By Bishop Athanasius Schneider and Diane Montagna
Angelico Press, 338pp, £16.50/$20
When the Soviets sought to describe the middle of nowhere, they said “Karaganda”. Indeed, there wasn’t much of anything in Karaganda, in Kazakhstan, other than the Karlag – a gigantic gulag that incarcerated over one million prisoners and covered as much territory as modern France.
Bishop Athanasius Schneider’s first episcopal appointment was to this middle-of-nowhere diocese. But to him it was holy ground. As he says in his new book-length interview: “The soil around Karaganda is soaked with the tears and blood of countless innocent persons.” Among them were religious and priests that his family knew well.
The Schneiders – Black Sea Germans from Odessa – were no strangers to persecution. Bishop Schneider’s grandfather, as a young man in his early twenties, was pushed into a truck by communists one night and driven away to die. His parents met in a labour camp – but they continued to practise their faith in hiding, baptising their children, smuggling in priests, and maintaining a fervent devotional life. Surely it’s no coincidence that this scion of persecuted Catholics is among the most fearless defenders of the faith today. Christus Vincit is an inspiring, erudite and eminently practical rallying cry for those who would like to see the Church restored to its former glory.
Since the Second Vatican Council, Bishop Schneider argues, the Church has relegated the supernatural – by which he means adoration of the Most Holy Trinity, the prayer life of the Church, and the diffusion of grace – to second place. Instead, it focuses on the natural life of man and his earthly affairs.
An empty activism is the consequence: constant synods, meetings, and conferences that cost disproportionate amounts and generate lengthy, unreadable documents. Bishop Schneider calls it “exterior activism with a spiritual lethargy and passivity”.
He calls for the supernatural to be returned to its rightful place at the centre of the Church’s life, by prayer, penance and Eucharistic Adoration, and by celebrating Mass fittingly and proclaiming the supernatural truths of death, judgment, heaven and hell. “We have to put Christ and His supernatural revelation back at the centre,” he says, “because this alone can heal all mankind.”
Our crisis is the worst the Church has ever experienced, Bishop Schneider believes, and its expression is the “denial of the constant validity of any truth: dogmatic, moral, and liturgical” – a relativism already present, he says, in the texts of the Second Vatican Council.
Bishop Schneider speaks frankly about how his attitude to the Council texts developed. Like most faithful Catholics, he says, his mentality as a young man corresponded to a “de facto total infallibilisation” of everything that the pope and the Second Vatican Council said. Criticism of conciliar texts made him uncomfortable; he avoided engaging with it seriously for fear of “going in a direction that would be unfaithful to the Church”.
But his study of the Church Fathers (he holds a doctorate in patristics) brought him to consider that repressing his critical faculties was unhealthy and inconsistent with Church tradition. His appointment to the episcopate, his involvement in the doctrinal discussions with the Society of Saint Pius X, and recent events such as Pope Francis’s declaration on the diversity of religions led him to examine the controversial points addressed by the Council more attentively.
Bishop Schneider’s analysis is nuanced and careful, but his conclusion is firm:
“In some expressions of the Council texts, there is rupture with the previous constant tradition of the Magisterium.” His discussion of religious liberty is particularly interesting: he distinguishes between the need for the Church to demand freedom of practice from atheistic governments, and the principle that no one can be said to have a “right” to reject Christ’s redemptive mission by rejecting His Church.
There’s overlap between his analysis and that of the SSPX, which he knows well. In 2015, Rome asked him to visit their seminaries in view of an eventual canonical status. He was favourably impressed, especially on hearing the solemn prayer for the pope sung at Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament. Will they return to full communion, the interviewer asks? “They are already in communion with the Church,” Bishop Schneider replies; they recognise and pray for the pope, and they have been given faculties for the sacraments. They only lack formal recognition, which he believes they are owed.
These are difficult matters, hotly debated by the sharpest intellects. Does the voice of one auxiliary bishop from the middle of nowhere matter, you might wonder? Well, long ago there was another bishop who raised a lone voice on some highly technical doctrinal issues and he turned out to be right. Coincidentally, his name was Athanasius too.