Brian Mershon
A bad year for the Neocon Catholics
Who is more Catholic than the Pope?
By Brian Mershon
February 20, 2009

(From The Remnant, Feb. 15, 2009)

By all accounts so far, 2009 has been a very challenging year for Neocon-variety Catholics. Still recovering from the shock of the increasing spread of the Traditional Latin Mass to their own diocesan parishes since the Pope issued Summorum Pontificum July 7, 2007, the recent new revelations about the founder of the Legion of Christ, Father Marcial Maciel, the death of Father Richard John Neuhaus, and now with the dissolving of the excommunications of the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX), the Neocon Catholic worldview is indeed under attack. Poor Mark Shea and his adoring slanderers of "ultra-Trad" Catholics. The Pope seems to be recognizing that those faithful Catholics might be right in the heart of the Church.

George Weigel's recent column in Newsweek as well as his interview quotes in the New York Times coverage of the Pope's decisive action absolving the SSPX bishops of their latae sententiae excommunications reflect a pattern of consternation among many so-called conservative Catholics, particularly in the United States, who believe the Church is always governed by the Pope's juridical fiat and who give a decidedly overemphasis to the teachings of the Second Vatican Council.

Weigel's first salvo in the New York Times revealed the dismay he must be feeling from Pope Benedict XVI — or at least it seems Weigel genuinely believes that Pope Benedict XVI really has no idea what he is doing.

Weigel Repeatedly Questions Pope's Decision

Weigel opines in the New York Times: "It is not easy to see how the unity of the Church will be enhanced unless the Lefebvrists accept Vatican II's teaching on the nature of the Church, on religious freedom, and on the evil of anti-Semitism, explicitly and without qualification; otherwise, you get cafeteria Catholicism on the far right, as we already have on the left."

This same canard has been used repeatedly by George Weigel and the former founder of First Things. Let's review a simple but effective rebuttal to Weigel's and others' right-left paradigm. Pope Pius XII called Dietrich von Hildebrand a 20th Century "Doctor of the Church." Von Hildebrand explains the mistake of the right vs. left paradigm in Chapter 3 of The Devastated Vineyard:

    One can sometimes hear propounded the unfortunate thesis that opposite errors are equally dangerous. It is assumed that because something is false or exaggerated, because one renounces it as "extremists," that its opposite must be just as false and dangerous. It is forgotten that there is a hierarchy of evils, a hierarchy of dangers; and the fact that these evils and errors are opposite, in no way proves that they are equally evil, and equally dangerous. A heresy cannot be placed on the same level as an undesirable attitude of mind. If I juxtapose laxity and rigorism, I can call the former "too little" and the latter "too much" — but never can a heresy be compared in this way to a narrow-minded attitude which represents no heresy. In relation to heresies there is no minus malum, no "lesser evil" — apart from the fact that certain heresies can be weightier and worse than others.

    In politics, the insight that there is a minus malum is indispensable and basic. But if it is a matter of opposed tendencies in the Church, then the decisive difference is whether they are heretical, or only unfortunate, exaggerated, narrow-minded. A short while ago, a well known and important French theologian, who deplores the present devastation of the vineyard of the Lord, said to me that the "integrists" were just as bad as the modernists. According to him, the integrists, who see everything which is not strictly Thomistic as heretical were, through their spiritual and intellectual narrowness, as great a danger as the "progressivists," who want to introduce pluralism into the holy Church — or a Hans Kung, who denies the infallibility of the Church.

    This is obviously a great error. The narrowness of the integrists may be regrettable but it is not heretical. It is not incompatible with the teaching of the holy Church. It views certain philosophical theses as inseparable from orthodoxy, though they in no way are. But these philosophical theses are also in no way incompatible with Christian Revelation.

    Therefore, it is completely senseless to place those who hold a philosophical thesis to be inseparable from Christian Revelation, i.e., from the teachings of the holy Church, on a level with those who promulgate philosophic theses which are in radical contradiction to the teaching of the holy Church, of which we spoke of in the last chapter.

Maybe Weigel has not read what Cardinal Ratzinger wrote to the Bishops of Chile in his 1988 address where he said that Vatican II was a pastoral Council. And as a pastoral Council, the "Declaration on Religious Liberty" must be understood "in light of Tradition" as Cardinal Ratzinger wrote in his 1988 address. In other words, the proper and orthodox Catholic understanding of the meaning of Dignitatis Humanae in light of the traditional teaching of the Social Kingship of Christ is only still being worked out within the Church. It surely does not negated the perennial teaching of the Social Kingship of Christ the King as Weigel asserts with his typical "altar and throne" analogy.

Far from being a dogmatic document, the fact remains that there has been precious little theology done to show the connections between the Council's teaching on religious liberty and the continuous, unbroken line of teaching from multiple Popes previous to the Council that condemned "religious liberty." This is not to say it cannot be harmonized or reconciled, but merely that Weigel seems to posit that traditionalists must accept it as an article of Faith. It is not. And its theological implications have certainly not been defined nor well developed since the Council by theologians or the magisterium.

And in his Newsweek article, Weigel questions whether the Pope has "healed or deepened" the Lefebvrist (sic) schism. Perhaps Weigel hasn't read Cardinal Castrillón Hoyos' repeated acclamations in numerous interviews that the Society of St. Pius X is not one of formal schism. Let's give him the benefit of the doubt that his ignorance in this matter is not willful — and further let's also try to believe that he doesn't use the "Lefebvrist" terminology as a slur (Does Weigel label the non-Catholics who write in his favorite journals like First Things heretics, schismatics and infidels?). In any event, in this column, he decides to emphasize the Vatican spokesman's words explaining the dissolving of the excommunications.

Weigel wrote: "Father Federico Lombardi, SJ, the pope's spokesman, emphasized to reporters on Jan. 24 that the lifting of the excommunications did not mean that 'full communion' had been restored with the Lefebvrists."

SSPX Excommunications Annulment "Source of Joy for Whole Church"

Yes, by George, he did write that. But in case you didn't read the entire announcement he also said that during this week of Christian Unity, on the exact date of the announcement to hold the Second Vatican Council, "It is a beautiful thing that the lifting of the excommunication [for the four bishops of the Society of St. Pius X] occurred on the eve of the 50th anniversary of the announcement of the Second Vatican Council, in such a way that this fundamental event now cannot any longer be considered an occasion of tension but of communion."

While Father Lombardi acknowledged that the process for full canonical regularization was still being worked out, he said the Holy Father expected to see this "promptly realized." In a recent radio interview, Cardinal Castrillón Hoyos repeated that he fully expected the path to full canonical regularization to move forward. In a separate interview, he said that Bishop Bernard Fellay, Superior General for the SSPX, has already recognized Vatican II "theologically." It seems that the Holy See has no qualms with the SSPX's Catholic understanding about Vatican II. But perhaps Weigel's understanding tops that of the Pope?

In Weigel's article in Newsweek, he repeats the well-worn historical background and provides a supposed psychological analysis behind Archbishop Lefebvre's mindset which apparently made him unable to accept the sweeping changes and the post-Conciliar "New Springtime."

And in daring sleight of hand, Weigel puts a doubt into the minds of his readers with the following bombastic statement: "Responsible canon lawyers have raised questions about whether this arrogance on the part of Bishop Fellay does not cast into question his fulfillment of the canonical requirements for a lawful lifting of his excommunication."

Really George? "Responsible canon lawyers" question whether or not the Pope's lifting of excommunications is lawful? Hurry! Better tell the Pope because he missed something. And it might be responsible journalism to tell all of your readers the names of these "responsible canon lawyers" so we can see if their opinions are canonically of a higher value than the Pope's!

HLI's Msgr. Barreiro says Weigel "Disingenuous"

"Mr. Weigel is being disingenuous," said Monsignor Ignacio Barreiro, of Rome's Human Life International. "It is not up to him to argue if the time has come to reach a reconciliation with the SSPX," Monsignor Barreiro said.

"The Holy Father moved by the graces of state that he has received from the Holy Spirit has decided that the time has arrived," Monsignor Barreiro said. "So Mr. Weigel has no right to criticize Benedict XVI for this very generous and coherent initiative."

In the January 25 story on the Catholic news service Zenit, Fr. Lombardo said that the best news of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity is a step taken with Marcel Lefebvre's Society of St. Pius X. In fact, Fr. Lombardi called the news of the dissolving of the excommunications "great news that we expect to be a source of joy for the whole Church."

Hear that? Great news George! Let's see how Weigel accepted this "great news" which was expected to be "a source of joy for the whole Church."

Archbishop Lefebvre Combatted Theological Modernism not "Modernity"

Weigel, in the Newsweek article muses, "Marcel Lefebvre's war, in other words, was not simply, or even primarily, against modern liturgy. It was against modernity, period."

Having read and digested Michael Davies' outstanding multi-volume Pro Apologia Marcel Lefebvre as well as Dr. David Allen White's biography on the life of Archbishop Lefebvre, methinks George Weigel has this one very wrong.

Lest we forget, Archbishop Lefebvre was one of the consultors appointed by Pope John XXIII to develop the preliminary schema in preparation for the Second Vatican Council.

No. It was not "modernity" that Archbishop Lefebvre feared or waged war against. It was modernism — pure and simple — the heresy of all heresies, according to Pope St. Pius X. While he did not gain the label "The Great," Pope St. Pius X is the last canonized saint Pope.

It was a theological battle whose roots were in the Council documents and in the periti, including some think, Weigel's beloved Father John Courtney Murray and others. In any event, Monsignor Barreiro weighs in on the "accepting the Second Vatican Council" that so many bishops, cardinals and others seem to think will be the last straw that may keep the SSPX from full canonical regularization.

"It also disingeneous of Mr. Weigel to state how the SSPX should accept the documents of Vatican II," Monsignor Barreiro continues.

He takes issue with Weigel's seeming repeated misunderstanding on what seems to be his pet Vatican II document — the "Declaration on Religious Liberty."

"The idea that the Mr. Weigel proposes runs contrary to any basic heremeneutic of continuity and against what Cardinal Ratzinger stated in Santiago, Chile in July of 1988," said Monsignor Barreiro. That is that "The truth is that this particular Council defined no dogma at all, and deliberately chose to remain on a modest level, as a merely pastoral Council; and yet many treat it as though it had made itself into a sort of superdogma which takes away the importance of all the rest."

Liturgical Scholar Reid on the SSPX

Liturgical scholar and author Dr. Alcuin Reid, in his Jan. 30, 2008, column on the SSPX in the UK's Catholic Herald, seconds Monsignor Barreiro's lucid thoughts on what is really required of Catholics with regard to the Second Vatican Council.

"Now Bishop Fellay speaks of 'reservations' about Vatican II," Reid observes. "Reservations are not denials of doctrine, and anyone may have reservations about even an Ecumenical Council's pastoral policies and be a Catholic in good standing."

Compare Weigel's dire warnings about the SSPX with those of Dr. Alcuin Reid, most notably the author of the The Organic Development of the Liturgy, which contained a positive reception and review by none other than Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger.

The Catholic Herald (UK), carried the article by Reid entitled "Let's thank God for the return of the Prodigal Sons." Reid then charitably posits, in the spirit of Cardinal Re's letter dissolving the excommunications, and I would argue, with the true spirit of Pope Benedict XVI and Cardinal Castrillón Hoyos, the following succinct assessment:

    During the somewhat untidy months ahead, charity and patience are called for — from all perspectives. We ought to note, though, that Rome has been clear for some time that Catholics may attend SSPX Masses out of devotion to the Church's Latin liturgical tradition, and that they do not thereby commit sin or incur any canonical penalty, so long as they do not do so out of "a schismatic mentality which separates itself from the teaching of the Supreme Pontiff and the entire Catholic Church." Given Pope Benedict's acceptance of the SSPX's declaration of its determination to remain Catholic and its acceptance of the Church's teachings, including the Primacy of the Pope, with filial disposition, it is hard to see how any barrier in simply attending Mass now remains.

Those who attended Holy Mass this past Sunday in the Gregorian rite heard the Gospel of the business owner who hired new laborers to work for him throughout the day and then at the end of the day, paid all of them the same agreed upon wage. Those who were hired first complained to him that he had somehow committed an unjust against them. He, the generous business owner, rebuffed them and said he had paid them the agreed-upon wage. What difference did it make to them if he was generous and paid those who came late the same daily wage as those who had worked all day?

Immediately, this brought to my mind those Catholics who have repeatedly and publicly pointed out the deficiencies of the SSPX even after the Pope has definitively lifted the excommunications. Now they are continuing with the "full communion" vs. "imperfect communion" card. As if parts of our bodies and souls are united with the Church and parts are not?

In any event, I believe the Gospel from Septuagesima is instructive to the current outrage directed by those dissidents within the Church, including cardinals, bishops, priests and noted Neocon columnists, against our Holy Father and Cardinal Castrillón Hoyos. Dr. Reid concludes his article, and this one, with a pause for reflection for them and for us all.

    There were two sons in the parable in St. Luke's Gospel. The older one, who had always remained faithful, felt utterly indignant at the celebration of the return of his profligate brother and stood aloof in disapproval. He was rightly rebuked. Let's not make the same mistake.


© Brian Mershon


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Brian Mershon

Brian Mershon is a commentator on cultural issues from a classical Catholic perspective... (more)


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