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JANUARY 2006  

The Obedience Test

By John Mallon

Three significant movements have swept through the Church since the Second Vatican Council, all of which have been sources of great blessing and sometimes confusion, with, on occasion, some devotees mistakenly making themselves a Magisterium unto themselves. Most of them outgrow this error.

I am speaking of the Catholic Charismatic Renewal, the Marian movement — particularly involving reported apparitions, especially those occurring in Medjugorje, in the former Yugoslavia — and the Traditionalist/Tridentine Mass movement. I most closely associate myself with the charismatic renewal which I credit with perhaps saving my life while Jesus was working on saving my soul.

Of course there are other great movements like Opus Dei, Communion and Liberation, and the Focolare; however, I focus on the three mentioned above because these three appear to have arisen almost spontaneously without a particular human founder.

Wherever human beings gather, there one finds error, mistakes, even abuses, as the history of the Church attests.

In the early days of the charismatic renewal there were people, including priests in leadership positions, who left the Church for Protestant congregations, believing them to be more “alive” than their parishes. There were also those who made absurd judgments about other Christians and whether they were really Christians if they didn’t pray in tongues. This is unfortunate because St. Paul settled the matter once and for all in 1 Cor. 14. I wish everyone prayed in tongues, but that’s just me—and St. Paul (see 1 Cor. 14:5). But everyone doesn’t and that’s fine. Paul addressed the issue of what is most important. (See 1 Cor. 13)

But for the most part problems were recognized, attended to and corrected by wise pastoral authority which stressed fidelity to Church authority and specific Catholic elements of the faith like the Eucharist, Mary and the papacy. There was also a brief scrape over the practices of certain covenant communities that overstepped themselves. I personally witnessed the embarrassment and humiliation of various charismatic movement leaders who accepted correction and took their medicine in humble submission to the competent authorities.

The fruits to the Church have been tremendous in terms of devotion, prayer and Bible study. In my opin- ion the charismatic renewal led to increased Marian devotion, pro-life activism and Eucharistic adoration. Far from being “emotionalism” as some critics have charged, an increase in silence, contemplation and orthodoxy have been among the fruits of the charismatic renewal. At least that is my experience.

The charismatic renewal also won praise from both Pope Paul VI and John Paul II as being “a chance for the Church.” As prefect for the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict, also spoke approvingly and hopefully of the renewal.

In the 80s and early 90s there was a great deal of excitement over alleged apparitions of Our Lady in the town of Medjugorje, in the former Yugoslavia. The urgent message was “Pray for peace!” No one dreamed at the time that the region would soon explode in war. We are not concerned here with the validity or non-validity of those events other than to say they had the effect worldwide of people coming into the Church and fallen-away Catholics returning to the sacraments. On the other hand most of the objections to it seemed to involve alleged misconduct by those closest to the events, which I’m not sure is grounds to invalidate the reported apparitions.

I remember at the time the question being posed to those devotees: “What would you do if the Church turned thumbs down on those apparitions? How would it affect your faith?” All those I spoke to at the time said they would obey the Church.

This brings us to the Traditionalist/Tridentine Mass movement of the present. There seem to be a lot of goats mixed in with the sheep. On the one hand the followers of the late Archbishop Lefebvre and his St. Pius X Society (SSPX) are simply in formal schism. Yet there seems to be a great deal of crosspollinization between the SSPX people and the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter, (FSSP) the group that broke off from SSPX and pledged fealty to the See of Peter, very sensibly avoiding excommunication.

The FSSP has grown remarkably fast in every corner of the world, and from what I hear the good Fathers of the FSSP have their hands full teaching the validity of the Second Vatican Council and the Novus Ordo Mass.

For my money, Traditionalists who currently claim that Vatican II and the Novus Ordo Mass are invalid are the traditionalist equivalent of those charismatics in the 70s and early 80s who claimed those who didn’t speak in tongues weren’t really Christians. Additionally, some scholars in the traditionalist movement (not theologians, by the way) have bitterly mocked the charismatic renewal as though it were some sort of “novelty” introduced by post-conciliar euphoria, instead of a genuine outpouring of the graces of Pentecost. While the charismatic experience may not be to some people’s taste, (as though taste were an issue), it would be wise to be very circumspect about anything vaguely close to mocking—blaspheming—the Holy Spirit.


It is unwise to mistake one’s liturgical “tastes” for what is valid or invalid. How often history shows that those who attempt to be “more Catholic than the Pope” soon enough find themselves no longer Catholic at all. To be running after conspiracy theories and the spiritual lust, paranoia and arrogance they inspire, not trusting in Christ’s promised protection of the Depositum Fidei, is to be deceived.

Protestantism ushered in a new form of Christianity wherein each believer was a magisterium unto himself. Catholics are free of that burden. It is a pastoral tragedy when people of no theological training, or even very little formal education, start declaring them- selves right and the Pope wrong, and that includes rejecting an ecumenical council, one of the highest levels of Magisterial authority.

Every Catholic has the right to be indignant, even angry, about the abuses introduced into the Church by dissent after the Council, often in the name of the Council, but there is a huge difference between saying that many problems emerged after Vatican II and saying the problems emerged as a result of Vatican II. There is always some vertigo and a period of adjustment after an ecumenical council, and the Church tends to think in centuries, not decades. Every Catholic needs to remember that abusus non tollit usum— the abuse does not remove the use.

Andy Warhol said, “Anyone who says they remember the 1960s wasn’t there.” I am inclined to paraphrase him to those who would romanticize the 1950s as a utopia of ecclesiastical culture. The 1950s contained a simmering dysfunction which merely exploded in the 1960s, using the Council as an excuse to run wild. But the Council did not call for anyone to run wild. It called for universal holiness.

John Paul II wisely introduced the Indult allowing the Tridentine Mass to be said. This is a wonderful thing, expressing the rich- ness of Catholic tradition, another option to help us worship. Bene- dict XVI has expressed great sympathy for the devotees of the Tridentine Mass. There is even talk that he may lift the limitations of the Indult, granting every validly ordained priest the right to celebrate it if he wishes. That would also be wonderful, should he choose to do so.

But until then every serious Catholic calling himself a traditionalist should ask himself the question, “If the Pope removed the Indult tomorrow and forbade the celebration of the Tridentine Mass, where would my loyalties be? Would I bend the knee, make the sign of the Cross and say, ‘Your will, not mine be done, Lord,’ or announce ‘Non serviam!’ and go into schism?”

St. Ignatius of Loyola, who taught the Church much about discernment of spirits, said, “We ought always to hold that the white which I see is black, if the hierarchical Church so decides it, believing that between Christ our Lord, the Bridegroom, and the Church, His Bride, there is the same Spirit which governs and directs us for the salvation of our souls. Because by the same Spirit and our Lord Who gave the Ten Commandments, our holy Mother the Church is directed and governed.”

For almost exactly 40 years now dissenters have been putting forth the idea that dissent was somehow an expression of “adult faith” or “thinking for oneself.” The exact opposite is true. In fact, dissent is an adolescent act. Religious obedience, on the other hand, is a matter of great spiritual maturity. Obedience to God is the pinnacle of wisdom. There is no greater expression of maturity than obedience to God. When it comes to faith and morals, the Magisterium is our divine guarantee of freedom from error. There is no other.

John Mallon is the Associate Editor of Inside the Vatican.