The first in a series of crucial meetings began at the Vatican today in Pope Benedict XVI's latest effort to heal a rift in the church, helping it confront the challenges of today’s world better.
Vatican experts met leaders from the breakaway Society of St. Pius X this morning. The Vatican hopes the meetings will lead to the traditionalist group’s reconciliation with the Catholic Church.
The Swiss-based society, which includes about 500 clergy, opposes Catholic reforms introduced as a result of the Second Vatican Council in the early 1960s. Pope Benedict XVI has been working to reconcile the church and St. Pius X since his election.
His most visible effort was lifting the excommunications of four of the society’s bishops, including Holocaust denier Richard Williamson, in January.
Reports about the three-hour talks were positive: The session took place in a "cordial, respectful and constructive climate,” and discussions will continue in the coming months, according to a Vatican statement. Topics discussed included long-time contentious issues over the liturgy, the nature of religious freedom, and the relationship between the church and those of other denominations and faiths.
If successful, future meetings will help underline the authenticity of the council reforms and back up the Pope’s ardent belief that there was no break in the church’s tradition at the Second Vatican Council. If they fail, they risk giving legitimacy to the society and what it believes, placing reconciliation indefinitely out of reach and undermining the authority of the council reforms.
But the talks also have implications beyond the church. As my colleague Robert Moynihan, editor and publisher of the monthly Inside the Vatican has pointed out, this initiative forms part of a three-pronged commitment on the part of Pope Benedict XVI to reunite the church.
In recent months, the Pope has tried, often courageously, to reach out to both Orthodox and Anglicans Christians so the church can confront the challenges of modern society more effectively. His endeavors have prompted some Catholics to label him as the "Pope of Christian Unity."
“Benedict is rallying his troops,” Moynihan says. “He is trying to reunite all those factions and denominations and groups in the West that share common beliefs in the eternal destiny of human beings, in the sacredness of human life (since human beings are 'in the image and likeness of God'), in the existence of a moral standard which is true at all times and in all places (against the relativism of the modern secular culture), in the need for justice in human affairs, for the rule of right, not might.”
There is, therefore, some urgency to these discussions. The Pope is said to want them concluded relatively quickly (although as the Vatican is said to “think in centuries,” that may be longer than most people might imagine), and Vatican officials insist they won’t go on indefinitely. Members of the Society of St. Pius X have predicted that the talks will be protracted and last many years, but that’s probably because that scenario would suit their goals.
However long it takes, an agreement is by no means guaranteed. Reconciliation has a real chance only if the society changes many of its views and attitudes. The church is looking for humility on the part of its leadership and a willingness to at least consider the church’s position, but that has looked improbable until now.
The society's rhetoric in recent months hasn’t shown any sign of softening, particularly from its leader, Bishop Bernard Fellay, who some criticize for speaking out of both sides of his mouth. This has led to inconsistencies in the society's aims and made effective dialogue almost impossible.
But if the positive statement from today’s meeting is accurate — a meeting that took place, incidentally, without the presence of Bishop Fellay — those problems may not arise.
Some have suggested that, by convening these formal talks, the Pope is conveying his own personal doubts over the conciliar reforms. But those who know him well reject that position. No matter how much he cherishes the church’s more ancient traditions, they say, he values the Second Vatican Council equally and will not back down on its reforms.
With such uncompromising positions on both sides, it seems hard to see how any agreement can be reached. Jesus’ words that “with God, anything is possible” perhaps seem to be most appropriate in bringing this matter to a mutually satisfactory conclusion.
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