Liberals and Modernists of every stripe attempt to defend their own identity as Catholics by an appeal to infallibility. This appeal is not an effort to safeguard the Tradition of the faith, but an effort to excuse one’s conscience from obedience to the Fathers and the Magisterium. This appeal usually takes the following form: when a liberal Catholic is presented with a doctrine about usury taught by Benedict XIV, or a doctrine about Church and state taught by Gregory XVI, this liberal retorts with his chosen red herring: “Is that teaching infallible?”
This question is incredibly effective because it is relevant to the discussion of Church doctrine, but also obscures the Catholic’s obligations to the Church. It pertains to the question to such a degree as to be beyond dismissing, but it misleads the conversation in a direction where the liberal is more comfortable — the place where the liberal can have his own way. This is the phenomenon of “cafeteria Catholicism,” where a man picks and chooses what he wishes to believe as a Catholic. This was epitomized by conservative Catholic William F. Buckley’s phrase “Mater si, Magistra no.”
On the other side, the pious Catholic, seeking to convert his brother from liberalism and Modernism, acts more on feelings and intuition than distinctions of theology. He knows that the Church must be obeyed, and he knows that the doctrines of the Pian Magisterium expound the perennial doctrines of the Faith, but when he is confronted with the question of infallibility, he is faced with a difficulty. He knows enough to say Benedict XIV and Gregory XVI never taught infallibly, but he somehow feels that they should still be obeyed. On the other hand, he may be caught up in the false spirit of Vatican I, in which he extends quasi-infallibility to every word and deed of every pontiff. So he cannot answer the liberal who catches him with an appeal to infallibility, and the liberal can blithely dismiss these popes’ teaching, since, he reasons, “A Catholic is not obliged to assent to teachings that are not infallible. If they are not infallible, then they could be erroneous by definition. Therefore, they do not oblige me to assent.”
These kinds of emotional and quasi-theological appeals from either side seem to dominate a great deal of public Catholic discourse. This kind of chatter gains momentum any time there is some controversy in the post-conciliar narrative, whether from the liberal side or the orthodox side. The “narrative” is the competition between different parties to define what the Second Vatican Council teaches and what it means for the Church. We see this discourse arising again with the recent controversies with Viganò.
The liberal asserts that what the Pian Magisterium taught about society and politics was not infallible, therefore we are to adhere to Vatican II’s great optimism about the modern world. In this way the liberal can execute an obeisance to Tradition without assenting to Tradition. He can give Tradition a nod, then move on with the program.
The Catholic response also may fail on the other side. He may be so critical of Vatican II that he asserts a de facto sedeprivationism: that the Magisterium went into eclipse in 1958 and has ceased to hold authority to teach the Faith, owing to its adherence to Vatican II. Any cleric who adheres in any way to Vatican II is invariably a heretic and a Modernist. This is because the doctrines of the Pian Magisterium are binding, if not infallible, and thus Vatican II is a robber council.
The solution to this confusion is to re-establish the proper theological distinctions necessary to discuss these issues. The most important aspect of this is a discussion about the virtues involved. The fundamental virtue is the virtue of piety, which means to give to one’s parents and other authorities the reverence that is due to them. This is what leads a child to obey his mother, a wife to obey her husband, and a family to obey the Church. Piety is so much assumed by the Fathers that they see it as self-evident. Writing against the heretics of his day, St. Basil assumes piety regarding Tradition both written and unwritten:
Of the dogmas and kerygma [preaching] in the Church, some we possess from written teaching and others we receive from the tradition of the Apostles, handed on to us in mystery [sacramental rites]. In respect to piety both are the same force. No one will contradict any of these, no one, at any rate, who is even moderately versed in matters ecclesiastical. Indeed, were we to try to reject unwritten customs as having no great authority, we would unwittingly injure the Gospel in its vitals[.] … For instance, we take the first and most general example, who taught us in writing to sign with the sign of the cross those who have trusted in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ? What writing has taught us to turn to the East in prayer? Which of the saints left us in writing the words of the Epiclesis [prayer] at the consecration of the bread of Eucharist and of the Cup of Benediction? … Is it not from silent and mystical tradition? Indeed, in what written word is even the anointing with oil taught? … Does this not come from the secret and arcane teaching which our fathers guarded in a silence[?] … In the same way, the Apostles and Fathers who, in the beginning, prescribed the Church’s rites, guarded in secrecy and silence the dignity of the mysteries. 
When the rites and doctrines of the Church were attacked, the Fathers appealed not to infallibility, but to piety. Do you not owe to your fathers what is due to them? Does not St. Paul exhort us to guard the traditions (II Thess. 2:15)? Piety is the force behind the guarding of Tradition. This is what led the Seventh Ecumenical Council, at time when heretics had been smashing statues, to declare this anathema:
If anyone rejects any written or unwritten tradition of the church, let him be anathema.
Therefore we are to zealously guard Tradition and traditions because we have the virtue of piety. We are not permitted to pick and choose what we are to believe as the Protestants do. We are bound to the Tradition by piety to guard it. Fr. Ripperger explains it this way:
As a Catholic, in all matters of religion one must submit one’s judgment to the judgement of the Church unless the Church in no way has pronounced judgement on a topic. However, once the Church pronounces judgement on it in any way or if there has been a discussion of that topic somewhere in the tradition, we are bound to investigate and submit our judgment to those who are higher than us in the ecclesiastical order[.]…One is never free to make oneself the principle of judgment. This follows from the fact that these are matters of the intellect, not of the will. Therefore they are matters of judgement, not of choice. 
Because Catholics failed in their piety, they were able to allow the abuses of the past few generations. Ripperger again:
Piety is the virtue by which one gives honor to those who are above oneself as well as care of those who are entrusted to a person. Refusal to follow the tradition or rejection of the tradition, as we saw in how the monuments of the Church were stripped with impunity in the last two generations, is rooted in impiety. It is against piety to constantly change everything, because it is a rejection of the work of our forefathers. They labored to build the monuments, to gain greater doctrinal clarity, to perfect the discipline of the Church as well as a whole host of other things. They passed on the tradition intact which was given to them and then they added to the tradition things which would make it easier for us to understand the tradition, accept it and practice it. By the rejection and extensive overhauling of what was passed to them, the last two generations have in effect rejected their forefathers and what was bequeathed to them. It shows an unwillingness to submit one’s will to what is passed on to him[.] … It is hard to see how this is not a violating of the Fourth Commandment. 
This is why the same liberals who gutted churches also taught heresies: both of these actions are rooted in impiety. Thus when we begin the discussion with piety, we see that the assumed mode of operation is to zealously guard all that our fathers passed down to us, everything from the deposit of faith to Palestrina. Piety governs all. Once we start with piety, then we can start to make the distinctions between the theological notes and the degrees of certainty, and our assent to infallible or non-infallible teachings. Piety will not allow us to excuse ourselves from our duty to our fathers. The question then becomes, what does a pious Catholic do when confronted with something in the tradition? He who is pious humbly submits his judgment to his fathers. This is the proper context for the debate about Vatican II.
 St. Basil, On the Holy Spirit, ch. 27. Emphasis mine.
 Fr. Chad Ripperger, Magisterial Authority (Sensus Traditionis: 2014), 46, 52
 Fr. Chad Ripperger, The Binding Force of Tradition (Sensus Traditionis: 2013), 51
Timothy S. Flanders is the author of Introduction to the Holy Bible for Traditional Catholics. In 2019 he founded The Meaning of Catholic, a lay apostolate. He holds a degree in classical languages from Grand Valley State University and has done graduate work with the Catholic University of Ukraine. He lives in the Midwest with his wife and four children.