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George Weigel, The SSPX, and Catholic Dissent

George Weigel devoted a recent column to reasons why Rome should not accept the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX), the society founded by the late Archbishop Lefebvre, into full communion with the Church. His reasons are that the SSPX rejects the teaching of the Second Vatican Council on “the fundamental human right of religious freedom and the Council’s embrace of ecumenism and interreligious dialogue – including the conciliar affirmation that there are elements of truth and holiness” outside the bounds of the Catholic Church. According to Weigel, however, “Archbishop Guido Pozzo, a senior Vatican official involved in discussions with the Lefebvrists, [stated] it may be possible to heal the breach Archbishop Lefebvre created by conceding that the teachings of Vatican II do not have the same doctrinal weight.”

Weigel then goes on the argue that this cannot be, that even though some doctrinal truths are more fundamental or “closer to the center of the faith,” nevertheless all are true and a Catholic can hardly regard some of the teachings of the Church as “more-or-less true.” And of course, Weigel is right about this point. But pretty much everything else in Weigel’s argument is simply wrong. How so?

Weigel acknowledges that the SSPX “have long claimed that what the Council taught on religious freedom is false because it contradicted settled Catholic teaching.” This he dismisses as simply “a claim that has more to do with the agitations of post-1789 French politics than with a serious account of the history of Catholic Church-state doctrine.” Does Weigel realize this claim of his is absurd? In the face of modernity, popes from Gregory XVI to Pius XII restated the traditional Catholic teaching on the duty, in certain circumstances, of the state authorities not only protecting the Catholic Church, but giving her special privileges and even subjecting non-Catholic religious societies to various restrictions. This was stated simply as fact, with no particular reference to France or any other nation. Since the Second Vatican Council, according to Pope Paul VI himself, did not define any dogmas, one might think that the previous teaching, so clearly taught by a succession of popes, was still the teaching of the Church. (Indeed, if this previous teaching was truly “settled,” as seems to be the case, is it even possible that a subsequent pope or council could alter it? For a fuller discussion of this question, see here.) As to ecumenism, it is hardly a doctrine, but rather a practice or even a strategy, and so a Catholic can certainly regard it as unwise or harmful without in the slightest degree offending against the faith. And I seriously doubt that the SSPX denies “that there are elements of truth and holiness” outside the Church. One would have to be blind not to see elements of truth in many places – of course, what ought to follow from such a recognition is another matter entirely.

But George Weigel is alarmed, so he says, because recognizing the SSPX would “enshrine a `right to dissent’ within the Church,” and he links the SSPX’s objections to the kind of dissent “long claimed by Catholic progressives.” Now this is truly bizarre. For the SSPX is basing their claim on what, on the face of it, are strong and clear affirmations in the Church’s previous teaching, affirmations which can not be wished away as merely parochial examples taken from French politics, as Weigel does. In fact, it was precisely the idea that the Council had changed settled teaching on religious liberty which gave color to the dissent by Catholic progressives after the Council. We just changed Catholic teaching on religious liberty, why not on this and that and the other? And, granting Weigel’s understanding of what the Council did, it is hard to argue against such claims. Those like Weigel who understand the Council as overturning previous teaching – or who explain away clear and repeated papal statements as simply time-bound – are the real authors of dissent, are those who “would reinforce the notion that doctrine is not about truth, but about power.”

But one more point. It is doubly curious that George Weigel appears so concerned about doctrinal continuity when he has been in the forefront of those claiming that Catholic social doctrine was fundamentally altered by John Paul II’s encyclical Centesimus Annus. (See here for a full discussion of this.) The truth of the matter is, that Weigel sees a threat to his cherished project of reconciling classical liberalism with Catholic doctrine, a project quite common among American conservative Catholics. Take away the supposed generalized right to religious liberty, and you take away the lynchpin of liberal society. Eventually the liberal minimalist state, the market economy, and the right of each individual to pursue happiness after his own fancy will all fall in turn. And George Weigel cannot permit that. Thus his attempt to link the SSPX to the Catholic left’s attacks on faith and morals, when in fact, it is Weigel and his like who provided and provide the basic justification for those who would like to alter Catholic teaching.

I am no particular friend of the SSPX. I think their disobedience unjustified, their rhetoric often shrill, and some of their critiques of post-conciliar developments in the Church wooden. But the questions they raise about how the Church could jettison the clear and consistent teaching of a whole series of pontiffs on religious liberty, and their commonsense observation that ecumenism has been nothing but a colossal blunder, seem to me fully justified. This is not the stuff of the kind of dissent Weigel identifies with the progressive left. That kind of dissent took its origins from the understanding of the Council that Weigel himself holds. But in Weigel’s mind none of this seems to matter, for at bottom what appears most dear to Weigel’s heart is this: to make the Catholic Church into a friend of classical liberal modernity, a friend of privatized religion and of a minimalist and purely negative understanding of social authority, a friend, in fact, of the Lockean project which has found such a faithful incarnation in the American polity.


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  • JohnW

    Excellent evaluation of the Weigel argument. I am particularly tired of Mr. Weigel being treated as an “all purpose expert on everything” by large portions of the conservative Catholic press, and of his apparent self-regard along those same lines. In this case, as the author points out, he goes out of his way to spin a good-faith attempt by Rome to bring back into the fold wandering and rebellious sheep into a rather far-fetched if not imaginary danger.