Catholic Culture News
Catholic Culture News

The SSPX didn't say No. An agreement is still likely.

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Jul 19, 2012

The Vatican made an offer, and the leaders of the SSPX said No. Or did they?

Go ahead: read our CWN news story. Better yet, read the full statement from the SSPX general chapter. Do you see a clear “No” anywhere? Neither do I.

There is no “Yes,” either, I admit. And some of the language used in the SSPX statement is not calculated to please Vatican officials. The reference to “the novelties of the Second Vatican Council which remain tainted with errors” is a reminder that the SSPX is not ready to yield. The call for “an open and serious debate” could be taken as a complaint that the Vatican is not taking the issues seriously yet. The expression of hope for “the return to Tradition of the ecclesiastical authorities” suggests that Church officials have broken with the apostolic tradition—a charge that the Vatican cannot take lightly.

But really, is there anything new in these statements? We all knew that the SSPX cannot accept some Vatican II teachings. We knew that the group wants to debate with the Vatican about the interpretation of those disputed teachings. We knew that the SSPX claims to uphold “Tradition” in a way that, it claims, the Vatican today does not. Anyone who takes offense at these statements is probably too thin-skinned to be engaged in the ongoing talks between the SSPX and the Holy See.

The mild, noncommittal communiqué from the Vatican seems to indicate that Vatican officials did not take offense. Although it was not a formal reply to the SSPX, the tone of the Vatican’s public statement seems to send an encouraging message: “Say what you want among yourselves. We’ll keep talking. We’re waiting to hear more from you.” Notice too that the Vatican showed no sign of surprise at the SSPX statement. This was not unexpected; the lines of communication are open.

If the Vatican had wanted to pick a new fight with the SSPX, it would have been easy enough. A confrontational response might have pointed out that if the traditionalists believe that salvation is impossible outside the Catholic Church, they should be working feverishly to ensure that they are inside, not trifling with the risk of excommunication. Or that for a group that proclaims the Roman Pontiff as the supreme ruler of the Church, the SSPX shows precious little fealty to the Pope. Or that it is presumptuous for SSPX members to compare themselves to the victims of persecution, when they are suffering no hardship that they did not bring upon themselves. But Vatican officials are not making those points. The Holy See is watching carefully, silently—like a loving parent, waiting for an angry child to calm down and a reasonable discussion can resume.

As resume it will. The SSPX did not say No. On the contrary, the traditionalist group settled on a procedure by which an “extraordinary chapter” would be convened to approve any offer of reconciliation. Why would that procedure be necessary, if the SSPX did not anticipate an acceptable offer? Moreover, the procedure that the SSPX established gives more control to Bishop Bernard Fellay, who has given every indication that he wants to see the talks with Rome successfully concluded.

Before the meeting of the SSPX general chapter, there were reports that unnamed Vatican officials had subverted the wishes of Pope Benedict XVI, attaching onerous new requirements to the offer for reconciliation. No such accusations appeared in the SSPX public statement. The traditionalist group did not denounce Vatican officials, nor complain about recent talks. The statement gave every indication that the SSPX hopes for talks with the Vatican to continue, and to reach a mutually acceptable conclusion.

The SSPX surely knows that these talks cannot go on forever. The statement from the general chapter placed heavy emphasis on the importance of reading all Church teachings in the light of the tradition “which, by its teaching authority, transmits the revealed Deposit of Faith in perfect harmony with the truths that the entire Church has professed, always and everywhere.” Here the SSPX invokes the “hermeneutic of continuity” that Pope Benedict XVI has insisted must be the key to understanding Vatican II. This pontificate has opened the door to the discussion the SSPX wants, and now the discussion is taking place in earnest. But this pontificate will not last forever, nor will the Vatican’s patience with these long-running discussions.

Pope Benedict, too, knows that the window of opportunity could close soon. He is very serious about his role as the focus of Christian unity, and determined to end this painful division. His appointment of Archbishop Augustine Di Noia as vice-president of the Ecclesia Dei commission makes sense only if the Pope sees a realistic opportunity for closing the deal and reconciling the SSPX.

So where do we stand? The two sides, Rome and Écone, still have serious differences, but we knew that. The two sides are also taking care to avoid unnecessary provocations; they are keeping their talks confidential, rather than playing out the debates in public. These are usually indications that the two sides believe an agreement is within reach. Sure enough, both sides are making preliminary plans for how a final agreement could be hammered out and ratified. Don’t bet against it.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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Show 4 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Feb. 11, 2017 3:42 AM ET USA

    Okay, Father. So you have reinforced our new appreciation for our new buzzword: "rigid." I wonder at what point we will find ourselves filled to the brim with the new unholy(?) trinity: rigidity, discernment, accompaniment. I never used to have a problem with any of those creatures. But lately... Sheesh.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Jul. 23, 2012 7:19 PM ET USA

    Perhaps the most reasonable summation I have seen. The "too thin-skinned" comment is excellent, a wonderful statement of reality. This is an historic time. The Holy Father has walked a fine line indeed, and all things being equal, has done a remarkable job. Bishop Fellay must also be commended for his efforts. This challenge comes down to the future of the Church and the salvation of souls. There are big problems. The Holy Father and Bishop Fellay recognize the gravity of the moment.

  • Posted by: Contrary1995 - Jul. 20, 2012 12:16 AM ET USA

    What flavor Kool Aid do you drink?

  • Posted by: garedawg - Jul. 19, 2012 9:44 PM ET USA

    I used to go out with girls who were like the SSPX. We called them "teases".