It is almost a year now since the conclusion of the theological talks between the Society of St. Pius X and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. More than five months have passed since the General Superior of that priestly society received from the Vatican dicastery a “Doctrinal Preamble” which, the CDF maintains, must be “the fundamental basis for achieving full reconciliation with the Apostolic See.” After studying the document carefully and consulting with local SSPX superiors, Bishop Bernard Fellay sent a response to Rome on December 1. No doubt it recommended revisions to the wording of the Preamble, a process that the CDF had expressly anticipated and allowed. The CDF then wrote requesting clarification of the response, which the SSPX promptly supplied.
Despite breathless announcements since then by certain Italian Vatican watchers—who had read none of the documents they claimed to be reporting on—spokesmen for the SSPX insist that there was no “second response” (which would imply a shift in position) and no definitive rejection of the Doctrinal Preamble.
In a departure from the strict confidentiality that had previously cloaked the CDF-SSPX negotiations, on December 2, 2011 the Italian edition of L’Osservatore Romano printed a study about the magisterial value of Vatican II written by Msgr. Fernando Ocariz of Opus Dei, one of the experts who had represented the Holy See during the CDF-SSPX theological discussions. Of course, the role of the council was and remains “A Crucial Question,” as Father Jean-Michel Gleize, one of the SSPX panelists, called it in the 11,000-word reply to Msgr. Ocariz that he published in the Courrier de Rome.
These salvos were unofficial statements, explanations by theologians of positions that had long since been general knowledge, and they neither quoted the Doctrinal Preamble nor referred to it directly. Nevertheless, some who were sincerely hoping for reconciliation felt uneasy about the prospect of negotiations continuing in the red glare of publicity, for the same reason that one would rather not watch fireworks set off near a construction site.
In late January the CDF held a routine four-day Plenary Assembly at the Vatican. Pope Benedict XVI addressed the congregation on January 27. He began by expressing his “appreciation of the service you carry out for the Church and, in a special way, for the Successor of Peter in his ministry of strengthening the brethren in the faith (cf. Luke 22:32).” He thanked the CDF for collaborating in preparations for the Year of Faith that starts on October 11. The Holy Father emphasized, “We are facing a profound crisis of faith, a loss of the religious sense that constitutes the greatest challenge to the Church today,” and he related this to the theme of Christian unity the Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity had ended two days earlier). After remarks on several other subjects, the Pope concluded, “Unity is therefore not only the fruit of faith but also a means and, as it were, a presupposition for proclaiming the faith ever more credibly to those who do not yet know the Savior.”
In early February Bishop Fellay was in the United States to ordain a young priest for the Society. On February 2 he gave an important feast-day sermon in English at the SSPX seminary in Winona, Minnesota. He began by noting, “The Society of St. Pius X [was] founded by the Church and in the Church, and we say [that] this Society continues to exist,” despite the claim that it was suppressed in 1976 by canonically dubious procedures. The General Superior of the SSPX went on to describe their present position:
We are not an independent group. Even if we are fighting with Rome, we are still, so to say, with Rome…. We continue to say, we are Catholic. We want to stay Catholic. Many times I say to Rome, “You try to kick us out. And we see it would be much easier for us to be out. We would have many more advantages. You would treat us much better!” Look at the Protestants, how they open the churches to them. To us, they close them….
Alluding to post-conciliar experimentation in the “spirit of Vatican II”, Bishop Fellay observed,
We don’t … imagine a Catholic Church which is just the fruit of our imagination but is no longer the real one. And with the real one we have problems. That’s what makes it even more difficult…. [Nevertheless] that does not allow us … to shut the door.
While the SSPX acknowledges the Creed, the Church, the pope, and the hierarchy, “practically, at many levels, we have to say no.” When accused of having “Protestant” tendencies and of setting their reasoning above the current Magisterium, the Society retorts that the Roman authorities with their disputed teachings are “Modernists” who “pretend” that it is possible to change the timeless truths taught by the Church.
As for the “hermeneutic of continuity,” Fellay emphasized that Rome and the SSPX agree in principle that “if there is something ambiguous in the Council, you must understand it as the Church has always taught throughout the ages.” For the SSPX, though, the trouble with the Doctrinal Preamble is the way in which the text applies this principle to specific issues. “The two examples that they give to us are ecumenism and religious liberty, as they are described in the new Catechism of the Catholic Church, which are exactly the points for which we reproach the Council.” In other words, the agreement in principle has brought the two sides no closer together substantially than when the CDF-SSPX talks were just beginning, and signing anything would be premature.
Looking to the future, Bishop Fellay expressed faith in God’s providence. Humanly speaking, he noted that “in 10 years things will look different because the generation of the Council will be gone and the next generation does not have this link with the Council.”
Father Franz Schmidberger, SSPX, Superior of the District of Germany, who had personally delivered the Society’s response to the CDF on December 1, granted two lengthy interviews to the German-language press in February 2012. A few highlights from those interviews follow.
On February 13 Die Welt published Father Schmidberger’s interview with Paul Badde. The veteran Catholic journalist asked whether the Society’s founder, Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, would not already have reached an agreement with the present Pope, who has made so many conciliatory gestures. Father Schmidberger replied:
Things are not that easy. During the visitation of our work by Cardinal Gagnon in 1987, Archbishop Lefebvre wrote the cardinal a letter and proposed a canonical structure for the Fraternity. At the same time, he made it very clear that current ecumenism under the banner of religious relativism, religious liberty, the fruit of which is today’s secularism, and collegiality, that completely paralyzes the life of the Church, are unacceptable to us. Alas, even today there are still differences with the reigning Pope when it comes to these issues.
Recalling the uproar in liberal Catholic circles when the Pope lifted the excommunications of the four SSPX bishops in January 2009, Badde asked, “What does the Society offer for reconciliation with the Church?” The answer:
When it is canonically recognized, the Society will bring a large religious potential and great religious strength into the interior of the Church. I see few ecclesiastical communities that have taken up the cause of complete unity between dogmatic theology, spirituality, and liturgy, and that live by it…. Furthermore, the Fraternity will be a great support for the Pope in conquering the latent schism that is present everywhere in Europe due to centrifugal forces.
The journalist pressed the point: since the Pope has risked so much on its behalf, what is the SSPX willing to sacrifice? Father Schmidberger admitted, “We give up our relative freedom that we have used so far for the worldwide expansion of our work and we put it into the hands of the Pope. Anyway, this is not about some diplomatic agreement, but about the welfare of the Church and the salvation of souls.”
On February 14, kath.net published an interview with the same subject conducted by Arnim Schwibach, a professor of philosophy and Vatican correspondent for that Austrian Catholic online news service.
Schwibach quoted from the recent sermon by Bishop Fellay and asked, “Given an agreement in principle, how can the two sides reach contradictory conclusions?” Father Schmidberger retorted: “This happens when they want more than anything in the world, with their will rather than with their reason, to view the statements of Vatican II as being in complete harmony with the preceding Magisterium, even at the cost of contradictions. And for this they invented a magic word: ‘hermeneutic of continuity’.” Father Schmidberger listed many examples of these “contradictions”: In Lumen Gentium, the Church is called the sacrament of the unity of mankind (an utterly novel expression, in his opinion); Muslims are said to pray to the same God as the Catholics; the Church Christ founded now “subsists” in the Catholic Church rather than being identical to it, etc.
After a second rather technical question about the relation between Tradition and the Magisterium, the SSPX priest made a point in earthy language: “The previous Magisterium must be the criterion for the statements of the Second Vatican Council. The contrary approach, which takes Vatican II as the criterion for earlier Magisterial statements, is putting the cart before the horse and leads to contradiction and confusion.” As St. Vincent of Lerins famously wrote, the Catholic faith is “what has been believed everywhere, always and by everyone.”
Asked, “What does it mean for you to defend the truth of the faith ‘with and under the authority of Peter’?”, Father Schmidberger answered,
The current Pope is bound by the dogmatic declarations of his predecessors just like any other Catholic. [Therefore it means] to stand up for Church teaching under the Magisterium of eternal Rome, to defend and promote the institutions of Jesus Christ—his priesthood, his Sacrifice, the sacraments…and also to pray for the Pope in his difficult ministry and to revere him as the Father of Christendom.
The SSPX District Superior bristled at the suggestion that there was any comparison between the “heretical statements and schismatic tendencies” presently on display in the Austrian Catholic Church and the Society’s refusal to obey Rome. “In its more than 40-year history the Society of St. Pius X never incurred that guilt,” he said. “Certainly we refused to accept the new liturgy that they were trying to impose on us tyrannically. And now Pope Benedict XVI explicitly declares that the old liturgy had never been forbidden! Where then is the disobedience?”
The day after Schwibach’s interview was posted, kath.net published a response by Father Martin Lugmayr of the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter, which celebrates the traditional Latin Mass but is in full communion with Rome. Point by point, Father Lugmayr refutes Father Schmidberger’s objections to Vatican II teaching, demonstrating that they are based on an oversimplification of what the documents actually say.
A young blogger affiliated with the SSPX then submitted a heated response to Father Lugmayr’s article, but the editor of kath.net refused to publish it because the same blogger had recently posted at his own website comments belittling concern about the Holocaust on the part of people who ignore the large-scale slaughter of the unborn. This unfortunate development is a sobering reminder about the incendiary rhetoric used by some elements in the SSPX. Father Schmidberger, who ministers to Germans, frankly stated that any discussion about a canonical structure for the Society will include an evaluation of Bishop Richard Williamson, whose controversial statements about the Holocaust made headlines worldwide in 2009.
More generally, given the tendency for SSPX public statements to become the occasion for online verbal jousting, the Society might do well to avoid publicity as it continues its sensitive negotiations with the CDF. The perspective that matters is the one evoked by Father Schmidberger at the conclusion of his interview with Die Welt:
The Society has experienced many crises and has emerged from them all more strengthened than weakened. Furthermore, together with all its members and houses, it consecrated and dedicated itself to the Mother of God on December 8, 1984. I scarcely believe that God will let one of His Mother’s works slip away.
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!