Vatican: Bishop Fellay’s Words ‘Unacceptable’

SSPX claims inflammatory comments were misinterpreted.

VATICAN CITY — The Vatican has said that a recent comment by the head of the traditionalist Society of St. Pius X describing the Jews as "enemies of the Church" is "absolutely unacceptable," although the SSPX has stressed that the comment was misinterpreted by the media.

In a talk Dec. 28 at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Chapel in New Hamburg, Ontario, Bishop Bernard Fellay said that groups "outside the Church, who were clearly during centuries enemies of the Church," were opposed to the reconciliation of the breakaway society with the Church. His reference to "groups" was apparently a reference he had made earlier in the talk to "the Jews, the Masons, the modernists."

Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi responded in an interview with Vatican Radio by saying, "It is absolutely unacceptable, impossible, to define the Jews as enemies of the Church." He said that the "magisterial Tradition, the popes and the Church, spanning decades, have been united in their commitment to interreligious dialogue, showing that it is absolutely not possible" to speak of Jews in such a way.

Father Lombardi reaffirmed the position of the Church towards the Jews, saying it has been authoritatively expressed in the Second Vatican Council document Nostra Aetate (In Our Time), and he went on to stress how popes have repeatedly demonstrated the importance of dialogue with Jews. Particularly significant in this sense, he noted, were the visits of John Paul II and Benedict XVI to synagogues and the Western Wall.

Venerable Pope Paul VI wrote in Nostra Aetate, his 1965 declaration on the relation of the Church to non-Christian religions: "The Church reproves every form of persecution against whomsoever it may be directed. Remembering, then, her common heritage with the Jews and moved not by any political consideration, but solely by the religious motivation of Christian charity, she deplores all hatreds, persecutions, displays of anti-Semitism leveled at any time or from any source against the Jews" (15).

In a July 2012 interview with the Register, Archbishop J. Augustine DiNoia, vice president of the Pontifical Commission "Ecclesia Dei," said, "If (the SSPX) believes Nostra Aetate is being badly interpreted, then they have to get into the battle to correctly interpret it. Rather than walk away from the field, they have to play the game."

Father Lombardi also singled out Pope Benedict’s visits to the synagogue in Cologne, Germany, in 2005, the synagogue in New York in 2008 and the synagogue of Rome in 2010. All of these were "very significant gestures of the Church’s good relations and dialogue with Jews," the spokesman said.

Bishop Fellay’s words were immediately criticized in the Jewish world. The description of the Jews as "enemies of the Church," the Simon Wiesenthal Center said, "proves once more that deeply rooted anti-Semitism is at the heart of the theology" of the SSPX.


‘Out of Context’

Bishop Fellay could not be reached by the Register, but SSPX spokesman James Vogel said the comments had been misinterpreted.

"The statements were not taken out of context in the sense that Bishop Fellay actually said the words attributed to him," explained Vogel, editor of Angelus Press, which helps the SSPX’s U.S. district with communications. "They were, however, taken out of context insofar as the media has interpreted Bishop Fellay’s use of the term ‘Jews’ in a racial or political sense, whereas His Excellency meant it exclusively in a religious sense."

"In this religious sense, there is no difference between Jews and Muslims or Protestants, all of whom are ‘enemies of the Church’ insofar as they oppose the spread of the Catholic faith," Vogel continued. "The faith is what we are concerned with, not racial animosity or hatred of persons, as they are opposed to the charity which the Gospel commands of us."

He also added that the meaning of the word "enemy" is that of "adversary" or "opponent."

"If I can emphasize anything, it is that the SSPX wants and intends to keep peaceful relations with non-Catholic religions, while maintaining the Catholic doctrine that teaches that Our Lord Jesus Christ is the Messiah to whom every man must convert," Vogel said.

The Society of St. Pius X was founded by French Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre in 1970 in response to what he described as serious errors — religious tolerance vs. religious liberty, the de-emphasis of the extraordinary form of the Mass in favor of the Novus Ordo, ecumenism vs. exclusivism and the de-emphasis of papal supremacy in favor of collegiality — that had crept into the Church following the Second Vatican Council.

The long-standing strains in its relations with the Vatican were significantly aggravated in 1988, when Archbishop Lefebvre illicitly consecrated four bishops without the permission of Pope John Paul II.


Impasse Reached

Talks to reconcile the society with the Church have intensified under Benedict XVI, but three-year formal discussions seemed to have reached an impasse over the summer.

Reviewing the past year, Bishop Fellay said in his 40-minute talk that the society had received mixed signals from Rome. The Swiss bishop reiterated that the SSPX believes portions of the Second Vatican Council "opposed to what the Church has always taught" must be rejected and that Pope Benedict’s "hermeneutic of continuity" regarding the Council’s harmony with previous Church teachings is untenable because some of the Council teachings run "contrary" or are "opposed to Tradition."

Speaking without a text, the bishop said the mixed messages had been going on for years.

In 2011, the Vatican presented the SSPX with a "doctrinal preamble" that underlined fidelity to the Church and her teaching and proposed that SSPX leaders sign it in order to achieve full reconciliation. But Bishop Fellay said he had repeatedly told the Vatican that the contents of the preamble, especially passages on the modern Mass and the Council as expressed in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, were unacceptable.

The only reason the discussions continued, he said, was because others "very close to the Pope" had assured him that the Holy Father was not in agreement with official pronouncements from the Vatican.

Bishop Fellay said that retired Colombian Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyos, then-president of the Pontifical Commission "Ecclesia Dei," the office charged with bringing traditionalist Catholics back into full communion, told him in March 2009 that the society would be formally recognized. An October 2012 statement from "Ecclesia Dei" said formal negotiations are ongoing.

Despite the problems, Bishop Fellay said he remained hopeful for the situation in the long term, even if reconciliation will not be possible in the near future. "The situation is not desperate, no. It’s not worse than before. ... There’s some hope. I don’t think for right now, but, for us, we just continue." He added: "We must continue to pray to the Blessed Virgin Mary, pray the Rosary."


Relations Damaged?

Vogel said he could not comment on whether Bishop Fellay’s controversial comments would harm relations with the Vatican, but added: "Suffice it to say: They are probably well aware of our position on these matters, especially where we disagree on questions like ecumenism. We have made it clear many times we have no sympathy for anti-Semitism or hatred of persons."

Edward Pentin

writes from Rome.