The Society of St. Pius X is reviewing a statement of principles that the Vatican has said it must accept as a condition for full reconciliation with the Church.

The “doctrinal preamble” was presented Sept. 14 to the superior general of the traditionalist society, Bishop Bernard Fellay, by the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal William Levada. The confidential document, coming after two years of Vatican-SSPX talks, consists of doctrinal points the Vatican wants clarified for full reconciliation.

The Society of St. Pius X rejects the innovative teachings of the Second Vatican Council, particularly the Novus Ordo Mass, the Council’s teachings on religious freedom and ecumenism.

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.”

A Vatican statement issued on the day of the meeting said the “doctrinal preamble” spells out “doctrinal principles and criteria for the interpretation of Catholic doctrine necessary to guarantee fidelity” to the formal teaching of the Church. But it added that the preamble leaves room for “legitimate discussion” about “individual expressions or formulations present in the documents of the Second Vatican Council and the successive magisterium” of the pontiffs elected after the Council.

The statement also reported that Cardinal Levada and Bishop Fellay discussed possible “elements of a canonical solution” if the SSPX is reconciled with the Church. Father Lombardi said the “most likely solution would be a personal prelature,” a Church jurisdiction in which pastoral activities can take place without being limited by geographical boundaries. Headed by a prelate who is appointed by the Pope, the Church’s only current personal prelature is Opus Dei.

In a responding statement on the doctrinal preamble, Bishop Fellay acknowledged that “there is no clear-cut distinction between the inviolable dogmatic sphere and the pastoral sphere that is subject to discussion.” But he stressed the point, made in the Vatican statement, that the document “leaves open to legitimate discussion the examination and theological explanation of individual expressions and formulations contained in the documents of Vatican Council II and of the later magisterium.”

He described his meeting with Cardinal Levada as conducted “with great courtesy and with equally great candor, because, for the sake of honesty, the Society of St. Pius X refuses to evade the problems that remain.”

Although a confidential document, some claim to have seen the doctrinal preamble already. A well-placed Vatican source told Catholic News Agency Sept. 14 that Rome’s overall position in the preamble was “very generous indeed,” while a blogger, who posts on the website, claims it is a “positive surprise” that offers both Rome and the society a “win-win” situation.

Roger McCaffrey, publisher of The Traditionalist magazine, told the Register that the doctrinal preamble probably “contains what they [the SSPX] need to edge back into the boat, while fully, legitimately pointing out that their central contention about the nature of Vatican II was right.”

One possibility is that the document formally underlines what Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger said in an address to Chilean bishops in 1988: that Vatican II “defined no dogma at all” but chose to remain “merely a pastoral council.” It was never a sort of “superdogma,” Cardinal Ratzinger said, which takes away the importance of all the rest.

As French commentator Côme Prévigny remarked, it appears probable that, through this document, the Pope has removed from the conciliar doctrine “its non-negotiable” character and its exclusivity.

“It is not any longer the alpha and the omega of the life of the Church,” Prévigny wrote on the Rorate Caeli. “That life is now once again refocused on its object: faith.”

Yet others remain cautious. The SSPX’s already fragile unity could be threatened, particularly by those members (the so-called “Richard Williamson faction”) who would like the SSPX to be able to appoint its own bishops.

Worse, should the document be accepted, it could result in a severe backlash against the Pope. Noting that Benedict XVI, probably out of sensitivity, has yet to publicly celebrate the Mass in the extraordinary form, McCaffrey wondered “how tumultuous the ensuing weeks will be when the SSPX is given x hundred chapels, schools, seminaries and convents.”

He believes the Holy Father takes a “highly pragmatic” view of the SSPX, seeing its members as part of any effort to re-Christianize Europe. But he fears that Benedict’s own deep desire to have the Catholic Church perceived as a reasonable element of society ready to help, especially in the West, “will be portrayed as something else entirely by a malevolent Western elite.”

The consequences of the Vatican initiative will be known when Bishop Fellay makes a decision on the document after consulting with his confrères. Father Lombardi said that could happen “in a few months.” Others believe it could happen sooner, possibly within a month.

Edward Pentin writes from Rome.