Where is the Church? That is the question, which I believe lies at the root of much of the confusion faced by real Catholics today. It really comes down to our understanding of the Catholic doctrines of Ecclesiology. Traditional Catholics understand that we "traditionalists" are in fact the remnant Roman Catholic Church. But what of the hierarchy?
For all too many, the phrase "the hierarchy" is taken to refer to an organization which is currently headed from Vatican City and comprised of "priests" and "bishops" and "pope," most of whom aren't even Catholics. They do not worship as Catholics. They do not believe and teach what Catholics must all believe and teach. They do not stand up to be counted as Catholics when the fallen world opposes God's own Truth and Justice. And yet so many of us real Catholics just unquestioningly think of them as being "the hierarchy." Why? Are there no alternatives? In fact, there are several.
I have identified four categories of belief regarding the whereabouts/identity/existence of the Roman Catholic hierarchy today:
1. Vatican organization retains hierarchical claim,
2. Hierarchy has utterly vanished,
3. Phantom (or totally concealed) hierarchy, and
4. Traditional clergy retain hierarchical claim.
Let us briefly explore what each of these is about.
1) Vatican organization retains hierarchical claim:
This alternative forces Catholics to try to reconcile the things done and taught by them with the teachings of the Church. One twists their mind into a pretzel by trying to make the new teachings fit into the old (or the old fit into the new). Or else one twists their mind into a pretzel by trying to figure out how the present Fallibility doesn't refute the past doctrine of Infallibility.
One common approach taken is to fault the individuals concerned. The Church does not err, but individual fallen men do, even churchmen. But that is a dead end. It merely leads one into making accusations. Individuals DO err, and must be held accountable for their errors. But is their error merely their own or is it a result of following official policy? Herein lies the fundamental difference between the Pre-Vatican II and Post-Vatican II hierarchies. The divine spirit of the first is the Holy Ghost, and the demonic spirit of the second is the "spirit of Vatican II." The first builds Faith; the second destroys it.
Before Vatican II, the prevailing customs and policies inclined all towards the Faith. The success or failure of any individual cleric in imparting Faith correlated quite closely to the degree to which he abided by those prevailing customs and policies himself. But during and since Vatican II, the customs and polices of the Vatican organization became the reasons for altars to be smashed, rosaries to be ripped, liturgies to be debased, errors to be exalted, and Faith to be lost. Even where some individual Vatican-approved cleric might actually stand up for a worthy Catholic teaching (e. g. 'Fr.' Frank Pavone in the Right-to-Life cause), he does this on his own, with no particular support or blessing from his superiors.
Clearly, the organization itself is the problem, not merely those in it. That is doctrinally impossible for the Church, yet undeniable with regards to the Vatican organization today. For these grave doctrinal reasons this alternative simply cannot be true. Today's Vatican organization simply cannot be the real Roman Catholic Church. Yet large numbers of traditional Catholics just seem to assume this alternative to be the case. This category includes not only the "Indult/Motu" crowd, but also the SSPX and other resistance groups, and even many sedevacantists!
2) Hierarchy has utterly vanished:
There are some who speak as if there really were no bishops with authority. This cannot be reconciled with the Catholic doctrine of Indefectibility of the Church. There are dogmatic reasons to believe that the hierarchical Church shall exist clear up to the time of the actual return of Christ. The only remotely possible exception to that would be in connection with the claim that the return of Christ is immediately imminent. But have those who actually advocate this alternative reflected on just how imminent that End of all Time would have to be? Mere hours or days at the most. How could one account for this supposedly hierarchy-less period of time having lasted for decades, thus far?
Yet the scenario one might tolerate for a very brief period has become for some a de facto long-term belief. That amounts to a belief in the total failure of the Church, a doctrinal impossibility. I suspect this is why many have feared to become sedevacantists. They imagine that the sede vacante finding would imply a failure of God to keep His promises regarding the Rock of St. Peter. We really should learn to focus not only on where the Church isn't, but where the Church is, lest we unintentionally convey the idea that the Church isn't.
3) Phantom (or totally concealed) hierarchy:
This category includes both those who claim there to be some secretive papal succession, and those who think some bishop from the era of Pope Pius XII might still be alive and keeping the living Magisterium going in his own utterly forgotten corner of the world. This category avoids the doctrinal problems of the first two categories, but then presents the new problem of finding this hidden hierarchy. More seriously, how does one account for their complete undiscoverability, even by its most loyal possible friends?
Can the Church be regarded as a visible society unless at least one living episcopal officer of it can be identified by name? I don't see how. It is one thing to say that you or I do not know the answer to that question as we sit here talking about it. Many things like this might simply not be common knowledge. And some bishops have had to function "underground." But it is quite a different thing for not one to be discoverable by anyone, all around the world. Back in the 1970's most Catholics vaguely knew that there was some such faithful bishop truly keeping his diocese Catholic, perhaps somewhere in South America. It couldn't have taken too much asking around to find out that the bishop in question was Bishop Antonio de Castro-Meyer of the diocese of Campos, Brazil. But no amount of asking around or digging can point any of us to such a bishop today.
The City on the Hill may be camouflaged, but never truly hidden. At least some of its light must always shine through even the thickest fog. Even if some dire threat could seemingly force them to conceal their existence as a hidden papal succession somewhere, how is it that not even the name taken by any current secretly reigning pontiff has ever been let slip out? Could any "Pope Gregory XVII" still be alive after all these years?
Yet no successor is named. Surely if such a pope existed, he would have wanted to enable all faithful clergy to be able to express their union with Peter by naming him in the Canon of the Mass, etc. And after all, that really wouldn't reveal anything useful for anyone trying to threaten him. And what threat could be so dire as to warrant abandoning the remainder of the whole Church all around the world to careless and heretical pastors all alike without authority or authoritativeness in the Gospel? Not even the detonation of a nuclear bomb under the Holy City could do as much damage as has been done by the enactment of Vatican II.
The apostolic mission of the Church continues to be the conversion of the world. Therefore, they cannot all be content to remain hidden in whatever corner of the earth they presently occupy, showing no concern for all the rest of us. How would one account for their universal refusal or inability to continue the Church's mission to preach the Gospel to all creation and baptize the nations in the name of the Father and Son and Holy Ghost? For if only any one or more of them did, we the Faithful could find them.
Indeed, it is they who should be seeking us out, not the other way around, for the Lord is ever anxious to gather His sheep. While one could posit that some few might be stranded on desert islands or trapped in gulags or solitary confinement, how is it that not one has been released over all these many years, as the angel freed Peter and company from prison (Acts 5:17-25)? Does God no longer watch over His Own Church?
4) Traditional clergy retain hierarchical claim:
This category, my own position, is that the obviously traditional Catholic priests and bishops simply are the Roman Catholic hierarchy as it exists today, despite their not having been personally appointed by a pope. I realize that this position raises a couple questions as to the exact canonical mechanism of their authority in the Church and how they are meant to function together today. But, unlike the other three alternatives, the problems raised by this alternative are only disciplinary, not doctrinal. Let's look at what this alternative solves:
We who recognize our traditional clergy as the hierarchy alone have an institutional and historic and unchanging Church that we can point to. That Church, our Church, has continuously existed, from ancient times until now, unchanging in any of Her doctrines or liturgies. Our Church has, and has always had, identifiable ministers who can be contacted for membership and for all the sacraments, teaching, and guidance the Church has ever offered. The clergy so identified have never taught heresy but have always and consistently opposed the radical errors of the Novus Ordo religion. In this alternative, the Church fully evidences Her retention of Her Divinely appointed prerogatives and apostolic mission.
It is much easier to explain how, in the midst of a lengthy papal vacancy, the episcopal succession can proceed officially without direct papal appointments, than it is to explain how the Church could contradict Herself, teach error, or disappear. This alternative is a big reprieve for those who have long agonized over the evident fall of the Vatican organization, thinking it to be the Church. It is the perfect antidote to those who charge that sedevacantism is merely some inexplicable negative finding that seems to deny the practical existence of the Church.
With our traditional clerics duly recognized as the Teaching Church and the Vatican heretics as mere sectarians visibly outside the Church, one need not reconcile the Modernist ecumenism with the teaching that there is only one true God and one true Church. One need not reconcile the indefectibility of the Church with the evident defection of the Vatican organization during and since Vatican II. One need not go sifting through the teachings of any putative "pope" whom we cannot rely upon to be a valid point of reference for our Faith. And one need not judge the man who leads the Modernist sect.
In the context of this view, it clear that we traditional Catholics, together with our clerical leaders, are not on the sidelines but straight front and center responsible for the state and future of the Church. It means that we - together with, and under the guidance of, our traditional Catholic priests and bishops - can and must continue the apostolic mission that our Lord Jesus Christ imparted to our forebears to preach the Gospel to every creature, baptizing them in the Name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost, confident in God's Divine help, and in our ability and authority to do so.
Besides the longer articles Griff has been writing for the DailyCatholic, he has submitted shorter articles that were published in the Traditional Catholic monthly periodical The Four Marks over the last few years. They are short articles that editor and publisher of The Four Marks Kathleen Plumb has graciously given permission to run here. We are grateful for the opportunity to share these with our readers who may not have had the opportunity to see them originally in The Four Marks since they are Griff's. The above appeared in the September 2012 issue but remains as pertinent today.
Griff's book is available from iUniverse.com Books for $26.95 or can be read on-line at www.the-pope.com We at the DailyCatholic strongly urge you to share it with all you can for that could be the gentle shove that moves your friends back to where the True Faith resides forever, rooted in the Truths and Traditions of Holy Mother Church as Christ intended and promised.
For Griff's previous articles from his STRAIGHT STUFF features, see ARCHIVES