Schismatic Bishop Meets With the Pope

VATICAN CITY — Serious disagreements remain between the schismatic Society of St. Pius X and the Holy See. That's the bad news.

But after the head of the society met with Pope Benedict, there's finally some good news to report, too. Both sides are showing a strong desire to take concrete steps towards reconciliation on both sides.

This was the conclusion following a closed-door meeting Aug. 29 between the superior general of the society, Bishop Bernard Fellay, and Pope Benedict XVI, at the papal summer residence at Castel Gandolfo.

The Vatican said that both sides “were aware of the difficulties” and that each party demonstrated “the will to proceed forward step by step and in a reasonable time frame”.

The Society of St. Pius X, which had requested the audience, stated that the 35- minute meeting took place in a “climate of calm.” The society's statement added, “We broached the serious difficulties, already known, in a spirit of great love for the Church. We reached a consensus as to proceeding by stages in the resolution of problems.”

However, the communiqué concluded with the hope that “the Holy Father might find the strength to put an end to the crisis in the Church by ‘restoring all things in Christ.’”

Behind the scenes, Vatican officials are positive yet skeptical about the meeting and concede there is much ground to cover. As far as the society is concerned, the audience gave them legitimacy.

“It shows clearly that we are Catholics, that we do recognize the sovereign pontiff as head of the Church, and we wanted to give him the deference to do this,” said Bishop Fellay, who also met Pope John Paul II in 1999.

Members of the traditionalist society do not see themselves as schismatic. The Church, they say, should reconcile with them. Founded by the late French Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre in 1970, the priestly fraternity is dedicated to the exclusive use of the Tridentine rite, which had been the form of the Latin Mass from the Council of Trent in the 16th century until the 1960s.

The society is opposed to certain changes that occurred during the Second Vatican Council and, in particular, rejects liturgical reforms and conciliar approaches to inter-religious dialogue and ecumenism. They say current abuses and crises in the Church reinforce their position.

Archbishop Lefebvre built a seminary in Ecône, Switzerland, in the early 1970s to train priests. In 1988, Lefebvre consecrated four bishops — one of whom was Bishop Fellay — without authorization from Rome. All four bishops and Lefebvre were excommunicated, a penalty for which John Paul II had given forewarning.

To restore relations, the society demands that the Holy See first make two concessions: a “universal indult” that would recognize the right of Catholic priests throughout the world to celebrate the Tridentine Mass without special permission from their bishops, and the repeal of the excommunication order.

For its part, the Vatican demands that the society first submit itself to the authority of the Pope, and recognize the resolutions adopted by the Second Vatican Council. Neither side has made much headway in its demands, although talks did resume in 2000 through Ecclesia Dei, the Holy See commission set up by Pope John Paul II to provide pastoral help to Lefebvre's followers and headed by Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyos.

As prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger had been involved in these talks. In the past, he has dismissed many of the society's claims, but looked upon the fraternity as an occasion for an examination of conscience.

“We should allow ourselves to ask fundamental questions about the defects in the pastoral life of the Church,” Cardinal Ratzinger said in 1988. “Thus we will be able to offer a place within the Church to those who are seeking and demanding it, and succeed in destroying all reason for schism.”

Pope Benedict is also known to be very sympathetic to the Tridentine Mass. For these reasons, Bishop Fellay has spoken of Benedict's papacy as a “glimmer of hope.”

In a Sept. 1 interview with the Register, Bishop Fellay said he remains “rather optimistic” but added that much will depend on decisions Benedict makes in the autumn. “We just want to see what the first steps of the Pope will be, for example about the Curia, the Mass, the liturgy, the synod on the Eucharist and what will be done there”, he said.

Bishop Fellay is most confident about allowing widespread use of the Tridentine rite. “That's my greatest expectation, definitely”, he said. “We certainly do expect something now.”

Theoretically, such a move would not be much of a difficulty; both John Paul II and Benedict XVI have encouraged diocesan bishops to make a “wide and generous” use of the permission to celebrate the old rite. The Society of St. Pius X, however, sees this as a first step to inflicting “a deep and efficacious breach in the progressivist system”, and according to Bishop Fellay, this could be problematic.

Moreover, the society's hubristic spirit and attitude towards the Church, not to mention internal difficulties within the fraternity, have led Vatican officials to seriously question the chances of reconciliation.

In a letter posted on a website shortly before the Aug. 29 meeting, one of Bishop Fellay's colleagues, Bishop Richard Williamson, launched a vitriolic attack, stating that the “web of deceit” had been “spun by the Vatican for too long.” It was a case, he wrote, of “welcome to my parlor, said the spider to the fly.”

Bishop Williamson added, “The war goes on between the friends and enemies of the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Bishop Fellay failed to allay concerns when, speaking Sept. 1, he noted that his colleague's apprehensions about the meeting were held by “the majority” in the society. He denied there were internal divisions, but when asked if certain groups within the fraternity might unilaterally seek reconciliation with Rome, he admitted that may happen “here or there.” In September 2004, the Society of St. Pius X suffered its worst dispute for years when two priests broke away following an internal disagreement with Bishop Fellay.

Yet for the moment, discussions with the Vatican will continue as before. Cardinal Ratzinger's election as Pope is seen as providential towards healing the schism and has injected new hope.

“The first impression is positive,” said Bishop Fellay, adding cautiously, “it's only an impression”.

Speaking in 2001, Cardinal Ratzinger conceded “the road is still very long” and lamented the “narrow-mindedness that makes the process of reconciliation problematic.” But, he added: “I desire, hope and pray that this wound will heal. … We must do everything possible to return to these brothers their lost confidence.”

Edward Pentin writes from Rome.