Writings by Dr. John C. Rao

Curial Commission or Soviet-Style Bureau?

(Altered name of a Report on the FIUV Conference in Una Voce Newsletter, Spring, 2000)

As most of you are probably aware, Fred Haehnel and I were the American representatives at the International Una Voce Federation meeting at the Domus Pacis in Rome on November 13th –14th, 1999. Over twenty-five nations are now members of the Federation, new delegations from Argentina and Singapore being present for the first time at this year’s gathering. Most of the participants, Fred and I included, arrived earlier and stayed longer than the official two day conference, partly to be able to get a better feel for the overall situation by further consultations with our fellow delegates and with others outside Una Voce in Rome.

Saturday the 13th was taken up with the presentation of official reports, both written and oral, Fr. Joseph Bisig’s account of the current state of affairs in the Fraternity of St. Peter and a presentation by Mr. William Hudson on the life of the Institute of Christ the King.

As usual, the American scene compared rather favorably with that of most other countries. Delegation reports emphasized a range of problems. Some lamented the general growing indifference encountered by traditionalists as well as everyone else in the ever more devastated vineyard of the western Catholic world. Others complained of open hostility on the part of many bishops, some of whom are even willing to call upon state assistance to hamper the traditionalist movement. The Czech delegation recounted one incident particularly annoying to me in my capacity as Director of the Dietrich von Hildebrand Institute. Cardinal Vlk, Archbishop of Prague, postponed permission for use of the 1962 missal because of reading Dietrich von Hildebrand’s The Case for the Latin Mass, claiming that “the author publicly advances the opinions of the schismatic archbishop Marcel Lefebvre”, and that it was thus his duty to prevent the faithful from being “confused” by such “non-authentic interpreters of doctrine”.

Fr. Bisig’s comments were realistic in their awareness of the gravity of the problems facing the Fraternity and traditionalists in general. Nevertheless, they underlined the overwhelming sense of all the conference participants that, hard as the immediate future may be, we will be able to see things through, so long as we stay united. The theme of unity should, I think, be taken very seriously by traditionalists as grounds for meditation in this upcoming Lenten season. It would be very wise indeed for each of us to resolve not to criticize one another at this juncture lest we end up harming our own cause by internal dissension without our opponents having to lift a finger. Self-destruction is always a real possibility in our current situation. Restraint in open debate within the traditionalist camp may take some effort, but it would be a useful spiritual exercise and might perhaps contribute more to final victory than anything else. I am not urging such a moratorium in perpetuity and in private, but only for the time and in the public arena.

A certain progress was reported by some participating Una Voce national chapters in comparison with the 19th meeting. Australia led the list, announcing the happy arrival of the Fraternity in the Diocese of Melbourne. The situation in the Netherlands and in Italy also seemed to be somewhat improved. Poland presented a most impressive report, including a video cassette and elegant book on the mass celebrated in Poznan in July of this year to commemorate the 900th anniversary of the liberation of the Holy Sepulchre from Moslem control in the First Crusade. A countercultural event if there was one!

Sunday, November 14th, began with a Missa Cantata sung by Fr. Bisig. The day’s session saw an address by His Eminence Alfons Cardinal Stickler on the dichotomy between the desires of the Council Fathers with respect to the liturgical reform—desires which he, as a peritus, was well placed to gauge—and the reality of the deformation which actually took place. It was following upon this talk that the Ecclesia Dei Commission’s clarification of matters concerning Protocol 1411 and fallout from it was read. A general discussion of plans for the future closed the International Una Voce Federation meeting after dinner that same evening.

I would like to make a number of comments about the Ecclesia Dei Commission’s clarification, the complete text of which can be consulted on the Una Voce website. My comments will not be those of a canonist competent to dissect legal documents and arguments. Thankfully, we do have people within the Federation who can make such observations, and make them well. Rather, my remarks will be those of an historian concerned to place events in historical context.

It is impossible to discuss this document without noting in its words and manner of presentation one basic fact: it is contrary to the expressed purpose of Second Vatican Council. Laymen would be hard pressed to find in its content and approach the spirit of openness and pastoral awareness which one would presume to be more of a sign of acceptance of the Council than the ritual formalism of concelebration. Moreover, one could readily conclude from it that the iron curtain of clergy and laity so lamented by critics of pre-conciliar days had not been opened a fraction of an inch in the past thirty five years. “You” (the laity) and “us” (the clergy) came through with absolute clarity. Obviously, we would all agree that such a basic distinction is true with regard to state of life and function within the Church, but not with respect to our common concern for the Church’s survival and our common commitment to spiritual growth. At best, the approach can be labeled impolitic. It reminded me of complaints about the British government’s first propaganda efforts during the Second World War, when posters exhorted the population: “Do your duty so that we (and who are we?) can win”.

Unfortunately, the Ecclesia Dei clarification is all too obviously a reflection of one of the most basic problems not only of recent Church History but of the past two centuries and more of revolutionary change: namely, the simultaneous reference to contradictory themes as a basis for authoritative action. This works, effectively, to allow a revolutionary authority to act arbitrarily, and to sow such confusion in the minds of those trying to defend order and tradition that it can even paralyze their opposition entirely.

In this particular case, “signs” and “law” are set against one another in order to permit arbitrary action. Hence, signs of the times, such as concelebration with a local Ordinary, are elevated to tests of loyalty freeing one from the suspicion of schismatic tendencies, despite the fact that legally no one is supposed to be forced to concelebrate. One wonders what other future signs may eventually be evoked to indicate true union of traditionalist priests with fellow clergy in a given diocese. On the other hand, law is also emphasized, but law which could be placed in a proper perspective by a reading of the Church’s history and consideration of her pastoral sense alone. Among the legal matters mentioned are, first of all, the supposed inadmissibility of any lay concern for the internal affairs of a religious community, and, secondly, the unacceptability of refering to negotiations with Mgr. Lefebvre as a means of understanding the final agreements of 1988 establishing the Ecclesia Dei Commission and the erection of the Fraternity of St. Peter.

That the laity certainly can be involved in the internal affairs of a religious community in an inadmissible way is no doubt clear. Lay pressure led to the destruction of the Society of Jesus in the 18th Century. Unfortunately, the Church succumbed to this pressure, praised it, and thwarted efforts to prevent it. Luckily, however, other lay involvement, even on the part of non-Catholic laity, helped to maintain the Society in its time of troubles until the day that Rome officially restored it in the early 1800’s. Indeed, the whole first half of the nineteenth century (regarding which the Catholic world suffers, as one writer has noted, a “collective amnesia”), is replete with lay involvement in the work of reviving religious communities and shaping their character, whether the laity concerned were princes, journalists, or simply members of various lay-clerical circles in Germany, France, and Italy. Praise of the laity’s role in this regard is a matter of public record. Does such praise always have to come after the fact? Does it have to pass through some Hegelian flip-flop in which lay activity is first identified as having been illegal, only afterwards being honored as a work of the spirit?

The Commission’s clarification makes reference to the right of every faithful Catholic to appeal to the Holy See, though it does so only in speaking of the actions of the sixteen disgruntled priests of the Fraternity. One wonders what kind of matter the laity could bring, in appeal, before the eyes of the Holy See other than what traditionalists have done concerning 1411. If the laity cannot approach the appropriate commissions and congregations of the Holy See with reference to the affairs of a religious community that baptizes it, gives it the sacraments of Penance and the Eucharist, marries it, educates its children, buries it, and is mentioned in its wills, what else could it ever legitimately bring up? All other issues pale in significance compared to these.

Moreover, treating the negotiations of the Holy See with Mgr. Lefebvre as though they have no bearing on the character of the Fraternity seems to me to be historically absurd. Indeed, when certain traditionalists criticized the 1988 agreements, claiming that they would lead to some different end than that sought after by Mgr. Lefebvre, they were, at that moment, thought of as revealing a suspicious anti-Roman spirit which probably masqueraded schismatic tendencies. It is precisely to such background negotiations that the Holy See has appealed in the past when complaining of the violation of Concordats by given nations looking for loopholes in the letter of the law. Hence, to take but one example, it always understood that Napoleon’s “Organic Articles” did not flow from the Church’s agreement under the French Concordat to allow police measures to protect public order, because the discussions leading to that document’s acceptance did not envisage the deductions contained therein.

The effect of this simultaneous appeal to signs and law, common to much modern revolutionary discourse, is to create grave confusion in people’s minds. This is especially true with regard to traditionally-minded individuals who do accept the validity of both the letter of the law and the movement of the spirit in history. One is never sure what ground he stands on in petitioning for redress of grievance. When a stand is taken on the ground of clear legal evidence, pastoral signs are evinced as being superior to such pettyfoggery and hairsplitting. When pastoral needs are called forth, they are swept away with reference to the LAW in capital letters. In the final analysis, it then seems to be the case that the authorities can do whatever they wish to do under whatever rubric they choose to operate. Those that complain can then always be accused of some form of disobedient, schismatic behavior, as, indeed, traditionalists of the most loyal stamp often are. In this context, Cardinal Bilio’s critique of exaggerated Ultramontanist activity at Vatican One might justly be recalled: “this is not the way to handle the affairs of Holy Church”. It is reminiscent more of the attitude of Soviet officialdom, which treated Russians who sought protection for their rights as stated in the Soviet Constitution as traitors to that Constitution--for having the temerity to request that is precepts be honored.

The Ecclesia Dei Commission is upset about tendentious use of material on the Internet. That there is such tendentious use of material in this medium is, I think, indisputable. It is for such reasons that traditionalists have always warned against a too facile embrace of the wonders of the modern world, Internet among them. Still, one powerful means of rendering incorrect reports harmless is to treat loyal Catholics with respect, not immediately to label them as schismatic in tendency, to answer their requests for information and help, and to listen to both sides of any given story. The Commission’s record in this regard is not sterling, to say the least.

After due reflection on these questions, it strikes me that Una Voce America—and Una Voce International as a whole--should utilize the right of every faithful Catholic to appeal to the Holy See--a right noted in the clarification itself—respectfully to request a change in spirit, and, if necessary, personnel in the Ecclesia Dei Commission. Since a “pastoral sense” is now a recognized sign of unity with the Second Vatican Council, such a sense would seem to be the minimum requirement for any papal commission: especially one dealing with people who have made a special point of defending the divine authority of the See of Peter. Long live Christ the King!

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