SSPX, LCWR and their common ground

On the two extreme and opposite fringes of the Church this appears to be a time of reckoning, initiated under the authority and by the will of Pope Benedict XVI.

On the liberal fringe we have the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) in the United States – for decades a fertile and welcoming home for dissent from the official teaching of the Church on such issues as the impossibility of the ordination of women, the evil of abortion, the wrongfulness of artificial contraception, the immorality of homosexual intercourse, and such topical issues – has been made the object of a Vatican doctrinal assessment. It is long overdue. Some of us can remember many instances of religious sisters in the USA (and elsewhere) dabbling in such New Age trendiness as Wicca, which despite the feminist gloss put on it is still paganism pure and simple. Donna Steichen’s book, Ungodly Rage, documents this sad history in detail up to the early 1990s. The Vatican investigation aims to promote within the LCWR a “a vision of ecclesial communion founded on faith in Jesus Christ and the teachings of the church as faithfully taught through the ages under the guidance of the magisterium”. In recent months, as prominent sisters have defied their own bishops and the Church in general on matter’s of substantial moral significance, some (such as Father Zuhlsdorf)  have taken to referring to a “magisterium of nuns” which has set itself up as an equal, and rival, to the Church’s magisterium. So it is no surprise that the LCWR has attacked the assessment.

There have been some shrill attacks on the Church’s authorities for this apparent “inquisition” and “persecution” of women who have done so many good works. Indeed they have done much good across many decades. But this riposte avoids the substance of the problem. It is the many bad works done with the tacit approval, and sometimes explicit approval, of the LCWR that concern the Vatican. Moreover, it is the LCWR itself that is being assessed, not the totality of the religious sisterhood in the USA. That said, the assessment follows in the wake of an apostolic visitation of women religious in the USA. That there now comes this assessment of the LCWR, of which the leaders of most (but not all) the women’s congregations are members, suggests that tyhe Visitation exposed serious problems, and is seeking to find their cause. In other words, it is the leaders who are under scrutiny, and rightly, for with leadership comes responsibility for the actions of those whom one leads. And of course, any charitable work that is not informed by and conformed to truth is not really an expression of charity at all; it is usually an expression of self-will rather than God’s will.

On the traditionalist fringe we find that the Society of St Pius X (SSPX), founded in the 1970s by Archbishop Lefebvre for those who could not reconcile themselves to the Second Vatican Council and its fruits, has been forced to face up to the reality of its situation in the face of a determined attempt by the Pope to effect its reconciliation with the Church. The SSPX has moved beyond its initial critique of the post-conciliar Mass to reject it outright, as well as rejecting certain teachings of the Council such as those on religious liberty and episcopal collegiality, to the point of rejecting the Council entirely. The SSPX openly moved into effective schism when Archbishop Lefebvre consecrated four men as bishops in 1988 to succeed him and so perpetuate the SSPX. He did so without the permission of the Pope, an act which earned for him and the bishops an ipso facto excommunication. The seriousness of the Pope’s intent was signalled by his lifting the excommunication against these bishops in 2009, a move not well received in some quarters of the Church for reasons both more and less defensible.

The fundamental problem with the consecration of these bishops back in 1988, one which reveals the inherent tendency in the Society, is that it effectively created a separate church by establishing its own source of authority and governance without any reference to the papacy as the guardian of Tradition. This was highlighted most recently in a homily preached last week by Bishop Tissier (one of the four illicitly-ordained bishops of 1988) in which he declared the “New Mass” to be the “emblem” of a “false religion” which is marked by “heretical perversity”. Such words cannot be said by a person who conceives of himself being in any way a member of the Church founded on the Rock of Peter. Just a few days ago the SSPX superior in Guatemala (!) called on Bishop Fellay (another 1988-bishop, current head of the SSPX and leader of the rapprochement with Rome) to be removed at the July General Chapter of the SSPX for, inter alia, his alleged “disobedience to the founder” (ie Lefebvre).

It is not the intention here to go into the issues surrounding both the LCWR and the SSPX, which are complex, lengthy and historically entrenched. Instead, we might stop to take note that these two groups, at opposing ends of the ecclesial spectrum, have something essentially in common: they are used to doing what they want to do, without any real reference to the Church, its teachings and its legitimate authority. For the SSPX, Archbishop Lefebvre has become the authority against which his successors must be judged. With Lefebvre long dead, this in reality means that a member of the SSPX will assess any action or teaching according to his own understanding of the Archbishop’s position, bolstered no doubt by a tendentious reading of old manuals of theology and the occasional misuse of a sainted theologian. There is no reference to the current authorities (doctrinal and juridical) of the Church since they are rejected a priori. Some excellent analysis can be found here.

Likewise the LCWR has set itself up against the Church founded on Peter, though without formally leaving its communion. Whereas the SSPX sees itself as defender of Tradition, though one sadly divorced from the Church which is its proper home, the LCWR sees itself as the defender of Prophecy, again sadly divorced from the Church which is its proper home and context. Tradition divorced from the papacy is not tradition in the traditional (!) sense; prophecy divorced from the Church and its truth is not prophecy in the scriptural sense. Sr Sandra Schneiders is one of the more obvious articulators of this prophetic desire. Sr Margaret Farley is a recent example of it.

So the LCWR commits itself not to the Church but to a dis-institutionalised ‘prophetic’ witness all too often over and against the teachings of the Church, of which they seek to remain members and whose members fund their activity; and the SSPX commits itself not to the Church gathered around the papacy but to the defence of an ossified ‘tradition’, all too often at odds with the living Tradition of the authentic Church. On the one side, the sisters determine what is prophetic; on the other side, the Lefebvrists determine what is traditional. Each is its own own authority, and the logical result is disobedience, rupture and the wounding of the Body of Christ.

Moreover, both contain in themselves the seed of their own downfall. For the sisters it is the increasing irrelevance and secularisation of their activities, while their congregations age and dwindle in numbers, and as a younger generation of Catholics rediscover the beauty of the faith,  the authority of papal teaching and the necessity of the Church. For the Lefebvrists it is the tendency to fragment into smaller, more fanatical sects, some of which even elect their own ‘popes’. It is the same tendency that weakens Protestantism. Whatever good the original Protestants had to offer was hugely diminished when they cut themselves from the Body of the Church; so too the SSPX lost any substantial audience within the Church when they cut themselves off from her, seeking, like Protestants, an invisible Church different from the visible. Severed from the vine, they will ultimately die.

All we can do is pray. We can only pray that the LCWR will realise that they cannot be faithful to Christ while disobeying the authority of his Body. We can only pray that the SSPX will realise the same. The remedy for them both is the same, for their basic problem is the same. They forget, or perhaps even refuse to see, that where the successor of Peter and the bishops are, there is the Body of Christ; and apart from the Body we are apart from Christ, without whom we can do nothing (John 15:5). Of these to whom he has entrusted the Good news, Christ says,

“The one who hears you hears me, and the one who rejects you rejects me, and the one who rejects me rejects him who sent me.”
(Luke 10:16 ESV)

12 thoughts on “SSPX, LCWR and their common ground

  1. PM says:

    As a footnote, the problems witht he LWCR go beyond moral and ecclesiological issues to Christology, which is rarely mentioned in the public commentary.

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    • Fr Hugh says:

      I quite agree. You can get a flavour of it in this diatribe by Schneiders, in which she sees US women religious in a battle with the Vatican, claiming Jesus for the women since they, like Jesus, upset the “patriarchal order”. I wonder how she, and her sisters, cope with Jesus calling God “Father” – how more patriarchal can you get!?

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  2. Sixupman says:

    Dear Fr. Hugh,

    You are in dangerous territory here. As an exercise, I would like you to compare the activities of the various and several clergy associations arising in Ireland [here Liverpool was an early example of the genre] and Continental Europe which have set their faces against BXVI, The Magisterium and The Catechism, not to mention the goings-on in Linz, which would even put LCWR in the shade, with SSPX.

    All those years ago, I and a great many were, in effect, dis-enfranchised from that which we had been taught. Some clergy of the period were denigrated and worse. All this, according to BXVI’s expressed view, based upon untruth – The Old Mass had never been abrogated.

    Leaving aside +Williamson, that extremely erudite contraversionalist and cult-of-self creator, +Tissier sees that which abounds in Mother Church with horror and who can blame him. He sees the connection between that and the NOM as at the root of the problem – he is entitled to that view, is he not? Vatican II has arrogated to itself a status of super dogma and De Fide, which is absolute nonsense.

    For the record, I attend a pro-Oratory in the North of England, not an SSPX chapel. I am not uncritical of SSPX, but such relates to the +Williamson faction, where they adopt the mantle, manners and actions, towards congregants, of the ‘Wee Frees’. Of the late Msgr. Lefebvre, I have the greatest admiration, were our hierarchy possessed of his guts and experience.

    As I write it has been published abroad that +Fellay has signed the deal. Deo Gratias.

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    • Fr Hugh says:

      Salve.

      Yes, I know that Ireland, Austria, Germany, and just recently the States, have spawned unofficial clergy associations whose avowed aim is to oppose the momentum that had gathered strength under John Paul II, and was definitively promoted by Benedict XVI. I touched on the LCWR because the Holy See is dealing with them directly at this point in time. Moreover, I was comparing them only with regard to the underlying tendency, not in the detail nor in the particular direction of their thought and action.

      A comparison is not unjust, not only because of the common (and destructive) tendency they manifest, but because I see that the Church must include them both in her fold. The SSPX I am aware began with noble intent, and met unfair and ill-tempered antagonism. The sisters too began with a not-unhealthy desire to move beyond on the confines of an often limited apostolate to bring Christ to a world hungry for Him. But when the SSPX began to operate on its own terms, and to reject outright legitimate authority (however at times misguided) and withdraw into a fortress, nostalgia-based vision of the Church; and when the sisters likewise demonised ecclesial authority through an uncritically-adopted feminist ideology, and embraced the world and its secular trends rather than seeking to transform them along the lines the Council quite eloquently set out – then they both ceased to be Catholic in any healthy sense.

      I suspect the SSPX fell foul so quickly because they explicitly rejected the Council, and thus by extension the bishops. The sisters, on the other hand, survived because were cannier: they flew the banner and shouted the war-cry of Vatican II, and behind its cover got on with their own agenda, and sadly too few took the time or trouble to see beyond the self-justifying rhetoric and misappropriation of the Council. Both traded on the goodwill of rank and file Catholics: the sisters, by using the historical legitimacy of their congregations to convince people they were mainstream Catholicism; the SSPX by using the familiarity of the old Mass and ancient devotions and signs to reassure people that they stood for real Catholicism.

      In fact both were moving away from the Church and adopting a remarkably similar anti-Rome rhetoric. Implicitly the sisters saw a pope as a hindrance, and the SSPX that a pope did not any longer exist – and so both got on without reference to him other than to attack him.

      Benedict XVI has now brought matters to a head for both groups; and now both must seize the opportunity to regularise their situation or lose any legitimacy.

      Tissier, I believe, had no right at all to say what he said. It was anti-Rome, anti-Church, and ultimately anti-papal vitriol he was spouting. He refuses to concede that this Pope has made all the moves to deal with their concerns: he has fully restored the old Mass to the mainstream of Catholic life, despite resistance in many quarters; he has pursued the hermeneutic of continuity in order to counteract the attempt by some (and not, as you say, by the Council itself) to make Vatican II a super-dogma; he has called wayward priest and religious into line, and dismissed erring bishops. Fellay seems to have read the signs of the times and seen that this Pope has created the opportunity for the SSPX to work from within the Church. And Fellay appears ready to work with him in this, perhaps because he knows that to remain outside the bosom of the Church will see the SSPX’s work become totally fruitless. Tissier prefers the status quo of war, and of self-determination. He would show true Catholic spirit if he decided to join the movement back to Rome and support the Pope in reforming what ails the Church. Sadly he seems to have opted for the Protestant option.

      I realise that many may be offended by what I wrote, if only because of necessity I wrote in such broad and general terms. Obviously I do not tar all the sisters not all the Lefebvrists with the one brush. But their organisations are heading for the cliffs, and I would dearly like them to stop before they step beyond the brink.

      Peace to you.

      I have met some excellent, devoted sisters in congregations otherwise problematic, and I have met some superb SSPX members whose commitment and knowledge of the faith I admire immensely. As I said, we need them both.

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  3. Matt says:

    The seeds of the present crisis of the Catholic Church were sown when Rome broke from the Body of Christ in 1054. It’s not the SSPX or the LCWR that should return to the Papacy, but the Roman church itself should give up it’s original heresies such as the Filioque, the Papacy (not to mention its infallibility), celibacy of priests, the unleavened bread, the excessive reliance on human reason, the immaculate conception of the Virgin Mary – actually, this list can go on and on.

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    • Fr Hugh says:

      Rome broke from the Body of Christ in 1054? Unleavened bread is a heresy? If you are Orthodox, good luck to you. But I am not going to be sidetracked into the whole Schism debate. No Peter, no Church. I see no need to defend the obvious.

      Pax.

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  4. Matt says:

    Fr. Hugh.

    There is no need to defend the obvious – Uhm, now, where have I heard that before?

    As far as being “sidetracked into the whole Schism debate” is concerned, as Orthodox Christian I can only say that the first calamity to befall Christendom was, yes, the power grab, known as the Great Schism of the Roman Church – followed by the Protestant break away (one power grab generates another, and another, and another), the French Revolution, the so-called Russian revolution (which was in fact a Jewish revolution), the European civil war that lasted from 1914 to 1945, and, Vatican II.

    But then, as you put it, there is no need to defend the obvious..

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    • Fr Hugh says:

      This post is about the SSPX and the LCWR, not about Orthodox claims to authenticity, so I shall not address them. As for the socio-political banners you flew in the post above, I shall not even acknowledge them. Not interested. Sorry. You may be happier on an Orthodox blog.

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  5. [...] of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) in the USA, on which I have written recently here and [...]

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  6. Sugel says:

    True to the ideals of the Gospels, the sisters have not gone into schism. They have not espoused heretical positions. They have remained faithful to our increasingly patriarchal church, although some might wonder why, given the utter lack of appreciation that patriarchal church has shown them. And I don’t mean the appreciation of effusive praise. There is, truth to tell, a fair amount of praise for the good sisters in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s doctrinal assessment of LCWR. True appreciation would be to allow women religious to exercise a meaningful ministry within the church’s sacramental and governance functions.

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    • Fr Hugh says:

      I am always wary when it is said of someone that they are true to the ideals, or the spirit, of something. It usually means they are not true to the letter in any meaningful way. Sisters historically have done wonderful work, which is no doubt why so many have been, and continue to be beatified and canonised. However, the evidence in the last 40 of the unabashed refusal of so many senior sisters to adhere to the dogmatic teaching of the Church, especially on moral matters, is immense. That these particular sisters have remained faithful is highly debatable; they have certainly remained faithful to their own institutional structures which, of course, guarantee them food, clothing, travel, books, healthcare etc.

      Ultimately if they are in fact true to the Gospel then they have nothing to fear – the Lord will vindicate them. If not, they should heed the voice of their shepherd.

      Patriarchal Church? Well it was Jesus who called God “Father” – I guess he must have been patriarchal too…

      Pax.

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  7. [...] Society of St Pius X (SSPX) and the Holy See, which were noted here a while back, seem to have reached an impasse for now. There appears to [...]

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