'Putting the essence of the Faith in doubt' (Jean Guitton)

'Putting the essence of the Faith in doubt' (Jean Guitton)

B.A. Santamaria

The easiest line to take after the consummation of the Lefebvrist schism is to dismiss it as of merely passing significance. Cardinal Lustiger of Paris, for instance, stated that: "Compared with the recent train crash at the Gare de Lyon, the Lefebvre schism is a minute, paltry event ... marginal for the universal church"; similarly with reports that the Society of St Pius X is "breaking up."

It is folly to make light of the schism either on the ground that its founder is a strong-willed but essentially eccentric ecclesiastic whose schism will disappear with his passing; or alternatively that the number of those affected is negligible in a Church of some 900 million. The Pope himself clearly indicated how well he understood the significance of the schism by cancelling his appointments for two days after its final confirmation.

The Lefebvrist schism has been almost twenty-five years in the making. That is a very long time: sufficiently long, it must be said, in which to have found a solution, if everybody had been equally intent on finding it. Indeed, it was far from impossible. The Jesuit Fr Paolo Dezza SJ, confessor to Pope Paul Vl, and placed in de facto control of the Society of Jesus by the present Pope before the election of its present General, stated: "I myself sometimes advised the Pope [Paul Vl] to make this gesture. But he, understandably, considered it a question of principle, and he argued that they would use the gesture as a standard to rally around to contest the entire Council."

In the last years of Paul Vl's pontificate, his trusted adviser, the French Catholic philosopher, Jean Guitton, returned repeatedly to the question with the Pope: "lf the Holy See shows no mercy with [the Lefebvrists], logic would dictate that those who, under cover of the Council, put the essence of the faith itself in doubt, ought to be condemned even more strongly" (30 Days, July-August 1988).

Until the Archbishop actually named a date for the consecration of the new bishops, the urgency which was thereupon displayed had not been visible.

Ubi Petrus, ibi Ecclesia ("Where Peter is there is the Church") is a sound rule-of-thumb for those who, like the present writer, do not accept that an individual bishop may consecrate other bishops in defiance of the Pope. But, as Cardinal Ratzinger's words (see Editorial) make clear, it is dangerous to rest the entire case for orthodoxy on this single proposition.

The end product of the failure to find a solution is that the Archbishop's followers, who essentially believe all that the Church has believed for nearly twenty centuries, are out of the Church, and, in its eyes, no longer entitled to call themselves Catholics; while, inside the Church, and entitled to call themselves Catholics, are theologians like Curran, K√ľng, Schillebeeckx, McBrien and others whose teachings have helped to sever the Catholic links of hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of people. To call that an anomaly is the understatement of the age.


While Lefebvre's opposition to Rome is not confined to the issue of the Tridentine Mass, the de facto abolition of the Tridentine Mass was the catalyst. The methods whereby the Tridentine Mass was ruthlessly suppressed until it was partially, hesitatingly, and incompletely restored by John Paul lI's Indult, is the most evident example of the mishandling which made the schism possible, and of the power of the Modernist coterie within the Church.

The professional liturgists assembled around Archbishop Bugnini, of unhappy memory, treated ordinary Catholics as if their opinions didn't matter one iota.

Now it is being belatedly hinted that in order to "accommodate" Lefebvre's followers, something will be done to make the Tridentine Mass more generally accessible. That is a consummation devoutly to be wished, but it has rarely been regarded as good policy to close the stable door after the horse has bolted. In this particular instance, even to find priests who understand sufficient Latin, would be a task in itself.

All of which may be dismissed as being in the past. Perhaps it is. There are, however, few indications that, despite the Pope's unceasing efforts, the lessons of past blunders have been learnt.

Quite apart from the Lefebvrist schism there are trends which, taken in conjunction, rather than considered separately, appear to signify the "Protestantisation" of Catholicism. That the processes are almost imperceptible in their operation, makes them more rather than less dangerous.

Symptomatic are the Holy See's concern over the challenge to the basic concept of the priesthood involved in the abuse of the institution of lay ministers of the Eucharist, the subject of a recent decree of the Pontifical Commission for the Authentic Interpretation of the Code of Canon Law; the Pope's plea for an end to the abuses associated with the Sacrament of Penance, which was the subject of a recent address to American Bishops; and untenable ideas concerning the Eucharist which surfaced recently on the front page of the Melbourne Advocate (23 June).

Considered together these ideas involve the Priesthood, Penance and the Eucharist, and therefore lie at the heart of the Catholic faith. It is this process which constitutes what Jean Guitton called "putting the essence of the Faith in doubt."


On 31 May, John Paul II addressed a number of the US bishops on their ad limina visit to the Holy See. In his address he drew attention to the deep concern expressed by the world's bishops at the 1983 Synod, that the Sacrament of Confession was being "undermined" (The Advocate, 23.6.88).

Referring to the document Reconciliatio et Paenitentia (Reconciliation and Penance) which emerged from the 1983 Synod, he stated:

"The Sacrament of Penance is in crisis ... for the Sacrament of Confession is indeed being undermined. These statements are neither negative expressions of pessimism nor causes for alarm; they are rather expressions of 'a pastoral realism' that requires positive pastoral reflection, planning and action. By the power of Christ's Paschal Mystery that is active within her, the Church is capable of responding to all the crises that she ever faces, including this one. But she must make sure that she acknowledges the crisis, and that she adequately faces it with the supernatural means at her disposal."

There is thus, in the view of the Pope and of the Synod, a "crisis" in relation to Penance.

What does the Pope want done about the "crisis"?

"A key point in this renewal process is the obligation of pastors to facilitate for the faithful the practice of integral and individual confession of sins, which constitutes for them not only a duty, but also an inviolable and inalienable right, besides being something needed for the soul. Of special importance are the concerted efforts of all the members of the Conference of Bishops in insisting that the 'gravis necessitas' required for general absolution be truly understood in the sense explained in Canon 961. In various regions of the world, the crisis facing the Sacrament of Penance is due in part to unwarranted interpretation of what constitutes the conditions of the 'gravis necessitas' envisaged by the Church."

Proper interpretation

He called on the Bishops "of all countries" to make "sustained efforts ... to promote the proper interpretation of Canon 961."

"At stake is the whole question of the personal relationship that Christ wills to have with each penitent and which the Church must unceasingly defend."

Is that statement simply a rhetorical exaggeration? That it is not can be readily understood if one looks behind the symbols of the Sacrament to its intrinsic nature and purpose. The very solitariness of the confessional provides the environment in which the penitent, separated both from the world and normal human contacts, can find himself face-to-face, alone, with God; able to say to Him, "I've been wrong. I'm sorry. I wish to get back to my earlier relationship with You, based on the principles which You, as God, have given to your followers. If you'll help me, I'll do my best not to fail again."

That surely is the essence of the "personal relationship" of which the Pope speaks - and is the innermost core of the Sacrament. The essence of the Sacrament has nothing whatsoever to do with the fortuitous relationship between individual Catholics in the parish church, the vast majority of whom are unknown to each other, or to any emotional bond which may fortuitously be established among them by ritual collectively performed.

The Church, said the Pope, quoting the Synod, not only has no right to deprive the individual Catholic of this avenue to the renewed presence of God in his soul, but "must unceasingly defend his right."

It is this inner meaning which the Church has "unceasingly defended" since Christ gave his Apostles and their successors the power to bind and to loose. It is for this reason that the Pope insists that when Canon 961 is "misinterpreted" - transforming a personal encounter between an individual person and God into a community festival in which the primary relationship is with the human beings around us rather than directly and personally with God - the Church as an institution and the individual penitent who needs to recover his intimacy with God, are both betrayed.

"Undermining" the Sacrament - the word used by the Pope - means dissolving its original reality into a new and different reality. And insofar as Penance is one of the basic components of the Faith, this is - to that extent - to change the content of the Faith: to use Jean Guitton's words once again, it is "putting the essence of the faith itself in doubt."

It is only one example among many of how a different set of religious beliefs is evolving out of the matrix of the old, while the language in which different concepts are expressed remains apparently the same.

The problem with the Sacrament of the Eucharist is similar. Its ancient disciplines - and by consequence its innermost nature - are being called into question by those who urge, for instance, that the reception of the Eucharist should be accessible to those validly married but who divorce and re-marry. This suggestion has surfaced once again in Australia.

The humane arguments in favour of such a proposal are both self- evident and strongly appealing. In this country, thanks to the Family Law Act introduced by the late Lionel Murphy, there are now hundreds of thousands of divorced people, living with varying degrees of internal trauma, unhappiness, and distress. Among them, there would be thousands of Catholic women, who originally contracted valid marriages, whose husbands have walked out on them, and who have re-married simply to seek ordinary human companionship. To say that they may not receive the Eucharist is, from the human viewpoint, a very hard saying indeed.

While compassion, sentiment, and emotion are factors to be considered, they are in no sense final and decisive. What happens to the innermost meaning of the Sacrament itself, even if the challenging action arises from genuine compassion, is the decisive consideration.

The question must therefore be posed differently.

Are we prepared to say that there is no action which, unrepented and unconfessed, precludes one from receiving the Eucharist? Should an Eichmann, had he sought the Eucharist, without penance and without confession, have expected to receive it? Should someone who, with full knowledge and consent, had merely stolen from a poor box, or from a blind man, or from a widow, expect automatically to receive the Sacrament without repentance, confession, forgiveness?

Every Catholic would say "No". And the reason would be clear.

If "the whole question of the personal relationship that Christ wills to have with each penitent" is at stake in the matter of Penance, it is doubly so in the matter of the Eucharist. The whole point of the Eucharist is that it offers a union with Christ far more intimate than that achieved in the union of man and woman in marriage, more intimate than the relationship between mother and child, which are the most intimate of all human associations.

Ask a wife whether she would willingly receive the embraces of a husband, who protests his love for her, when she knows that he has come from the arms of another woman? And if she did receive him out of pity or out of fear, what would be the quality of that union? The intimacy with Christ, the "bonding" with Christ, which is the innermost reality of the Sacrament is such that its reception is incompatible with certain human acts we know to be grossly wrong.

The critical question is whether remarriage after divorce from a valid marriage is one of these acts. Here, however reluctantly, one must accept that the barrier was erected by the word of Christ Himself, not merely by some theological interpretation or deduction.

To suggest that in laying down the law Christ was "time- conditioned" or "culture conditioned" is to say that He was not God. And that assertion is simply to proclaim a religious belief different from Christianity's. No amount of doctrinal "development" can justify so clear a contradiction.

A similar problem arises from the recurrent attempt to alter the Catholic's understanding of what takes place to the elements of bread and wine at the moment of consecration.

One writer has stated that "the truth that is binding in faith, is that by the power of God, bread and wine are truly changed, so as to become Christ in His full saving effectiveness, with the result that He becomes present in the Eucharist in his total being, though under signs, rather than in the historic form in which he had once walked Palestine."

However, "there is nothing in the institution narrative that requires the conclusion that bread and wine cease to exist." The elements therefore have a dual essence - remaining bread and wine but impregnated with the "full saving effectiveness" of Christ's presence (Fr David Coffey, Grace: the Gift of the Holy Spirit, p. 189). That, as the writer understands it, was what the Lutheran doctrine of Consubstantiation meant. The meaning is not reconcilable with Transubstantiation.

The Church's teaching on the Eucharist would be more easily acceptable if one were not asked to believe that the elements of bread and wine cease to exist, but remain in being with the simultaneous existence of the Real Presence. However, to justify this interpretation by the statement that there is nothing in the Gospel narratives which positively demands the interpretation that bread and wine cease to exist presumes that Catholicism is simply a religion of the book, and that what is not in the book is not de fide. Yet we know that tradition is just as essential a part of the Deposit of Faith as the Scriptures. From the very beginning, the faith of the Church in relation to the Eucharist has been as it was expressed in the fourth century by St Cyril of Jerusalem:

"The seeming bread is not bread, though sensible to taste, but the body of Christ; and the seeming wine is not wine, though taste will have it so, but the blood of Christ."

That there is a change of substance - that one substance is transformed into a different substance - is thus not a purely theoretical concept invented by the Scholastics to meet the terminological requirements of Aristotelian philosophy. The Scholastics were merely expressing in Aristotelian terms what St Cyril had written almost a thousand years before.

We return to the basic relationship between words, concepts and reality. If the reality concerning the method of transformation of bread and wine, as it was believed from the beginning, is not the true reality, the Church has been wrong in the most central doctrine of all since its foundation. If it was wrong about the Eucharist, what credibility can be attached to any other teaching?

The road to the dissolution of beliefs is often paved by good men with the best intentions. While theological expertise often illuminates dogma, simple judgement is an equally necessary quality in assessing the likely consequences of changes in theologies.

In the aftermath of the tragic Lefebvre affair, these unsolved problems are no longer merely theoretical but help to explain why so many perfectly good Catholics have experienced a sense of alienation from the increasingly Protestant interpretation of original Catholic beliefs brought about by ascribing a different meaning to the original words.

The Pope proclaims the authentic teachings of the Church, and the Holy See seeks to protect the authentic doctrines with detailed administrative provisions. But if the latter are neither obeyed nor effectively enforced at the local level, the theory may be Catholic but the reality becomes increasingly Protestant.

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