I write now to respond to a grave error that, more than anything else, lies at the root of what it is that has been tearing the Church (read: traditional Catholic movement) to pieces. This is something I call "Canonical Pessimism" for it so perfectly summarizes the bad attitude that lies behind it, and the item of which the bad attitude is towards.
A canonical pessimist is one who has closed off all possibilities for the Church to continue, or even for anyone to obtain a valid sacrament (except baptism and marriage, which can be done by anyone "ad extremis"). They reject the Novus Ordo clergy because of their heresies, and likely (and growing all the more common) invalidity of their sacrament of Holy Orders, and (in some cases, especially those canonical pessimists who happen to also be sedevacantists) for being in union with an Antichrist. But they also reject clerics of the SSPX, the SSPV, the CMRI, and all other "independent" clergy as well, as being "without faculties" or even "without any valid apostolic mission, vocationless, vagrant, irregular, 'unsent,' etc." Among such types are those who actually take seriously the utterly nonsensical and unsupportable rumor to the effect that "Cardinal Lienhart was a Freemason and so Archbishop Lefebvre's consecration (or even ordination) are to be taken as invalid" rumor, to say nothing of the equally absurd and unsupportable rumors about the mental conditions of Archbishop Thuc and Bishop Mendez. All of this is therefore leaving one with no place to turn for valid and lawful sacraments, teaching, guidance, or juridical forgiveness (of their sins in the confessional).
To the priest who has decided to say the authentic Catholic Mass only, but who cannot gain an Indult or any other such similar "permission" to do so, they advise to "appeal your case all the way to Rome, if necessary, and be content to do nothing if they won't permit you to do the Mass." An entire community in Europe, headed by the Abbe de Nantes, is made up of well-trained young men, with no doubt a valid priestly vocation for their lives, and yet they have been held in a canonical stasis for decades, waiting for a permission to be ordained that everyone knows will never come. They have been completely neutralized against taking any positive constructive action of any kind. The fields are more white than ever for the harvest and yet these types will sit on the sidelines accomplishing absolutely nothing for the Kingdom of God, their lives utterly wasted from every possible perspective, and most of all God's perspective. And of course if an already-ordained traditional cleric DOES get an Indult then he is a mere "compromiser" with the heretical modernists, and as such also unacceptable.
I apply, and coined, the term "Canonical Pessimists" to describe these types because they seem to enjoy misapplying the letter of the law against the spirit of the Law. They are the perfect example of what Sacred Scripture was talking about when the Apostle Paul wrote (2 Corinthians 3:6) that "The letter kills but the spirit gives life." The rules and laws and guidelines of the Church exist for the purpose of ruling, guiding, and ordering Her existence, not for choking and throttling Her to death. When the ship goes along peacefully it is a right and valid rule that the lifeboats must be left alone, undisturbed. For otherwise they might be damaged or lost. But canonical pessimists would invoke such a rule against using the lifeboats even when the ship is plainly sinking. Any bad rumor, innuendo, or criticism spoken against by anyone, or even any minor but actual fault of no real significance, is all the basis these types need to reject a cleric or his sacraments out of hand. Who can you find that hasn't been spoken against, at least by somebody? That leaves absolutely no good, valid, and lawful clerics left, and that's just the way these types like it!
It is so very like a joke I recall that goes like thus: The flood waters were rising, and a man sat on top of his house, the flood waters already reaching the top of his doors and windows. A rowboat comes by and someone on it says "Hop on board; we'll rescue you!" But the man replies, "Oh, don't worry about me. I'm trusting in God to rescue me, so I'll be OK." So the rowboat goes along its way. A bit later, when the flood waters are lapping at the edges of his roof, a coast guard ship comes by and again an offer to rescue the man is given, and again he says, "Go on about your way; I'll be OK because I'm trusting in God to rescue me." So again the ship, seeing that the man will not cooperate by getting on board, moves on to others they also need to rescue. Still later on, with barely the peak of his roof still above water and the man sitting on it, a helicopter comes along, lowering a rope for the man to climb up and be rescued, and again he rejects the offer, until the helicopter finally goes its way as well. When the waters finally cover his whole house, the man is drowned and goes to meet his Maker.
Upon meeting his Maker, he has the unmitigated gall to demand of Him, "Why didn't You rescue me? I was trusting in You. I thought for sure that You'd save me. But You didn't!" And God replies to him, "I sent you two boats and a helicopter! What were you expecting?" What indeed?
WHAT, indeed? God will say to these canonical pessimists "I sent you the SSPX and the other order priests (FSSP, ICR, SSPV, CMRI, etc.) and even brought that elderly retired priest to your town who was even willing to let you be his server at his private Latin Masses. Why did you reject these fine gifts of Mine?" What excuse have they? None, really. What they hope for they don't even know, for they have no hope to offer.
Canonical pessimism is borne, not of theological thought, nor canonical thought, nor logic, nor common sense, nor doctrinaire Catholicism. It is borne of a suspicious and untrusting mentality, of mental unbalance and negative attitudes. And, I think, it is borne of laziness. Tired of driving three hours each way to attend Mass? Why not convince yourself that such a trip is not necessary by deciding that the priest there has no valid orders or faculties or whatever? How convenient to be able to sleep in on Sunday mornings and then call yourself a good Catholic for doing so!
Jesus Christ Himself addressed this very thing in the parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30). Remember how one man was trusted with five talents, and through wise investments made five more? And the second man was trusted with two talents, and through wise investments made two more? But a third man, to whom one talent was trusted, merely hid it in the earth and did nothing with it. Why? Here is his response: "Master, I know you are a hard man; you reap where you have not sown and gather where you have not labored. I was afraid, so I hid it in the earth, and look, here it is." As we know, that excuse did not fly at all, and the third man was deprived of the one talent given and cast into the outer darkness, complete with weeping and gnashing of teeth. So this is serious business. But look again at the reason he gave: "You are a hard man." What a dim, low, mean, and vile thing to say about our God!
Is that any different from those to assume that God is a "hard man"who would rather you let your animal die in the well than remove it on the Sabbath? (Matthew 12:9-14). For that is the unreasonable conclusion reached by the canonical pessimists. They see God as someone who will automatically condemn any and all attempts to ordain priests, consecrate bishops, or even (if and when the appropriate time should come) elect a Supreme Bishop to be the next true pope. They cite various ancient anathemas, modern Canons, anonymous policies, and other such "rules" as "proof" that our traditional clergy have no legitimacy; most of these were rules and policies that made perfect sense when Pope Pius XII and his undisputed predecessors sat on the throne of Peter, but today they can only be regarded as nonsensical to insist upon. "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut up the Kingdom of Heaven against men; for you neither go in yourselves, nor do you allow those who are entering to go in" (Matthew 23:13).
Let us, for the sake of this discussion, ignore what we actually do know about what has happened and how it is that traditional clergy have been lawfully delegated jurisdiction and appointed to continue as the successors of the Apostles, as explained in my recent "What Is Your Picture" series on Lumen Gentium. If you have read and understand that theory as presented there, and in my book, The Resurrection of the Roman Catholic Church, then you have only all the more reason not to be a canonical pessimist. However, for this article I prefer to address those other aspects of our Faith that apply here and which are far more widely known, commonly accepted, and universally agreed upon.
By far, the biggest problem for canonical pessimists is the question of "Where is the Church?" For as limited as they have made things, there is no place left for anything of the Church hierarchical to exist. Can today's Vatican be that hierarchy? They are heretics, and in many cases invalidly consecrated or ordained. So even if they repented their errors they still would not be hierarchical members of God's Church, just individual saved souls. Can anybody else be that hierarchy? They have already ruled out everyone else as being illegitimate. Ergo, the Church has failed, the Gates of Hell have triumphed, and God's promises are lies. Could any other conclusion be reached? I don't see it. Canonical pessimism amounts to saying that God's Church no longer exists, nor can it ever. It's all over; the gates of Heaven are permanently closed and not another soul can ever be saved.
Some (more and more) of these types are now even claiming that Jesus Christ is shutting down His Church. They cite one instance when He asks "When the Son of Man returns will He find Faith on earth?" to which they seem to interpret that (private interpretation here, folks!) as a rhetorical question, with an answer of "no." I fail to see how any such claim could be considered anything but sheer heresy. Almost instinctively, the sensus fidelium in us all (all the rest of us anyway, excluding only those who have given themselves over to such a private interpretation) reacts violently against such a position. What ever happened to "I will be with you always…" (Matthew 28:20) or "…The gates of hell shall never prevail against it" (Matthew 16:18) or the Catholic doctrine (de fide) regarding the Indefectibility of the Church? Canonical Pessimists have yet to venture forth anything that even pretends to be an answer to that.
I wonder sometimes if this may have something to do with all the bad press sedevacantism gets, especially from SSPX types. I think there are many who confuse sedevacantism with canonical pessimism. How many times have such SSPX anti-sede's claimed (and I quote one here), "It is preposterous to say, as the sedevacantists do, that there has not been any Pope for more than 40 years, for this would destroy the visibility of the Church, and the very possibility of a canonical election of a future Pope." Granted, it also adds to the confusion that a good many sedevacantists (but by no means anywhere near all, indeed many more are not) also happen to be canonical pessimists. The first "traditionalist" I personally encountered was one of these.
But are sedevacantism and canonical pessimism truly related? Each exists readily enough without the other. For the sedevacantist side, there are many sedevacantist orders and clergy who don't let obscure technical canonical questions get in the way of their evident ecclesial duties. Oftentimes knowing little more of the basis they have for their actions than the vague appeals they can make to epikeia and Ecclesia supplet, they nevertheless steadily continue to grow and expand their ministries, slowly but surely adding truly qualified workers to the fields for the Divine harvest. If they should come to understand the further basis for ecclesiastical activity as I have described in my "What Is Your Picture" series then only all the more can they avoid any temptation towards canonical pessimism. For the other side, the above-mentioned Abbe de Nantes and his followers, though fairly extreme in their canonical pessimism, are definitely not sedevacantists.
But neither are sedevacantism and canonical pessimism completely unrelated. One big problem is that individual lay sedevacantist apologists often make their case against the Vatican leader, and having proved that the man thus named cannot be a real and Catholic pope (in the sense of being a Successor of Peter), they regard their task as done. So, the man everyone thinks to be a pope is not in fact a pope, and we have no pope. Now, what does that mean as to where the Church is, how we can ever get a pope again, what happened to the promises of God, how on earth the Church can be spoken of as being indefectible in the face of such a blatant and extreme defection? They don't say. Their response, almost to a man, seems to amount to a shrug of the shoulders and a "Heck if I know; that's not my problem."
It often seems as if they just don't care. But I know them better than that. These are valid concerns and they are aware of them and they are concerned about them, but they have not found the solution to it all. It is easy to reiterate arguments developed by others, and the basic sedevacantist argument goes back at least to the mid-to-late 1960's when some of its earliest proponents were first formulating such an opinion. Except for numerous further evidences based on further scandals and erroneous teachings and so forth, their argument is presented today totally unchanged from what it was back then. And in those days, ecclesiology was something known only to some small handful of seminary professors and the like. Why can't the Church just go on indefinitely without a pope? How important is it to have a pope? They didn't know, and so it seemed enough to prove the fact of sedevacantism alone.
Another part to it is that practically every traditional Catholic, confronted with the apparent defection of the indefectible Church, finds himself at an utter loss to explain the situation. Many explanations have been put forth, and many have been shot down as flatly inadequate that they are. It is easy to believe that we would need some sort of St. Thomas Aquinas or similar theological genius to solve it, and where are any of those these days? It is easy to despair of ever finding the definitive and authoritative answer to this situation and write it all off as a hopeless task. It is easy to tune out all the attempts at finding a solution since so many have failed, and to become cynically skeptical of ever finding an explanation for it all.
Without understanding the true nature of the present situation, I fail to see how sedevacantism could avoid being a kind of canonical pessimism, except of course in the practical arena of sedevacantist clergy who push on ahead despite everything. This is what makes sedevacantism so difficult to accept, so dangerous, and even so repugnant to Faith, despite the inescapable truthfulness of its central finding, namely that the recent Vatican leaders have clearly not been actual Successors of the Apostle Peter. For myself I could never have accepted it as anything more than an idle speculation, permissible in others but not myself, without first gaining that larger picture of what it is that has been going on. In the context of that greater picture of it all however, that one data point fits right in and makes all the sense in the world. Outside of that context, it is a seed of doubt, of reason to question and doubt even God Himself.
There is one other kind of canonical pessimism that must be addressed, and that is what I would have to call "selective canonical pessimism." To some extent, most traditional Catholics practice at least a mild sort of canonical pessimism in that, having a particular traditional priest whom they have as their regular spiritual director, regular confessor, and whose sacraments they most commonly have recourse to, they in doing so do not have such recourse to other traditional Catholic priests. Most commonly and properly, this is borne of simple practicality. A priest of the Order of X has a Mass Center only one hour away, and the next closest, from the Order of Y, is nearly four hours away. Naturally one chooses (or ought to choose) the Order of X as their preferred recourse, for to insist on the Order of Y to the exclusion of the Order of X is (if nothing else) bad stewardship of one's resources of time and fuel and so forth.
But this can and often does take a stronger form where a person trusts only his own particular priest, or at least only the particular order his priest belongs to. Towards every other order and priest they are canonical pessimists, but they make the one exception with their own. And what is so great about their own particular priest or priestly order? How did they choose? Given the wide variety of sorts of priests and priestly orders who have been this or that individual Catholic's one exceptional priest or priestly order, one can reasonably and properly conclude that these decisions are the result of chance, circumstance, and digestion. Which traditional Catholic group did they meet up with first? Or if several were met up with in the same time frame, then which group's representative was most personally impressive as an individual? Which group's representative argued their case best (possessed the greatest apologetic/debating skills)? Or even which group's priest is most easy to travel to on a regular basis for Mass?
A person, on learning all about what is wrong and non-Catholic with the Vatican institution today, may come to buy into a kind of canonical pessimism, but through some circumstance they have an opportunity to observe the practice and congregation of some particular traditional priest. They see a serious and sober priest, obviously taking his spiritual responsibilities seriously, imparting true holiness to his congregation, in which are seen all the fruits of the Holy Spirit. Through merely doing his job as all true priests must and in fact do, the particular Father gains (truly earns) one's trust. "This guy is OK, but I still gravely doubt that many, or even any, others are any good at all," they think to themselves.
How hard is it to figure out that all traditional Catholics attending the Masses of traditional priests have made the same careful observations, and reached the same conclusion regarding their priest, despite whether he is of the SSPX or the SSPV or the CMRI or the Trento Priests or an "independent" priest or an Indult priest or whatever? It is only sheer arrogant pride that says, "I trust my judgment and no one else's." But it also doesn't help that many traditional priests themselves are unwilling to recommend any traditional priest from rival orders. Partially, this comes from the fact that they know only their own order or category well enough to vouch for them or recommend them, and to that extent their behavior is legitimate in this regard. But many, presuming to know evil against those who are not of their order or category, go beyond what is legitimate and they will answer personally for this. This, more than anything else, tears at the Unity of the Body of Christ, and it has got to stop.
But worst of all (and I think rather hypocritical) is where someone takes a position that seems and sounds to all as if they are truly complete canonical pessimists, and yet secretly they do have some recourse. To be fully consistent, a full canonical pessimist must also be a complete home-aloner. For such, there is no place to go for Mass which is all of legitimate, valid, and Catholic, and so therefore no place qualifies and all Masses and priests must be avoided, and the whole Church is reduced to scattered laymen reading their Sunday Missal at home alone, vaguely (and more and more vaguely as time and generations pass) remembering a former glory that is no more and can never again be. While I believe there are such persons, they are rare birds indeed. Far more commonly, many who pose as canonical pessimists and spread that kind of home-alonism, in fact secretly go somewhere for Mass. Some even go to the Novus Ordo. They are like the founder of the Breatharians who preaches eating nothing but air, but who was caught eating a hamburger, or like the typical James Bond villain who is perfectly willing to let all his lackeys be blown up along with his secret base, and yet manages to have a secret escape pod for himself.
Canonical pessimism is what all rightly fear and reject regarding traditional Catholicism. The real tragedy is the large number of those who have thrown out the baby Jesus (whose Mystical Body the traditional Catholic movement taken as a whole in fact is) along with the filthy bathwater of canonical pessimism. And when they have done this, where can they go? "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life" (John 6:68). Whom indeed? If the traditional priests do not say the Mass that alone gives eternal life, then truly we are of all people most abandoned.