Exposing the SSPX’s Rejection of the Hermeneutic of Continuity
 John Salza Responds to Fr. Reuter, SSPX – Part I

 

John F. Salza, Esq.
June A.D. 2022

          In Episode 30 of the Society’s Crisis in the Church series, called “Hermeneutic of Continuity: Big Word, Big Logical Leap,” Fr. Steven Reuter attempts to explain why the Society of St. Pius X rejects the approach of interpreting the documents of Vatican II in light of Tradition, or what Pope Benedict XVI called “the hermeneutic of continuity,” and instead believes the conciliar documents must be thrown out altogether. The SSPX’s position is based on the view that the documents don’t merely contain ambiguous statements that allow for an interpretation that is contrary to Tradition, but instead are full of teachings that positively teach error, and or even heresy, and therefore cannot be reconciled with Tradition, no matter how hard we might try. Consequently, the SSPX advocates that the documents of Vatican II should be rejected in toto (as a whole), rather than understood using a hermeneutic (or method of interpretation) in light of the Church’s prior teaching.

Clearly, the vast majority of the council Fathers of Vatican II (there were over 2,500 of them) intended to confront the issues facing modern man while faithfully presenting the teachings of the Church in light of Tradition, “without any distortion.” While we concede that the need to employ a “hermeneutic of continuity” highlights an issue with the council’s documents (i.e., their ambiguities), this does not mean the documents teach heresy, or even error, which would justify their outright rejection, much less that a hermeneutic of continuity is itself a defective technique. What Catholic would reject the concept of interpreting imprecise, pastoral statements of the Magisterium in light of Tradition? Even the definitions of dogmatic councils are subject to interpretation, which mandates a hermeneutic of continuity when interpreting them (e.g., what teachings are considered infallible according to the First Vatican Council’s Dei Filius?). 

Archbishop Lefebvre himself implicitly conceded the legitimacy of interpreting the conciliar texts in accordance with Tradition, since he put his signature of approval on all of the documents of Vatican II.[1]  He even warned about the “mistaken interpretation” of the council’s pronouncement on such things as the dignity of the human person.[2] Hence, the SSPX is setting quite a high bar, or should we say, taking a “big, logical leap” in arguing that it is no longer possible to apply a hermeneutic of continuity when interpreting the texts. Indeed, the SSPX’s approach is imbalanced and not Catholic, but presumably one they are forced to take to justify their continued existence outside the juridical structure of the Church.

         Fr. Reuter’s Approach is Flawed from the Beginning 

Fr. Reuter begins the podcast by claiming that Pope Benedict XVI invented the hermeneutic of continuity “to shift the blame from the council” and to “cure some of the abuses.” Thus, Fr. Reuter takes the a priori position that the hermeneutic of continuity is itself a flawed approach (which is even more than saying the approach is legitimate but not possible with the documents of Vatican II). Fr. Reuter even claims that Pope Benedict (who was a council father at Vatican II), came up with the approach “to save something he created,” and even suggests that the Holy Father does not have the humility to recognize his own motivations.  

Unfortunately, Fr. Reuter’s harsh indictment of the Pope’s hermeneutical approach is not at all Catholic, since we are required to interpret the non-definitive teachings of the Magisterium in light of Tradition, and especially those of an ecumenical council (is there any other legitimate way to interpret the documents?). But even if we have misunderstood Fr. Reuter in this regard, his personal assessments of Pope Benedict, which attempt to interpret the subjective intentions of the Pope, do not advance Fr. Reuter’s thesis that ambiguous statements contained within the Vatican II cannot be reconciled with traditional doctrine. Moreover, Pope Benedict’s efforts to “shift the blame from the council” based on faulty interpretations of its texts is precisely the Catholic approach to interpreting ambiguous statements or teachings, which gives the Magisterium the benefit of the doubt (certainly something that the SSPX is not willing to do).

The Catholic approach, affirmed by Pope Pius VI, requires Catholic to interpret ambiguous texts in the most favorable way (in light of Tradition), and reject the erroneous interpretation of the text, rather than the proposition itself. In the words of Pope Pius VI:

In order to expose such snares, something which becomes necessary with a certain frequency in every century, no other method is required than the following: Whenever it becomes necessary to expose statements that disguise some suspected error or danger under the veil of ambiguity, one must denounce the perverse meaning under which the error opposed to Catholic truth is camouflaged.[3]

The approach of the Society of St. Pius X is exactly the opposite, and this has always been the approach of the Church’s enemies. The SSPX calls the Catholic approach of Pope Benedict a mere tactic to “shift blame” way from Holy Mother Church, in order to accuse the Church herself of all kinds of error (and without proving that the documents, in fact, teach error). Contrary to the instruction of Pope Pius VI, the SSPX assumes that the heterodox interpretations of Vatican II’s ambiguous texts are the intended meaning of the texts. In doing so, the Society accuses the Church of positively teaching error, and thus attacks the Church, just like her enemies have always done (which is certainly much easier to do when one is not legally part of the Church). Rather than “denouncing the perverse meaning” (the erroneous interpretation of the proposition) which is contrary to the Faith, the SSPX embraces the perverse meaning and claims this is indeed the meaning that the Church intended– which is actually the Liberal error of the Modernists.

  Fr. Reuter Exaggerates the Assent Owed to Vatican II
   because He Rejects the Church’s Profession of Faith

After wrongly denouncing the concept of the hermeneutic of continuity, Fr. Reuter falsifies the type of assent owed to the teachings of Vatican II. He says: “It was held as a super council to which unconditional assent is required.” He then says: “If you don’t accept it, you are no longer in the Church.” Before addressing his false assertion on the level of assent, one wonders why Fr. Reuter claims that those who reject Vatican II are “no longer in the Church,” when he also claims that the Society, which rejects Vatican II, is still inside the Church? This is an example of how the SSPX uses exaggerative statements which often result in inconsistencies and contradictions (it also reveals partiality to the “two-Church” heresy, which maintains there is a distinction between the Roman Catholic Church (which recognizes Vatican II) and what could be called the “Church of Tradition” (which rejects Vatican II).

A better example, however, is Fr. Reuter’s claim that we owe “unconditional assent” to the teachings of Vatican II. This statement is patently false. Other than the infallible truths previously taught by the Church that the council reaffirmed (and, possibly, the council’s teaching on Collegiality[4]), the non-definitive teachings of Vatican II do not demand our “unconditional assent.” In fact, Archbishop Pozzo, former Secretary of the Ecclesia Dei Commission who has been responsible for attempting to bring the SSPX back into the Church, has publicly stated that the more contentious documents of Vatican II to which the Society objects (e.g. Nostra Aetate on interreligious dialogue; Unitatis Redintegratio on ecumenism; Dignitatis Humanae on religious liberty) are not doctrinal or definitive teachings and hence are not binding on Catholics.[5]

    In fact, Pozzo even went on to say that the SSPX could continue to discuss the non-doctrinal aspects of the documents, even after such time that it would receive a canonical mission from the Church: 

They are not about doctrines or definitive statements, but, rather, about instructions and orienting guides for pastoral practice. On can continue to discuss these pastoral aspects after the canonical approval [of the SSPX], in order to lead us to further clarifications.[6] 

Pozzo also made clear that allowing debate about the pastoral aspects of the conciliar documents is not a concession granted to the SSPX, but rather one granted by the Vatican II council itself, to all Catholics. He noted: 

This is certainly not a [later] conclusion on our part, but it was already clear at the time of the Council. The General Secretary of the Council, Cardinal Pericle Felici, declared on 16 November 1964: ‘This holy synod defines only that as being binding for the Church what it declares explicitly to be such with regard to Faith and Morals.’ Only those texts assessed by the Council Fathers as being binding are to be accepted as such. That has not been [later] invented by “the Vatican,” but it is written in the official files themselves.[7] 

On one hand, it is difficult to understand how Fr. Reuter, who has taught Dogma in the SSPX seminary, could make such a blatantly erroneous statement, that Vatican II requires our unconditional assent, particularly when the very point man for the Society’s reconciliation to the Church (Abp. Pozzo) said just the opposite! Why would Fr. Reuter misrepresent the Church authorities this way? After all, Pozzo’s statements are public. On the other hand, however, it is not so difficult to understand Reuter’s error, when one understands that his error is based upon a greater error, which is his (and the SSPX’s) rejection of the Catholic Church’s Profession of Faith, which must be believed by all Catholics in order to maintain their juridical bond with the Church.

The Profession of Faith is composed of the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, and “three propositions or paragraphs intended to describe the truths of the Catholic faith.” The first two paragraphs describe the unconditional asset owed to truths that the Church teaches are either formally revealed (to be “believed” with “divine and catholic faith”), or definitively proposed (to be “firmly accepted and held”). The third paragraph requires Catholics to “adhere with religious submission of will and intellect to the teachings which either the Roman Pontiff or the College of Bishops enunciate when they exercise their authentic Magisterium, even if they do not intend to proclaim these teachings by a definitive act.” This would include the teachings on faith or morals of the Second Vatican Council, which were enunciated by the authentic Magisterium of the Catholic Church. Thus, the SSPX rejected the third proposition as soon as the Profession was promulgated by the Church in 1989, because it had already rejected the Second Vatican Council (which closed in 1965), refusing to give it any kind of deference.

    As we can see, because the SSPX rejects the third paragraph of the Profession, which only requires religious submission of intellect and will (which, by nature, is conditional assent) to non-definitive teachings, and not the assent of divine faith (which is unconditional assent) required by the first two paragraphs, the SSPX necessarily, and incorrectly, claims Vatican II is owed “unconditional assent.” Having rejected the third paragraph, the Society is forced to erroneously place the teachings of Vatican II within either the first or second paragraph, both of which require the unconditional assent of faith. Thus, the Society falsely claims “a person is supposed to adhere with Faith to teachings that are not definitive.”[8]

But as mentioned above, the teachings of Vatican II don’t fall within either of the first two paragraphs, since the council did not set forth any doctrines to be believed as divinely revealed, or firmly held as definitively proposed.[9] Rather, the council’s documents were non-definitive teachings or statements of the authentic Magisterium, which have always required a mere religious deference (but not the unconditional assent of divine faith). This shows that the SSPX falsifies Church teaching, and then publicly attacks the Church for the (false) teaching, just like the Protestant heretics.

Of course, like all the Society’s errors, this error originated with Archbishop Lefebvre, who called the third paragraph “very bad,” “dangerous,” “ridiculous” and “false.”[10]  By having refused to give any deference at all to the teachings of the council (which no doubt shows a schismatic mentality), the SSPX ended by rejecting the Church’s Profession of Faith, which is required for belief in order to be Catholic. This rejection of the Church’s Profession of Faith is a mortal sin against the faith that merits eternal punishment. Indeed, the Church has always understood that divine faith in her Professions was necessary for salvation (and the Church’s traditional theology always classified as heretics those who rejected Catholic truths to be believed with divine faith, such as those in Creeds and Professions of Faith).

This is why Archbishop Pozzo, who acknowledged that the SSPX could continue to question the orthodoxy of certain Vatican II documents, at the same time also affirmed that it must accept the Church’s Profession of Faith as a condition for being reintegrated back into the Church. Said Pozzo: “What is essential, what we cannot give up, is the adherence to the Professio fidei, and to the principle that the Lord entrusted to the Church’s Magisterium alone the faculty to interpret authentically, that is, with the authority of Christ, the written and transmitted Word of God.”[11]

Just as there is no precedent for rejecting a hermeneutic of continuity when interpreting ambiguous Magisterial texts, there is also no precedent for rejecting the truth that we owe the Magisterium religious submission to her authentic teachings. The SSPX departs from Catholic truth on both counts. And if the SSPX thought the necessity of religious submission (deference) was a novelty of Vatican II (Lumen Gentium did teach the proposition), [12]  it was also wrong on that count as well. The truth that we must “hear the Church” are the words of Christ Himself, revealed in Scripture (Mt 18:17), and was consistently taught in theology manuals long before Vatican II.

For example, in his Sacrae Theologia Summa (1956), Salaverri taught: “An internal and religious assent of the mind is due to the doctrinal decrees of the Holy See which have been authentically approved by the Roman Pontiff.”[13] Fr. Nicolas Jung, in his classic book, Le Magistère de L’Église (1935), also addresses non-definitive teachings: 

He is not required to give the same assent to teaching imparted by the sovereign pontiff that is not imposed on the whole Christian body as a dogma of faith. In this case it suffices to give that inner and religious assent which we give to legitimate ecclesiastical authority. This is not an absolute assent, because such decrees are not infallible, but only a prudential and conditional assent, since in questions of faith and morals there is a presumption in favor of one’s superior...[14] 

In The Sources of Revelation (1961), Van Noort also teaches: “Granted the need for submission to the authentic Magisterium, it still remains true that just as a merely authentic proposal is by its very nature incomplete and provisory, so, too, is the religious assent due to it.”[15] In Wilhelm & Scannell’s Manual of Catholic Theology (1906), we also read: “Points of doctrine expressed, recommended and insisted upon in papal allocutions or encyclical letters, but not distinctly defined, may create the obligation of strict obedience and undoubting assent, or may exact merely external submission and approval.”[16] Even the “liberal” Commentary on the 1983 Code of Canon Law acknowledges that the Church leaves room for dissent on non-definitive teachings based on preponderant evidence, just like the pre-Vatican II theologians.[17] Indeed, the SSPX schizophrenically reserves for itself the right to “dissent from non-definitive teachings” of the Church, while also rejecting the Church’s Profession of Faith which accommodates this right to dissent![18]

In fact, in Wilhelm & Scannell’s manual we further read: “Modern Liberalism…is an attempt to conciliate Extreme Liberalism by giving up these various distinctions [assent of faith vs. intellect], and reducing all decisions either to formal definitions of Faith or to mere police regulations.”[19] This means the Society’s rejection of the third paragraph of the Profession of Faith is a liberal Modernist error. But the SSPX does embrace many of the liberal errors they condemn the Modernists for, such as the right to publicly propagate their theological errors, and their claim that they are part of (or “subsist in”) the Catholic Church, without having any juridical status in the Church, and that the Spirit of Christ has not refrained from using their illicit ministry as a means of salvation. Indeed, the errors on the Left are the errors on the Right.



[1] While Fr. Reuter claims that “Lefebvre rejected the hermeneutic of continuity even before it was proposed,” his assertion flies in the face of the fact that Lefebvre signed all the conciliar documents. If Lefebvre did not believe the documents could be interpreted in light of Tradition, then why did he sign off on them? Clearly, Lefebvre did not believe (at least at the time he signed the documents) that the texts positively taught heresy or error, but rather could be reconciled with traditional teaching, even if with some difficulty. This fact directly undermines the SSPX’s ongoing position that the documents must be rejected outright because a hermeneutic of continuity is not possible.

[2] Lefebvre, A Bishop Speaks, Angelus, 2007, p. 57.

[3] Auctorem Fidei, August 28, 1794.

[4] Archbishop Pozzo, and many other theologians, maintain that Vatican II’s teaching on episcopal consecrations being the fullness of Holy Orders, and the College of Bishops in union with the Pope being a subject of supreme authority (Collegiality) as set forth in the Dogmatic Constitution Lumen Gentium, are binding on Catholics. This indicates that the Society would have to renounce its error of rejecting the Church’s teaching on Collegiality set forth in Lumen Gentium before it would be granted a canonical mission (which demonstrates that the Society’s doctrinal errors are keeping it outside the Church). 

[5] Maike Hickson, “Abp. Pozzo on SSPX: Disputed Vatican II Documents are Non-Doctrinal,” August 9, 2016, www.onepeterfive.com.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid. In example, Archbishop Pozzo said “Nostra Aetate does not have any dogmatic authority, and thus one cannot demand from anyone to recognize this declaration as being dogmatic.”

[9] As noted above, some theologians maintain that the council’s teaching on Collegiality is a definitive teaching.

[10] Cor Jesu, http://fsspx.asia/sites/sspx/files/cor_jesu-january.pdf.

[11] “No Capitulation but what Unity? Pozzo Interview, www.sspx.org.

[12] “This religious submission of mind and will must be shown in a special way to the authentic magisterium of the Roman Pontiff, even when he is not speaking ex cathedra; that is, it must be shown in such a way that his supreme magisterium is acknowledged with reverence, the judgments made by him are sincerely adhered to, according to his manifest mind and will.” No. 5.

[13] Quote taken from Fr. Fenton, “Infallibility in the Encyclicals,” AER (1953). Fenton taught the same as did Billot, Jung, Tanqueray, Nau and many others.

[14] Jung, Le Magistère de L’Èglise, 1935, pp. 153, 154; cited in Clear Ideas, On the Pope’s Infallible Magisterium, SiSiNoNo, January 2002, No. 44.

[15] Van Noort, The Sources of Revelation, p. 237, Reprint by Arouca Press (2019).

[17] John Beal, James Coriden, and Thomas Green, A New Commentary on the Code of Canon Law (New York: Paulist Press, 2000), p. 917.

[18] The very nature of the “submission of intellect and will” is a conditional assent, because the intellect could have a genuine conflict based on a preponderance of evidence (unlike the assent of divine faith, which is unconditional).

[19] Vol. 1. Third Edition, Revised, London, Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., p. 101.

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