The SSPX and the Electronic Grapevine

Document leaks fuel speculation about schism within the SSPX on the eve of major CDF meeting.

The SSPX and the Electronic Grapevine

A letter by the General Superior of the Society of St. Pius X clarifying his response to Rome’s Doctrinal Preamble was submitted to the Vatican on April 17 and now awaits review on May 16 by the “Wednesday meeting” of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The cardinals and bishops of the CDF will discuss Bishop Bernard Fellay’s response, and then deliver their individual opinions and reasons to the Holy Father. After studying the dossier, Benedict XVI will decide whether or not to reinstate the Society of St. Pius X canonically as an approved apostolic society of priests in the Catholic Church.  

Meanwhile, two private letters written in early April—one by the three other bishops of the SSPX and a response to it by Bishop Fellay and his two assistants—were anonymously posted on the Internet. This was the first major leak from within the Society since they began their theological discussions with the CDF in 2009. The contents of the letters should surprise no one who has heard or read public statements by the same writers:  Bishops Tissier de Mallerais, Galarreta and Williamson sternly warn that negotiations with Rome are a trap that will lead to assimilation and compromise with the principles of Tradition; Bishop Fellay urges his brother bishops to take a supernatural view of the Church and to consider the vast improvement in the Society’s situation vis-a-vis Rome in recent years. 

The manner in which these two documents were leaked is itself newsworthy. Almost immediately after the confidential letters were posted online, a friend notified the editor of the Traditional-Catholic blog Rorate Coeli, who downloaded a copy of each. He reported the leak on May 9, while refusing on principle to divulge the contents. On May 10 he described the formats of the respective documents: a PDF file created on April 19 of the actual letter signed and sent by Bishop Fellay on April 14, and a PDF file created on April 5 of an unsigned draft version of the earlier letter from the three bishops (eventually dated April 7), together with a .DOC file containing an English translation thereof. 

A curious exchange appeared on the same thread at the forum that leaked the letters. Someone wrote, “Father, you left traces…,” and the moderator replied, “How would you know?” Then the discussion vanished, and the .DOC file was replaced with a new version that conveniently omitted the name of the “author” (in this case the French-to-English translator) in the “document properties.” 

The editor at Rorate Coeli examined his copy of the original .DOC file and found that the document properties thereof had been automatically generated, using the first words in the document as the “title” and the registered owner of the software as the “author.” So they were able to deduce that the person responsible for leaking the letters was someone in England who had access to the computer used by “Fr. X.” (whose name they withheld). 

Rorate Coeli published an English translation of Bishop Fellay’s letter after a “competent source” assured them that it was authentic and gave “implicit consent…to make it public.” No such assurance or consent was received concerning the draft letter from the three bishops, and so the inquisitive reader must go elsewhere online to read it. 

The General House of the Society of St. Pius X in Menzingen issued the following Communiqué on May 11: 

An exchange of private letters between the Superior General of the Society of Saint Pius X and the three other bishops was circulated on the Internet on May 9, 2012. This behavior is reprehensible. The person who breached the confidentiality of this internal correspondence committed a serious sin.

Its publication will encourage those who are fomenting division; the Society of Saint Pius X asks its priests and lay faithful not to respond except by redoubling their prayers, so that only the will of God may be done, for the good of the Church and the salvation of souls.

Considering the heated point-counterpoint that has often followed published statements of prominent members of the Society or interviews with them, as recently as February of this year, it is remarkable that SSPX members internationally, with practically no exceptions, have followed the directive from Menzingen. 

A priest who belongs to the Society of St. Pius V (a sedevacantist group in the United States that broke off from the SSPX years ago) cynically and irreverently blogged about the two leaked letters, characterizing them as an internal power play. But the public statements of SSPX members in the past month have been largely optimistic. 

In the May 2012 issue of the Traditional Catholic online magazine Segnadou, an SSPX chaplain, Father Simoulin, recalls the requests of the Society that have been granted by the present Pope: general permission to celebrate the Traditional Latin Mass, the lifting of the excommunications of the four SSPX bishops, and the opportunity to hold theological discussions with the Vatican. He writes, “It is no exaggeration to say that Bishop Fellay has gained more than what Archbishop Lefebvre demanded…. Can we then be more demanding than Archbishop Lefebvre and Bishop Fellay?” 

Also in May, Father Niklaus Pfluger, SSPX, the First Assistant of the General Council, reexamined the Society’s watchword during the theological discussions: “No practical solution without doctrinal agreement.” Those discussions have been over for a year, and “the different positions regarding central questions of doctrine cannot be bridged.” 

Recent weeks have revealed that the Pope is so much interested in a canonical solution for the Society that he is ready to seal a deal even if the Society does not recognize the disputed texts of Vatican II and the New Mass

The Superior of the Benelux District of the Society, Father Benoît Wailliez, noted in a sermon on May 13 that “one of the grave problems in the Church” since Vatican II has been the notion that the Church is a democracy “where everyone says what he wants, thinks what he wants and opposes everything, even the Pope. Let us be careful that we don’t have that same situation in our Society! We are not a democracy…where everybody…can put things on the Internet, pressure people, leak confidential documents….” 

Bishop Fellay has no illusions about crafting an agreement that will please all members of the SSPX. Speaking last Friday to Catholic News Service, he said, “There are some discrepancies in the Society. I cannot exclude [i.e. rule out the possibility] that there might be a split.” There have always been strong centrifugal forces within the SSPX, precisely because it was an “alternative” to postconciliar Vatican policies for Traditionalists of all stripes. 

Centrifugal forces operated in the Second Vatican Council, too. Many Western European bishops and their theological experts lobbied in front of the microphones at news conferences for things they suspected they might not otherwise obtain in the Council Hall. The inebriating effects of publicity are nothing new. 

The question today for SSPX members who are ambivalent about reunion with Rome is: can they rely on an electronic grapevine, or do they want to be branches on the True Vine?

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!

Click here for more information on donating to CWR. Click here to sign up for our newsletter.

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.