Was Saint Athanasius a Model for the Society of Saint Pius X? September 15, 2016Posted by Tantumblogo in awesomeness, Basics, catachesis, different religion, episcopate, General Catholic, history, reading, Restoration, Saints, Spiritual Warfare, SSPX, the struggle for the Church, Tradition, Virtue.
Several of the chief complaints against the Society of Saint Pius X is that they have been involved in the illicit (not papal-approved) consecration of bishops, that they “invade” other dioceses without permission of the ordinary, and refute beliefs held by the great majority of bishops and priests in the Church today, even to the point of being excommunicated for certain acts. These are frequently trotted out to “prove” the SSPX’s persistence in disobedience/error/schism/etc.
However, Michael Davies – certainly one who was very friendly towards the SSPX, and a frequent apologist for them – claims, citing Blessed John Henry Newman as his principle source, that there is a very strong precedent for exactly the types of behaviors that have earned the SSPX so much ire, from the Church’s Tradition, and that they involve the only crisis/mass heresy that comes close to emulating that in which we are currently embroiled, the Arian heresy. During this period, Saint Athanasius, among others, based on history reported by Blessed John Henry Newman (citing more ancient sources), routinely consecrated bishops and ordained priests while he was enduring his enforced exile, even doing so outside the normal realm of papal approval and against the wishes of the local bishops. He did this to preserve orthodox Catholicism when almost the entire Church went over to this most noxious heresy. He was not alone, either. Several other bishops, all Saints, also did so, as attested by Saint Basil and others, who apologized for these acts, and for the “illicit” country Masses offered by orthodox priests, because the faithful could not be expected to worship with heretics, and the heresy was so widespread that even the Roman Pontiff briefly fell into it, though under severe duress.
The similarities to the situation in the Church today are certainly marked, are they not?
Davies summarizes his argument below, from pp. 42-3 of his book Saint Athanasius: Defender of the Faith:
What the history of this period proves is that, during a time of general apostasy, Christians who remain true to their traditional faith may have to worship outside the official churches, the churches of priests in communion with their diocesan bishop, in order not to compromise that traditional faith; and that such Christians may have to look for truly Catholic teaching, leadership, and inspiration not to the bishops of their country as a body, not tot he bishops of the world, not even to the Roman Pontiff, but to one heroic confessor whom the other bishops and even the Roman Pontiff may have repudiated and even excommunicated. And who would they recognize that the solitary confessor was right, and the Roman Pontiff and the body of the episcopate (not teaching infallibly) were wrong?
The answer is that they would recognize in the teaching of this confessor what the faithful of the fourth century recognized in the teaching of Athanasius, the one true faith into which they had been baptized, in which they had been catechized, and which their confirmation gave them the obligation of upholding. In no sense whatsoever can such fidelity to Tradition be compared with the protestant practice of private judgment. The fourth century traditionalists upheld Athanasius in his defense of the faith that had been handed down; the protestant uses his private judgment to justify a breach with the traditional faith.
In The Development of Christian Doctrine, Newman refutes the opinion that interference by one bishop in the diocese of another necessarily constitutes schism. Faithful Catholics have a duty to divide themselves from schismatic or heretical bishops, and where division is a duty it is not a sin. An orthodox bishop does not sin by interfering in a diocese where the bishop is guilty of separation from the faith by heresy or even de facto schism. “If interference is a sin,” wrote the Cardinal, “division which is the cause of it is a greater; but where division is a duty, there can be no sin interference.”
[The key evidence……] St. Athanasius did not cause division when he entered the dioceses of Arian bishops. He was interfering in order to uphold tradition and sustain the faith of true Catholics as a legitimate response to the division caused by the schism of these bishops. The first loyalty of every bishop must be to the Church as a whole. During a period of schism and heresy, their duty to defend the integrity of tradition extends beyond any single diocese. Cardinal Newman illustrates this by pointing out that Saint Athanasius, St. Epiphanius of Salamis, and St. Eusebius of Samosata, all fierce opponents of Arianism, had ordained outside their dioceses, and in the case of St. Eusebius it is certain that he consecrated bishops. “St. Athanasius,” wrote Card. Newman, “driven from his Church, makes all Christendom his home, from Trier to Ethiopia.” This was an indubitably legitimate response to a state of emergency or necessity within the Church.
OK, at the end there, using some obviously “Lefebrvrist” language. But the book does demonstrate both that “illicit” Masses were held to escape Arian bishops and their errors, and that priests were ordained and bishops consecrated outside the normal line of authority in the Church.
On both sides of this issue of whether the SSPX acts/has acted rightly or wrongly, there are numerous supports. Whether the stack of evidence on one side or the other is slightly taller or shorter I really don’t know. From my experience, one’s tendency to accept evidence for or against the SSPX tends to align almost precisely with whatever pre-existing notions one has held on the subject. I have long occupied the muddled middle, neither fully embracing the SSPX nor holding any hostility towards it, while being thankful that it exists so that I, among many, can enjoy the benefits its existence has brought (like the return of the TLM in numerous dioceses, the existence of the FSSP and other groups, etc). I have to say, though, that this latest book has swayed me somewhat in a pro-SSPX direction.
I can also say that my own independent research has shown that there certainly was a reaction against Arian dominance in the 4th century and that several Saints report that a certain number of souls did stop going to their local parish and started worshiping out in the country, often in abysmal weather, under the tutelage of faithful priests in unofficial or impromptu Masses. That much at least did occur, and was at least somewhat widespread. I tend to believe that priests were ordained in an “unofficial” or “independent” manner, and probably a few bishops, too.
It is interesting to note that every time he had an opportunity (that is, the heretical emperors allowed him to do so), he would return to his diocese and to a “regular” position in the Church, while fervently maintaining his orthodox beliefs. When the persecution would start up again and he would be exiled, he would go back to doing what he was doing, keeping the Faith and spreading it to as many as possible.
Perhaps, in this last bit, there is some encouragement for those who fear the impact of a reconciliation between the SSPX and the Roman authorities.