The Glass Confessional
“Awaiting their good counsel – and that of others who will want to remain anonymous – I invoke the sweet but sharp spirit of St. Thomas More who rebuked his beloved King (and murderer) to his face and bid him "God-be-with-you" on the scaffold. It is possible that men of good will and even saints will sit on either side of this dispute, perhaps for decades – for all we know, to the end of the world. Meanwhile, "the wisdom of the just," says St. Gregory, "is not to practice dissimulation, but to speak what is in one's heart, to love the truth as it is." No more polite evasions. Truth and charity are sharp as any two-edged sword.
This is how it seems to me, without research files, notes or time to catch mistakes – the whole thing coming, as the great decisions do, all at once and now.
Three things stand first as the ground of all argument: 1) In the psychological order, a man has to be in his right mind. As the great philosopher Boethius remarked, a drunk doesn't even know the way to his own house. 2) In the moral order, we have to face and tell the truth. 3) In the order of knowledge, proof is founded on obvious fact and the principles of reason. These three things are the grounds of rational discourse, summed up as "common sense." They stand prior to argument, have nothing to do with expertise; their best custodian is the man in the street.
Now it seems to me that the great questions of life and death always come down to common sense. God is not going to hold us responsible for the five proofs of His existence or for the quodlibets and quiddities of Canon law, which are the business of experts. We have to act, here and now, under threat of excommunication before next Sunday's Mass, on what we see and know.
First, in the psychological order, when asked the great questions of life and death, good men often start, not with "What do I see" but "What did my mother say?" Thus William Blake's "Little Black Boy":
My mother taught me underneath a tree, And, sitting down before the heat of day, She took me on her lap and kissed me, And, pointing to the east, began to say: Look on the rising sun, -- there God does live, And gives His light and gives His heat away; And flowers and trees and beasts and men receive Comfort in morning, joy in noonday. And we are put on earth a little space, That we may learn to bear the beams of love; And these black bodies and this sunburnt face Is but a cloud, and like a shady grove. For when our souls have learn'd the heat to bear, The cloud will vanish; we shall hear His voice Saying: "Come out from the grove, My love and care, And round My golden tent like lambs rejoice.
The little Catholic boy was taught that the safest way to make this vision true for him is simply to "follow the Pope." Now a rule so deeply known cannot be contradicted. It stands as a practical first principle in all Catholic dispute. And yet, my mother also taught that no one, not even the Pope, can command us to sin, and therefore obvious fact and right reason are prior even to obedience because you have to hear and understand commands and carry them out in concrete times and places in good conscience. 1) In the psychological order that means that the authority must be in his right mind, not in some sense drunk, or acting under compulsion. Newman, speaking of the excommunication of St. Athanasius, says it was as if the heretical Roman Emperor guided Pope Liberius' fingers as he wrote the invalid command. And, of course, St. Athanasius was not in the least disobedient in ignoring such a nullity. 2) In the moral order, all argument presupposes honesty. In addition to simple abuse such as putting Ecclesiastical or other preferment before truth, there is, alas, a difficult, indeterminate, "Renaissance" morality proposing semi-frauds like, "I can do more good if I go along with this and work within to change it." Well, that all depends on how bad things are and how serious the question is. With life and death at stake, we have to take a stand. 3) In the order of knowledge we must start with: a) the principles of reason – that is, the laws of contradiction, sufficient reason, and cause/effect. When philosophers say existence is an essentially contradictory "becoming," you doubt the prognosis of any argument they make. And b) obvious fact. Ob from Latin meaning something you "bump up against," plus via, "on the road." We are not talking about argument, but the grounds of argument. We are not even at the stage of investigation where you seek to know the difficult things that aren't clear, but back before the start when something at least must be clear, otherwise you couldn't seek. You have to see the telescope in front of you before you can look through it. Obvious fact is not scientific conclusion but commonsense evidence everyone (honest and in his right mind) can see. Under tyrannical inquisition, the man in the street, Winston Smith, in George Orwell's novel 1984, explains:
In the end the Party would announce that two and two made five, and you would have to believe it. It was inevitable that they should make that claim sooner or later: the logic of their position demanded it. Not merely the validity of experience but the very existence of external reality was tacitly denied by their philosophy. The heresy of heresies was common sense... The Party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command... And yet he was right! They were wrong and he was right. The obvious, the silly, the true, had got to be defended. Truisms are true, hold on to that!... Stones are hard, water is wet, objects unsupported fall toward the earth's center. With the feeling...that he was setting forth an important axiom, he wrote: Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four. If that is granted, all else follows.
It is an axiom of obedience that you cannot set up private judgment against authority. In ecclesiastical matters this means that the Pope is the supreme court of all disputes in faith and morals. But Winston Smith is not talking about private or any kind of judgment. He is talking about its ground. No authority, supreme court, king, pope or angel from heaven can compel obedience against obvious facts in clear and present danger. No helmsman follows orders to steam full speed ahead into an iceberg. There is the famous story of the British fleet on grand maneuvers in the Mediterranean: A hundred ships lined up in columns like platoons. Suddenly the Admiral's flag commands a turn that every captain sees must make them crash into each other. Ninety-nine obey. One alone sees and reasons that the Admiral meant – or should have meant – to starboard, not to larboard! So he neatly skips to safety as the ninety-nine "obediently" collide and sink. When, during the inquiry that followed, someone wondered whether the surviving captain should be court marshaled for disobeying a direct order, the members of the Admiralty laughed.
In the current question of Archbishop Lefebvre's apparent excommunication, assuming that our love for the papacy will not blind us even to considering the evidence – "the Pope cannot be wrong!" – anyone can see the Church is steering straight into the looming ice of unbelief. A well instructed man can shut his eyes and ears at a Novus Ordo Mass and teach himself from memory that this action is the selfsame sacrifice of Christ at Calvary offered under the unbloody appearance of bread and wine. But it is not possible for ordinary people and especially children who have no memory of such things to keep the Faith in the face an assault on the senses, emotions and intelligence that would make George Orwell's "Party" blush. The "Party" in this case is a determinate block of modernist theologians whose bad faith in negotiating a "reconciliation" with traditionalists is evident in the Papal statement following Archbishop Lefebvre's consecrations. As quoted on the AP wire July 3, 1988 it reads:
To all those Catholic faithful who feel close to some older liturgical forms and disciplines of the Latin tradition, I would like to express my will...to facilitate their spiritual unity with the Church through the means necessary to guarantee respect for their just aspirations.
This is a sample of standard Vatican prose these days – in Abbe Georges de Nantes' acerbic phrase (I quote it in the French), it's "Blah, blah, blah!" "Some older liturgical forms and disciplines"? That means the immemorial Mass of the Catholic Church which the Council of Trent says comes from the Apostles. And think what a union man would make of a contract which reads: "I would like to express my will...to facilitate...through the means necessary to guarantee respect for their just aspirations"! We are under the authority of theologians who deny the laws of contradiction, sufficient reason, and cause/effect. They really believe that the dialectical philosophy of "becoming" which inspired Marx and Engels can be reconciled with Christian Revelation. In practical management this means progress requires a zig to the right and a zag to the left while steering for the Novus Ordo Saeculorum. Chop off Lefebvre, and throw a sop to traditionalists. The old Mass may actually be permitted for a while (as if it had to be!); committees will be formed and we shall die of terminal blah. No one (who doesn't want to) will be fooled by talk like this. There is no change of heart or mind; not even recognition of the real question. "I would like to express my will—to facilitate..." Ecclesiastical glasnost. All the kindly statements made on the Mass from Rome console old folks for whom the reforms of the Council came "too fast" and sometimes with unnecessary "insensitivity – but no one has said the reforms were wrong. They have refused to face the issue, – which is not nostalgia on the part of-those "who feel close to some older liturgical forms," but the shipwreck of the Catholic Church. I mean a new Mass, a new catechism, a new morality, a flagrantly mistranslated Bible, an architecture and music which constitute a thoroughly orchestrated and rehearsed attack on Catholic doctrine and practice. Read the papal statement ten times if you can. You don't need arguments. It constitutes itself a proof of its own radical insincerity. It cannot be explained away as a misunderstanding of the issue; it is quite simply a misrepresentation. As if the Mass were just "our aspirations" and not everybody's fact:
the true light that enlightens every man who comes into this world... To as many as receive him he gave the power of becoming sons of God – those who believe in his name, who were born not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God. And the word was made flesh (here all genuflect) and dwelt among us.
Last Saturday a person whose powers of observation and honesty are beyond question went to Confession in the major church of a provincial city. Absolution was given as follows: "May God grant you pardon and peace." This from a "conservative" priest who didn't do such things even a year ago – mouthing a phrase that denies the office of the priest in the very act of its exercise. The penitent repaired at once to the next nearest church only to discover that its interior had been refurbished to approximate a Babylonian temple with fountains (literally) cascading over rocks, potted ferns, and a confessional with walls of glass, inside of which a distraught woman on her knees was weeping and wildly gesticulating to (presumably) a priest behind a modernistic screen, as those in line, unblinking, solemnly observed. This pseudo-Church, imposed upon the real subsistent one since the Vatican Council, is like that glass confessional. Anyone can see – and everybody does – that whatever it is, it is not the Church of our Fathers. Good priests and religious (who only hear their own Masses) often say, "Even and especially if given an unjust command I will obey. If I were commanded, as Archbishop Lefebvre was, to cease my episcopal and priestly function, I should gain in grace for the arduous exercise of humility." At one such profession of superstitious piety, I heard an anguished father say, "Priests have no children!" Good priests, and especially religious in sweet serenity behind their monastery walls, simply don't know what is really going on. Or don't they want to know? After a decade of excuses, they say: If Rome only knew. Rome knows! The Faith is being crushed from above by the hierarchy imposing its own inventions on the people, in the people's name, as tyranny always does. The person of the Pope is surrounded by a monarchical awe, a kind of hallucinatory halo of the sort that prompted Elizabethan courtiers, against the ghastly evidence, to say that Good Queen Bess's beauty ravished the stars. Certainly in the normal course of events one must not criticize his betters. There is a special grace about a pope. But in the face of icebergs? With the care of children and their children on our heads? We are not talking about carpers and snivelers but ordinary folk leading ordinary lives who without sound doctrine and the sacraments will die. One thinks of Milton's Lycidas: The hungry sheep look up and are not fed . . . Speaking of the twofold office of the bishop – Episcopus (to oversee) and Pastor ("feed my sheep") – the poet cries:
Blind mouths! that scarce themselves know how to hold A sheep-hook, or have learn'd ought else the least That to the faithful herdman's art belongs! What recks it them? What need they? They are sped; And when they list, their lean and flashy songs Grate on their scrannel pipes of wretched straw; The hungry sheep look up and are not fed, But swoln with wind, and the rank mist they draw, Rot inwardly, and foul contagion spread; Besides what the grim wolf with privy paw Daily devours apace, and nothing said, But that two-handed engine at the door, Stands ready to smite once, and smite no more.
Scholars dispute the precise meaning of that "engine at the door," although the general sense is clear. Most think it refers to the two-handed sword of the Apocalypse when Christ Himself will come to set things right. Priests do have children – that's the point.
He that shall scandalize one of these little ones that believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone should be hanged about his neck, and that he should be drowned in the depth of the sea.
How can good priests fail to feed their sheep? What prohibition or even excommunication can stand against a million tongues extended to receive the Author of their existence and salvation? Oh, they can find a way. Drive a hundred miles to find a Catholic Mass; or wait like the Christians in Japan between the interdiction of the Church and the arrival of Admiral Perry! Not true. Not true in any ordinary way. Some may do these things. Handfuls cluster around the remnant of good priests who offer the sacraments in their integral substance and beauty; but God must send us bishops with the courage to ordain thousands. At the chapels of the Society of St. Pius X (and many others not affiliated with it) the doctrine, sacraments and culture of Catholic tradition has been maintained. Take two pictures: Look on this and on the Novus Ordo Church. It is Hyperion to a Satyr. To go from glass confessionals to even the poorest, makeshift shelter under which the grand, Old Mass is said, is to pass through fire and water to a place of refuge.
Transivimus per ignem et aquam, et eduxisti nos in refrigerium.
There is no argument. Taste and see. Once there was a single Church with two contending popes. Now we have a single pope with two contending churches -- one of which is real. Meanwhile the hungry sheep demand their food and someone, in pious "disobedience" must carry out that office in the teeth of invalid commands and sanctions. In varied particular circumstances around the world men of good will may make different prudential judgments and come to different practical conclusions, while still agreeing in principle, finding ways to unite to fight the common enemy. It is possible that there may even be saints on both sides of this dispute -like Catherine of Siena and Vincent Ferrer during the Avignon exile – and millions of the less, like us, who must choose now. God help us; we could be wrong. Some see danger but not clear and present danger, see probable but not obvious facts and possible alternatives (for whom and how many?) – they fail to see the truth (I think) because they have not looked directly at that wall of ice Jean Madiran calls immanent apostasy – perhaps not ice, but Moby Dick, the mad, white whale of Antichrist. Meanwhile (that has become my favorite word; it won't be long for some of us), God, make us love one another in the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Immaculate Heart of Mary which have come to comfort us in these dark days like Enoch and Elias, those "olive trees that stand before the Lord of the earth." Meanwhile the whole Church waits, like a distraught woman weeping in a glass confessional, confessing to a priest about to give an invalid absolution. Of course there is a legal question. The man in the street is not a lawyer and certainly not a judge. Only a pope can judge a pope; if one is wrong, another down the line must set things right as Felix did to Liberius in the matter of St. Athanasius, or as St. Jerome remarks in his commentary on Matthew 14:
Then while the Lord remained on the mountaintop, suddenly a contrary wind arose, the sea raged, and the apostles were in danger; and shipwreck was imminent, until Jesus came. And in the fourth watch of the night he came to them walking on the sea. Military guards and watches are divided into periods of three hours each. Therefore, when he says, that the Lord came to them at the fourth watch of the night, it shows that they had been in danger all night; and it was at the close of the night, as it will be at the end of the world, that he will bring help to his own.