The Showdown in Zaitzkofen

More sparring between the SSPX and the German hierarchy.

On June 5 Cardinal William Levada, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, received Bishop Bernard Fellay, general superior of the Society of St. Pius X, to discuss a draft document clarifying the parameters for the doctrinal dialogue with the SSPX, which is the next step toward its return to full communion with the Catholic Church. Bishop Fellay commented to the press that the meeting was “very courteous,” describing the cardinal as “a gentleman.”

He also noted that Benedict XVI would soon incorporate the Ecclesia Dei Commission (which works with the SSPX and similar groups) into the CDF—a plan that the Pope had announced in March in a letter explaining his reasons for lifting the excommunication of the four SSPX bishops. Reports claimed that the reorganization would take place through a motu proprio to be published “before June 20,” or “by the end of the month,” or “in July” after Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyos turned 80 and stepped down as president of the commission.

With two dozen seminarians completing their formation this spring, the SSPX’s prospects were bright. But in Germany, where a resolutely “progressive” hierarchy views every action of the SSPX with suspicion, storm clouds were gathering. Bishop Gerhard Ludwig Müller of the Diocese of Regensburg told his presbyteral council that he would regard it as a “schismatic act” if the SSPX bishops ordained priests without express authorization from the Pope and the permission of the local ordinary.

“At the request of the Holy See,” Bishop Fellay avoided a confrontation over three diaconal ordinations planned by the SSPX for March 28 at Sacred Heart Seminary in Zaitzkofen, Germany, by transferring them to the Society’s headquarters in Écône, Switzerland.

Bishop Müller is considered a “neoconservative.” As a professor of dogmatic theology in the 1990s he wrote a book defending the traditional allmale priesthood. He belongs to the CDF and currently heads the Committee for Ecumenism of the German Bishops’ Conference. These highprofile positions and the presence of an SSPX seminary in his diocese have embroiled him in the controversies surrounding the Society.

As the conflict over diaconal ordinations brewed in March, he wrote to Rome for clarification, and on May 13 he met with SSPX representatives who asked to discuss the priestly ordinations planned for June. In a statement dated June 13, Father Stefan Frey, rector of Sacred Heart Seminary, declared that those ordinations would be performed “with the intention of serving the Catholic Church” and likened threats of sanctions to ticketing on-duty firemen for speeding. He cited the final canon in the 1983 Code of Canon Law: in the Church “the salvation of souls… must always be the supreme law.”

On June 16 Bishop Fellay told the Zenit news agency that the Vatican has “no fundamental problems” with the impending SSPX priestly ordinations. On June 17 the Vatican broke its silence on the matter with a communiqué from the press office reiterating what the Pope had said in his March 10 letter: “As long as the Society does not have a canonical status, its ministers do not exercise legitimate ministries in the Church,” so that the June ordinations would be illicit but valid.

In an interview on Domradio that same day, canonist Klaus Lüdicke explained that whereas the unauthorized ordination of a bishop incurs the automatic excommunication of all parties concerned, the penalty for ordaining priests without permission is considerably less: the celebrant is prohibited from conferring orders for one year and the recipient is suspended from the priesthood.

(Elsewhere, 13 priests were ordained on June 19 in Winona, Minnesota, for the United States province of the SSPX, but the local Catholic bishop took no canonical action.)

On June 21, Bishop Fellay told the Austrian newspaper Die Presse that only the German bishops saw the ordinations as “a provocation.” “In Rome there is sympathy for these ordinations,” he said, noting that he had written a letter to the Pope asking him to regard the ordinations “not as a rebellion but as a means of survival in difficult, complex circumstances.”

Bishop Müller responded with an article in Die Tagespost (Würzburg), reasserting the need to “abide by the sacramental and canonical order of the Church,” calling unauthorized ordinations a sin against Church unity, and dismissing suggestions of a secret agreement with the Pope as “completely groundless.” On June 23 his diocesan spokesman, Jakob Schötz, admitted that Müller, as a local ordinary, cannot take any direct disciplinary measures; since the SSPX has no canonical status, the Pope is to decide how to deal with the group. Schötz also said that there was no reply from the Vatican to Müller’s letter.

In the invitation to the ordination ceremony, Father Frey wrote that “in discussions [with Rome] thus far there has never been talk of a general ‘freeze’ on ordinations.” On June 27 Bishop Alfonso de Galarreta ordained three priests for the German Province of the Society of St. Pius X in Zaitzkofen. On July 8 the Holy Father published the motu proprio joining the Ecclesia Dei Commission to the CDF.


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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.