Much to my delight, a kerfuffle has broken out over George Weigel’s ill-conceived column, “Let’s Not Make a Deal…At Least Not This Deal,” which takes aim at the (possibly?) pending regularization of the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX). Weigel’s concerns are twofold. First, he objects specifically to the Society’s opposition to certain Vatican II novelties, particularly the Council’s controversial declaration on religious liberty, Dignitatis Humanae. Second, and more generally, he believes that if the SSPX should be regularized without foregoing its criticisms of the Council and its questionable fruits, it will kick open the doors to more dissent from Leftwing Catholics (is that even possible?). Though not discussed in detail, no doubt Weigel was also motivated to write his column by the simple fact Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre and the Society he founded committed the unpardonable sin of defying “The Great” Pope John Paul II with the 1988 episcopal consecrations. For Weigel, John Paul II is a singular figure of world-historical importance who, according to the type of neo-Catholic narrative Weigel himself promotes, made way for the triumph of neoliberalism by standing firm against Eastern bloc communism. To stand against John Paul II is to stand against the liberal order itself, or so Weigel thinks.
In response, Rorate Caeli ran a guest op-ed by Patrick J. Smith which calls attention to the reality that the interpretation and application of Conciliar texts like Dignitatis is not an open-and-closed affair. Here is Smith.
It is, of course, by no means clear that the Society actually dissents from or rejects Church teaching. Given the text and history of Dignitatis humanae itself, it is not clear what Dignitatis humanae actually means, and, therefore, it is impossible to say what dissent looks like. Even if the Declaration were wholly clear, that would not resolve the question. In 2014, the International Theological Commission issued a very lengthy document, “Sensus fidei in the life of the Church,” which discussed the sensus fidei, “a sort of spiritual instinct that enables the believer to judge spontaneously whether a particular teaching or practice is or is not in conformity with the Gospel and with apostolic faith” (para. 49). The document observes that, “[a]lerted by their sensus fidei, individual believers may deny assent even to the teaching of legitimate pastors if they do not recognise in that teaching the voice of Christ, the Good Shepherd” (para. 63). Given the sharp distinctions between Dignitatis humanae and the teachings of Gregory XVI, Pius IX, Leo XIII, and other good and holy popes, it seems eminently reasonable to discuss the Society’s position in terms of the reaction of an authentic sensus fidei. With all of this in mind, one must ask whether it is George Weigel who is staking out a position for largely political reasons.
More recently, over at Ethika Politika, Thomas Storck enters the discussion by highlighting the threat the SSPX poses to Weigel’s project of blending Catholicism and liberalism.
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.
There is, however, an important limit to how far I can agree with Storck’s article. His excellent evaluation of Weigel’s panic is marred by the following declaration: “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.”
Personally, I don’t recognize this SSPX to which Storck refers, though it’s possible that Storck—like others who criticize the Society—conflate the opinions of every SSPX cleric and layman who attends a Society chapel with the official positions of the Society itself. Moreover, it is strange to knock the SSPX for being “disobedient” when that disobedience—followed in good conscience—is why Catholics enjoy access to the Tridentine Mass to a degree not seen since the promulgation of the Novus Ordo Missae. It is also a major reason why critical discussion of the Second Vatican Council and the problem of liberalism in the Church was not snuffed out in the 1970s. While reasonable persons can disagree with this-or-that statement made by Archbishop Lefebvre or offer up contrary positions on certain unsettled theological topics, no faithful Catholic should forget the singular contribution the SSPX has made to keeping the light of traditional burning through the dark decades of a doctrinal, spiritual, and moral crisis which continues to afflict the Mystical Body of Christ.
As for Weigel and the ideology he represents, there is some reason to hope that the Church, at least in America, is starting to turn the corner (or, at the very least, keep around it). As I wrote about a couple of years ago for Front Porch Republic, various strands of what has been called “illiberal Catholicism” have emerged to counter the liberal position. Integralism, which promotes the proper understanding of the relationship between Church and state, now has a seat at the discussion table. Weigel might fear that his life’s work is starting to come undone, though he shouldn’t. Instead he should rejoice that his errors may not infect future generations and give thanks to God for the time given to reflect, retract, and repent of any conscious misstatements or mischaracterizations of doctrine he has made during his lifetime.