Is There a ‘Profound Change’ Between Rome and the SSPX?

Pope Francis may soon offer the Society of St. Pius X regular canonical status within the Church

VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis may soon offer the Society of St. Pius X regular canonical status within the Church, without requiring the acceptance of certain texts of the Second Vatican Council with which they disagree.

It also appears the SSPX may itself be poised to take such a historic step, urging that “perhaps only Pope Francis is able to take this step, given his unpredictability and improvisation,” according to an internal SSPX document that was leaked to the press in recent weeks.

The memo, titled “Considerations on the Church and the Position of the Society of St. Pius X in It,” outlines six reasons why the group should accept an offer of regularization by Pope Francis, provided “an appropriate ecclesial structure” is ensured. It also addresses possible objections raised against such a move.

“It seems the time to normalize the situation of the society has come,” the memo reads.

The document, dated Feb. 19, was written by Father Franz Schmidberger, rector of the SSPX’s seminary in Germany. Father Schmidberger served as superior general of the SSPX from 1982 to 1994.

In the memo, Father Schmidberger asserts that the Vatican has been “gradually lowering its demands and recent proposals, no longer speak of recognizing neither the Second Vatican Council nor the legitimacy of the Novus Ordo Missae.”

On April 10, Bishop Bernard Fellay, the current superior general of the SSPX, said before some 4,000 pilgrims in the French city of Le Puy-en-Velay that there is a “profound change” in the society’s relationship with the Vatican, triggered by the “dire situation” of the Church: “In the midst of this disorder … comes this whisper: ‘No, we cannot force you to accept the Council.’ They perhaps will not say it so clearly, but they did indeed say it to us after all.”

Albeit carefully, these assertions are to some extent matched by similar utterances from Rome.

Archbishop Guido Pozzo, secretary for the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei, the Vatican office of the responsible for doctrinal discussions with the SSPX, said in an April 6 interview with La Croix that “as far as the Second Vatican Council is concerned, the ground covered in the meetings over the past few years has led to an important clarification: Vatican II can be adequately understood only in the context of the full Tradition of the Church and her constant magisterium.”

“Certain questions can remain ‘subject to discussion and clarification,’” Archbishop Pozzo added.

Similarly, Father Schmidberger’s memo asserts that whilst the group would like to “return from its ‘exile,’” further discussions would be expected: “We will not be silent; moreover, we will point out the errors by name, before and after our normalization.”

Reliable sources inside the SSPX have confirmed to CNA that the leaked memo from Father Schmidberger, which apparently was meant for circulation among the leadership of the society, is indeed authentic. Comprising seven sections and running three pages, it concisely covers a summary of the history of the relationship with Rome and an outline of arguments for a full reconciliation and the practical considerations of such a move. It even includes a section answering the most frequently raised concerns of a reconciliation with Rome from the perspective of those in the SSPX most hesitant for reconciliation.

Father Schmidberger cited several reasons that the time to regularize the canonical situation of the SSPX has come, including the fact that “any abnormal situation lends itself to normalization.” He noted the danger in losing the realization that the society’s situation is abnormal and seeing it instead as normal: If the priests of the society “feel comfortable in this situation of liberty, with respect to dependence on the hierarchy, then this implies a gradual loss of the sensus ecclesiae.”

The memo also noted that there are members of the Church’s hierarchy who are sympathetic to the society, but that they can only collaborate after regularization, and the SSPX will need new bishops in the future, and licit consecration should be pursued.

In its conclusion, the text argues that if “God wants to come to the effective aid of his Church, which is bleeding from a thousand wounds, he has thousands of different means of doing so. One of these is the official recognition of the SSPX through the Roman authorities.” It then closes with a prayer for the intercession of the Virgin Mary.

It has been speculated that the normalization of the SSPX would be accomplished by recognizing the group as a “personal prelature,” a canonical structure which so far has only been used for Opus Dei.

The SSPX was founded by Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre in 1970 to form priests, as a response to what he described as errors that had crept into the Church following the Second Vatican Council. Its relations with the Holy See became particularly strained in 1988, when Archbishop Lefebvre and Bishop Antonio de Castro Mayer consecrated four bishops without the permission of Pope John Paul II.

The illicit consecration resulted in the excommunication of the six bishops; the excommunications of the surviving bishops were lifted in 2009 by Benedict XVI, and since then, negotiations “to rediscover full communion with the Church” have continued between the society and the Vatican.

In remitting the excommunications, Benedict also noted that “doctrinal questions obviously remain; and until they are clarified, the society has no canonical status in the Church, and its ministers cannot legitimately exercise any ministry.”

The biggest obstacles for the society’s reconciliation have been the statements on religious liberty in Vatican II’s declaration Dignitatis Humanae as well as the declaration Nostra Aetate, which it claims contradict previous Catholic teaching.

Archbishop Pozzo addressed this issue in his discussion with La Croix, saying that he considers the thoughts of Nostra Aetate as “directives for pastoral action, directions and suggestions or exhortations of a practical pastoral nature,” adding that “the acceptance of the texts on relations with other religions is not a prerequisite for the canonical recognition” of the SSPX.

“The difficulties raised by the SSPX concerning the Church-state relationship and religious freedom, the practice of ecumenism and dialogue with non-Christian religions, certain aspects of the liturgical reform and its concrete application remain subject to discussion and clarification but do not constitute an obstacle to a canonical and juridical recognition of the SSPX,” the Vatican official said.

The archbishop noted that following the canonical regularization of the society, the declarations of Vatican II will “remain subject to discussion and deeper study, in order to obtain greater precision and avoid the misunderstandings or ambivalences that we know to have spread throughout today’s ecclesial world.”

Under Pope Francis, several moves have suggested a warming in relations between the Vatican and the SSPX.

In 2015, the Holy See delegated a cardinal and three bishops to visit the seminaries of the SSPX. They were sent to become better acquainted with the society and to discuss doctrinal and theological topics in a less formal context.

Pope Francis announced in a September 2015 letter on the Year of Mercy that during the jubilee year the faithful can validly and licitly receive absolution of their sins from priests of the SSPX.

“I trust that in the near future solutions may be found to recover full communion with the priests and superiors of the Fraternity,” he wrote.

And Bishop Fellay met with Pope Francis and Archbishop Pozzo April 1-2. Bishop Fellay indicated that at that meeting the Pope had said the SSPX is Catholic, and he would not condemn it, and he wishes to extend the faculties of its priests.