Pope Benedict XVI caught most observers by surprise in January when he lifted the excommunications of the bishops who lead the traditionalist Society of St. Pius X (SSPX). Unfortunately, Vatican officials were also caught by surprise when the appalling political views of one of the SSPX bishops quickly captured the headlines.
Instead of celebrating a major step toward restored communion (the Pope’s dramatic gesture was announced during the annual Week of Prayer for Christian Unity), the Vatican was soon backpedaling, trying to avoid an ugly public conflict, and hoping that when the furor finally subsided the net benefits of the Pope’s move would become apparent.
In a decree dated January 21, and released to the public on January 24, Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, the prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, announced that the excommunications imposed on July 1, 1988—after the four bishops were ordained by the late Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre in defiance of Vatican orders—were no longer in effect. The prelates affected by the Pope’s decision were Bishop Bernard Fellay, the superior of the SSPX, and Bishops Bernard Tissier de Mallerais, Richard Williamson, and Alfonso de Galarreta.
The Vatican decree indicated that Pope Benedict XVI lifted the excommunications in response to a plea from the SSPX bishops, and in an effort “to promote unity in the charity of the universal Church and to try to vanquish the scandal of division.” The decree acknowledged that further steps will be required to complete the reconciliation of the SSPX. “It is hoped that this step be followed by the prompt accomplishment of full communion with the Church of the entire Fraternity of Saint Pius X,” the document said.
Pope Benedict was moved by the “spiritual unease” conveyed by the SSPX bishops in a July 2008 letter, in which they renewed their plea for an end to the excommunications, the decree indicates. The Pope also took note of the traditionalist bishops’ determination to “deepen the necessary discussions with the Authority of the Holy See in the still open matters.”
In that July 2008 letter—which was addressed to Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyos, president of the Ecclesia Dei commission and chief Vatican representative in talks with the SSPX for the past several years—Bishop Fellay had expressed both the pain of separation and the loyalty of the SSPX to the Pope. “We firmly believe in the primacy of Peter and in its prerogatives, and this is the reason why the present situation makes us suffer all the more,” he wrote.
The SSPX response
In a press release welcoming the Vatican decree, the SSPX thanked Pope Benedict for his “courageous act.” The group welcomed the Pope’s call for further talks, saying that in these talks SSPX members could “explain the fundamental doctrinal reasons which it believes to be at the origin of the present difficulties of the Church.” The SSPX referred to “the unprecedented crisis which presently shakes the Catholic world,” and indicated that the crisis is caused by Catholics’ departure from traditional Church teachings.
In a letter to SSPX members announcing the decree, Bishop Fellay described the Pope’s decision to lift the excommunications as “unilateral, benevolent, and courageous.” The move should be welcomed with gratitude by all SSPX members, he said, noting that they will “no longer be unjustly stigmatized.”
Bishop Fellay expressed the certainty that the Pope’s decision was influenced by an extraordinary prayer campaign, undertaken by SSPX leaders last year. “Your response exceeded our expectations,” the traditionalist bishop said, reminding members that the group had presented the Pope with spiritual bouquet of over 1.7 million rosaries.
Bishop Fellay’s letter to the SSPX faithful also contained a clear indication that the anticipated talks with Vatican officials would include a heavy focus on the traditionalists’ concerns about the teachings of Vatican II. The SSPX superior recalled that in his June 2008 letter to Cardinal Castrillon Hoyos he had said:
We are ready to write the Creed with our own blood, to sign the anti-modernist oath, the profession of faith of Pius IV, we accept and make our own all the councils up to the Second Vatican Council about which we express some reservations [emphasis added].
The debate over the authority and interpretation of Vatican II documents is—or at least should have been—the most important result of the Pope’s move toward reconciliation with the traditionalist group. Since its break from the Holy See, the SSPX has adamantly maintained that the teachings of the council, particularly on religious liberty and ecumenism, have caused the deterioration of theological orthodoxy and Catholic practice. The traditionalist group sees itself as a movement for Catholic restoration.
In a Newsweek column commenting on the Pope’s move, George Weigel recalled that the SSPX founder, the late Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, sided with other conservative prelates in the Vatican II debates. Lefebvre’s opposition to post-conciliar trends was influenced by social and political as well as theological factors, Weigel argued: “Lefebvre was also a man formed by the bitter hatreds that defined the battle lines in French society and culture from the French Revolution to the Vichy regime.”
For Lefebvre and his followers (who were, not coincidentally, most numerous in France), the central moral struggle pitted Catholic tradition against the influence of modernism. At Vatican II, as they saw it, the Church made her peace with modernism. As Weigel put it: “Lefebvrists came to understand themselves as the beleaguered repository of authentic Catholicism—or, as the movement is wont to put it, the Tradition (always with a capital ‘T’).”
So the SSPX emerged as an organized reaction against Vatican II. As Archbishop Lefebvre grew older, he realized that his movement would need new leadership to survive in the long run, and he decided to ordain new bishops to carry on his work. The Vatican refused to give permission for the episcopal ordinations.
Years of negotiations
Archbishop Lefebvre persisted. In 1988 the future Pope Benedict was asked by his predecessor, John Paul II, to conduct the last-minute negotiations aimed at dissuading the French prelate from his plan to ordain bishops without the consent of the Holy See: an act that would bring the penalty of excommunication. Cardinal Ratzinger was initially successful; he struck an agreement with Archbishop Lefebvre, averting a showdown. But then the traditionalist leader abruptly changed his mind, abandoned the agreement, ordained the four bishops, and incurred the canonical penalty of excommunication for himself and the men he ordained.
As the Jubilee Year 2000 approached, Pope John Paul II made a concerted effort to achieve reconciliation of the SSPX, and appointed Colombian Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyos—then prefect of the Congregation for Clergy, now president of the Ecclesia Dei commission— to conduct a series of talks with Bishop Bernard Fellay, who was now the SSPX superior. The discussions produced some optimism but few concrete results. When Pope Benedict XVI was elected in 2005 the negotiations took on a new sense of urgency; traditionalist leaders probably recognized that they were unlikely to find a Pontiff more sympathetic to their desire for a renewed appreciation of enduring Catholic traditions.
As the talks continued, the Vatican made it clear that the SSPX must submit to the authority of the Holy See and assent to the validity of the Second Vatican Council, although there would be some latitude for variances in interpretation of conciliar teachings. SSPX leaders said in turn that before they would consider reconciling with the Holy See, two conditions must be met: Every Catholic priest must be ensured the right to celebrate the traditional Latin Mass, and the excommunications must be lifted. With the publication of Summorum Pontificum in 2007, Pope Benedict fulfilled the first condition; lifting the excommunication satisfied the other SSPX demand. So now the only major question left unresolved was the willingness of the SSPX to accept the legitimate authority of the post-conciliar Church.
Bishop Williamson: The center of the storm
However, at a time when the Catholic world should have been concentrating on these important talks about the authority of Vatican II, the focus of public attention was abruptly diverted. Within hours after the Vatican announcement that the excommunications had been lifted, the media had fastened upon public statements made by Bishop Richard Williamson, one of the SSPX leaders. In a recent appearance on Swedish television, Bishop Williamson had questioned the seriousness of the Holocaust.
Jewish leaders were understandably alarmed by the bishop’s views. “We have no intention of interfering in the internal workings of the Catholic Church,” said the Israeli ambassador to the Holy See. “However, the eagerness to bring a Holocaust denier back into the Church will cast a shadow on relations between Jews and the Catholic Church.” Shimon Samuels of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Paris added: “The Pope must now make very, very clear that he condemns Holocaust denial.”
Israeli government spokesman said that Bishop Williamson’s offensive remarks should not endanger plans for a papal visit to the Holy Land in May. But even by making those statements they implicitly acknowledged that the fallout from the papal move was severe. The Chief Rabbinate of Israel angrily announced that it would not participate in a scheduled March meeting with the Holy See’s Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews. Calling for “a public apology and recanting,” director- general Oded Weiner said that the Chief Rabbinate was breaking off talks with the Vatican.
Media reports seized on Williamson’s comments, nearly to the exclusion of all other stories about the Vatican’s efforts to reconcile the SSPX. “Pope rehabilitates Holocaust denier” ran a Reuters headline. To a careless reader the media coverage might have conveyed the suggestion that the Bishop Williamson’s extreme views on the Holocaust had been the reason for his excommunication; the Pope’s action, then, seemed to signal a willingness to countenance such views.
In fact, Vatican officials seem to have been caught completely off guard by Bishop Williamson’s statements. Their failure to anticipate a looming public relations debacle is difficult to understand, since Bishop Williamson has made no secret of his views on the Holocaust. The SSPX leader also has a long history of making outlandish public statements—he once charged that the film The Sound of Music has pornographic overtones—and alert Vatican aides should have anticipated that his views would now draw public scrutiny.
As the controversy raged, the Vatican’s creaky public-relations machinery finally sputtered into action, with several officials insisting that the Pontiff was unaware of Williamson’s views and certainly would neither share nor condone them. The Pope himself reaffirmed his “full and indisputable solidarity” with the Jewish people in mourning the Holocaust during his regular weekly public audience on January 28. Although the Pontiff did not explicitly mention the fierce controversy over Williamson’s remarks, the intent of the Pope’s remarks was clear as he pointed to commemorations of the genocidal Nazi drive as “an admonition against oblivion, negation, and reductionism.” The Vatican’s new YouTube channel drove home the message of solidarity, offering short videos of the Pope’s visit to Auschwitz and his talk at a synagogue in Cologne.
Bishop Bernard Fellay, the SSPX superior, issued a statement denouncing Bishop Williamson’s comments. “Deeply pained to see how much damage” these comments have done to the Society’s mission, Bishop Fellay forbade Bishop Williamson to make comments on political and historical questions and added, “We ask forgiveness of the Sovereign Pontiff and of all people of good will for the dramatic consequences of such an act.” Bishop Williamson himself sent a written apology to Cardinal Castrillon Hoyos, expressing “my sincere regrets for having caused to yourself and to the Holy Father so much unnecessary distress and problems.”
Slowly, gradually, these statements had their desired effects. Oded Wiener of the Israeli Chief Rabbinate said that the public affirmation from Pope Benedict in particular had eased tensions, and the Israeli representatives might decide to attend the March meeting after all. The Pope’s reassurances “were very important for us,” he said.
Back on track?
During his public audience on January 28 the Holy Father did speak about the tensions that remain between the SSPX and the Holy See. He explained that he lifted the excommunications as an “act of paternal benevolence” in response to the traditionalists’ fervent petitions. “I hope that this gesture of mine will be followed by a prompt commitment on their part to take the further steps necessary to achieve full communion with the Church,” he said, “thus showing true faithfulness to, and true recognition of, the magisterium and authority of the Pope and of Vatican Council II.”
There it was again: the key issue in the SSPX deliberations, which had almost been lost from sight during the Williamson imbroglio. Pope Benedict was not only hoping to allay the fears of Jewish observers but also to push the conversation back onto the proper track.
What are the prospects for a successful resolution of those talks, and a complete restoration of the SSPX—who remained suspended from ministry— into the canonical structure of the Church? Negotiations between the traditionalist group and the Vatican have been continuing for several years now. Bishop Fellay met with Pope Benedict in September 2005, and expressed his desire for reconciliation. In the three years since that meeting, it is safe to assume that Vatican officials sought assurances that the SSPX would meet the minimal conditions of the Holy See, and acknowledge the proper authority of Vatican II. Pope Benedict’s decision to lift the excommunications suggests that those assurances were received; the Pontiff’s public gesture is evidence that private talks with the SSPX were already well advanced.
Cardinal Castrillon Hoyos, the Vatican official primarily responsible for those talks, told reporters in January that in private negotiations Bishop Fellay has recognized the authority of the Second Vatican Council. The president of the Ecclesia Dei commission said that that “only a few difficulties remain” to be settled before the SSPX can be fully reconciled. As the month of January drew to a close, sources within the SSPX were speaking with renewed optimism, saying that the last steps toward reconciliation could be taken much faster than most observers would expect.
If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!