Rorate Caeli

What Next for the FSSP & Co?

Michael Charlier
February 22, 2022

The February 11 papal decree granting the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter the continued use of liturgical books according to the traditional rite is a pleasant surprise. But in the environment created by Traditionis Custodes and the document from the Congregation for Divine Worship, Pope Francis’s step, unexpected in this form, also raises irritating questions. Too great is the contradiction between the will expressed in these documents to oust the traditional liturgy from the life of the Roman Church and the willingness now expressed to maintain the care of the traditional liturgy and its spirituality granted to the institutes by predecessor popes. The immediate danger of a breakup or division of the priestly fraternities seems to have been banished—in this respect there is reason to rejoice. But the tools for their marginalization and isolation from the Church as a whole continue to be ready, and much remains unclear.

Already with the talk of institutes in the plural, doubts arise: will all ex-Ecclesia Dei communities really receive a corresponding edict, as seems to emerge from the communiqué of the Fraternity of St. Peter about the conversation with Francis—or will there be differences here, and if so, what kind?

But even for the FSSP itself, many uncertainties remain when one looks at the regulations of individual bishops, issued with reference to TC, which sharply restrict the public use of the traditional liturgy by communities. This is true of the Pope’s own Roman diocese, whose Vicar General has forbidden the FSSP the use of the pre-conciliar Missal for the feasts of the Triduum in their personal parish; it is true of Cardinal Cupich’s order to celebrate only in the new rite on the first Sunday of each month; it is true of the ban on the administration of the sacraments according to the traditional rite that has been pronounced by several bishops. And what does the decree’s recommendation to the FSSP to “take into account as much as possible” the provisions of TC actually mean?

Do diocesan prohibitions established by the authority of local ordinaries remain in place, or are they now revoked by this new decree just a few weeks after they were issued? Did the bishops, who placed themselves in the front line of the opponents of the tradition, really act on their own authority with their decrees—which one cannot imagine at all in the case of the Roman Vicar General—or did the Pope, for reasons unknown so far, see himself compelled to distance himself from his own directives? And what reasons could these have been? The insight into the legal untenability of his actions? The possibly stronger-than-expected passive resistance of numerous local bishops to his use of force? Or the simple application of the slogan “What do I care about what I said yesterday,” which Francis also appears to use frequently as a guideline for his actions?

With the new decree, is the claim that there is only one form of the lex orandi in the Roman rite—that being the liturgical books of Paul VI—already off the table, or is there only a change in the choice of the method that will be followed to achieve the goal of this formula?

Not for the first time in this pontificate, the contradictions in Francis’s thinking and the inconsistency of his approach present the observer with questions that are difficult to answer—not to mention the challenges this unpredictability poses for the curial functionaries called upon to act in accordance with papal directives and with those responsible in dioceses and priestly communities. Could it be that a Jesuit who has run off the rails is taking pleasure in seeing just how far he can go with the demand for the cadaverous obedience of his subordinates—a style of obedience that is (not altogether unreasonably) imputed to the founder of his order? Is what was white until yesterday really black today, if the superior declares it so?

Some of these questions will already find an answer (at least a provisional one) in the coming weeks, for example when the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter prepares for the celebration of the Triduum in its Roman parish. For other more fundamental questions, only speculation remains. We allow ourselves such a speculation, which starts from the premise that Francis and his kitchen cabinet are not really acting out of a lack of plan in such a seemingly contradictory way, but are pursuing an actually realizable ecclesiastical-political goal. We take three facts into consideration:

—First, the invention, in TC, of the thesis (which has become law) of the impossibility of two different rites being called the lex orandi of the one Roman Church;

—second, the far-reaching restriction of the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter to the use of the ancient liturgy in its own quite limited space (the apostolates that immediately belong to it), while at the same time urging the far-reaching removal of this liturgy from the diocesan space; and

—thirdly, the (relatively) accommodating attitude of the current pontificate towards the Priestly Fraternity of St. Pius X, underlined again in recent times by talks within the Curia and an audience of Fr. Pagliarani with Francis.

How does all this fit together?

The only answer to this question that does not impute a considerable degree of insanity to the persons acting leads us into speculation on the subject of a “reservation” or, as we would decidedly prefer to put it, “a rite-church” [Rituskirche, i.e., a distinctive rite within the Church].

Does Pope Francis want to push the traditional rite, which he can neither legally “abolish” nor de facto put out of use, into a reservation designed as a canonical gray area, outside of which the traditional doctrine and liturgy can have as little impact as possible on the modernist Roman Church committed to the lex orandi of Paul VI and the theology of the spirit of the Council? Are he and the SSPX looking for a way to avoid the hard break between Rome and the Lefebvrists that would inevitably occur if the SSPX were soon forced to consecrate new bishops without any kind of consultation with Rome? What might such a “coordination” [between the Vatican and the SSPX] look like, without being interpreted as recognition of the SSPX as fully legitimate on the one hand, and a submission of the SSPX to “modernist Rome” on the other? Does Francis—and with him, no doubt, a considerable part of the Curia—want not only to continue to deny any bishops to the “recognized” Ecclesia Dei institutes, but also to make it difficult or impossible for them to be ordained by “Roman” bishops and in the traditional rite? Might this be intended to push the institutes closer to the SSPX bishops and thus further into the canonical gray area? Could the acceptance of such an old-rite gray area—not in this pontificate, and probably not in the next—be the precursor to the emergence of a full-fledged ordinariate or a church sui iuris?

Some of these questions—for example, a settlement for bishops for the Society of St. Pius X—will find an answer in the foreseeable future, others not so soon. On the crucial question of an “accepted gray area in no man’s land” or a “recognized autonomy in communion with Peter,” the answer depends not only on the will of a pope but also on the determination and perseverance of the faithful and priests who hold fast to the doctrine and liturgy that have been handed down. Ordinariates or rite-churches are not created out of thin air by an act of Roman will. Rather, their foundations are formed in the multifaceted “reality of life” of the Church, which will sooner or later cause even a reluctant Curia not to withhold a legal form from what is already a vital reality.