Pope Francis may be on verge of deal with traditionalists
Bishop Bernard Fellay, superior of the Society of St. Pius X, is pictured in 2012 at the society’s headquarters in Menzingen, Switzerland. (CNS/Paul Haring)
It also appears the society may itself be poised to take such a historic step, urging that “perhaps only Pope Francis is able to take this step, given his unpredictability and improvisation”, according to an internal Society of St. Pius X document that was leaked to the press in recent weeks.
The Society of St. Pius X is a breakaway group founded by the late French Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, who objected to some of the reforms that followed the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), including the introduction of a new Mass in vernacular languages and the broad expansion of ecumenical and inter-faith dialogue.
The memo, titled “Considerations on the Church and the position of the Society of Saint Pius X in it”, outlines six reasons why the group should accept an offer of regularization by Pope Francis, provided “an appropriate ecclesial structure” is ensured. It also addresses possible objections raised against such a move.
“It seems the time to normalize the situation of the society has come,” the memo reads.
The document, dated Feb. 19, was written by Father Franz Schmidberger, rector of the society’s seminary in Germany. Schmidberger had served as superior general of the society from 1982 to 1994.
On April 10, Bishop Bernard Fellay, the current superior general of the society, said before some 4,000 pilgrims in the French city of Le Puy-en-Velay that there is a “profound change” in its relationship with the Vatican, triggered by the “dire situation” of the Church: “in the midst of this disorder … comes this whisper: ‘No, we cannot force you to accept the Council.’ They perhaps will not say it so clearly, but they did indeed say it to us after all.”
Albeit carefully, these assertions are to some extent matched by similar utterances from Rome.
Italian Archbishop Guido Pozzo, secretary for the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei – the Vatican office of the responsible for doctrinal discussions with the society – said in an April 6 interview with La Croix that “as far as the Second Vatican Council is concerned, the ground covered in the meetings over the past few years has led to an important clarification: Vatican II can be adequately understood only in the context of the full tradition of the Church and her constant magisterium.”
“Certain questions can remain ‘subject to discussion and clarification’,” Pozzo added.
Similarly, Schmidberger’s memo asserts that whilst the group would like to “return from its ‘exile'”, further discussions would be expected: “We will not be silent, more over, we will point out the errors by name. Before and after our normalization.”
Comprising seven sections and running to three pages, it concisely covers a summary of the history of the relationship with Rome and an outline of arguments for a full reconciliation, to the practical considerations of such a move. It even includes a kind of “FAQ”-section, answering the most frequently raised concerns of a reconciliation with Rome from the perspective of those in the society more hesitant.
Schmidberger cited several reasons that the time to regularize the canonical situation of the society has some, including that fact that “any abnormal situation lends itself to normalization.” He noted the danger in losing the realization that the society’s situation is abnormal, and seeing it instead as normal: if the priests of the society “feel comfortable in this situation of liberty with respect to dependence on the hierarchy, then this implies a gradual loss of the sensus ecclesiae.”
The memo also noted that there are members of the Church’s hierarchy who are sympathetic, but that they can only collaborate after regularization, and that the society will need new bishops in the future and that licit consecration should be pursued.
In its conclusion, the text argues that if “God wants to come to the effective aid of His Church, which is bleeding from a thousand wounds, he has thousands of different means of doing so. One of these is the official recognition of the SSPX through the Roman authorities.” It then closes with a prayer for the intercession of the Virgin Mary.
It has been speculated that the normalization of the society would be accomplished by recognizing the group as a “personal prelature,” a canonical structure which so far has only been used for Opus Dei.
The society’s formal break with Rome came in 1988, when Lefebvre and Bishop Antonio de Castro Mayer consecrated four bishops without the permission of Pope John Paul II.
The illicit consecration resulted in the excommunication of the six bishops; the excommunications of the surviving bishops were lifted in 2009 by Benedict XVI, and since then, negotiations “to rediscover full communion with the Church” have continued between the society and the Vatican.
In remitting the excommunications, Benedict also noted that “doctrinal questions obviously remain and until they are clarified the society has no canonical status in the Church and its ministers cannot legitimately exercise any ministry.”
The biggest obstacles have been the statements on religious liberty in Vatican II’s declaration Dignitatis humanae as well as the declaration Nostra aetate, which some traditionalists claims contradict previous Catholic teaching.
Pozzo addressed this issue in his discussion with La Croix, saying that he considers Nostra aetate as “directives for pastoral action, directions, and suggestions or exhortations of a practical pastoral nature,” adding that “the acceptance of the texts on relations with other religions is not a prerequisite for the canonical recognition” of the society.
“The difficulties concerning the Church-State relationship and religious freedom, the practice of ecumenism and dialogue with non-Christian religions, certain aspects of the liturgical reform and its concrete application, remain subject to discussion and clarification but do not constitute an obstacle to a canonical and juridical recognition,” the Vatican official said.
The archbishop noted that following the canonical regularization of the society, the declarations of Vatican II will “remain subject to discussion and deeper study, in order to obtain greater precision and avoid the misunderstandings or ambivalences that we know to have spread throughout today’s ecclesial world.”
Under Pope Francis several moves have suggested a warming in relations between the Vatican and the Society of St. Pius X.
In 2015 the Holy See delegated a cardinal and three bishops to visit the seminaries of the society. They were sent to become better acquainted with the society, and to discuss doctrinal and theological topics in a less formal context.
Pope Francis announced in a September 2015 letter on the Jubilee Year of Mercy that during the jubilee year the faithful can validly and licitly receive absolution of their sins from priests of the society
“I trust that in the near future solutions may be found to recover full communion with the priests and superiors of the Fraternity,” he wrote.
Fellay met with Pope Francis and Pozzo April 1-2. Fellay indicated that at that meeting, the pope had said the society is Catholic and he would not condemn it, and that he wishes to extend the faculties of its priests.