Bishop Williamson – off the deep end.

The discussions directed towards reconciliation between the 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 be significant opposition within SSPX to Bishop Fellay’s work toward normalizing the status of the SSPX, not least ending its effective schism from the Church. Much of that opposition centered on Bishop Williamson, who gained notoriety by denying aspects of the received history of the Holocaust.

ImageFor this and other reasons it was no great surprise when the SSPX expelled him on 23 October. The question that everyone pondered was what the rogue bishop would do now. Few thought he would slink away into quiet retirement. A vigorous man with intellectual gifts sadly not tethered to a full sense of reality or perspective, he has rarely been a team player as a SSPX bishop. While one admires, even prays for, a bishop with a strong and active commitment to the Faith, a good bishop needs also a proper sense of his role within the universal Church, and the discretion and prudence with which to fulfill it. These qualities Williamson demonstrably lacks

It seems Williamson has now played his hand. A website has been launched to support his new St Marcel Initiative. There is not much to the page thus far, and it would only be fair to allow that there is more to come. Yet this page is public, and it is already deeply disturbing.

The name itself is bemusing. The ostensible reference appears to be to St Marcel the Centurion. However he is more commonly known as St Marcellus of Tangier, or St Marcellus the Centurion. The fact that he has chosen to render the name Marcel surely must imply an allusion to his own beloved Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, the founder of the SSPX and episcopal consecrator of Williamson. There is the whiff here of Williamson canonizing the late Archbishop. Not a good start.

This maverick, I’ll-do-it-my-way approach, all part of the stance he has adopted of Williamson contra mundum et ecclesiam, receives apparent confirmation on this simple web page. First, after barely a paragraph of introduction (disturbing in itself, of which more below), Williamson asks for money. His request is not subtle and he offers several ways of donating. Indeed, raising money seems to be the main purpose of the website. Not that there is anything wrong per se with asking for donations to help in a religious work. However, some works are legitimate and others not. That is one difference between donating to the Church and donating to a cult.

What is this work for which Williamson asks money? This is the second point which seems to confirm that Williamson has set up his own ecclesial community (or “the True Church” as he would no doubt term it). What does Williamson say?

IT SEEMS THAT, today, God wants a loose network of independent pockets of Catholic Resistance, gathered around the Mass, freely contacting one another, but with no structure of false obedience, which served to sink the mainstream Church in the 1960’s (sic) and is now sinking the Society of St. Pius X…. For myself, once my situation stabilizes, I am ready to put my bishop’s powers at the disposal of whoever can make wise use of them.

So he has discerned, it would seem through private revelation (a central element of radical Protestantism), that God now does not want either the Church or the SSPX (those evil “structure[s] of false obedience”), but a loose network of resistance cells. Williamson is selflessly (!) offering himself as bishop at large to La Résistance.

What should be made of this? Simply, that Williamson has ceased to be Catholic in any but the technical sense deriving from his Baptism. He has abandoned any concept of the organic development of the Church and seeks to replace its “structure of false obedience” (the hierarchy, the curia, and the diocesan system one presumes) with resistance cells. He has ceased to conceive of the role of the bishop as always and everywhere at the service of the universal Church by bonding to it the local Church that he serves. Being the bond of communion for resistance cells, following their own version of the Gospel, is not the same. In time I expect Williamson’s rhetoric will involve references to the primitive Church, served by the peripatetic St Paul, to whom we will all be invited (implicitly at least) to compare him.

Williamson is now bishop-for-hire: has mitre, will travel. He now embodies the very radical Protestantism he would affect to despise. Worse, he is setting himself up as an episcopal prostitute.

We can only pray for him, and those souls that he might lead astray, that he might come to his senses and reconcile himself with Christ’s Vicar, and so too Christ’s Church. The Church’s earthly mantle is, and always has been and will be, dirty and a little ragged. Yet it still adorns the Body of Christ. Williamson’s self-manufactured substitute will not suffice to replace. Horrible to think what body it might adorn.

PS For some insightful recent commentary of Williamson, written before the his Initiative was revealed, see Brian’s blog.

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)