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The Vatican and the SSPX: why further talks are crucial January 28, 2009

The deplorable public statements by Bishop Richard Williamson, questioning the gravity of the Holocaust, have obscured the true importance of Pope Benedict's decision to lift the excommunications of the four bishops who head the traditionalist Society of St. Pius X (SSPX). So before we examine what has happened, we need to understand what has not:

  • Bishop Williamson has not been granted regular status as a Catholic bishop. Like the other SSPX bishops he remains under suspension, without canonical status. In effect the Pope has recognized the traditionalist bishops as passengers on the Barque of Peter, not as active commissioned officers. The process of reconciling the SSPX with the Holy See is far from complete.
  • The Pope has not condoned Bishop Williamson's views, nor suggested that the public airing of such views by a Catholic bishop is acceptable. The Pope and the Vatican have affirmed the full horror of the Holocaust. Even Bishop Bernard Fellay, the superior of the SSPX has distanced himself from Williamson's statements, emphatically saying that they do not represent the views of the SSPX. Clearly Bishop Williamson holds outrageous opinions. (He has also said that The Sound of Music has pornographic tendencies. I hope it goes without saying that the Church does not endorse that opinion.) But other Catholics hold outrageous opinions (some of them serve in the US Senate), and other Catholics perform outrageous actions. We are a Church of sinners. While there is no doubt that the Vatican was acquainted with Williamson's views, and squirmed at the prospect of giving him greater public recognition, that discomfort was not sufficient to justify keeping him outside the Church. The Pope has absorbed a public-relations "hit," presumably knowing that it was coming, for the sake of Church unity.

What has happened, then? Pope Benedict has made a bold move toward ending a split that began more than 20 years ago. At the same time, he has cleared the way for a debate on the most important theological issue facing the Christian world today. The outcome of that debate will have an importance that stretches far beyond the circles of Catholic traditionalism.

In 1988 the future Pope Benedict was asked by his predecessor, John Paul II, to conduct the last-minute negotiations aimed at dissuading the late Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre from his plan to ordain bishops without the consent of the Holy See. Then-Cardinal Ratzinger made his case forefully-- and successfully! He reached an agreement with Archbishop Lefebvre. But then the traditonalist prelate changed his mind, abandoned the agreement, ordained the four bishops, and incurred the canonical penalty of excommunication. By lifting that penalty the Pope now closes the wound, and after a 20-year hiatus those negotiations can begin again.

But let's be clear as to where we stand: the negotiations are just beginning. The serious theological disagreements that separated Archbishop Lefebvre from the Vatican in 1988 still exist today. By lifting the excommunications, the Pope was opening the way for a frank discussion of those theological issues. Vatican officials subsequently are now emphasizing that this discussion should be pursued as a debate among brothers, with each side doing its utmost to avoid harsh judgments and to understand the other's position.

In an insightful Newsweek column, my friend George Weigel provides some useful background on the distinctively French origins of the Lefebvrist movement. The most adamant form of Catholic traditionalism, he argues, is the historical product of the bitter Church-state battles that have marked French history over the past 250 years.

It is no coincidence, then, that the SSPX has its greatest influence today in France. Nor is it a coincidence that the French bishops perceive a return to traditionalism as a grave threat; they were nearly frantic in their efforts to convince Pope Benedict that he should not issue his motu proprio expanding access to the traditional Latin Mass.

Archbishop Lefebvre, a veteran of the French intellectual battles of a previous generation, perceived modernity as a frontal assault on Catholic tradition, and saw some Vatican II teachings, particularly on religious freedom, as a surrender to modernity. So the French archbishop appointed himself the custodian of Catholic tradition, and the trouble began.

To this day, SSPX leaders style themselves as the defenders of Catholic tradition. In a letter to followers announcing the Pope's decision to lift the excommunication, Bishop Fellay claimed a victory for Tradition, and said that he looked forward to talks in which the SSPX could explain its stance. The SSPX leader was honest enough to say that his group would embrace "all the councils up to the Second Vatican Council about which we express some reservations;" he said that the forthcoming talks could benefit the entire Church, because traditionalists could explain what has gone wrong to weaken Catholicism since Vatican II.

That letter from Bishop Fellay has roused concerns among Catholic observers like Weigel, who writes:

Benedict XVI undoubtedly intended this lifting of excommunications as a step toward healing a wound in the church. Bishop Fellay's letter, in response to the pope's gesture, suggests that the healing has not taken place.

But here I think Weigel's column, which has been illuminating in many ways, obscures the crucial point. To be sure the healing has not taken place; the process is only beginning. By lifting the excommunications Pope Benedict did not settle any questions; he allowed for the questions to be raised. But the Fellay letter should not be taken as a sign of recalcitrance. There are three reasons to feel confident about the discussions that will now begin, despite the tone of the SSPX response.

  1. First, we know that delicate negotiations between the Vatican and the SSPX have been going on for the past several years. Bishop Fellay met with Pope Benedict in September 2005; the excommunications remained in force for more than three years after that meeting. During that time, it's safe to say, the Vatican sought assurances that the SSPX would be open to a true reconciliation. The excommunications were lifted only when those assurances were received. In other words, the Pope's public gesture tells us that private talks are already well advanced.
  2. Second, Bishop Fellay was writing to an audience of skeptics: traditionalists who have shown that they will fight and suffer for the principles they uphold, who have resisted compromise for 20 years. To prevent an immediate fracture within the SSPX, he needed to reassure his people, to persuade them that the Society had not "surrendered."
  3. Third, the bishop's letter contains no new doctrinal arguments; the bishop said noting more than what we already knew the SSPX believes. We have known, since the trouble with Archbishop Lefebvre began, that the SSPX has "reservations" about Vatican II. It should be evident that those "reservations" must be addressed in any discussions leading toward full reconciliation of the SSPX. Bishop Fellay says that he looks forward to those discussions. Since Pope Benedict has now paved the way for the discussion to begin, he evidently looks forward to them as well. That these talks are necessary is no surprise; that they have not yet produced full agreement is no cause for alarm.

From the traditionalists' perspective, a key problem is the authority of Dignitatis Humanae, the Vatican II statement on religious freedom. Portions of that document, the SSPX argues, are in conflict with previous authoritative teachings of the Catholic Church. Nor is the SSPX alone in making that claim. Liberal Catholics, too, have described the Vatican II document as a sharp break in Church teaching, and used the new teaching-- as they interpret it-- to justify dissent from Church teaching and discipline on any number of issues, including the acceptance of legal abortion.

Pope Benedict rejects that interpretation of Dignitatis Humanae. He has insisted that the documents of Vatican II must be interpreted using a "hermeneutic of continuity." If a conciliar document appears to conflict with previous Church teachings, then something is wrong-- either with our reading of that document or with our understanding of tradition. The Church teaches the truth, and the truth does not change, so by finding the continuity between old and new expressions we can attain a better understanding of that truth.

The purpose of this "hermeneutic of continuity" is to understand the Church as she understands herself. And for the SSPX, there's the rub. Having proclaimed itself the sole defender of Tradition, the SSPX claims authority for its own interpretation of Vatican II documents, its own interpretation of prior magisterial statements. To date, at least, the Lefebvrists have refused to accept correction from the Holy See. If Bishop Fellay is now open to serious talks with the Vatican about the proper understanding of Church teachings, past and present, that is a major stride forward.

The deadly mistake that Archbishop Lefebvre made-- the mistake for which the SSPX is still paying-- was the decision to set himself up as a teaching authority separate from the Holy See. The teaching authority of the Catholic Church resides in the Pope and the bishops who are in communion with him. By breaking away from that communion, the Lefebvrists lost what teaching authority they had. Their fundamental error lay in the belief that they could be the authoritative voice of the Catholic tradition (or Tradition, as they preferred), while remaining separated from the Catholic Church. That is logically as well as theologically impossible.

To complicate matters for themselves, the Lefebvrists have maintained that the Church founded by Jesus Christ exists only in the institutional Catholic Church. Unhappy with the Vatican II formulation that the universal Church founded by Christ "subsists" in the Catholic Church, they have insisted that all other Christian bodies are lost in error, and the only practical goal of ecumenical affairs is to convince these erring Christians of their errors, so as to bring them back into the Catholic fold. Now the SSPX might be held to its own logic: Are the traditionalists ready to acknowledge their own grievous error, which set them apart from the universal Church? But Pope Benedict has chosen a gentle approach, allowing the SSPX to demonstrate humility without humiliation.

Still we do not know whether the continuing negotiations will be successful: whether the SSPX will take the next necessary steps. Bishop Fellay has pronounced that the traditionalist group accepts the authority of the Pope. What remains to be seen is how the SSPX perceives that authority. The key, again, is to understand the Church as she understands herself: sentire cum ecclesia.

Nearly all of the major theological controversies within the Catholic Church recently have hinged on this issue: the understanding of how the Church perceives herself. From Küng to Haight, when dissident theologians have drawn formal rebukes from the Vatican, the bone of contention has been the theologians' writings on the nature of the Catholic Church. The Church instituted by Christ offers the only sure means to salvation. To misunderstand that truth is to misunderstand the nature of Catholicism. This is the central theological struggle of our time: to understand the nature of Christ's Church.

On this crucial question, the views of SSPX leaders remain at odds with the authoritative teachings of the magisterium. But it is not fair to suggest that, by inviting the traditionalists into a dialogue on these issues, Pope Benedict has opened the way for liberal theologians to reassert their own dissident teachings. A handful of liberal theologians have been admonished by the Vatican in the years since Lefebvrite split, but unlike the SSPX, the liberals have not been excommunicated. The Vatican has openly rejected their views-- just as it has openly rejected some views propounded by Archbishop Lefebvre and his followers-- but invariably the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has urged to erring theologians to reconsider their views. So the door is open; the conversation continues.

Now the SSPX is on the same footing. The Pope has not said that the traditionalists' views are right. Quite the contrary, he has clearly indicated that some serious issues remain to be resolved-- just as, in the past, he has told liberal theologians that they should resolve the discrepancies between their ideas and magisterial teachings.

No doubt traditionalists will be uncomfortable when they are compared with liberals, and vice versa. So much the better! They should be uncomfortable, since they are at odds with the authority of the Church. So they should welcome an open dialogue with Vatican authorities, in an effort to resolve the tensions. And to his credit, Bishop Fellay has done just that.

The debates over the nature of Christ's Church are not restricted to Roman Catholic prelates and theologians. In Moscow this week, Metropolitan Kirill was elected the new Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church despite the dogged opposition of Orthodox conservatives-- Russian traditionalists, if you will-- who objected to Kirill's professed understanding of the Church. The new Patriarch, you see, had dared to suggest that the Catholic Church might be a part of the true Church founded by Christ. That suggestion was unacceptable to the Russian conservatives, who claim that the one, true Church perdures today only in the Orthodox Church. Does that argument sound familiar?

If Patriarch Kirill can win over his opponents, he can move the world's largest Orthodox body much closer to the Catholic understanding of the nature of Christ's Church. The potential results for ecumenical progress could be enormous.

So let me say it again: The struggle to attain a proper understanding of the nature of Christ's Church is the central theological challenge of our time. As we wait to see what changes the new Patriarch might bring within the Russian Orthodox Church, we Catholics can be thankful that another critical discussion is underway closer to home, and pray for the successful resolution of the talks between the Vatican and the SSPX. May those talks lead to true reconciliation for the traditionalists. And for all of us, may they yield a better understanding of what it means to belong to the one true Church.