The Society of Saint Pius X, the traditionalist group opposed to the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, has said it cannot comply with a Vatican letter on returning to the Church.
Bishop Bernard Fellay, head of the SSPX, said there must be an agreement on doctrinal differences before any accord could be possible.
Speaking at a seminary in Winona, Minn., in late June, Bishop Fellay said the Vatican letter, which stated the Society of St. Pius X must accept Pope Benedict XVI’s authority, was unacceptable and aimed at silencing critics.
In 1988, founder Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre ordained four bishops, including Bishop Fellay, against the will of Pope John Paul II, and all five men were subsequently excommunicated. Relations between Rome and the traditionalists had been extremely strained for years prior to the excommunications, due to the group’s rejection of the Second Vatican Council.
In a June 4 letter, the Vatican pressed the traditionalist society to accept five conditions as part of a reconciliation offer.
The letter was sent to Bishop Fellay by Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyos, the president of the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei. The Colombian cardinal has conducted negotiations with the traditionalists on and off for the past eight years.
The conditions laid out by the Vatican were:
• A commitment to a response that is proportionate to the generosity of the Pope.
• A commitment to avoid any public intervention that does not respect the person of the Pope and that could “be negative for ecclesial charity.”
• A commitment to avoid “the pretext of a magisterium superior to the Holy Father” and to not present the society in opposition to the Church.
• A commitment to demonstrate the will to act honestly in full ecclesial communion and in respect of the Pope’s authority.
• A commitment to respect the date, set in the letter for the end of June, to respond positively.
The proposal also included the possibility of establishing a “personal prelature” or a similar canonical structure for the society, to allow the society a degree of autonomy.
Father Federico Lombardi, the director of the Vatican press office, said the requirements were “the minimum conditions for a relationship based on respect.”
The Society of St. Pius X, which claims about a million followers worldwide, many of them in France, subsequently refused the Vatican’s conditions.
In a statement released June 21, the society repeated its insistence that the excommunication orders should be lifted first.
“The SSPX considers that the preliminary withdrawal of the 1988 decrees of excommunication would foster serenity in the dialogue,” the statement read, adding that it rejected claims over the magisterium. “The SSPX does not claim the exercise of a magisterium superior to the Holy Father’s, nor does it seek to oppose the Church,” the statement read. “Following in the footsteps of its founder, it wants to hand down what it has received, namely ‘what has always been believed everywhere and by all.’”
Speaking in Winona, Bishop Fellay rejected Rome’s request that the society halt its public criticisms.
“We are continuing what we’ve done,” Bishop Fellay said. “They just say ‘Shut up.’ ... We are not going ... to shut up.”
Vatican sources told the Register that Cardinal Castrillon hoped agreeing to the five conditions would facilitate improved dialogue and that the lifting of the excommunication orders could soon follow.
His letter was triggered by two actions from the society. The first was a letter to benefactors in April, in which Bishop Fellay said despite Vatican moves towards reconciliation, the time was not right because Church leaders have not taken steps to reverse the “crisis” introduced by the Second Vatican Council.
The second came May 30, when Bishop Fellay strongly criticized the Holy Father in a homily at St.-Nicholas-du-Chardonnet Church in Paris.
Vatican sources said Cardinal Castrillon found Bishop Fellay’s remarks “shockingly insulting” and consequently sought to bring more order and civility to the negotiations.
Since 2000, the cardinal has had regular meetings with Bishop Fellay and his colleagues, often lunching with them and trying to find a way forward. But few in the Vatican are as optimistic about reconciliation as he is and many Vatican officials have grown to distrust Bishop Fellay and other SSPX leaders.
“I can say in all candor that I do not trust them in anything they say or do,” one official told the Register on condition of anonymity.
“They are all outside the official structure, yet they think they are the real Church and that the universal Church is in schism,” the official added. “They have an incredible arrogance.”
But when asked whether the possibility of reconciliation no longer existed, as some commentators have concluded in the wake of Bishop Fellay’s reply to Cardinal Castrillon, the Vatican official was not so pessimistic.
“The door is never closed,” he said. “They are always free to knock on it if they wish.”
(CNS contributed to this story.)
Edward Pentin writes from Rome.