The interviewee (right) with Prof. Plinio Correa de Oliveira (center).
An exclusive interview of the blog Dies Irae with Juan Miguel Montes*
- Thank you very much for giving us this interview. You arrived in Rome in the early 1980s. Therefore, you have been following events related to the life of the Church for almost four decades. What major differences would you highlight between that time and today?
I answer you as a Catholic observer of events and not as a theologian, which I am not.
From the end of the Council until the death of Pope Paul VI, there was a period of great difficulties in the life of the Church. The religious practice of the faithful greatly decreased; many congregations and seminaries emptied; countless priests left the ministry. Undoubtedly, the dynamism of John Paul II, so to speak, “recharged” an organism that, at least in its visible aspect, seemed seriously ill. His travels around the world, his jubilees, his encounters with young people gave the Church high visibility.
I arrived in Rome in the fifth year of his long pontificate, and I know the testimonies of many people who lived through the two periods. In many ways, the crisis seemed to have paused somewhat. In the 1980s, there was a certain revival of enthusiasm and hope in the body of the Church, even if, for many keenly aware Catholics, serious reasons of concern remained. At the time, there were contrasting phenomena: on the one hand, hope was fueled by solid positions of the pontifical magisterium on moral issues, liberation theology, etc.; on the other hand, ecumenical gestures, requests for forgiveness, and the permanence of progressive theologians in key places in Catholic teaching caused perplexity.
However, in one way or another, with ups and downs, the impact of John Paul II’s pontificate lasted until his death. It continued in the pontificate of his closest collaborator, Cardinal Ratzinger, who became Pope Benedict XVI.
Today, the environment described above at the end of Paul VI’s pontificate has reappeared with all its might, and even worse. It is true that the current ecclesiastical situation makes many historical opponents of the Church happy. It makes jubilant the intellectuals, politicians and journalists who do not shine out of devotion to the Catholic faith. It also cheers the minority but influential, progressive Catholic sector. However, it causes concern among a substantial number of faithful who take their religion seriously and face increasing difficulty in their struggle to keep the faith in a secularized world. Once again, they see churches closed or empty, seminaries without vocations, and scandals of all kinds that have proliferated among the clergy and in Catholic institutions, even more than in the worst years of the past. Unfortunately, in this climate, as per recent statistics from Germany and many other countries, many faithful are simply falling away from the Church.
So, concerned Catholics wonder: did that phenomenon of apparent recovery over the last two decades of the last century have deep roots? Was that recovery more an appearance than a consolidated reality? Then they ask themselves: what are the most profound causes of this crisis of faith, which is the mother of all other crises in the Church? Thus, in this historical framework, a debate is opening up about the causes of the crisis in the Church. When did it start? What factors favored it? Is it not true that some of its root causes continued to work deep underground, while at least at first glance, many of its effects seemed on the cusp of being overcome in the 1980s as compared to the 1960s and 1970s?
All this explains why we are having this great debate about the period before Vatican II, about the Council itself, and about its repercussions on the life of the Church, on society, etc. This debate about the causes of the crisis in the Church will continue to grow as its effects continue to emerge here, there and everywhere.
That is the big difference that I see between the more optimistic 1980s and 2020, which opened under the sign of significant issues and more than legitimate concerns.
- You have lived under three different pontiffs – John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Francis. From the perspective of the Apostolic Tradition, what events would you highlight from these three pontificates that came closest to or distanced from that paradigm?
Pope Francis has often spoken about the radical paradigm shift happening in the Church. As a confirmation of this statement, I recommend reading the work Pope Francis’s ‘Paradigm Shift’: Continuity or Rupture in the Mission of the Church?, by José Antonio Ureta, where this scholar describes and analyzes the many facets of the great changes that have occurred in the last seven years.
On the other hand, instead of advocating a new paradigm, Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI sought to propose themselves as exponents of the so-called “hermeneutic of reform in continuity” (Benedict XVI).
As mentioned, a great discussion has now opened up on whether, despite the will of these last two Popes and even before them, the Second Vatican Council itself or some of its interpretations are directly responsible for a change in something fundamental to the Catholic paradigm. For example, to see as outdated the Catholic Church’s perennial claim that She is the only true Church of Jesus Christ. Time and multidisciplinary studies will increasingly reveal the contours and consequences of the past 60 years. This process has started and is irreversible.
- As a privileged observer of Roman life through your participation in the press conferences of the Holy See, could you tell us about the characters who have most influenced the life of the Church over this long period?
Undoubtedly, the most significant people in the ecclesiastical line that identifies with the so-called “hermeneutic of reform in continuity” were Pope Wojtyla himself and Cardinal Ratzinger, who later became Pope Benedict XVI.
The progressive sector saw Pope Bergoglio and Cardinals like Kasper and Martini as its main exponents. Cardinal Casaroli, the creator of the Ostpolitik with communist regimes, no longer had with John Paul II the decisive influence he had during Paul VI’s time, and progressives remember him less and less.
The personalities of the so-called traditionalist world, even though lacking great resonance among the mainstream media or followers among the members of the dominant intelligentsia, are nevertheless becoming more and more known throughout the world in a resilient part of the Catholic flock. Such was the case, for example, with the four Cardinals who presented to Pope Francis the dubia on the apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia.
- When Professor Corrêa de Oliveira asked you to represent the Bureau of the TFPs in Rome, what advice did he give you? He personally followed the first conciliar sessions and was disappointed with their progress (cf. Roberto de Mattei, Vatican Council II – An Unwritten Story, Caminhos Romanos, Porto, 2016). Did he address this issue with you?
Prof. Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira never hid, in public or in private, that he went through a severe trial in the conciliar period and the disappointments he had in Rome in the first phase of the Council. However, he did everything that could be done by a layman, who as such, was outside the Council properly speaking. To him and his immediate collaborators we owe the initiative and coordination of the petition among Conciliar Fathers asking the Assembly to condemn communism. In 1976, in the updated edition of his principal book, Revolution and Counter-Revolution, he made a stern comment about the fact that the issue was not even put on the agenda to be raised at the Council’s floor.
However, it would be an exaggeration to say that the Council took him by surprise. He told me in detail the apprehensions that had assailed him about the symptoms of a revolutionary advance in the Church for at least 25 years before the Council, which led him to write his first work, In Defense of Catholic Action, published in 1943. He also explained to me that he suffered greatly because the people closest to him, including in the ecclesiastical sphere, did not fully share his torment over the penetration of the sacred precinct of the Church by the errors of secularizing modernity, that is, of the great Western Revolution.
In fact, when he learned about the convening of the Council, he said more or less the same thing as the Belgian progressive Cardinal Leo Joseph Suenens, although from the opposite point of view: “This will be the Estates-General of the Church.” A vast ocean of more optimistic Catholics stood between Cardinal Suenens and Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira’s opposing but lucid positions. The 1960s saw a peak of optimism about the so-called “ideology of progress.”
As a serious scholar on the revolutionary process that Christianity was undergoing, a process inaugurated by neo-pagan humanism and the Renaissance, and which continued with the French and Russian Revolutions, Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira knew with complete certainty that the revolutionary phenomenon would not spare the Church. Indeed, the Revolution had already launched an assault on the Church at the time of Pope Saint Pius X, even before Plinio was born, but suffered a setback thanks to the action of that Pontiff. However, in the 1930s, as the leader of Catholic Action in Brazil, he realized that the errors of modernism were resurfacing in the Church, imported mostly by Belgian “pastoral agents.” That led him, in 1943, to write the aforementioned book, which was later praised by Pope Pius XII. The history of that period and Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira’s denunciation are the subjects of a study by the late Gonzalo Larraín to appear shortly in Italy under the title Il Primo Grido di Allerta.
In the years following the Council, sticking to his sphere of action, Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira and the TFPs inspired by him waged an intense ideological struggle against the growing infiltration of Marxist ideas and practices in the Church by Catholic progressivism. In 1969, they promoted a famous petition campaign that collected two million signatures asking Pope Paul VI to take measures against the communist infiltration in the Church. During the 1970s and 1980s, they carried out equally resonant campaigns against the so-called “liberation theology” and its operative arm, the Basic Ecclesial Communities. These managed to bring Lula to power in Brazil, the giant of the southern cone, to give just one example.
In the twelve years of my Roman stay during which Prof. Plinio was alive, I had to go on my own to warn many Roman authorities about the danger posed to the Church by “liberation theology,” emerging especially in Latin America. Today it seems to me that hardly anyone could challenge the prophetic predictions of Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira in the 20th century. But one more thing must be said: until he died in 1995, he never doubted that after the crisis, a new era of grace would open for the Church and humanity, as in Fatima, Our Lady promised that Her Immaculate Heart would triumph.
- Still on Vatican II, there has been a lively debate about this ill-fated event in the life of the Church in the 20th century. This debate, prompted above all by the statements of Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò and Bishop Athanasius Schneider, led about fifty priests, academics, and intellectuals to address both of them a letter of support dated July 15. What do you think of this initiative? Could it have any practical effect?
I have already discussed the debate that opened up in this period. I hope this is the beginning of a process that will honestly clarify what has happened over the last sixty years and even more remotely, from the early days of modernism more than one hundred and twenty years ago.
I do not expect, however, that this debate will be a reason for the cooling of mutual charity and esteem among those who now fully agree that something very serious has indeed happened in the Church because the evidence says so. A respectful and serene climate, without pretensions or stardom, is the greatest service that one can render the Church. I believe that the letter from the intellectuals in support of the two courageous bishops goes in that direction, if only because today, given the facts, who can deny that there are objective difficulties in the interpretations of Vatican II? On the other hand, who could give the Council a status of infallibility that the Conciliar Fathers did not want to give it?
- This year marks the 25th anniversary of the death of Prof. Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira, who gave his entire life and thought to the service of the Church and the Counter-Revolution. What, in your opinion, will be the best tribute that his spiritual children can give him?
To maintain a balanced position. That is, to not hide the extent of the abyss that opened wide before the world and within the Church, but at the same time to firmly believe that after the storms and the dark night, the Morning Star will shine. In short, there will be the triumph of the Immaculate Heart as Our Lady promised at Fatima, in that glorious land of Portugal where “the dogma of the Faith will always be preserved” (Third Apparition). Just as he predicted the extent of this crisis with great foresight, Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira never failed to announce that this day would arrive.
- To conclude, could you pick from the thousands of writings of Prof. Plinio, a passage that has particularly impressed you?
So many things could be said about Prof. Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira on his counterrevolutionary apostolate, both in the temporal and spiritual spheres and in his intellectual and operational life. For example, for many decades, he fought Communist attempts to dominate the Latin American continent, thus giving rise to the largest anticommunist Catholic movement in the world. Why did ‘Catho-Communists’ come to power in several countries of the region only after his death? What was his historical relevance putting the brakes on a phenomenon that could have disturbed the Cold War equilibrium? Among many others, this is a point of his multiform personality yet to explore.
However, I believe that the greatest homage that one can pay is to remember him with the words he himself picked for his tomb in São Paulo, Brazil: Vir totus catholicus et apostolicus, plene romanus. He was a fully Roman, Catholic and Apostolic man.
* Juan Miguel Montes was born in Santiago, Chile, in 1951. Since 1983, he has run the Office of Tradition, Family and Property in Rome. As a journalist, he closely followed the life of the Catholic Church in the Vatican, writing about various Italian and international media, and giving lectures on these issues in Italy and abroad.
Source: Dies Irae
Translated by the staff of Fatima Today.
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