A guest-post by Côme de Prévigny
The 264th Successor of Peter has a rendez-vous with history, come what may. He wants to fix a legacy, half-century-old, one which undoubtedly led him to give up on the Johns and the Pauls to revive the Piuses and the Leos, the Gregories and the Clements, the Innocents, and the Benedicts.Several journalists have remarked on this.
This obsession is first based on a matter of personal conscience. On May 5, 1988, following numerous meetings with Abp. Lefebvre, which had until then led the founder of the SSPX to Paul VI's office, and then to that of John Paul II, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger reached a historic agreement. The prelate from Écône signed a protocol regularizing the work that he had founded eighteen years earlier. The confidence remained feeble because he was in guard before a Curia that continued to tirelessly celebrate interreligious meetings and to forbid, throughout the world, the celebration of the Traditional Mass. Just a few words from a Cardinal would suffice to make all fall apart. That Cardinal was... Joseph Ratzinger. On the previous day, he had whispered to the Archbishop the terrible idea of having some Masses celebrated in French in Saint-Nicolas du Chardonnet, the historic Paris church of the SSPX. Then, lacking support for it, he had been unable to obtain a specific and definite date for the consecration of the bishop that had been granted. First foreseen for late June, the ceremony was postponed to the Assumption, then following summer, then to Christmas. Confidence eroded. Just before departure, the Cardinal handed to Abp. Lefebvre a model of a letter asking the Pope for forgiveness. It was the last straw. On the following day, May 6, 1988, as the Curia rushed to call journalists to announce the long-expected news, a young priest coming from Albano presented to Monsignor Joseph Clemens, secretary to the Prefect, a letter that he immediately folded again, since his emotion was so intense. The Bavarian monsignor was undoubtedly the only one to witness the distress of his countryman, the Cardinal, as he delivered to him the note by which Abp. Lefebvre reneged upon his signature. For years, the Cardinal lived with this burden, a burden which he still mentioned to a Central-European bishop shortly before ascending to the chair of Peter.
Twenty-four years later, the Cardinal reaches the helm of the Church. Things are going badly, quite badly. All that might have indicated, a quarter-century earlier, that the Traditionalist restoration would never take place has failed. Wojtylian Neo-Conservatism has run out of steam. Charismatism has not managed to revert the trend. In the old Christian nations, the churches are empty, the belltowers fall in disrepair, seminaries close down and the so-called Catholic journals barely survive. What remains is the Pope's case of conscience, with which he busies himself shortly after his election, as one of his collaborators, who had become a Cardinal himself, affirms that the Society has become "a thorn for the Church". But, with the years gone by, the evils of the post-Conciliar period are to be rooted out, as so many bad fruits that the Roman Pontiff can only remove out of fear that they will infect the whole flock. In Austria, and in some European regions, the priests revolt. In the United States, religious women join forces against Rome, all in the name of the Council. Hostile media does not hold back in order to magnify the errors of a clergy that have embraced the world so much that, in some cases, they have taken on its moral vices. The very authority of the Church is mishandled. At the sound of noses that announce every month the end of the pontificate, some dicasteries seem to act individually. Not to mention those dioceses that do not profess the Roman faith anymore. And yet a shock weapon remains for Benedict XVI, this famous affair that worries him, that of the Fraternity. Each step that had brought him closer to it has indicated, at the same time, the growth of the hatred of the adversaries and of victory over them. Pope Ratzinger mentioned it to the Bishops on March 10, 2009: "And should someone dare to approach [the Fraternity] – in this case the Pope – he too loses any right to tolerance; he too can be treated hatefully, without misgiving or restraint." Isn't there in these words of the Pope, pitted against the world, a distant echo of that appeal he launched in the beginning of his pontificate asking for prayers so that he may not flee for fear of the wolves?
Truthfully, there remains no other choice. In the spring of 2012, the determination of Benedict XVI seems to be such that the SSPX may not even have the possibility of choosing. The statute will fall upon it from above, by mutual agreement or by force. The Pope wants its regularization with a resolute will, whether or not it accepts the Council, whether or not it accepts the new mass. He undoubtedly does not share the thinking of Marcel Lefebvre and of his disciples, according to whom religious liberty lands a fatal blow on the missionary spirit. Nevertheless, he has taken the chance of opening up doctrinal discussions which, all through the Church, have opened the gates of the questioning of the contested principles of Vatican II. Is the pope truly this sure of himself? By regularizing the Society, even though the doctrinal discussions have failed, he makes it understood, in some way, that one can be of the Church and not espouse the ideas of the last Council, leaving it as an option, as the new mass has been for the past five years. What is certain, and this personal dilemma recalls it, is that the Supreme Pontiff beloieves, before God, that the title of "Catholic" cannot be refused to the work of Abp. Lefebvre. This is the only concern that inspires him.
The road is not finished. Let us recall that, in 1988, regularization had failed for problems of a canonical nature that affect mutual confidence. And everything seems to point to the fact that Bp. Fellay is more than ever decided to keep the principles claimed by Abp. Lefebvre. Only the context is different. A quarter-century ago, papal determination was not this resolute. Besides, mercy has ceded room to persistence. And now the Roman Pontiff seems to establish, more than ever, a barrier against the fruits of the marriage between the Church and the world - a union that we cannot but identify as conciliar.