura of Pius IX, Immortale Dei and Libertas of Leo XIII, Pascendi Gregis of Pius X, Quas Primas of Pius XI, Humani Generis of Pius XII? Are you in full communion with these Popes and their teachings? Do you still accept the entire Anti-Modernist Oath? Are you in favor of the social reign of Our Lord Jesus Christ? If you do not accept the doctrine of your predecessors, it is useless to talk! As long as you do not accept the correction of the Council, in consideration of the doctrine of these Popes, your predecessors, no dialogue is possible. It is useless.’”1
After the Archbishop’s death in 1991, the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX) leadership continued to keep the same principle and fortified it during the 2006 SSPX General Chapter:
“…….the contacts made from time to time with the authorities in Rome have no other purpose than to help them embrace once again that Tradition which the Church cannot repudiate without losing her identity. The purpose is not just to benefit the Society, nor to arrive at some merely practical impossible agreement.”2
It was not until February 2, 2012 that this principle was publicly made known to have changed. During a sermon a St. Thomas Aquinas Seminary in Winona, Bishop Bernard Fellay said the following:
So the SSPX leadership was willing to become canonically regularized as long as Rome did not expect the SSPX to change from its current position. However, this caused an uproar within the SSPX, including the other three SSPX Bishops:
“Your Excellency, Fathers, take care! You want to lead the Society to a point where it will no longer be able to turn back, to a profound division of no return and, if you end up to such an agreement, it will be with powerful destroying influences who will not keep it. If up until now the bishops of the Society have protected it, it is precisely because Mgr. Lefebvre refused a practical agreement. Since the situation has not changed substantially, since the condition prescribed by the Chapter of 2006 was by no means carried out (a doctrinal change in Rome which would permit a practical agreement), at least listen to your Founder. It was right 25 years ago. It is right still today. On his behalf, we entreat you: do not engage the Society in a purely practical agreement.”4
Bishop Fellay and the First and Second Assistants of the SSPX, Frs. Niklaus Pfluger and Alain-Marc Nely, responded to the three SSPX Bishops and questioned their acceptance of the pontificate of Pope Benedict XVI:
“Reading your letter one seriously wonders if you still believe that the visible Church with its seat in Rome is truly the Church of Our Lord Jesus Christ, a Church horribly disfigured for sure from head to foot, but a Church which nevertheless still has for its head Our Lord Jesus Christ. One has the impression that you are so scandalised that you no longer accept that that could still be true. It Benedict XVI still the legitimate pope for you?”5
This response brought about a debate within and without the SSPX as to how exactly the Conciliar Church (i.e., the new religion started at Vatican II) is related to the Catholic Church. Is the Conciliar Church really and truly distinct from the Catholic Church or can we only speak of it in an analogical sense? When Archbishop Lefebvre referenced the “Conciliar Church”, what did he really mean? The debate became so heated that there were some who used this disagreement to claim that those who resisted the new position of the SSPX leadership were really Sedevacantists. Others claimed that the “resistors” had a false understanding of ecclesiology and that this false understanding was the basis of their resistance.6 Whereas there can be legitimate debate about how we are to understand the crisis of Faith in Rome and how it has “infected” the Catholic Church, it is the purpose of this article to show that this debate need not take place. After all, there was hardly a peep on this matter amongst the SSPX clergy prior to the leadership’s change in position. Instead, we shall show that the principle of “no canonical agreement prior to a doctrinal resolution” (or more accurately, “a canonical recognition cannot be had if it is not based on the Catholic Faith” – we shall keep to the former wording as it is the one most often used) is itself a Catholic principle due to its intimate relationship with fundamental Catholic doctrine on the unity of the Church and therefore cannot be transgressed without offending the sensus catholicus.
We look to Pope Leo XIII’s Encyclical “Satis Cognitum” to know and understand what constitutes the unity of the Catholic Church:
“But He (i.e., Jesus Christ), indeed, Who made this one Church, also gave it unity, that is, He made it such that all who are to belong to it must be united by the closest bonds, so as to form one society, one kingdom, one body…..
“Wherefore, in His divine wisdom, He ordained in His Church Unity of Faith; a virtue which is the first of those bonds which unite man to God, and whence we receive the name of the faithful – ‘one Lord, one faith, one baptism’ (Eph. iv., 5). That is, as there is one Lord and one baptism, so should all Christians, without exception, have but one faith. And so the Apostle St. Paul not merely begs, but entreats and implores Christians to be all of the same mind, and to avoid difference of opinions: ‘I beseech you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all speak the same thing, and that there be no schisms amongst you, and that you be perfect in the same mind and in the same judgment’ (I Cor. i., 10). Such passages certainly need no interpreter; they speak clearly enough for themselves. Besides, all who profess Christianity allow that there can be but one faith. It is of the greatest importance and indeed of absolute necessity, as to which many are deceived, that the nature and character of this unity should be recognized.”7
Pope Leo XIII continues:
“Besides Holy Writ it was absolutely necessary to insure this union of men’s minds – to effect and preserve unity of ideas – that there should be another principle. This the wisdom of God requires: for He could not have willed that the faith should be one if He did not provide means sufficient for the preservation of this unity; and this Holy Writ clearly sets forth as We shall presently point out. Assuredly the infinite power of God is not bound by anything, all things obey it as so many passive instruments. In regard to this external principle, therefore, we must inquire which one of all the means in His power Christ did actually adopt. For this purpose it is necessary to recall in thought the institution of Christianity.”8
This “external principle” that Pope Leo XIII goes on to speak about is the Magisterium of the Church and ultimately the Pope.
Note that Pope Leo XIII states that “Faith” is “a virtue which is the first of those which unites man to God”. This “Faith” is of the “greatest importance and indeed of absolute necessity”. In other words, we can say that “Faith” is an internal principle of unity. On the other hand, whereas Pope Leo XIII most definitely extolls the Magisterium of the Church as a principle of unity, it is only an external principle. This we can easily understand by the truth that Our Lord did not need to assign St. Peter and his successors to teach and govern the Church. He could have done this Himself until the end of the world or could have even established His angels or saints as His representatives on earth. However, Jesus Christ cannot forgo our belief in Him. As St. Paul teaches, “Without faith it is impossible to please God”.9 And it is to this “Faith” that the successors of St. Peter are duty bound to teach and preserve:
“For the Holy Spirit was not promised to the successors of Peter, that by His revelation they might make known new doctrine, but that by His assistance they might inviolably keep and faithfully expound the revelation or deposit of faith delivered through the ages.”10
Therefore, if a pope was to teach a doctrine different than that of Christ, he would fail in his duty. And any attempt to impose this teaching by censures or penalties would be an abuse of the authority for which it had been given him by Christ.
Now throughout the history of the Church, the Popes have generally been faithful to their office to teach and preserve the Faith. However, we live in an age where several popes since the Second Vatican Council have taught a new doctrine, thereby posing a problem of conscience for bishops, priests, and faithful alike. What do we do? Well, we had and still have a model to follow, and that is the mission and memory of Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre. Most definitely the Archbishop made mistakes on the way (e.g., signing the 1988 Protocol), but nobody would be flawless given this unprecedented Church crisis. Nonetheless, one of the most important and definitive principles that the Archbishop left us is that there can be “no canonical agreement prior to a doctrinal resolution”. As we’ve mentioned earlier, this principle is itself a Catholic one due to its intimate relationship with fundamental Catholic doctrine on the unity of the Church and therefore cannot be transgressed without offending the sensus catholicus. Let us continue.
“Canon law is the assemblage of rules or laws relating to faith, morals, and discipline, prescribed or propounded to Christians by ecclesiastical authority…..The definition shows that the object of canon law is ‘faith, morals, and discipline’; and nothing but these is its object.”11
An object is a thing towards which another thing is directed. On the contrary, a thing which is directed away from its object cannot be said to faithfully address it. The object of canon law must include “faith”, at least implicitly. This would mean that any piece of legislation by the Church authorities that contravenes this object or at least does not assume it, cannot be said to be faithful to it.
Let us now sum up the key points:
1) Faith is an internal principle of the unity of the Church.
2) The Pope is an external principle of the unity of the Church, whose office is directed towards the teaching and preservation of the Faith, the internal principle.
3) Canon law has Faith as one of its objects and must therefore faithfully address it or at least assume it.
Given these key points, then, if the SSPX makes an agreement with Rome without first resolving the doctrinal differences, we can conclude that:
1) The agreement would not represent a true and authentic Catholic unity. This would hold true even if the Pope did not require the SSPX to change one ounce of its doctrinal position. As a matter of fact, this would hold true even if the SSPX was not required to change its doctrinal position and the Pope commanded the SSPX to become regularized under the pretext that it concerns the unity of the Church. The reason is because the Pope is only an external principle of the unity of the Church and this external principle is directed towards preserving the Faith, the internal principle. Any position of the Pope showing indifference or opposition towards this internal principle makes his command, under the pretext that it is a matter of the unity of the Church, null and void because his command would not serve the purpose of achieving a true and authentic Catholic unity. It simply would not be true that the matter concerns the unity of the Church.
2) Since the unity in the Faith would not be one of the objects of the agreement, it could not therefore be called “canonical” in the sense that the Church has historically applied the term. The reality instead is that any agreement made between the SSPX and Rome not based on the unity in the Faith would be a mere contractual relationship analogous to that of a serf and his lord.
3) Those Traditional Catholics who oppose a canonical regularization of the SSPX are not heretical, schismatical, or disobedient. It is probably true that most of these Traditional Catholics do not consciously oppose it because of the reasons explained in this article; rather, they simply sense that the SSPX placing itself under the Church authorities would present a grave danger, by circumstance, to the Faith of its bishops, priests, and faithful. The history since the 1988 Episcopal Consecrations definitely favours the judgement of these people in this respect. Just look at what has happened to the several religious communities who have joined Rome – they have fallen in line with Vatican II. The Archbishop did not have the luxury to witness the fall of these religious communities, but he predicted it! Nevertheless, the key point is that their position can be defended from a theological standpoint and not one simply based on the present circumstances in which the Church finds herself.
- Interview of Archbishop Lefebvre Given to “Fideliter” Magazine, November-December 1988.
- Declaration of the 2006 SSPX General Chapter.
- February 2, 2012 Sermon of Bishop Bernard Fellay, Superior General of the SSPX, at St. Thomas Aquinas Seminary in Winona, Minnesota, U.S.A.
- April 7, 2012 Letter from Three Bishops to the SSPX General Council.
- April 14, 2012 Letter from the SSPX General Council to Three Bishops.
- Pope Leo XIII, Satis Cognitum (On the Unity of the Church), June 29, 1896, Paragraph 6, Unity in Faith.
- Ibid., Paragraph 7, The Kind of Unity of Faith Commanded by Christ.
- Hebrews 11:6.
- First Vatican Council, Chapter 4, On the Infallible Teaching of the Roman Pontiff.
- Addis, William and Arnold, Thomas, A Catholic Dictionary, 1887, The Catholic Publication Society Co., New York.