A breakaway group of traditionalist Catholics may be on the verge of returning into full communion with Rome, bringing a 24-year rift to an end and fulfilling a key goal of Benedict XVI’s pontificate.
Vatican spokesman Fr. Federico Lombardi told journalists April 18 that the Society of St. Pius X had taken an encouraging “step forward” by clarifying its response to a “doctrinal preamble,” a Vatican document that has become the basis of any reconciliation.
|Bishop Bernard Fellay of Switzerland delivers a sermon during an ordination Mass.
The society insisted “a step and not a conclusion” had been reached and stressed its clarifications, submitted by the society’s superior general, Bishop Bernard Fellay, must now be examined by the Vatican and the Pope.
“We are all praying and hoping for reconciliation,” said Toni Brandi, a worshiper at an SSPX church in Rome. “Most members want it and we don’t think Fellay will make any compromises.”
Some Catholics and members of the society remain pessimistic, however, seeing the society in particular as unable to make necessary sacrifices, and internally split. They also argue that such hopes for reconciliation have emerged before, only to be dashed at the last minute.
The society, founded by French Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre in 1969, broke away from Rome over the Second Vatican Council reforms of the 1960s. The council helped foster warmer relations with members of other faiths and Christian denominations, and allowed celebration of the Mass in languages other than Latin.
But the SSPX believes that the council’s declarations on religious freedom, ecumenism, interreligious dialogue and the liturgy, have represented a surrender to modernity that has wreaked havoc on the faithful. The consequence, they argue, has been a crisis of faith that has led to a collapse in vocations and Church attendance in the West, and the adoption of modern, irreverent liturgical practices.
Pope Benedict, who was present at the council as an adviser, has said he will not accept reconciliation if the society continues to reject some of the council's declarations on these issues.
Based in Menzingen, Switzerland, the society is predominantly made up of French, American and German priests and laity. It has six seminaries, three universities and 70 primary and secondary schools worldwide. It also boasts an increasing number of priests (currently more than 550) as well as 200 seminarians.
Benedict XVI, who favors both Catholic tradition and the council reforms, and believes the council did not represent a “rupture” with tradition, has taken various steps to bring the SSPX back into the fold. These have included freeing up the Old Latin Mass exclusively in use prior to the council, lifting the excommunications on four SSPX bishops ordained without Pope John Paul II’s approval in 1988, and initiating talks with the society in 2009.
Those talks culminated in the “doctrinal preamble” which was initially rejected by the society. It issued an initial response to the document that was deemed “insufficient” by the Vatican earlier this year. The Vatican then asked the SSPX to clarify some points, the contents of which were submitted to the Holy See April 17.
Should an agreement be reached in the coming weeks, the Vatican is likely to give the society its own “personal prelature” — a canonical structure in which a prelate leads a non-territorial diocese. Currently, Opus Dei is the only personal prelature in the Church.
“It’s important for the society that it is given its own structure or congregation that reports directly to the Pope,” said Brandi. “It should not be answerable to a body such as the Italian bishops’ conference whose members are usually modernist and progressive.”
But even if reconciliation does take place and a suitable structure is found, some believe further problems will then emerge.
Roger McCaffrey, an American publisher who once produced Latin Mass Magazine, praised Fellay’s conduct during what has been a “very difficult situation.” But he believes any reunion would amount to hitting a “reset button on the entire post-Conciliar era,” causing modernists in the Church to scatter and revolt. He said “a lot depends” on how the U.S. Church under Cardinal Timothy Dolan handles such groups.
Others, on the other hand, remain skeptical about the society’s ability to reintegrate into the Church, believing many of its leaders are unable to accept the Church’s teaching under post-conciliar popes.
One Vatican official feared they were not able to think beyond set formulas. “Anything that goes beyond those formulas they suspect as being heresy,” he told Newsmax.
McCaffrey believes that if a final decision takes weeks, then the chances of reconciliation lessen, but at the moment he sees an agreement as “very likely.”
His optimism will no doubt be shared by Pope Benedict who views reconciliation as vital if the Church is to effectively confront increasing secularist intolerance and attacks on human dignity.
Edward Pentin began reporting on the Vatican as a correspondent with Vatican Radio in 2002. He has covered the Pope and the Holy See for a number of publications, including Newsweek, and The Sunday Times. Read more reports from Edward Pentin — Click Here Now.
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