Pope lifts SSPX bans but conditions still unclear

January 24, 2009

Pope Benedict lifted the excommunications of four ultra-traditionalist SSPX bishops on Saturday. While much daily media attention is focused on the fact that one of the four is a Holocaust denier denounced by Jewish groups in advance, the interesting internal Catholic question is what the conditions of this deal were. The two sides have been at loggerheads for years over the SSPX’s refusal to accept some reforms of the Second Vatican Council. SSPX leader Bishop Bernard Fellay insisted the Vatican should lift the excommunications first and talk about differences later. The Vatican wanted them to accept the reforms first and be rehabilitated later.

(Photo: Pope Benedict at the Vatican, 10 Jan 2009/Alessia Pierdomenico)

We’ll have to see the full documentation to know exactly who has agreed to what. It seems that the excommunications have been lifted first (as the SSPX wanted) and the SSPX and the Vatican are now to hold discussions to clear up their doctrinal differences. The assumption is that the doctrinal gap can be bridged but there is no indication how or when this would be done.

The Vatican announcement (here in SSPX English translation and original Italian) says that Fellay wrote a letter on Dec. 15 restating the SSPX request for the excommunications to be lifted. It then says:

“In the above mentioned letter, Bishop Fellay, among other things, stated: “We are still as steadfast in our determination to remain Catholic and to place all our strength at the service of the Church of Our Lord Jesus Christ, which is the Roman Catholic Church. We filially accept her teaching. We firmly believe in the primacy of Peter and in its prerogatives…”

That sentence “We accept its teachings with filial animus” might be code for an SSPX acceptance of the Vatican II reforms it has long opposed. But Fellay struck a different tone in a “letter to the faithful” posted on the SSPX website DICI. The English translation of the original French says:

“The decree of January 21 quotes the letter dated December 15, 2008 to Cardinal Castrillon Hoyos in which I expressed our attachment “to the Church of Our Lord Jesus-Christ which is the Catholic Church,” re-affirming there our acceptation of its two thousand year old teaching and our faith in the Primacy of Peter. I reminded him that we were suffering much from the present situation of the Church in which this teaching and this primacy were being held to scorn. And I added: “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.” In all this, we are convinced that we remain faithful to the line of conduct indicated by our founder, Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, whose reputation we hope to soon see restored.

(Photo: Bishop Bernard Fellay, 13 Jan 2006/Franck Prevel)

“Consequently, we wish to begin these “talks” — which the decree acknowledges to be “necessary” — about the doctrinal issues which are opposed to the Magisterium of all time…  during these discussions with the Roman authorities we want to examine the deep causes of the present situation, and by bringing the appropriate remedy, achieve a lasting restoration of the Church.”

Here Fellay clearly says the bishops are still opposed to some Vatican II reforms and that Catholicism needs “the appropriate remedy.” Can we assume that when he says the appropriate remedy, he means the SSPX remedy?

In the decree lifting the excommunications, Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, says the pope agreed to this step after reading in Fellay’s letter a pledge…

“…of sparing no effort to go further in the necessary discussions with the Authorities of the Holy See concerning the issues still pending, and thus of being able to reach quickly a full and satisfactory solution of the problem …

“…Wishing that this step be followed without delay by the full communion with the Church of all the Society of Saint Pius X, in testimony of a true fidelity and genuine recognition of the Magisterium and of the authority of the Pope by the proof of visible unity.”

It seems the SSPX is saying it will defend its views in these talks, i.e. not accept Vatican II reforms it opposes, while the Vatican hopes it can find a solution. On the basis of what we have so far, this seems even less demanding of the SSPX than the conditions that Castrillon Hoyos presented in his ultimatum last June that Fellay turned down. They included prior commitments to avoid criticising the pope in public and claiming there was a magisterium superior to his teaching. So unless these conditions are written somewhere else, it would appear the Vatican has basically accepted the SSPX conditions for ending this split.

The Vatican documents don’t mention the late Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, the founder of the SSPX whose schismatic act of consecrating the four rebel bishops (including Fellay) in 1988 formalised the split between Rome and the SSPX. He apparently remains excommunicated. In his letter, Fellay says the SSPX hopes for his prompt rehabilitation. That hasn’t stopped the website of the French SSPX province from posting a video of Lefebvre announcing that he has been rehabilitated (with Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus in the background):

“The video of the rehabilitated Archbishop Lefebvre”

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