Rorate Caeli

Obedience in Crisis: A Review by Michael Charlier of “True Obedience in the Church”

Peter Kwasniewski’s latest book, published in February in the U.S. by Sophia Press under the title True Obedience in the Church: A Guide to Discernment in Challenging Times, is now available in a German translation: Wahrer Gehorsam in der Kirche: Ein Leitfaden in schwerer Zeit. The paperback (116 pages, price €11.72) is available through the usual sources on the Internet. And despite its relatively small size, it does indeed offer an extremely helpful guide for orientation in the current church crisis. The practical value of the book is increased once again by the fact that the actual argumentation is developed in an easily comprehensible way in a main section of 64 pages, while references to literature and in-depth comments are outsourced to a 40-page section of endnotes.

The immediate reason for writing the book is the threat that Traditionis Custodes poses to the communities and congregations of the traditional liturgy. But the general crisis of the Church is by no means a crisis only of liturgy or of a failed liturgical reform. It is a crisis that, with the modernist reshaping of the concepts of authority and obedience, calls into question the entire shape of the Church as it has existed since the time of the apostles. A few reflections on this at the outset.

Obedience to God, but then also to the authority he has appointed, is one of the great virtues of Christians—as long as the authorities in Church and society are aware that neither authority nor the obedience owed to it is based on their own right and power, since this power is given to them only “from above” (Jesus before Pilate, John 9:11). An awareness of this connection between “above” and “below” has determined all societies and their religions since time immemorial, even if at times in a distorted or perverted form. Only the “Enlightenment” and its fruit in the revolution of 1793 broke this connection, which had previously been respected at least in a declamatory way (“We, king by the grace of God...”), and downright delegitimized it. This took place first in the sociopolitical space, but then increasingly also in the field of religion—if one can assign a thinking that has “emancipated” itself in this manner to the field of religion at all.

This tendency towards the abolition of religion, this secularization, is dominant in the whole of so-called Western culture and has also developed powerfully within the Catholic Church—and with it the virtue of obedience, which has been practiced by the pious people of God for two thousand years, has become an exceedingly dubious achievement.

What we observe, not only in Germany, is the following: the forces of secularization within the church—“progressive” theology professors, bishops, bureaucrats in the offices—have made disobedience to traditional teaching virtually their program, yet remain unchallenged. They, in turn, wield the “cudgel of obedience” against all who oppose their course. This is partly tolerated by the higher authorities, and partly (especially in the current pontificate) actively supported. For their part, schismatics and heretics at all levels wield the cudgel of obedience to intimidate and silence all who oppose their course of secularization. The virtue of obedience, founded in the doctrine handed down and deeply rooted among Christians who insist on this doctrine, is used to weaken and ultimately abolish this very doctrine.

The function and effectiveness of this mechanism can nowhere be observed more impressively than in the struggle—and it is a struggle to the death—to preserve the traditional liturgy, which, as the concentrated expression of traditional doctrine, attracts the very special hatred of the secularizers. Since the beginning of the attempt to enforce the “liturgical reform” across the board starting in 1970, the opponents of traditional doctrine have been wielding the obedience cudgel in order to overcome traditional doctrine along with the adherents of traditional liturgy.

In 1988, with an appeal to obedience, they moved a portion of the priests who had gathered around Archbishop Lefbvre to express their “fidelity to Rome” by leaving the Society of St. Pius X to form the Fraternity of St. Peter, and now, with the same appeal to obedience, they plunged these same priests (and the faithful of the parishes they serve) into a profound crisis through the enactment of Traditionis Custodes.

For let there be no mistake: the indult granted by decree in February to the Fraternity of St. Peter to retain the ancient liturgy for internal use not only severely restricts the possibilities for action by its priests, but can be revoked at any time just as much “par ordre du mufti” [By Order of the Mufti] as it was enacted. The “liturgical peace” willed by Pope Benedict has been annulled. The priests of tradition and the faithful holding fast to tradition must once again reckon on being confronted with the question of conscience about whether and how they can obey God more than men—even if these men, no longer wearing the tiara of the pope or the miter of the papally-appointed bishop, are incapable or unwilling to exercise the authority expressed by these symbols in the spirit of Christ. On account of their whole customary way of thinking, it is even and especially the most well-intentioned priests and faithful who are the least equipped to deal with this pressing issue. To offer that equipment is the goal of Kwasniewski’s “Guide.”

In the first sections, he makes it abundantly clear that he is not concerned with undermining the principle of Christian obedience in favor of modern notions of self-empowerment or self-determination. But he draws attention to the fact that this Christian obedience is bound to preconditions, and that these preconditions are not to be assumed as a matter of course. A key role for him is played by the concept of the “common good,” especially, of course, the common good of the Church, which he then justifies in more detail by recourse to the teachings of St. Thomas Aquinas. The liturgy as an expression of the lex orandi grown under the guidance of the Holy Spirit is an expression of the common good of the Church and its striving for the salus animarum—hence it is withdrawn from arbitrary disposibility. Kwasniewski then criticizes the premises and extent of Paul VI’s liturgical reform. Traditionis Custodes, as an attempt to impose this liturgical reform in a definitive and total way, endangers the salus animarum and therefore cannot lay claim to the obedience owed to the lawfully-acting authority.

In further sections, Kwasniewski then undertakes an exegesis of the bull Quo Primum of Pius V and identifies the Roman rite as standardized in its Missal as an expression and component of the creed adopted by the Council of Trent. If, as TC claims, the Novus Ordo represents a different lex orandi with a different lex credendi, this implies a departure from the faith of the Council of Trent and not the “reform” of the Roman rite but the creation of a new rite. The attempt to create a new “lex credendi” in this way cannot bind any Catholic in conscience. It is not the opponent of this attempt who violates the obedience owed to the true authority of the Church, but the one who rebels against the authority of the apostolic tradition. Disobedience to this rebellion is in fact obligatory, and the punitive and disciplinary measures decreed by the power-wielders of innovation are unlawful and ineffective. That is the overall outline of the argument given in this book.

Should there be a further escalation in the struggle to preserve traditional doctrine and liturgy, this book provides priests and laity with conscience-forming materials on the basis of which they can make an informed and responsible decision.

Michael Charlier
May 12, 2022