Chapter VI



12. The postconciliar crisis explodes










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The thirty years that passed from the end of Vatican Council II to the death of Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira in São Paulo on 3 October 1995 provide the occasion for many reflections on the course of what was defined the “conciliar” or “postconciliar” Church. The problem was interestingly deformed by the media after the explosion of the so-called “Lefèbvre case”, from the name of the French archbishop99 who from 1976 entered into open conflict with the Holy See on the subject of the New Mass and the Conciliar reforms.100 However, under the pontificate of Paul VI, and well before the questions concerning Archbishop Lefèbvre, the subject of the “crisis of the Church”101 had become a focus point for discussion, exciting the intervention of the greatest theologians and philosophers of the time.

The historian Hubert Jedin, who had collaborated at the Council as an “expert” with Cardinal Frings, after having tried to oppose the idea of a “crisis of the Church” at the end of the Sixties, was then forced to recognize its existence in a famous conference entitled History and crises of the Church, published in Italian by the L’Osservatore Romano.102 On 17 September 1968, Mgr Jedin presented the German Episcopal Conference with a memorandum in which were illustrated five phenomena relative to the current crisis of the Church:

“1. the increasingly widespread insecurity in the faith, caused by the free distribution of theological errors from the cathedrae, in books and essays;

“2. the attempt to transfer into the Church forms of parliamentary democracy through the introduction of the right to participate on all three levels of ecclesiastical life, in the universal Church, in the diocese and in the parish;

“3. desacralization of the priesthood;

“4. free ‘structuring’ of the liturgical celebration in place of the fulfilment of the Opus Dei;

“5. ecumenism as protestantization.”103

In that same 1968, in a speech which was a to be a landmark, Paul VI stated:

“the Church finds herself in an hour of disquiet, of self-criticism, one might even say of self-destruction. It is like an acute and complex interior upheaval, which no one expected after the Council. (…) The Church is also being wounded by those who are part of her”.104

He returned to the subject stating that he had the feeling “that the smoke of Satan has entered the temple of God through some crack” and precisely “through windows that ought to be open to the light.”105 “It was thought that after the Council the history of the Church would enter a sunny day. It entered instead a cloudy, stormy, dark, sceptical, and uncertain day.”106

Among the theologians and philosophers, even of progressivist extraction, who admitted and denounced the spreading of this crisis, we recall just some significant pronouncements:

Cardinal Henri de Lubac, former exponent of the “nouvelle théologie”:

“It is a new Church, different from that of Christ, which they desire to establish; they desire to effect an anthropocentric society, threatened by an immanent apostasy; we are at the mercy of a general movement of stumbling and surrender, of Irenism and of accommodation.”107

The Rt Rev Rudolf Graber, bishop of Regensburg:

“What happened then, over 1600 years ago (the Arian crisis), is being repeated today, but with two or three differences. Today, Alexandria represents the whole Church, shaken to its foundations.” “Why is so little done to strengthen the pillars of the Church to avoid its collapse? If there is still someone who is convinced that the events that are taking place within the Church are marginal, or that they are transitory difficulties, it means that he is unrecoverable. But the responsibility of the heads of the Church is even greater, if they do not deal with these problems or if they believe that they can remedy the evil with some patch-work. No: here we are dealing with everything; here we are dealing with the Church; here we are dealing with a sort of Copernican revolution that has exploded in the very bosom of the Church, of a gigantic revolution in the Church.”108

The Stigmatine father Cornelio Fabro, adviser to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith:

“Thus the Church, a bit at a time, as regards the decision of the Pastors, has slipped into a situation of a lack of guidance which, both in the field of doctrine and in that of discipline, operates with growing disintegration. (…) The terrible words of the Gospel — ‘You were like sheep without a shepherd’ — must be applied in a large scale to the present situation of the Church.”109

The Passionist father Enrico Zoffoli, member of the Pontifical Academy of St Thomas Aquinas:

“Today the Church is involved in overcoming perhaps the most serious of all crises: the storm that erupted because of modernism is still raging after almost a century. (…) The confusion of the faithful is universal, distressing, and the common disapproval reaches its climax when they hear, from the men of the Church, speeches and receive advice, assist at some of their rites, note an attitude that is so strange and unseemly, as to raise the suspicion that Christianity is an enormous deception. For this and more, are they not even tempted to atheism?” “The consequences are disastrous. (…) There is no truth that, under some aspect, does not become as if it were falsified. Some are denied, others unspoken, others derided, others adjusted in an unrecognizable way.”110

On the eve of his death, in 1975, Mgr Josemaría Escrivá de Balaguer, beatified by John Paul II, stated:

“When I became a priest, the Church of God seemed as strong as a rock, without a crack. It offered an external aspect that immediately expressed unity: it was a marvellously solid block. Now, to look at it with human eyes, it seems like a building in ruins, a mound of sand that is crumbling, is trodden upon, scattered, destroyed…. The Pope has sometimes said that the Church is destroying itself. Hard words, tremendous! But this cannot happen because Jesus promised that the Holy Spirit will always assist it, until the end of time. And what will we do? Pray, pray….”111

John Paul II, who had succeeded Paul VI after the very short pontificate of John Paul I,112 from the very beginning admitted the existence of the crisis in unequivocal terms:

“One must be realistic and acknowledge with a deep and pained sentiment that a great part of today’s Christians feel lost, confused, perplexed, and even disillusioned: ideas contradicting the revealed and unchanging Truth have been spread far and wide; outright heresies in the dogmatic and moral fields have been disseminated, creating doubt, confusion, and rebellion; even the liturgy has been altered. Immersed in intellectual and moral ‘relativism’ and therefore in permissiveness, Christians are tempted by atheism, agnosticism, a vaguely moralistic illuminism, a sociological Christianity, without defined dogmas and without objective morality.”113

However the document which caused the most commotion was the now famous Rapporto sulla Fede by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith:

“It is incontestable that the last ten years have been decidedly unfavourable for the Catholic church. Developments since the Council seem to be in striking contrast to the expectations of all, beginning with those of John XXIII and Paul VI. Christians are once again a minority, more than they have ever been since the end of antiquity. (…) What the Popes and the Council Fathers were expecting was a new Catholic unity, and instead one has encountered a dissension which — to use the words of Paul VI — seems to have passed over from self-criticism to self-destruction. There had been the expectation of a new enthusiasm, and instead too often it has ended in boredom and discouragement. There had been the expectation of a step forward, and instead one found oneself facing a progressive process of decadence that to a large measure has been unfolding under the sign of a summons to a presumed ‘spirit of the Council’ and by so doing has actually and increasingly discredited it. (…) the Church of the post-conciliar period is a huge construction site. But a critical spirit later added that it was a construction site where the blueprint had been lost and everyone continues to build according to his taste.”114 “My diagnosis is that we are dealing with an authentic crisis and that it must be treated and cured.”115

The description of the crisis outlined by Cardinal Ratzinger soon became a fact. Twenty years after the conclusion of the Council, La Civiltà Cattolica, which, above all through the work of Father Caprile, had enthusiastically followed the event step by step, wrote:

“It is undeniable that in the twenty-year period after the Council there was, first of all, a crisis of faith: all Christian revelation, in its fundamental dogmas — existence and knowability of God, Trinity, Incarnation, Redemption, Resurrection of Jesus, eternal life, Church, Eucharist — was questioned and it was attempted to reinterpret it according to philosophical and scientific categories that empty it of its authentic supernatural content. (…) Unlike those of the past, the current crisis is a radical and global one: radical because it attacks the very roots of the faith and of Christian life; global, because it attacks Christianity in all its aspects.”116

Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira, from his first work to the last, Nobility and Analogous Traditional Elites,117 did not ignore this crisis, positioning it in the wide historical view of Revolution and Counter-Revolution. Its point of view is not that of the theologian, but of the lay person, the philosopher, the historian and the man of action. It is not on the theological merit of the Conciliar documents, but on the reality of the facts and their historical consequences that he bases the denunciation of “the Second Vatican Council’s enigmatic, disconcerting, incredible, and apocalyptically tragic silence about communism”.118

“It was the desire of this Council — he wrote — to be pastoral and not dogmatic. And,

in fact, it did not have a dogmatic scope. But its omission regarding communism might make it go down in history as the a-pastoral Council. (…) The work of this Council cannot be inscribed as effectively pastoral either in history or in the Book of Life.

“It is painful to say this. But, in this sense, the evidence singles out the Second Vatican Council as one of the greatest calamities, if not the greatest, in the history of the Church.119 From the Council on, the ‘smoke of Satan” penetrated the Church in unbelievable proportions.120 And this smoke is spreading day by day, with the terrible force of gases in expansion. To the scandal of uncountable souls, the Mystical Body of Christ entered a sinister process of self-destruction, as it were.

“History narrates the innumerable dramas the Church has suffered in the twenty centuries of her existence: oppositions that germinated outside her and tried to destroy her from outside; malignancies that formed within her, were cut off by her, and thereafter ferociously tried to destroy her from outside.

“When, however, has history witnessed an attempted demolition of the Church like the present one? No longer undertaken by an adversary, it was termed a ‘self-destruction’121 in a most lofty pronouncement having world-wide repercussion?.”122

The term “self-destruction”, used by Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira to describe the crisis of the Church, recalls that used by Paul VI, to whom, in the same book in which he expresses his reserves about the Council, the Brazilian thinker addresses “a tribute of filial devotion and unrestricted obedience”, in the conviction that “ubi Ecclesia ibi Christus, ubi Petrus ibi Ecclesia”.123 Every theory, even the severe one just expressed on the Council, is subjected “unrestrictedly to the judgement of the Vicar of Jesus Christ and [we are] disposed to renounce immediately any one of them if it depart even slightly from the teaching of the Holy Church, our Mother, the Ark of Salvation, and the Gate of Heaven”.124

The historical judgement of the Brazilian thinker about Vatican Council II coincides, as we have seen, with that of many religious figures of our day. Through the intellectual categories of Revolution and Counter-Revolution, however, he proposes a “key” to interpreting the crisis of the Church within the revolutionary process that he had studied and described. This judgement is born from a deep love for the Papacy and the Church and because of its consistency it appears quite different from the sometimes contradictory or eccentric positions of many “traditionalist” exponents or groups. The Pontifical Magisterium, the Canon Law of the Church and the perennial norms of the Catholic religion were the unchangeable points of reference of Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira and of all those who took their reference from him.125



99) Archbishop Marcel Lefèbvre was born in Turcoing (Lille) on 29 November 1905 and died in Martigny on 25 March 1990. A student in the French seminary in Rome, he was ordained to the priesthood on 21 September 1929 by Bishop Liénart, bishop of Lille. In 1930 he joined the Congregation of the Holy Spirit mostly carrying out missionary apostolate in French Africa. He was consecrated bishop on 18 September 1947, nominated apostolic delegate for Francophone Africa and on 4 September 1955, archbishop of Dakar. He left this position in 1962, assuming the title of archbishop-bishop of Tulle. From 1962 to 1968 he was superior general of his Congregation. In 1970, he established the Priestly Fraternity of St Pius X in the diocese of Friburg in Switzerland, with the approval of Bishop Charrière, ordinary of the place. Starting from 1974 he began his dispute with the Holy See which would lead to his suspension a divinis, following the priestly ordinations of 29 June 1976, and to the excommunication latae sententiae, after the consecration of four bishops, on 30 June 1988. Cf. “Il Regno documenti”, no. 600, 1 September 1988, pp. 477-88.

100) Archbishop Marcel Lefèbvre, after distinguishing himself among the exponents of the conservative wing during the Council, had signed the Acts of the historical assembly and in his letters to the members of the Congregation of the Holy Spirit — of which he was superior general — he had demonstrated a moderately positive evaluation on the Conciliar reforms. In these documents Archbishop Lefèbvre not only recalled the timeliness of the liturgical renewal desired by the assembly, but even, while expressing his reserves, exhorted to welcome the positive elements of the Council, affirming that in its work it had enjoyed special graces “for bringing about reforms and adaptations in the Church, whose only scope is to lead to a more perfect sanctification and make the purest evangelical spirit live anew”, Archbishop M. Lefèbvre, Lettres pastorales et écrits, (Escurolles, Fideliter, 1989), p. 217. He subsequently expressed his criticisms in the works Un évêque parle. Ecrits et allocutions, 1963-1975, Paris, Dominique Martin Morin, 1975; J’accuse le Concile, Martigny, Editions Saint-Gabriel, 1976; Lettre ouverte aux catholiques perplexes, Paris, Albin Michel, 1985; Ils l’ont découronné, Escurolles, Editions Fideliter, 1987. “It is difficult — observes Daniele Menozzi — to explain the reasons for this change of line on the basis of the documentation up to now available” (D. Menozzi, La Chiesa cattolica e la secolarizzazione, p. 202).

101) The bibliography on this subject is vast. See especially: Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, The Ratzinger Report. An exclusive interview on the State of the Church, San Francisco, Ignatius Press, 1986; Romano Amerio, Iota unum. Studio delle variazioni della Chiesa cattolica nel secolo XX, Milan-Naples, Riccardo Ricciardi Editore, 1985; Mgr Rudolf Graber, Athanasius und die Kirche unserer Zeit, Abensber, Verlag und Druck Joseph Kral, 1973. Cf. also Dietrich von Hildebrand, Das Trojanische Pferd in der Stadt Gottes, Regensburg, J. Habbel, 1969; ID, Der verwüstete Weinberg, Regensburg, J. Habbel, 1973; abbot Georges de Nantes, Liber Accusationis, delivered to the Holy See on 10 April 1973, It. tr., Rome, Arti Grafiche Pedanesi, 1973; Father Cornelio Fabro C.P.S., L’avventura della teologia progressista, Milan, Rusconi Editore, 1974; Bernardo Monsegú C.P., Posconcilio, 3 vols., Madrid, Studium, 1975-1977; Wiegand Siebel, Katholisch oder konziliar - Die Krise der Kirche heute, München-Wien, A. Langen-G. Müller, 1978; Cardinal Giuseppe Siri, Getsemani - Riflessioni sul Movimento Teologico contemporaneo, Rome, Fraternità della Santissima Vergine, 1980; George May, Der Glauben in der nachkonziliaren Kirche, Wien, Mediatrix Verlag, 1983.

102) H. Jedin, “Kirchengeschichte und Kirchenkrise”, Aachener Kirchenzeitung, 29 December 1968 e 5 January 1969, It. tr. L’Osservatore Romano, 15 January 1969.

103) H. Jedin, Storia della mia vita, pp. 326-7.

104) Paul VI, Speech to Lombard Seminary in Rome, of 7 December 1968, in Insegnamenti di Paolo VI, (Rome, Tipografia Poliglotta Vaticana, 1968), vol. VI, pp. 1188-9. The majority of Catholics, wrote Dr Plinio, would like to know “what is this smoke, what are these ideological labels and human instruments that are used by Satan as sprays for this smoke? What does this demolition consist of and how does one explain that this demolition is, oddly, an auto-demolition?”, P. Corrêa de Oliveira, “Clareza”, Folha de S. Paulo, 16 August 1978.

105) Paul VI, Address for the ninth anniversary of his coronation of 29 June 1972, in Insegnamenti, vol. X, pp. 707-08.

106) Ibid.

107) Cardinal Henri de Lubac S.J., Speech to the International Congress of Theology in Toronto, August 1967, cit. in B. Monsegù, Posconcilio, vol. III, p. 371.

108) Mgr R. Graber, Athanasius und die Kirche unserer Zeit, It. tr. Sant’Atanasio e la Chiesa del nostro tempo, (Brescia, Civiltà, 1974), p. 28, 79.

109) C. Fabro C.P.S., L’avventura della teologia progressista, pp. 288-9.

110) Enrico Zoffoli C.P., Chiesa ed uomini di Chiesa, (Udine, Il Segno, 1994), pp. 46-8, 35.

111) Cit. in Pilar Urbano, Josemaría Escrivá, romano, (Milan, Leonardo, 1996), pp. 442-3.

112) During the conclave of August 1978, in describing the legend of Wyszynski the Cunctator who, “playing for time” with Communism, would have saved the cause of the Church, Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira foretold the possibility of an election of the Primate of Poland to the throne of Peter (P. Corrêa de Oliveira, “O Cunctator, um maximalista?“, Folha de S. Paulo, 24 August 1978). The conclave chose Cardinal Albino Luciani, Patriarch of Venice, but after a month it had to meet again and elected to the Pontifical throne the Archbishop of Cracow, Karol Wojtila, with the name of John Paul II.

113) John Paul II, Speech of 6 February 1981, L’Osservatore Romano of 7 February 1981.

114) Cardinal J. Ratzinger, The Ratzinger Report, pp. 29-30. “It appears to me that, by now, something in this last decade has become quite clear: an interpretation of the Council that understands its dogmatic texts as only being the prelude to a Conciliar spirit yet to reach maturity; which considers them all only as an introduction to Gaudium et Spes, and this text, in turn, is regarded as the point of departure of a long straight line towards an ever greater future with what is called progress. Such an interpretation is not only in contradiction with the intention and desires of the Council Fathers themselves, but the course of events has brought it to the absurd. The spirit of the Council has turned against its letter and has been reduced to a vague distillate, the product of an evolution supposedly coming from the pastoral Constitution. It has become a spectre and leads to emptiness. The devastation caused by such a mentality is so evident as not to be seriously contestable”. Cardinal J. Ratzinger, Les principes de la Théologie catholique, p. 436.

115) Cardinal J. Ratzinger, The Ratzinger Report, p. 34.

116) “Il Concilio causa della crisi nella Chiesa?“, La Civiltà Cattolica, no. 3247, 5 October 1985. For Civiltà Cattolica, as for many authors, the crisis of the Church is simply the reflection of the even greater crisis that struck Western society in the ‘60s and ‘70s. “This crisis is due to the wave of secularism, permissiveness and hedonism that in those years struck the western world with such violence as to upset all the moral and social defences built for so many centuries of “Christianity” (even if more in name than in fact)” (ibid).

117) In this work, the Brazilian thinker speaks of a “crisis of totally unprecedented magnitude that afflicts the Catholic Church, the pillar and foundation of morality and the good order of society”. P. Corrêa de Oliveira, Nobility and Analogous Traditional Elites, p. 128.

118) This judgement is expressed in the Appendix of 1977 to P. Corrêa de Oliveira, Revolution and Counter-Revolution, p. 144.

119) On the calamities of the Postconciliar phase of the Church, of fundamental importance is the historical declaration of Paul VI of 29 June 1972, pp. 707-08.

120) Ibid, p. 707.

121) Paul VI, Speech of 7 December 1968, p. 1188.

122) P. Corrêa de Oliveira, Revolution and Counter-Revolution, pp. 144-8.

123) Ibid, pp. 167-8.

124) Ibid, p. 168

125) Faced with the situation of confusion and bewilderment in which the Church is at this time, the American TFP has thus summarized its position: “1. They declare their perplexity at certain reforms and events that have occurred in the Church beginning with the pontificate of John XXIII; 2. This perplexity is characterized by incomprehension and puzzlement; 3. This perplexity is not an affirmation that there was error in those events and reforms; nor is it an affirmation that there was no error. Those who make up the TFPs are knowledgeable and cultured Catholics, but they are not specialists and do not have the conditions to resolve all the extremely complex theological, moral, canonical and liturgical questions which are at the root of this perplexity” (Let the other side also be heard: the TFPs’ defense against Fidelity’s onslaught. (Pleasantville (NY), edited by the American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family and Property, 1989), p. 78.

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