Edward Pentin began reporting on the Pope and the Vatican with Vatican Radio before moving on to become the Rome correspondent for the National Catholic Register. He has also reported on the Holy See and the Catholic Church for a number of other publications including Newsweek, Newsmax, Zenit, The Catholic Herald, and The Holy Land Review, a Franciscan publication specializing in the Church and the Middle East. Edward is the author of “The Rigging of a Vatican Synod? An Investigation into Alleged Manipulation at the Extraordinary Synod on the Family”, published by Ignatius Press. Follow him on Twitter @edwardpentin
The interview transcript has now been added to the end of this post.
Part 1/3: The Superior General of the Society of St. Pius X gives a rundown of the reconciliation process and explains that the SSPX is at a "very interesting" but "more confusing" stage in its relations with the Holy See. He says the Pope and the CDF have a different approach to the Society, but the same conclusion: to give the SSPX recognition. He also responds to whether Archbishop Lefebvre's insistence that reconciliation would only be possible if Rome repented of its errors is still valid, and if the SSPX were regularised, whether obedience or adherence to Tradition would take precedent.
Part 2/3: Bishop Fellay discusses the Society's motivations for reconciliation with Rome at this time, safeguards to prevent compromises with the post-conciliar Church, and discloses that some in Rome see the SSPX as coming to the Church's aid at a "catastrophic" and worsening time for the Church. He also shares his views on the Holy Father, and how the Pope views the SSPX.
Part 3/3: In this final segment, Bishop Fellay discusses whether the SSPX feels vindicated by the current situation in the Church, whether the SSPX will continue to be critical of aspects of the post-conciliar Church after regularization, and how he now sees Bishop Richard Williamson who was expelled from the Society in 2012. Bishop Fellay also answers a question on an alleged missing part of the Third Secret of Fatima.
INTERVIEW WITH BISHOP BERNARD FELLAY FOR THE NATIONAL CATHOLIC REGISTER:
May 13, 2016
Feast of Our Lady of Fatima
Your Excellency, at what stage are we in the talks between the Holy See and the Society of St. Pius X?
This relationship with Rome doesn’t date from today. We may say, even at time of the excommunication, because of the bishops’ consecration in 1988, there was never a total break with Rome. We never wanted to break from Rome. Archbishop Lefebvre was absolutely explicit on that. We had disputes, yes, and I may say the concerns continued till now. But these relations have become closer in the year 2000. So I may say it was a first step at the end of that year, when we had the pilgrimage in Rome for the holy year. And at the end of the year, Rome, through Cardinal Castrillon Hoyos who was the president of the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei, told us the Holy Father wants us to solve this problem. At the time I told him: “Yes , that’s fine, that’s good, but there’s one problem: we don’t trust you.” We were describing the way they had treated other movements, especially the Society of St. Peter [FSSP], at that time. Nevertheless, talks started sporadically but which allowed Rome to get to know us a little bit better and with some years, it was obvious that Cardinal Castrillon had come to the conclusion that we were absolutely not schismatic. He said it several times, that we were Catholics. Still, he obtained the termination of the decree of excommunication which was followed by the painful situation of Bishop Williamson’s statements which brought in again some cold, but at the same time, we went a step further.
We had asked for two preambles before going further, because of this lack of trust, and these were to give, to recognize that every Catholic priest had the right to say the Tridentine Mass — something which seemed impossible in 2000 appeared to become fact in 2007 by Pope Benedict XVI when he really recognized this right by saying the Tridentine Mass had never been abrogated. So that was one major point that really re-introduced the freedom of the Mass, at least in theory, at the level of a right into the Church.
Then the excommunication which was the second point was, two and a half years later, terminated. So we said once this was done, we needed to talk, we needed to talk about the doctrinal problems, the problems we see as doctrinal problems. And fair enough, Benedict XVI said these discussions were necessary. I don’t think we had the same optics, but nevertheless we agreed on having talks which happened over two years at the higher level
At the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, we had meetings and discussions on the different points of controversy which are, we may say, catalyzed in the Council, and which were introduced into the life of the Catholic Church through the Council, Vatican II. After these two years, Rome made a formal proposal which appeared to us to be too ambiguous. That means, it wasn’t going to solve the problem. I told them: “If we get an agreement on something ambiguous, we just postpone the problem and have to deal with it afterwards, it will make it even worse.” So I said: “We need to get to something now, before.” There was an intense back and forth situation which ended with no result. It was very difficult to see it through because I was told by people inside, very close to the Pope [Benedict], that in fact what was proposed to us did not correspond to the Pope’s views so it was very easy to see what was going on.
With the new Pope, now, Pope Francis, we arrived at the next stage, a new situation, and which is very interesting but even more confusing. I call it a paradoxical situation because, if I may say, the problems which we denounce are worsening in the Church, while a certain part, especially in Rome, is starting to say and to recognize that something must be done.
So on the side of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, there is a new perspective on us, which claims that, thanks to these discussions, it appears, once again, that the Society is not schismatic. That means that the points we defend do not touch the points that would separate the Society from the Church, either at the level of schism or worse, the level of heresy, against the faith. They still estimate that something should be clarified on the question of the perception of what is the magisterium. But we claim they make it confusing, especially when we can see nowadays there are issues that don’t belong to the magisterium — which is very confusing. You have the highest authority in the Church which is saying: “I’m not teaching”. So what is it then? Is it binding? Obviously we see that they want to bind. At the same time they say it is not binding. So it is really, really messy.
This is what surprises many: that there seems to a greater chance of full communion now than there’s ever been and yet the Holy See and the Pope seem to be, in your eyes, moving away from what you would prefer.
That’s precisely what I call paradoxical. It is not ambiguous. We can explain what is happening there, but I have to add there are two lines now: we have to distinguish the position of the Pope which is one thing, and then the position of the CDF. 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. But I’m persuaded, at least in part, by a different approach, which may in the end come to the same, which means giving less importance to the problem which we consider important, which is the Council: that means by lessening the binding of the Council.
Those are now “open questions”, you say?
I say that in a provocative way. They will not say it that way, but what they say is that the questioning of religious liberty, of Nostra Aetate, of the other relations, of ecumenism, even to a great extent the liturgical reform, are no longer a cause of separation from the Church. In other words, you can question these things 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. That, to us, would be very important.
How does this square with Archbishop Lefebvre saying that there couldn’t by a chance of reconciliation unless Rome repented of its errors? Has that changed or is that still the case?
No, I think you have two levels there. One is in which reality do we live? We expect the Church to be pure and holy and we confess it to be so. But we very well know that we have many people Church, from the top to the bottom, who are not living that way. That’s not new, it’s always been like this. You say, OK you have good Catholics, you have lukewarm Catholics, you have dead members, they all are members of that Church. So you have to give room to some unfortunate happenings in the Church that we admit, because we see in the Church not a human reality but a supernatural reality with the human element. We continue to keep looking at the holiness of the Church while criticizing, attacking, reproaching, condemning those elements opposed to the holiness and purity of the doctrine which come from Our Lord.
Our archbishop [Lefebvre[ always had that position. He was a bishop in the Church, he knew the state of the Church, he knew the people around him weren’t all perfect and neither would he dare himself to call himself perfect. Everybody has some defects…. It doesn’t mean we have to agree with everything. The problem comes when these attitudes come from the top. You get a problem of obedience there which is very serious. And in that sense, I’d say, you have to take the words of Archbishop Lefebvre: now we’re not going to obey on these things.
If you did come back into full communion, and if there were a conflict between the two, what would take precedent, obedience or Tradition?
First of all, real obedience can only be in Tradition. So the Pope is not a freelancer. He cannot invent whatever pleases him. He is bound by what we call the “deposit of the faith.” It’s the famous quote on the infallibility of the Pope, that the Holy Ghost has never promised to St. Peter and his successors that through a new inspiration, the Pope could invent something new. Absolutely not. There is no permission of help from God in such a situation. But the [Vatican I] Constitution continued: With the help of the Holy Ghost, the Pope may keep, conserve saintly, and transmit faithfully, this deposit of the faith. So if you speak of obedience, yes of course, a Catholic must be obedient, provided the superiors, the prelates, bishops and pope continue with the teaching and to be faithful to their mission.
What are you main motives for coming into full communion? Is it partly because you have to ordain new bishops?
No. First, we have always repeatedly and constantly said: We are not outside the Church. And so we maintain that. We have all the elements that are necessary and understood in former times to be in communion with the Church. I may say, with the Council, they have invented a new sense of the word “communion”, speaking of “full communion”, “partial communion”, which is confusing again – again – because the normal Catholic would understand the word communion in the old way, which is either you are in, or you are not. You are schismatic or you’re Catholic, period. Now they have introduced this “not in full” communion and one doesn’t know what it is, really. So we just claim we have the right to be labeled as Catholics, because we are, because we recognize the authorities and because we recognize all these elements as necessary. That’s the first point. But beside that, I do not seek this canonical regularization as an absolute. For me it is a given, a right to have it, but we’re not going to compromise, to hurt the faith, the discipline of the Church, to get that. We consider it as an injustice not to give it to us, and so we claim our point of view. That’s all. And so if we are put in a choice, let’s say, of between keeping the faith or making a compromise, it’s clear what we’re going to do. We’re not going to compromise.
This is a concern of some, Bishop Richard Williamson for example [who was expelled from the Society in 2012 because of disobedience], that you’re going towards a certain modernist tendency by become part of the post-conciliar Church. What do you say to that, that there’s a danger of this, and what safeguards are there in place to prevent that danger from being realized?
I may say there are dangers everywhere. The general situation of the Church is very risky right now. You have dangers everywhere. I always describe our situation as one of being on a crest, a mountain, and you have two abysses: one on your right and one on your left. If you put your foot wrongly too much to the right or too much to the left, you fall. The devil doesn’t care on which side you fall, what matters for him is that you fall. I consider it almost a miracle that we have not fallen till now and, let’s say, we pray that we may not. So no, Bishop Williamson’s perspective is totally wrong. He thinks first that we want to compromise, that we want this at any cost. And then, the second point, he says we will be under the influence of liberal people and as they would be the authorities, we would necessarily go into the mainstream. Once again, that’s not for us an option. So we ask, we request from Rome, for guarantees that we can continue the way we do.
And have you seen guarantees you could accept being put forward, or not yet?
I think that the more we go on, the more lenient Rome becomes. And that’s why we begin to speak about getting closer, because Rome is little by little granting what we see as a necessity, and what they start to see as a necessity given the situation of the Church. It’s not the whole Rome, it’s a part of it, it’s the conservatives who are totally appalled by what’s happening in the Church.
Given the confusion in the Church at the moment and the discontent among those on the conservative side, as you say, do you see yourselves as perhaps coming to the rescue of the Church?
Some in Rome say that to us, some will not use the word “rescue” but “help”, and definitely, even in the proposed document [on regularization], this is spoken about. So it’s not us who invent something. The situation in the Church is, really, let’s say, catastrophic. And I say finally, now, in this catastrophe which is increasing, you have voices who start to speak and people who approach us and try to consider our position as not always so bad as it was looked at before.
Someone have reflected that if you were regularized, it’s almost as if God’s mercy is being shown to those who are very upset about the confusion and uneasy about the situation in the Church now. Do you see the hand of God in this?
I’m persuaded that God has not left his Church. He allows trials but He is always there. It is always a little bit difficult beforehand to give such names and labels but for me, the fact is, we are not condemned in that situation, which is really paradoxical because we haven’t changed anything and we continue to denounce what is happening. Nevertheless you see this movement in [our] favor inside Rome. So for me, yes, I do see the hand of God in that, but in that sense, if that would happen, and I’m not yet sure [it will], definitely it would be a good sign of the mercy of God — yes, for everybody.
You’ve said that you like this Pope, you like certain aspects of this Pope.
The Holy Father is totally atypical and the problem we have when we approach him is to try to put him in one of these categories we’re used to. And if I may say, one of the major problems is that the normal way of judging someone is deriving from his actions and concluding he’s acting like this because he thinks like that. So if you go back to a doctrine or sometimes an ideology with the present Pope you are totally puzzled, because one day he does something and the following day he does, or says, almost the contrary. So that is what is one of them most confusing points about the present Pope.
I think we have to understand his approach is not at that level. He’s said this several times: he’s said that he considers doctrine as quite an obstacle in dealing with people. For him what is important is life, it’s the person, and so he tries to look at the person and there, if I may say, he’s very human. Now what are his motives? Here again, we always try to look there. For me he appears as someone who would like to see everybody saved, to see everybody have access to God, and who, like a rescuer, unties the rope which is the security to put himself in a risky situation to try to get to other people. That is probably what he’s also doing with us. For the modernists, he has certainly untied the so-called secure rope to get to us. And he himself has told us that he has had some problems with people in the Church because of this approach, but he’s using the same approach to everybody.
The Pope’s harshest criticism always tends to be directed to the “doctors of the law” and whom he views as pharisaical. Some would argue that he’s talking about, among others, the Society. What do you say to that, that he seems to be most angry towards people like yourselves?
I asked some people in Rome, who is he aiming at? They didn’t know, they didn’t know what to say. They said “maybe you, but…”. The answer I most got was: “Conservative Americans”! So really, frankly, I don’t know. He definitely dislikes people who are too ideological. That’s very clear. And I think he knows us enough from Argentina to see that we care about people. Yes, we may have a very strong position on the doctrine, but we care. So we show a genuine, so to say, action following this doctrine and I think what he’s reproaching is not that. Certainly he doesn’t agree with us on these points on the Council which we are attacking. Definitely he doesn’t. But for him, as the doctrine is not so important, man, the people, are important, and there we have given enough proof that we are Catholics. That’s the approach that he has.
You reportedly said recently that you think he sees the SSPX as sympathetic to his own concerns about a self-satisfied established Church that no longer looks for the lost sheep.
I would not go so far, he just sees that we are genuine, period. He certainly sees things he would disagree with in us, things he would like to see us change, but for him that’s not what’s important. What’s important is to love Jesus and that’s it.
If this does come to fruition, under the terms of any regularization would the SSPX be willing to hand over to Rome the right to choose its own candidates for episcopal ordination, in rejection of your own personal wishes?
It’s not what he’s forcing. Rome is forcing in the choice, or in the nomination of the superior of the new canonical structure, that we would present three names, and the Pope would choose among them the superior who would then be the bishop.
And if he chose one you didn’t like, you preferred someone else, would that be a problem?
We cannot go into all the possible negative situations. If it is given to us that we choose three I think then it’s up to us to choose the right ones.
Some people think even if you are regularized, what’s to stop people now joining the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter, (FSSP), if there are no real differences?
I think in time it’s the Fraternity of St. Peter that’s going to join the Society of St. Pius X!
But do you see yourselves as perhaps coming into some sort of alliance at some point?
I don’t see it happening quickly because there’s too much in the past. They separated from us, they claimed we were schismatics and so on, and even now a part of them continue that kind of situation. So I don’t think this will come so quickly, even with recognition, because they base their statement on [certain] grounds, and I don’t think they’re ready to change those grounds. So I mean there will still be grounds for dispute. I don’t think everything is fine, it’s not true. The situation of the Church is not fine. So it will be up to everyone to look at this and reflect on how we get out of this mess.
The situation of the Church, when we look at it now, will grow into a really messy situation which means there’s a lot of work to do and everybody, every Catholic, is placed to reflect on what do we do actively, or passively, to get back to a normal situation in the Church. So I don’t think that to be recognized canonically is eliminating the problem, which is not us. The problem is in the Church and is what we see now, which is confusion at all levels, moral and doctrinal.
Do you feel vindicated in what you’ve been saying for the past 30 years or so?
I see it as a step which proves how right we were which is not yet the end by no means.
And if you were regularized, what safeguards are there that you could continue being as critical as you have been, or if you feel you have to be?
Well right now what has been happening for about two years is that other voices have arisen. That [fact] is a practical guarantee. We are no longer the only ones. If we would have been the only ones [being critical], that could have been a concern, but right now, as many other voices start express themselves, it’s becoming a habit, so something granted. And the authorities are almost losing ground because the situation is so severe. So I think that they’ll start to be happy with any voice who correctly starts to address the situation.
As another condition, it’s been suggested that the head of the SSPX might be made a cardinal. Is that something you would insist on?
No, it’s really for the Pope to decide and to choose his counselors because the cardinals are supposedly his counselors. So no, for me we have a job. Our job is to stay in our place and to do our job at our place, and not to dream. I don’t think being a cardinal would change anything. Whatever post, office or job we get, we have to fulfill it in front of God, and that’s it.
On the problems you have with the Council, are you happy for those problems to just carry on if regularized, or will you make some kind of insistence that they be changed or amended in some way?
Rome is forcing discussions on these points to go on. So definitely yes, we will maintain the urgency to make corrections and I would say that, in part, they are starting to recognize that urgency.
And if there aren’t corrections, if you don’t see any movement on that?
Well, we’ll be patient. They will come.
How confident are you that the faithful in the Society are behind you? For example, it’s unlikely they support Chapter 8 of Amoris Laetitia.
But nobody is behind it.
But could an issue like that make them more skeptical and reticent about coming into full communion, becoming regularized?
I think, if you don’t have the whole picture, you’d think they were crazy to make an agreement now. So it will be quite a work and it will take time to be able to bring the faithful to realize this new face in the history of the Church, this new reality. We are in a reality, we have to grasp it as precisely, as accurately possible, in order to handle it correctly. To say we don’t move because things are bad is by no way what God, Our Lord, is requesting from his apostles.
Another possible problem for you concerns this possibility of women deacons. Does that kind of thing make it even more difficult for you to bring your faithful along with you?
It’s just one more thing, it does not change the fundamental problem. It’s just adding one more element to the tragedy the Church is living in, which is the presence of confusion, playing with words, applying to today things that did happen in the past but not in the same way. You find the name “deaconess” in the Holy Scripture when Paul speaks of deaconess, but it was not a sacramental ministry, so it had nothing to do with that. It just had to do with a service, say helping, which at the time was similar – there was a similitude – with a service which was requested from the deacons but that was at a different level because the deacon has, and of course still has, let’s say, a power of the sacraments which the deaconess at that time absolutely did not. So it’s mixing two things and bringing more confusion. And, of course, touching a very delicate point we know modernists want to get into which is a new situation of having women priests and bishops. This is interesting because Rome took the care to label as a sin against faith to pretend that. If someone claims there can be women priests and bishops, he is out of the Church and lost the faith.
Do you think that is perhaps the ulterior motive behind this proposal?
Not necessarily on the part of the Pope because again, he has no ideological strategy. He looks at it from another perspective. But you have people who do have it and who will use it in that direction. That’s very clear.
Do you think the Pope listens to you when you meet him?
He certainly does, but I don’t think he wants to talk about doctrine. So we talk about saving souls and finding the ways to do it.
But doctrine takes second place for him?
From his perspective, in dealing with problems yes, I’m pretty persuaded.
Do you worry sometimes that, as some people think, he wants to bring you in simply to neutralize you and make you be quiet?
That’s not his perspective. I would say the contrary. He would be someone who would see the advantage of having controversy. And he himself is very controversial. So I would rather see him wanting us to be controversial to provoke, and to create a new situation which maybe, in an Hegelian way, would bring a better situation. Of course, we’re against such a dialectical approach, but it could be the one. I’m not sure though that I can make a point on that.
On Bishop Williamson, what do you think about recent episcopal consecration to support what he calls the “resistance movement.” Is that a concern for you and how are you responding to it?
No, for me he is gone — unfortunately, very unfortunately. He is gone and he has just taken another step into the abyss. It’s a stone in the water and it doesn’t change anything. It does not help in any way. It’s a huge mistake and well, let’s pray for him.
Some wonder if you see the irony of expelling him for disobedience given that people criticize you for being disobedient to Rome?
Precisely we claim we are not disobedient. I say we maintain the principle of obedience as a necessity and so whatever the Pope is requesting which is Catholic, corresponding to what the Church has always requested and done, we bow down and follow. So we are not, let’s say by principle, disobedient and obedience is a deep, deep Catholic principle.
Today is Our Lady of Fatima. It’s said that an aspect of the Third Secret not yet revealed is that apostasy will begin “from the top.”. [Alice von Hilderbrand has given testimony affirming such a statement, originally made by Cardinal Luigi Ciappi]. What do you say to this?
I don’t recall such a quote being officially included in the message of Fatima or the secret. You have a lot of reconstructions, theories. One point which is obvious is that not everything was given [revealed]. Sister Lucia, in her third report, gave words of the Blessed Virgin Mary with an “et cetera” and in what has been produced by Rome, there are no words, there is only a vision. So obviously there is something failing [missing]. So what is it? You have a whole effort to try to build or reconstruct this part by quotes from those who have read it. And of course, it’s very interesting. We can certainly say that it deals with the faith. Pope Benedict XVI, then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, said it touches on the dangers to the faith in the Church, not just about the vision and so… You have a report of Father Fuentes, having talked with Sister Lucy, in which he gives a dramatic conference [saying it] might be really not necessarily all the message, or the secret, but the perception Sister Lucia has of this. And there she speaks of a diabolical disorientation, and of course that comes from the top. And I think we have that. It’s in front of us.
How do you think things in the Church will proceed in the future?
The human aspect is very difficult to describe. If God allows this human aspect to continue, that means a big mess. We already have that, but it will be even more, more confusion. Pope Benedict, when he was cardinal, issued a book, “Salt of the Earth”, in which he described a dissolution of the Church into little pieces, with little islands, oases. So yes, if God allows the things which are now in front of us, to develop, that’s the situation we’re going to face. We’ll have little places of Catholicism in the middle of a big tempest, turmoil.
And the principle cause is putting man in place of God in the Church, would you say?
Definitely, definitely. The Church is first of all divine, godly. Its means, its aim, is supernatural, and if you try and pretend to go down, by the aim, by means, to the human, you dissolve the Church, you kill it. Of course, the Church cannot be destroyed, but you do whatever you can to do it [through this].
Do you see it like an eclipse of the Church?
La Salette says that. Eclipse means that the being is still there but you don’t see it anymore, for a while. Will God allow things to go so far? Well I’m sure people now ask themselves “Where is the Church?” So maybe we are already so far.
Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent