An essential history of the Society of St Pius X in an easily digestible format
MORE CATHOLIC THAN THE POPE:
An Inside Look at Extreme Traditionalism
by Patrick Madrid & Pete Vere
(Our Sunday Visitor, 2004, 186pp, $27.95. Available from AD Books)
Do you have a relative or friend who frequents a chapel of the Society of St Pius X (SSPX)? Are you a priest trying to advise someone attracted to the Society, but finding it difficult to obtain sufficient background to do so effectively? Are you attending an SSPX chapel yourself, or thinking of doing so? Or are you simply confused about the legitimacy of the pre-Vatican II Latin Mass? If so, this handbook may be just what you need.
More Catholic than the Pope by Patrick Madrid and Pete Vere seeks to answer the question: "Did Archbishop Lefebvre choose the right path in his quest to counter the problems he saw arising in the Church?" (p. 20). While sympathetic to many of the Archbishop's concerns, their answer is an unequivocal "no".
Very early in the history of the SSPX, an essentially negative view of Vatican II and of the post-conciliar magisterium prevailed. This culminated, during a crucial visitation of the SSPX seminary at Econe, in a fulmination by Archbishop Lefebvre against "modernist Rome", which he said was opposed to the Rome of tradition.
This distinction revealed Lefebvre and his followers to be already tending to view the Church as an idea, more than an incarnate, flesh and blood (yet grace-filled) reality.
In this context, the traditional rite of Mass came to be seen, not simply as a good in itself, but as a banner of resistance to Vatican II (and indeed to the Church as she actually was). It was understandable that such a movement would also readily absorb the anti-Roman spirit of Gallicanism, and the old Jansenist heresy (so attractive to the self-appointed custodians of the Faith for its elitism and moral rigourism).
Ironically, in the alleged defence of Catholic tradition, the private judgement of Archbishop Lefebvre and his collaborators would assume a higher place than the public judgement of the supreme authority of the Church. The SSPX would thus become an essentially dissenting movement, despite its strict adherence to Tridentine liturgical practice.
The great merit of More Catholic than the Pope is that the authors have assembled, in an easily digestible format, the essential history of the SSPX movement up to its formal break with Rome in 1988. This includes little known matters, such as that even before its canonical suppression by the Holy See, the SSPX never had the capacity to "incardinate" (that is, give a legal home to) clerics.
There is certainly an emphasis on the canonical aspects of the movement. This is especially useful when it comes to dealing with the objections by the Society and its supporters to the validity of the excommunications of 1988.
A central argument raised at the time, and fairly continuously since then, has been that an alleged situation of moral necessity, in the face of an unprecedented crisis in the Church, nullified the canonical penalties relating to the consecration of bishops without the Papal mandate.
Madrid and Vere summarise these and other objections well, and furnish a convincing rebuttal based on canonical principles.
In the second part of the book, the authors attempt to answer, in fairly basic terms, the claims urged by the SSPX and others against the Magisterial value of Vatican II, particularly in relation to the Eucharist and ecumenism. It might also have been useful in this section to have touched on the debates about religious liberty ignited by the Conciliar decree Dignitatis humanae.
A third section tackles some fundamental positions adopted by the SSPX and others, including their condemnation of the new rite of Mass as intrinsically harmful to the faithful, and the possibility of an heretical Pope.
Aside from dealing with the specific arguments, which the authors do quite ably, two "global" observations might usefully have been added: firstly, one notes an increasingly shrill and self-serving attitude in the various objections to the Church which SSPX spokesmen bring forward; evidence, perhaps, that what this is really all about is justifying (to themselves and their followers) a continuing state of separation from the Church.
Secondly, one can identify an important common thread in all the standard SSPX objections: a diminished ecclesiology, which seems to empty of all real meaning Christ's guarantee of indefectibility, and which attempts to pit tradition against the real juridical authority of the Pope and the bishops.
There is much of importance that More Catholic than the Pope does not address, including the history of negotiations between Rome and the SSPX from 1988 to the present. However, despite its limitations, More Catholic than the Pope is a useful and basically reliable text in an important but under-researched area, where the polemic of the SSPX has been able to make inroads, due to a combination of ignorance and a legitimate anxiety about widespread abuses.
Meanwhile, one hopes the SSPX will capitalise on the fact that in Benedict XVI, there is a Pope particularly sensitive to their valid concerns and receptive to any realistic opening for reconciliation.
If the SSPX sincerely wishes to restore its unity with the Holy See via an arrangement that respects its identity within the framework of the universal Church, it should seize the moment offered by the present pontificate.