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The Vatican and SSPX – An Organizational Culture Perspective - Reblogged


Reblogged from The Vatican and SSPX – An Organizational Culture Perspective August 29,2012.


The recent and continuing interactions between the Vatican and the SSPX have been a great opportunity for prayer and reflection. 

The basis for the disagreement is theological and not liturgical. As noted by Dr. Lamont (2012), the SSPX theological position on the four key controversial aspects of the Second Vatican Council are base on prior theological work that resulted from relevant magisterial pronouncements.  So it is difficult to understand the apparent rejection of the theological position of the SSPX.

While there has been a long history of interactions between the Vatican and the SSPX over its 40 year history, in the Pontificate of Pope Benedict XVI there have been a number of key milestones.
In 2007, Pope Benedict XVI issued the Motu Proprio Summorum Pontificum making the 1962 liturgy available to all Priests and declaring the Mass to have never been abrogated. In spite of this declaration, resistance to the Tridentine Mass continues.  At this point some members of the hierarchy issue theologically based statements of opposition to the move to ‘free’ the Mass by noting that the Tridentine Mass represents an outmoded Theology.

In 2009, Pope Benedict XVI remitted the excommunications of the four SSPX bishops.  This action, in an atmosphere of intense media attention due to the release of an interview given by Bishop Williamson, evoked open criticism of Pope Benedict from elements both external and internal to the Church. While the external criticism was to be expected, the intensity of the internal criticism, leveled at the person of the Sovereign Pontiff surprised many and including the Pope as he noted in a letter to the Bishops of the world shortly after the lifting of the excommunications.

In 2011, Pope Benedict issued an instruction for Summorum Pontificum, a key element of which provides the faithful with the right of appeal to an ecclesial court when refused access to the 1962 liturgy, now labeled the Extraordinary form. This effectively circumvented the local ordinaries from blocking the implementation of Summorum Pontificum.  The author is aware that in spite of the clear wording of the instruction, a prejudice against the Tridentine Mass continues to be exercised as it is seen as being divisive.

In 2012, statements made by Bishop Fellay, Superior General of the SSPX, indicated that the Pope would allow for a regularization without the SSPX compromising its position on the Second Vatican Council, the new liturgy, disciplinary and moral issues. This lead to conflicting statements made by members of the Vatican hierarchy and, surprisingly, vocal opposition to any such regularization from within the ranks of the SSPX.

The author believes that it is significant that in the instances in which the Pope was seen as drawing closer to the SSPX, or at least their mindset, that there was conflict within the hierarchy and the Church at large. Furthermore, the author believes that it is equally significant that in the instances in which the SSPX (in the person of Bishop Fellay) was seen as drawing closer to the Pope, that there was conflict within the SSPX.

Organizational Culture

Organizational Culture (OC) is a sub-area of study within Organizational Behaviour (OB).  Whereas organizational behavior ‘the study of what people think, feel and do in and around organizations’(McShane, 2004), organizational culture is the ‘basic pattern of shared assumptions, values and beliefs governing the way employees within an organization think about and act on problems and opportunities’(McShane, 2004).  In essence OB focuses on the ‘what’ people do, whereas OC tries to determine ‘why’ people do what they do in the organization.

One of thought leaders in this area of study is Dr. Edgar H. Schein. In his paper “Organizational Culture” published in 1988 he provides the following insights about organizational culture.
“Culture is a property of groups, and can be thought of as the accumulated learning that a given group has acquired during its history. The definition emphasizes this learning aspect and also notes that culture applies only to that portion of the accumulated learning that is passed on to newcomers.”(Schein, 1988)
Dr. Schein (1988) goes further and adds the following more detailed definition:
“Thus, culture can be thought of as:
  1. A pattern of basic assumptions,
  2. Invented, discovered, or developed by a given group,
  3. As it learns to cope with its problems of external adaptation and internal integration,
  4. That has worked well enough to be considered valid and, therefore,
  5. Is to be taught to new members as the,
  6. Correct way to perceive, think and feel in relation to those problems.”
Based on this definition, Dr. Schein (1988) concludes that the “strength and degree of integration” of a culture is directly related to the stability of the group, the intensity of and method by which its lessons were impressed, and the “strength and clarity of the assumptions held by the founders and leaders of the group”.

The lessons learned in organizations are ‘overlearned’ to the point where they drop out of conscious thought and become automatic responses. This is a self-defense mechanism built into human beings, when people learn a survival lesson and this lesson is repeatedly proven correct, eventually people will just ‘know’ the right way to respond. They will do so immediately, without thinking.

These learned lessons are described as ‘shared assumptions’ that are unconscious and form the basis for an organization’s culture.

Using this understanding Dr. Schein developed the following model outlining the levels of organizational culture.
Cultural Element
Organization Manifestation
Visible organizational structures and processes
Strategies, goals, philosophies (espoused justifications/values)
Underlying Assumptions
Unconscious, taken for granted beliefs, habits of perception, thought and feeling (ultimate source of values and action).
Table 1 Schein Cultural Model
While this model was published in 1988, the basic elements of the model are still found in the current organizational behavior texts providing a testimony to its robustness.

A key aspect of culture is that while the artifacts and values are easily discernible either by observation or by inquiry, the underlying assumptions are basically sub-conscious making it very difficult to directly canvass members about them. Unfortunately, these underlying assumptions can be described as buried landmines of various sizes. In some cases the mines are small and when transgressed evoke only a small even pleasant response. However, the more deeply seated assumptions are like large landmines and when these are tripped, the evoked response will be a combination of perceptual, cognitive, and emotional outputs that are automatic and due to the perceptive biases potentially out of proportion to the triggering event. In other words even the person experiencing the evoked response, may not know why they are unable to provide a rational argument for their response.

Cultural Highlights: Vatican & SSPX

In reviewing the model in Table 1, it is quite clear that after the Second Vatican Council there has been a major shift in the artifacts, values, and even assumptions within the Catholic Church. At the level of artifacts there are numerous alterations including a new liturgy, architectural designs and organizational structure due to collegiality.  These changes are consistent with a new set of espoused values embodied in the documents (religious liberty, ecumenism, etc) of the Council and the committees formed afterwards (consilium etc). Finally, as “culture applies only to that portion of the accumulated learning that is passed on to newcomers”, given the acknowledged issues with catechetics since the Council a shift in culture within the Church is not unexpected.

Another aspect that has not been apparent in other analyses is the effect of continual turmoil within the Church since the end of the Council.  For a culture to be strengthened it needs to be continually reinforced with an integrated message.  However, the message being put forth since the Council, based on the author’s discussions with Catholics attending the Novus Ordo, has been haphazard, weak at best and heretical at worst. It seems true that the most evident consistency in the Roman Catholic Church today is the inconsistency. 

In the opinion of the author, at the level of the laity, this has lead to an erosion of the Catholic Cultural assumptions and strongly held beliefs. In discussions with non-Traditional Catholics, there has been only one subject upon which a strong sustained cultural response was evoked, the subject of the Pontificate of Blessed Pope John Paul II. This is consistent with this model in that for 25 years the one consistent reinforced integrated message has been the “Pope”. Discussions with Catholic laymen about the Second Vatican Council did evoke strong responses but not with the same sustaining power.  

The author has had limited direct interaction with the hierarchy, in this case the response with regards to the SSPX was that they would have to accept the Second Vatican Council in its entirety. Secondary sources, primarily media reports, provide evidence in support of this assertion. As noted this does provide the basis for the theological questions posed by Dr. Lamont. In this context, the ‘accept the council’ mantra does appear to belie a strong continuous cultural assumption that is present in the Church. The lack of uniformity for imposing such complete adherence when other more important statements of the Council are denied by members of the Church with impunity indicates that this is an espoused value. It is therefore difficult to discern the exact nature of the cultural assumption being transgressed by the SSPX. The author agrees with Dr. Lamont that it is probable that the cultural assumption is probably common to the four contentious points of the Council documents (Lamont, 2012).

Given the automatic evoked response when any of the four elements are challenged, and the response to Dominus Jesus, the author believes it probable that the cultural assumption is related to the concepts of the nature of the Church and its exclusive necessity of the Roman Catholic Church for salvation. 

The culture of the SSPX stands in stark contrast and even in some cases direct opposition to the new culture within the Church. In this case for the past 40 years the members and faithful of the SSPX have received a consistent message from both the clergy of the SSPX as well as the hierarchy of the Church.

From the SSPX the faithful have received consistent liturgy, catechetical instruction and instruction on the issues with events surrounding and the documents of the Second Vatican Council particularly Dignitatis Humanae #2, Unitatis redintegratio #3, Lumen Gentium #8, #22,nota praevia  #3.   

From the Church, the SSPX Traditionalists have likewise received consistent messages that the cultural assumptions that they hold are no longer valid and no longer welcome by the Church. This manifested itself in the iconoclastic renovations that occurred in Catholic Churches after the Council.  Communion rails were ripped out, statues smashed or dumped in the ocean, lay extra-ordinary Eucharistic ministers became the norm, tabernacles relocated, and more importantly a change in the teaching from the pulpit.  Further, for their adherence to the Mass and underpinning Theology, they have been labeled as a problem (Vatican, 1984), schismatics, heretics, divisive, rebels, and integrists. Last but by far the worst, Traditionalists in general were subject to persecution as priests and laymen in the mid-70’s were cast out of their Churches for refusing to comply with the new liturgy.

 The intensity and integration of the lessons learned by the SSPX members and faithful are consistent with maintaining and developing a strong organizational culture.  From these repeated lessons, the author has observed that to the pre-counciliar cultural assumptions held by the SSPX (eg the Catholic Church is the Church of Christ all others are false religions, etc) have been added a strong distrust of the hierarchy. 

Based on the conflict that erupted within the SSPX when Bishop Fellay indicated sufficient trust in Pope Benedict to accept a canonical regularization, without any compromises and with the organizational protection desired by the SSPX, this cultural assumption of distrust appears to form the basis for a sub-culture within the SSPX.  The strength of this sub-culture is evident from the reaction from certain members and faithful towards Bishop Fellay during discussions and even after he declined to agree to the modified doctrinal declaration presented by Cardinal Levada in June 2012. In spite of the fact that Bishop Fellay remained true to the principles of the SSPX, the strength of the sub-culture is sufficient  (with a few) that this fact is ignored and Bishop Fellay remains untrusted, and tainted by association with the hierarchy.

Applying the Model to the Vatican / SSPX relations

In applying the model to the Vatican / SSPX relations it is obvious that there is a clash of cultural assumptions as well as theological opinions on a number of issues.  

Because the documents of the Second Vatican Council are artifacts and ‘espoused values’ of the culture, it is doubtful whether or not the cultural, as opposed to theological, root cause of the clash is to be found in them.  This conclusion is supported by the contradiction that the SSPX is kept irregular for non-adherence to authentic magisterial teachings that appear to conflict with past magisterial documents, while other members of the Church remain canonically regular in a state of non-adherence to ordinary and extraordinary magisterial teachings.

In order to resolve this contradiction, it is necessary to determine the nature of the assumptions that are being transgressed by the SSPX and for both parties to assess their validity. This will not be an easy task as the assumptions embedded in a culture are difficult for a casual observer to discern.  Schein (1988) advocates following the example of anthropologists and going “out in the field and observe a phenomenon at length prior to trying to understand it”.  The continuing discussions between the SSPX and Vatican provide just such an opportunity.

It is also noted that these meetings and exchanges are ‘learning events’ for the participants that either reinforce or undermine cultural assumptions.  Given the recent communiqué from the SSPX chapter (2012) outlining adherence to a number of perennial magisterial ‘values’ and rejection of errors within the council documents, there appears to have been a reinforcement of SSPX cultural assumptions.

It is difficult to determine if the culture of the Vatican personnel involved has been altered since two new participants have recently been introduced.  Their current cultural stance is quite clear as recent statements by Archbishops Mueller (2012) and Di Noia (2012) demonstrate their adherence to the cultural assumption manifesting itself as variations of “accept the council”. Whether or not they maintain this stance will be a key indicator of the cultural assumptions being supported by Pope Benedict XVI.

The author believes that eventually the SSPX will be regularized because, in addition to adherence to the Church teachings, it embodies the culture of the Church prior to the machinations that followed the Second Vatican Council. Ultimately, the Church must rebuild upon the cultural foundations built by 2000 years of accumulated learning and re-anchor itself to the two pillars of its culture: The Eucharist and Our Blessed Lady.

From a cultural point of view, the problems within the Church resulted from the election of Pontiffs imbued with organizational sub-cultures that differed from the culture that had developed the artifacts, values and assumptions present within the Church in the 1950’s. The turmoil within the Church in terms of these elements supports the assertion that a different culture was being ‘modeled’ and imposed by the Sovereign Pontiffs of the last fifty years.  

No lasting change in culture can occur on an organizational level without the leader of an organization internalizing and demonstrating the new culture. Without this all other efforts at altering the culture by the likes of the SSPX, FSSP, etc, will be constrained to exercising influence only as a sub-culture in conflict with the dominant organizational culture.  Herein lies one of the reasons for the SSPX to interact with the Vatican hierarchy, and ideally the Sovereign Pontiff to assist in bringing about this cultural transformation.

When the Pope demonstrates this new culture, ‘modeling’ it for the Church, in a sustained manner then change will begin in earnest. However, it is critical to understand that if this rebuilding begins during the current pontificate the next Pontiff will have to continue to reinforce the new culture since the new culture will need to be over-learned to replace the lessons reinforced by 50 years of Neo-Modernism. In addition, by demonstrating the new version of the pre-counciliar culture, the Pope will begin to subdue the lessons learned that created the SSPX sub-cultural distrust of the Pope. Eventually, with sufficient reinforcement this will be applied to the remainder of the Vatican Curia and the Hierarchy.

Lastly, in a sense of poetic justice, when the culture change occurs within the Church, its liberal members will be faced with the same choice faced by the Traditional Catholics who in the 70’s found themselves at odds with the novel changes within the Church: Acquiesce, Fight, or Flight.

Applying the Model to Modern Catholic /SSPX Faithful relations

While the Traditional Catholic Laity can’t effect a sustained organization wide cultural change like the Pope, they can help change the culture one Catholic at a time.

To achieve this goal, the Traditionalist must be willing to engage in sustained and potentially intense face-to-face discussions with non-Traditional Catholics. The stronger the cultural assumptions held by the non-Traditional Catholic, the more intense the evoked cultural response will be as the controversial topics are broached. From a cultural point of view, it will be necessary to be prepared to go over some aspects of the debate more than once and practice patience / self-control during any evoked cultural response and especially when Traditional Catholic assumptions are challenged.
Obviously, being well versed in the issues being discussed is a requirement. However, a deep knowledge of the pre-Council Catechism is also a great aid as well as the relevant Papal Encyclicals. It is one thing to convince yourself of the validity of the Traditionalist perspective, it is another thing to convince someone else.  Also the importance of a strong spiritual life cannot be understated.  You cannot be a conduit of grace if you yourself are malnourished. Preparation, spiritual and academic are the key.


While the focus of the discussions between the Vatican and the SSPX has been on doctrine and the canonical irregularity, the is also a clash of organizational cultures.

In the clash of cultures, evoked cultural responses will happen, but are difficult to deal with since the person experiencing them, may be unable to rationalize the reason for his behavior.  Patience and being ready to discuss previous topics is required to tease out the issues and assist in the learning required to overwrite a cultural assumption.

Eventually, the pre-counciliar culture will reassert itself since it is so closely related to the liturgy and theology. In this work both the members of the SSPX and the Traditional Catholic laity have roles to play.


Di Noia, Archbishop J. Augustine (2012), Archbishop DiNoia,Ecclesia Dei and the Society of St. Pius X, National Catholic Register, Retrieved July 25, 2012, from

Lamont, John R. T. (2012). A Theologian’s Questions,Retrieved April 13, 2012, from

McShane, S. L. (2004). Canadian organizational behavior (5th ed.). Toronto: McGraw-Hill Ryerson

Muller, Archbishop Gerhard Ludwig (2012), Vatican’s doctrine chief: Pius X Society must accept Vatican II teachings, Catholic News Agency, Retrieved July 25, 2012, from

Schein, E. H. (1988). Organizational Culture (Working Paper[Sloan School of Management] 2088-88). Retrieved May 29, 2008, from 

SSPX (2012), Society of St. Pius X General Chapter Statement, Retrieved July 25, 2012, from

Vatican (1984), Quattuor abhinc annos. Retrieved July 25, 2012, from


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