Has Pope Benedict missed the boat on a settlement with the SSPX?
By Dr John Lamont
The protracted negotiations between the Society of St. Pius X and the Holy See over the question of a canonical status for the Society seem to have reached an impasse if not a termination.
Readers may find it helpful to have a history of the events leading up to this situation, as a guide to its meaning and to possible future developments.
The present process began when Cardinal Castrillon Hoyos contacted the SSPX leadership in 2000 and proposed possible canonical structure for their reintegration – either an apostolic administration or a personal prelature.
The SSPX determined that in order to establish trust, two preliminary steps were necessary before a canonical agreement was possible: freeing the traditional Latin mass by acknowledging that all priests had the right to celebrate according to the missal of 1962, and lifting the excommunication of the four bishops consecrated in 1988.
On August 29th 2005, Pope Benedict received Bishop Fellay in audience for 35 minutes, together with Cardinal Castrillon Hoyos and Fr. Schmidberger. According to Bishop Fellay’s report of the meeting, the Pope recognised that in some countries, such as France and Germany, there existed such a danger to souls that the SSPX’s claim that a state of necessity justified their operating without a canonical mandate was warranted. To the great surprise of Bishop Fellay, the Pope referred to Archbishop Lefebvre as ‘the venerated Archbishop Lefebvre’, and ‘Archbishop Lefebvre, that great man of the universal Church’. Bishop Fellay formed a positive opinion of the character and intentions of the Pope, whom he later described as ‘a perfectly honest man, who is taking the situation and the life of the Church very seriously’ (July 31st 2009).
In 2006, the General Chapter of the SSPX endorsed the two preconditions previously laid down for an agreement with Rome, and raised the further condition of a discussion on the doctrinal issues that separated the SSPX from the Roman authorities. It ruled out a merely practical agreement with Rome as impossible.
The liberalisation of the traditional mass was provided in the motu proprio “Summorum Pontificum“ of July 7th 2007. The excommunications were lifted in a decree of January 21st 2009 issued by the prefect of the Congregation for Bishops. An interview with Bishop Richard Williamson notoriously emerged the same day in which Bishop Williamson denied the existence of the Holocaust. The SSPX responded to this action by removing Bishop Williamson from all his offices in the Society and ordering him to keep silence, an order that he did not obey.
On March 10th 2009 the Pope responded to the furore surrounding the lifting of Bishop Williamson’s excommunication in a letter to the world’s bishops. In it he stated that the Ecclesia Dei Commission would be placed under the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and explained that this decision was taken because the fundamental issues in the dispute with the SSPX were doctrinal ones.
The doctrinal discussions foreseen by Rome and the SSPX took place between October 2009 and April 2011. The doctrinal discussions were confidential, but some valuable indications of their content have been made public by the SSPX participant Fr. Patrick de la Rocque. In talks to the SSPX faithful in France, he stated that Mgr. Pozzo showed no great interest in the doctrinal issues under discussion, and instead concentrated his efforts on getting the SSPX representatives to assent to various doctrinal formulations that expressed, in more or less diplomatic language, a complete acceptance of the Second Vatican Council and of the Mass of Paul VI. It turned out that similar formulations were being sent to Bishop Fellay during the talks for his consideration, with no mention of these formulations being made to the SSPX representatives in the discussions. None of these formulations were accepted, and the CDF decided to end the doctrinal discussions before the scheduled list of subjects had been covered.
On September 14th 2011 Bishop Fellay and his two assistants met Cardinal Levada in Rome. No reference was made to the content of the doctrinal discussions. Instead, Bishop Fellay was presented with a doctrinal preamble, and informed that, for the SSPX to be granted a canonical status, it would be necessary to sign this preamble. It would seem to be a reasonable hypothesis that the preamble was a version of the formulations suggested by Mgr. Pozzo during the earler discussions. Bishop Fellay and the SSPX superiors discussed the preamble in a meeting on October 7th 2011 and came to the conclusion that it was unacceptable. This response was communicated to the CDF in January 2012.
On March 16th 2012, Bishop Fellay met Cardinal Levada at the CDF to discuss his response to the preamble of September 14th. He was told that his response was unacceptable. The exact details of the meeting are unknown, but the CDF press release threatened painful and incalculable consequences if Bishop Fellay persisted in his refusal of the preamble. Bishop Fellay described the meeting as involving a big stick and a big carrot: the carrot being a very favourable canonical structure if the CDF demands were met, and the stick not being described in detail, but possibly extending to the excommunication not only of the SSPX bishops but of all the SSPX faithful.