BISHOP BERNARD FELLAY was one of four priests illicitly ordained bishop by Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre in 1988.
Since 1994, Bishop Fellay has been superior general of the Society of St. Pius X. He has criticized the Church’s new understanding of ecumenism and religious freedom since the Second Vatican Council. He has also appealed to Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI to lift the excommunications against him and the three other bishops and to extend permission for the old Latin Mass to all Catholics.
Bishop Fellay spoke to Register correspondent Edward Pentin by telephone from the headquarters of the Society of St. Pius X in Menzingen, Switzerland, July 11, four days after Pope Benedict expanded the use of the older form of the Latin Mass.
You said you were profoundly grateful for the motu proprio Summorum Pontificum. Would you explain more precisely how important this document is, both to your society and to your relations with the Church?
I would say the importance is not for us, it’s for the whole Church and in that sense it is important to us. So it’s not directly important for us, but it is important for the whole Church.
All the problems we have with Rome and so on, they start with this point, and we say, “Be alert.” In the council and with the reforms of the council, some decisions have been taken which are harming the Church.
There is a crisis in the Church; I think everybody recognizes that, and we at least do see part of the causes in these decisions. We also see bringing back part of the Tridentine Mass as a great part of the remedy — a major medicine to healing the crisis of the Church. That’s why we’re so grateful.
Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyos, president of the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei, the Vatican office charged with trying to bring about reconciliation with the Society of St. Pius X, said that the council never actually asked for the creation of a new rite, but asked for greater use of the vernacular language and more lay participation. So in that sense, he was saying there was never a rupture at the Second Vatican Council with regard to the liturgy. What’s your view?
The major problem we have with the council is ambiguity. That means, you have a text that can lead towards various directions — not according to the text itself that remains ambiguous, but in reality, where the reform has shown that one form of interpretation has been taken.
What we say is that this interpretation does not always correspond to what was held to be Church teaching previously. In fact, most of the progressives in the Church would agree with my statement.
But the Vatican, the Church, would say that the liturgy is something organic, something that evolves over time.
You’re right. And the present Pope has written several times that the reform was not organic — that’s one of his major reproaches against the reform, that the Mass of Paul VI is not organic.
Summorum Pontificum is one thing, but what more needs to be done to bring about reconciliation in that case?
In my view, we deal with a spirit. If the Church is suffering, it’s because a foreign spirit has entered the Church. It’s as Paul VI said: The smoke of Satan has entered the Temple of God.
There is something that doesn’t fit with the Catholic spirit, with the Christian spirit of the Church now. If I may say, it’s a worldly spirit.
I do not see an immediate solution to the problem we are pointing out, but in the long term, we definitely do hope that by bringing back this Mass, it’s also bringing back the Catholic spirit — the former spirit. And the Tridentine Mass is obviously much, much stronger than the new Mass. So in the long term, we have a very, very great hope for reconciliation.
But you say in your statement released in response to the motu proprio that there are still doctrinal difficulties. There’s also the issue of excommunication, which, some say, is not something that can be easily resolved.
My response to that is very simple: The authorities in Rome consider it to be easy. They very clearly don’t consider it to be a very difficult matter.
And on the issue of doctrine?
We believe that by making these two steps [expanding use of the old rite and overturning the excommunications], we create a new atmosphere that will be much more serious, that will calm down passions, and that will then make it possible to serenely discuss real doctrinal problems. That’s almost impossible when passions are so high; there’s prejudice and attribution of thoughts and feelings that weren’t there, misinterpretation.
There are a lot of things that are going on that really need to be cleared up before we can deal with the matter. That’s why we say: “Please make these steps, as they will ease the way.”
On the issue of doctrine, you say that Vatican II declarations such as Dignitatis Humanae (The Right of the Person and of Communities to Social and Civil Freedom in Religious Matters) are ones you cannot agree with. But that being the case, how can there be agreement when the Church cannot, or is unlikely to, go back on such declarations.
Sure, they constantly do that. If you have a text that is ambiguous, which needs more explanation; maybe our contribution will be to clarify these texts.
Shortly after the motu proprio was released, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith published a document aimed at clearing up such ambiguity and confusion regarding doctrine that has existed since the council. Some say this was an attempt to remove all barriers to reconciliation with the Society of St. Pius X. Do you agree with that view, that it will help clear up the ambiguity you speak about?
Frankly not, because then we are saying two plus two equals five.
So the document is irrelevant to you?
I don’t think it helps. It’s a good illustration of the Pope’s position, who tries to suppress any kind of idea of opposition between the Church of the past and Vatican II and the reforms. And he does that by saying listen, the Church cannot be in contradiction with itself, so the past and the present must be one. Well that’s fine, but is it really? So my feeling when I see this declaration is that, well, they are nice words but the reality is really confusing. I find this text very confusing.
To go back to Cardinal Castrillon, he said in a recent interview that with Summorum Pontificum, the door is wide open for a return of the Society of St. Pius X into full communion. He said: “If, after this act, the return does not take place, I truly will not be able to comprehend it.” Some would say therefore you are being unnecessarily difficult — that you should reconcile and then these issues can be discussed.
It’s a point of view. The point of view of Cardinal Castrillon has always been to solve the problem practically, without discussions. Let’s sign the document, the agreement, and then later on we’ll discuss. That is his position.
We say we would like to but we can’t because if we do so, tomorrow we’ll be in the same problem we’re in now. We fear if that happens, then tomorrow we get the same censures as we have now. So first we must discuss and clear things.
So you believe you’re more effective in achieving your objectives in the state you are in than if you were within the Church?
We fear that an agreement now would in a way seem like cheating. We want truth, the whole truth, and justice and charity, of course. We would not like to do something wishy-washy.
What direction would you most like the Vatican to take now?
Continue in that direction; it’s a very good start. We are really grateful to the Pope and we understand that he had to face a very, very strong opposition from many bishops’ conferences. So we are really grateful to him.
Do you feel you’ve been vindicated in a way, that it’s been worth the struggle and it will perhaps make you and the society even more convinced of your own position?
I’ve never seen it in that light. Our concern is to go to heaven, to be saved, and, let’s say, the good of the Church. If all goes well for the whole Church, we are pretty sure we will go well, too.
In his explanatory letter on the motu proprio, the Pope said that neither knowledge of the old liturgy nor Latin is common among priests, indicating that it probably won’t be widely used in any case. Is this a problem for you, that there won’t be a renaissance of the old rite, which you hope for?
We have always looked on this as a long process. It’s very obvious that right now, there will be few who will take the opportunity given to them. But that’s normal because, as the Pope says, many don’t think there is an old rite, or don’t know Latin. So it’s normal that it will take time, but we are sure that if the opportunity is given to them, and there’s the appreciation of what this rite consists of, then no doubt it will come.
And as the rite spreads, the Church will perhaps become more sympathetic to your own views. That’s how you see it?
You’re quite right. This Mass is bringing a new spirit, and a spirit that is much deeper — it goes much deeper. And well, that’s what we want.
Are you concerned about it creating possible divisions?
I have no fear there. As I say, for the time being, it involves so few, so one cannot really talk about division. If things happen gradually, it will not divide. I don’t have great fears about that.
Does it concern you that quite a few bishops were opposed to this?
Well we hope the bishops will have the right attitude towards the Holy Father. That’s all I can say.
It’s said the real problem with this dispute is pride, that it’s pride among members of the society that keeps you from coming back to the Church, and that you’re protesting in a similar way to Protestants. What do you say to this charge?
The answer is the following: The Protestant is protesting because he defends his own view. We don’t have our own view. We speak about what we have received, what we have been taught from our childhood. And so what we speak about is the teaching of the Church, the Catholic Church.
What we say to the Church authorities is: How can we square this teaching that we have been obliged to stick to with the new one that came after the council? So that’s what we say. It’s not a personal defense, but we request truth, and every Catholic, I think, has a right to that truth.
But of course Protestants would say the same in that they would argue they’re searching for truth and doing it their own way. You don’t take that view?
No, we totally disagree with that attitude that says I want to believe from my point of view. If the Pope was to make an infallible statement dogma, we would immediately accept it because we believe in the Pope, we accept the magisterium. But we know the council has never expressed this will to make an infallible statement [on the reforms of the Council]. So we know that the degree of adherence to this teaching is, by far, lower than the one that is requested by an infallible statement.
The council, the bishops, did ask: What is infallible in this council? And there is this famous note, the answer from the secretary of the council, in which he said what is infallible in the council is that which the council says is infallible, and you find nowhere where this infallibility is implied. All the council said was: We want to be pastoral. But if you’re pastoral, you want to speak of statements linked to circumstances and definitely, if that is so, the Church will not want to bind itself with this degree of an infallible statement or dogma.
Yet the Church says the documents are fine, that it’s the way they’ve been interpreted that’s at fault.
The ambiguity is in the text. We say the text is the problem because it leads to another possible interpretation.
You see, the very fact that it’s said we have to “interpret” the council, that the council has to be interpreted in the light of tradition that the present Pope says, means that there are other possible interpretations.
We say the text that comes from a council should be clear enough not to need such an interpretation. It should be clear enough by itself, because if you need an interpretation, you need a second text. And then you give more value to the second text than the text of the council, which is crazy — by my reasoning.
You don’t think, though, that these things, the meaning of the text, must evolve over time and so become clearer and less ambiguous?
You have a text. The words used were expressly used to be ambiguous. It’s recognized by so many scholars, theologians in the Church. It’s a fact and we can’t help it. It’s true, it’s there.
So it means the Church will have the duty in the future to make it clear. And this text that came out yesterday [“Responses to Some Questions Regarding Certain Aspects of the Doctrine on the Church”], we’re not very happy with it, but it is an attempt to make it clearer.
Do you have any other final reflections on Summorum Pontificum?
We are really happy with it, and we do consider this the most supernatural act possible.
It’s a very courageous act of the Pope, very supernatural, and we do hope it brings many blessings on the Church, even if the blessings will not appear immediately.
Edward Pentin writes