Talks with traditionalist group hits end of road
Traditionalist society
Bishop Bernard Fellay, superior of the Society of St. Pius X, before a 2009 ordination ceremony in Ecône, Switzerland. CNS photo

A three-year-long bid to reconcile the Holy See and breakaway Catholic traditionalists appears to have ground to a halt after Pope Benedict XVI declared a response by the Priestly Society of Pius X (SSPX) to be “insufficient.” Talks in Rome with the “Lefebvrites” — named after their founder, Archbishop Michel Lefebvre — were launched three years ago after Pope Benedict XVI lifted the excommunications of four traditionalist bishops ordained in 1988 in defiance of Pope John Paul II. The excommunications were lifted in order to enable negotiations with Lefebvrists to begin, negotiations that the pope hoped would lead the SSPX back into communion. 

But if the excommunication remissions enabled talks to start, they did not legitimize the SPPX, which lost its canonical status in May 1975 after Archbishop Lefebvre’s fulminations against what the “modernist errors” of the Second Vatican Council — notably in respect of relations with other Christian Churches and religious freedom. At its heart, the dispute was and remains over the authority of the magisterium. Popes since Paul VI have refused to grant SSPX bishops the right to dissent from core conciliar teachings on Judaism and other faiths and on the Church’s relation with the state. 

“Until the doctrinal questions are clarified, the Society has no canonical status in the Church,” the pope wrote in 2009, “and its ministers — even though they have been freed of the ecclesiastical penalty — do not legitimately exercise any ministry in the Church.” 

Paying the price

Although numbers have been reduced by many members splitting off to found new associations in communion with Rome — the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter, the Institute of the Good Shepherd and the Sons of the Most Holy Redeemer are three examples — the SPPX remains a substantial body. The Society has (as of 2009) more than 500 priests in 31 countries, the largest proportion of whom are in France, as well as six seminaries, the main one of which is in Ecône, Switzerland. 

When talks restarted in 2009, there were suggestions that the SSPX could be granted canonical status similar to Opus Dei’s personal prelature — a kind of extra-territorial diocese. Since then, the Ordinariate — which offers a similar model for ex-Anglicans wishing to preserve their patrimony — has been mooted.  

Few doubt Pope Benedict’s desire to move the SSPX in that direction as part of his wider mission to heal the rifts within the Christian Church and to overcome divisions over the legacy of the Second Vatican Council. His 2007 decision to authorize wider use of the old rite Mass, a signature issue for the traditionalists, was crucial in building the trust that enabled the talks to begin. And the pope himself has paid the price for reaching out to the SSPX. When it was revealed that one of the de-excommunicated bishops, Richard Williamson, was an anti-Semitic fanatic, Pope Benedict faced weeks of fierce criticism. 

Yet the pope has not wanted the SSPX back in the fold at any price. The SSPX had to accept the teaching authority of Vatican II, as well as the Magisterium’s authority to interpret the Council. Almost everything else was negotiable. 

Sticking point

But given that the SSPX’s opposition to Vatican II is its reason for existing, this meant that the talks needed the traditionalists, not Rome, to modify their position. The SSPX’s article of faith that the Church at Vatican II abandoned its moorings and fell into modernist errors is far apart from Pope Benedict’s insistence on a “hermeneutic of continuity.” While acknowledging that some have wrongly interpreted Vatican II, the pope has insisted the Council was part of the Church’s ongoing tradition and represented no rupture. 

On this sticking point there has been no advance. Vatican delegates in the Ecclesia Dei Commission, the Vatican body responsible for the talks, have shown mounting impatience at the traditionalists’ intransigence, despite an agenda that has given plenty of time for building common ground. Talks on the four core concerns of the traditionalists — liturgy, ecclesiology (including ecumenism and interfaith dialogue), religious freedom and the magisterium of the Second Vatican Council — have been preceded by each side preparing papers and responses before getting together for discussions of several hours in Rome.

Patience run out

The language of the Vatican’s March 16 communiqué suggests that Rome’s patience has now run out. At a meeting in September last year Cardinal William Levada, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) and president of Ecclesia Dei, handed Bishop Fellay a “Doctrinal Preamble” followed by a “Preliminary Note,” which set out the terms of a reconciliation with the Apostolic See.  

Although it was not made public, the Vatican says it “spelled out certain doctrinal principles and criteria for interpreting Catholic doctrine that are necessary to ensure fidelity to the Church’s Magisterium and sentire cum ecclesia (thinking with the Church).” The Vatican’s spokesman, Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, made clear at the time that if the SSPX could accept the document they would be granted canonical status. 

The SSPX’s response to the Preamble was delivered in January, and reviewed by the CDF and Pope Benedict. Their verdict: Bishop Fellay’s response was “not sufficient to overcome the doctrinal problems that are at the basis of the rift,” and that “out of a concern for avoiding an ecclesial rupture with painful and incalculable consequences, the superior general of the Society of St. Pius X was invited to be so kind as to clarify his position.” Explaining the communiqué, Father Lombardi said the group had been given until April 15 to respond, and that this was at the end of a very long process. “I don’t know what else can be done,” he told journalists. 

A Feb. 2 homily given by Bishop Fellay at the Society’s Winona, Minn., seminary described how the traditionalists had to persist in returning to Rome “to beg that they may convert; that they may change and come back to what makes the Church.” But he also appeared to accept that the talks are fruitless. Although the canonical structure on offer has “fulfilled all our requirements … the problem remains at the other level — the level of doctrine,” he said, adding that the Vatican insisted that the Council had to be interpreted as coherent with the traditional teaching of the Church and had given the Catechism’s understanding of religious liberty and ecumenism as examples. Yet these “are exactly the points for which we reproach the Council,” he explained. The head of the SSPX ended his homily by looking to a future in which a new generation decides to put aside Vatican II and returns to “the real thing, to Tradition.” But he also seemed to admit that was unlikely. “The progressives,” he said, “will continue and we will continue to fight them.” 

Austen Ivereigh writes from England.