When Bishop Athanasius Schneider made a comparison between Vatican II and the Council of Constance1, in order to argue that there could be defects in conciliar documents, his observations brought reactions from Archbishop Viganò, Church historian Cardinal Walter Brandmüller and lay historian Roberto de Mattei, each offering their interpretations of the history of Constance. There is another historical fact that we believe should be added to the discussion of this history. A leading prelate at the time of Constance, French Cardinal D’Ailly, described how a lay leader, the Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund, played an influential role in uniting the Church, the way the Emperor Constantine did by appealing to the bishops of his time to assemble at the Council of Nicaea in order to address the Arian crisis2. Something occurred at Vatican II that also manifests a positive lay influence on conciliar events, but until now it has received minor attention because it involved the minority at the Council rather than the majority. It was the role, described by Roberto de Mattei, of Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira, who influenced the traditionalist minority by helping them to organize in order to offset the influence of the progressives at the Council, leading to the formation of the Coetus Internationalis Patrum3. Known in English as the International Group of Fathers, this minority of Council Fathers was eventually led by Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre. It was this French prelate who built on the foundations laid by a Brazilian layman, Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira, in ways reminiscent of Nicaea and Constance. It was different from those Councils in that this layman’s influence extended primarily to the minority at the time, but it had important long-term significance in the events after the Council. For Vatican II, like Nicaea and Constance, displayed another similarity to these previous councils, in that the relations between the Church and civil governments were profoundly affected by its results. In this area, however, Vatican II took a decisively different turn. For there was a profound difference between Vatican II and previous councils, which is part of the reason why Archbishop Viganò reacted by opposing too much of a comparison between Vatican II and Constance. The Council of Constance had been faced with the widespread influence of Conciliarism, the doctrine that would make an ecumenical council the supreme authority in the Church, and therefore above the papacy. But immediately after Constance, Conciliarism was clearly rejected. After Vatican II, however, because of its emphasis on collegiality, the claims of Conciliarism emerged in a more subtle form. Cardinal Gerhard Ludwig Müller, in reaction to traditionalist criticism of Vatican II, once stated that the highest expression of the Church’s authority is an ecumenical council in union with the Supreme Pontiff. His statement would appear at first to preserve papal supremacy because it includes the pope, but it differs from the older teaching of theologians, and in particular that of Benedict XIV (1740-1758), who taught clearly that a council adds nothing to the authority of the Pope4. In this more traditional doctrine, the authority of the Pope alone is supreme. Vatican II, on the other hand, resulted in a different trend. In September of 1965 Pope Paul VI announced to the Council Fathers that he was introducing a plan for Synods to take place after the Council, in order to continue its work. This has given rise in recent years to the notion of “synodality,” seen as a kind of perpetual council within the Church. But it has now reached a climax in its development, for this “synodality” has resulted in a hierarchy that is profoundly divided, such as shown in the reactions of faithful bishops to the doctrinal deviations of the German episcopate. In the meantime the traditionalist criticism of the effects of this new conciliarism has been growing in influence. The universal Church has become polarized between the traditionalist and conciliarist sides in the current doctrinal debates. As we have been pointing out in this series of articles, it was Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre and Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira who became the principal leaders in the traditionalist reaction to the crisis in the Church. St. Thomas Aquinas, in his work De Regimine Principum (On Princely Government), explained the marvelous relationship between priests and laity, between the Church and civil society, in what is called Christendom. The civil ruler is the leader who attends to the common good of society, and holds the highest and most noble position in the temporal order. But he in turn must be subject to the authority of the priests, because it is their mission to direct souls to their supernatural beatitude. This was the common doctrine that guided Catholic teaching throughout the centuries. But the progressive sector within the Church in the twentieth century was influenced by a new model that had been proposed by Jacques Maritain in his book Humanisme Integral, or True Humanism5 in the English edition. Maritain attempted to model a “new Christendom,” which he advocated in order to replace the former ideal which had been reflected in the teaching of St. Thomas and was embodied in medieval society. The medieval and Thomistic subordination of the civil order to the ecclesiastical order resulted from a hierarchical understanding of creation. The layman is below the priest in dignity and vocation, while civil society itself is also hierarchical, leading St. Thomas to conclude that monarchy, while not the only legitimate form of government, is the highest, but which was combined in medieval society with aristocracy and democracy. The modern revolt against this order, which Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira described in his book Revolution and Counter-Revolution, sought to overthrow the Christendom that this traditional order represented. Jacques Maritain, in the meantime, wanted to reconcile the Church with a modern revolutionary order by positing a “new Christendom” to replace the former Christian civilization – a new order which, in the name of so-called personalism, would be egalitarian and pluralistic, and less opposed therefore to Communism. The Second Vatican Council became an assembly for debating this issue, a debate that has continued through the following decades, and still awaits a solution. The two leaders of the traditionalists during the Council, Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre and Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira, left behind them a legacy and a following that have only grown and gained respect in the mainstream of the Church as the crisis in the Church has worsened. This crisis was not only foreseen by Our Lady of Good Success beginning in the late sixteenth century, but Our Lady also gave a description of the leaders in our time whom Providence would raise up to provide spiritual and moral leadership in the midst of this crisis. In Part I of this series we described the specific circumstances leading to the spread of the devotion to Our Lady of Good Success in the twentieth century, and in Part II we provided more detailed information about the different roles of priests and laity. With this third article in the series we describe the doctrinal perspective of the two leading traditional Catholic leaders, and the historical events that continue today to unfold within the Church today.
1 Cf. our commentary, Archbishop Viganò and Bishop Schneider Discuss the Council.
2 Interpretations of Sigismund’s role differ among historians, but with a common theme. John Dos Passos writes of the consensus at the time of the Council, that Sigismund “brought about the election of Martin V of the powerful Roman Colonna family as sole spiritual lord of all Christendom” (The Portugal Story [Garden City: Doubleday & Company, 1969], p. 96). Another historian is more nuanced about ambivalences in Sigismund’s role, citing Cardinal D’Ailly, who had admonished Sigismund to follow the example of Constantine: “It will be recalled that D’Ailly made the comparison between the Council of Nicaea and the part played therein by Constantine and the Council of Constance and the corresponding part about to be played by Sigismund.” Father Joseph C. Powers, Nationalism at the Council of Constance 1414-1418 (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America, 1927), p. 152.
3 In his history of Vatican II, The Second Vatican Council: An Unwritten Story, Roberto de Mattei summarizes this influence in Chapter 3, “1962: The First Session,” in the following words:
In the first session of the Council, while the anti-Roman party was moving with close ranks around carefully defined strategic lines, the conservatives had no connection or strategy except for a group which called itself the “Small Committee.” From this group, between the second and third session, was born the Coetus Internationalis Patrum, the International Group of Fathers.
Since October the Brazilian leader, Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira, had set up in Rome a secretariat that included fourteen people who actively monitored the work of the Assembly and rendered an effective service to the two bishops closest to him: Most Rev. Geraldo de Proença Sigaud, Archbishop of Diamantina…and Most Rev. Antonio de Castro Mayer, Bishop of Campos…. The two Brazilian bishops, with the organizational support and strategic suggestions of Prof. Corrêa de Oliveira, had an extensive series of contacts with Roman conservative circles. The first meeting took place on October 15 with Cardinal Aloisi Masella, former Nuncio in Brazil….
Equally significant were meetings with the two leading exponents of the “Roman Party,” Msgr. Roberto Ronca and Msgr. Antonio Piolanti. The latter advised them to contact Msgr. Antonino Romeo to build relationships with professors of the Lateran University, including Msgr. Francesco Spadafora. In addition to Romeo, the Brazilians met other prominent theologians of the “ultramontane” or “integralist” world, including Msgr. Fenton and Father Raymond Dulac. One of the most important meetings the two Brazilian bishops had was with Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre….
4 “…the doctrine which is received everywhere…the Supreme Pontiff when he defines ex cathedra and his superiority to any ecumenical council whatsoever” (“…de summi Pontificis ex cathedra definientis infallibilitate, de ejus excellentia supra quodcumque Concilium oecumenicum”). In the early twentieth century this supremacy of the Pope was emphasized by Cardinal Merry del Val in his work The Truth of Papal Claims.
5 Jacques Maritain, True Humanism (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1938); Humanisme Intégral: Problèmes temporels et spirituels d'une nouvelle chrétienté (Paris: Fernand Aubier Editions Montaigne, 1936).