February 4, 1998
Mercifully, no more priests in the U.S.A. left the Society of St. Pius X leftwards in the last two months to rejoin the Novus Ordo, but unexpectedly a priest of ours ordained a year and a half ago left us rightwards in December to join the sedevacantists who quit the Society back in 1983. As the old song says, "If the left hand doesn't get you, then the right hand will"!
This young priest had seemed solid. Perhaps he was knocked off balance by having had to start his priesthood in the same house as a fervid Carlitist, who left the Society shortly before he himself did. In any case these left-hand and right-hand departures are an occasion to reason quietly, not in detail, which has been done before, but in general, on why the Society takes the position that it does, neither liberal not sedevacantist.
The so-called "sedevacantists", named from their belief that the See ("sedes" in Latin) of Rome is vacant, are apparently the hard-line opponents of soft-line liberals. The popes for the last 20, 30 or 40 years, they say, are too liberal to have been able to be real popes. Yet the general and deep-down problem of liberals and sedevacantists is the same, even if neither would care to admit it: both forget just how far Our Lord can choose to allow the men of His Church to misbehave without it ceasing to be His Church.
This is because the Catholic Church, like its Founder, is truly human and truly divine. For when God became incarnate, or took flesh, then the Son of God, true God, became also true man, so that in Jesus Christ the divine and human natures are always both present and distinct but neither separate nor confused. Similarly in his one true Church, divine and human elements are always both present but especially must not be confused, because whereas the divine element is infallible both in Our Lord and in his Church, on the contrary the human element is sinless in Our Lord but fallible in his Church.
If then I blur the divine and human elements in the Church, the same confusion can go either of two ways. Either I will blur the human into the divine, and then, crediting mere humans with divine infallibility, I will hold the churchmen to be right whatever they say, and, if I blindly follow liberal popes, I will fall into liberalism. Or I will blur the divine into the human, in which case discrediting the stainless Church, bride of Christ, with the stains of fallible churchmen, I risk repudiating the bride and falling out of the Church, as did many Catholics when they became Protestants in Luther's time, and as have done a number of sedevacantists in our own time. On the contrary Catholics keep their balance by neither, like liberals, crediting the merely human with qualities divine, nor, like sedevacantists, discrediting the divine as merely human.
Of course when churchmen seriously misbehave, it can be difficult still to believe that the Church is divine. But let us remember Our Lord Himself. Which of us, had he been present at the original Way of the Cross, can pretend he would have had no difficulty in believing that this mocked, exhausted, bleeding man was God? So it is understandable if Catholics, watching the neo-modernists in Rome today make such a mockery of Catholic faith and morals, can hardly believe the popes are true popes. However, just as the disfigurement of the Man of Sorrows in His Passion did not prove He was not God, so all the present distortion of the Church does not necessarily prove the popes are not popes.
Does this mean that no amount of misbehaviour in Rome could ever prove it? No. One day, maybe soon, the See of Rome could become vacant. There have been several false popes, or anti-popes, in Church history. Again, for our own times, or times not far off, Our Lady warned us at La Salette that Rome will become the Seat of the Anti-Christ. It is quite possible that with the death of John Paul II (which may not be far off) there will be a vacant See of Rome or an anti-Pope for a while. So sedevacantism may then become true, at which point it may no longer produce the bitter fruits associated with it in recent years. But "Sufficient for the day is the evil thereof". Here and now the arguments for sedevacantism are rather less convincing than the arguments against it. How does our former colleague argue his case?
Of the 19 reasons he gives, why "in conscience" he had to leave the Society, ten concern the Church in general, nine concern the Society of St. Pius X in particular. Of the ten concerning the Church, eight argue from the Church's infallibility (which no Catholic denies) to the invalidity of the Newchurch, of Vatican II and of John Paul II, because all these three are so fallible. The remaining two arguments spell out that John Paul II in particular cannot be Pope.
But Church history confirms just how much fallibility God can choose to allow inside His Church: the bulk of the Church in heresy (Arianism), a "Robber Council" (at Ephesus), and popes wavering on the brink of formal heresy (Liberius, Honorius) - Mother Church has seen it all! However even such grave defections of the human churchmen are not incompatible with the Church's divine indefectibility. Thus Our Lord Himself says of His Church at the end of the world that on the one hand it will still be there (Mt. XXVIII, 20), on the other hand it will be so reduced in size as to be almost not there: "But yet the Son of Man, when he cometh, shall he find, think you, faith on earth?" (Lk. XVIII, 8).
This dark prophecy is essential to a correct understanding of the Church's divine gift of infallibility (or indefectibility in teaching). It means not that no bulk of the Church, no Council and no Pope will ever fall into error, but that (ordinary general infallibility) by a guarantee of God, the true and unchanging Deposit of the Faith will always be taught by the Church in a manner accessible to souls of good will down to the end of the world, while (derived particular infallibility) if the Pope as Pope ever imposes a definitive teaching of faith or morals upon the whole Church, God will specially protect him in that moment from teaching any error.
What has falsified and exaggerated infallibility in many Catholics' minds over the last 120 years has been the Church's strong discipline from the definition of papal infallibility in 1870 down to the 1960's and a series of relatively good popes (in doctrine and morals) from Pius IX to Pius XII inclusive. In a way, Catholics had it too good. That is why when John XXIII and Vatican II began seriously to err, easily most Catholics were caught off their guard. Whether they accepted error with their erring leaders and became liberal, or repudiated the erring leaders with the error and left the Church or became sedevacantists, either way they lost their Catholic balance.
Archbishop Lefebvre on the contrary neither accepted the error nor repudiated the erring leaders, much to their annoyance. (They would have loved him to walk out of the Church, and tried in vain to declare him out of it in 1988). But the Archbishop's course was the wise course. He always used to say that to believe these popes are not popes means creating problems worse than the solution. If Church and Pope are no longer in Rome, where are they? If for the last 30 or 40 years there have been no validly elected popes, nor then validly appointed cardinals, where is another pope to come from? That is why sedevacantists have for the last 20 years been creating a little series of garage popes. Garage Masses, if need be! Garage popes, no thank you!
As for our former colleague's nine arguments against the Society, they mostly come down to the same "Either, or", to which the Society replies, "Both, and". Imagine a devoted son hovering by the bedside of his gravely ill and infectious mother. Our former colleague would tell him, "Make up your mind. Either you go right up to her because you love her, or you get right away, because she's infectious, but you can't just stand there, betwixt and between!" To which the Society replies, "Our mind is made up! We must both stand close to that Church which is our Mother, and stand far enough off not to catch her disease which would make us unable to help her, so here we stand, in a contradictory situation, but not contradicting ourselves".
For indeed neither sedevacantists nor the Society are responsible for the contradictory situation of the Vicar of Truth being immersed in error, but the difference is that while the sedevacantists (and liberals) shortcircuit the contradiction, the Society endures it. Simplifications are always simpler, but they are not always true. They do, however, have their appeal to souls tired of complications, especially if the simplification carries an emotional charge as well.
In fact, the 19 arguments of our new sedevacantist may well be following his emotions, instead of his emotions following the arguments. In any case the end result is the same, once more, as with the liberals disobedience and enmity towards the Society. We pray for our former colleague.
Two minor consolations for his defection. If he left us in the opposite direction from the Carlitists, then the Society may be doing something right. As G. K. Chesterton once said "If I get attacked from all sides, then I can't be all wrong!". And secondly, this former colleague is the first American priest in nearly ten years to have defected from the Society to right or left, after doing all six years of his Seminary in Winona and/or Ridgefield. We still have much to be thankful for.
Thank you in any case to all of you benefactors for your prayers and support for the Seminary. As a wise reader recently wrote to us, such a Seminary's very existence is in today's world an on-going miracle.
With all good wishes and blessings,
Sincerely yours in Christ,
+ Richard Williamson