Impasse or Overture?

Vatican-SSPX talks come to a conclusion.

Two years of bi-monthly meetings between panels of theologians representing the Society of St. Pius X and the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith have quietly concluded or come screeching to a halt, depending on one’s perspective. Given the considerable potential for misunderstandings about the SSPX, it is worth repeating that from the outset both sides agreed that these were to be exclusively doctrinal discussions, not negotiations aimed at an eventual canonical solution to the irregular status of that Traditionalist priestly society.

Therefore an elaborate Italian-language article dated April 13, 2011, by the editor of the weblog Disputationes theologicae, summarized the SSPX position nicely (i.e., that some Vatican II teachings are “heretical or at least favens haeresim [promote heresy]”) but was ultimately off point, dwelling on the hostility and intransigence of certain hard-liners within the Society and yet speculating prematurely about a personal prelature for the SSPX.

In February, the general superior of the Society, Bishop Bernard Fellay, granted a wide-ranging interview while visiting the headquarters of the District of the United States. The first 13 questions concerned the doctrinal talks with Rome. His Excellency’s statement about their purpose was nuanced and enlightening: 

You have to distinguish between Rome’s purpose and ours. Rome indicated that there were doctrinal problems with the Society and that these problems would have to be cleared up before any canonical recognition, problems which obviously would come from our side, if it is a question of accepting the Council. For us…it is about showing Rome what the Church has always taught and the contradictions that separate this centuries-old teaching from what has been happening since the Council. 

In other words, Rome and the SSPX were at cross purposes upon entering their official dialogue, each claiming that the other had departed from Church Tradition, one by contradicting it in and after Vatican II, the other by not accepting the post-conciliar development of it. Procedurally, however, both sides agreed to take as their reference point the Magisterium of the Church prior to the Second Vatican Council. 

Bishop Fellay noted that even before the final CDF-SSPX meeting in late March, the doctrinal discussions were “reaching the end…. They have made the tour of the major questions raised by the Council.” Asked whether there had been a development in the thinking of the Roman dialogue partners after they studied the written presentations by the SSPX panelists, he replied, “I don’t think that we can say that.” 

Nevertheless, speaking in January at a Congress in Paris sponsored by the Traditionalist newspaper Courrier de Rome, Bishop Fellay had emphasized the radical nature of the doctrinal talks themselves and the “unprecedented progress” that they represented. Rome never debates its Magisterium. The fact that it agreed to discuss the Council shows that Vatican II teaching was not infallible. 

On February 5, 2011, Catholic Family News published an in-depth interview with Father Arnaud Rostand, district superior of the SSPX in the United States. Father Rostand recalled that at the time of Vatican I,

Cardinal Newman expressed his apprehension about the declaration of the Pontifical infallibility…. He had no doubt that the Pope is infallible in certain conditions, but was concerned of the consequences if it was misunderstood. Today, could we say that he was a prophet? The infallibility of the Pope is not correctly understood and is used as a tool to obtain full compliance and submission on matters that do not fall under the conditions of the Church’s infallibility. The Second Vatican Council was a pastoral one, and not a dogmatic one. The [conciliar] Popes themselves [i.e., John XXIII and Paul VI] made it clear that they did not have the intention to teach doctrine. There is no doubt that Vatican II was not an infallible teaching of the Church. It was [subsequently] made, however, a “super dogma,” a law that overruled all the past teaching.

Father Rostand quotes the remark by the progressive Cardinal Suenens of Mechelen-Brussels, Belgium, who participated in the Council and died in 1996, that Vatican II was “1789 [that is, the French Revolution] in the Church.” The SSPX priest goes on to say: “On the other hand, the [present] Pope holds that only the interpretation of the Council went wrong. He affirms that there is no rupture between the teaching of the Church before and after Vatican II. There is continuity because there must be continuity!” During the 40 years of its existence, however, the Society of St. Pius X has maintained that Vatican II brought into the Church a new teaching, a new “spirit,” leading to major errors about the Mass, collegiality, Church-state relations, marriage, and religious freedom with its inevitable result: ecumenism. 

Father Rostand recognizes that the Council is not solely to blame for “the de-Christianization of the world today.” “The roots of the crisis started well before Vatican II, and St. Pius X clearly saw the dangers many decades before the Council. Other factors cannot be excluded, such as the political actions of secularization, the separation of the Church and State, the immoral laws spread throughout the world and so on.”

Asked about the progress of the doctrinal talks with Rome, the district superior commented: “The Society of St. Pius X wants to expose the discrepancy of Vatican II, reaffirm the Traditional teaching of the Church, document everything we state, and respond to the objections. We want to ‘be a witness to the Faith.’ The Society does not want, however, to discuss for the sake of discussing.”

Even before the official CDF-SSPX talks began in 2009, the Society of St. Pius X was in dialogue with mainstream Catholic theologians. Father Charles Morerod, OP, currently dean of philosophy at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas (“the Angelicum”) in Rome, debated in Paris on February 26, 2008 with Father Grégoire Célier, SSPX, on the topic, “Revise and/or interpret certain passages from Vatican II documents?” As Father Claude Barthe reported, the two speakers arrived at a surprising convergence of views: the Dominican priest said that it seemed to him, first, that a reading of Vatican II “that was very strongly based on the state of the previous Magisterium” could perfectly well have a place in the Church, provided that the interpretation was not a summary rejection of the Council, and secondly, the non-acceptance of some points of Vatican II would be permissible, again assuming a certain “requisite respect” for the “official” teaching of the Council.  In his capacity as secretary of the International Theological Commission, Father Morerod subsequently served on the CDF panel during the doctrinal discussions with the SSPX.

Recent statements by the “Roman interlocutors” are scarce, not because they had no response to the SSPX positions challenging controversial Vatican II teachings, as polemicists have suggested, but because of the customary privacy surrounding any sensitive negotiations with the Holy See and a particular need to avoid media pressure in the present matter. Despite grumbling from some of his priests, Bishop Fellay managed to get the Society as a whole to tone down its critique of Rome for the duration of the doctrinal talks out of respect for Benedict XVI, who decided to grant the SSPX its long-awaited hearing. 

Fears that the SSPX would “sell out” to the authorities have proved groundless. Now that the discussions are over, the Society is back on the offensive, vehemently attacking plans for a third interreligious meeting at Assisi as a 25th-anniversary replay of an ecumenical disaster, and questioning the beatification of John Paul II.

Sarto Verlag, the SSPX publishing house in Germany, has reprinted a trilogy by the late Professor Johannes Dörmann of Münster, an expert in the Church’s missions who coincidentally studied under Joseph Ratzinger, which aims to prove that John Paul II subscribed to the theory that all mankind is automatically saved by the Incarnation and Redemption. Clovis, the French counterpart of Sarto, just released a study by Father Patrick de La Rocque, one of the SSPX panelists for the doctrinal discussions, written from the perspective of a “devil’s advocate,” arguing that John Paul II did not practice heroically the supernatural virtues of faith, hope, and charity because of his supposedly heterodox beliefs about salvation, his trust that mankind could build an earthly “civilization of love,” and his lack of charity to non-Catholics in withholding or distorting the truth in his ecumenical project. Then there has been the constant drumbeat (at various volume settings) against Assisi III and the beatification of the late Pope in the preaching and public statements of all four SSPX bishops in 2011.

Father Rostand’s interview with Catholic Family News was perhaps the most irenic public statement by an SSPX leader in this calendar year. He emphasized “the good fruits” that have resulted from the doctrinal discussions with Rome. He mentions the renewed interest in Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, who was a religious and a missionary priest, bishop and trusted apostolic delegate in West Africa, and a leader of the conservative fathers of the Second Vatican Council before founding the SSPX. Four books about him by “outsiders” (i.e., not Society members) have appeared in Europe, two in France and two in Italy, although the timing may have more to do with the 20th anniversary of Lefebvre’s death or the 40th of the Society’s founding.

Father Rostand believes that the confidential discussions have emboldened conservative Catholics in general to question Vatican II more openly. “On December 17, 2010, Bishop Schneider asked for a new Syllabus. In a conference in Rome, he denounced the wrong interpretations of Vatican II and proposed a list of propositions (a Syllabus) condemning ‘the errors of interpretation of Vatican II.’ So, the solution he recommends to correct the actual situation of the Church is the use of the extraordinary Magisterium of the Pope, a solemn infallible declaration of the Pope to clear up the Council.” Father Rostand does not say so, but during the Council Archbishop Lefebvre had proposed an even more elegant solution: let each conciliar document be issued in two forms, one written in “pastoral” language for the modern world, the other in precise, Thomistic theological language so as to provide an unambiguous, authoritative interpretation.

If the CDF-SSPX talks help to demythologize the protean “spirit of Vatican II,” they will have been well worth the effort. Bishop Fellay flatly declared, “If we had to do them over again, well, we would redo them.” He also remarked that the Holy Father, while meeting with his former students in Castel Gandolfo in August 2010, had said that he was “pleased with the talks.” They may indeed be a significant step toward the fulfillment of Archbishop Lefebvre’s hope: to conduct “the experiment of Tradition” under the authority of Rome.

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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.