Catholic Culture Overview
Catholic Culture Overview

Catholic World News News Feature

Vatican decree lifts excommunication of SSPX bishops January 24, 2009

Pope Benedict XVI has lifted the excommunications of the bishops who lead the traditionalist Society of St. Pius X (SSPX).

In a decree dated January 21, and released to the public on January 24, Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, the prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, announces that the excommunications imposed on July 1, 1988--after the four bishops were ordained by the late Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre in defiance of Vatican orders--are no longer in effect.

[The Vatican decree, in Italian, is posted in the January 24 Bulletin from the Vatican press office. An English translation, along with responses from the SSPX, can be found on the Rorate Caeli blog.]

The prelates affected by the Pope's decision are Bishop Bernard Fellay, the superior of the SSPX, and Bishops Bernard Tissier de Mallerais, Richard Williamson, and Alfonso de Galarreta.

The Vatican decree indicates that Pope Benedict XVI lifted the excommunication in response to a plea from the SSPX bishops, and in an effort "to promote unity in the charity of the universal Church and to try to vanquish the scandal of division."

The decree acknowledges that further steps will be required to complete the reconciliation of the SSPX. "It is hoped that this step be followed by the prompt accomplishment of full communion with the Church of the entire Fraternity of Saint Pius X," the document says.

Pope Benedict was moved by the "spiritual unease" conveyed by the SSPX bishops in a July 2008 letter, in which they renewed their plea for an end to the excommunications, the decree indicates. The Pope also took note of the traditionalist bishops' determination to "deepen the necessary discussions with the Authority of the Holy See in the still open matters."

In that July 2008 letter--which was addressed to Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyos, the president of the Ecclesia Dei commission, who had been the chief Vatican representative in talks with the SSPX for the past several years--Bishop Fellay had expressed both the pain of separation and the loyalty of the SSPX to the Pope. In a portion of the letter that is quoted in Cardinal Re's decree, the traditionalist bishop wrote:

We always determined by the desire to stay Catholics and put all our forces for Church of Our Lord Jesus Christ, who is the Roman Catholic Church. We accept his teachings with heart subsidiary. We firmly believe the Primacy of Peter and its prerogatives, and this makes us suffer so much the current situation.

In a press release welcoming the Vatican decree, the SSPX thanked Pope Benedict for his "courageous act." The group welcomed the Pope's call for further talks, saying that in these talks SSPX members could "explain the fundamental doctrinal reasons which it believes to be at the origin of the present difficulties of the Church." The SSPX referred to "the unprecedented crisis which presently shakes the Catholic world," and indicated that the crisis is caused by Catholics' departure from traditional Church teachings.

In a letter to SSPX members announcing the decree, Bishop Fellay described the Pope's decision to lift the excommunications as "unilateral, benevolent, and courageous." The move should be welcomed with gratitude by all SSPX members, he said, noting that they will "no longer be unjustly stigmatized."

Bishop Fellay expressed the certainty that the Pope's decision was influenced by an extraordinary prayer campaign, undertaken by SSPX leaders last year. "Your response exceeded our expectations," the traditionalist bishop said, reminding members that a the group had presented the Pope with spiritual bouquet of over 1.7 million rosaries.

Bishop Fellay's letter to the SSPX faithful also contained a clear indication that the anticipated talks with Vatican officials will include a heavy focus on the traditionalists' concerns about the teachings of Vatican II. The SSPX superior recalled that in his June 2008 letter to Cardinal Castrillon Hoyos he had said:

We are ready to write the Creed with our own blood, to sign the anti-modernist oath, the profession of faith of Pius IV, we accept and make our own all the councils up to the Second Vatican Council about which we express some reservations.