MENZINGEN, Switzerland — Reconciliation between the Society of St. Pius X and Rome looks to be imminent, as a key obstacle — opposition to certain aspects of the Second Vatican Council — may no longer be a cause for continued separation from the Church.
Bishop Bernard Fellay, the superior general of the SSPX, told the Register May 13 that he is “persuaded, at least in part, by a different approach,” in which, he believes, Pope Francis is placing less weight on the Council and more emphasis on “saving souls and finding a way to do it.”
That message was reinforced this week when Pope Francis himself 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.”
According to Bishop Fellay, the Vatican is telling the society, through nuanced words, that it is now possible to question the Council’s teachings on religious liberty, ecumenism and liturgical reform “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.”
In 1970, Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, a French Holy Ghost Father, founded the international society to form and support priests in spreading the Catholic faith throughout the world.
But its opposition to some teachings of the Second Vatican Council regarding ecumenism, freedom of religion and aspects of liturgical reform came to a head in 1988, when Archbishop Lefebvre ordained four bishops in 1988 against the express wish of Pope St. John Paul II. All five incurred automatic excommunication, and the society has been in a canonically irregular situation ever since.
Archbishop Lefebvre died in 1991, and the Vatican and SSPX have been earnestly working towards reconciliation since 2000.
Benedict XVI sought to improve relations, first in 2007, by confirming that priests may celebrate the Mass in Latin according to the 1962 Roman Missal (officially called the extraordinary form of the liturgy) and stressing that it had never been abrogated, and then lifting the excommunications on four surviving SSPX bishops in 2009.
He also opened formal reconciliation talks with the SSPX in 2011, but those subsequently faltered because the Vatican, apparently in contrast to Benedict’s own wishes, raised the stakes on the central issue: that the society accept the validity of all of the Council’s teachings, including the texts on religious freedom and human rights that the SSPX rejects as theological “errors.”
The latest groundbreaking and surprising concession on this issue has, therefore, brought the SSPX to the brink of regularization that, sources say, could happen in a matter of weeks or months.
Pope Francis received Bishop Fellay for the first time in a private audience last month, signaling a clear intent on the Holy Father’s part that he wishes the society to be regularized. “Bishop Fellay is a man with whom one can dialogue,” he told La Croix.
The Pope also announced that SSPX confessions would be valid and licit during and after the Jubilee Year of Mercy. Until then, Rome considered them as invalid because they lacked necessary jurisdiction.
The SSPX is now understood to have the Vatican’s draft of an agreement to sign to formalize regularization, but wants to make sure it has secure guarantees. “The ball is in their court,” a Vatican source told the Register May 12. “We want them to go ahead with it.”
The Message From Menzingen
Bishop Fellay sat down for a lengthy interview with the Register on a wet and blustery Friday in May, the feast of Our Lady of Fatima, at the SSPX’s motherhouse in Menzingen, near Zurich, Switzerland.
The modest building, a former Swiss guesthouse, surrounded by rolling Alpine foothills and farmland, is undergoing some renovation. About 25 priests and nuns live there; and due to the SSPX’s expansion because of abundant vocations, they are contemplating finding larger premises soon. On a table sits a unique pewter jug surrounded by several small mugs, each engraved with a key moment in Archbishop Lefebvre’s life.
Despite a punishing schedule with extensive travel, Bishop Fellay arrived in good spirits and spoke freely and openly in English. He is well aware how surprising and strange it appears that reconciliation seems so close, under a pope regarded as being far more concerned with other matters.
“[The situation] is really paradoxical, because we haven’t changed anything, and we continue to denounce what is happening,” he said. “Nevertheless, you see this movement in our favor, inside Rome.” He said he has noticed that the longer the talks continue, “the more lenient Rome becomes.”
But he also noted two different approaches in Rome to the SSPX question. “We have to distinguish the position of the Pope, which is one thing, and then the position of the CDF,” he explained, referencing the Vatican’s doctrinal office, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, led by Cardinal Gerhard Müller, which is offering major concessions for regularization. “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.”
According to the SSPX leader, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has a “new perspective” on the society, and, contrary to comments made by Cardinal Müller in 2014, it no longer sees the group as 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,” said Bishop Fellay. “They [in the CDF] 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.”
In an interview with Zenit in February, Archbishop Guido Pozzo, secretary of the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei, which is charged with regularizing the SSPX, said the Holy See wants “clarification” on the society’s criticisms of the Council, but these can also take place “even after full reconciliation.” He said the SSPX must also move away from “polemical and antagonistic confrontation.” A Vatican source said the society has already “toned down some of their literature, interviews and publications.”
Confirming what Rome sources have told the Register, Bishop Fellay implicitly made it clear that it is the Vatican that has reached out to the SSPX, rather than the other way around, even though the society sees reconciliation as their right and an “injustice not to give it to us.” According to the group’s leader, Archbishop Lefebvre never wanted a break with Rome, and the society has always insisted they have never been in schism.
Bishop Fellay said some in the Vatican see the SSPX as coming to the “rescue” of the Church and by others as coming to the Church’s “help” and revealed that this is mentioned in the conciliation document that they have been offered to sign. One informed source said Rome is giving the society “everything” they need for full reconciliation.
But some associated with the SSPX — including former SSPX Bishop Richard Williamson, who was expelled from the society in 2012, reportedly because he sowed dissent within the SSPX and counseled against reconciliation with the Vatican — believe Bishop Fellay is seeking reconciliation at any cost and that the society risks coming under the influence of what Bishop Williamson called ”modernist cuckoos” occupying the Vatican.
Bishop Fellay rejects such a position as “totally wrong,” insisting, “We’re not going to compromise, to hurt the faith, the discipline of the Church.” Instead, he said, “we’re asking Rome for guarantees that we can continue the way we do.”
“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,” he said.
A personal prelature similar to that of Opus Dei is the most likely canonical structure, and, already, with regards to the sensitive issue of episcopal appointments, the SSPX has agreed to the Pope's choosing a candidate from a list of three proposed by the society.
Bishop Fellay finds Pope Francis perplexing but said that he is someone he can ultimately deal with on a personal level. “The normal way of judging someone is deriving from his actions and concluding he’s acting like this because he thinks like that,” he explained. “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.”
Dialogue With Pope Francis
But the French-Swiss SSPX leader has learned how to communicate with this Pope, by acknowledging that Francis often seems to view doctrine as an obstacle to leading people to Jesus. For the Pope, Bishop Fellay said, “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.”
As for the Pope’s motives, Fellay believes Francis is someone who wants to see everyone saved so, “like a rescuer, he unties the rope, which is his security, to put himself in a risky situation to try to get to other people,” and “that is probably what he’s doing with us.”
Asked if he thought the Pope’s frequent condemnations of “doctors of the law” and “fundamentalists” were partly directed at him and the society, he laughed, saying people in Rome have told him they don’t know who the Pope is referring to. “The answer I got most was ‘conservative Americans!’” he laughed. “So really, frankly, I don’t know.”
As to the Pope’s view of the SSPX in general, Bishop Fellay said his familiarity with the SSPX in Buenos Aires helps. In fact, in his interview with La Croix, Francis said that he “often spoke” with members of the SSPX in Buenos Aires. “They greeted me, asked me on their knees for a blessing,” he said.
The Pope sees that “we care about people,” Bishop Fellay said.
“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 — it is man, the people, who are important — there we have given enough proof that we are Catholics.”
“He sees that we are genuine — period,” said Bishop Fellay. “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.”
Bishop Fellay has spoken before of his concern that the society might “disintegrate,” rather than “integrate,” if regularized. Does he, therefore, fear the Pope might be courting them back into “full communion” in order to neutralize them?
“That’s not his perspective,” he said. “I would say the contrary. He would be someone who would see the advantage of having controversy. … 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.”
Still, the SSPX is seeking to insert safeguards of its identity into any agreement with Rome. And they feel confident they can continue criticizing the post-conciliar Church and the Council if necessary, largely because many other voices are now doing the same. “We will maintain the urgency to make corrections, and I would say that, in part, they [Rome] are starting to recognize that urgency,” Bishop Fellay said.
And if these “corrections” don’t come? “Well, we’ll be patient,” he said, before breaking into a wide grin. “They will come.”
But given the concerns expressed about aspects of today’s post-conciliar Church, highlighted by the recent controversy over the apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia, can the SSPX be confident of the support of SSPX churchgoers for reconciliation?
This appears to be one of the most significant unknowns and challenges for the society. “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,” Bishop Fellay conceded. But, he added, not moving ahead “because things are bad is by no way what God, Our Lord, is requesting from his apostles.”
‘I See It as a Step’
Bishop Fellay is more sure about the situation in the Church, which he sees as inevitably worsening.
“The situation of the Church, when we look at it now, will grow into a really messy situation,” he said, adding that “every Catholic” must do his or her part to strengthen the Church. Canonical regularization of the society won’t be a solution, he said, because the problem “is in the Church” and what is happening now, “which is confusion at all levels, moral and doctrinal.”
So does he see the Vatican’s outreach as a vindication of what the SSPX has stood for over the past decades?
“I see it as a step,” Bishop Fellay said, “which proves how right we were, which is not yet the end by any means.”
Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.
See video of the complete interview with Bishop Fellay here.