The doctrinal discussions between the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX) and the Holy See — which commenced in 2009 to study such matters as the concept of Tradition, the interpretation of Vatican II and the Council’s treatment of religious freedom — have arrived at what both parties agree is a critical juncture.
On September 14, 2011, the Holy See presented the Society with a “Doctrinal Preamble” outlining “certain doctrinal principles and criteria for the interpretation of Catholic doctrine… [while also] leaving open to legitimate discussion the examination and theological explanation of individual expressions and formulations contained in the documents of Vatican Council II and later Magisterium.”
The Society has been asked to agree to the contents of the Preamble (the actual text of which is being held in strict confidence) in order to open the way for “achieving full reconciliation with the Apostolic See.” The SSPX sent an initial response to Rome in December 2011, but after being judged “insufficient” a more detailed reply was sent in January 2012.
On March 16th, the Vatican Press Office issued a communique stating, “The response of the Society of St. Pius X to the aforesaid Doctrinal Preamble [up to this point]… is not sufficient to overcome the doctrinal problems which lie at the foundation of the rift between the Holy See and the Society of St. Pius X. [Yet] moved by concern to avoid an ecclesial rupture of painful and incalculable consequences, the Superior General of the Society was invited to clarify his position in order to be able to heal the existing rift, as is the desire of Pope Benedict XVI.”
According to Fr. Federico Lombardi, S.J., spokesman for the Holy See, “Bishop Fellay’s response is expected to be here in about a month.”
There seems to be some disagreement as to whether or not the Holy See set April 15th as a firm deadline for the Society’s response, but recent signs may very well be pointing to an imminent family reunion of no less moment than the one described in the parable of the Prodigal Son. (This is not the place to develop this imperfect analogy in great detail, I only wish to point out that it would be incorrect to simply assume that the Society owns the principal role of he who squandered so much of the Father’s treasure. Indeed, if reconciliation does occur, rest assured, the SSPX will return bearing numerous valuable gifts that have been sorely missed in their absence.)
In any event, there are a number of reasons for optimism.
Fr. Franz Schmidberger, District Superior of the German District of the SSPX (who had stated just last February that the Preamble is “unacceptable”), for example, penned a statement to be read in the Society chapels under his care on Sunday, March 25th, which stated in part:
We have thus arrived at a crucial point. Even if the letter [of the Preamble] strikes an unpleasant sound, there are legitimate hopes for a satisfactory solution. If this solution would be reached it would considerably strengthen all the orthodox forces in the Church. If not, it would weaken and discourage these forces. So it is not primarily about our brotherhood, but for the good of the Church.
On March 29th, the General House of the SSPX issued a statement of its own relative to this situation, saying in part:
Bishop Bernard Fellay, Superior General of the Society of St. Pius X, has urgently been inviting the faithful to redouble their fervor in prayer… that the Divine Will may be done.
The Society of St. Pius X, which wants only the good of the Church and the salvation of souls, turns with confidence to the Blessed Virgin Mary, so that she might obtain from her divine Son the lights necessary to know His will clearly and to carry it out courageously.
It appears to me that the Society is preparing its faithful for reconciliation under terms that may be less than perfect, but that nonetheless represent a pathway to healing for the Church as a whole. Please note: While one may be tempted to believe that the Society alone is doing all of the clarifying, rewording and conceding in this process, one of the benefits of having kept the Preamble’s text secret is that it has afforded the Holy See an opportunity to contribute in like manner without any concern for the perceptions of others.
It is only speculation on my part, of course, but I sense that the SSPX has been given assurances that, in spite of remaining difficulties, the Holy Father sees the crisis in the Church in much the same way it does, and he will undertake steps (perhaps specific ones) to restore order more aggressively than in the past once the Society is regularized and can support him in this effort from within.
No, the pope doesn’t need anyone to have his back in order to so rule, but for whatever reason it is clear that the Holy Father has exercised much restraint over the years. Could it be that (please, God!) he is preparing to take the gloves off?
As the effects of old age are increasingly making themselves known to Pope Benedict, so too are the evil intentions of his enemies who grow bolder by the day. Maybe the pope has decided that now is the time to engage Satan’s minions full force with a bold program of restoration; one that will lead to the smaller more faithful Church he once envisioned. If so, bringing the Society home beforehand is more than just a matter of marshaling forces; it is also a way for the shepherd to provide additional refuge for the faithful amidst the turmoil that will no doubt ensue.
My suspicions were only strengthened when Pope Benedict chose the occasion of his Chrism Mass homily to chastise a group of dissenting clerics purportedly consisting of over 300 Austrian priests who, among other things, are calling for female ordination and an end to priestly celibacy.
“They are convinced that the slow pace of institutions has to be overcome by drastic measures, in order to open up new paths and to bring the Church up to date. But is disobedience really a way to do this,” the Holy Father asked rhetorically?
This leads to a few rhetorical questions of my own: Is it merely coincidence that the SSPX District Superior in Germany (Austria’s neighbor) was the first to publicly signal imminent reconciliation “for the good of the Church?” If the Holy Father were planning to enjoin the renegade Austrian clerics (and others like them throughout the world) with the firmness their actions beg, might not the prior regularization of the Society be especially valuable?
One should take note that the Holy Father did not say that “drastic measures” are not needed in order to overcome the present condition of the Church; rather, he pointed to zeal for the doctrine of the Faith as proposed by the teaching office of the Church as the real keys to renewal. In other words, one might reasonably believe that the Holy Father is telling us to prepare for the drastic measures that are in fact coming.
It may just be hopefulness on my part, but on Holy Thursday, Pope Benedict may have hinted at what the aforementioned program of restoration might include when he spoke so eloquently about the importance of kneeling.
“When menaced by the power of evil, as [Christians] kneel, they are upright before the world, while as sons and daughters, they kneel before the Father. Before God’s glory we Christians kneel and acknowledge his divinity; by that posture we also express our confidence that he will prevail,” he said invoking an imagery of battle.
Could it be that the Holy Father is signaling a universal mandate requiring the reception of Holy Communion kneeling and on the tongue, something the SSPX and many others in the Church would surely welcome?
The Holy Father went on to say, “In His anguished prayer on the Mount of Olives, Jesus resolved the false opposition between obedience and freedom, and opened the path to freedom.”
Is the pope suggesting a willingness to reexamine of the notion of religious liberty put forth by the Council; the same which so clearly divorces freedom from obedience to truth?
If this were not intriguing enough to the traditional mind, the pope’s Easter Vigil homily offered more images of warfare as he stressed the tremendous value of knowing the doctrine of the faith.
“Light makes life possible. It makes encounter possible. It makes communication possible. It makes knowledge, access to reality and to truth, possible. And insofar as it makes knowledge possible, it makes freedom and progress possible. Evil hides. Light, then, is also an expression of the good that both is and creates brightness,” the Holy Father continued. “It is daylight, which makes it possible for us to act. To say that God created light means that God created the world as a space for knowledge and truth, as a space for encounter and freedom, as a space for good and for love.”
In juxtaposing knowledge, goodness and light with ignorance, evil and darkness, is it possible that the Holy Father is hinting at the dawn of a new day in the Church wherein heresy will once again be slayed as heretics are condemned and called to account with real consequences for sowing their evil seeds?
There is much we still don’t know in this situation (not the least of which is the content of the Preamble), but of two things we can be absolutely certain:
One, if and when the SSPX is regularized and the ministry of their priests and bishops is made licit, it will be a great blessing for the entire Church, and secondly, Her enemies will make themselves known with unbridled ferocity.
Bishop Fellay’s advice is ever timely; we must turn with confidence to the Blessed Virgin Mary who shows us the Father’s will and obtains for us the grace to follow.