Analysis from Fr. Louis Bouyer’s 1978 essay that may apply today


The picture shows Archbishop Terrence Prendergast of Ottawa celebrating a Traditional Latin Mass at the high altar of Notre Dame Cathedral last November in honor of the 50th anniversary of St. Clement’s Parish, a diocesan parish entrusted to the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter (FSSP). This Mass attracted hundreds of Catholics from all over the diocese, in a show of support for those who like the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite,.

It was a beautiful sign of unity in the Ottawa archdiocese. It also helps to mention Archbishop Prendergast has come to our parish and celebrated the Anglican Use liturgy several times in that period before our clergy were ordained to the Catholic priesthood.  He even came one Christmas Eve when we couldn’t find a Catholic priest for our Mass!  What a beautiful gesture of welcome and sign of unity of Catholic faith in diversity of expression.

All of this in contrast to concerns I have about disunity and division so common these days, especially online.

Whenever I see Catholics in online apostolates criticizing the Pope or members of the hierarchy, I think of this 1978 essay The Catholic Church in Crisis by Fr. Louis Bouyer that was translated from French by John M. Pepino in 2015 and published at Rorate Coeli.

This is not to say many criticisms are not valid, but the article offers a caution for those with a prophetic calling or the gift of exhortation to guard humility and to ensure they are not led astray by a spirit of division, pride, or rash judgement.  This caution applies to their readers as well.

For those of us who came into the Catholic Church under Pope Benedict XVI’s generous provision, it is especially incumbent on us to remember the fervent desire we had for full Catholic unity that propelled us to become officially members of One Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. 

The piece by Fr. Bouyer analyzes the controversy around Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, who founded the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX).  Much of its analysis has meaning for today. Especially this quote (my emphases):

Once the story-making faculty has been unleashed like this, when it is kept alive by too obvious a chain of scandals that pass unseen, tolerated, or even encouraged by the very ones who increasingly dig their heels against those who, on their end of things, lose all sound judgement because they’re persuaded—not without some semblance of good reason—of being the only ones “defending the truth,” well then there is no extreme to which this now delirious faculty won’t go . . . .  Hence the deplorable or rather grotesque situation into which Archbishop Lefebvre has allowed himself and his followers to be cornered. It turns a champion of pontifical authority into a die-hard rebel and dyed-in-the-wool traditionalists into mere blind defenders of the routines that have in fact proven to be the inevitable ruin of all genuine tradition, since they harden it for themselves before giving their adversaries the best excuse for liquidating it . . . .

            Such are, in broad terms, the essential elements leading to the Lefebvre affair. The clearest among them is this: its responsibility is evenly shared between his followers and their opponents.

Last year, I had the opportunity of hearing a lecture by the co-founder of the Fraternal Priestly Society of St. Peter (FSSP), which broke away from Lefebvre’s SSPX when Archbishop Lefebvre ordained to the episcopate four bishops against the wishes of Pope St. John Paul II. Here’s an excerpt of the story I wrote at the time. I have emphasized some portions of this story that have remained food for thought.

“There is no possibility to get to Heaven without being united to the Pope,” said Fr. Andrzej Komorowski, the recently-elected Superior General of the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter (FSSP), a Society of Apostolic Life of Pontifical right that celebrates the Traditional Latin Mass. 

“(The Pope) is the visible face of our Lord. Unity with him is very important if you want to be in the Church. There is only one Church founded by the Lord and the Pope is His visible vicar.”

While many defenders of Pope Francis accuse traditionalist Catholics of attacking the Pope, whether about interpretations of Amoris Laetitia or more recently about the sex-abuse scandals, the FSSP stresses prayer for the Pope, respect for the the Successor of Peter and acts of charity.

“I love the Pope and I pray for him,” said Fr. Joseph Bisig, a co-founder of the FSSP who gave a lecture in Ottawa Nov. 24. “That is what you have to do.

“We believe in the visibility of authority,” he said. “We are not Protestants” who see authority as something invisible. “That doesn’t mean the exercise of authority is always just, but that’s not a reason for or a recipe for doing what we want.”

It wasn’t always that way. The FSSP had its origins in the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX), founded by Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, who developed a strained relationship with the Vatican over doctrinal matters arising from the Second Vatican Council and the modernization of the Church. In the mid-1970s, the SSPX had its seminary in Econe, Switzerland, suppressed by the Archbishop of Fribourg. In 1976, Pope Paul VI suspended Lefebvre a divinis, meaning the archbishop was forbidden to celebrate any sacraments, including the Eucharist. But Lefebvre defied Rome and expanded his order to other nations.

Bisig said the unjust suppression of the flourishing seminary, which had 120 seminarians by 1977, and Pope Paul VI’s subsequent suspension led to a change in Lefebvre’s attitude towards Rome, and his language became increasingly “polemical.” Lefebvre began to entertain sedevacantism, the idea that Paul VI was not the real pope, and thus the Chair of Peter was vacant, Bisig said. But the archbishop kept this opinion largely out of the public realm because most priests in the SSPX would have been scandalized.

“Until then it was forbidden for us to be critical of the Holy Father or Rome,” Bisig said.

The founding members of the FSSP only split with Lefebvre after Lefebvre ordained four bishops in 1988 against the will of Pope St. John Paul II, leading to Lefebvre’s excommunication. The SSPX, then numbering some 60,000 followers, was deemed schismatic.

“It was clear we had to leave the Society because of this rupture with Rome,” said Bisig, one of 12 priests, one deacon and 20 seminarians who left.

“We did not want to leave the SSPX,” he said. “We were forced to do so. Our superior became schismatic. We felt like orphans abandoned by our father.”

There is a highway to sedevacantism and it is best to be cautious and not even get on the entrance ramp.

The present-day SSPX is not a sedevacantist group.  Its leadership recognizes the Pope. It is in talks with Rome about resolving its canonical irregularity. The differences remain doctrinal.

Many Catholics are angry and upset over the sexual abuse crisis, and over a sense of doctrinal confusion as they watch cardinals and bishops disagree with each other on matters of faith and morals. They are searching online for answers, for confirmation they are not crazy. That is understandable. But be careful. There are many rabbit holes.


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