Rorate Caeli

A Historian observes the Catholic moment
+ Special Interview +

Third part of our Interview Week.

Luc Perrin is a professor at the University of Strasbourg 2 - Marc Bloch, where he teaches History of the Church. Perrin, widely known in Traditionalist circles in France, has written several works on the History of the pre-Conciliar and post-Conciliar trends in the Catholic Church, including on the so-called "Traditionalist Question", such as L'affaire Lefebvre (The Lefebvre Affair) and Paris à l'heure de Vatican II (Paris at the time of Vatican II).

As a Church historian, Perrin has deeper knowledge of all aspects involved in the current disputes in the Church than most analysts. One year after the historical visit of Bishop Fellay to Castelgandolfo, we asked him a few questions.

"Professor Perrin, thank you for accepting our invitation. It has been a year since the Pope's meeting with Bishop Fellay, Father Schmidberger, and Father Nély in Castelgandolfo. Has the Traditionalist situation improved during this period?"

First precision and if you may correction : "the Traditionalist situation" is not entirely dependent on the relationships between SSPX and Rome. It is a common erroneous simplification. So the real "starting point" is not the late August 2005 meeting between Bishop Fellay and pope Benedict XVI, but the pontifical election of April 2005. Any pope can seriously improve "the Traditionalist situation" if he wants so and if he feels it is a necessity, with noticeable repercussions, far beyond the existing Traditionalist movement : the Roman traditionalists under the present regime of 1984-1988 indult and motu proprio, sometimes called Ecclesia Dei Catholics, the SSPX and those among the independents that recognise the legitimacy of the pope ; maybe some sedevacantists could be influenced by the way by such an improvement.

One major question at stake in the traditionalist debate - there are others - is the liturgy. Everybody knows Joseph cardinal Ratzinger, now Bishop of Rome, wrote extensively on the numerous failures of the so-called "Liturgical reform", that is, the revolution that instaured or established the Novus Ordo Missae and the general swift in Catholic mentality from a Mass centered on the mystery and the seek of a communion with God as Eucharistic Body into a "celebration" full of noise and agitation, the stage of a battle for some lay militants to play a priestly role, a trivialisation and obfuscation of the central Catholic (and for the Eastern Churches) doctrine of the Real Presence.

The Cardinal who constantly blamed this liturgical revolution of the 1960s and 1970s is now the reigning pope. Those who are claiming this revolutionary destruction of the sacred is one cause of the Church crisis are not only the Traditionalists. By the way, cardinal Ratzinger made it perfectly clear he was not a Traditionalist himself.

So since April 2005, what has been done ? In terms of decisions, in terms of real achievements, the answer is very easy: nothing! Everybody in the Church was waiting for a move on the Liturgical field, whether freedom for the Traditional Latin Rites (the Roman rite 1962 missal, and all the other Latin rites like the Ambrosian...) or some first steps in the "reform of the reform" (revising N.O.M.) ; at least, a clear orientation but the initial encyclical Deus caritas est is addressing another topic.

A superb occasion was offered by the Synod of Bishops October 2005 and has been wasted. The elite of the Catholic episcopate is still entrenched in the delusional "Renewal" : too many bishops, like a vast majority of priests and numerous militant faithful are living in the 1960's-1970's world, trying to accommodate the liberal media with a drop of feminism, more "fun", more "inculturation". All the "solutions" that have been proven, after 40 years, destructive and negative, they want ... more. Some like cardinal Daneels are considering the disaster but cannot face the real solutions : there is no sake out of N.O.M. and the Bugnini "Renewal", according to them. We can only hope the post-synodal exhortation the pope is going to deliver will be more relevant than the mediocre proposals that have been made public, for the first time, after the Synod.

So far no impulse, no decision : a complete waste of time ? For 2005, it's obviously yes. The direct impact of the election was very limited on the extension of local indults : in France, the notorious anti-Traditionalist champion, Bishop Daucourt, granted an indult in his diocese of Nanterre but Archbishop Jordan in Reims didn't ; worldwide, very few new locations have been conceded for Roman Traditionalists and the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei (P.C.E.D.) under cardinal Castrillon Hoyos has not muscled its policy regarding hostile chanceries. A minute progress has been made with the first personal parish erected in the diocese of Toulon-Fréjus, the first in the whole Europe. A continental canonical taboo has been broken by Bp. Rey but no other bishop went on ...

2006 saw some events that could lead to some improvements. The SSPX question has been officially debated in 2 Curial meetings and during the Consistory. We have to go back to 1986 to have such a focus given by Rome to this problem. Even the 2000-2001 talks never got this level of attention. In June and July, the newly appointed Sri-Lankan secretary of CDW, Abp.Patabendige Don, delivered striking interviews pointing out the failure of the "reform" on several accounts. Nothing new in fact except that nobody at that level of responsibility (n°2) ever talked like that before ! Boring statements on the "richness" of the new liturgy, ecstatic references on the mass of the Council (sic), ritual praise of the Great Experts, enthusiasm, joy etcetera. The Stalinist or Orwellian language of the neo-liturgical establishment is well known by the (un)happy few who have to read these piles of documents. It has also to be said that CDW is a Bugninist fortress, the temple where the memory and misdeeds of late Abp. Bugnini, the architect of N.O.M., are revered.

But no matter how strong and refreshing these statements of Abp Patabendige Don may be, they are still words for the moment being. Finally everybody - whether in favor or opposed - is waiting for a first decision in Liturgy : the canonical status of Roman Traditionalists is left unchanged, the practical and canonical status of the Traditional Latin Rites is as confused as it was under John-Paul II, discussions with SSPX have brought nothing new on the table. The Liturgical chaos of N.O.M. is there just like it was in April 2005. The genuine renewal is still an expectation.

Traditionalists can reasonably expect the timing will be more alert than during the pontificate of John-Paul II : meeting with Abp. Lefebvre in 1978, first Instruction to correct a few gross abuses in N.O. masses 1980, publication of the Indult allowing bishops to grant the celebration of the 1962 missal ... 1984. With a similar time-table, "the Traditionalist situation" would improve in ... 2011.

"As you mentioned, there were many interesting and rapid developments in Rome in the first months of 2006. Even the French Bishops said, at the end of their Spring meeting, that some development in favor of Traditional Catholics would be forthcoming from the Holy See in 'the next weeks or months'. From a historical perspective, do you believe that the Pope has been pressured to stop the next developments? Or is it, as many believe, a strategic suspension before stronger measures?"

Cardinal Ricard said later it is likely something, he stressed he was just guessing, could happen in 'the next weeks or months'. But your readers must know the outcome from the French Bishops conference meeting held in Spring was certainly not "in favor of Traditional Catholics"! Basically the French Bishops as a Body solemnly rebuked the creation of a Personal Apostolic Administration for the present Roman Traditionalist faithful, they set up a small task force to draft guidelines, i.e. a straitjacket to prevent new benevolent French bishops to act like Bp Rey did and painfully accepted the possible decisions of the Holy See related to SSPX.

But the idea of a possible reconciliation with the Society is such a torment for a majority of the French episcopate that the Conference listed 3 very poorly phrased conditions for a full communion with the Church, one of them - the absolute prohibition of any criticism of N.O.M. - would make the present pope (and many with him) ... a schismatic !

The popes - plural - have always been heavily pressured from the start with Paul VI by those who want the Holy See to do as if their own doctrinal and pastoral opinions were the Conciliar doctrine and by extent the Church doctrine, without any possible discussion. Paul VI was under heavy pressure from cardinals Villot and Garrone ; late English cardinal Hume confessed to have heavily pressured John-Paul II in 1986 to prevent freedom granted to the Traditional Roman Rite, late cardinal Eyt rejoiced publicly when the talks were stalled in 2001, immediately after the August 2005 meeting, former Curial cardinal Pompedda made hostile statements...

Let us just look at a fact : Abp Lefebvre met John-Paul II in 1978 and raised several questions, among them the Mass. The pressure on the benevolent Polish pope was so intense that the Indult was only published in 1984, and CDW poured so many restrictions in it, this document was nearly not implemented before the 1988 motu proprio Ecclesia Dei adflicta.

I'm not a mouse living in the corridors of the Vatican but there is no doubt that huge pressure is applied on pope Benedict. Catholic News Service (Aug. 25, 2006) is printing an interview of Bp Fellay : he says "I think probably the pope would like things to go quicker, and he's probably facing a lot of opposition from the cardinals, from within", adding that in one year "there's been no development" on the issue. Indeed this is factual. However I would be surprised if the pope decides to give up and bend to the hostile lobby. We have already mentioned the declarations of the CDW secretary and mid September, the new secretary of State, cardinal Bertone, will replace cardinal Sodano : a more Ratzingerian Curia is slowly emerging.

According to the legend, the Corbinian bear on the papal coat of arms was not a fast runner but he didn't flee away from his duty. The Traditionalist question is a decisive part of a wider picture where the future and health of the Church are at stake : former cardinal Ratzinger knew it, pope Benedict will have to face it too with the inevitable unpleasant backlash.

"What do you believe the reelection of Bishop Fellay as head of the FSSPX means, especially regarding the dialogue with the Holy See?"

It's a question hard to respond because it depends on where you stand : a supporter of Bp Williamson, a journalist of "La Croix", Fr. Aulagnier, cardinal Castrillon Hoyos and, say, many West European bishops, all will look at the event from different perspectives.

First, the reelection was more than expected : it's nearly written in the SSPX constitutions. Abp Lefebvre was inspired by the old constitutions of the Holy Ghost Fathers : the majority within the Chapter general was given to priests appointed by the Superior general to a list of responsibilities and only a minority of "delegates" were elected. Abp Lefebvre drew radical conclusions from his own experience in 1968 and suppressed entirely the election, the minority of non appointed members in the Society is made out of the oldest in membership. Consequently, the Superior general had an overwhelming potential support within the Chapter general : he made no mystery he was ready for a second mandate of 12 years so if he had not been reelected, we would have a serious crisis within the Society. Continuity prevailed and we can guess the leading members of SSPX are supporting the complex "centrist" policy of Bp Fellay.

Are the rank and files supportive just as well ? Without any election, it's difficult to say. However the unity of the SSPX remains intact after this reelection, which means apparently some wider support to Bp Fellay.

From a benevolent Roman point of view, this was probably the best possible issue. At least, Bp Fellay made it clear he wants to keep alive a link with the Holy See, he doesn't reject the "conciliar" episcopal body, he has been stressing for many years the importance of "Romanitas" within the SSPX, when the de facto schism was reducing the Church to an ideal, a philosophical notion. With the Great Jubilee of 2000, Bp Fellay urged his priests to contact the hierarchy in order for the faithful to gain the indulgence through the scheduled pilgrimages, culminating in the Society pilgrimage to Rome. The talks and the - alas too brief - encounter with pope John Paul II in 2000 were a consequence of this general attitude of Bp Fellay, joined to a renewed longing for a reconciliation from the pope, actively helped there by the then new president of P.C.E.D., Dario Cardinal Castrillon Hoyos.

But we all know what did ... not happen. A powerful Curial and episcopal opposition threatened an ill, exhausted pope on one side, tensions and fears within the SSPX on the other side and everything was "stalled" as Bp Fellay once said. The reconciliation like a mirage vanished again, nevertheless leaving the Church with a new canonical structure, the Personal Apostolic Administration of Campos (Brazil) and the first bishop consecrated in full communion with Rome in the Traditional Roman Rite since 1969.

In this case, everybody is able to notice similarities : history seems a sort of perpetual repetition. The August 2005 meeting with Benedict XVI was much longer, some talks took place again with the same Cardinal-president of P.C.E.D. and the same hostile voices were heard : negative echoes came from the Curial meetings presided by the pope, very reluctant cardinals spoke at the Consistory and on the other side, the same tempestuous hostility from Bp Williamson, joined by Bp Tissier de Mallerais, cold and warm showers alternating whether from Rome or Bp Fellay. Ultimately none of the 2 conditions posed by SSPX in the beginning of 2001 are fulfilled today.

For Bp Fellay to change his "centrist" orientation - no shift toward a de facto sedevacantism, no formal reconciliation -, would be possible only with a significant move from the Holy See on these 2 prerequisites.

The doctrinal questions, which are very important for the whole Church, are still to be addressed by the way. Skipping them for a purely canonical agreement is not an option, as far as I can know. A split within the Society would be hard to avoid then, the positive consequences of a reconciliation on the rest of the Roman Church would be then reduced to the Society chapels.

Cardinal Ratzinger suggested in 2002 a sort of mixed commission to discuss the disputed points of Liturgical doctrine. I've always felt it was a way to be tried, following the experience of the ecumenical dialogue, but maybe with a more substantial hope to find an issue.

The crucial papal speech of December 22 to the Roman Curia is, so far, the most significant act in the whole pontificate of Benedict XVI : it has to be said this fundamental doctrinal and hermeneutic approach of Vatican II legacy, with huge pastoral implications, has been widely discussed within the small Traditionalist circles and adamantly ignored by 99% of Catholics...

His Holiness will need to do more than whispering at some gentle Curial ears to be heard on this decisive question.

"As a historian, do you see fundamental differences between Archbishop Lefebvre and Bishop Fellay in their respective attitudes regarding relations with the Holy See?"

As a historian, I must stress the radically different contexts where both had to make decisions. Abp Lefebvre was looked at with pity as a poor old missionary who missed the train of Progress and Destiny, who was unable to marvel at the wonderful "modern world" with its fantastic opportunities for the Catholic faith, who didn't share the certitude of the imminent reconciliation of all Christian Churches promised by the always-smiling ecumenists... A Scotsman would say he was a "crabbit", one of those complaining, procrastinating people, a mere reactionary condemned to die and to be forgotten.

Summer 2006 : the provincial superior of the Jesuits in France was warning against the major "risk", according to him, of marching back into the Catholic past. Needless to say that today Tradition is taken more and more seriously within the Catholic Church, even by those who are loathing it. Questions raised by SSPX and the Traditionalist movement at large have today a much bigger echo in the Church, even if there is a range of various responses. The context for moving to a reconciliation is undoubtedly better for Bp Fellay than it was during Abp Lefebvre's time.

Otherwise, I'm struck by some crossed attitudes : Abp Lefebvre was more on a radical, separatist position during the 3 last years of his life and had been permanently open to a negotiation in the previous years from 1974 to 1988. Bp Fellay was first elected in a context of "cold war" between Rome and SSPX and went into what I call his "centrist" policy in the second half of his first mandate. The context is playing here a major part as we said before. That being said, both have accepted to meet Roman officials, both have met bishops, both have accepted to meet the pope (3 times for the Abp, twice for Bp Fellay), both have always pledged to refuse any formal schism. Abp Lefebvre was even reconciled during a night in May 1988, after signing an agreement drafted by ... Joseph Ratzinger. The lack of trust in a hostile context lead to what happened next. Nobody knows what the Holy Ghost may inspire to both sides in the coming future.

"Do you have any comment on Bishop Williamson's latest words?..."

Bp Williamson and Bp Tissier de Mallerais have, before the Chapter general, made both clear they were opposed to the "centrist" policy of Bp Fellay. Both had made similar statements already in 2001-2002 : Bp Tissier went as far as to consider the present Roman Catholic Church is not a Christian Church, casting serious doubts on the validity of the "conciliar" priesthood, calling it a "gnostic priesthood" (homily of June 27, 2002). Even the generally discreet Bp de Galaretta told nearly the same thing as Bp Williamson in this interview. In a homily in June 3, 2001, he was considering the Church being divided in two categories of modernists : the "speculative" modernists, radically opposed to the SSPX and the "pragmatic" modernists "more practical, naturally more conservative because they adjust themselves to realities, and so more open to us, but they are also false and double faced people".

Nothing new under the sun as you can see !

This is reflecting the constant dilemma that regularly shakes the Society founded by Abp Lefebvre : in 1976 the Abp had to expell Fr. Guérard des Lauriers o.p. from the teaching staff at Écône seminary because of his "Cassiciacum thesis", a very subtle theory that has been called later "Sedeprivationism", a complex form of sedevacantism. On the other hand, in 1988-1989, several priests left the Society to join the full Roman communion, launching what has become the "Ecclesia Dei" movement. Bishops Williamson and Tissier are both pushing the pendulum as close as possible to Fr. Guérard des Lauriers without trespassing the Rubicon, like approving Fr. Cekada's Sedevacantism.

Studying Abp Lefebvre's life, you will find whatever quotation you need to back up the centrist position of the reelected Superior general, the radical anti-Roman stance adopted by Bp Williamson and the compromise option advocated by Fr. Aulagnier before his eviction from SSPX.

But beyond these pressure games within SSPX, very similar to the pressure strategies played within the so-called "conciliar" Church, Bp Williamson is pointing out a crucial question, which is the core of the Traditionalist question the Church has to face, whether She likes it or not : the neo-modernist philosophy that has pervaded through the Church. What is acceptable, inevitable or necessary ? What is lethal for the Catholic faith ?

Catholicism has never been a fundamentalism and Tradition implies a historical dimension, Catholicism also has always marginalized eremitism, the cultic option which is at the root of Protestantism. Catholicism is also a strong dogmatic corpus which is offered to all human beings throughout the entire history, a Church built upon the rock instead of the opinion polls sand...