A senior Vatican official charged with overseeing efforts to reconcile the Society of St. Pius X with the Church has offered detailed instructions on how reconciliation with Rome could take place in a letter to the society’s leadership and priests.
However, subsequent statements from the SSPX’s general superior appear to show that the advice has gone unheeded.
In a letter sent during Advent, Archbishop J. Augustine Di Noia pinpointed areas of concern, offered detailed advice and said hope for reconciliation after three years of talks will remain strong if Vatican instruction is heeded.
In his eight-page letter, sent in a personal rather than official capacity, the vice president of the "Ecclesia Dei" Commission delegated to oversee the discussion with the traditionalist society began by criticizing the language used in three recent public statements by the society’s heads.
One included a sermon given on the feast of All Saints last year in which the SSPX’s general superior, Bishop Bernard Fellay, criticized the Vatican for allegedly sending the society mixed signals about Pope Benedict XVI’s wishes.
Archbishop Di Noia took issue with the "tone and content" of these interventions and criticized the leaders for using language which appeared to reject key provisions that were still under study. Despite the talks offering a "fruitful" airing of views, the American Dominican said he had come to the "sobering realization" that the terms of disagreement with the SSPX concerning some contentious elements of the Second Vatican Council had remained "in effect, unchanged."
He noted that the Holy See has "consistently maintained" that the documents of the Council must be interpreted in the light of Tradition and the magisterium, while the traditionalist society had insisted that "certain teachings of the Council are erroneous and are thus not susceptible to an interpretation in line with the Tradition and the magisterium."
The society, founded in 1970 by Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, is particularly opposed to the Council’s declarations on religious freedom, ecumenism and interreligious dialogue. The SSPX, which includes more than 500 priests, while technically not in schism, holds no canonical status in the Church.
Archbishop Di Noia then discussed the importance of preserving Church unity, quoting the teachings of Sts. Paul, Augustine and Thomas Aquinas on the issue. Pride, anger, impatience and inordinate zeal are major obstacles to unity leading to bitterness, he said, but these can be overcome through humility, gentleness, patience and "bearing with one another through love."
Quoting St. Augustine, he said one who is an enemy of unity "becomes an enemy of God, for he rejects the gift that God has bestowed on us," and he highlighted Augustine’s exhortation that charity be present to avoid severing unity. He stressed the importance of loving enemies, rejecting "the harsh and counterproductive rhetoric that has emerged over the past years," and not focusing solely on Council passages "that seem difficult to reconcile." Making every difficult theological interpretation of Vatican II a matter of public controversy "has been a mistake," he said.
He warned against using the media to pressure public opinion and having a "parallel magisterium" of theologians, stressing that, within the Church, room exists "for a truly theological and non-polemical engagement with the magisterium."
By only concentrating on the most difficult and most controversial questions, he added, it’s possible to lose a sense of the "analogy of faith" and begin to see theology mainly as a sort of intellectual exercise rather than engagement with the living God.
Archbishop Di Noia concluded by noting that all parties must be "cleansed of the bitterness and resentment" over the past 30 years, ask for God’s grace to continue talks, and pray so the Lord could heal imperfections caused by the difficulties.
"This is a moment of tremendous grace: Let us embrace it with our whole heart and mind," he said. "The only imaginable future for the Priestly Fraternity lies along the path of full communion with the Holy See, with the acceptance of an unqualified profession of the faith in its fullness, and thus with a properly ordered ecclesial, sacramental and pastoral life."
However, Archbishop Di Noia’s concerns and instruction appeared to go unheeded. In early January, reports emerged of a Dec. 28 talk in New Hamburg, Ontario, in which Bishop Fellay had implied that Jews and other groups outside the Church "were enemies of the Church" and therefore opposed to reconciliation.
Elsewhere in his 40-minute talk, he reiterated that the society had received mixed signals from Rome and that portions of the Second Vatican Council "opposed to what the Church has always taught" must be rejected. He also said Pope Benedict’s "hermeneutic of continuity" was untenable because some of the Council teachings run "contrary" or are "opposed to Tradition."
After Bishop Fellay’s comments became public in January, Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said the comments on the Jews were "absolutely unacceptable."
In a Jan. 15 statement to the Italian Religious Information Service (SIR), Cardinal Kurt Koch, president of the Vatican Commission for Religious Relations With Jews, stressed the Church will not go back on the Vatican II declaration Nostra Aetate (On the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions) because it cannot call the Council into question.
Ecumenical dialogue, relations with Jews and religious freedom "are central to the Holy Father’s teaching," he said, "and if a group does not accept the Council and does not accept a magisterium, they need to ask themselves how they see themselves as Catholic. This is the fundamental problem."
He also reinforced Father Lombardi’s initial response, saying that "any form of anti-Semitism is contrary to Christianity, and the Catholic Church must do all that is in its power to stop this."
Bishop Fellay could not be reached by the Register, but speaking on behalf of the SSPX, James Vogel said the comments had been misinterpreted.
The statements were taken out of context, said Vogel, an American SSPX spokesman, "insofar as the media has interpreted Bishop Fellay’s use of the term ‘Jews’ in a racial or political sense, whereas His Excellency meant it exclusively in a religious sense."
"In this religious sense, there is no difference between Jews and Muslims or Protestants, all of whom are ‘enemies of the Church’ insofar as they oppose the spread of the Catholic faith," Vogel continued. "The faith is what we are concerned with, not racial animosity or hatred of persons, as they are opposed to the charity which the Gospel commands of us."
"If I can emphasize anything, it is that the SSPX wants and intends to keep peaceful relations with non-Catholic religions, while maintaining the Catholic doctrine that teaches that Our Lord Jesus Christ is the Messiah to whom every man must convert," Vogel said. "We have made it clear many times we have no sympathy for anti-Semitism or hatred of persons."
Last year, the SSPX could not agree to a proposed "doctrinal preamble" that the Vatican insisted should form the basis for reconciliation between the traditionalist group and the Holy See. Although the contents of the document have not been made public, the Vatican was asking for an acknowledgment from the SSPX that the teachings of Vatican II are valid.
Despite these controversies and the breakdown in talks, the Vatican is intent on keeping the door open for possible reconciliation, but, according to one senior official, current Vatican-SSPX relations remain in an "extremely delicate phase."
writes from Rome.