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October 2003

An "integrist" offers her provocative
explanation for the current disasters
and divides within the Church.

Leaving the Narrow Path


"Why did so much unravel after the Council?"
George Sim Johnson

"It has been found impossible to set up a seminary
which - although in no way based on traditionalist
lines - yet conforms to Christian and Catholic tradition."
Dr. Urs Von Balthasar

11th October 2002 marked the fortieth anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council, which is cheering in a way. I once heard someone say that periods of deep tribulation in the history of God’s people, such as the Israelites period of wandering in the desert or the Great Western Schism, were frequently limited to forty years duration or even a little less. Let us hope, then, that such will prove to be the case with these present woes and that this dark era in the Church’s life, this spiritual ‘Narnia,’ where it is ever winter and never Christmas, will in its turn be soon brought to an end by the merciful providence of God.

The Council

But what went wrong at Vatican II? Many have asked that question over the years and many different answers have been given. A common diagnosis - fortunately becoming less common - is that the problem does not lie in the texts of the Council themselves but in the way they have been misinterpreted; though I must say this argument never cut much ice with me, since it begs the obvious questions:

  1. Did not the ambiguous wording of many texts make such misinterpretation inevitable?
  2. Why do we never hear of Vatican I being misinterpreted?

Others - and their number is becoming more numerous - will now concede that certain Council texts are problematic, to say the least, and may have to be revised. Rumour has it, for instance, that his Eminence Cardinal Stickler considers a revision of Dignitatis Humanae, the Decree on Religious Liberty, essential. Which would appear to corroborate the view, long held by many, that parts of this document appear at least to be at variance with previous Church teaching.

Gaudium et spes, the lengthy Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, though doubtless containing many beautiful passages, descends in other places, surely, to a banality reminiscent of A.E. Houseman’s spoof on a Greek Chorus.

And then there is the strange statement in Lumen Gentium, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (apparently suggested by one of the Protestant observers!) about the Church of Christ "subsisting" in the Catholic Church, thereby suggesting something less than a complete identification between the two.

And yet perhaps even the odder bits of the Council’s documents may admit of an orthodox interpretation; theologians including Father Brian Harrison, whilst allowing that Dignitatus Humanae in no way confirms the teaching of Quanta Cura [1864], have argued that the document is not quite the blatant contradiction of the former that it at first appears. And as for the statement in Lumen Gentium about the Church, well no doubt an orthodox spin can be put on this also, once one realises that if the word "Catholic" admits more than one meaning - i.e. one baptised in the Catholic Church or one professing all the truths of the Catholic faith - then presumably "Catholic Church" must partake of the same ambivalence. And after all, it was St. Augustine who said, very many centuries ago, that there were many who appeared to be inside the Church who are outside and many apparently outside who were within it.


The more I think about it the more I become convinced that neither in ‘publice’ nor in ‘subsistet’ does the problem lie. In other words, the problem goes deeper than the Council’s texts, most of which, given a bit of luck and a following wind, can probably be given an orthodox spin. No, we might get around the odd sentences; but how on earth can we possibly get around the infinitely odder silences; the silence about the plague of contraception which was already resulting in large segments of the faithful in Europe and North America birth-controlling themselves out of existence; the silence on the pre-eminent place to be awarded to St. Thomas and the dangers of attempting to express the truths of the Faith in terms of philosophies radically false.

What do they amount to, these alarming silences? I am going to stick my neck out here and say that they amount to a repudiation - not explicit but implicit - of integrism,(1) that view according to which certain ways of thought, such as Thomistic philosophy and political positions generally designated as ‘Right Wing’ could not, in practice, be jettisoned without great harm to the faith.

Maybe it is opportune here to break off to say a few words about ‘integrism,’ and here we encounter a difficulty, since what one says will clearly depend on whether one is an integrist or an anti-integrist.

The latter will say that integrists are Catholics who believe that certain long-standing theological opinions in the Church should be regarded as binding Catholic doctrine, whilst the integrists themselves will probably say that they were Catholics in the sense that the word has always been traditionally understood. Readers of this article will not be surprised to learn that such is my view and my history of the term would go something like this:

In the nineteenth century some Catholics started arguing that many of the ideas inspiring the French Revolution (notwithstanding copious evidence of the Masonic inspiration of this event) could be reconciled with Catholic thought as they were eventually Christian in origin (sound familiar?). These men, who came to be called ‘Liberal Catholics’ had to endure hearing many rude things said about them by other Catholics (like the Pope, for instance). They did not like this and, after much thought, came up with a rather clever wheeze: they thought of a new word ‘integrist’. Meant of course as a term of abuse with which to denigrate their opponents (i.e. orthodox logical Catholics), and thereby created, with one masterful stroke of the pen, a climate of opinion in which they - the Liberals - would appear to be mainstream Catholics and their opponents a mere extremist sect within the Church. Crude though this manoeuvre may appear, it succeeded, probably beyond their wildest dreams, to a point where less than a century later we even find excellent orthodox Catholics such as Dietrich Von Hildebrand (described by Pius XII as a twentieth century Doctor of the Church) referring, incredibly, to the "regrettable narrowness of the integrists."

In fairness to von Hildebrand, who is one of my own favourite authors and surely ranks among the greatest lay Defenders of the Faith in the last half-century, along with Romano Amerio, Correia de Oliveira, Walter Matt, Michael Davies and a host of others, it should be pointed out that he died a quarter of a century ago, at a time, in other words, when we thought we had already hit rock-bottom but were about to discover just how wrong we were; the delights of Assisi, the Balamand Declaration et. al., were yet to come. Bearing in mind the development in his thinking that had already taken place between 1965, when he wrote Trojan Horse in the City of God (at which point his position, roughly, was "the Council’s alright it’s just been misinterpreted") and 1977 (when he admitted in correspondence with Michael Davies that he could now see potential problems in certain Council texts) I personally consider that had he lived longer he might well have ended up drawing closer to integrism himself, as indeed have so many others. It remains true, however, that he was, according to Carol Robinson, author of My Life with Thomas Aquinas, a member of the "thank God I’m not a Thomist" school, which in the writer’s opinion may have contributed to his seeing certain issues less clearly than he may otherwise have done(2).

Anti-Integrist spirit

In any event, the sixty-four thousand dollar question in all of this is why the pre-conciliar Popes, all of whom could be described as being broadly of the integrist persuasion (even if some of their policies have admitted to a certain confusion!(3)) routinely appointed so many non-integrists as Bishops? That this is so the course of the Council surely bears out. In fact, this ambivalence in Papal policy goes back much further than the reign of Pope Pius XII, whose appointees presumably most of the Council Fathers were. When Father Sada y Salvany brought out his excellent little book Liberalism is a Sin, the Bishop of Barcelona bent over backwards in his attempts to get the book put on the Index. While one hundred and fifty years ago, Monsignor Dupanloup was beavering away doing his best to whittle down the significance of the Syllabus.

Part of the answer no doubt is to be found in the Papal policy initiated by the 1801 Napoleonic Concordat(4) whereby Bishops were routinely appointed who were considered more rather than less acceptable to the explicitly or implicitly anti-Catholic governments among which the Church found herself in the post French Revolution era(5). It is a policy that begins harmlessly enough with the English Church getting Manning - himself no slouch in doctrine or morals - rather than Ullathorne, then one hundred years later the Irish getting Eamon Casey(6) rather than the soutaine-wearing, Latin Mass-saying Monsignor Cremins. Parvus error in principio - magnus in fine, as St. Thomas would say. [The error that initially has small consequences will have more serious consequences subsequently.]

But perhaps another part of the explanation is that the pre-conciliar Popes, being decent men and conscious of the necessity of not just being but appearing to be just, and also being to some degree influenced, perhaps subconsciously, by the Liberal propaganda outlined above, felt unable to impose upon the whole Church a point of view that so many argued could not be "officially identified with orthodoxy", as one modern Catholic theologian has put it.

But all that is to digress. Whatever the reason for the mixed signals given by the Vatican in the first half of the twentieth century with regard to the issue of integrism, it is surely clear that the refusal of the Council to issue the unequivocal condemnation of Socialism and Communism which a significant minority of the Fathers actually requested, together with its failure to issue the ringing endorsement of the philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas that Popes earlier in the century would undoubtedly have held to be a sine qua non for any fruitful renewal of the Church(7) - these silences (silences one might say thundering to the heavens) surely constituted the most eloquent (one might add contemptuous) rejection of the integrist point of view. It is perhaps for this reason that we have heard so much of the "spirit of Vatican II." There is indeed such a spirit, the anti-integrist spirit, and it is this spirit, going by appearances, which has proved the one indispensable qualification for hierarchical preferment in the past forty years - with results upon which one need hardly elaborate.

Postconcilar unravelling

Now, it occurred to me a little while ago, that wherever there is a dispute over whether ‘x’ is an integral part of ‘y’, as opposed to being an accretion, there is always a simple enough way of getting at the truth; just try to remove ‘x’ and see what happens. For example, if I am convinced that a thread on the front of your jumper is not part of your jumper, then I am free to test the theory by tugging at the thread; if the jumper remains intact the thread was indeed an accretion, but if the jumper unravels, we know the thread was indeed integral to it.

But this is what has happened, is it not? In the case at hand; a Council which purported to yank the Church roughly free from beliefs and attitudes which it deemed to be non-integral to the Faith has been followed - on the candid admission of non-traditionalist Catholics - by a virtually total unravelling of the Church’s structures unparalleled in her history. Res Ipsa Loquitur – "the thing speaks for itself" - as we lawyers are wont to say.

In the fourteenth century, no doubt pious Catholics, natives of Avignon, could be found to argue the rightness of the Papal Courts remaining in their town. The view that the Pope should return to Rome forthwith was "never officially identified with orthodoxy", but that this was nonetheless the correct view, the subsequent tragic chain of events was to show. In like manner, surely, the Council and its tragic aftermath have made it plain for all with eyes to see, whether the Liberals or the integrists had the clearer vision. Perhaps, seen in this light, the Council was indeed a ‘gift from the Holy Spirit’ if God used it to show us exactly where a century-and-a-half of tiny, apparently insignificant compromises had been leading us. For although it can hardly be doubted that we would not be in the mess we are in today but for the Council, it is, in my view, equally certain that we would have ended up here one day, so long as senior church men were inclined to follow in the path of the seventh, rather than the tenth, Pius(8).

Hatred of error

For the so-called ‘integrists’ were right, were they not?(9)Their Liberal opponents totally wrong, which makes the implicit condemnation of the integrists by that ‘International Bishops’ Conference’ commonly referred to as ‘Vatican II’ so appallingly tragic. So far from being a narrow sub-sect of Catholics they were actually those who, like the ‘Athanasian Party’ in fourth-century Alexandria, actually alone among so-called ‘Catholics’ have held onto the traditional faith in all its purity, uncontaminated by false doctrine. For they were those who saw that being orthodox entailed not just assenting to defined doctrines, but also repudiating all those beliefs and assumptions with which those doctrines could not be reconciled. They saw, in other words, the need for that hatred of error which is inseparable from love of truth. Some words of the lay theologian Ernest Hello are apposite here:

"He who loves truth detests error... this detestation of error is the touchstone with which the love for truth is recognised... He who once loved the truth and later on no longer loves it, does not immediately declare his defection, but begins by detesting the error less than before, and thus he deceives himself. The secret acquiescence’s of man constitute one of the most unknown aspects of the history of the world. When one no longer has a love for the doctrine which he once professed, usually he retains the symbol of that doctrine; however, all aversion of the contrary doctrine dies in him."

If the integrists were negative, it was because there was so much to be negative about; if there was so much to be negative about, perhaps it was because there was, in the words of G.K.Chesterton, "a multitude of angles at which one falls". Truly, to paraphrase the words of the late Lord Denning, the categories of error, like those of negligence, are never closed.

How often was it said that the intregrists were narrow; how blindingly obvious, with the benefit of hindsight, should the immediate response have been: maybe, but so is the truth, so is orthodoxy, so - according to good authority - is the path that leads to Life.



(1) The opponents of integrism like to extend this term to include a liturgical rigorism that would, for instance, insist upon the minutest of liturgical minutiae. Needless to say, this is not the sense in which the term ‘integrism’ is being used in this article.

(2) Such as the Sillon and Mark Sagnier’s ‘submission’ to Pius X.

(3) For example, Pius XI, the author of perhaps some of the Church’s greatest encyclicals, who claimed that no true Catholic could be a Socialist and called Catholics to be "radicals of the right", nevertheless went on to ban Catholics from joining the right wing political movement Action Francaise while taking no steps whatsoever, at least as far as I am aware, to forbid them joining the various socialist parties already existing at that time.

(4)The biggest blunder in the Church’s history, in Pius X’s opinion, according to Cardinal Ferrata’s memoires

(5) It may be objected here, with some justice, that there was nothing inherently new in Kings and Princes having too large a say in the appointment of Bishops. But of course there is a difference between a situation where Bishops are chosen by a Catholic - albeit a bad Catholic - and one where they are chosen by a government inspired by a philosophy fundamentally antithetic to the Faith.

(6)Obliged to resign when news of an illegitimate son surfaced in the press.

(7)Some theologians, including the Dominican Cardinal Browne, actually commented that the Council had surprisingly little to say about the role of theologians. But if I am right, those directing the course of the Council could hardly have said much about theologians without showing their hand, as it were, on the subject of Thomistic philosophy.

(8) Pope St. Pius X, 1903-1914. When informed of his election, it is said he cried and sobbed like a child. Even as he wept, protesting his unworthiness, the Breton Stigmatist and Mystic, Marie-Julie Jahenny (1850-1941) was allegedly being told: "His will be the reign of God on earth." Unlike his predecessor Pius VII a century earlier, when pushed against the wall he refused to do a deal with the French Government that would in his view inadequately safeguard the rights of the Church. Incidentally, for those of us who refuse to believe in coincidence, he died on the same date as Pius VII - 20 August. None of which, of course, means, that Pius VII, who probably did what 99 out of 100 Popes would have done, was not a great and Holy Pope; only that Pius X was possibly an even greater and Holier one

(9)That is to say that integrists were right inasmuch as they were ‘integrists’ and not ultramontanists. That many in the ‘integrist camp’ were ultramontane rather than integrist is something which the course of history has revealed and which no doubt helps to explain the current divide between ‘Traditionalists’ and ‘Conservatives’ -but this is a topic which, hopefully, will be explored more fully in a future article.