The SSPX and the Rumor Mills

Recent news stories about the SSPX spoke of a "definitive break with Rome" despite plenty of evidence to the contrary

The late Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre (1905-1991) illicitly consecrated four bishops for the Society of Saint Pius X on June 30, 1988. To commemorate the twenty-fifth anniversary of that landmark event, the Society’s three remaining prelates, Bishop Bernard Fellay (General Superior), Bishop Bernard Tissier de Mallerais, and Bishop Alfonso de Galarreta, issued a Declaration dated June 27, 2013, in which they expressed “their filial gratitude towards their venerable founder who, after so many years spent serving the Church and the Sovereign Pontiff, so as to safeguard the Faith and the Catholic priesthood, did not hesitate to suffer the unjust accusation of disobedience.”

Shifting into high gear

If nothing else, the 1,400-word statement sent the rumor mills of Vatican watchers into high gear. Many news stories about the Declaration included the words “definitive break with Rome” in the headline and noted the obstinate and explicit refusal of the SSPX to accept the teachings of Vatican II, in particular concerning ecumenism, collegiality and the liturgical reform.

If such “news stories” had been student essays, the professor would have returned them marked “Incomplete”, because they ignored the second paragraph of the Declaration:

2. In his letter addressed to us before the consecrations [in 1988, Abp. Lefebvre] wrote, “I beseech you to remain attached to the See of Peter, to the Roman Church…, in the integral Catholic Faith, as expressed in the Professions of Faith, in the catechism of the Council of Trent, in conformity with that which you have been taught in the seminary. Remain faithful to the transmission of this Faith so that the reign of Our Lord may come.” […]

If the SSPX bishops publicly pledge to continue the work of their Founder and quote a letter written by him during crucial negotiations with Rome, urging them to “remain attached to the See of Peter”, the logical conclusion to be drawn is that the Society will continue to seek to resolve their irregular canonical status, provided that the terms do not require it to compromise its “integral Catholic Faith”. Yet some progressive Catholic journalists, incapable of following a simple syllogism, twisted the careful statement of purpose in paragraphs 1 and 2 into its opposite, as though the Declaration were a schismatic manifesto. That is not “reporting” but misrepresentation. One might just as reasonably headline a news story about Summorum Pontificum by Benedict XVI, which facilitated the celebration of the Traditional Latin Mass, “Divisive New Papal Document”, while ignoring the Accompanying Letter that explicitly states that the 2007 Motu Proprio is aimed at “an interior reconciliation in the heart of the Church”.

The anonymous German-speaking commentator at the Traditional Latin Mass website has a more clear-sighted and fairer view of the recent SSPX Declaration:

In an official position paper on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the episcopal consecrations that were celebrated without permission from Rome, the Society [of Saint Pius X] harshly critiques individual statements from the documents of the Second Vatican Council and their implementation in a manner contrary to Tradition. In doing so it essentially says nothing new about any passage—but its tone unmistakably goes back to the “Cold War” era before the beginning of the pontificate of Benedict XVI. If someone wanted to make a prognosis about what developments to expect, it would be exactly the opposite of what we—and many others—saw coming less than eighteen months ago.

The recent SSPX Declaration is a model of clarity and concision and well worth reading in its entirety, but, as the German commentator says, it contains nothing new in its statement of principles or in its critique of post-conciliar Catholicism Lite. But now that the doctrinal dialogues are over and Benedict XVI is secluded in retirement, the gloves are off again.

How rumors start

Those who follow political news in the United States (for instance) are familiar with a pattern of development: a slogan, a one-sided interpretation, or a figment of wishful thinking is repeated often enough in the media that it becomes accepted wisdom. In the next news cycle it then becomes the basis for even more extravagant speculations, demands, etc.

This mechanism explains how it is possible for “news” of a nonexistent definitive rupture to generate more “news” of an impending repetition of the crisis of 1988. An Italian Benedictine monk and popular conference speaker wrote an opinion piece for the newspaper La Repubblica in which he assures his readers that “As soon as possible—we know it from good sources—the Society of Saint Pius X will proceed to ordain new bishops.” Using hermeneutical tools developed in the historical-critical method of interpreting Sacred Scripture, scholars have reconstructed what was actually said in the conversation between the Reliable Source (RS) and the Unreliable Monk (UM):

UM: How about that SSPX statement! They missed their chance in 2012.

RS: Yes, their General Superior says that negotiations are back to where they were in the 1970’s.

UM: Do you think that they will consecrate new bishops and get themselves excommunicated all over again? Huh? Huh?!

RS: Well, Archbishop Lefebvre did not live forever, and neither will the bishops that he consecrated in 1988.

UC: So they will consecrate new illicit bishops?

RS: Barring a miracle, they probably will, someday.

Now, by the same alchemy that transmutes “intention to remain loyal to the Holy See” into “definitive break”, the adverbs “probably someday” were changed into “as soon as possible”.

Again, a modicum of research would have prevented yet another rumor. Bishop Fellay was interviewed for the May-June 2013 issue of The Angelus magazine. The interviewer alluded to the recent expulsion of Bishop Williamson from the Society and asked “Are three bishops sufficient to carry on the work of Tradition? Is it necessary to consecrate more bishops now?” Bishop Fellay replied: “Since 2009, in fact, we have been working with only three bishops. Obviously it is working…. So there is no urgency or extreme need to consecrate another bishop.”

Speaking of sources, the German weekly magazine Focus reported this month that somebody within the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith informed it that the Prefect thereof “has lost patience” with the SSPX and plans in the near future to declare most of its adherents to be not in communion with the Church. The historico-critical interpretation of this “report” is left to the reader as an exercise. (Hint: when the current CDF Prefect was Bishop of Regensburg, with an SSPX seminary within the boundaries of his diocese, progressive Catholic interviewers could always rely on him to throw a verbal punch at the Society.)

Curial reform

The German commentator at the website Summorum Pontificum said, for the sake of argument, “If someone wanted to make a prognosis about what developments to expect….” But business owners balk at investing in an uncertain economic environment, so why would anyone want to rush into print with predictions about Curial policy when the Church has a new Pope who had promised to reform the Curia? One could argue that the failure of the SSPX-CDF negotiations in 2012 was “collateral damage” of the intramural battles then going on within the Vatican bureaucracies.

Pope Francis, who was elected in Lent of 2013, will meet with an international advisory board of eight cardinals in early October. Until then at least the Holy Father is in “listen and learn” mode and is unlikely to change the course set by his predecessor. By the Feast of Christ the King (celebrated on the Traditional calendar on the last Sunday in October) he may have appointed new heads of many Congregations and Commissions.

Meanwhile, no Prefect can unilaterally declare a papal project “over” or dismiss the subordinate who is immediately in charge of it. The Vice President of the Ecclesia Dei Commission, Archbishop Augustine Di Noia, has been eloquently silent during the recent bout of orchestrated opinion in the media. As a long-time Curia official with a proven track record of constructive accomplishments in ecumenical matters, he exemplifies one of the core principles of RomanitÀ: “Those who know do not speak; those who speak do not know.”

The spin of the digitized rumor mills these days ought to be measured in revolutions per nanosecond. Nevertheless, to cite another enduring proverb: “The mills of Rome grind slowly, but they grind exceedingly fine.”

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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.