SACRAMENTAL VALIDITY FOR DUMMIES
by Fr. Brian Harrison, O.S.
Sedevacantists – those who say the See of Peter has been vacant for over forty years because all of its claimants since Vatican Council II have been “public heretics” – continue to be active and vociferous in the new millennium. In North America there now appear to be thousands of such brethren frequenting dozens of places of regular worship. And last year they added to their ranks at least two highly intelligent and articulate writers and speakers whose names are well known to many readers of The Latin Mass and other orthodox Catholic publications: biblical scholar and former Presbyterian minister Gerry Matatics, and former Wanderer and Remnant columnist Dr. Thomas Droleskey. (I have known Gerry well for many years, and still consider him a personal friend, even though it disappoints me greatly that he has publicly adopted this position.) Sedevacantists, it must be said, are at least materially schismatic; for they are repudiating totally and unequivocally the authority of him who is in truth the legitimate Roman Pontiff and source of visible Catholic unity, His Holiness Benedict XVI. (Formal schism involves the grave guilt of rebelliously casting off the authority of the man one knows in one’s heart of hearts is the legitimate Vicar of Christ. I’ll leave that kind of judgment of personal culpability to God, or at least, to His Church, if she should desire to make such a judgment in regard to some specific case.)
Today’s sedevacantists have a new weapon in their armory: – one they were unable to fire at John Paul II or his predecessors. In addition to his being a notorious public heretic, they claim, a further reason why the former Cardinal Ratzinger cannot possibly be the Bishop of Rome is that he is simply not a bishop – period! They maintain that the post-conciliar rite for the consecration (ordination) of bishops, revised and promulgated for the Latin-rite (i.e., non-Oriental) Church by Paul VI after Vatican II, includes an essential form of words which, going by the standards of traditional Catholic sacramental theology, is invalid. That is, it is simply incapable of producing the desired effect – conferring the sacrament in question. And it was certainly this post-conciliar rite that was used in the 1978 episcopal ordination of Joseph Ratzinger. Ergo (we are told) he’s still really just Father Ratzinger!
A great deal of ink has been spilled over this issue lately. Fr. Anthony Cekada of Cincinnati, who is probably the most scholarly and persuasive sedevacantist writing in English today, placed a long article on his website in 2006, replete with numerous footnotes and a multi-lingual bibliography, arguing for the invalidity of the new form of the sacrament. Various theologians responded to him during the succeeding year, and Fr. Cekada then returned their fire, posting a new and formidable-looking 12-page reply to all of them. And Gerry Matatics, on his website, has referenced Fr. Cekada’s articles as providing his own first and most clear-cut justification for not accepting the authority of Benedict XVI.
Thus, the argument could easily go on . . . and on . . . and on. And it could very well leave a lot of good, devout, Catholics with sensitive consciences uneasy and troubled as to whether we really have any Bishop of Rome, or even any other real Latin-rite bishops left under the age of about 75-80, apart from those few who have been validly but illicitly consecrated with the traditional rite. After all (many may think) if such a huge – indeed, mind-boggling! – issue really depends on the subtleties of erudite, wire-drawn arguments that really require training in sacramental theology and philosophical hermeneutics to understand and evaluate properly, then how – once he starts reading all these confusing pro- and anti-validity arguments – can the ordinary, average Catholic ever regain that certainty and reassurance he needs in order to live and worship with peace of mind in union with Benedict XVI?
So isn’t there perhaps some other ‘clincher’ out there? Some simpler argument within ready reach of the ordinary faithful in the pews? Something like “Novus Ordo Sacramental Validity for Dummies”? I mean, has Heaven itself – our loving Savior and the Blessed Mother – suddenly become so ‘elitist’ as to leave millions of poor sheep without philosophical/theological training in danger of straying to their spiritual ruin, just because they’re not learned enough to distinguish heaven-authorized shepherds from self-appointed impostors, or healthy from poisoned pastures?
I think there is in fact such a ‘clincher’. Any learned sedevacantist who happens to read the argument that follows in this article will, I am sure, laugh me to scorn for my shockingly ‘unscholarly’ naiveté; but I think its truth has basically been staring us in the face all the time. But first, in order to help you appreciate my argument, I invite you first to consider the following little ‘parable’.
A single father who often has to work late at nights in his office has two little sons. One evening he hires a new baby-sitter – a young man named Brad whom he knows well and trusts completely. Before leaving for the office, he tells the children: “Now be sure you do whatever Brad tells you while I’m away!” “Yes, Daddy,” reply the children. “I mean, I want you to be really obedient to Brad, because obeying him in everything means obeying me too. “Yeah, sure, Daddy! We understand. We’ll be really good with Brad!” So Dad goes off to the office and gets to work. Now, since his home is in a rather crime-ridden neighborhood, he has – unbeknown to Brad – installed in most rooms sophisticated and unobtrusive video cameras, complete with audio, and, as an added security measure, even has a monitor connected to his office.
After nearly an hour of work, Dad takes a coffee break and plugs in to have a quick look at how Brad and the kids are going at home. To his shock and consternation, he sees ‘trustworthy’ Brad with a cigarette between his fingers and a can of beer in his hand, urging the two young boys to try the same stuff, more of which he has brought along in his satchel! Worse, he hears the conversation: “Remember, you both have to do all I tell you now, don’t you! You promised Daddy obedience, so you know he also wants both of you to try out this great stuff with me! This is to help you guys grow up a little, O.K.? You know your Dad wants you to start learning to be young men, don’t you! Here, lemme give you a light!” Dad sees the little ones nervous, confused, but . . . compliant, obedient! They cough the unpleasant smoke out, and cautiously start sipping the beer. Their reluctance is evident, but they do what they’re told, plainly out of sheer, pure loyalty to their own loving father!
Next step: Dad, livid with indignation, is of course out of that office in about three seconds flat, racing for his car to get back home, . . . right? Wrong. Not this Dad. He just stays right there in the office, glued to the monitor, glowering, yes, but passively, impotently. He keeps watching and listening, listening and watching, and then . . . starts apportioning blame! He’s outraged first of all at the baby-sitter, of course, but then he starts getting riled at his little sons themselves! “Hey!”, he addresses them mentally, “you don’t have to obey that kind of stuff! Come on, guys! Did you think I meant the word ‘whatever’ to be taken that literally? Or maybe it was my word ‘everything’ that you interpreted in such a fundamentalist sense!” On the screen things get worse. He can see his sons are starting to turn giddy and pale from the smoke and alcohol; but Dad, transfixed, still doesn’t make a move. He just sits there, agonizing indecisively like a suburban Hamlet, mentally parsing his own previous instructions to his sons. Soon, his recriminations at the children grow more intense: “No! No! Don’t touch another drop of that stuff! You crazy kids! Don’t obey him on THAT! Your own common sense should tell you! . . . But the enormity before his eyes only goes from bad to worse: Brad is now rolling something in his fingers – it’s a joint! Forget cigarettes, now he’s giving them marijuana! And never mind beer, now he’s extracted a flask of whisky from his big satchel! But the two boys, obviously disturbed, confused and starting to reel, still go along with Brad’s every word, as he insists to them yet again that this is what their father wants them to do! Yet, even now, all the man can do is sit glaring at the screen, crying desperately, “No, No! Don’t! Disobey! DISOBEY!!”
Now, I suspect you’ll agree that any father who ever behaved liked that would deserve just as much blame as the treacherous baby-sitter himself. But the point of the ‘parable’ is this: the claim that Paul VI got away with imposing invalid ordination rites on the whole Roman rite implicitly depicts our Lord Himself as behaving in a manner quite analogous to our wretched Dad’s dereliction of parental duty! Which of course would be absurd and impossible. For the readily comprehensible defense of sacramental validity that I have in mind is right there in Christ’s solemn promises to Peter (Mt 16: 19), and to all the Apostles and their successors (Mt 28: 20). “Whatsoever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven . . . Know that I am with you always; yes, to the end of the world”. Jesus’ promises guarantee that He just isn’t going to let His own Vicar get away with abusing, and indeed, practically destroying, the Church by imposing invalid ordination rites! He would intervene in whatever way were needed to prevent such a catastrophe! So, as regards the validity question under discussion, all we really need is the premise that Paul VI was indeed a real Vicar of Christ – a legitimate Pope.
That’s all we need? O.K., I can hear Fr. Cekada, Bishop Daniel Dolan, Mr. Hutton Gibson, Mr. John Daly and other ‘sede’ brethren already splitting their sides over that one! But, really, the arguments for Paul VI’s ‘non-papal’ status don’t even succeed in stepping up to the plate – never mind making it to first base! Mel Gibson’s father (whom I met in Australia many years ago) has been complaining ever since the 1970s that ‘conciliar’ types – especially post-conciliar clergy like myself – always just dismiss his sedevacantist arguments scornfully without offering any reasoned reply. Well, since Mr. Gibson claims Cardinal Giovanni Battista Montini’s 1963 election to the papacy was invalid because he was already a ‘public heretic’ as Archbishop of Milan, and since he has published several pages of quotations (plus commentary) from Montini’s pre-papacy discourses in order to ‘prove’ this, I wrote him not long ago a detailed (nine-page, single-spaced) point-by-point rebuttal. I demonstrated that not one of his quotations even displays any clear material heresy (contradiction of a truth of divine and Catholic faith) on the part of Cardinal Montini – never mind the pertinacity (obstinacy) in his heresy which would also have still have to be proved before one could perhaps argue that he automatically lost office as archbishop and cardinal. In response, Mr. Gibson did not tackle even one point of my rebuttal head-on, but merely resorted to evasive bluster, both privately and his newsletter.
The only alternative for those denying Paul VI’s papal status is to concede that Montini was validly elected to the Chair of Peter, but to claim that he nevertheless fell from office after the day of his election in 1963 and before April 3, 1969 – the day he promulgated the Novus Ordo Mass. For sedevacantists think no real pope could ever possibly do that. (As Fr. Cekada puts it with his customary verve, “Real men don’t eat quiche, and real popes don’t promulgate Novus Ordos.”) But this involves the breathtaking claim that not only the reigning Pontiff, but with him the entire worldwide Catholic hierarchy, all rushed simultaneously and suicidally out of office – and out of the Church! – like Gadarene swine, by virtue of promulgating pertinaciously (yep, all two thousand bishops!) sundry heresies at Vatican Council II. And if you think that sounds pretty incredible (what’s happened to Mt 28: 20 here?), then wait for the punchline: this claim also requires us to believe that there was not, at the time, one single Catholic on the face of the earth who even noticed this ‘public’ and ‘notorious’, mass apostasy – by far the most universally cataclysmic ecclesial disaster to occur since the Church was born at Pentecost! For it’s a historical fact that the sedevacantist theory never occurred to anyone at all till about a decade after the Council.
In short, the theory of Paul VI’s ‘fall’ from the papal office is about as plausible as claiming that the day after the east-coast 9/11 attacks, suicidal skyjackers actually brought down the Sears Tower in Chicago as well . . . and that Americans elsewhere will gradually start to find out about this around the year 2011!
Now, let’s return to the sacramental question. Once we grant Paul VI’s authenticity as a real pope, what follows in regard to the claim that he promulgated invalid rites for ordaining bishops and/or priests? That simply couldn’t happen, because Our Lord has promised to ‘back up’ from heaven whatever Peter and his successors ‘bind’ – that is, require to be done or believed throughout the whole Church – on earth. And promulgating new and obligatory rites of ordination for the whole Latin-rite church (which includes about 95% of all Catholics world-wide) certainly fits the description of ‘binding on earth’. So, even supposing the new sacramental formulas were invalid by accepted pre-conciliar standards (which, incidentally, I do not concede), we can conclude logically that Jesus would either change His own previous rules for validity so as to ‘absorb’ and rectify the Pope’s blunder by ‘legalizing’ and ‘convalidating’ the new ordination formula, or else He would straight away intervene somehow (perhaps sending Our Lady again as at Fatima) in order to bring about a swift Vatican correction of the fatal error before any serious damage was done.
For since our Divine Redeemer is eternally faithful to His own word, the one thing He certainly could not do would be to stand by, as it were, watching wrathfully, but idly and passively, from Heaven, while nearly the entire Church loses within one generation five of her seven life-giving sacraments, including the Holy Sacrifice itself – all exterminated by the quiet, unobtrusive, but lethal drug of invalid orders. The responsibility would then basically be His for leaving the faithful exposed to the diabolical mockery of empty counterfeit rites celebrated in thousands of church buildings now turned effectively into whited sepulchers unhallowed by life-giving grace! For, in this scenario, the Catholic people would not be losing those sacraments because of some stiff-necked global rebellion of their own against Our Lord’s’ sacramental teaching and discipline (an offence which might conceivably deserve some such fearful calamity by way of chastisement). On the contrary, the calamity would be occurring precisely because these ingenuous lambs are trusting and obeying Jesus in His promises to Blessed Peter and his Successors! The Lord knows better than anyone that these millions of ordinary faithful Mass-going laypeople – and even most priests and bishops, few of whom are specialists in the complex niceties of sacramental theology and hermeneutics – are going to feel a duty in conscience to use obediently whatever sacramental rites may be established by the Pope, precisely because they trust that He, Jesus Christ, is still running His Church through Peter. And so the Lord is most certainly not going to see all these innocent and faithful children spiritually drugged or poisoned, with their sacramental sources of grace doomed to extinction once the subtle venom of invalidity liquidates nearly all real Latin-rite priests and bishops – thereby eliminating nearly all valid Masses and Confessions. (Ironically, nearly all of the few exceptions would be those clergy ordained by disobedient bishops who have used the old ordination rites without Vatican permission!).
In short, my reply to this particular sedevacantist claim is that its proponents lose sight of the wood for the trees. They treat sacramental validity as if it were a purely technical, impersonal matter, almost like a natural physical process. Just as you won’t get cured by obeying your doctor unless he prescribes exactly the right dose of exactly the right medicine, neither (we are assured) will you get a valid sacrament by obeying your pope unless he in turn has managed to get the key words exactly right. This perspective loses from sight the fact that we have a loving Good Shepherd in heaven in charge of his sheep, who knows that at least 99% of His faithful flock – that is, of those clergy, religious and laity who are not conscious dissenters from the Magisterium – will accept, precisely because of their trust in Him, whatever comes out of Peter’s See with some kind of label attached to it saying “Obey!”
I am sure that learned sedevacantists, if they happen to read this article, will retort that my “theology for dummies” would be better described as just dumbed-down theology (or worse!) – something not even worth their scholarly rebuttal, or even ‘the time of day’. And in a sense they could well be right! But they will still be missing the main point: namely, that our Good Shepherd realizes just how theologically, canonically and philosophically ‘dumb’ the vast majority of us really are! And so, in His tender mercy, and in fidelity to His own promises, he will certainly not “reward” our simplistic and un-nuanced obedience to Him through Peter’s See by allowing us, his ingenuous children, to give and receive in church, for decade after decade all over the world, the ‘scorpion’ of invalid counterfeits rather than the ‘egg’ of true, life-giving sacraments. Look up His own guarantee in Luke 11: 12-13.
(This article first appeared ln THE LATIN MASS magazine, Spring 2008 issue.)