Pope Francis’ decision that during the Jubilee Year of Mercy the faithful can receive absolution from priests of the Society of St. Pius X is the most recent attempt at reconciliation with the priestly society, according to a Vatican official.
The decision must be understood as Pope Francis extending his arm to the SSPX, a Vatican official who has taken part in talks between the Vatican and the society told CNA Sept. 2.
The official added that for the Year of Mercy, Pope Francis has solved the issue of the validity of absolutions granted by priests of the society.
In his Sept. 1 letter detailing the Holy Year of Mercy, which runs from Dec. 8, 2015 to Nov. 20, 2016, Pope Francis wrote that among his considerations were “those faithful who for various reasons choose to attend churches officiated by priests of the Fraternity of St Pius X."
“This Jubilee Year of Mercy excludes no one," he reflected. “From various quarters, several Brother Bishops have told me of their good faith and sacramental practice, combined however with an uneasy situation from the pastoral standpoint. I trust that in the near future solutions may be found to recover full communion with the priests and superiors of the Fraternity."
“In the meantime, motivated by the need to respond to the good of these faithful, through my own disposition, I establish that those who during the Holy Year of Mercy approach these priests of the Fraternity of St Pius X to celebrate the Sacrament of Reconciliation shall validly and licitly receive the absolution of their sins."
Later that day, the SSPX released a statement “expressing” its gratitude to the Sovereign Pontiff for this fatherly gesture … on the occasion of this Holy Year, Pope Francis wants all the faithful who wish to confess to the priests of the Society of St. Pius X to be able to do so without being worried."
The society’s statement added that “in the ministry of the sacrament of penance, we have always relied, with all certainty, on the extraordinary jurisdiction conferred by the Normae generales of the Code of Canon Law."
The statement reflects the SSPX’s belief that even though their priests have not been given the faculty of hearing confessions by local ordinaries (because of their irregular situation in the Church) – which is necessary for the valid absolution of sins – their absolutions are nevertheless valid, because they believe Church to be in a state of “emergency" which overrides the need for faculties given by the local bishop.
The Society of St. Pius X 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 strained in 1988 when Archbishop Lefebvre consecrated four bishops without the permission of Pope John Paul II.
The illicit consecration resulted in the excommunication of the five bishops; the excommunications were lifted in 2009 by Benedict XVI, and since then, negotiations between the Society and the Vatican have continued, “to rediscover full communion with the Church."
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 obstacle for the society’s reconciliation has been the statements on religious liberty in Vatican II’s declaration Dignitatis humanae, which it claims contradicts previous Catholic teaching.
Doctrinal discussions between the SSPX and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith broke down in the summer of 2012, when the society’s superior general, Bishop Bernard Fellay, would not sign a doctrinal preamble presented by Rome.
In December 2012 the vice-president of the Ponticial Commission Ecclesia Dei, Archbishop Augustine Di Noia, wrote to the society’s priests, seeking “reconciliation and healing" and urging them that “some new considerations of a more spiritual and theological nature are needed … considerations that focus rather on our duty to preserve and cherish the divinely willed unity and peace of the Church."
Talks between the CDF and the society resumed in 2014. In September of that year, representatives of both bodies held a two-hour meeting to discuss matters of Church teaching. The Holy See press office stated that “various problems of a doctrinal and canonical nature were examined, and it was decided to proceed gradually and over a reasonable period of time in order to overcome difficulties and with a view to the envisioned full reconciliation."
And within the past year, the Holy See delegated both Cardinal Walter Brandmuller and Bishop Athanasius Schneider to visit the seminaries of the SSPX.
The prelates were sent to become better acquainted with the society, and to discuss doctrinal and theological topics in a less formal context in accord with the September 2014 meeting between Bishop Fellay and Cardinal Gerhard Muller, prefect of the CDF.
Both Cardinal Brandmuller and Bishop Schneider may well be among the brother bishops whom Pope Francis said “have told me of [the SSPX’s] good faith and sacramental practice," coupled with an uneasy pastoral situation – in August, Bishop Schneider told Adelante la Fe that “I could observe a sound theological, spiritual and human reality" in the society’s seminaries.
Another recent sign of reconciliation toward the SSPX came earlier this year when the CDF appointed Bishop Fellay the first-instance judge in a delicta graviora case involving a priest of the society. Archbishop Guido Pozzo, secretary of the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei, told Vatican Insider the decision was “a sign of benevolence and magnanimity" and “a step toward reconciliation."
In the end, Pope Francis’ gesture of an open arm toward the SSPX for the mercy jubilee can be seen in the context of a hope for full reconciliation, amid a history of positive signs punctuated by halts in discussions between Rome and the priestly society.