The last official meeting between the Ecclesia Dei Commission and the authorities of the Society of Saint Pius X took place in the offices of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on June 13, 2012. Some sanguine observers expected the return of the Society to the fold in months if not weeks, while the more cynical opined that the meeting marked the end of the CDF-SSPX negotiations.
Since June there were major personnel changes at the CDF, and the Society held a General Chapter, defined the parameters for its future dealings with the Vatican, and neutralized an internal threat to its unity. Commentators weighed each of these developments in turn as though it could seal the ultimate fate of the Society. Often lost in the shuffle was the key fact that the SSPX authorities still had not responded officially to Rome’s latest offer—a fact helpfully pointed out in a communiqué from the Ecclesia Dei Commission issued in late October.
This article reviews these events and offers a perspective on the controversies surrounding them.
A new phase of discussions
At the June 13 meeting at the Vatican Cardinal William J. Levada, then-prefect of the CDF, presented to Bishop Bernard Fellay, superior general of the SSPX, a doctrinal declaration and a proposal for the canonical regularization of the Society. The first document was the most recent form of the “Doctrinal Preamble” drawn up by the Ecclesia Dei Commission in late 2011; the acceptance by the SSPX of the principles stated therein was to be the basis for any arrangement to reinstate the Society in the Church with a canonical mission. It was understood that the Society could modify the wording but not the substance of the Doctrinal Preamble; as of June 2012 the SSPX authorities were waiting for Rome’s response to a version that they had proposed.
They were surprised, therefore, that the “Doctrinal Declaration” presented for them to sign on June 13 was almost identical to the original Preamble. They were even more perplexed by the canonical proposal. When the Society began its doctrinal discussions with the CDF, it assured its members that there would be no talk about regularizing its canonical status until after the doctrinal issues were settled. Now Rome was asking for both at once. Bishop Fellay and his assistants prudently deferred their response to Rome’s proposal until they had the opportunity to consult widely with other SSPX members.
Less than three weeks later, on July 2, the Vatican announced the retirement of Cardinal Levada and the appointment of Bishop Gerhard Ludwig Müller of Regensburg as the new prefect of the CDF. Over the years the prelate had been on none-too-neighborly terms with the SSPX seminary in Zaitzkofen, within the territory of his diocese. One German theologian from the Society had proactively responded to early rumors of Müller’s appointment by circulating in several languages a few excerpts from the latter’s voluminous scholarly writings that purportedly demonstrated his heterodox views on fundamental dogmas, such as the Virgin Birth and the Real Presence. In several of the many interviews that he granted after his appointment, now-Archbishop Müller flatly stated that the doctrinal discussions with the SSPX were “over.”
So, militant traditionalists could repeat their battle cry, “Rome is ruled by Modernists!” while liberal ideologues could gloat that the thick-headed Lefebvrists had passed up their last opportunity to get with the times and join the post-conciliar Church. Except that both extreme views of the situation were false.
The excerpts, all taken out of context, were flimsy evidence of heretical teaching. As a university professor of dogmatic theology, Father Müller had forcefully defended unpopular Catholic doctrines (such as the ineligibility of women for Holy Orders), and as a bishop he had defunded a dissident group in his diocese. On the other hand, while the CDF had unilaterally declared that the “doctrinal discussion” phase was concluded after eight sessions with the SSPX panel, they had also started a new phase of negotiations by putting on the table a concrete proposal to recognize the Society canonically.
Pope Benedict XVI also filled the vice presidency of the Ecclesia Dei Commission, an office that had been vacant for some time, by appointing Archbishop Joseph Augustine DiNoia, OP, an expert on ecumenism and interreligious dialogue who was instrumental in preparing theologically correct liturgical texts for the new Anglican Ordinariates. Although Archbishop Müller is the ex-officio president of Ecclesia Dei, the Society of St. Pius X will now deal directly with Archbishop DiNoia. To make a clean sweep, the former secretary of the Commission, Msgr. Guido Pozzo, was appointed Almoner of His Holiness and Titular Archbishop of Bagnoregio in early November.
The General Chapter
The General Chapter of the SSPX, which is held every 12 years, is its supreme and extraordinary authority. Ordinarily the Society is governed by its superior general with the help of his council. In 2006, when he was re-elected head of the Society, Bishop Fellay announced that he would convene a special “midterm” chapter in 2012 to review current affairs. Bishop Fellay had had an audience with Benedict XVI on August 29, 2005, during the newly-elected pope’s first stay at Castel Gandolfo, and so he had every reason to expect that the third Christian millennium would be kinder to the Society than the second had been. He may not have foreseen the extent and rapidity of the favorable developments: the 2007 motu proprio liberalizing the use of the 1962 Roman Missal, the lifting of the excommunications of the four SSPX bishops, then a year and a half of theological discussions with the CDF. The 2012 General Chapter was so perfectly timed that it must have been providential.
The General Chapter is composed of the Superior General and his council, the bishops of the Society, former superiors general, district superiors, seminary rectors and superiors of autonomous houses, plus a certain number of senior priests who do not hold any of the previously mentioned offices. The 2012 General Chapter took place on July 9-14, following a five-day spiritual retreat by the participants. Bishop Richard Williamson was suspended from his office as a capitulary, because of “serious breaches of discipline.”
The most important business on the agenda concerned the Society’s relations with Rome. The Chapter formulated conditions to be set by the Society in any negotiations leading to canonical normalization. These conditions were subsequently made public in a declaration designed to reassure the members of the Society and the faithful who are under their pastoral care.
The sine qua non conditions are verbatim:
1. “The freedom to preserve, transmit and teach the sound doctrine of the constant Magisterium of the Church and of the unchangeable truth of divine Tradition; the freedom to prohibit, correct and reprove, even publicly, those who foment the errors or innovations of modernism, liberalism, the Second Vatican Council and their consequences;
2. The freedom to use the 1962 liturgy exclusively. To preserve the sacramental practice that we presently have (including: Holy Orders, Confirmation, Matrimony);
3. A guarantee of at least one bishop.”
Three “desirable conditions” were also mentioned: that the Society should have its own tribunals, that its houses should be independent from the local bishops, and that a Pontifical Commission for Tradition should be instituted “answering directly to the Pope, with the majority of its members and governing board in favor of Tradition.” A procedural rule was established: the superior general and his council will not exercise their own authority to accept a proposed canonical normalization, but will convoke an Extraordinary General Chapter that will have a deliberative vote, with an absolute majority required for acceptance.
Internal unity preserved
Bishop Williamson was excluded from the General Chapter in July 2012 and expelled from the Society of St. Pius X in October for precisely the same reasons. They are tactfully explained in a letter dated October 26 to the friends and benefactors of the Society by his former seminary classmate and former superior general, Father Franz Schmidberger.
It is the painful conclusion of a development that has lasted for years now and that dramatically came to a head in recent months. [Bishop Williamson’s] dislike of the Superior General and his council became refusal to acknowledge them, this refusal became resistance, and this resistance became open rebellion. He missed no opportunity to exasperate the leadership of the Society, divulged confidential documents and finally called publicly for the resignation of the Superior General…. On June 29, 1976, at his priestly ordination, Bishop Williamson, like any other candidate for Holy Orders, vowed “obedience and reverence” to Archbishop Lefebvre and his successors…. Since Bishop Williamson, despite much advice, fraternal admonishment and many warnings, was not ready to change his attitude, ultimately the only thing left was separation….
Catholics acquainted with the SSPX only through media coverage might mistakenly picture it as an association of Catholic clerics who prefer the old Latin Mass and cling to the pre-conciliar Magisterium of the Church. While that description is not inaccurate, it misses the heart of the matter: the priests and brothers of the Society of St. Pius X are traditional religious, members of a priestly society of apostolic life which is dedicated to the preservation of the Church’s doctrinal and liturgical tradition. Archbishop Lefebvre could be likened in some respects to St. Vincent de Paul, who made a long-term investment in the restoration of the Church in 17th-century France by founding the Congregation of the Mission to preach the Gospel in rural areas and to staff seminaries. Just as the mission of “the Vincentians” eventually spread to the New World, so too the foundation of Archbishop Lefebvre grew rapidly—during the post-conciliar “vocation shortage”—and today has hundreds of priests serving on all five continents.
The work of the Society of St. Pius X is a community apostolate, which is why vowed obedience is so important to them. The insubordination of Bishop Williamson struck at the root of the Society and posed an existential threat. Through a course of action approved by the 2012 General Chapter, the Superior General disciplined the offender and preserved unity within the Society.
An English-language statement by the Ecclesia Dei Commission dated October 27 announced that “in its most recent official communication (6 September 2012), the Priestly Fraternity of St. Pius X has indicated that additional time for reflection and study is needed on their part as they prepare their response to the Holy See’s latest initiatives.” The document speaks about “the current stage in the ongoing discussions between the Holy See and the Priestly Fraternity” and cites several “critical steps in this positive process of gradual integration” since 2007.
The Ecclesia Dei document is remarkably evenhanded and diplomatic: “After thirty years of separation, it is understandable that time is needed to absorb the significance of these recent developments.” This observation applies to both parties in the discussions. The document concludes, “As Our Holy Father Pope Benedict XVI seeks to foster and preserve the unity of the Church by realizing the long hoped-for reconciliation of the Priestly Fraternity of St. Pius X with the See of Peter…patience, serenity, perseverance, and trust are needed.”