Monday, August 11, 2003

Notes on Traditionalist Views of the Ordinary Magisterium

I. Shawn McElhinney of Rerum Novarum recently invited some commentary on a note by Mr. Ian Palko discussing the supposed limits on Catholic responses to statements and instructions by members of the ordinary magisterium. Mr. Palko's comments were part of a larger discussion between Shawn and a Mr. Kevin Tierney -- their debate can be found, by way of the debate's last installment, here. The discussion Shawn invited us to have with Mr. Palko is a sort of "sidebar" discussion to the McElhinney/Tierney debate, involving a limited dialogue about the nature of the Church's magisterium and the Catholic response to it. I had penned a brief reply that largely tracked Mr. Timothy Ouillette's thoughts, which were blogged at Rerum Novarum. So I took the opportunity to expand my response, bringing in some other perspectives and thoughts which have been occupying my thinking about Traditionalism. Mr. Ouilette's reply can be found
As I cannot find Mr. Palko's entire selection, which Shawn emailed to me, I will I reproduce it in the notes section of this essay as it was sent to me, without corrections.

I should say at the outset that I have begged a large part of the question about what "Traditionalism" is, and not undertaken to precisely define the meaning of the term, which is itself subject to no small amount of debate. The "Traditionalism" to which I refer below isn't defined by love or preference for the Mass of St. Pius V, nor by disagreement with certain directions and actions of the hierarchy in or since the Second Vatican Council. It is, rather, embodied in the idea that one's conscience must choose between an inauthentic sham Catholicism and a real Catholicism which requires thinking and worshiping as though the Second Vatican Council did nothing which could oblige the conscience of a Catholic. That idea runs throughout all "camps" or "groups" of Traditionalists, sometimes found only in the individual opinion of several members, sometimes manifesting itself as the unexpressed gestalt of the whole, and sometimes even serving as the acknowledged institutional raison d'etre of an entire movement.

That idea, or rather the intellectual underpinnings of the idea, is the focus of my short essay. It's my belief that while the adherents of this idea may be apparently more Catholic by reason of lacking visible or notable distinctions between themselves and the Church before 1962, their fundamental conception of Catholicity is more or less inauthentic, more or less "not really Catholic at all." I do not claim a good deal of experience in discussing things with Mr. Palko, and I admit that his name figures in my essay largely because his own statement was simply the occasion for writing my own essay. I do not think I have made any inapt judgments, but if I am wrong and have misrepresented Mr. Palko I beg his pardon beforehand and express my willingness to correct myself.

Mr. Palko correctly notes that not all Catholic teachings are dogmatically equal because the Church has both an ordinary and extraordinary magisterium. I agree with Mr. Palko that many Catholics don't understand the difference between these "magisteriae" and that this causes no end of confusion among and between them when they're discussing the state of Catholic theology. But while Mr. Palko should be applauded for his attempt at precision, he must be disagreed with on the direction his thinking has taken him as to the authority of Catholicism's magisterial facets. Mr. Palko presents us with the idea that we, personally, must test statements made within the ordinary magisterium against what he calls "the Faith" proclaimed by the extraordinary magisterium and, if an inconsistency is detected, immediately reject the ordinary magisterial statements as an inauthentic (and probably dangerous) novelties. There are several problems with this thesis,

Mr. Palko has, no doubt unintentionally, declared a kind of retroactive jihad against the very idea of a magisterium. It's true Mr. Palko argues only that his conscience is immune from magisterial inconsistencies; he is entitled to say his liberty of conscience doesn't prohibit anyone from engaging in the development of doctrine within or by means of the ordinary magisterium. But the conflict between his views and the magisterial custody of doctrine doesn't turn on the liberty of conscience (or lack thereof) allowed to Catholics regarding statements made within the ordinary magisterium. The conflict arises because Mr. Palko, in order to facilitate the comparative process he urges on us, has enshrined a given quanta of theological knowledge as "The Faith." If Mr. Palko is entitled to say that his views don't preclude others from engaging in theological speculation, we are entitled to ask him whether "The Faith" imposes any limits on such speculation. If orthodoxy is to have any meaning within Catholicism -- and, indeed, if Mr. Palko is to get any use out of his own theory -- he must agree that "The Faith" sets immutable boundaries against some new ideas (or iterations of old ideas) proposed by people who are entrusted with the ordinary magisterium.

We may then point out to Mr. Palko that if these limits are to be observed, the fund of theological knowledge he's pleased to call "The Faith" must be capable of (a) finally determining the orthodoxy of every statement made by a member of the ordinary magisterium, and (b) being identified so that it can form the basis of that comparison. With respect to the latter criterion there are, so far as I can discern, only two possible ways to identify "The Faith" -- categorical and chronological. So Mr. Palko can be justly called on to tell us either (i) the date on which "The Faith" was complete, or to identify (ii) the precise doctrines which "The Faith" contains. The problems with engaging in these classifications are horrendous. On December 7, 1854, the day before Pope Pius IX issued Ineffabilis Deus, the Immaculate Conception was a teaching of the ordinary magisterium. When Pope Pius IX retired to his bedchamber that evening, his own belief in the Immaculate Conception had some doughty opponents. It was explicitly denied by St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Bonaventure, and implicitly denied by St. John Chrysostom and St. Basil. Now if "The Faith" praised by Mr. Palko was constituted on December 7, 1854, either by virtue of these saintly opponents' antiquity, or by virtue of their theological integrity, by what alchemy was the Immaculate Conception transformed on the following morning from an inauthentic (and possibly dangerous) disagreement with fathers and doctors of the Church into a holy truth committed to the Apostles by Christ Himself?

It's conundrums like this which tempt men into becoming Protestants, for Protestantism is zealously committed to the false but clear idea that since "God is not the author of confusion" (1 Cor. 14:33), the true faith cannot give any occasion for mental difficulty. That is, in fact, one of the reasons why Protestants believe they can disprove Catholicism by insisting that we perform the task Mr. Palko has made an essential element of Catholic life -- showing how the "The Faith" has been universally present, in an explicitly-witnessed entirety, from the days of the Apostles. When a Catholic foolish enough to accept the challenge as a valid test struggles, as he must, on the high slopes of theological deduction and historical judgment, the Protestant claims vindication because the True Faith would not be so difficult, the True Faith would empower a man to leap to the mountaintop with a single verse. It is not to my point to rehearse the sheer foolishness of this sort of argument. But it is to my point that Mr. Palko has implicitly accepted the presuppositions of our Protestant critics (though not their conclusions) by proposing exactly that kind of universally-explicit, continuously-identifiable orthodoxy as the rule by which Catholics should regularly scrutinize "what the Pope says" in terms of "The Faith."

Mr. Palko may wish to reply that my example is inapt because the Immaculate Conception was proclaimed via Pius IX's charism of infallibility and is thereby an indubitable teaching of the extraordinary magisterium which cannot be challenged by a Catholic who is truly practicing "The Faith." But I think that might be a very unwise point to make. Understanding the charism of infallibility without accepting conscientious liceity (and even conscientious obligations) for antecedent "novelties" is only half an understanding of the charism. Peter was not given the keys "only" to extirpate heresy; he was given the keys so that we might know what is bound and loosed in Heaven. (Matthew 16:19). Unless we keep this communicative, affirmative role of infallibility in mind we can't even hope to understand how the extraordinary magisterium may teach new things without having first invented them. Even more to the point, this aspect of the charism is essential to salvation, to theosis itself, because it is a signal means by which the limitations and fallibility of men are not insuperable obstacles to unity with the unlimited perfection of God. Infallibility provides Holy Mother Church with the suppleness appropriate to a living body, enabling men to follow -- or be obliged to follow -- apparent "novelties" in good conscience, knowing either that (i) the "novelty" may only be apparent because earlier human conceptions of the matter were not all they could have been, or (ii) the novelty may be real, but obedience to the decisions of a legitimate authority is still desired by God, who can preserve His truth through human fallacy just as He manifests His glory through human weakness. Men may act with the comfort that, however the case may turn out, the supreme verdict does not belong to them individually, and they are not obliged to decide at every turn whether they ought to be at odds with their bishops because their bishops are in schism from "The Faith." Men on either side of the affair may act conscientiously -- even obeying and respecting one another -- because they realize that the supreme judgment rests with the Church of Christ, the only seat of infallible judgment known on this earth. This is why infallibility isn't just necessary for the Church to lead men. It is also necessary if men are to follow the Church.

If we are going to envision "The Faith" as Mr. Palko's views require it to be envisioned we would have to go where so many of our Protestant brothers have logically gone, into an imaginary world dominated by an adamantine gnostic basilisk whose stare instantly transforms fallacy into blasphemy. Either Mr. Palko's concept of "The Faith" is already a sure and certain litmus test for every possible action or statement by a bishop, pope, or Roman congregation or it is not. If it is not, there's little point in Mr. Palko's rule of faith because investigations into the "consistency" of a recent statement or action can't produce a sure and certain result. But if it is possible for "The Faith" to be that universal template, there's really no reason for bishops, popes, or Roman congregations to do anything but preach an unchanging litany of truisms to an "amen corner." Thus does orthodoxy become convention, and convention become prejudice, and the living faith become ossified into a formulaic rote that cannot address unfamiliar challenges or new opportunities. So the Reformers became Lutherans, Calvinists, and Anglicans; the Southern Baptists consigned their Northern coreligionists to Gehenna; the Anglicans banished the Wesleys; and a thousand Christian families rend themselves over the disciplina arcani of "pre-trib," "post-trib," and "mid-trib" Raptures. Our Christian brothers who have forsaken the living magisterium flail for their footing like overturned beetles simply because Sanger and Pincus discovered a new use for estrogen, because Watson and Crick identified a valid model for DNA. Their pitiable ruin came from pulling down the pillar and bulwark of a living magisterium in favor of what appeared to be surer, firmer, less prone to novel manipulations -- "The Faith", that comfortably-suicidal blindness to God's fulfilling His will "in many ways, lest one good custom should corrupt the world."

Mr. Palko suggests that suspicions of heterodoxy in the Church are either uniquely, or at least uncommonly, warranted: "It seems in the past 40 years we have heard things which at least on their face seem much more inconsistent than in the earlier years of last century and the previous one." This hesitant quavering ill-becomes his argument which, after all, proceeds from his own claim that we have a common ability to clearly distinguish inauthentic novelty from "The Faith." But Mr. Palko's "schism" from his own theory isn't very surprising; "The Faith" can be a very hard thing to identify, much harder than Mr. Palko apparently assumes it to be. There was a time when the Immaculate Conception, a miracle whose definition is within the grasp of every Catholic school child, was a matter of outrageous scandal and tumultuous controversy that rivals modern Traditionalist hyperventilation over Assisi I and II:
Although the Holy Roman Church solemnly celebrates the public feast of the conception of the immaculate Mary ever Virgin, and has ordained a special and proper office for this feast, some preachers of different orders, as we have heard, in their sermons to the people in public throughout different cities and lands have not been ashamed to affirm up to this time, and daily cease not to affirm, that all those who hold or assert that the same glorious and immaculate mother of God was conceived without the stain of original sin, sin mortally, or that they are heretical, who celebrate the office of this same immaculate conception, and that those who listen to the sermons of those who affirm that she was conceived without this sin, sin grievously . . .

We reprove and condemn assertions of this kind as false and erroneous and far removed from the truth, and also by apostolic authority and the tenor of these present [letters] we condemn and disapprove on this point published books which contain it . . . . [but these also we reprehend] who have dared to assert that those holding the contrary opinion, namely, that the glorious Virgin Mary was conceived with original sin are guilty of the crime of heresy and of mortal sin, since up to this time there has been no decision made by the Roman Church and the Apostolic See.

-- Pope Sixtus IV, from the Constitution Grave Nimis, September 4, 1483. Quoted in Denzinger, Enchiridion Symbolorum, ¶ 735, trans. DeFerrari, Sources of Catholic Dogma, p. 102.
If one owns a copy of the Enchiridion, or the translation which (praise be to God) has recently been reprinted, one can read the preceding paragraph which is a selection from Sixtus IV's Constitution Cum Praeexcelsa published some seven years earlier, and see that he thought very highly of the Immaculate Conception. Yet he reproved those who thought as he did, as well as those who opposed the doctrine, because they had fallen into the same error Mr. Palko has unintentionally committed. They assumed that they were commonly able to comprehend "The Faith", compare it with statements about the Immaculate Conception made by various members of the ordinary magisterium, and issue judgments which even the Holy See has hesitated to make.

It would be no use to Mr. Palko to distinguish his position from the preachers condemned by Sixtus IV on the grounds that his views only involve the giving or withholding of obedience, not arrogating to himself the role of judging the theological truth of a matter proposed for assent. He could try it, but only if he then wants to argue that the Catholics who make the comparative judgments he urges between "The Faith" and statements of members of the ordinary magisterium, and who conscientiously decide to withhold their assent from such statements, are morally entitled to refuse assent because they have absolutely no good reason for doing so. We are, after all, speaking about our consciences, and our consciences know only two directions -- one which leads us towards God, and the other which leads us away from Him. If Mr. Palko can outline a case in which a Catholic should conscientiously refuse the ordinary magisterium on grounds which have nothing to do with good or ill, faith or folly, he is too modest in quoting Johnny Cochrane; for it would then be more appropriate if Mr. Cochrane went about quoting Mr. Palko.

At this point it becomes useful to say a word about "private judgment." Discussions between Traditionalist and non-Traditionalist Catholics generally feature such accusations, with Traditionalists being portrayed as the unwitting dupes of Protestant thinking. Often these accusations are overdrawn, and sometimes they're right on the money, and other times it's difficult to tell which is the case. It is, for example, exceedingly difficult to understand how Mr. Palko's "comparative Catholicism" can operate without using private judgment in the fullest Protestant sense of the term. On the other hand, it's difficult to distinguish the broad outlines of his thesis from what we all do whenever we listen seriously to a member of the ordinary magisterium. For example, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith says in Dominus Iesus that other Christian communities cannot be called "sister Churches" because it suggests either a unity which does not exist or a licit diversity which God has not willed. I do in fact read the document, and automatically begin thinking of it in light of what I know from my studies and instruction -- Unam Sanctam, Cantate Domino, Praeclara Gratulationis Publicae, Lumen Gentium, the Gospels, etc. -- and say to myself, "yes, nothing really shocking here, quite right, and darn useful instruction, too." When My Bishop writes an article in the Diocesan newspaper that says one doesn't "fully" participate in communion unless one receives both the body and the blood of Jesus Christ, I compare it to the Council of Trent and the sorry career of Jan Hus and say to myself, "Hmmm. Dicey business, this, and if it's not heterodoxy it's damn well susceptible to a heterodox interpretation." We all evaluate statements made by the ordinary magisterium according to what we know, or think we know, and entertain private opinions about the wisdom, accuracy, or even orthodoxy of what we read. If that's private judgment, then to paraphrase Nixon, "we're all Lutherans now."

But, of course, we're not Lutherans because what we're doing isn't "private judgment." It's just obeying God's commandment to love Him with our minds. It seems to me that there's a difference between the Protestant idea of "private judgment" and the simple human process of judging, but that the difference doesn't depend on acts of understanding, reconciling, quarreling, noting consistencies, observing distinctions and departures, or forming one's opinion about a statement's truth or propriety. Protestants, of course, are so habituated to the vice of private judgment that they don't believe there can be such a difference. That's why they so often speak as though Catholics must either be ignorant lemmings or incipient Protestants, and are so eager to believe the canard that the Church "hid" Scripture from the people; Scripture being the object on which their vice of private judgment is most consistently and habitually inflicted, it seems entirely plausible to them that a Church which condemns private judgment would bar men from the most fertile occasion for indulging in it. As with all Protestant doctrines which are nominally described in terms of Scripture, "private judgment" really has far less to do with Scripture than with Protestant ideas about authority and community. That's where the difference really lies, and focusing instead on whether someone thinks about the world misses the mark.

Christian truth has always identified communion in terms of a shared life: "I in them, and thou in me, that they may be made perfect in one; and that the world may know that thou hast sent me, and hast loved them, as thou hast loved me." John 17:23 (KJV). Heresy and schism are sins because, and to the extent that, they attack this unity; they force men into an unnatural, irreconcilable separation from one another:
The schismatic, then, attacks the unity of the Church. It is important that he actually has the intention of attacking that unity, or at least of acting in a way which he knows will lead to a break in unity. This means that he must refuse to act as part of the whole in a way which touches the unity of the Church as such.

-- Fr. Aidan Nichols, Rome and the Eastern Churches, pp. 13-14.
Defective performance and material heresy aren't schismatic because, however unedifying or disastrous they may be, they don't wilfully strike at Christian unity in this way. Ineptness becomes disobedience, and ignorance formal heresy, at that point when they explicitly dispense with the necessity of shared life, when the eye says to the hand "I have no need of thee," or when the head says to the feet "I have no need of you." (1 Cor. 12:21) because men who say such things can't be "perfect in one." Luther and his followers ultimately showed their self-love and concomitant contempt for Christ's Church not by what they wrote or believed, but by their refusal to submit themselves to all those "venial, corrupt, and obnoxious" bishops and, thereby, live a shared life with the rest of Christendom. They did not sin merely because they used their minds to grapple with the challenges of Christian theology and evaluate those teachings of the ordinary magisterium which appeared to be inconsistent with "The Faith." They sinned because they arrogantly told the head and eyes that they were not really needed, perhaps because they truly feared for God's power to preserve His Church even under the pontificates of formidable scoundrels like Alexander VI or sluggish incompetents like Leo X. It always astounds me to hear the Reformers' actions excused by (well-founded) suspicion about their fate at the hands of unfit or malevolent bishops. If that's an excuse, then Peter was right and Christ need not have entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. The Christian will lay down his very life in the service of an unfit and venial friend; the schismatic will hoard his life, befriending only those he deems worthy of his own excellence and who, therefore, will not give him occasion for ignominious self-sacrifice.

"Private judgment" is to this sort of non-Christian Christianity what pride is to all sin. It is the amphitheater in which the spectacle occurs, the stage on which the actors fret and strut. When men use their minds to come to an understanding of the faith which preserves their shared life, they are not engaging in private judgment. They are, in their own pale and humble way, following our Lord, who condescended to "increas[e] in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and man." Luke 2:52 (KJV). But when they use their minds to scrutinize candidates for Christian fellowship, hoarding themselves lest they be contaminated by policies or decisions which they think are beneath their own excellence, then they are following the path of the Reformers. If there is one verse of Scripture which judges the SSPX and Archbishop Lefebvre, it is this: "And he was sad at that saying, and went away grieved: for he had great possessions." Mark 10:22 (KJV). The Mass of St. Pius V is a great possession, as is the spiritual, liturgical, and theological civilization of Catholicism as it existed before the Second Vatican Council. Weren't they given to us by God? Of course they were, just as the rich man's possessions were given to him by God. If the Church decrees that the Novus Ordo shall replace the Mass of St. Pius V then so it must be, no matter how treasured a possession the old rite has become. Private judgment does not consist in a belief that the old rite is being unnecessarily discounted, nor does community require the belief that the Novus Ordo is the best liturgy known to man. Private judgment consists in the belief that the Church may not compel an obedience which merely, as Mr. Palko describes it, "seem[s] horribly scandalous." It is not part of a Christian's baptismal birthright to receive a custody of "The Faith" that is superior, or even equal, to that exercised by the very apostles who are entrusted with explaining and implementing that faith.

A man who judges privately is a man who thinks himself capable of ruling the whole Church, presuming that heresy and defection exist wherever he believes them to be. Private judgment is Luther instructing his Pope about "The Faith"; had the Blessed Virgin been afflicted with the vice, Luke's Gospel would recount her lecturing Gabriel on reproductive biology and the injustice of subjecting her to village calumnies or the suspicions of Joseph. The difference between individual faith and private judgment is the difference between "How can this be . . . Behold the handmaid of the Lord" and "It is incredible that something like that [Assisi I] could have ever taken place in the Church, in the eyes of the whole Church —how humiliating! We have never undergone such a humiliation!"[1] Shared life presents many occasions for humiliation, self-abnegation, and trusting in moments when one's whole being screams out for reserve. A man who believes himself capable of containing the whole of life can't really share anything, he can only demand that everyone else live up to his own standards:
"I have endeavored to read the Scriptures as though no one had read them before me . . . and am as much on my guard against reading them to-day, through the medium of my own views yesterday or a week ago, as I am against being influenced by any foreign name, authority, or system whatever."

-- Alexander Campbell, quoted in Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1989), p. 179. (Campbell, of course, was a founder of the Church of Christ, a/k/a the Disciples of Christ)
It really doesn't matter whether one is inflicting this kind of vanity on St. Paul's Letter to the Romans or upon Pascendi and Lamentabili Sane, the result is the same, a firm conviction that one already understands everything as it is and should be, and that anything to the contrary is therefore inauthentic. It isn't private judgment when one believes that he knows true things truly. Private judgment isn't a necessary act of conscience, or thought. It's an unnecessary act of ambitious vainglory, of elevating oneself to the judgment seat of Christ, making one's own understanding the benchmark of truth. The content of private judgments is irrelevant, the men who make them can proclaim anything from sola fide to Humanae Vitae, and whatever the outward appearance of piety they may display, inwardly they are ravening wolves who would devour the whole of life simply to feed their own vanity.

It's interesting to apply these views to heresy generally, and to Protestantism in particular. Anyone who knows devout Protestants realizes they're not generally indulging in personal vainglory when they submit themselves to the discipline and teaching of their communions -- however heretical those may actually be. They often follow the teachings of their sect at great personal inconvenience and cost to themselves. They will even submit themselves entirely to the decisions of a ruling body, such as a council of elders or a synod, even if those decisions contravene their own personal beliefs. There are, after all, conservative Episcopalians who remained Episcopalians even when their bishop became a bishopess, just as there were conservative Anglicans who remained Anglican after Lambeth. Catholics mischaracterize Protestant life when they describe it as a constant state of Brownian anarchy, but Protestants also misstate affairs when they claim their communities are living creations of sola scriptura and conscientious private judgment. Within each Protestant communion, life does indeed resemble the community familiar to Catholics because it is produced by the same horror of private judgment entertained by Catholicism. Within their communities, Protestants are not indulging in private judgment because they are instead following the private judgments originally made by the founders of their sects. This is not altogether surprising; no Christian community, not even a heretical one, can survive the constant exercise of private judgment because the very nature of private judgment keeps men from forming viable communities in the first place. If Protestant communities are to survive, they must honor sola scriptura and private conscience in the breach. Which, in fact, they do by indulging in them only when a collision of theological cultures produces enough pressure to trigger fission.

So I think it might be wrong to leave all criticism of Traditionalists to charges of Protestantism, proto-Protestantism, crypto-Protestantism, etc. The position of the vast majority of modern Protestants actually has far more integrity than that of some Traditionalists. Deitrich Bonhoeffer never stood before a Pope he had already acknowledged before God and man as the spiritual father of all Christians, and judged that Pope as having so departed from Bonheoffer's infallible knowledge of "The Faith" as to become Antichrist. Luther did that, because his ambition and private judgment could not tolerate communion with a rival mind. Bonhoeffer merely followed the never-to-be-acknowledged magisterial traditions handed to him by his forefathers and followed them at the price of his own life, a price Luther thought himself too important to risk paying. Vanity, not contrary opinion, is the hallmark of private judgment:
Just recently, the priest who takes care of the [SSPX] priory in Bogota, Colombia, brought me a book concerning the apparition of Our Lady of "Buen Suceso," —of "Good Fortune," to whom a large church in Quito, Ecuador, was dedicated . . . Our Lady prophesied for the twentieth century, saying explicitly that . . . errors would become more and more widespread in Holy Church, placing the Church in a catastrophic situation. Morals would become corrupt and the Faith would disappear. . . . she speaks of a prelate who will absolutely oppose this wave of apostasy and impiety -- saving the priesthood by forming good priests. I do not say that prophecy refers to me. You may draw your own conclusions. [2]
Yes, we must draw our own conclusions. It won't accomplish anything if the serpent forces fruit down our throats; to do what is wanted, we must pluck it for it ourselves. "For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil." Lefebvre wasn't a schismatic because he thought the decisions taken at the Second Vatican Council were ill-considered, or even disastrous. He was a schismatic because he, and not the Church, had the ultimate right to determine the content and the future of Catholicism. "Traditionalism" is a confusing name because it implicitly suggests devotion to the glories of a hallowed past, when in fact it is a program for a future as novel as anything it claims to resist -- an imagined future in which the Church Militant has been finally perfected, not by Jesus Christ, but by passage through an Hegelian dialectic.

Once one looks at schism and obedience in this way, it becomes clear that an authentic Catholic response to members of the ordinary magisterium cannot be derived by a naive application of rights-based paradigms borrowed from secular positive law. I fear this is the basic operating model Mr. Palko, like many Traditionalists, has adopted. To be sure, constructions and habits of constitutionalism and positive law have their place in Church life. One of the central meanings of the eye's inability to say to the hand "I have no need of thee," is that neither of them is dispensable and that each has its proper role; constitutionalism and positive law are necessary expressions of their reciprocal functions in the life of the Church. It is not right that my priest command me to disobey my bishop, a council of bishops require me to ignore Rome, or that a marriage tribunal grant annulment on grounds of "personal incompatibility" -- canon law and dogmatic constitutions are indispensable ways to curb the normal tendency of every person or institution to indulge in inaccurate ideas or to undergo simple "mission creep." They are necessary and indispensible, yes, but they remain only partial expressions of life in the Body of Christ. When they become total expressions, whether on a collective or individual level, a schismatic perspective is bound to arise.

The fundamental presupposition of secular theories of constitutionalism is a permanent state of justifiable, antagonistic suspicion between rulers and ruled. It runs throughout the entire era during which Western culture began to elaborate constitutional structures of government; Locke, Rousseau, the Federalist Papers and the Anti-Federalists are rife with it. Enlightenment constitutionalism rests upon the "policy of supplying, by opposite and rival interests, the defect of better motives," a policy that the framers generally believed "might be traced through the whole system of human affairs, private as well as public." FEDERALIST PAPERS, No. 51. As public virtue has waned, and the despair of public virtue has waxed, modern social and political regimes have taken this hostile formalism to its most perfect figure. No misfeasance, no error may be detected without there arising the simultaneous conviction that dark motives are afoot. Bill Clinton perjured himself about cheating on his wife, because he was frightened and angry at the domestic and political odium which would attend a truthful statement. He succumbed to temptations which haunt the breast of every unfaithful husband, every ambitious man, but sin is instantly made into something more -- an Evil Plot to Subvert the Republic, Treasonous Perjury Most Vile, a Depraved Stab into the Heart of Our Way of Life, complete with impeachment proceedings and pious mutterings about the total sanctity of law and its ability to serve as the sovereign remedy for civil ills. Our adherence to fundamentally Protestant paradigms of life, as filtered through the Enlightenment, has made the recognition of simple sin intolerable; we cannot allow men to be sinners, for if good men sin then the policy of supplying their moral wants through the opposition of rivals will become a shambles leading only to more sin. Sin must be abolished. Only treason may be recognized, for only treason can fit comfortably within our belief that we shall detect and thwart treason ex opere operato, by the "opposite and rival interests" of a true vanguard who knows "The Faith", not by humiliating patience, inward sanctity, or imperceptible virtue. While the public character of "The Faith" bequeathed to us by our Protestant framers has been leeched of its Christian content, it has not lost its character as an adamantine gnostic basilisk whose stare instantly transforms fallacy into blasphemy.

I cannot help but think that many Traditionalists have simply brought this suspicious, antagonistic paradigm into their Catholicity. It would not be an astounding thing if it were true. Only the conversions of saints have been fully accomplished. The rest of us former moderns are rather like the barbarians of old: We need reminding that the Triune God isn't Wotan, that consecrated Hosts shouldn't be given to sick livestock, and that Marx's atheism wasn't his only intellectual fault. Our educations, entertainments, habits of thought -- all that goes into making the man, have been thoroughly secular, or secularized. God help us, but these paradigms have even infiltrated the Church herself; who hasn't seen a bishop or priest confront recalcitrance or ignorance with an attitude that has more in common with Andrei Vyshinsky and Joe McCarthy than St. Philip Neri or St. Alphonsus Ligouri? When we look at a man we don't see the imago Dei, macrocosm in microcosm; we see only an intellectual symbol, a party member, the manifestation of an Hegelian principle. A bishop burbles heresy and we fly into revolutionary conniptions, certain that the "The Faith" of the Vanguard is being Treasonously Ravished by an Insidious Plot. Bishops have been burbling heresy for millennia. We're promised the Holy Spirit only to ensure that an episcopal mind's inability to grasp doctrinal nuances will not be the ruin of the Church -- we're not granted the Holy Spirit to be spared the unpleasantness of seeing a dumb bishop stick his foot in his mouth. If we really do have the Holy Spirit, the correct response to the USCC's Reflections on Covenant and Mission is a host of derisive broadsides, not dark theories about an Insidious Jew-Modernist Dolchstoss a la Robert Sungenis. The former response, which maintains community within discourse, can subsist within a shared life. The latter response, with its add-water fatwas and microwavable jihads against the Infidel, cannot.

Here, as in every other way of life, the Catholic paradigm contradicts the world's -- the world may operate on the assumption that all novelty is betrayal and all error sin, but Catholics must operate on the assumption that novelty is apparent and that even if it is actual, it may be merely error and not wilful disloyalty to "The Faith." The world may turn custody of "The Faith" into a bone of revolutionary contentiousness between a proletarian laity and a capitalist clergy, but Catholicism must grant "The Faith" to all alike within a shared life that cannot be irretrievably sundered -- and must be maintained -- despite anyone's fault. The brute application of The Federalist Papers, and the entire culture of which it is only a part, to the problems and daily maintenance of Church life dispenses with all of this, throwing the victory to the world even as it simultaneously claims a triumph for "The Faith." The law has its place in the Church -- indeed, law is the Church's gift to the world, but the Traditionalist's use of law, like his modern use of "ideology", leaves much to be desired. He gives us a perspective that is rank with the kind of rights-based morality that is poisoning modern life to the point where lawyers have to review holiday cards to ensure they're not "offensive." He makes an aggressive use of law against everything, perpetually suspecting and challenging imminent "violations" of his right to define himself. In other words, he uses the law as a sword against every attempt to require his participation in a shared life without prior guarantees that its future development will please him.

Traditionalists think the law and "The Faith" are lambs' blood to be smeared on the lintels of the soul in protection against the pestilential influence of living bishops, priests, and popes. They do not understand that the Lamb's blood is given to all of them as well, vivifying drink for members of the same Body, giving those living priests, bishops, and popes a share in his own life. If the Church were only the corruptible human polity envisioned by Hamiton, Locke, Madison and the rest Traditionalists would have the safer view. In such a polity, it behooves every man to hoard his life, befriending only those worthy of his own excellence or aspirations to excellence. For this reason Christians who live in such polities are expressly told not to give what his holy unto dogs, and to seek a shared life only with one another. But the Church is an incorruptible polity, prophesied from the ages. In the Church, it behooves every man to pour out his life in vulnerability and humility, befriending all and treating them with cheerful regard. For this reason Christians are told to shout from rooftops and invite everyone into a brighter, more perfect community where the transforming Lamb's Supper is celebrated. In this we have the sublime spectacle that only Catholicism may offer -- the spectacle of grace perfecting nature.

Like most vices, the Traditionalist perspective is not wrong for what it is, but for what it lacks. It is not wrong to love "The Faith", but it is wrong to lack humility about one's idea of "The Faith." It is not wrong to remonstrate with a bishop, but it is wrong to dispense with the bishop by regarding him as being superfluous to one's own spiritual welfare. It is not wrong to hold an opinion, but it is wrong to ostracize disagreeable opinions from the balance of one's own judgment. It is not wrong to have orthodoxy, and to cling to it presumptively, but it is wrong to lack the bravery required to acknowledge that even a saint's idea of orthodoxy occasionally requires a modification or two. It is not wrong to love oneself, but it is wrong to love oneself so much that one's spiritual comfort becomes the highest and universal good. Finally, it is not wrong to know one's limits, to know the places where one cannot go, without losing the faith; but it is wrong to conclude that everyone else has the same limits, and that no one else may go to such places without abandoning a common faith. The Traditionalist flaw is not "negativity" or "exclusion" -- it is an unhealthy and envious poverty. "And he was sad at that saying, and went away grieved: for he had great possessions." Mark 10:22 (KJV).


[1] Archbishop Lefebvre, Consecration Sermon, delivered June 30, 1988. The text can be found here.

[2] Id.

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Mr. Tierney's responses to Mr. McElhinney bring up a word often used and misunderstood by many folks, from the general Catholic public, to those of us a bit more educated and versed in the Faith, from the Novus Ordo and Traditional Circles alike. I though it a proper and decent idea to set down a definition of the Magesterium, to aid those of us who have some erronious ideas of what it actually is.

The Catholic Encyclopaedic Dictonary, Imprimatur and Nihil obstat obtained in 1930 defines the Magesterium as such:

MAGISTERUIM (Lat. magister, a master).
The Church's divinely appointed authority to teach the truths of religion, "Going therefore, teach ye all nations ... teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you" (Matt. xxcii, 19-20). This teaching is infallible: "And behold I am with you all days, even to the conummation of the world" (ibid). The solemn magisterium is that which is exercised only rarely by formal and authentic definitions of councils and popes. Its matter comprises dogmatic definitions of oecumenical councils or of the popes teaching ex cathedra, or of particular councils, if their decrees be universially accepted or approved in solemn form by the pope; also creeds and professions of faith put forward or solemnly approved bythe pope or oecumenical councils. The ordinary magisterium is continually exercised by the Church especially in her universal practices connected with faith and morals, in the unanimous consent of the Fathers (q.v.) and theologians, in the decisions of Roman Congregations concerning faith and morals, in the common sense of the Faithful, and carious historical documents, in the faith is declared. All these are founts of a teaching which is whole and infallible. The have to be studied separately to determine how far and in what conditions each of them is an infallble source of truth.

So let's summarize a bit. The Extrordinary or Solemn Magesterium is the dogmatic decrees of the popes (e.g. Definition of the Assumption, The Real Presence, etc.) and dogmatic councils (e.g. Trent, Vatican I, etc.) or decrees of non-dogmatic councils or non-dogmatic decrees of dogmatic councils then solemnly approved by the pope.

The ordinary magesterium is the teachings of the pope, bishops, and Sacred Tradition including the Immemorial Traditions. However, all of the teachings of these are not automatically part of the ordinary magesterium. The must be wxamined. If a teaching is not consistent with the Faith and what is already part of magesterial teachings, it cannot be a magesterial teaching.

This is why traditional Catholics are so critical of the pope and bishops in modern times. While they do have that teaching authority, whatever they teach which is not consistent with the two millennia of authentic, faithful and accurate Magesterial teachings is simply not a magesterial teaching. It seems in the past 40 years we have heard things which at least on their face seem much more inconsistent than in the earlier years of last century and the previous one.

Are traditional Catholic being "proto-Protestants" in exercising our "private judgment"? Hardly. In times where the leaders of the Church, are wishy-washy on issues of extreme importance, and it seems more concerned with their own "ecumenical" ventures than correcting the seemingly heretical forays of the more liberal priests and bishops, it falls to traditional priests, bishops and, yes, even the faithful, to remain faithful to what we know are authentic Magesterial teaching. God willing we will have one day a Pope that is very solid and clear on what is to be practiced and not, but while this Pope and Bishops say and do things that seem horribly scandalous, we need to hold fast to those things we know are Catholic and wait for another leader like Popes St. Pius V and St. Pius X, Gregory the Great and other Saintly Bishops, like Athanasius, Basil the Great and many others, to help us define what, out of all the mess we have since the Second Vatican Council, is and is not Magesterial and Catholic.

Simply put: If the decree is inconsistent with Traditional teachings, it is not part of the Magesterium and does not obligate us to follow it.

As Johnny Cochran might have said: "It does not make sense ... If the decree don't fit, you must acquit."

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