The SSPX has been in the news again this fall, and the blaring headlines are not the sort that will win the group any popularity contests. With the completion of two years of doctrinal discussions in April 2011, however, long-term relations between the Holy See and the Society of St. Pius X, founded in 1970 by Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, have entered a new phase, characterized by some promising signs and some possible set-backs.
September 14, 2011 was the fourth anniversary of the implementation of Summorum Pontificum, the motu proprio by Benedict XVI liberalizing the celebration of the traditional Latin Mass according to the 1962 Missal. On that day the general superior of the SSPX and his two general assistants met at the Vatican with the prefect and secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and the secretary of the Ecclesia Dei Commission. The previous eight sessions of the CDF-SSPX study commission had aimed to identify and examine the doctrinal difficulties that members of the priestly society have with the teachings and results of Vatican II. According to a joint communiqué of the Holy See Press Office and the SSPX dated September 14, those doctrinal discussions and the exchange of summary reports had succeeded in “clarifying the positions of the two sides and their respective motivations.” The two parties now need to keep working “to heal the existing rift.” (The medical expression used in the original French text of the press release means “to set a fracture.”)
The doctrinal preamble
The CDF officials handed over to the head of the SSPX a “doctrinal preamble” specifying “certain doctrinal principles and criteria for the interpretation Catholic doctrine, which are necessary to ensure faithfulness to the Church Magisterium and ‘sentire cum Ecclesia’ [‘thinking with the Church’]…. [T]he Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith maintains that the fundamental basis for achieving full reconciliation with the Apostolic See is the acceptance [by the SSPX] of the text of the Doctrinal Preamble.” During the same meeting suggestions were made for a canonical solution to the irregular status of the SSPX.
In subsequent interviews, the general superior of the SSPX and the secretary of Ecclesia Dei both emphasized the great courtesy and candor that characterized the September 14 meeting—and indeed, all the doctrinal talks that had led up to it. The former, Bishop Bernard Fellay, explained that in-depth study of the preamble and consultation with his confreres would have to precede the signing of the confidential document. Without saying anything about its contents beyond what was mentioned in the press release, he noted that the doctrinal preamble makes “no clear-cut distinction between the inviolable dogmatic sphere and the pastoral sphere that is subject to discussion.” It does however allow for legitimate debate about (and here he quotes the preamble) “the theological explanation of individual expressions and formulations contained in the documents of Vatican Council II and later Magisterium.” When asked whether the SSPX would be incorporated into the Catholic Church as a personal prelature or an ordinariate, Bishop Fellay replied, “This canonical status is conditional; only later on will we be able to see the exact modality of it.”
On September 25, an interviewer asked SSPX spokesman Father Alain Lorans, “What is legitimate leeway for debate about the Vatican II documents?” The latter replied, “This is the question! … Some explain [‘legitimate discussion’] to mean that contested points in conciliar teaching could be open to discussion without calling into question one’s membership in the Church; this would be to recognize that these controversial texts do not require the same adherence as dogmas.” Contrasting the press release of September 14, 2011 with a note from the Vatican Secretary of State dated February 4, 2009—the latter claimed, “The indispensable condition for a future recognition of the SSPX is their full acceptance of the Second Vatican Council”—Father Lorans argued:
Between these declarations there were two years of theological discussion which made it possible to “dig out and clarify the doctrinal problems,” as Bishop Fellay put it. Has there been a development in Rome’s position between 2009 and 2011? Has the presentation by the theologians of the Society contributed to it? I leave it to you to reply.
In an interview with Gloria.tv on October 3, Msgr. Guido Pozzo, secretary of the Ecclesia Dei Commission, said that talks with the SSPX “have reached a decisive point…. What is needed now is precisely to move on to a more evaluative stage, to a level of evaluating controversial points in order to verify the concrete possibility of overcoming the doctrinal difficulties and issues that have been addressed.” The doctrinal preamble as currently worded is not set in stone. SSPX representatives “always have the option of asking for specific details or clarifications, which we for our part will certainly provide within a reasonable time frame.”
SSPX meeting in Albano
An extraordinary, closed-door meeting of the seminary rectors and district superiors of the Society of St. Pius X from all five continents was held on October 7-8 at the House of the Italian District in Albano Laziale. On the first day of the gathering, the Feast of Our Lady of the Rosary, the participants prayed the Rosary together in the morning, at noon, and in the evening, reciting the traditional 15 decades. At the business meeting that day, Bishop Fellay presented the doctrinal preamble to his confreres for study and discussion. A group photo of the participants was taken on the grounds of the District House and immediately published by the SSPX news service DICI with a news report.
There was no immediate rejection of the dogmatic preamble, which SSPX-watchers call a good sign. No one leaked the contents in protest. The location chosen for the gathering is strongly symbolic and also augurs well: instead of meeting at the Society’s headquarters in Menzingen (Germany) or at the seminary first founded by Archbishop Lefebvre in Ecône (Switzerland), the superiors met in Albano Laziale, a suburb of Rome overlooking Lake Albano, which made them near neighbors to Castel Gandolfo, the pope’s summer residence. Moreover, the SSPX superiors authorized the “General Council” of the Society, consisting of the general superior and his two general assistants, to continue the talks with Rome about the preamble.
As conservative Catholic blogger “Mundabor” remarked: “This means that the participants in the Albano talks have enough confidence not only in Fellay, but [also] in the possibility of success of the entire exercise to allow his small team to continue the negotiations.” It is possible to infer from these facts (and the SSPX spokesman has since gone on the record saying as much) that the SSPX authorities do not object in principle to the substance of the doctrinal preamble, but are being extremely cautious about any possible ambiguities in the wording of it.
However, in early November the SSPX district superior for Britain released a statement in which he claimed that society leaders at Albano had found the doctrinal preamble “completely unacceptable.” In a newsletter to his flock that was posted on the UK SSPX website, Father Paul Morgan said, “[I]t was perhaps not surprising to learn that the proposed doctrinal basis for any canonical agreement in fact contained all those elements which the Society has consistently rejected, including acceptance of the New Mass and of Vatican II as expressed in the New Catechism. Indeed, the document itself conveys the impression that there is no crisis in the Church…Hence the stated consensus of those in attendance was that the doctrinal preamble was clearly unacceptable and that the time has certainly not come to pursue any practical agreement as long as the doctrinal issues remain outstanding.”
Father Morgan’s statement was quickly removed from the SSPX UK district’s website, and an official press release from the SSPX General House stated, “Following the meeting of the Superiors of the Seminaries and Districts of the Society of Saint Pius X in Albano (Italy), on October 7, 2011, several comments have appeared in the press on the response Bishop Bernard Fellay would give to the Roman proposals of September 14, 2011. It is recalled that only the General House of the Society of Saint Pius X is entitled to make public an official communiqué or authorized commentary on this matter.”
Worth a thousand words is the DICI photograph from the Albano meeting of 24 priests in cassock flanking three bishops wearing the pectoral cross. Conspicuously absent was the ever-controversial Bishop Richard Williamson. The blogosphere was rife with rumors that he wasn’t invited or refused to attend. But the truth is found in the DICI report, which describes the event as a convocation by the general superior of the “seminary rectors and district superiors” of the Society. As a result of his statements denying the Holocaust on Swedish television in 2009, Bishop Williamson was relieved of his position as rector of the SSPX seminary in La Reja and was expelled from Argentina by the government. He was ordered by his general superior to refrain from all public comments on historical matters and has never since been assigned to a position of authority in the Society.
Yet the irrepressible Bishop Williamson has been publishing an online newsletter. In a recent issue, he accused the Jewish people of being “the prime agents of deicide,” the killing of God, and he presented this inflammatory language as though it were theological truth, the perennial teaching of the Church. Never mind that the Catechism of Trent, published almost 550 years ago, teaches that the sins of baptized Christians “crucify the Son of God anew in their hearts (for He is in them)” and that the “crime in this case is greater in us than in the Jews” who urged the crucifixion of Jesus.
Jewish groups were swift to call on the Holy See to suspend talks with the SSPX. “Comments like these take us back decades to the dark days before there was a meaningful and mutually respectful dialogue between Jews and Roman Catholics,” said Chief Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, president of the Conference of European Rabbis, in a statement on October 19. “We call upon the Catholic Church to suspend negotiations with extremist Catholic tendencies until it is clear that these groups show a clear commitment to tackling anti-Semitism within their ranks.”
One incisive Catholic response to Bishop Williamson’s statements was written by Transalpine Redemptorist Father Michael Mary, F.SS.R., once a follower of Archbishop Lefebvre but now reconciled with Rome. “I was very sorry to read the article,” he wrote on his blog. “We are all further hurt or tarnished or tarred by it…. This is not the Gospel but a strategy under cover of Gospel…. The Williamson article is political. It is an aggressive strategy. Its objective is to sow trouble between the SSPX and the Church, and between the Church and the Jewish people. It works well…. Now is the time when the helpless SSPX superior general, who lacks jurisdiction and knows he lacks the necessary jurisdiction over his equal, should ask the Holy Father to defrock the illegitimate bishop, in the kindest possible way.”
No one can say that the SSPX authorities have caved in to Rome’s demands. Throughout the month of October they continued to protest the interreligious meeting in Assisi scheduled to mark the 25th anniversary of the first Assisi gathering; they view both events as blasphemous scandals that inevitably lead to indifferentism and religious relativism.
The Assisi gathering in 1986 had its share of critics within the Roman Curia as well, including then-Cardinal Ratzinger and Cardinal Francis Arinze, at the time president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue. Just before “Assisi II” in 2002, the latter wrote a book, Religions for Peace, in which he argued, “In their prayer for peace, it is best and safest if each religious tradition prays in a separate place according to its identity.” This time around the official program for the interreligious meeting in Assisi included no common prayer, but only two moments of “silence for individual reflection and prayer” and “a solemn renewal of the joint commitment to peace.” Nevertheless, local SSPX superiors planned Eucharistic Adoration, Stations of the Cross, and other pious practices “in reparation” for Assisi III.
The Society of St. Pius X deserves credit for their staunch commitment to preserving the Catholic priesthood by traditional seminary education—it is quintessentially a “priestly society”—and to missionary work, especially in Africa, where their founder had been an apostolic delegate. Both of these SSPX apostolates have thrived at a time when other Catholic religious communities have faced dwindling numbers or complete collapse. So it is understandable that the Society should interpret all its differences with Vatican II as matters of preserving “the faith of the Church.”
Rome, however, has repeatedly urged the SSPX authorities to practice “ecclesial charity.” Even if “error (for instance, a non-Catholic religion) has no rights,” absolutely speaking, human beings who happen to be in error still do. This is the “pastoral” consideration that the Vatican II documents on ecumenism and interreligious dialogue added to the unchanged “doctrinal” position that the Catholic Church possesses the fullness of revealed truth.
Many recent indications suggest a sea change going on within the Society of St. Pius X. They have responded respectfully and prayerfully to olive branches from the Holy See. They have engaged conscientiously in theological “dialogue.” The acrimony so often associated with their preaching and public statements in the past has meanwhile subsided appreciably (with a few unfortunate exceptions). Archbishop Lefebvre’s foundation was originally approved by Catholic Church authorities. If the SSPX can agree with the CDF on a mutually satisfactory wording for the substance of the dogmatic preamble, the Society will be an important step closer to having once again an ecclesiastical seal of approval on its unmistakable charism.