Catholics striving to be loyal to “the faith once delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3) are rightly and reasonably concerned about the state of the Church today. Things are looking bleak on many levels, as, not long ago, Steve Skojec’s wrap-up of a particularly bad week showed us. Those who have eyes to see and ears to hear can see it and hear it in technicolor and surround-sound.
Obviously, we need to keep our eyes open to scope out the evils that threaten us and to watch where we’re going—not merely to preserve ourselves from harm but to guide and protect all who depend on us. We need to keep our ears open, lest we fail to cling to the divine truth handed down to us by the Church of all ages and fail to notice the glaring discrepancies between that truth and the popular false gospels, including, sometimes, those preached by prelates. We have a duty to proclaim the full truth and bear witness to it in a holy manner of life.
People will have disagreements, it has always been so: look at the stern rebuke of Peter by Paul (Gal 2:11) or the sharp contention between Paul and Barnabas (Acts 15:39). But rebukes and contentions can be done in different ways—in ways that build up, and in ways that tear down.
The times in which we live confront us simultaneously with immense spiritual danger and opportunity for heroic virtue.
At the root level, in the custody of our inmost thoughts and desires, we must not allow anything, no matter how grievous, to distract us from gazing in our hearts on the face of Jesus Christ. If we are drawn into an excessive focus on the sins and errors of churchmen, we are not victors but losers, since we are led away from the only source of victory, Our Lord Himself, who is the sole measure of reality, the one consolation to the wandering pilgrim. A sign that we are paying such things excessive attention would be a steady attitude of discouragement, which, as St. Thérèse taught in her simple way, is a form of pride, because it manifests how we are trusting in men, in ourselves, for salvation rather than in the God who alone saves. Other signs might include long-standing depression, acedia or spiritual lethargy, simmering anger, the disgusted abandonment of religious practice, or the approval of rebellious attitudes and actions on the part of those who are resisting the crisis in the Church. In the name of fidelity to tradition—a fidelity entirely laudable towards a good entirely lovable—we can so easily be deceived or deceive ourselves if we are not careful to keep our minds and hearts resting where they need to rest.
There is no deception or self-deception possible when one gives total obedience and loyalty to the Church on earth—as long as one understands what the proper object of this obedience and loyalty is. The object of supernatural faith, the theological virtue of faith, is God the Revealer and Him alone, not any mere human, not even the pope or bishops together in council. The content of the faith is what God has revealed and what He teaches on faith and morals through the Magisterium of His Church, when that authority is unmistakably engaged. Whatever teaching on faith and morals is promulgated by the pope to the entire Church, with the express engagement of his apostolic authority as successor of Saint Peter, all this we embrace with joyful obedience, knowing that neither Christ nor His Vicar, acting precisely as such, can deceive or be deceived.
All the same, as a Catholic I do not place my faith in the pope as such, but in Christ who teaches us through His ministers. If the pope (or any other bishop or cleric) should falter in the day-to-day preaching or living out of the Faith, my own faith remains unshaken; why should it be shaken? Christ is the immovable rock on which the Church is founded, and the pope is that rock precisely when and as he speaks and acts in communion with Christ. The pope, like all of reality, is subject to a measure outside himself—he is not himself the ultimate measure. It is the glory of the Catholic Faith that nothing we are bound to believe, nothing that is essential to our sanctification, is based on human whims or subjective opinions. Put the other way around, nothing based on human whims or subjective opinions will ever be among the articles of faith or the elements of sanctity. And if, to take the extreme case, something is stated or done by a prelate that conflicts with already-established doctrine on faith and morals, we know ipso facto that it has no other force than that of bad example.
Far too many people today, including apparently senior members of the hierarchy, seem to have forgotten the time-honored principle that there are many levels of authority at which a pope speaks, as gauged by the language he uses, the instrument in which the language appears, the occasion chosen, the reiteration of a teaching, and other such signs. It is also universally accepted that the pope can be mistaken in judgments of fact and prudential decisions, whenever faith and morals are not immediately and directly at stake. In other words, if I say “the Mass is not a true and proper sacrifice,” I am doctrinally wrong, but if I say “attendance of Catholics at Mass in Europe is rapidly increasing” or “the abandonment of Latin brought more Catholics to Mass than ever before,” I am factually wrong. This latter kind of statement simply is not doctrinal, nor, as a result, something to which a pope’s infallibility could ever extend. In this sense, why would anyone doubt that a pope can say foolish things—don’t we all? Man does not live by every word that comes from the mouth of the pope, but only those which come from the mouth of God; and the pope’s words are those of God only when, and only because, he teaches authoritatively on faith and morals as the Vicar of Christ.
A further distinction can be granted, too: some teachings are timeless, while others are time-bound. The time-bound are binding so long as the circumstances for which they are intended remain. Of course, only the Church herself can indicate definitively that, in her judgment, the circumstances no longer obtain; and yet there are times when history has done this work for us, without any official judgment being necessary. Fr. Hunwicke has pointed out that many passages in Vatican II documents (Gaudium et Spes comes particularly to mind) now read like dated period-pieces, quaint with the naïve optimism of their day, perhaps even quaint at the moment they first appeared, and rapidly aging like the architectural products of the same period, which today are frequently torn down to make room for more beautiful and traditional buildings. Just as the passage of time condemned to irrelevance many thundering provisions of medieval councils, so, too, something like this is happening slowly to the Vatican II documents, or at least to their purple passages.
It is not the Church’s business to make herself pleasing and “understandable” to the world, if this will only corrupt her saving message and her supernatural mission. It would be like a woman prostituting herself in order to reach hardened sinners. The truth of the faith takes precedence over a misty-eyed camaraderie that so often proves, in reality, to be a treacherous rivalry. Rather, in her beauty, in her simplicity, in her unchanging doctrine, the Church has the perennial power to attract even the worst sinners, the most jaded or ideological intellectuals, Protestants, Jews, unbelievers of every stripe.
The fundamental flaw with the Second Vatican Council can be expressed quite simply: the world must adapt itself to the Church, not the Church to the world. Thus Louis Bouyer speaks of “the temptation . . . of a false modernity, of a so-called adaptation to modern needs which actually causes the loss of true tradition as the result of an idolatry of ephemeral fashion, and as a result of the unregulated fancies of individuals” (Liturgical Piety, 40). It was thought that the Church—the Church!—needed “updating,” when it was really modernity that needed to be rescued from the tyranny of the temporal, the illusion of progress, the vanity of humanism, and the idolatry of technics. It was said that the Church’s liturgy no longer spoke to modern man, when, in fact it was the principal thing that modern man lacked and needed to be initiated into. So the Church was “updated,” and threw off her past like the nuns who threw off their habits or the parishes that tore down their sanctuaries. The liturgy was redesigned in accomodation to the spirit of the times. This “spirit” was misread; for the spirit of our times is largely a diabolic spirit which can deceive even the elect, as our Lord warns us (Matt 24:24). So much of the Church’s internal activity since the Council has been the foolish (not to say scandalous and destructive) effort to race forward, keeping pace with the West as it plummets into the worst darkness that mankind has ever known. As John Senior put it back in the 1970s:
There is little comfort in the visible Church now. The liturgy, set upon by thieves, is lying in the ditch; contemplatives are mouthing political slogans in the streets; nuns have lost their habits along with their virtues, virgins their virginity, confessors their consciences, theologians their minds.
What is needed is something very like a new Counter-Reformation — only with this difference: that it must be a Counter-Conciliarism. For whether or not the Second Vatican Council can be blamed or implicated for any of the problems mentioned — a question on which scholarly debate continues to develop as people’s minds thaw to admit a larger and more subtle range of possibilities — nevertheless it is patently obvious, as Cardinal Ratzinger/Pope Benedict discussed many times, that the “spirit of the Council,” in the name of which the most enormous atrocities and the most disgusting absurdities have been and still are committed, is clearly at the center of the crisis. To continue to “implement” the Council in the ways in which this implementation has been understood in the past 50 years will produce only more confusion, more loss of faith, more liturgical aberration, more impoverishment, more betrayal.
The contemporary liturgy, in part reflecting the condition of the Church and in part causing it, shares in this Western darkness, in its loss of the sacred, loss of the numinous. All too often, liturgies express not “the unsearchable riches of Christ” (Eph 3:8) but the banality and (an-)aesthetic poverty of the West. That is why the restoration of the traditional liturgy is the most urgent apostolic mission of all, the antidote to a conciliar “implementation” by which countless Catholics have been alienated, superficialized, and compromised. The traditional liturgy has the power to turn the clock forward to an age of rediscovered light; the present liturgy has power only to keep us stuck in the ersatz theology of the ‘60s and ‘70s, with its inverse missiology (meaning: its anti-evangelical effects). The West needs to be re-evangelized, as the Popes have insisted again and again; but does not evangelization demand, by its very nature, the fullness of liturgy reverently celebrated and the fullness of faith boldly proclaimed? There is no other evangelization, old or new, that is worthy of the name. The mysteries are the mission.
As the world goes down, the Church must raise her head again above the confusion and remain the beacon of light she has always been. That means you and I must be those beacons of light, working with God’s grace to make of ourselves worthy Catholics who pray as the Church prayed before the changes, believe what she has always believed, and practice what her saints practiced. In this way we join the ranks of the Church of all times and places, making the Way, the Truth, and the Life present in the world and available to our neighbors. We must be agents of a “New Evangelization” that is new precisely because it newly reintroduces other Catholics, other Christians, and unbelievers — men and women utterly cut off from their roots — to the greatness of Tradition, ever ancient, ever new. This greatness is genuinely good news, with power to convince and convert. It is not the “Novel Evangelization” that we so often see, where novelty replaces substance, but a solid preaching of the Gospel, the whole, demanding, consoling, wondrously mysterious Gospel that feels fresh and new after the staleness and datedness of the past fifty years.
As I said: the times in which we live confront us with, simultaneously, immense spiritual danger and opportunity for heroic virtue. Let us do what we can today, and every day, to dodge those dangers and seize those opportunities, for this is the stuff of saints.
 It is the consensus of all traditional theologians, echoed in the explicit teaching of Pope Pius XII’s Humani Generis and Vatican II’s Lumen Gentium, that not just the extraordinary papal magisterium (think: ex cathedra proclamations) but also the ordinary papal magisterium must be given our firm consent. Monsignor Joseph Clifford Fenton, as fine a preconciliar theologian as one could wish, and one of Michael Davies’ heroes, says that the moment a Catholic picks and chooses what he will or will not accept in the ordinary magisterium, he has already in principle abandoned his adherence to that magisterium, even if he agrees with 99% of it.
Dr. Peter Kwasniewski, Thomistic theologian, liturgical scholar, and choral composer, is a graduate of Thomas Aquinas College and The Catholic University of America. He has taught at the International Theological Institute in Austria, the Franciscan University of Steubenville’s Austria Program, and Wyoming Catholic College, which he helped establish in 2006. He writes regularly for Catholic blogs and has published seven books, the most recent being Tradition and Sanity (Angelico, 2018). For more information, visit www.peterkwasniewski.com.