The Vatican and the Lefebvrists: Not a Negotiation

Prior to the opening of formal conversations between officials of the Holy See and leaders of the Lefebvrist Society of St. Pius X (SSPX), which began on Oct. 26, the mainstream media frequently misrepresented these discussions as a negotiation aimed at achieving a compromise that both sides can live with. That was to be expected from reporters and commentators for whom everything is politics and everything is thus negotiable. Alas, similar misrepresentations came from “Vatican insiders” who suggested that the teaching of the Second Vatican Council was under joint review by the Holy See and the SSPX, which only made matters worse.

Here is what’s going on here, and what isn’t.
1. The conversations between leaders of the SSPX and the Holy See are just that: conversations. These are not negotiations, for there is nothing to be negotiated; nor is this a dialogue between equal partners. On the one hand, we have the bishop of Rome and those curial officials whose work is an extension of his papal office; on the other hand, we have a society of clergy who have been living in disobedience to the Roman pontiff for decades, and their lay followers, many of whom are more confused than willfully schismatic. The purpose of these conversations is to make clear what the Second Vatican Council taught (especially about the nature of the Church), to listen politely to what the SSPX has to say, and to invite the SSPX back into the full communion of the Catholic Church, which the SSPX broke in 1988 when Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre committed the schismatic act of illicitly ordaining bishops without the authorization of the Roman pontiff (and against the direct, personal pleas of Pope John Paul II).

2. Despite what some “Vatican insiders” have said, these conversations do not represent a bold initiative by the Holy See; and despite the carping from the mainstream media, these conversations are not a craven papal concession to the demands of angry traditionalists whose dissent from Vatican II Benedict XVI is alleged to share. Rather, the conversations now underway are an act of pastoral charity by the pope, who is quite clear about the settled doctrine of the Church and who wishes to invite all, including members of the SSPX, to adhere to that doctrine. Nor is this about mutual enrichment; it is not easy to see how the Catholic Church is to be theologically enriched by the ideas of those who, whatever the depth of their traditional liturgical piety, reject the mid-20th century reform of Catholic thought of which Joseph Ratzinger was a leader. The pope is under no illusions on this score; his purpose is to invite the SSPX back into full communion, thus preventing the schism of 1988 from becoming a permanent wound in the Mystical Body of Christ.

3. The issues to be engaged in these conversations do not involve liturgy; the pope has addressed the legitimate pastoral needs of SSPX clergy and SSPX-affiliated laity by his decree allowing the unrestricted use of the 1962 Roman Missal. The real questions have to do with other matters. Does the SSPX accept the teaching of the Second Vatican Council on religious freedom as a fundamental human right that can be known by both reason and revelation? Does the SSPX accept that the age of altar-and-throne alliances, confessional states, and legally established Catholicism is over, and that the Catholic Church rejects the use of coercive state power on behalf of its truth claims? Does the SSPX accept the Council’s teaching on Jews and Judaism as laid down in Vatican II’s “Declaration on Non-Christian Religions” (“Nostra Aetate”), and does the SSPX repudiate all anti-Semitism? Does the SSPX accept the Council’s teaching on the imperative of pursuing Christian unity in truth and the Council’s teaching that elements of truth and sanctity exist in other Christian communities, and indeed in other religious communities?

Those are the real issues. Conversation about them is always welcome. Those who confuse conversation with negotiation make genuine conversation all the more difficult.

George Weigel


George Weigel is an American author and political and social activist. He currently serves as a Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Weigel was the Founding President of the James Madison Foundation.

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  • consecrata

    Regarding the Lefebvrist Society of St. Pius X: they are sending out en masse letters soliciting donations from Catholics claiming that they are now faithful to Rome, showing a picture of one of their clergy with Pope Benedict XVI…this is causing confusion among Catholics.

  • asquared

    if this group’s only issue, as they have said repeatedly for 40 years, is liturgy, they would have knelt in humble submission, begged forgiveness and continued to celebrate the Latin Mass the day after Pope Benedict prescribed it. Since they have not, their issue is proven to be papal authority, not liturgy, which is their smokescreen. They are in a league with Call to Action and every other dissident group and should be dealt with accordingly, and we can trust the ultimate Pastor to do so wisely.

  • jayreilly

    First, I must say that I am not a supporter of the Lefebvrists. I am an ordained deacon in full communion with the Vatican. However, I also must note that merely because the SSPX group disagrees with the Vatican, is not evidence they are in league with Call to Action. Most SSPX people I know are in conformity with the Church’s teaching regarding abortion, birth control and other issues Call to Action disagrees with the Church on. Lefebvrists do not reject Papal authority. However, they are under the misguided thought neither John XXIII, Paul VI, John Paul I, John Paul II nor Benedict XVI are legitimate Popes, and therefor reject their authority as being illegitimate. It is not their agenda to undo Catholic teaching, as with Call to Action, but rather to restore Catholic teaching to what they believe it should be — back to what it was before Vatican II. In other words, they reject Vatican II reforms; they do not misinterpret Vatican II as does Call to Action.

    Finally, all people, no matter their beliefs, need to be considered and treated with charity, above all.

  • jackhughes123

    asquired and Jayreilly are both wrong on several counts.

    1stly the SSPX do recognize the Pope’s from John XIII onwards as legitimate Popes, they are NOT sedevacantist

    2ndly as Jayreilly says the SSPX practise Traditional Catholic morality – how many people in your average Parish can say that?

    3rdly The SSPX (as nearly all traditionalists do) have questions regarding what the documents of the Second Vatican Council regarding religious liberty (lets face it ALOT of theologians and Bishops have gone down the all religions are equal line) and ecuminsm actually say, this is what the Holy Father has invited them to discuss.

    4thly Mr Wiegel whose writings I generally respect has missed the ball on several points here. The SSPX in several of their documents notes that other christian sects do possess fragments of truth and that persuing the Truth i.e. Christ established the Catholic Church for the salvation of man and that outside of it there is NO SALVATION is a good thing, indeed +Tisser de mallarais recently received a former lutheren pastor into the Church, what they do not accept is what many bishops/priests have said i.e. it doesn’t matter what religion/christian sect you belong to, the same former lutheran said that the ‘professional ecuminists’ of the Catholic Church had lots of ncie words but nothing of substence in thier dicussions.
    The SSPX has never said someone could be made to accept the faith at the point of the sword, the SSPX is not inherrently anti-semitic (+Williamson’s comments about the numbers killed in the holocaust do not constitute antisemitism).

    The SSPX has also welcomed Summorum pontificum, they still have questions about the Novus Ordo, questions raised by Cardinals Ottivani and Baccai Forty years ago, however to my knowledge they do not deny that it is a valid Mass.

    Mr Weigel’s article is ill-informed and bears little releation to much of his former reporting an example , I suggest that the next time he writes about the Excellent work of the FSSPX he checks his facts.

    Full disclousure, all though I am not a parishionor of the FSSPX I regard the late Mgr Lefebrve as an excellent Archbishop and a man from who many Bishops today could learn a thing or two, the society which he founded has borne much good fruit and I wish them the best for the future and look foward to the speedy regluarisation of the FSSPX – Bishop Fellay for POPE!!!

  • goral

    “SSPX broke in 1988 when Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre committed the schismatic act of illicitly ordaining bishops without the authorization of the Roman pontiff (and against the direct, personal pleas of Pope John Paul II).”

    That makes him an excellent Archbishop?
    Direct and personal pleas from the greatest evangelizer of the century had no effect on him?
    Is Traditional Catholic moral living our Salvation?

    When the Holy Spirit moves the Church in a certain direction, those who don’t want to follow do so at their own peril.

  • I pray for the reconciliation of the SSPX with Rome–their contribution to the Church will be significant especially with regard to strengthening our Catholic identity.

  • marius2k4

    I understand that Mr. Weigel is partial to our previous Holy Pontiff, but this… distaste at best, but animus, more precisely… to traditionalists and traditionalism continues to bother me. While there were certainly things done by the late Msgr. Lefebvre which are of a grave nature, I think history will note that without his noble action, the sublime Holy Mass of all time would have not been ‘liberated’.

    John Paul II had already promised him bishops, but wanted to choose them himself, as he did not like the wonderful orthodoxy of the group of four which were chosen. It would have only been more dilution, of the same manner which currently penetrates and corrupts the church. We must be strong, united and orthodox, and the new mass does not lend to that. We must have a concrete and unchanging ideology, and much of Vatican II does not lend to that.

    Poor Msgr. Lefebvre was serving a mission in Africa during the 1950’s, only to return to a Europe that had fallen off the rocker, so to speak. The modernism which His Holiness Pope Saint Pius X and his predecessors had warned of and forbidden had crept into Europe and into the church’s clergy. For those who are modernists, it cannot be described sufficiently the feeling of utter loneliness which accompanies finding an entire world gone mad.

    Articles like this one are incredibly uncharitable to those people who are forcing the ecclesiastical hand, so to speak, at bringing a return to tradition. In a world which has thrown away its kings and committed every sort of detestable act, the church must be a bulwark against that pernicious modernism which is destroying the world. We must be loyal to her as she must be loyal to tradition, and to provide us with that majesty and esteem which our souls desire and crave. Our pontiff must resume the Tiara and rejoin his rightful place at the forefront of the world, as God’s Vicar on Earth. It is a terrible defeat of one’s spirit to support a king who is unwilling to rule; to see nobility in shambles. The world of today needs more than pastoralism; It needs strength and Tradition.

    I am not a parishioner of the SSPX, but I do very much see the Church in crisis, and look to the Society as our modern world’s Athanasius, to some extent.

    Sancta Maria Dei Genetrix, ora pro nobis peccatoribus.

  • mbevks

    Mr. Weigel, thank you for presuming to know the thoughts of the Pope when he has not expressed anything to what you write. Liturgy is a minor aspect of the discussions that have been ongoing with the SSPX for the last twenty years or so. Matters of faith and salvation are at hand. The SSPX has maintained traditional teachings of the Church, such as the infallible teaching of the council of Florence, that there is no salvation outside of the Catholic Church. The II Vatican Council, through ambiguous language has suggested this to not be so, but we know that truth cannot change and thus we can know that the II Vat. Council cannot have infallibly declared anything as such.

    The point of the discussions is for the Church to restate what has always been taught to remove the errors that have plagued our age.

    The SSPX also needs to obtain a regular position within the Catholic Church because they currently do not have faculties that are normally supplied by the ordinaries of each diocese. But I believe that truth must be reaffirmed first, otherwise diocesan bishops will have much conflict with the SSPX even if they are provided with a situation similar to Opus Dei.