Cardinal Gerhard Müller has said he expects the Society of St. Pius X, which has always opposed the Second Vatican Council's declarations on religious freedom and ecumenism, to “unreservedly recognize” freedom of religion as a human right, and an obligation to ecumenism. 

In an interview in the June edition of the German publication Herder Korrespondenz, the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith said that if one “wants to be fully Catholic, one must recognize the Pope and the Second Vatican Council.”

Cardinal Müller said he expects a recognition of all the Council declarations that deal with these issues, according to the interview, reported on the Austrian Catholic website, Kathpress, May 24.

His comments come after reports that the Society of St. Pius X, which continues to oppose key teachings of the Second Vatican Council regarding ecumenism, freedom of religion and aspects of liturgical reform, may be close to being recognized by the Holy See.

In 1988, the Society’s founder, Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, along with Bishop De Castro Mayer, ordained four bishops claiming necessity, but the move went against the express wish of Pope St. John Paul II. The Pope had given permission for one bishop to be ordained. All five incurred automatic excommunication and, although Benedict XVI lifted the excommunications on the four bishops in 2009, the society has remained in a canonically irregular situation.

Earlier this month, the SSPX’s superior general, Bishop Bernard Fellay, told the Register that some in Rome were signaling to the Society that it was now possible to question the Council’s teachings on these issues “and remain Catholic.”

“That means, also, the criteria they would impose on us, to have us prove to them that we are Catholic, will no longer be these points,” he said. “That, to us, would be very important.”

Furthermore, he stressed that Rome had two different approaches: “We have to distinguish the position of the Pope which is one thing, and then the position of the CDF,” said Bishop Fellay, who also insisted the SSPX would not compromise on its position. “They don’t have the same approach but have the same conclusion which is: Let’s finish the problem by giving recognition to the Society.”

He added that he was “persuaded, at least in part, by a different approach” that meant giving “less importance to the problem which we consider important, which is the Council: that means by lessening the binding of the Council.” The Pope, Bishop Fellay said, sees doctrine as “quite an obstacle in dealing with people” and, in his wish to see “everybody saved”,  unties a secure rope “to get to us.”

But Cardinal Müller, whose insistence on the SSPX adhering to the Council's teaching is clearly more pronounced than that of the Holy Father, told Herder Korrespondenz that one cannot discount the Council as “only pastoral chatter" just because it adopted no binding dogmas.

The CDF prefect said that no pope has ever proclaimed Christ's Resurrection as an ex cathedra [infallible] dogma, and yet it “belongs in the center of the creed, it is the foundation.”

“Key statements, even if they are not proclaimed ex cathedra [and thus infallible], are, for us Catholics, still essential,” he said, adding that it is “not acceptable to take one and reject the other." 

Cardinal Müller also said in the interview that one must not be fascinated by every homily from a bishop or pope. Only the magisterium, which is a declaration of faith, needs to be accepted, the cardinal stressed, according to the Kathpress report.

"Religious freedom as a fundamental human right and freedom to protect religion regarding the supernatural revelation in Jesus Christ are recognized by every Catholic without reservation", he said in reference to the relevant Council declarations. 

The recognition of the Second Vatican Council is "not an unreasonably high hurdle” to overcome, he said, adding that it was rather “the adequate remedy to enter into full communion with the Pope and the bishops in communion with him.”

The CDF prefect further asserted that Pope Francis’ relationship to the SSPX does not differ from that of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. "He sees this and similar groups as Catholic, but still on the way towards full Catholic unity." 

Earlier this month, Pope Francis hinted reconciliation could be close, telling the French Catholic daily La Croix May 16 that the SSPX are “Catholics on the way to full communion” and that “good dialogue and good work are taking place.”

He also received Bishop Fellay for the first time in a private audience last month, and told La Croix he is “a man with whom one can dialogue.”

Last year, the Pope made his first overture to the Society by announcing that SSPX confessions would be valid and licit during and after the Jubilee Year of Mercy. Until that time, because of their irregular canonical status, their confessions were considered invalid because they lacked the necessary jurisdiction.