Editor’s note: A slightly different version of the following essay/letter was emailed to Rorate Cæli at the end of December 2021.
Dear Fr. Wojciech Gołaski,
I read your open letter to Pope Francis and to our Order with sympathy and understanding, and yet also with great sadness. I understand the pain you feel about the restriction of a liturgical rite that you have come to love and treasure. But I do not understand why you implicitly recommend your example to all of us in your decision to join the structures of the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX). I can only surmise that this is because, as of yet, you know only the favorable facade which this priestly fraternity and its associates present to the world. Allow me to take you backstage, behind the Catholic props. Since I have been intimately connected to the SSPX from a young age, I would like to share my experience with you, and with all who may be considering joining its separate life from the Church, especially the members of our Dominican Order to whom you addressed yourself.
Let me be clear: I have never been abused in any way by a member of the SSPX. I had a very happy childhood, and I will be forever grateful for the dedication and excellence of the many priests from whom I received my Christian formation. There are, however, certain principles of thought and action which they have received from their founder, Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, that are not only tearing them apart from the Church, but also from each other. These principles have the same effect as those found in Protestantism. The more a Catholic progresses from “traditional” to “Traditionalist”, the less Catholic he or she will become. The “experiment of Tradition”, as Archbishop Lefebvre termed this movement and as he himself shaped it, has an inherently divisive trajectory. I know…it tore my own family apart.
My mother and father are converts from Protestantism, and they came into the Church when I was five. As is often the case, they had certain preconceptions of what life in the Church would be like. After all, it was supposed to be a safe haven away from the problems of Protestantism. What they discovered, however, was that God’s Church on earth was a mess (as it has always been). They were exposed to bad liturgies and poor catechesis. My parents had also been in the military and were high achievers, and most Catholics came across to them as undisciplined pukes in their (non)practice of Catholic religion. Gradually my parents came into contact with the traditional Catholic movement, and it immediately drew them in. All this happened in about two years, and I became an officially inducted “Trad” at the age of seven. My first holy communion, confirmation, and religious formation all took place under the auspices of the SSPX.
Shortly after “coming into Tradition,” my mom discovered Sedevacantism, which demonstrated to her several logical and historical problems with the doctrinal positions of the SSPX. These are what had prompted the first splinter group of priests to break away from the Society in 1983, called “the Nine”. Among them were the now well-known Traditionalist priests Daniel Dolan, Donald Sanborn, and the late Anthony Cekada. They refused to accept the reformed 1962 Missal of Pope John XXIII, and believed that the ecclesiological position taken by the Archbishop and his Society was inconsistent with the Tradition of the Church. These priests were expelled, and lengthy legal battles over real estate ensued. Mom came to embrace their position as her own, although she continued to receive the sacraments from the SSPX chapel our family attended.
My dad admired the leadership of Archbishop Lefebvre, and also that of Bishop Richard Williamson. He believed that they had achieved a delicate balance between the two extremes of the “Novus Ordo church” and Sedevacantism. Following their example, he did not completely reject the possibility of a sedes vacans, but he found it problematic in several regards. This allowed a period of relative peace in our family, as my parents did not completely disavow each other’s positions, and they were united in their rejection of the “conciliar Church”. Besides the SSPX chapel, where Mass was available only every other weekend, we would also attend Masses offered by the priests of the Congregation of Mary Immaculate Queen (CMRI), which they would offer in our houses on the off-weekends. As my dad liked to say, “We’re all on the same team.” This lasted until a parishioner snitched to our SSPX pastor, who threatened to ban us entrance to the chapel if we continued to open our house to the naughty Sedevacantist priests. This seemed very ungracious, considering the CMRI did not forbid its followers to attend the SSPX chapel. But perhaps it is to be expected in a turf war.
I received my vocation to the Dominican Order when I was eight, after reading a life of St. Dominic by Mary Fabyan Windeatt. I was eager to join as soon as possible, so upon learning the minimum age required by canon law, I wrote to the community associated with the SSPX in Avrillé, France. They generously offered me an opportunity to attend their high school, while at the same time participating in their postulancy program. My parents were very supportive, and I arrived there in Summer of 2011. I spent a year of discernment with this beautiful community, until I decided to return to the United States to complete my high school education. Before I left, I had the pleasure of a private audience with a family hero, Bishop Williamson, who had come to visit our community in Avrillé. He kindly agreed to meet with me, and gave me wise and helpful advice regarding my vocation. I did not exactly know what he was doing in Avrillé, but the reason would come to light later. I had begun to hear rumors of “infiltration” and “compromise” in the SSPX. This was strange, but not quite as strange as my homecoming.
Upon my return in 2012, my family was walking around with candles and believed the earth was the center of the universe. My parents had become enamored with the writings of Charles A. Coulombe and Solange Strong Hertz. These were two intelligent Traditionalists who had followed the logical trajectory of Traditionalist principles, and they were advocating ideas and doctrines which, interestingly, most Traditionalists would reject. Coulombe advocates for Feeneyism, and points to the Aristotelian philosophy of St. Thomas as facilitating the Church’s betrayal of the traditional dogma extra Ecclesiam nulla salus. Hertz branches out even more broadly, indicating that brick-making and electricity are of demonic inspiration, that the Church has compromised herself by accepting heliocentrism and democracy, and that these two led to universal salvationism. I did not quite know how to react, especially since I had studied encyclicals by Popes Pius XII and Leo XIII which contradicted Hertz’s narratives. Whose interpretation should I accept, the Popes’ or Hertz’s? Both made solid appeals to Tradition and Scripture. Had the Church of Rome gone off track even before Vatican II?
It was at this time that the possibility of a second major split in the SSPX began to loom on the horizon. Lefebvre’s vacillations between acceptance and rejection of Rome had produced two kinds of priests, which we called “hardliners” and “softliners”. The tension between these two groups came to a head at the height of the Society’s discussions and negotiations with Rome. Three of the SSPX bishops wrote a letter to Bishop Bernard Fellay and the General Council, warning them that to make a merely practical agreement with Rome would be unfaithful to their founder’s mission and apostolate, and could lead to its destruction. They received a hot retort, which included an astounding and telling rebuke that their “dialectic between the truth and the faith on the one side and authority on the other is contrary to the spirit of the priesthood.” How could they say such a thing? Was this dialectic not the foundation on which the SSPX rested, the guiding principle that gave the Archbishop his special balance between two extremes? Were his ordinations of priests and consecrations of bishops contrary to the spirit of the priesthood?
The authorities of the SSPX tried to do damage control as they had done with “the Nine” in 1983. Ironically, the first man to be expelled was the one who had been in charge of damage control for the first splinter group: Bishop Richard Williamson. Why was he expelled? For following the example of Archbishop Lefebvre, and refusing obedience to his superiors in the name of truth. Other priests started leaving the Society, many more than in 1983, where they coalesced to form a new “resistance”. This included my own beloved Dominicans of Avrillé. What was I to do? The Society was my family, the one true “remnant” of the Church. But so were the Dominicans in Avrillé and the priests and bishop who had left. Should I stay with the first resistance, or should I join the resistance to the resistance? The emotional pain and confusion I went through during this time is indescribable.
Dad still trusted the leadership of Bishop Williamson, and so he leaned toward the Resistance. Mom thought that the chickens had finally come home to roost for Lefebvre’s Society, and she gravitated more toward the Sedevacantist groups. I was a Trad Non-Denom. Dad invited two of the Resistance priests to come say Mass at our house. One of them was especially charismatic, and when he spoke it made me want to jump up and follow him immediately. Thankfully my head cooled after they left, and I recalled a conversation I’d had with the quieter priest at the dinner table. He’d told me that the Church’s compromise with the modern world hadn’t begun at Vatican II, but could actually be traced to serious errors in the encyclicals of Pope Leo XIII. The oddity of this claim struck me with its full force. Wait…so now I had to sift through the teachings of a pope I’d thought was rock solid? Hadn’t Archbishop Lefebvre based much of his rejection of the post-conciliar magisterium on Pope Leo XIII’s magisterium? Maybe I should start looking for errors in Pope St. Pius X! The Council of Trent!
Around this time, Mom had begun listening to a lot of talks by Gerry Matatics, and recommended that I listen to them. I had generally shied away from Sedevacantism, since the Fathers of Avrillé were staunchly opposed to it. But at this point, I needed options. I had to rediscover the true remnant. And after all, had not the famous Dominican Michel-Louis Guérard des Lauriers, the ghost writer for the Ottaviani Intervention, become a Sedevacantist? So I began my research. An especially powerful realization came to me when I read Fr. Anthony Cekada’s article “Resisting the Pope, Sedevacantism and Frankenchurch”, where he states in conclusion that “all traditionalists, therefore, are really sedevacantists—it’s just that they haven’t all figured it out yet.” It rang true. All my life I had prayed for the pope, seen his picture in the sacristy, or heard his name in the Mass…but in reality he was just a figurehead, a “cardboard pope” as Cekada termed it. The SSPX (and SSPX-Resistance) was indeed Sedevacantist; not in theory, but in practice, definitely. They acted independently from the popes, whether the seat was vacant or not. Sedevacantism and the Recognize-and-Resist position were in reality two sides of the same coin. At least the Sedevacantists’ doctrine was consistent with their practice.
I found more contradictions throughout SSPX writings and apologetics, especially when they argued against the Sedevacantists, Feeneyites, or their own Resistance, as was seen in the letter above. Another example can be found in the treatise Is Feeneyism Catholic? by Fr. François Laisney, FSSPX, where he states that the fundamental error of Fr. Feeney was “to follow his own interpretation of the dogma [outside the Church there is no salvation], and to re-interpret the Scriptures and the documents of the popes according to his own views. In one word, it is to put his views before the Church’s teaching.” Why was this true for Fr. Feeney (who was a good Traditionalist, and would have emphatically stated that the view was not his, but that of the Tradition, I am sure!), but not true for Archbishop Lefebvre and his priests? I found another remarkable inconsistency in the writings of Michael Davies, a prolific apologist for Lefebvre and the SSPX. He wrote three enormous tomes about everything that could be imaginably wrong with the Novus Ordo Mass, only to write a little booklet directed at the Sedevacantists (I Am With You Always), where he argues that in its officially promulgated edition, Pope Paul VI’s Missal is free from error in faith and morals and protected by the Church’s infallibility in her universal disciplinary laws. Needless to say, Angelus Press does not offer this title.
While Sedevacantism seemed to bring more consistency, it certainly did not bring any consolation. In his talk “Unauthorized Shepherds: Why the SSPX, SSPV, CMRI, and Similar Post-Vatican II Traditionalist Clergy Are Not Priests of Christ’s Church”, Gerry Matatics convincingly makes the case that Traditionalist clergy can exercise no official ministry in the Church, based on the teaching of St. Francis de Sales in The Catholic Controversy. Bypassing the intricate canon law debates about epikeia and supplied jurisdiction, he challenges Traditionalist clergy to demonstrate how they have received either mediate or immediate mission. Of course, none can accept his challenge, for the simple reason that they have no proof of apostolic succession, the papal mandate (mediate mission) and they are not working miracles (immediate mission). Matatics conclusion: hopefully there is an underground Church somewhere in Asia, but in the meantime we’re stuck being “recusant Catholics” at home. Matatics is a brilliant example of intellectually honest and consistent Traditionalism. After converting to Catholicism before his friend, Scott Hahn, he then proceeded to research Tradition until he was alone in his house. I recalled what a priest had once told my parents: “When you take Protestantism to its logical conclusion, you ultimately end up alone.”
How had I ended up alone? I wasn’t a Protestant! Had I not faithfully followed the rule of faith, Tradition, as I had been taught to do? I remembered my prayer to Archbishop Lefebvre at his tomb in Écône: “Help me to be faithful as you were…help me to hold fast to Tradition.” Where was Christ’s Church, his Bride, my Mother? I had looked for her desperately, but I could not find her among the cacophony of Traditionalists, each one clinging to the teachings and traditions most dear to them. As far as I was concerned, my spiritual father’s “experiment of Tradition” had failed me. His bishops, priests, and their flocks were splitting and scattering, each retreating into their respective foxholes. I now realized that every Traditionalist has two choices: be content with a party line and don’t question it, or trust your own understanding of Tradition and thump your Denzinger at everyone else.
I was now ready to consider the unthinkable. Was Frankenchurch, the Novus Ordo Monster, maybe…my Mother? Had I actually been raised a good little anti-Catholic, proud and prejudiced? According to St. Francis de Sales’ criteria, only the modern Catholic Church could lay claim to both mediate and immediate mission. And only the post-conciliar Church exercised the fullness of all three rules of faith: Scripture, Tradition, and a living Magisterium with Christ’s own authority. I wasn’t fully aware of this latter rule of faith until I began to study the traditional constitution of the Church. I had been given the impression that we had a Magisterium, which I now understood were merely past acts of the Magisterium, and that this guiding role had in fact been usurped by Archbishop Lefebvre, the SSPX, and any person or group that claimed to have the fullness of truth. I had been forced to learn the hard way that the Traditionalist movement only had “little magisteriums” with self-delegated authority, usually in conflict with other little magisteriums.
I thus began a new search, in the place where I had least expected to find Christ’s Church. Was it messy and full of confused and broken sinners? Yes. But I also found something beautiful: reverent and sincere Novus Ordo liturgies, eucharistic miracles and miracles through the intercession of the saints, Catholics who knew and loved their faith, orthodox doctrine preached by good priests and bishops, and men and women with high levels of sanctity who had never attended a Tridentine Mass. The Church may sometimes appear disfigured, but she is alive! I also discovered a great and holy man whom I had always believed was a personification of evil: your fellow countryman, Pope St. John Paul II. Archbishop Lefebvre called this man an “antichrist,” and drew cartoons of him denying Our Lord and being summoned by two demons into hell. But I encountered a man who, though imperfect, loved Christ above all else and spent his life and pontificate bearing witness to him. Why had I been presented with such a caricature?
I informed my parents of my intention to return to the Church I had been baptized in. This is when hell broke loose in my family, and all semblance of false peace fell away. They were shocked, horrified, and embarrassed. They blamed themselves and blamed each other. Then they cemented themselves into their chosen Traditionalist foxholes, and it became a household war. Mom wanted dad to become a Sedevacantist to prevent any of my nine siblings from following my example, which she thought was caused by the SSPX’s dysfunction. But dad refused to budge. My siblings and I began to experience the suffering often caused by mixed marriages. When they weren’t attacking each other, they threw everything they could at me in an attempt to bring me back. But I had set my hand to the plow, and I was not looking back. In the midst of this family rancor and bitterness, I felt an overwhelming sense of peace come over me. The crushing weight of being alone and solely responsible to find and preserve the faith had been lifted from my shoulders. I was with the Church now; I had nothing to fear. I had chosen to trust my Mother. I had chosen hope, hope in Christ’s promises that he would always protect and guide his Bride until his return in glory.
Our family’s saga continued over the years. I left home to marry a devout young Catholic woman and start a family. My parents eventually ended up alone, which brought them quickly to their senses, although not before some of my siblings almost lost their faith. But God’s mercy is great and abundant. During the Year of Mercy, my parents returned to the Church. It has been a hard road for us, and things are still not easy. But we are again one family in Christ. There is a verse in Proverbs that has been been passed down like a family heirloom from my great-grandparents, and through this harrowing and difficult journey through the Traditionalist movement it has taken on a new significance for us: “Trust in the Lord with all thy heart, and lean not unto thine own understanding. In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he will direct thy paths.”
Dear brother, perhaps you now better understand why your letter caused me sorrow. There has been great harm done to souls in the SSPX and in the various splinter groups which its own false principles have produced. It is disappointing that you and other prominent and influential bishops, clergy and laymen have chosen to grant it your approbation on such short acquaintance. You and they are now responsible for the many unsuspecting Catholics who will now flock to this schism. Yes, it is a schism. The sophistry and subterfuge which have attempted to conceal this ugly reality is sickening. My family is still healing from being broken by this deadly sin against charity.
Why have we forgotten two classic definitions of schism: “setting up altar against altar” (St. Cyprian) and “refusing to act as part of the whole” (Cajetan)? The SSPX has discouraged its followers from attending even Tridentine Masses offered by priests in communion with Rome. They have nothing to do with local bishops unless it is in their favor. They have rejected an ecumenical council, an officially promulgated Missal, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, parts of the 1983 Code of Canon Law, canonizations, and most of the magisterial teaching of five popes! And what of the illicit ordinations and consecrations? Who has the audacity to call this mere disobedience? Do not repeated acts of disobedience over half a century qualify as refusal of submission to the authority of the Church? The SSPX even comes under the anathema of the Council of Trent (Session XXII, Canon VII), by its claim that the reformed liturgy contains “elements dangerous for the Faith” (The Problem of the Liturgical Reform). Do you indeed now align yourself with an excommunicated Archbishop who called the new rites “bastard sacraments” and newly ordained priests “bastard priests”?
Brother, I beg you to reconsider your words and your actions. Their far-reaching consequences may be much more grave than you realize. Do not lose your place under the Mantle.
In our holy father Dominic,
Mr. Andrew Bartel, O.P.
December 26, 2021
Feast of the Holy Family
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