The Society of St. Pius X may be on the verge of returning into full communion with Rome, bringing a 24-year rift to an end and fulfilling a key goal of Benedict XVI’s pontificate.

Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi told journalists April 18 that the Society of St. Pius X had taken an encouraging “step forward” by clarifying its response to a “doctrinal preamble,” a Vatican document that has become the basis of any reconciliation.

The society’s initial response to the document, given in January, was rejected by the Vatican as “not sufficient to overcome the doctrinal problems that are at the basis of the fracture,” leading the SSPX to submit clarifications of its position on April 17.

As of this writing, the society has no canonical status in the Church, according to Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi, and its ministers “do not legitimately exercise any ministry in the Church.”

Father Lombardi said the document the society has now signed is “substantially different” to the earlier version, which he took to be an encouraging sign. The society insisted “a step and not a conclusion” had been reached and played down media reports that it had given a “positive response.”

SSPX stressed that its clarifications, submitted by the society’s superior general, Bishop Bernard Fellay, must now be examined by the Vatican and the Pope, as disclosed in a Vatican statement April 18.

The Vatican has received the news positively. One official told the Register that the fact the society has now signed the doctrinal preamble “is very important,” adding that it “definitely is a positive response that may well, please God, lead to a full reconciliation.”

Lay members and friends of the traditionalist organization also appear optimistic.

“We are all praying and hoping for reconciliation,” said Toni Brandi, a worshipper at a SSPX church in Rome. “Most members want it, and we don’t think [Bishop] Fellay will make any compromises.”

Some remain skeptical, however, with some seeing the society in particular as unable to make necessary sacrifices and internally split. They also argue that such hopes for reconciliation have emerged before — only to be dashed at the last minute.

But as few people, including inside the Vatican, have seen the contents of the preamble, which has been kept strictly confidential, it is hard for anyone outside the talks to gauge the chances of success.

The society, founded by French Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre in 1969, believes that the Second Vatican Council’s declarations on religious freedom, ecumenism, interreligious dialogue and the liturgy have represented a surrender to modernity that has wreaked havoc on the faithful. The consequence, they argue, has been a crisis of faith that has led to a collapse in vocations and Church attendance in the West and the adoption of irreverent liturgical practices.

Based in Menzingen, Switzerland, the SSPX is bucking the trend of many Western dioceses by attracting a steady increase in vocations.

Predominantly French, it has six seminaries, three universities and 70 primary and secondary schools worldwide, as well as more than 550 priests and 200 seminarians.

Benedict XVI has long argued the Second Vatican Council did not represent a “rupture” with tradition (what is called the “hermeneutic of continuity”), and he has taken various steps to bring the SSPX back into the fold.

These have included freeing up the traditional Latin Mass, lifting the excommunications on four SSPX bishops ordained without

Pope John Paul II’s approval in 1988, and initiating talks with the society in 2009. Those talks culminated in the “doctrinal preamble.”

Although the document’s contents have yet to be disclosed, what is known is that Pope Benedict has said he will not accept reconciliation if the society continues to reject the Council’s declarations and that a key requirement is “religious submission of intellect and will” to official Church teaching.

“The crucial point is how to interpret the Council,” said the Vatican official, adding that he didn’t think the Church would make any compromises. He believes that even if reconciliation should fail, “the process will help to promote the ‘hermeneutic of continuity’ in the interpretation of the Council.”

The slow negotiation process, he said, is “simply the only way such a difficult situation, which has a 40-year history, can be resolved.” Any agreement, he stressed, “would be very significant for the whole Church.”

Once any reconciliation is reached, the Vatican could give the SSPX its own ordinariate, along the lines of the Anglican structure or a “personal prelature” similar to Opus Dei, where a prelate leads a non-territorial diocese.

“It’s important for the society that it is given its own structure or congregation that reports directly to the Pope,” said SSPX worshipper Brandi. “It should not be answerable to a body such as the Italian Bishops’ Conference, whose members are usually modernist and progressive.”

But even if reconciliation does take place and a suitable structure is found, some believe further problems could then emerge.

Roger McCaffrey, an American publisher who once produced Latin Mass magazine, believes any reunion would amount to hitting a “reset button on the entire post-conciliar era,” causing modernists in the Church to scatter and revolt. He said “a lot depends” on how the Church in the United States handles such groups.

Others, meanwhile, remain skeptical about the society’s ability to reintegrate into the Church, believing many of its leaders are simply unable to view certain aspects of the Church’s teaching under post-conciliar Popes as anything but heresy.

McCaffrey praised Bishop Fellay’s conduct during what has been a “very difficult situation,” but he believes that the longer a final decision takes, the chances of reconciliation will diminish. At the moment, however, he sees an agreement as “very likely.”

His optimism will no doubt be shared by the Holy Father, who views reconciliation as vital if the Church is to effectively confront increasing secularist intolerance and attacks on human dignity.

Edward Pentin
writes from Rome.