Clock ticking as Vatican calls Catholic rebels’ bluff
While most attention on the Godbeat is focused this week on a possible but not probable Anglican schism, the Vatican has started the clock ticking on a real Catholic schism it wants to settle once and for all. And it wants an answer by Saturday (not much Anglican-style muddling through there!). A slow and patient strategy by Pope Benedict to deal with the traditionalist rebels in the Society of Saint Pius X (SSPX) has now reached the endgame phase.
Andrea Tornielli (left), the well-informed vaticanista of the Milan daily Il Giornale, has produced two scoops in recent days about an ultimatum the Vatican has presented to the “Lefebvrists”. He first reported in Il Giornale on Monday that the pontifical commission “Ecclesia Dei” had told SSPX leader Bishop Bernard Fellay that the Swiss-based rebel group should accept by June 28 the reforms of the Second Vatican Council and the validity of the new Mass (“Novus Ordo”) that replaced the old Latin Mass if it wanted to return to the full communion with Rome that was broken in 1988. Tornielli reported today on his blog Sacri Palazzi the actual conditions as written to Fellay (see Fr. Z’s English translation). If the SSPX accepts them, it can become a “prelature” within the Catholic Church, much like Opus Dei is now. If not, they lost their best chance at rejoining Rome and having any influence on the Vatican.
They have already had considerable influence. Pope Benedict has resurrected the old Latin Mass, one of the main SSPX demands. But that was not actually the heart of the matter. His demand that the SSPX must in return accept Vatican II, including its statements on religious freedom, is the one that sticks in the Lefebvrists’ throats the most. This two-track approach seems to be a strategy to welcome back those traditionalists who really just wanted the Latin Mass, and isolate the harder-line types who rejected Vatican II completely.
The conditions, as Tornielli lists them, are written in code to make them as acceptable as possible to the SSPX. So they do not mention accepting Vatican II reforms, but the demand to “avoid the pretence of a Magisterium superior to the Holy Father” and “to demonstrate the will to behave honestly in full ecclesial charity and in respect to the authority of the Vicar of Christ” covers that. Another condition is that the SSPX “avoid any public speech which does not respect the person of the Holy Father and which can be negative for ecclesial charity”. This is effectively a muzzle on SSPX leaders who can be surprisingly critical of the Vatican they say they want to rejoin.
Only a few weeks ago, Fellay produced just the kind of outburst that would be banned if he accepts these conditions. In a sermon commenting on Benedict’s visit to the United States, he said: “And now, we have an absolutely liberal Pope, my very dear brothers. He went to this country [the United States] founded on Masonic principles of a revolution, of a rebellion against God. And, well, he expressed his admiration and fascination for this country that has decided to grant liberty to all religions. He went so far as to condemn the confessional State. And they call him a traditionalist? Yes, this is the truth. He is absolutely liberal and absolutely contradictory. He has some good sides, which we hail and for which we rejoice, such as what he has done for the Traditional liturgy. What a mystery, my very dear brothers, what a mystery!”
Father John Zuhlsdorf of the blog What Does The Prayer Really Say?, a sharp observer of such things, wonders if this is a “papal ‘offer you can’t refuse’”. He hopes they will take it and lists a number of ways they could accept it without having to concede too much. But I doubt a group of schismatics fired up by rhetoric like this will be able to swallow the five conditions by Saturday. My hunch, based on talks over the years with the charming Fellay and some of his less flexible associates, is that they cannot unanimously accept this. It will most probably split the leadership, which may be part of Benedict’s approach. Fellay was down in Rome recently to work this deal out. But it’s still unclear which way he will jump.
Any bets in the meantime on what the SSPX will decide? Let us know what you think.