Rorate Caeli

Special guest-post:
"Pope Francis and the Society of Saint Pius X"
by Don Pio Pace

Following his very widely read first op-ed here, we are very honored to post this new article by a very wise, knowledgeable, and highly influential cleric, writing under the pen name of don Pio Pace.

His second contribution is one that is dear to the heart of all true Catholics of good will: what really happened with the Society of Saint Pius X in the final weeks of the Ratzinger pontificate? And, most importantly for the moment, what can we truly expect on this subject during the Franciscan pontificate?


Pope Francis and the Society of Saint Pius X

a guest-post by Fr. Pio Pace

In the seemingly endless soap opera of the reconciliation between Rome and the Society of Saint Pius X, an extraordinary historic offer presented itself in February 2013. A missed opportunity. It happened after the announcement of the resignation of Benedict XVI, on February 12, 2013: a personal prelature for the SSPX, a Prelature of Saint Pius X, that had been the object of the negotiations that had been interrupted in June 2012, was once again proposed to Bp. Fellay, the Superior-General of the Society, to be erected on February 22, 2013, feast of the Chair of Saint Peter. But the General House of the Society of Saint Pius X did not follow through with it. It would have been necessary, it is true, to lead from both sides, quickly and efficaciously, final negotiations, in particular regarding the adherence formula, that I will mention later on. The pre-conclave then opened up in March, marked by an extremely violent mood on the reform of the Roman Curia, based on the implicit accusation of impotence of the pontificate that had just ended: one of the failures attributed to Benedict XVI was to have invested in vain on a reconciliation with the Traditionalists, by handing them useless tokens, in particular by way of the Motu Proprio Summorum Pontificum and the removal of excommunications of Abp.Lefebvre's bishps. At that moment in time, before the conclave, taking into account the psychological weight that the Lefebvre question still had at the time, it is not doubtful that, if the last act of the Pontificate of Benedict XVI had been the canonical reintegration of the most visible opponents of the Council, this would have allowed a reduction of the deficit in the "balance of the pontificate" under the cardinals' consideration. And, above all, it would have been what all would be talking about! Instead, the fracture line between "restorationist" and "liberal" cardinals, that had marked the 1978 and 2005 conclaves, became obsolete in the 2013 conclave.


The new pontificate ignores the community founded by Abp. Marcel Lefebvre. Up until then, the SSPX prompted in the Church, at least in Rome, great interest in its events and gestures. There was great interest in its growth -- less so after 1988, but still quite noteworthy since Catholicism in the West is in continuous decline. The criticism, even if badly formulated, of Vatican II and the existence of this priestly reservoir hostile to the conciliar line was a permanent "interrogation," as it is said.

But all the attention that the pontificate of Benedict XVI had given to the "good interpretation" of Vatican II (inaugural address to the Curia, of December 22, 2005; farewell address of February 14, 2013, to the Roman Clergy) suddenly vanished. True, by having recently welcomed the Franciscans of the Immaculate on June 10, Pope Francis once again expressed his esteem for an interpreter of the Council who is in a line "of continuity," Abp. Agostino Marchetto  (Il Concilio Ecumenico Vaticano II. Per una sua corretta ermeneutica, Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2012). But everyone knows that Francis is a outsider to this debate. While he is not a follower of a theoretical "rupture," he is not at all interested in the attempts that imply proving a "continuity" between the last council and the preceding Magisterium. Vatican II is not for him a collection of texts that contradict, bend, or reformulate this or that prior dogma; Vatican II is a pastoral work of opening up to the world, a "return to the Gospel." Period. As for the prior Magisterium, without calling it into question theoretically, he wishes to apply to it a kind of flexibility (the expression is by Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, Secretary of the Synod of Bishops, a key figure in the Francis Curia), a flexibility that involves putting into parentheses the "rigidities" of doctrine, particularly in moral matters. The Pope has for the ancient Magisterium, for the teaching of Vatican II, and also for the theological concerns of Benedict XVI the respect one has for an elderly person, that nonetheless must not prevent the concern for the true life of the people of today and their concrete problems, for whom Catholicism must be above all a message of joy and mercy.

What is the place, in this context, for doctrinal discussion in general, and for criticism of the conciliar texts in particular? The orientation of Pope Bergoglio leads into part-time unemployment not only Traditionalist theologians, but also classical theologians, and even Progressive theologians -- the Pope being, by mental layout, impervious to this "leftwing" trend -- except for their moral liberalism. Now, that intense reflection and that theological-magisterial activity that had always taken place between the Pope and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith does not exist anymore. One could qualify this stunning new situation that prevails in the Pontifical Palaces -- perhaps one must say "the Pontifical Inns" -- as being the ground level of magisterial teaching.


Nevertheless, if the Francis pontificate is in fact so lightly favorable to the expression of the critical charism of the Society of Saint Pius X, it could, paradoxically, make the obtaining of a canonical recognition easier. The meeting with the Pope that was set up for Bp. Fellay, about six months ago, in a hall of the Domus Sanctae Marthae, while he and his collaborators had a meal in the refectory in the company of Abp. Pozzo and Abp. Di Noia, shows that permanent contacts clearly reestablished between the superiors of the SSPX and the Ecclesia Dei Commission, and that they are approved by the Pope. On which bases were these relations reestablished? Precisely from the fact of the absence of interest of the Pope for the hermeneutical questions regarding Vatican II, it seems that the famous doctrinal "conditions" presented to Bp. Fellay were placed in the file boxes. It is anyway what emerges from the information that persons in charge of relations with the traditionalists let out: they gather that submitting to the signature of Bp. Fellay doctrinal declarations that were too strict was a mistake.

It is known, as a matter of fact, that, during the negotiations (September 2011 - June 2012), the creation of a Personal Prelature, of which Bp. Fellay would have been the Prelate-bishop, and the canonical recognition of all the foundations of his Society were subjected to the suspensive condition of his adherence to a Doctrinal Preamble. To summarize it, the agreement failed in June 2012 on the following: Bp. Fellay wished to declare that, "it is legitimate to promote, by a legitimate discussion, the study, and theological explanation, of expressions or formulations of the Second Vatican Council and of the successive Magisterium, in the case that they do not seem compatible with the prior Magisterium of the Church;" his interlocutors of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, raising the bar, demanded from him to declare that, "it is legitimate to discuss, study and explain, theologically, the expressions or formulations of the Second Vatican Council, particularly to aid in the comprehension of their continuity with the prior Magisterium of the Church." The "particularly" rendered both formulations quite close all the same.

Anyway, these meticulous details are not up-to-date today. Well, then, the Prelature of Saint Pius X for tomorrow? Alas! Bp. Fellay, who, in June 2012, was completely willing to close the gap, in July 2014 is not interested anymore. The reason given to the Pope himself in their meeting is that, if he signed a deal, his Society would explode. In reality, after a difficult General Chapter, in July 2012, after the exclusion of Bp. Williamson and of the "hardest" members, the SSPX Superior has found again his usual wait-and-see approach. It must be admitted that there are excuses: the programmed destruction of the Franciscans of the Immaculate, under the pretext that they were "crypto-Lefebvrian," an absurd accusation with no foundation whatsoever and no theological content, does not bode well for a canonical integration of the Society founded by Abp. Lefebvre.

What is the opinion of the members -- of the priests, in any event -- of the SSPX? No poll numbers are available. But it is known that the priests who are more hostile to a canonical agreement fear a doctrinal contamination, and the inevitable compromises that would follow a deal. They are but a minority, but an influential one. However, with the aid of the habits of independence, the great majority of the SSPX clerics are the ones who simply have no interest in an official ecclesial space, which is unsettling. Finally, some of them, the "dealists," assert that the SSPX apostolate would multiply by ten if it enjoyed an official recognition, and they underline the dangers of a growing psychological gap between the Society of Saint Pius X and the remainder of the Church. The concerns of the latter display common sense, and even a Catholic sense. But what does it mean to be canonically "on the inside" or "on the outside" today? One must admit that, when one hears, for instance, Cardinals of the Holy Roman Church peacefully questioning the indissolubility of marriage, there is some difficulty in locating who is inside the Church and who is outside. Who is "on the inside," Bp. Fellay or Cardinal Kasper? But if Bp. Fellay is waiting for Cardinal Kasper to leave in order to get in, he may have to wait for a long time. On the other hand, if he got inside, canonically, he could help -- perhaps not with getting the latter to leave, but at least, at first, help with marginalizing him.

[Original posting time: July 3, 7 pm GMT]