I am reproducing below my side of a lengthy correspondence sent to The Remnant on 7 February 2005 after several articles appeared there praising several priests who broke away from their bishops to set up shop as "independent" priests:
Dear Editor, The Remnant,
In his recent article, "Another Diocesan Priest Rejects Novus Ordo,” Tom Drolesky conveys his unequivocal support for and admiration of certain priests who openly rebel against their bishops, quitting their dioceses and unilaterally establishing themselves as “independent”. To date, I am not aware of any Traditionalist criticism of the idea that what these priests have done is anything less than perfectly proper and heroic. Drolesky, these priests themselves, and others seem to be completely confident that such responses are entirely sound and justified, even openly encouraging more of the same. I hope to slow this train down and make sure we are at least on the right track. No doubt my thoughts here will raise a good many hackles, but I hope that any such annoyance will at least be balanced by due reflection.
The Vietnam war may offer a useful, if imperfect, comparison. I respect those men who served in the Vietnam war, despite the unpopularity and moral questions surrounding that conflict. And I also respect those who, out of conscience, opposed the war, refused to serve in it, and faced the legal consequences. But the one group of men for whom I have no respect are those who fled to Canada; who neither served their country nor showed forth a stalwart witness of conscience by facing the natural consequences of civil disobedience.
I sympathize entirely with the priest who can no longer celebrate the Novus Ordo in good conscience or participate in the myriad legalized abuses that occur regularly in virtually every diocesan parish in this country. But does the traditionalist community really want to encourage such priests to "run to Canada"? Most of us find such behavior repugnant in the secular sphere; do we want to lionize it in the ecclesiastical?
Such a priest's situation is rendered even more dubious by the fact that, unlike his secular counterpart, the priest has sworn an oath of obedience to his bishop. I readily grant that this obedience extends only to all things lawful and that it is unlawful for a bishop to forbid his priests to say the traditional Roman Rite. But such an unlawful prohibition does not give a priest a moral right—let alone a duty, as Dr. Drolesky would seem to have it— to unilaterally remove himself from his bishop's authority.
Furthermore, how does the traditionalist community justify the existence of such "independent" priests, based on the Catholic Tradition? The notion flounders theologically, historically, canonically, and practically. Theologically, the Tradition is clear that a priest's authority flows from his bishop and that the legitimacy and even validity of his sacramental ministry is critically compromised if exercised apart from that authority.
Historically, I can find no record of holy priests who have completely and unilaterally removed themselves from the practical authority of their bishops, without at least immediately being placed under the authority of another successor to the Apostles. St. Thomas indicates that this course is not available, even to the priest who finds himself under an unjust censure. The Angelic Doctor treats the question of whether an unjust excommunication binds and it would seem that his answer would cover lesser ecclesiastical penalties as well:
"An excommunication may be unjust for two reasons. First, on the part of its author, as when anyone excommunicates through hatred or anger, and then, nevertheless, the excommunication takes effect, though its author sins, because the one who is excommunicated suffers justly, even if the author act wrongly in excommunicating him. Secondly, on the part of the excommunication, through there being no proper cause, or through the sentence being passed without the forms of law being observed. In this case, if the error, on the part of the sentence, be such as to render the sentence void, this has no effect, for there is no excommunication; but if the error does not annul the sentence, this takes effect, and the person excommunicated should humbly submit (which will be credited to him as a merit), and either seek absolution from the person who has excommunicated him, or appeal to a higher judge. If, however, he were to contemn the sentence, he would "ipso facto" sin mortally. But sometimes it happens that there is sufficient cause on the part of the excommunicator, but not on the part of the excommunicated, as when a man is excommunicated for a crime which he has not committed, but which has been proved against him: in this case, if he submit humbly, the merit of his humility will compensate him for the harm of excommunication." (ST Supp. Q.21.4; emphasis mine)
If it be said that a bishop's suspension for saying the traditional Roman Rite would fall short of "proper cause" and therefore the sentence would "have no effect", I reply that, while it may be true, this determination still needs to come in the form of an official ruling from a competent authority. Neither Dr. Drolesky nor the priests in question have the authority to make such a ruling for themselves and then act in the external forum as if their bishop's sentence has no effect. And this still falls far short of giving them license to unilaterally separate from their bishop and to refuse to submit to him in any practical way. It would seem, then, that traditionally-minded priests have no right simply to publicly act as if the ecclesiastical censures imposed by their bishops are null and void. Indeed, it is a sin to so publicly ignore them.
The Code of Canon Law unambiguously states that, "Every cleric must be incardinated in a particular church, or in a personal Prelature, or in an institute of consecrated life or a society which has this faculty: accordingly, acephalous or 'wandering' clergy are in no way to be allowed" (CIC §265). The absolute prohibition against "independent" priests is simply an echo of the 1917 Code: "Every cleric whatsoever must be ascribed to a given diocese or religious institute, so that 'wandering' clerics are in no way admitted" (Canon 111.1).
And practically speaking, we already have plenty of priests whose bishops will do nothing to rein them in. Disobedience has run amok. As such, do we really want to exacerbate the situation? Do we want to encourage the manifest and ongoing rebellion of the laity as well?
The unrestrained applause for this theological, historical, canonical, and practical novelty seems inconsistent coming from Dr. Drolesky, who recently wrote with great passion that in the sphere of secular politics it is time to absolutely reject the choice of the lesser of evils and embrace only the untainted good. If this principle applies in the secular sphere, ought it not apply even more in the religious sphere? The priest who tells his bishop that he can no longer say the Novus Ordo in good conscience and is suspended does indeed have a morally pure course before him. He can submit to his bishop's authority, appeal his case all the way up to the Holy Father if necessary, and leave the outcome in God's hands. But refusing to submit and removing himself from his bishop's authority is certainly an evil (whether greater or lesser must be left to God to decide.)
The reply to such a proposal is typically to the effect that the priest simply must perform the ministry to which he was ordained. The reasoning is specious. Married men and women are all "ordained" to the ministry of begetting and raising children. But in a fallen world, it happens that some are unable. For instance, in some countries, women or their husbands may be involuntarily sterilized. Such mutilation is a grave injustice and a tragedy. But this does not give them license to employ immoral means to achieve this end to which their marriage was ordered. And, to be candid, it smacks of pride to insist that one simply must be able to exercise one's chosen ministry, when and how one wishes, the law and consequences be damned.
How exactly has it been determined that God just can't accomplish His will without the ministry of these priests? How is it concluded that He will bring about much more good in the Church from their open rebellion, rather than from their humble submission and suffering, patiently borne and offered to Him as an oblation? How do they know, hard as this is to bear, that they are not actively thwarting God's will ? Is it not conceivable that He has purposely withdrawn His graces from certain parts of the world?
The priest who finds himself unable to celebrate the Novus Ordo in good conscience or participate in the various novelties that attend it is indeed faced with a heart-wrenching choice. For my part, I am alarmed and dismayed to see spokesmen in the traditionalist community unabashedly applauding an ecclesiastical "run for the border" when there is another sound, traditional path available to such priests. It involves suffering, yes, but no moral compromise.
What if there arose a wave of priests who informed their bishops that they could no longer say the Novus Ordo in good conscience and, instead of "running to Canada", received their suspensions humbly? What if appeal upon appeal arrived in Rome, calling on the Holy Father to remember what his own cardinals told him, that the traditional Roman Rite has never been suppressed and that no bishop can forbid his priests to say it? What if laity by the thousands, with due respect but firmness, petitioned Rome on behalf of these priests and made sure that their cases received proper attention within the Church, so that the injustice of the situation was clearly perceived? If we say that this course is doomed to failure, that things have become too bad for such "naive" submission and sacrifice, then I fear that we have in some sense already lost our Catholic Faith, for our very redemption was wrought through just such "doomed" and "naive" submission to the machinations of evil men.
Sincerely in Christ,
This follow-up was sent 28 February 2005:
I appreciate Michael Matt opening up the topic of so-called independent priests for a debate in the pages of The Remnant. I, too, think that it is critical for the traditionalist movement specifically and for the Church at large. This response is not written as a condemnation of individuals, much less as a condemnation of the traditionalist movement as a whole. With all traditionalists, I continue to grieve the destruction that continues apace in the Church and to be angered by the gross oversights and injustices that regularly occur. And yet there is a constant temptation for traditionalists, myself included, to allow our legitimate grief and anger to overtake our reason and to induce us to substitute purely human solutions for supernatural ones. It is my position in this debate that a priest may not, on Catholic principles, unilaterally separate himself from his bishop and refuse him obedience in that which is lawful. Simply put, even in emergency situations Catholic ends may be sought only by Catholic means.
Let it be clear, then, that I neither deny the existence of a state of emergency in the Catholic Church, nor do I believe that it has abated simply because I personally am able to assist at the traditional Latin Mass every Sunday and Holy Day. But a perceived state of emergency, even a genuine one, does not justify any and all actions. In an emergency situation, prudence and ethics dictate that we take all lesser steps first, before progressing to more radical measures. And there are limits to what we can do to address even an emergency. Suppose, for example, that I come upon an unconscious man who has stopped breathing. Is it prudent or ethical for me to pull out my pocket knife and perform a tracheotomy? No. First I hyper-extend his neck, once, then twice, sweep the mouth for any obstructions, hyper-extend the neck once more, attempt to blow air into the mouth. If I have a mechanical airway I insert it. Only after all these lesser attempts fail—and even then only if I have proper training—would I attempt the radical step of a tracheotomy. And of course there are certain measures that I may never take. For there is one certain way to open a man's airway and that is to cut off his head. But obviously even an emergency situation does not authorize any and every attempt to address it.
I have stated that I agree with the Roman cardinals who found that it is not lawful for a bishop to forbid his priest to say the traditional Latin Mass. But the priest who finds himself unable in conscience to say Mass according to the Novus Ordo or to participate in the novelties that attend it is bound by the virtue of prudence and Catholic principles to follow a set path. He must speak to his bishop, respectfully and humbly, as a son to his father, not just once but many times in order for there to be no unnecessary misunderstandings. Please let this not be dismissed as hopelessly naïve and certainly doomed to fail. It worked in the case of an Italian priest, Fr. Louis Demornex, who remained true to his conscience while humbly placing himself at the mercy of his bishop. His bishop relented and Fr. Demornex continues to say the traditional Mass (see "Interview with Fr. Louis Demornex, http://www.seattlecatholic.com/article_20040622.html). Thus, no one can say that this path can never succeed because it has already succeeded, at least once. If the bishop remains recalcitrant, the priest may appeal his case to higher competent authorities, all the way to the Pope, if necessary, and wait to receive a ruling. He may ask also for a release from his incardination in that diocese and seek incardination elsewhere. And then, even if all this fails—and I have no illusions that it will succeed in most cases—the priest is not then free to cut himself off from his ecclesiastical head, any more than I am free to cut the head off my patient to clear his airway. For the priest has promised before God to obey his bishop in all that is lawful; as the Catholic Encyclopedia states, "The religious is bound morally to obey on all occasions when he is bound canonically" (s.v. "Obedience, Religious"). No one may do evil—and breaking a solemn promise made to God and the whole Church is indeed evil—so that good may result, even if that good is to say the traditional Mass for people who might not otherwise have it.
And this discussion prepares us to look at the particulars of this slowly growing phenomenon of acephalous priests. We find that, without fail, they have refused to take some or all of these lesser steps in seeking to resolve their situation. In the case of one, "pummelled" as he was by a lay couple (may God have mercy on them both), he did not even take the most fundamental step of speaking to his bishop before severing the relationship. Another priest tells us of but one conversation with his bishop before quitting the diocese. Still another had the courtesy of speaking several times to his bishop, but then left without any attempt to appeal to higher competent authorities. And still another, having been canonically removed from an institute of religious life for refusing obedience (not quite the story he tells), says nothing of any attempts he made (or makes) to normalize his situation. And do any of these men, having taken a principled stand with regard to the licitness of celebrating the traditional Roman Rite, continue to obey their bishops in what is lawful? To a man, they do not.
Now, as to the specific responses that my letter elicited, I want first to establish who bears the burden of proof. In this discussion the bearer of that burden is the Catholic priest who unilaterally places himself outside of and operates independent of any and all episcopal authority. It is his responsibility to show how his actions can be thoroughly harmonized with Catholic sacramental theology, the Church's canon law (as authoritatively interpreted), and the historical example of her saints.
And I contend that these priests cannot discharge this burden. In fact, Fr. Smith seems to have given the whole game away when, in the very first sentence of his response to me, he characterized the entire situation as a matter of his opinion against mine. On the contrary, my position has nothing to do with opinion. It has to do with the authority of the Catholic Church. Fundamentally, a priest may not separate himself from his bishop because, by virtue of the divinely established order within the Church, he does not have the authority to do so. And this lack of authority is writ large in the responses from acephalous priests, since whenever Catholic authority is deployed against them, their defense ultimately rests upon personal opinion alone.
For example, in response to the fact that both the 1983 and 1917 codes of canon law unambiguously forbid priests to be independent, we have Fr. Perez's opinion that Canon 1752—"the salvation of souls . . . is always the supreme law of the Church"—dispenses him from episcopal oversight if, in his opinion, he will be unable to exercise his ministry as it should, in his opinion, be exercised. For starters, Fr. Perez assumes, without proof, that more souls will be saved through his ongoing ministry than are damaged by the scandal of his very public disobedience and invalid sacraments (see below). And, of course, a bare citation of Canon 1752 is insufficient since such an open-ended view of canon law could be used to legitimate any action at all. What Fr. Perez needs to provide is a canonical authority that supports his private opinion that in certain circumstances Canon 1752 justifies a priest in breaking his vows, separating unilaterally from his still-reigning bishop, and refusing him all obedience, even in that which is lawful. If he is unable to provide such an authority, his citation of Canon 1752 is gratuitous.
In response to the authority of St. Thomas Aquinas, who formulated the principle that a priest may not simply ignore an ecclesiastical censure without sinning, we have Fr. Perez's opinion that the principles laid down by St. Thomas are historically conditioned and so don’t apply to the present situation. This seems a bit too convenient and uncomfortably close to neo-modernist rationalization.
In response to my challenge to provide historical examples of acephalous priests, Fr. Perez and Michael Matt offer the case of priests serving their flocks in "reformation" England and also that of the priests in Vendée of France. Mr. Matt argues that "at some point, reason must enter into this." But I contend that calm reason leads to the inescapable conclusion that today’s acephalous priests are not truly comparable to the priests of Henry VIII’s England and post-revolutionary France. For in both cases, the priests of that day had what today's acephalous priests do not, namely, a public and unambiguous apostasy of the bishops in the form of oaths renouncing the primacy of the Roman Pontiff, coupled with a formal juridical ruling from the Holy See that declared them to be outside the Church. Such priests were not at all acephalous but rather, they fell under the direct authority and headship of another bishop: the bishop of Rome. Short of such public apostasy, no priest may, on his own unauthoritative opinion, declare himself free to carry on his sacramental ministry entirely outside the authority of his bishop.
In all candor, I am deeply troubled by the unrestrained praise for this particular course of action—and in particular, by the comparison to the heroism of great martyr-saints. St. Edmund Campion suffered being hunted, tortured on the rack, and disembowelment because of his complete and unquestionable faithfulness and courage. While I certainly can not judge the motives of today’s acephalous priests, neither can I condone or accept Dr. Drolesky’s elevation of them to veritable sainthood, simply because they are our contemporaries and we empathize with their plight. Frankly, if I were one of these priests, I would be embarrassed by the comparison.
All the more problematic are the double standards employed when supporters of acephalous priests are confronted with the authoritative teaching and law of the Church. On the one hand, Fr. Perez dispenses himself and all acephalous priests from laying their cases before the competent authorities, since these authorities are all "wolves". And yet Fr. Zigrang leaps to the defense of Fr. Perez by insisting (rightly) "that loss of the clerical state can be decided only by an administrative or judicial decision by the competent authority in Rome" and (wrongly) that latae sententiae excommunication "can happen only if you were tried and found to be a heretic, apostate or schismatic" ("Intimidation by Misinformation", The Remnant, 30 Sept 2004, p. 4.) So, it appears that while acephalous priests refuse to place their cases before the competent ecclesiastical authority because it is deemed corrupt, they simultaneously seek refuge in the fact that no official ecclesiastical ruling has been made.
Tom Drolesky rightly says of priests who receive ordination at the hands of Old Catholic bishops that, "A man who is ordained to the priesthood and/or episcopate by one who lacks jurisdiction . . . has placed himself outside of the Church" ("Do Not Lay Hands on a Man Rashly", The Remnant, 31 August 2004, p. 15). But it should also be noted that the Council of Trent stated that, except in case of imminent death, the sacrament of penance is not merely illicit but invalid when administered by a priest who lacks the jurisdiction to hear confessions (see Session XIV, Chapter VII; this principle is enshrined in the Church's canon law, 1917 and 1983 codes. The Church says that marriages and confirmations at the hands of such priests are also invalid.) This applies to the confessions of all acephalous priests. Once a Catholic knows of this teaching of the Church, he is no longer able to claim ignorance and thus has no claim to absolution of his sins from an acephalous priest. Should the faithful risk their immortal souls on the force of private opinions to the contrary?
It was not by accident that I labeled this whole phenomenon a novelty in my first piece. A novelty, according to the definition I laid out in my article "A Question of Novelty" in this publication, is any change in ecclesiastical doctrine, custom, or practice, that suggests that the Catholic Tradition is wrong. I believe it is manifest that the acceptance and encouragement of priests to unilaterally sever themselves from the headship of their bishops gravely wounds the Church’s entire system of authority and stands in stark contrast to Catholic Tradition; it recalls the rebuke of Pope St. Leo the Great to a prelate whose breach of discipline was far less severe than that which we are debating, "[Y]ou have done things which by their blame-worthy novelty infringe the whole system of Church discipline" (Epistle 19:1). It is ironic and tragic that Catholic traditionalists would resort to an undeniable novelty in order, allegedly, to place themselves on the very "front lines" of the fight against modernism.
Conversely, the traditional counter-path of sacrifice, prayer, pursuit of legitimate canonical avenues and humble submission in all that is lawful does not entail any moral compromise, although it does indeed entail significant suffering. But does a Catholic priest submitting humbly to the censure of his bishop, offering the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass (exclusively privately, if necessary), pursuing legitimate canonical avenues, and offering his suffering to God on behalf of a suffering Church really represent the heresy of quietism, as Fr. Perez maintains? Suffice it to say that this approach—one commended and lived by numerous saints—is in no way characterized by "a sort of psychical self-annihilation", a "mind wholly inactive", or a soul which can "no longer think on its own account" and "remain[s] passive while God acts within it." On the contrary, as the Catholic Encyclopedia states, "Religious obedience never reduces a man to a state of passive inertness" (ibid.).
Michael Matt states that, "Using well-formed consciences and prayer as our guide, we must try to determine what allowances the Church makes—either in the letter of the law or in its spirit—for priests and laymen alike as the ship goes down." The letter of the law is clear—no acephalous priests. And the spirit of this law is informed by the Church's sacramental theology—jurisdiction is required for the legitimacy and, in some cases, even validity of the sacraments—and by the historical examples of the saints (it is extremely significant that not one example of an acephalous priest being raised to the altar can be cited in all of Church history.)
Fr. Smith chides me for being so naïve as to "delude" myself that the present slate of bishops will correct things. Yet, I have no illusions that these bishops or the present Holy Father will fix things, humanly speaking. However, I also know that, according to the constitution of the Catholic Church and therefore by Divine Providence, they are the only ones who can. They are the only ones to whom the authority has been given. We can pray for them and use every lawful means to convince them. But we have no example in all of salvation history wherein God blessed those who attempted to usurp legitimate ecclesiastical authority, even if it may reasonably have been concluded that authority had been delegated to unworthy men and that it remained dormant in the face of great necessity. Quite to the contrary, from David’s reprimand of Abishai (1 Sam 26:7-11) to the slaying of Uzza (1 Ch. 13:7-11) onward, we witness God’s great displeasure at those who presume or usurp authority, quite regardless of the perceived necessity to do so.
Can we truly believe the Lord positively wills the epic spiritual battle of our times to be won by the very means that caused the downfall of angels and men in the first place? Or is it more likely that we are being tempted to replay the error of St. Peter wherein the Lord rebuked him for preferring Satan’s idea of victory to God’s (Matt 16:21-27)? If so, should we not instead exhort our suffering priests to embrace their crosses by helping them to recognize the jeering, taunts, and humiliations of neo-modernists for what they are: the demonic echoes of the scribes and ancients at the crucifixion (Matt 27:41-44)?
In the end, the succor of the flock can only come about through the conversion of the current shepherds and the raising up of solid, orthodox men to replace them over time. God alone has the power and authority to accomplish this profound ecclesial transformation. For our part, we must humbly cooperate with our Lord within the bounds of the legitimate authority he has given us. There is no reason to think that God will bring about the authentic repentance and conversion of our spiritual fathers through the angry rebellion and disobedience of their sons. Neither can we expect to positively influence the formation of the next generation of spiritual fathers by such evil witness. Rather, as our own repentance and conversion came about through the voluntary suffering and humble obedience of the Son, so too the repentance and conversion of our spiritual fathers must come about through the submission and suffering of their sons.
Sincerely in Christ,
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