Pope Benedict has chosen a native New Yorker, the secretary to the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, to play an important new role… 

In a bid to keep talks with the Society of St. Pius X on course to a possible reconciliation, Pope Benedict XVI recently appointed American Archbishop J. Augustine Di Noia as vice president of the commission charged with helping to bring the Society back into full communion with Rome.

The 68-year-old Dominican and native of the Bronx, New York, until now secretary of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sac­raments, becomes vice president of the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei. He spoke with Edward Pentin June 27 about his new position, some of the obstacles involved in bringing the Society back into full communion, and his hopes for a successful resolution.

As Di Noia had not yet begun work at the commission, he preferred not to comment on reports of a leaked letter from the SSPX that said the society found the doctrinal preamble “clearly unacceptable.” The document is supposed to form the basis for reconciliation with Rome.

This interview was published on July 1 in the National Catholic Register; it is republished here with permission.

Archbishop J. Augustine Di Noia, center, Secretary of the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments, leads a solemn Vespers and Benediction service in the extraordinary form at the Church of the Holy Trinity of the Pilgrims in Rome, Jan. 6, 2010 (CNS photo)

Archbishop J. Augustine Di Noia: It was a surprise, but, then, these things are always a surprise. Being appointed here [as secretary at the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments] was a surprise.

What stage has the Vatican reached in its talks with the SSPX?

Di Noia: To be honest, I don’t know. I have a steep learning curve in terms of the issues as they have developed in the dialogue. When I came here, I studied the history of the reform and took a close look at the [Second Vatican] Council, so I’ve learned a lot about the objections that come from that world. I’ve read books by Romano Amerio and Roberto de Mattei on the Council, and, of course, I’ve been studying the Council for years; so, in that sense, I have a framework out of which I can talk with them about their problems.

Another factor of great importance, autobiographically for me, is that I had lived my entire religious life, until I came here to Rome, in a Dominican priory, mostly in Washington or in New Haven, Conn. In those places, the hermeneutic of continuity and reform, if I may put it that way, was lived. I never experienced the Council as a rupture. It’s interesting — only as I’ve begun to read this traditionalist literature and interpretation have I begun to understand that, in a certain sense, there are problems that are real. But if you cease to believe that the Holy Spirit is preserving the Church from error, you cut your moorings.

The councils cannot — whatever their interpretations may be by the left or right, or whatever the intentions of the authors were of the council documents — be led into error. All of the documents stand. Schism is not the answer. So I’m sympathetic to the society, but the solution is not breaking off from the Church.

That being the case, why do you think some Catholics have decided to stick to “frozen” tradition, as it were, rather than coming into full communion?

Di Noia: I don’t honestly know; I can only speculate. To say why people are traditionalist I’d have to say it depends on their experiences. The [reform of the] liturgy has been a factor; it was a terrible revolution and shock for people. Many of these people feel abandoned, like the Church left them at the dock with the ship. So the reasons are very complicated and vary from one type of traditionalism to another and from countries, cultures and contexts in which they have arisen.

Another issue is there’s a failure to recognize a simple fact of the history of the Church: that all theological disagreements need not be Church-dividing. So, for example, the Jesuits and Dominicans had a tremendous disagreement in the 16th century about the theology of grace. In the end, the Pope forbade them to call each other heretics, which they had been doing. The Pope said, “You may continue to hold your theological opinion,” but he refused to give a doctrinal determination, saying the Jesuits or Dominicans were right. Now, this is a very interesting example, because it shows that Catholicism is broad enough to include a tremendous amount of theological diversity and debate. Sometimes the Church will act, but only when it sees people slipping into heresy and therefore breaking off from communion.

You’ve worked closely with Pope Benedict XVI in the past. How important is this reconciliation for him?

Di Noia: The Pope hopes for reconciliation — that’s the Pope’s job. The ministry of Peter is above all to preserve the unity of the Church. So, apart from whatever personal interest Pope Benedict might have, he shares his concern with John Paul II. As you know, he has been involved in this from the beginning. The Pope is bending over backwards to accommodate them, but he’s not going to give in on the issue of the authenticity of the teaching of Vatican II as a series of acts of the magisterium.

The Society of St. Pius X argues the Second Vatican Council promulgated no infallible and irreformable teaching. It was pastoral and not dogmatic. If that is so, why is it important that they agree with it?

Di Noia: There’s enough that’s dogmatic in it. The sacramentality of episcopal ordination, to take one example, is a development of the teaching of the episcopacy, so it is doctrinal. Traditionally, the doctrines were stated as canons with anathemas. There aren’t any of those, but it’s certainly full of the ordinary magisterium and a restatement of it. It’s doctrinally rich. But did it seek to clarify what Trent left open or that Vatican I left open with regards to Scripture and Tradition? There are doctrinal developments here and there. And the society thinks, of course, that the whole teaching on religious liberty is a departure from the Tradition. But some very smart people have tried to point out it’s a development that is consistent. What I’ve tried to argue is that all they have to do is to say there’s nothing in the Council that is contrary to Tradition and that every text, or every part of it that is controversial, should be read in context of the Council — and read it in light of the Tradition. It seems to me, despite their difficulties, they should be able to do that.

What do you say to the argument that if the Council documents are neither infallible nor unchangeable then they are therefore not binding?

Di Noia: To say they are not binding is sophistry. The Council contains swathes of the ordinary magisterium, which is de fide divina [of divine faith].

Now, the pastoral constitution “On the Church in the Modern World” [Gaudium et Spes] makes comments about the nature of culture which, generally speaking, everyone now believes was overly optimistic. Well, that’s not de fide divina. It’s not precise; it’s very imprecise. But the Council’s full of the ordinary magisterium. When I worked at the [U.S.] bishops’ conference and I was discussing, say, Veritatis Splendor, people would ask me: “Is it infallible?” I would say, “The more important question is: Is it true?”

What I meant was: The overemphasis is on infallibility. This is why John Paul II and Benedict XVI decided not to define anything infallibly anymore because you see what happens is: People say: “I only have to believe what’s been infallibly defined.” Now, that is very little. So that’s why there’s a distinction between the ordinary and extraordinary magisterium. The extraordinary magisterium is what the Church defines, and it almost always involves settling disagreements that probably have been defined. The Church would perhaps have never said Mary was the Mother of God if Nestorius hadn’t denied it. But with the ordinary magisterium there’s huge amounts of what we believe that’s de fide divina that’s never been defined. That’s why people have talked about the ordinary magisterium, trying to get out of this reductionist reading that says you only have to believe what’s infallible. So, no, the Council does have binding teaching. The Fathers are writing as bishops of the Church in union with the Pope; that’s why the Council is so important.

Yet Cardinal Ratzinger stressed the Council should not be seen as a kind of “superdogma.”

Di Noia: It did not seek to define infallibly any doctrines; that’s what he’s saying, but he’s not saying it doesn’t contain great amounts of the ordinary magisterium.

If you take the dogmatic constitutions, they are called dogmatic constitutions — Divine Revelation [Dei Verbum], Lumen Gentium, those two surely, but other ones, too.

What would the Society of St. Pius X bring that would positively impact the Church if they reconcile?

Di Noia: The traditionalists that are now in the Church, such as the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter, have brought what the Pope has insisted upon: that in the solemnity of the way in which they celebrate the liturgy, especially in the area of the liturgy, they are a testimony to the continuing liveliness of liturgical tradition previous to the Council, which is the message of Summorum Pontificum. The thing is: They can’t say that the Novus Ordo is invalid, but their celebration of the 1962 Missal is something that remains attractive and nourishes faith, even of those who have no experience of it. So that’s a very important factor.

I’ve tried to find an analogy for this. Let’s say the American Constitution can be read in at least two ways: Historians read it, and they are interested in historical context: in the framers, intentions of the framers, the backgrounds of framers and all of that historical work about the Constitution. So, you have a Constitution you can study historically and shed a great deal of light on the meaning of it.

However, when the Supreme Court uses the Constitution, when it’s read as an institutional living document upon which institutions of a country are based, it’s a different reading. So what the framers thought, including not only experts upon whom they’re dependent — they are parallel to the bishops, and the experts are parallel to the periti [theologians who serve participants at an ecumenical council].

Those documents have an independence from all of them. I often say that what Council Fathers intended doesn’t matter because it’s how you apply it today that matters. It’s a living document.

Yet it’s the way it has been applied that’s the problem.

Di Noia: What’s very important for theologians, people in charge to understand is that the Council has been interpreted in wildly destructive and discontinuous ways. I’m reading a book by Louis Bouyer, who wrote a book — in 1968 — called The Decomposition of Catholicism. Then there’s Xavier Rynne, who shaped the Western world’s understanding of the Council by writing those articles in The New Yorker. The Pope has written brilliantly about this many, many times, but, you see, in part, the traditionalists are reacting justly against the outlandish interpretations of the Council by the progressivists.

What else positive can they bring?

Di Noia: If they are accepted by the Church and restored to full communion, they will be a sort of living witness to the continuity. They can be perfectly happy being in the Catholic Church, so they would be a living testimony to show that the continuity before and after the Council is real.

But that’s only if they comply with the Vatican’s conditions?

Di Noia: It’s more than that. It’s not like an edict — stop on red; go on green — because membership and full communion involves faith that the Holy Spirit is preserving the Church from error and that communion with the See of Peter is part of the reality of being in full communion. It’s not accidental.

So, if they comply, it has to be with the necessary requirements of being fully Catholic, not simply what the Pope says or what I say. … They have to say: “Yes, I do believe the Church is preserved from error by the Holy Spirit.” Then I can say, “Okay, then; you’re a Catholic.”

The society has been fed by people who use the word “error.” “Error” is a vague word in the Catholic Tradition. There are many different levels of error. Sometimes it means you’ve fallen into heresy; sometimes it means that you are rash.

Your new position is as vice president of Ecclesia Dei, but it’s not clear whom you are replacing.

Di Noia: There was a vice president for a while, Msgr. Camille Perl. However, what they’ve done is fill a position which I believe has been empty for three years. I’m not sure when Msgr. Perl went into pensione [retirement].

Some have argued that you have been brought in to help prepare a canonical structure for the SSPX should they reconcile. Is this based on the extensive work you did in helping to create the Anglican ordinariate?

Di Noia: I don’t know; the Pope didn’t tell me why he chose me. I was involved in the ordinariate from the beginning. I was undersecretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, involved in discussions that led to formation of the ordinariate, but I am not a canonist. I didn’t have a direct role in the composition of the constitution, but, yes, I have experience, perhaps of dialogue.

The Anglicans who came to Rome seeking full communion would often come and see me. So I guess I must have some kind of gift that attracts them to me [laughs].

How much is a perceived weakening of the dogma extra Ecclesiam nulla salus (no salvation outside the Church) a major part of the problem, as some traditionalists assert? Has today’s understanding of the dogma contradicted its earlier teaching?

Di Noia: I don’t know if you can blame this on the Council so much as the emergence of a theological trend that emphasized the possibility of salvation of non-Christians. But the Church has always affirmed this, and it has never denied it. … [Karl] Rahner had a disastrous effect on this with his “anonymous Christianity.” But the Council does not alter the teaching of the Church.

And yet they argue it does?

Di Noia: This is a very good example of two of the things we’ve mentioned: the danger of reading this as it’s been read by Rahner, instead of in the light of the whole Tradition.

They claim that salvation is hardly proclaimed anymore.

Di Noia: Ralph Martin agrees with that. We do have a crisis, because the Church has been infected with the idea that we don’t have to worry or be anxious or we don’t sufficiently take the mandate to proclaim Christ seriously.

But it’s not because of Vatican II, but bad theology. That’s why Dominus Ies­us  was part of the response to all of that theology of religion. There is no question that the necessity of extra Ecclesiam nulla salus has a long history. But they were talking about heretics, not nonbelievers. That formula addresses the problems of heresies. It has its history.

The Council did say there are elements of grace in other religions, and I don’t think that should be retracted. I’ve seen them, I know them — I’ve met Lutherans and Anglicans who are saints.

Some traditionalists say secular humanism frequently wins over dogmatic assertions in the modern Church. To give an example: The Holy Father has said he wouldn’t have lifted the excommunication on Bishop [Richard] Williamson had he known about his anti-Semitism. But while anti-Semitism is heinous, traditionalists say that such views aren’t a dogmatic position. And yet Catholic politicians can freely speak against the dogma and remain in full communion with the Church. What do you say to such an argument?

Di Noia: That’s a trap. Edward Norman, in his very good book Secularization, says there’s no question that what he calls internal secularization, secular humanism, has definitely invaded parts of the Church. They [SSPX] are probably right about that, and I could give them a longer list of examples than they could probably make themselves.

However, to try and defend Williamson on this basis is disgusting and odious. Is a politician the same thing as a bishop? Give me a break. It’s garbage; it’s sophistry.

Do they want a blanket excommunication of everyone who’s pro-choice? And yet here is a person, a bishop, who openly proclaims a position which the Church is desperately trying to suppress in the Church itself, which is anti-Semitism.

In the CDF statement that accompanied your appointment, it said your experience “will facilitate the development of certain desired liturgical provisions” in the celebration of the 1962 Roman Missal, commonly known as the Tridentine rite. Could you explain this in more detail?

Di Noia: There are two things: In the calendar, there are a lot of saints they would like to add, but the Roman Missal is fixed. There’s got to be a dialogue between them and the Congregation for Divine Worship on how to incorporate elements of the Roman calendar and how it has developed over the last 50 years. And then the prefaces: The old Roman Missal of 1962 has a very limited number of prefaces, and they are also interested in incorporating some of the prefaces. But because it’s the 1962 edition, who can revise the 1962 edition of the Missal?

In effect the Novus Ordo, the current Roman Missal, is a revision of the 1962 Roman Missal. So the issue is: How can they do this?

I don’t know, but the job has to be done. We already had two meetings, between representatives of the congregation and representatives of Ecclesia Dei, to discuss how that could be done.

Mention was made of your good relations with the Jewish community. How good are those relations?

Di Noia: I’ve had long and warm relationships with various Jewish leaders from the time I was in the United States, working at the bishops’ conference, which has continued all along.

They have come to see me every year. I don’t know if they’ve said anything in public, but on the phone they’re very happy. They know I’m sensitive to their concerns.

Nostra Aetate (a document believed by many to have helped foster better Jewish-Catholic relations) is a problem for the SSPX.

Di Noia: Yes, but remember: If you take the constitution exactly, as a jurist, there’s the broad and the strict, and that’s a disagreement that can be held by two justices simultaneously. So again, if they want to take a stricter reading of those conciliar texts, they’re perfectly free to do so theologically. But it doesn’t mean they have to be outside the Church, and they should argue against people based on theology.

If they believe Nostra Aetate is being badly interpreted, then they have to get into the battle to correctly interpret it. Rather than walk away from the field, they have to play the game.

Could a reconciliation be timely, given the problems in the Church and culture?

Di Noia: It’s my instinct; remember that until Benedict said in December 2005 in his address to the Curia, in which he made his famous discourse about hermeneutic of continuity, you couldn’t even talk about these things. So Benedict has liberated us for the first time.

You can now criticize [theologians Cardinal Henri-Marie] De Lubac, [Cardinal Yves] Congar, [Father Marie-Dominique] Chenu. And many young people are writing dissertations and books that were somehow impossible before. So I would say that the dominant progressivist reading of the Council is in retreat. It’s never been in retreat before. But insistence on continuity — they have to embrace that too.

Traditionalists have to be converted from seeing the Council as rupture and discontinuity.

This is a distinction [historian Roberto] de Mattei makes. The Council was experienced as a rupture, but doctrinally and theologically it has to be read in continuity — otherwise you must just as well throw in the towel.

Do you think SSPX fears their concerns won’t be safeguarded if they reconcile?

Di Noia: How will they not be safeguarded? Who’s telling them what to do? The only thing I’m telling them is: Vatican II is not a departure from Tradition.

Are you optimistic or pessimistic about reconciliation?

Di Noia: I’m neither; I just don’t know. I think it will be an act of grace.

In fact, I’m going to ask the Dominicans to start praying.

I hope it’ll happen. The Pope doesn’t want this to continue — another sect, another division.

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