There’s been a considerable amount of guffawing over at Rorate Caeli concerning Archbishop Di Noia’s (V.P. of Ecclesia Dei) semi-open letter to the Society of St. Pius X. (You can read the letter, and the fallout, here.) The combox contains the usual traddie hyperbole and alarmism, along with their typical obfuscations on matters of theology and doctrine. There are a couple of dissenting views mixed in as well. Those, dear reader, are where you should probably invest your reading time.
Some of the controversy over the letter extends from Di Noia’s strong implication that the philosophical-theological education of the Society’s clergy is inadequate or, at least, not adequate to the task of forming clerics who can critically engage with 20th/21st Century Catholic thought (including the documents promulgated at Vatican II). As “elitist” as the charge sounds, it’s not without some merit. Most SSPX clergy, as far as I understand the matter, are drilled in manual Scholasticism and not much else (because, remember, all “else” is modernist, hence evil). There is probably a greater likelihood that they are expected to memorize the encyclicals of Pius XII rather than read the Summa Theologiae. There are exceptions, of course. The first generation of Society priests likely received better instruction due to the fact that they were taught by clergy who themselves had received a top-grade seminary education “back in the day.” But there is always a risk of signal degradation over time, and the hard truth of the matter is that many traditionalist polemics against “modernist” or “neo-modernist” theology is overly simplistic. Too much “trad critique” runs like this: (1) Take a passage out of context from some “modernist” theologian’s 500-plus page work; (2) Compare that passage with a popularized understanding of the theological or doctrinal point it is attempting to expound; (3) Notice that the theologian’s passage isn’t a verbatim restatement of the popular understanding; (4) Declare the theologian’s work heretical. Ta da!
None of this is to say that traditionalists haven’t written some excellent books on numerous problems associated with the Second Vatican Council and the Novus Ordo Mass. Most of these works are historical in nature. As history they are fascinating; as theology, they leave a bit to be desired. And that’s fine, because not everybody is called to the theology table. Still, let’s be frank. Writing a chronicle of how various documents were manufactured at Vatican II is not the same as offering a thoroughgoing doctrinal critique of, say, Gaudium et Spes. Moreover, understanding how a syllogism works is not the same as mastering the corpus Aristotelicum. Tell that to a traditionalist and you’ll be decried as a modern-mad elitist. Oh, the joy of it all!
The problem with the “intellectual culture” of the traditionalists is that it’s so easy to parry their strikes. They might toss a fit over Pope Benedict XVI’s “Hermeneutic of Continuity” when it comes to Vatican II, but can they engage it beyond saying, “Oh, well, Leo XIII never wrote about such-and-such, so it couldn’t possibly be an authentic part of the Church’s Tradition”? (One way to shortcut past all of these problems is to make a few “big bang” claims, like that the Syllabus of Errors of Pius IX is infallible.)
I’ll just close this by restating what has been my consistent view with respect to the SSPX: The Catholic Church would be better off having them fully in the fold. The Society should continue to point out difficulties with (if not errors contained within) the texts of Vatican II and the direction the Church has taken over the past 40 years. But in order to do that meaningfully, at some point the Society (and other traditionalists) will have to raise their game a bit. Whether or not that’s possible under present circumstances remains to be seen.