Rorate Caeli

Setting things straight about the SSPX-Vatican talks:
What exactly happened in April-June 2012?
A guest article by Côme de Prévigny

A narrative has dominated the news on the Society of Saint Pius X (SSPX) in the past year: those difficult priests did not accept the extended hand of Pope Benedict XVI; hard-hearted people with stubborn demands, they missed the chance of a lifetime. As in the narrative created by news-creators such as John Allen Jr:

Short of standing outside their headquarters in Econe, Switzerland, in the snow and begging forgiveness like Henry IV at Canossa, Benedict XVI did everything possible to heal the split, and yet the society balked. In an Easter letter to friends and benefactors, Bishop Bernard Fellay asserted that Rome has imposed acceptance of the Second Vatican Council as a sine qua non -- a prerequisite, Fellay wrote, "to which we could not and still cannot subscribe."

Many observers believe it's now "game over," at least for the foreseeable future and barring some surprising concession on the Lefebvrist side. (Here's a prediction: Rejection of Benedict's overtures will go down as the "Camp David" moment for the Lefebvrists, comparable to Yasser Arafat turning down a 2000 deal that would have given the Palestinians basically 95 percent of what they wanted.) (Source)

We in Rorate have always stood for the regularization of the SSPX; one of our first editorials defended that "this is the time" for an agreement - and by "the time" we meant not 2006, but the Pontificate of Benedict XVI. Our readers know we have covered more extensively this matter than practically any other online source - even moments ago, on a matter reported on Sunday by the German press.

In April 2012, a probable regularization certainly seemed to be the case, and who can forget the (leaked) letter of SSPX Superior-General Bp. Bernard Fellay to his fellow bishops? On June 13, 2012, what seemed to be a meeting that would set the path for such reconciliation, following the acceptance by the Vatican of the negotiated Doctrinal Preamble, ended in flames as Bp. Fellay and his assistant met a Vatican side that suddenly came up with new demands - more stringent even than those contained in the May 5, 1988 Protocol. Why would the side that always has the upper hand in any Catholic discussion - that is, Rome - do this, that is, raise new stakes near the end if not from an interest to derail any agreement? Who in the Vatican forced the Supreme Authority's hand at the eleventh hour? Why?

We now know that, in the middle of Vatileaks (which were also made public at around the same time), the Pope's position gradually became untenable. We know that because of what would happen on February 11, 2013. We know now that his isolation, always present throughout the Pontificate, had become critical since the explosion of Vatileaks in the heart of the Pontifical Apartments - that Francis (rightly, it seems, considering what happened with his predecessor) has refused as his living quarters. And we can presume that the pressures on the Pope reached unbearable levels. Truly unbearable.

We asked our friend Côme de Prévigny to present a brief history of those decisive months: something happened in the Vatican between April and June 2012 that created the need for unprecedented demands, more stringent even than the contents of the 1988 Protocol; the "stubborn SSPX" narrative, regarding what took place in June 2012, is simply unsustainable.


One year later
by Côme de Prévigny

Over one year ago, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith delivered to the Superior General of the Society of Saint Pius X (FSSPX / SSPX) a document presenting three necessary conditions for the canonical recognition of the work of Abp. Lefebvre, a famous document that should put an end to several years of discussions.

Some weeks earlier, the entire press indicated that the regularization of the SSPX was certain. Andrea Tornielli, the famous Italian Vaticanist, predicted: "In May should be reached the end of the road leading the Society of Saint Pius X, founded by Abp. Lefebvre, to full communion with Rome." Henri Tincq, a journalist with Le Monde, not known for any indulgence with the traditional cause, has covered religious news for decades. According to him, it was merely a matter of days: "the imminence of an agreement that should be signed between the Vatican and the Society of Saint Pius X, the stronghold of integrist Catholics, is not in doubt anymore." On April 19, his fellow journalist Bernadette Sauvaget, of Libération, wrote: "Since Tuesday, some Vaticanists have affirmed that agreement has been reached." All the echoes emanating from the Pontifical Apartments allowed for the confirmation, without much second-guessing, that the doctrinal declaration proposed by Bp. Fellay had been accepted by the Pope and already the most hostile observers considered that Rome that conceded all ground to "the Integrists". On the side of the Society, however, the expectation remained realistic, by insisting on the fact that the roadmap remained uncertain. Several relevant points, both doctrinal and canonical, remained open to clarification and the discussions were not yet over.

The text sent back to Rome was a declaration dated April 15, 2012, proposed by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and revised by the Superior General of the SSPX. In its great lines, it was a copy-paste of the May 5, 1988, Protocol of Agreement that Abp. Lefebvre had rejected not due to its doctrinal basis but because of its context (the points related to the Roman Pontiff or to the new Code of Canon Law are the same, for instance). The document negotiated twenty-four years later had its weaknesses, and its progresses that counterbalanced, on the other hand, those same weaknesses. For instance, the text speaks of conciliar formulations that are "not reconcilable with the previous Magisterium of the Church", while the 1988 Protocol was limited to saying that they are "reconcilable with Tradition only with difficulty". There were the document signed by Abp. Lefebvre indicated "a positive attitude of study and of communication" regarding the Council, the one that Bp. Fellay had written was stronger because it neutralized any "interpretation of these affirmations that may lead to present Catholic doctrine in opposition or in rupture with Tradition and with this Magisterium". Whatever the case may be, this counterproposal was presented, and it was said in the Roman halls that it would open the path to an imminent recognition. In order to prove that the search for unity begun by the founder was not seen as an optional point, the Superior General of the SSPX did not fear the public criticisms of his British confrere or the rebellious attitude of a friendly religious community.

However, the June 13 meeting three new points were superposed to these exchanges, which would, in a few hours, ruin the process begun many months earlier. Among these conditions was to be found the recognition of the continuity of the conciliar texts in relation with the preceding Magisterium, which contradicted the doctrinal declaration that mentioned, on the contrary, their non-reconcilable character. Moreover, the authorities introduced the need to recognize the "liceity" of the new mass, a new term that had been, it was known, the object of bitter debates. This had never been demanded, neither in 1988, nor of the different institutes regularized up to that moment. These new demands left the impression that there was a desire to interrupt the process very elegantly as well as suddenly, by the introduction of inadmissible points.

What were the motives for this about-face that was sudden and that was incongruous with the attitude adopted by Benedict XVI for so many years? Undoubtedly, the influence of certain heads of dicasteries strongly opposed to this recognition, as well as specific diplomatic pressures, had their influence on the inclination of the pope. A few months later, the latter resigned from his position in the stormy context of the Vatileaks. As a French university professor rightly remarked recently, these leaks have ceased as if by magic since pope Ratzinger stopped presiding over the fate of the Church. Does this mean that the dossier of relations between Rome and the SSPX is dead and buried and that the Traditional world will relive those days of silence that were the 1990s? It is true that Benedict XVI was very close, personally, to the matter. Nevertheless, the restart of relations in the early 2000s took place in the pontificate of John Paul II. In France, in any event, the Society of Saint Pius X had, on the ground, obtained more for its local pilgrimages from bishops supposedly far from it than from those considered conservative. Bp. Perrier, of Lourdes, opened for years his shrines, lending liturgical objects and ornaments, while the diocese of Versailles, governed by Bp. Aumônier, who knew Abp. Lefebvre well in the early years of his priestly life, never granted anything to the work that the latter founded.

Beyond these considerations, the dynamics of the traditional movement, invigorated by the liberation of the Mass and the lifting of sanctions affecting the bishops of the Society, will increasingly make clear the unavoidable character of Traditional groups. Ignoring them now seems hardly tenable.