Guest-Post: George Weigel and the SSPX

George Weigel and the SPPX

by P.J. Smith

George Weigel, in his most recent column, has decided that the Holy See should not offer the Society of St. Pius X a personal prelature. It appears from statements by Archbishop Guido Pozzo, secretary of the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei, and Bishop Bernard Fellay, superior general of the Society, that a personal prelature is the current offer. More than that, it seems that the Holy See is not insisting on the Society’s submission to every jot and tittle of every document of the Second Vatican Council. This is wonderful news.

Many informed commentators noted that the 2012 negotiations between Rome and the Society were torpedoed at the last moment by the sudden insistence of the Roman authorities on such submission. Archbishop Pozzo has conceded in public interviews that there are levels of authority in the documents of that “pastoral council,” and that total assent may not be necessary. And Weigel is positively hysterical at the prospect.

Of course, one recognizes at the outset that Weigel literally wishes to be more Catholic than the Pope. Pope Francis’s course of dealing with the Society has been marked by his recognition that the Society of St. Pius X is wholly Catholic and entitled to canonical standing. He has, more or less on his own initiative, conferred upon priests of the Society the faculty to hear confessions. He has also provided a process by which Society priests may lawfully witness marriages. While the Society has argued that it has had supplied jurisdiction for these acts, the fact remains that there are now few differences between priests of the Society and ordinary parish priests. (Except, all too often, the Society priests are better formed and more willing to do the gritty work of a pastor.) All of this the Supreme Pontiff has decreed, but George Weigel knows better.

Weigel’s entire argument is this: the SSPX “dissents” from the Church’s teaching on religious liberty, as that teaching is set forth in the Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on Religious Liberty, Dignitatis humanae. He asserts that the Society’s supposed dissent is based upon French politics after the Revolution rather than “a serious account of the history of Catholic church-state doctrine.” Yet his allegation is wholly peremptory and wholly unserious. We have Weigel’s ipse dixit and that is it. It is easier, in fact, to rehearse what Weigel does not talk about in his haste to declare the Society dissenters. For example, Weigel does not discuss Archbishop Lefebvre’s dubia regarding Dignitatis humanae, submitted to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which did not receive an authoritative, point-by-point response, but only a vague general reply by an anonymous peritus. Weigel does not mention Mirari vos, Quanta cura, Immortale Dei, Libertas praestantissimum, or any of the other papal pronouncements on religious liberty before 1965. And Weigel certainly does not show any signs of having considered the more recent work on Dignitatis humanae by scholars such as Prof. Thomas Pink.

It is, of course, by no means clear that the Society actually dissents from or rejects Church teaching. Given wthe text and history of Dignitatis humanae itself, it is not clear what Dignitatis humanae actually means, and, therefore, it is impossible to say what dissent looks like. Even if the Declaration were wholly clear, that would not resolve the question. In 2014, the International Theological Commission issued a very lengthy document, “Sensus fidei in the life of the Church,” which discussed the sensus fidei, “a sort of spiritual instinct that enables the believer to judge spontaneously whether a particular teaching or practice is or is not in conformity with the Gospel and with apostolic faith” (para. 49). The document observes that, “[a]lerted by their sensus fidei, individual believers may deny assent even to the teaching of legitimate pastors if they do not recognise in that teaching the voice of Christ, the Good Shepherd” (para. 63). Given the sharp distinctions between Dignitatis humanae and the teachings of Gregory XVI, Pius IX, Leo XIII, and other good and holy popes, it seems eminently reasonable to discuss the Society’s position in terms of the reaction of an authentic sensus fidei. With all of this in mind, one must ask whether it is George Weigel who is staking out a position for largely political reasons.

Things go from bad to worse when Weigel explains why it is that the Society’s supposed dissent is such a problem. To recognize the Society and give it a personal prelature would, Weigel frets, embolden liberal dissenters. Because the Society identifies inconsistencies between Dignitatis humanae and the Church’s traditional teachings—set forth in all those dusty encyclicals Weigel ignores—modernists would articulate a case for “faithful dissent” from Humanae vitae and Ordinatio sacerdotalis. Weigel’s claim is as bizarre as it is ridiculous. For one thing, modernists have had no trouble asserting for themselves a right to faithful dissent, even during the years when simply everyone thought the Society was “schismatic.” St. Pius X warned us in Pascendi that dissent and tension are among the most favored methods of the modernists. 

That great pope has been proved right again and again, notwithstanding the question of the Society that bears his name. There is no reason to believe that granting the Society the juridical recognition that is its right would embolden modernists, if only because it is impossible to believe, in 2017, that the modernists could be bolder.And Weigel’s argument is beyond ridiculous insofar as he attempts to say that the Society of St. Pius X’s ongoing questions about Dignitatis humanae (among other things) are equivalent to the modernists’ heresies. Consider it like this: the priests of the Society observe that Dignitatis humanae cannot be reconciled easily, if at all, with the teachings of Gregory XVI, Pius IX, Leo XIII and other good and holy popes. They, following their sensus fidei, appeal to the universal magisterium, including the teachings of those popes, and ask for clarification from the Roman authorities. After long decades of hostility and silence from the Roman authorities, Archbishop Pozzo stakes out a position that would go some distance toward clarifying the situation, and additional clarification could take place through careful study. To put this process—a process reflecting true submission to the universal magisterium of the Church—on the same level as the modernists’ clamor for priestesses and blessings for sodomitical unions beggars belief, but it appears that Weigel wants to do just that.

Weigel never really comes to the point. He suggests that giving the Society its long-deserved juridical recognition would hurt ecumenical outreach and the New Evangelization. Weigel apparently does not know that the New Evangelization has been a dead letter since March 13, 2013, when Pope Francis’s election was announced. And it is impossible to imagine how ecumenical outreach could be hurt by the Society when Pope Francis makes extravagant ecumenical gestures at every turn. The only possible explanation for Weigel’s incoherent argument is that he has committed himself to the view that the Second Vatican Council is the most significant moment in the life of the Church since Pentecost. To be sure, a faction in the Church believes just that. And they are a faction with considerable power. Denying the Society juridical recognition—despite its evident Catholicism and the indefatigable pastoral work of its good and holy priests—would, therefore, in Weigel’s words, “reinforce the notion that doctrine is not about truth, but about power.”

P.J. Smith blogs at Semiduplex