Review of “Phoenix From The Ashes” by H.J.A. Sire

By Augustinus

In “Phoenix From The Ashes: The making, unmaking and restoration of Catholic tradition” (Sire, Angelico Press, Keterring, OH 2015), the historian H.J.A Sire has produced a near masterpiece and exhaustive review of the sources of the crisis in the church today. If I am reading him correctly he traces those sources to 2 main events: the defeat of the Catholic cause during the religious wars of the 16th century and the rise of modernism which culminated in Vatican II in the 2oth century. The defeat of the Catholic cause during the 30 years war of the 16th century was engineered largely by a Catholic cardinal: Cardinal Richelieu in France who was a real servant of French royal power rather than the church. The passive Pope Urban VIII did little or nothing to help the Hapsburg Catholic power (centered in Spain and parts of Austria/Germany and other smaller nations in eastern Europe) so France in alliance with the protestant nations of Europe (the Nordic countries, Britain and parts of what is now Germany) devastated Germany, exhausted the Hapsburg power, enfeebled the Papacy and and set back the Catholic counter-reformation. What was left of the Catholic civilization which had flowered during the High Middle Ages exhibited a final cultural renaissance under Hapsburg rule in what remained of the Holy Roman Empire until its last emperor the saintly Charles was dethroned during the first world war.

Sire gives a negative account of Conciliarism as a phenomena supposedly inimical to Church tradition, although he himself shows how it helped to save the Church (along with St Catherine of Siena) during the crisis of the three popes. one does not have to endorse the view that councils have more authority than the Pope to see the virtues and the dangers of Concilarism. Obviously some sort of balance is required between the councils and the Popes to steer the Church rightly.

After Sire discusses the downfall of the Christian order in Europe (due to the 30 years war and the rise of capitalism wedded to a mechanical materialist version of science which he ties to protestant ideologies) he devotes the second half of his book to the dismantling of Catholic tradition. He provides a detailed review of the proceedings and documents of the Second Vatican Council and then devotes a separate chapter each to the destruction of the mass, the priesthood and the repudiation of the Kingdom of Christ. The destruction of the mass and priesthood was linked in Sire’s view to the protestant theological bias placed into Vat II documents by a cadre of cardinals and their advisors who were desperately devoted to their idea of ecumenism. For them ecumenism was to make catholicism more palatable to protestant theologians…so the mass was not a true sacrifice but instead a commemoration meal or a gathering of friends.  The Eucharist was not truly  the body and blood of our Lord as there was no real sacrifice. The priest was not overseeing a sacrifice but instead celebrating a meal with friends so his sacredness and role accordingly switched into being a presider or entertainer etc etc

Sire quotes Msr Bugnini who spearheaded implementation of the liturgical reforms after Vatican II as saying: “The Lord’s supper or the mass is the sacred assembly or gathering together of the people of God with a priest presiding to celebrate the memorial of the lord. for this reason…where two or three are gathered in my name I am there in their midst”(Art 7, original Gen Instruction, Novus Ordo).  Sire comments “We see here a compendium of modernist doctrines regarding the mass: the acceptance of the protestant notion of the Eucharist as the Lord’s supper…the spurious concept of the priest’s presiding at the mass instead of offering the the sacrifice by his priestly power in personae Christi, the presentation of the mass as a memorial instead of the reenactment of the sacrifice of Christ, the implication that the essence of the mass resides in the assembly of the people and not in its character as a sacrifice of Christ and worst of all the suggestion that Christ is present by virtue of the people’s gathering and not through his real presence in the Blessed sacrament” (p. 277)…One of the writes at this blog Stephen Shields OFS has argued that the crisis in the Church today can be traced to fall in belief in the real presence in the Blessed sacrament.

Sire also argues in the chapter on the Kingdom of Christ that Vatican II tended to adopt premises from modernist humanism and thus tended to the error that freedom of conscience protected outright error. There can be no right to belief in heresies but of course we have to beware using this principle to harm people with beliefs different from the Church. They are in error. There is no inherent human right to error but the Church needs humility and prudence to avoid persecution of others due to their errors.

There are many gems in this book and anyone wanting a fully argued case concerning the errors of Vatican II will find it in this book. Sire makes the interesting observation, for example, that the 60s did not produce Vatican II but Vatican II either produced the 60s or really contributed to some of its disorders. i did not know that the traditionalist Archbishop Lefevbre actually voted for most of the Vatican II documents including the one on Liturgy. It was the implementation of these documents that he at first was concerned with…I think Sire is too hard on John PaulI’s efforts to reach our to world religions but I understand the dangers in doing so. Sire’s assessment of Pope Benedict and Francis are mixed but I largely agree with them.

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