If Catholic rebels return to Rome, who caved?
Pope Benedict is reportedly planning to lift the excommunication of four ultra-traditionalist Catholic bishops who have defied the Vatican for decades by rejecting some central reforms of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). Andrea Tornielli, the well-informed vaticanista of the Italian daily Il Giornale, says the decree inviting the bishops of the Society of Saint Pius X (SSPX) back to the Roman fold should be announced this weekend. If this is true (which, given Tornielli’s track record, it presumably is), the unanswered question now is: who caved?
(Photo: Pope Benedict at the Vatican, 10 Jan 2009/Alessia Pierdomenico)
Our vaticanista Phil Pullella writes that lifting the excommunications “would be a major gesture by Benedict to resolve a crisis in the Church that surfaced in 1988, when the late French Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre illegally consecrated four bishops without the requisite permission of the late Pope John Paul.”
The Swiss-based SSPX has about a million followers worldwide compared to 1.1 billion for the official Church. It maintains the old Latin Mass and rejects Vatican II reforms such as dialogue with other religions.
Benedict has already granted the SSPX several concessions in his attempt to heal the 20-year-old schism. In 2007, he granted widespread permission for the return of the old-style Latin Mass. Before Easter 2008, when it was unclear whether that meant the traditionalists could use an old Latin prayer on Good Friday that Jews consider anti-Semitic, he rewrote the prayer in a way that dissatisfied both Jews and the SSPX.
Bishop Bernard Fellay, the current head of the SSPX, has been running a two-track campaign for years to get the excommunications (which include his own) lifted. On the one hand, he has turned on the charm, professed loyalty to the pope and even launched a prayer drive in which the faithful prayed 1.7 million rosaries to the Virgin Mary over the past two months to have the bans lifted.
On the other hand, he has until now steadfastly refused to accept the Second Vatican Council reforms as valid. When the Vatican challenged him last June to give “a commitment to avoid the pretence of a Magisterium superior to the Holy Father and to not put forward the Fraternity [SSPX] in opposition to the Church,” he gave a vague answer that even an SSPX spokesman described as “an answer without a response.”
(Photo: Bishop Bernard Fellay, 13 Jan 2006/Franck Prevel)
Until now, despite his sympathy for the traditionalists and their defence of the old liturgy, Benedict has insisted that the SSPX must accept Vatican II, especially its statements on religious freedom that stick in the Lefebvrists’ throats. The relevant documents here, especially Nostra Aetate on relations with Judaism and other non-Christian religions, are the basis for the interfaith dialogue and reconciliation the Vatican has conducted since the Council. But only a few years ago, Father Franz Schmidberger, a top SSPX official who was Lefebvre’s right-hand man, said Benedict should tell Jews and members of other religions to convert because they are part of “false systems.”
So if the Vatican and the SSPX bishops have come to an agreement, who caved? Did the SSPX bishops agree to fully accept Vatican II? Or has Benedict loosened that requirement by making an exception for them? Or have they found a form of words that will let both sides say the SSPX bishops are loyal to the pope and Vatican II, but let them go on as before rejecting the reforms they don’t like?
Compared to an agreement Lefebvre signed with the Vatican in 1988 and later renounced, last June’s ultimatum was much less explicit. Its main point was that the SSPX had to accept the pope’s authority and stop criticising him in public. If this agreement is as vague, it seems that would allow the SSPX to continue much as today as long as it agrees not to make its disagreements so public.
There is also the question of whether all four SSPX bishops will return to Rome — or be accepted. After Tornielli’s article ran, the Times in London ran a story about how one of the four — British-born Richard Williamson — denied the Holocaust just this week in an interview with Swedish TV. See the video on the Daily Telegraph‘s Holy Smoke blog. The German-born pope has already angered Jews to the point that Italian rabbis boycotted an Italian Church day this month commemorating Judaism. What will it look like if he brings a Holocaust denier back into the Roman fold?