Paris cardinal and others comment on SSPX ban lifting
Paris Cardinal André Vingt-Trois, chairman of the French Bishops Conference, held a press briefing on Saturday evening on the lifting of excommunications of four bishops of the ultra-traditionalist Society of Saint Pius X (SSPX). France is home to the largest of the provinces of the dissident group, with around 100,000 faithful of a worldwide total of 600,000. Sitting in a medieval meeting room in Notre Dame cathedral, he defended Pope Benedict’s decision to take the four bishops back into the Roman Catholic Church and indicated the SSPX would have to bend to Church discipline.
(Photo: Cardinal André Vingt-Trois, 8 Sept 2008/Benoit Tessier)
He called the decision “a measure of clemency and mercy” that would allow the Church to repair a damaging split. He declined to question the bishops’ motives, saying that “when people express their desire to respect the teachings of the church and the primacy of the pope, my ministry of mercy does not allow me suspect them a priori and to suspect them to be the worst people on earth … what they have in their hearts, only God can judge. Not me.”
The handful of journalists present repeatedly asked about one of the bishops, Richard Williamson, whose denial of the Holocaust this week outraged Jewish leaders. “The Jewish community was not shocked by this decision, it was shocked by the comments of Bishop Williamson,” he said. “He may have some twisted thoughts, but it’s not because the excommunication is lifted that these twisted thoughts have been approved.”
(Photo: Bishop Richard Williamson/SSPX)
Although the Vatican said that SSPX leader Bishop Bernard Fellay had pledged to respect the pope and Church teachings, Fellay posted a letter on an SSPX site saying the bishops still opposed some reforms of the Second Vatican Council of 1962-1965. Asked about this apparent discrepancy, Vingt-Trois said he had not read Fellay’s letter. But he indicated that the SSPX could not have it both ways:
“One cannot both say that one recognises the primacy of the pope and wants to respect him and also set oneself up as the judge of the authenticity of the Catholic tradition. In the Christian tradition, in the Christian experience, the interpretation of the tradition is not a private exercise. It is a church exercise and it is done by the magisterium, notably by the pope as the first of the apostolic college, but also by the other bishops. So an individual group is not going to say what the authentic teaching of the church is … well, until now…”
Vingt-Trois stressed that the lifting of the bans on the four bishops was a first step meant to allow both sides to sit down and thrash out their differences: “One cannot say today how (the SSPX) will respond to this proposal and how they will engage in this work.” This is not an international negotiation under United Nations auspices, he added. “The pope is not the symmetric interlocutor of Bishop Fellay,” he said. “Bishop Fellay’s letter doesn’t say that either. He recognises the primacy of the pope. If there is a primacy of the pope, there is a dissymmetry.”
(Photo: the four SSPX bishops Alfonso de Galarreta, Richard Williamson, Bernard Fellay and Bernard Tissier de Mallerais in May 2008/SSPX)
The cardinal said today’s step did not change the status of SSPX priests, who remain outside the Catholic Church until their status is clarified. The lifting on the excommunications concerned only the four bishops and had no further immediate consequences.
He defended the pope’s decision as a bid to end the 20-year split before it got too wide. “When one sees what happened at the Reformation and the break between Catholics and Protestants, one sees the missed opportunities, the periods where there were people who really worked on both sides to avoid the division and maintain unity,” he said. “The failure of those opportunities that meant the two traditions gradually drifted apart. The further apart one drifts, the harder it is to get back together again.”
Also today, the head of the German bishops’ conference, Archbishop Robert Zollitsch, supported the decision as proof of “the readiness of Pope Benedict to take another step towards the schismatic movement of the late archbishop in order to foster the unity of the Church.
“Pope Benedict is offering his hand to the Society of Saint Pius X. With him, I hope and pray that they take it. The Pope is showing the possibility of a return into full communion with the Catholic Church and, at the same time, leaves no doubt that the decisions of the Second Vatican Council are the indispensible basis for the life of the Church.”
In another reaction (audio here in French), Rev. Michel Kubler, religion editor of the French Catholic daily La Croix, said the ball was now in the SSPX’s court: “As a colleague at La Croix said, they’ve been given a visa to return but now they have to buy their tickets.” He expressed concern about Fellay’s letter saying they did not accept some Vatican II reforms.
(Photo: SSPX procession on St Peter’s Square, 2000/SSPX)
“What do they challenge? Only secondary things, or essential things like liturgical reform, which we think about a lot, or religious liberty, ecumenical dialogue, interreligious opening or the relationship of the Church to the world?” Kubler asked.
“The schism hasn’t been overcome. We have to overcome differences in doctrine. To take an analogy, 40 years ago, the Catholic and the Orthodox churches lifted the reciprocal excommunications imposed in 1054 in the famous schism between Rome and Byzantium that lasts to this day.” There have been fruitful discussions in the past 40 years, he said, but the schism remains. “It will probably be the same with the traditionalists, but I hope it won’t take 1,000 years for them to decide to return.”
The left-wing Catholic magazine Golias wrote in an angry editorial: “The people of God are increasingly tested in its trust in a hierarchy that turns its back on their ideals. It is probable that the free hand given to the enemies of the (Second Vatican) Council ends by provoking holy fury. By going very far, perhaps too far, Joseph Ratzinger — Pope Benedict — has broken the sound barrier. His decision to bring the disciples of Archbishop Lefebvre back into the fold will necessarily lead to more resistance.”
“Actually, for Pope Benedict — Joseph Ratzinger — the Council simply marked a regrettable parenthesis that some naive people thought was enchanted. The page has turned.”
The French SSPX website has posted another video marking the lifting of the excommunications. It’s mostly about Archbishop Lefebvre.