Dear Prof. Romero,
I have several questions, if I may, regarding the crisis in the Church and what a laymen's response should be. I was a sedevacantist for the better part of 25 years, but over the last 1 to 1 1/2 years I have begun to understand the necessity of jurisdiction for government and teaching as a necessary structure for the Church, and the way Our Lord created it. This leaves the average layman, who has no knowledge of language, philosophy or theology submitting themselves to whomever seems to have the best argument at the time (rather Protestant/Eastern Schismatic don't you think). Often this position is dangerous, not only because of the cult-like qualities that begin to surface, but also because the theology taught can really diverge from what the Church is taught: e.g., jurisdiction, apparent death of the Magisterium, etc. Even the SSPX, which openly says it is not sedevacantist, in practice follows little of what the current Magisterium or Pope says, which certainly was not a practice of laymen previously.
However, the opposite side of the picture is that we laymen in pre-VII times had the belief that any document coming from Rome would be, at least, infallibly safe; although, perhaps, not infallible. We gave assent because that is what we were taught to do, and we were safe in doing so. No teaching, of whatever sort, appeared contradictory or novel. So, we were not put in the position of parsing every document's sentence structure, determining what a particular nuance may mean, and determining what the document was actually trying to say; as is the case with most documents since 1963. This puts us in the position of being the pope's pope or in other words using our "private judgment." So, you see, both sides are pretty fraught with what appears on the surface to be unsolvable questions as what a layman's position should be... Thank you.
In the Holy Family,
My view regarding the correct attitude of “the simple layman” in this situation is the following. They need not become their own “private theologians” and make a decision for themselves. Rather, all one needs to do is hold fast to everything that has always been taught: quod semper, quod ubique, quod ab omnibus (what has been taught always, everywhere, and by everyone).
This is easier for those who were born and raised well before Vatican II; but it is also possible for people like myself—who were raised in a confusedly “Catholic” way after the crisis began—if we do a lot of good reading and get immersed in Catholic culture as much as possible. Once one is firm in what has always been taught (which you will find in the traditional catechisms, for example, those of Trent and Baltimore), everything else can be weighed on that basis. If seemingly novel/unorthodox teachings arise, one need not wonder if they contradict previous teachings. Truth cannot contradict truth, and we already know the previous teaching is true, so the only possible true meaning (and, therefore, the only possibly binding meaning) of any new teachings is the orthodox meaning. The unorthodox interpretation is neither true nor binding.
For example, Vatican II, in Lumen gentium, seemed to teach those outside the Church could be saved. Did it really teach that? Well, there is a dogma that states that “there is no salvation outside the Church” (extra ecclesiam nulla salus). Therefore, it would be impossible that we are bound now to believe that there is salvation outside the Church, because we have already been perpetually bound to believe that there isn’t. Therefore, the only possible true meaning of Lumen gentium is something else—maybe that at least some people who have been baptized, but who have been raised to practice some non-Catholic religion, do so through no fault of their own and that in their own hearts they wish to believe in the truth that God revealed, whatever that may be, and so they are "Catholic" in a non-explicit way and, therefore, may receive eternal salvation if, right before death, God gives them the grace of a perfect act of contrition—or maybe that non-Catholics can become Catholics before their death and, by doing so, be rewarded eternal salvation, such that it is true that they "can" be saved. Whatever the meaning of the document is, the only way it could state any truth is if what it says is compatible with the previous teaching. Any unorthodox interpretation of Lumen Gentium is nonsense; it is neither true nor binding.
That’s why I don’t blame the SSPX (although I am certainly not one of them) for doing what you say they do, namely, they “follow little of what the current Magisterium or Pope says,” because most of what the current Magisterium and Pope say nowadays is not clear whether it is really orthodox. And if it is orthodox, it wouldn't be adding anything to the previous teaching (so it's nothing new and we, in fact, knew it already). If unorthodox, it is not true and not binding. So traditional Catholics in general—SSPX and “indult” alike—are holding fast to what is certain, and that is the best we can do at a moment of crisis of this sort. (This does not mean I commend acts of “resistance” or disobedience.)
In fact, the simple layman, in my view, need not even attempt to judge between the truth of different groups, such as sedevacantism or SSPX. The reason is that God makes available to all the necessary means of salvation. And making a judgment regarding these groups requires a high level of theological expertise (and even expert theologians err with regard to this issue, as is evident from the fact that there are expert theologians in each side, contradicting each other). Therefore, the simple layman will not be required by God to make such a judgment, which is, by definition, beyond his abilities. At best, his judgment would be correct but blind, based entirely on non-rational motives, such as persuasion by a good speaker; or preference based on existing social relationships within that group; or preference for a group based on the beauty of their liturgy; or based on on temperamental similarities between him and the group, etc.
If our salvation depended on leaving the main, false “church” and joining the last remaining scrap of the true Church, then God would make it doctrinally obvious to those who are truly faithful that the prevailing “church” is no longer the Church, but is in heresy. And, although it may be obvious that there are problems with the prevailing Church, it is not obvious that it is not the Church anymore. If Pope Benedict came flat out and proclaimed something obviously heretical as binding on all the faithful, then it would be obvious. Anything short of that would make it doubtful.
So, in short, all that the "simple layman" has to worry about during this time of crisis is to hold fast to the same faith that we have held throughout the ages (everything we've always believed, the way we've always believed it), pray for the restoration of order in the Church, and live a life of sanctity.