The CDF-SSPX Talks

A look at the issues and participants.

In late January of 2009, less than a week after Pope Benedict XVI lifted the excommunications on the four bishops who had been consecrated illicitly by Archbishop Lefèbvre in 1988, the German-speaking, leftist-liberal, “grassroots” Catholic association Kirchenvolksbegehren started to circulate a petition demanding “the unqualified acceptance of the decisions of the Second Vatican Council.”

Although the bishops of Bavaria harshly criticized the petition as “misleading,” the president of the German Bishops Conference, Cardinal Karl Lehmann, told representatives of the association that he had personally informed Pope Benedict about their signature campaign. Eventually 54,104 signatures were collected worldwide, and the apostolic nuncio in Germany tried repeatedly to forward them to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. On July 23 a press release from the Kirchenvolksbegehren announced that the CDF would not accept the petition. Meanwhile, 58,000 Catholics had signed a statement supporting the Holy Father’s conciliatory gesture.

In his contribution to a recently published anthology on Vatican-SSPX relations, Bishop Kurt Koch of Basel, Switzerland, points out that, despite its much touted commitment to “dialogue,” the post-conciliar Church has often refused to dialogue with the Priestly Fraternity of St. Pius X. He cites a demonstration of Catholics in Lucerne, Switzerland in March 2009, which ostensibly supported “diversity of opinion and dialogue” but was actually protesting the Pope’s decision to begin doctrinal discussions with the SSPX. Bishop Koch calls the protesters’ logic “difficult to follow” and wryly remarked that in his experience “dialogue” is seldom a two-way street: “for Traditionalists it practically means zero tolerance, whereas for progressives it means ‘anything goes.’”

The Swiss bishop continued: “Shouldn’t we learn from this historical experience and allow the Fraternity of St. Pius X also enough time to conduct the patient dialogue that Pope Benedict XVI has called for?… If the dialogue is to have any chance at all, we must take seriously the questions that they ask about the Council, without setting nonnegotiable preconditions.”

As early as the 1970s, Archbishop Lefèbvre had called for clarifications regarding the relationship between the traditional Magisterium of the Catholic Church and certain Vatican II documents. In 2000, the SSPX petitioned Rome to initiate a doctrinal dialogue about conciliar teaching. Now they have been granted this hearing.


This was assured by the promulgation of the motu proprio Ecclesiae Unitatem on July 2, 2009, restructuring the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei, which is responsible for “facilitating full ecclesial communion of priests, seminarians, religious communities or individuals until now linked in various ways to the Fraternity founded by Monseigneur Lefèbvre, who may wish to remain united to the [Pope] while preserving their spiritual and liturgical traditions.”

Doctrinal questions being the main obstacle now, the commission has been incorporated into the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Consequently, the prefect of the CDF, Cardinal William Levada, now heads Ecclesia Dei, assisted by the commission’s own secretary and officials.

Some Vatican-watchers speculated that this reorganization “demoted” Ecclesia Dei from a largely independent commission that reported directly to Pope Benedict to a “mere subcommittee” of a congregation. Traditionalists worried that the elimination of the office of vice president, which sent Bishop Camille Perl into retirement, might make the commission less responsive to their concerns about the availability of Mass celebrated in the Extraordinar Form of the Roman Rite.

But in an article dated July 11 and posted on the German website summorum-, Canonist Gero Weishaupt explained that the restructuring facilitates wider consultation with the CDF. He noted further that the competency of the Ecclesia Dei Commission was in no way restricted by the recent motu proprio: “Insofar as the dialogue [with the SSPX] essentially concerns doctrine, the work of Ecclesia Dei is subordinate to the CDF…. All other duties not pertaining to this dialogue will remain independently in the hands of the commission, while questions pertaining strictly to the liturgy could be addressed in collaboration with the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments. The recent appointment of a second secretary to that congregation points in this direction.”

Father John Zuhlsdorf, an American devotee of the Traditional Latin Mass who blogs regularly on liturgical matters, has reported that a routine inquiry sent in May from a Brazilian diocese to the Ecclesia Dei Commission concerning the correct implementation of the 2007 motu proprio Summorum Pontificum was answered in late July by the new secretary of the commission, Monsignor Guido Pozzo. The reply contained nothing new; in liturgical matters the commission continues under Cardinal Levada to work within the parameters previously set by the Pope. The only thing noteworthy about the prompt response was that it was issued during summer vacation in Rome, indicating that the new staff members of Ecclesia Dei have made a smooth transition.

As this article went to press, it was generally understood that the CDFSSPX doctrinal dialogue would begin in the autumn of 2009 and that it would be mostly in written form, with some oral discussion. Fraternity spokesmen anticipate that, as in ecumenical dialogues, the “talks” will begin with lesser points of disagreement and gradually move on to more difficult questions. They have expressed to the Roman authorities their wishes: to begin with the liturgy and their objections to the New Mass and the Novus Ordo rite of priestly ordination; to proceed then to the issues of ecumenism and religious liberty, and to end with the collegiality of bishops.

Each party to the dialogue has appointed a number of theologians to represent its position; their names were not announced immediately “so as to avoid all pressure” from public opinion. It is expected that the SSPX panel will include 43-year-old Father Matthias Gaudron, a graduate of Sacred Heart Seminary in Zaitzkofen who taught dogmatic theology there from 1991 to 2006 and also served for five years as rector. He has published four books on theology and one on Scripture as well as numerous scholarly articles; his Catechism of the Crisis in the Church is available in English. In February 2009 he was delegated by the German province of the Fraternity to initiate theological discussions with the German Bishops Conference, which rejected the overture outright and referred his superior to the Vatican.


In mid-August, an Argentinian Catholic website announced that Bishop Alfonso de Galarreta, current rector of the Fraternity’s seminary in Argentina, had been named president of the SSPX committee responsible for preparing dossiers to represent the Fraternity’s position during the theological talks. The appointment surprised those who consider Bishop Bernard Tissier de Mallerais—the biographer of Archbishop Lefèbvre and a theological “hard-liner”—to be “the intellectual” of the priestly society.

Despite his customary reserve, Bishop de Galaretta granted a lengthy interview last spring to the magazine Iesus Christus. (An English translation appeared in the July issue of The Angelus.)

Like his confreres, Bishop de Galaretta continues to maintain that the 1988 excommunications were “null and void” in the first place, which is why the Fraternity had asked that the decree of excommunication be “withdrawn” rather than “remitted.” Nevertheless he regards even the lifting of the canonical penalty in January 2009 as “an effective sign of good will.”

When asked about the characterization of the Holy Father as “a traditionalist pope,” Bishop de Galarreta replied, “Benedict XVI has taken care to deny this explicitly. He feels fully and theologically identified with the Second Vatican Council. His teaching and his governing of the Church fall squarely within the spirit of the Council…. However, there is at the same time a change of attitude regarding Tradition:…no longer one of persecution, but, to some extent, of acceptance. This…provides us with a foundation on which to tackle the talks with Rome. What’s good, what’s new about this Pope, is…his acceptance of the fact that the Council and the post-conciliar teaching must be in continuity with Tradition. This is one point of agreement and a starting point for the discussions.”

The bishop says that Pope Benedict XVI is well aware of and troubled by “the liberal, neo-modernist principles…that entered the Church, along with the vision of the ‘Church as communion,’ ‘Church as the people of God,’ and through collegiality, which limits the authority of the Pope and the bishops.” The introduction of such “anthropocentric, humanist and personalistic” ideas has “brought about a Copernican revolution” in the Church: “We have moved from a Christo-centric, God-centered conception of the Church to a sort of worship of man.”

Bishop de Galarreta regards the forthcoming doctrinal dialogue as an opportunity “to study Vatican II in light of Tradition.” “[This] means rejecting everything that is in contradiction to the traditional teaching and Magisterium [of the Church], and accepting that which is consistent and harmonious with what was believed always, everywhere and by all.” The Fraternity has no intention of “converting Rome,” he said; it is a matter of reconversion. “God is the one who can enlighten minds and move hearts to return to the Tradition of the Church. We would be arrogant if we were to wrap ourselves in our own new ideas and set ourselves up as judges of the doctrines of the Church. But it is quite the contrary: we intend to judge a series of novelties in the light of what was always believed and lived in the Church. Therefore it’s a question of fidelity, not of pride.”

Asked about the future of the SSPX, Bishop de Galarreta restated another point of agreement: no negotiations about a canonical status for the Priestly Fraternity of St. Pius X until doctrinal differences with Rome have been resolved, at least in the main principles. “In the best case, humanly speaking, we have several years of discussions ahead of us…. God only knows, and he will provide; but remember, for God nothing is impossible.”

The path to full unity may prove less arduous than many imagine. Father Walter Brandmüller, a Church historian and president of the Pontifical Committee for Historical Sciences, commented in June that, despite many controversies in the decades since Vatican II, the Church has been steadily assimilating the theological content of the conciliar documents. “Indeed, one can say that the post-conciliar papal Magisterium is the authentic interpretation or development of the council’s teachings.”

One pertinent example: the CDF declaration Dominus Iesus (2000), on the uniqueness of Christ the Savior and of the one true Church, was greeted with dismay by academic theologians and ecumenical enthusiasts. Yet it is merely a complete and unusually clear statement of a truth that the Catholic Church has always taught.

The CDF-SSPX doctrinal dialogue will examine carefully and clarify the theological and practical implications of such perennial Catholic principles.


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About Michael J. Miller 127 Articles
Michael J. Miller Michael J. Miller translated Priesthood and Diaconate by Gerhard Ludwig Müller for Ignatius Press and Eucharist and Divorce: A Change in Doctrine? for the Pontifical John Paul II Institute.