As I understand it, today is when the leaders of the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX) meet with the Vatican in order, hopefully, to bring to a happy end the process of reconciliation started by Pope Benedict XVI. Negotiations with the society have been in play for many months now as the Vatican and the SSPX have attempted to hammer out their differences. Oddly, the details of these differences, discussed in a “doctrinal preamble,” have been kept secret from the rest of the Church.
Despite the secrecy, those familiar with the SSPX are most likely also familiar with the substance of the differences, one of which ought to be of particular significance to us in America. You see, the tension between Rome and the SSPX involves not the arcane particularities of liturgical preference. In truth the SSPX split with the Church under Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre over doctrines, and one of them of special note: the Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on Religious Liberty.
Yes, the SSPX are not exactly fans of religious liberty. In fact, the U.S. District of the SSPX posted an article critical of the U.S. Bishops for their recent document “Our First, Most Cherished Liberty: A Statement on Religious Liberty.” The SSPX spokesmen wrote that it’s all well and good for the bishops to defend the Church’s right to save souls and perform works of mercy,…
“However, this is a much different thing than defending religious liberty, a false notion that originated with the Protestants and condemned as an error under the generic title of ‘Liberalism.’”
Yes, that’s right, the notion of religious liberty is Protestant. Someone call up Cardinal Dolan.
In this, the American SSPX is simply living up to the example left them by Archbishop Lefebvre. The late founder of the society loathed the Second Vatican Council and was convinced that it taught out and out heresy. This is what he had to say about religious liberty in his book, They Have Uncrowned Him
In this respect, to uphold, as Vatican II does, a naturally direct orientation of all men towards God, is totally unrealistic and a pure naturalistic heresy! May God deliver us from subjectivistic and naturalistic errors! They are the unmistakable mark of the Liberalism which inspired the religious liberty of Vatican II. But they can lead only to social chaos, to the Babel of religions!
Thus, to defend religious liberty is to be a liberal. To defend the teaching of the Council’s texts – not the “spirit” but the texts – is to engage in heresy. You might begin to see the problem here.
According to the Society, religious liberty cannot exist because authentic liberty can only be connected with the pursuit of the good; and since the Catholic faith is the good religion, there cannot be any real liberty to pursue anything but Catholicism. Error, the SSPX likes to say, has no rights. So, private worship of this or that heresy might be tolerated. But the notion of a right to objectively erroneous public worship is nonsense.
And so it would be, if human beings were automatons and error produced a brightly colored mark upon the human face, or, like a shoe in our gears, error caused us to break down. But we’re not machines, and error is not so obvious.
Error may not have rights, but people do. You know, human beings. And sincere consciences have, so the Council teaches, the right to be free from coercion from the state, so “that no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs, whether privately or publicly, whether alone or in association with others, within due limits.”
This definition of religious liberty by the Council is a far cry from the freedoms demanded by the liberals of revolutionary France, the kind of liberties condemned by the nineteenth-century popes. But I don’t want to argue the issue here.
What disturbs me is that as the U.S. Bishops try to rally the Catholic faithful behind the banner of religious freedom, the SSPX have been criticizing the very notion of religious liberty. While seeking reconciliation with the Church on other shores, here at home the Society is undermining the work of the bishops.
I certainly do hope that the SSPX does not split up and that they accept what, by many accounts, is a very generous offer by the Holy Father to be reconciled with the Church. Still, I cannot help feeling a bit anxious about welcoming in Catholics who would so openly deny what the Council teaches and what our bishops are leaning on right now to defend the work of our Catholic hospitals, schools, and charities.
Whatever happens, I pray that in the coming Year of Faith, the teachings of the Second Vatican Council will be made more accessible to all. In that way, perhaps even the SSPX will come to agree with the great Dietrich von Hildebrand who wrote that religious liberty is “the most elementary of human rights.”