ST. LOUIS — Dialogue between the traditionalist Society of St. Pius X and the rest of the Catholic Church appears to have come to a complete stop. However, hope remains that a full reconciliation is possible in the pontificate of Francis, even as the SSPX faces a rebellion within its own ranks that opposes any full unity with the bishop of Rome.
“I think it is safe to say that the discussions are presently in a state of limbo,” Louis Tofari, spokesman for the U.S. district of the SSPX, told the Register.
The SSPX, a priestly fraternity of more than 560 priests, operates without any recognized status in the Church, since losing its canonical status in 1975. Pope Benedict XVI jump-started a new chapter in trying to bring the society into a regular state in January 2009, by lifting the excommunications imposed on the SSPX’s four bishops, who were illicitly consecrated by its late founder, Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, in 1988 without papal permission.
However, negotiations between SSPX leader Bishop Bernard Fellay and the Vatican broke down in June 2012.
In April 2012, Tofari said, “Bishop Fellay submitted a doctrinal declaration, going as far as possible in the expression of the faith to reach an agreement. He warned them, ‘If you change one word in this doctrinal declaration, we can’t sign. Not one word.’”
However, Pope Benedict intervened and ordered a revision to the text, making clear that the SSPX had to accept the full validity of all of the Second Vatican Council’s documents, including the texts on religious freedom and human rights that the SSPX rejects as theological “errors,” and the legitimacy and validity of the ordinary form of the Mass.
No one outside of the negotiating parties has seen Pope Benedict’s counter-proposal to the April 2012 doctrinal preamble Bishop Fellay submitted to Rome or what words were changed, Tofari told the Register.
Tofari explained the SSPX is still open to discussions and wants “full recognition” of its canonical status in the Church. However, they have not yet made any formal overtures to restarting that dialogue or accepting the doctrinal preamble as defined by Pope Benedict.
“At the present time, we have not heard anything from the Holy See or Pope Francis on continuing the discussions that were begun under Pope Benedict,” he said.
Bishop Fellay now appears to have abandoned the doctrinal preamble as a basis for future negotiations, according to a report from an SSPX British district newsletter, and he has stated that relations between the SSPX and the whole Church are back to where they began in the 1970s.
But the superior general now faces a challenge from an internal source called “The Resistance,” which opposes any reconciliation with the Pope or what the “The Resistance” derides as “apostate Rome.” The challenge is not insignificant: This movement appears responsible for disseminating on the Internet internal SSPX documents related to the negotiations, including Bishop Fellay’s doctrinal preamble, in an effort to derail those efforts.
“The SSPX is going through its own schism right now,” said Peter Vere, a canon lawyer and former SSPX follower.
Vere explained that the expelled Bishop Richard Williamson is “The Resistance”’s spiritual leader and has ordered Resistance priests “to remain in the SSPX until they get booted out.”
Bishop Williamson has denied the Nazis used gas chambers or killed 6 million Jews. He has pushed conspiracy theories of Jewish world domination, as well as adopted the anti-Semitic blood libel of the Protocols of the Elders of Sion. A letter attributed to Bishop Fellay’s “first assistant” Father Niklaus Pfluger (and leaked to the Internet on Resistance websites) rebuked Bishop Williamson for his “hatred of Jews” and scapegoating them for the world’s problems.
The SSPX publicly apologized for Bishop Williamson’s views in January 2009, shortly after Benedict lifted the excommunications against Bishop Fellay, Bishop Williamson and the other two SSPX bishops illicitly ordained in 1998. Benedict subsequently suspended Bishop Williamson from the exercise of the episcopal order, after his anti-Semitic views came to light.
The SSPX expelled Bishop Williamson from the society in October 2012, reportedly in part because of his efforts to undermine the reconciliation discussions with the Vatican.
“The Resistance,” which appears heavily influenced by Bishop Williamson’s views about Jews, may have had some impact on two recent controversial SSPX actions related to the Holocaust.
In October, the Italian chapter of the SSPX offered its chapel for a funeral Mass for Nazi war criminal Erich Priebke, after the Diocese of Rome denied him a public funeral Mass. However, in the face of angry demonstrations, Italian authorities canceled the SSPX’s planned funeral.
A month later, SSPX followers disrupted the beginning of a 75th anniversary commemoration of Kristallnacht — the 1938 attacks against Jewish people and their property across Nazi Germany that marked the beginning of the Holocaust — in the Buenos Aires cathedral. While serving as archbishop of Buenos Aires prior to being elected pope this year, Pope Francis personally led the yearly commemoration ceremony along with his personal friend, Rabbi Abraham Skorka.
Approximately 30-40 SSPX followers, some wearing red berets, shouted the Rosary and distributed leaflets that said that “followers of false gods must be kept out of the sacred temple,” The Associated Press reported.
Tofari said the SSPX protest in Buenos Aires was not aimed at Jews, but was protesting interfaith prayer in the cathedral.
Claudio Epelman, executive director of the Latin American Jewish Congress, said he believed the protesters in the cathedral were closely aligned with the spiritual vision of Bishop Williamson, who had been rector of the SSPX Argentine seminary.
“He preached against the Jews, and he denied the Holocaust,” Epelman said. “And those people, those disciples, who were at the cathedral, they went against the ceremony remembering the Holocaust and [were] attacking Jews.”
Epelman said the SSPX demonstration was traumatic “shock,” especially for Jewish survivors present who had lived through the Nazi pogrom.
“They were going to light candles to remember their families that they lost during the war,” he said. “And then they have to suffer again the same thing that they were enduring before the war and during the war.”
The Church’s theological relationship with the Jewish people, as defined by Vatican II in Nostra Aetate, is a sticking point in the SSPX’s dialogue with the Vatican. However, the SSPX quietly purged its websites of a number of articles offensive to Jews in 2009, after Bishop Williamson’s Holocaust denial became public, and it also expelled Father Florian Abrahamowicz, a former superior of its Italian chapter and another public Holocaust denier.
Reconciliation Remains Possible
Although Benedict is no longer pope, the door for full reconciliation is not closed with Pope Francis, Tofari said. Bishop Fellay, who had been critical of Pope Francis, calling him a “genuine modernist,” later clarified that he regretted his choice of words, because it gave the mistaken impression he viewed Pope Francis as a heretic.
Pope Francis himself, in his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel), has signaled that he wants reconciliation within the Church “wounded by historical divisions.” He condemned ideologies within the Church and urged all to "offer a radiant and attractive witness of fraternal communion."
Vere said that theological work to show the SSPX the continuity of the Second Vatican Council with prior Church teachings continues to advance, especially with a “benchmark work” on religious freedom by Dom Basile Valuet, a Benedictine theologian of the abbey of Le Barroux in France.
He added that Summorum Pontificum, Benedict’s 2007 motu proprio that confirmed the validity of the extraordinary form of the Mass celebrated in Latin, according to the 1962 Roman Missal, and the reconciliation of the traditionalist Diocese of Campos, Brazil, and of traditionalist orders like the Society of St. Vincent Ferrer, also have showed that Catholics should not give up on the hope of reconciliation between the SSPX and the pope.
“There have been real marks of progress,” Vere said. “It is just a matter of time and prayer and allowing both sides to negotiate outside of the demands of the instant media.”
Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff writer.