One of the fruits of the Second Vatican Council has been the growth of Catholic dissidence, focussed, in the first instance, on changes in the liturgy. The most extreme form of this dissidence is Sedevacantism, the theory that the See of Peter has been vacant since the death of Pope Pius XII in 1958, presumably with the implication that subsequent incumbents have been impostors.
The most organised expression of dissidence is SSPX, the Society of Saint Pius X, It was founded in 1970 by Archbishop Lefebre, with the original intention that it should be an institution within the formal structure of the church, dedicated to maintaining the traditional forms of Latin rite Catholic worship. The detailed history is complex but the end result was that it became separated, the final break being the appointing of bishops without the agreement of Rome. Although its members and supporters would deny this, SSPX has all the appearance of a sect standing outside the Catholic church.
There were also individual dissidents from that period, making a stand against reform, such as Father Oswald Baker, parish priest at Downham Market in Norfolk, who was removed from his post in 1975.
Other dissidence has been unimpeachably loyal. The Latin Mass Society and other organisations under the umbrella Una Voce have doggedly campaigned to promote the continuation of the Tridentine Mass. Their efforts were rewarded by the issuing of Summorum Pontificum in 2007 by Pope Benedict XVI, which declared that the Tridentine Mass had never been abrogated. Then there are organisations such as Schola Gregoriana of Cambridge, which have, together with the monks of Solemnes, worked hard for over forty years, against the trend, to preserve from within the church's musical heritage of Gregorian chant.
Other centres of loyal dissidence have been the Congregation of the Oratory, which in England, grew from the original parishes in London and Birmingham, to the present total of six, and The Institute of Christ the King and the Priestly Fraternity of St Peter (FSSP).
A louder expression of unimpeachably loyal dissidence is that of Michael Voris and his Church Militant channel. Voris is angry, and that comes across in the way he talks. He is angry about the liturgical abuse, the poor catechesis, the homosexual infiltration of the clergy and the dilution of orthodox Catholic teaching.
There has, of course, been dissidence at the very highest level. Pope Benedict, as Cardinal Ratzinger, worked tirelessly before election as Pope, writing a number of books of which the best known is Spirit of the Liturgy. More recently, Cardinal Sarah has pushed for a return to the traditional practice of ad orientem celebration.
None of this opposition is against anything formally decreed. If liturgical practice followed the guidelines and rules, there would, indeed, be no real reason for the dissidence. Versus populum celebration would not occur, since it is based on a misinterpretion of archaeological research, Sacrosanctum Concilium, the General Instruction of the Roman Missal would be complied with, and the use of the Solemnes service book Graduale Romanum would result in a liturgy little different from the Tridentine form. Celebration of the Extraordinary Form, as the Tridentine Mass is now known, would be frequent and often. There would be no reasonable cause for dissidence regarding the liturgy.
A hopeless endeavour?
It is the response to Cardinal Sarah's plea which makes me wonder about the value of all the attempts to get things back on track. The response from so many of the bishops to Sarah's request was that priests should take no notice. Sarah himself was pushed aside. Realistically, however, it was almost inevitable.
What is one to conclude? Is it possible that the counter-movements are harbingers of a return to Catholic tradition and that things will pick up? It would be nice to think so but the statistics do not add up. All of the movements mentioned above are flourishing against a wider decline, as can be measured by figures such as the numbers of baptisms, confirmations, marriages, and ordinations, and the age profiles of priests and congregations. The pointers are all in the wrong direction, short of a miracle. We are, after all, in the centenary year of Fatima, so all things are possible.
Why has the situation arisen at this time? One could say that it is a consequence of the Second Vatican Council and the ambiguous formulation of the documentation of its decisions. However, the Council was a response to pressures which had been building up since at least the 1880s, and which Pope Pius X found it necessary to address at the beginning of the twentieth century. Liturgical changes had also been going on long before 1960; substantial alterations were made during the reign of Pope Pius XII.
A key factor seems to have been the declaration of Papal Infallibility in 1870, at the First Vatican Council. Whilst, in a formal sense, it was strictly limited, applying only to ex-Cathedra statements of dogma, in practice, it strengthened the authority of the Pope in all matters. It also formalised a tendency which had been running since at least the sixth century, when Rome began increasingly to assert its position of primacy amongst the patriarchs. As long as the popes were sound, conservative and dedicated to tradition, everything would remain on course. But that is not the history of the papacy. The quality of the incumbents has been mixed. As soon as there were enough cardinals to elect a pope with a modernising agenda, it was going to be out with the old and in with the new.
But there must be other forces at work as well, because the conservative Pope Benedict was not able to turn the ship round against the modernising momentum that had built up. That momentum has increased since Benedict was elected, to the point that Benedict was dislodged and the modernisers got the pope they wanted. Nothing could change even if someone like Cardinal Burke or Cardinal Sarah was elected pope next time round, since they would find themselves in an even more difficult situation than that of Benedict.
Is it Game Over?
Given that modernising within the Catholic church can be equated with decline, what kind of a future can we expect? Is Catholic dissidence any longer even a productive activity? Is it even good for the spiritual well-being of the dissidents themselves? How does one know when a battle is lost and it is time to retire from the field? And what then?
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