John Paul II couldn’t strike a deal that satisfied the SSPX. Nor could Benedict. Enter the unlikeliest of bridge-builders
On the weekend that posters of a scowling Pope Francis were plastered over Rome by traditionalists protesting against his “bullying" tactics, news filtered through that Rome is on the verge of signing a deal with the Society of St Pius X. This year, the Lefebvrists could be fully reconciled to the Holy See. By the alleged Modernist bully on the posters. And with virtually no strings attached.
This is surreal; but then everything in Rome is surreal now. It’s as if the scriptwriters of The Young Pope have been let loose on the Bergoglio pontificate.
Relations between Francis and conservative Catholics are more toxic by the day. The Holy Father has just torn up the constitution of the Order of Malta; it’s a complicated dispute, but one that clearly pits the Pope and his allies against the super-orthodox Cardinal Burke, who is the order’s patron – for the time being.
Burke recently compared himself and other cardinals aghast at Amoris Laetitia to St John Fisher, who went to his death rather than recognise the King of England’s headship of the English Church. It’s not hard to work out who is Henry VIII in this analogy.
In the eyes of traditionalists, Pope Francis’s catalogue of errors is so long that, to quote one priest in the Vatican, “a lot of us are emotionally, even if not intellectually, sedevacantists".
A sedevacantist, as the name implies, believes that the chair of Peter is empty and the man sitting in it is an imposter. This conservative priest doesn’t believe that. But the thought haunts him, as he watches the ban on divorced-and-remarried Catholics receiving Communion disappear in Malta and Germany – with the tacit approval of the Vicar of Christ.
The SSPX have never been sedevacantists. They accept that post-Vatican II pontiffs are real popes. But for much of their 47-year history they have behaved like a breakaway sect, albeit a well-endowed and successful one, with around 600 priests in 37 countries and a huge new seminary in Virginia. They are more conservative than Burke; they reject crucial documents of the Second Vatican Council, and in particular those that reach out to non-Catholics. A few of them, especially in France, have been linked to the far Right.
In 1976, their late founder, Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, was suspended from the exercise of holy orders after he illicitly ordained priests at his seminary in Écône, Switzerland. In 1988 he ordained four bishops, including the current Superior General, Bishop Bernard Fellay. For this Lefebvre was excommunicated by John Paul II, together with the four bishops – one of whom, Richard Williamson, turned out to be a Holocaust denier. (He has since been expelled from the society.)
In 2008, Benedict XVI lifted those excommunications. The route seemed clear for a rapprochement with the SSPX. It never happened. Although the Lefebvrists were being offered independence under a personal prelature, answerable only to the Pope, Fellay was not prepared to meet Rome’s one condition: nominal acceptance of the documents of Vatican II. (Rumour has it that Benedict had wanted to drop this condition, only to be talked out of it by his advisers.)
Then, last week, just as mainstream traditionalist rage with Pope Francis was boiling over, Fellay and the Vatican let it be known that they were close to agreement on the personal prelature.
How close? Rome is even pencilling in dates: May 13, the centenary of the Fatima apparitions, and July 7, the 10th anniversary of Summorum Pontificum, in which Benedict swept away restrictions on the celebration of the Old Mass.
Mainstream traditionalists are baffled. Why would the SSPX knock back an offer from Benedict, who rehabilitated their liturgy and their bishops, only to accept it from Francis, who seems to dislike everything about the pre-conciliar Church and – in the opinion of some cardinals – is beckoning adulterers to the altar rail?
Fellay’s latest interview points to a possible answer: Rome is prepared to compromise on acceptance of the Second Vatican Council. He points out that Archbishop Guido Pozzo, head of Ecclesia Dei – the Vatican department responsible for relations with the SSPX – now says that “certain texts of the Council [do] not constitute criteria for Catholicity".
The arguments over these texts – and the degree of recognition that the SSPX needs to give them – are fiendishly technical. But perhaps there is no need to go into them here because, to put it diplomatically, Francis is not terribly interested in fine print.
Or, as a source in the SSPX puts it: “He has zero interest in theology, and therefore he doesn’t really care if we continue to reject Vatican II. He’s far more authoritarian than Benedict, and if he decides he wants this deal then he’ll clear obstacles out of the way. Then no one will dare contradict him."
Cardinal Gerhard Müller, head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, may object to Rome turning a blind eye to the SSPX’s rejection of Council teachings. But it is an open secret in Rome that the Pope does not greatly value his opinions.
Even so, why should a Left-leaning pope who himself interprets the conciliar documents in a radical spirit be prepared to cut corners in order to accommodate the Lefebvrists, of all people?
We need to look to Argentina, where the former Cardinal Bergoglio entered an unlikely alliance with the then SSPX district superior, Fr Christian Bouchacourt. The Left-wing government wanted to deny the society permanent residence in the country on the grounds that Lefebvrists weren’t Catholics. Bouchacourt appealed to Bergoglio, who told him: “You are Catholic, that is evident. I will help you." The government continued to harass the SSPX, but by that time the Archbishop of Buenos Aires had become Pope and he insisted on the society’s recognition as Catholic.
“Francis saw us as outsiders, and he likes identifying with the fringe," says the SSPX source. “That’s why he’s more friendly to us than he is to traditionalists under his control, whom he pushes around mercilessly. Look at what happened to those Franciscans."
He is referring to the Franciscan Friars of the Immaculate, whom Francis banned from using the Extraordinary Form and whose seminary he closed after an internal dispute. Mainstream traditionalists have been warning the SSPX that the same thing could happen to them if they submit to the Pope – and now they can also point to the Holy See’s ruthless treatment of the Order of Malta.
That coup d’état has undoubtedly spooked the SSPX: the threat to their independence and their valuable real estate worries them more than Amoris Laetitia, which they will simply ignore.
Fellay has told friends that he is very troubled by what happened to the Order of Malta. It may yet scare him off. Also, members of the SSPX are saying quietly to each other that, just at the moment, they have the best of both worlds.
Pope Francis recognised their Confessions as licit when he gave SSPX priests, along with all Catholic priests, special authority to grant absolution for grave sins during the Year of Mercy. This permission has been extended indefinitely. Now, says Fellay, he has been told that he and his fellow SSPX bishops “may licitly ordain priests of the society without first receiving any explicit approval from the local bishop". (Rome seems confused on this point.)
Arguably, the Lefebvrists have already been given nearly everything they want. Why not stay in this comfortable limbo?
No one in the society will be surprised if we reach the end of 2017 without the formation of a personal prelature. The SSPX has a track record of pulling out of agreements at the last minute.
On the other hand, this Pope likes to get his own way. He will not be remotely worried by the cries of anguish that will go up from his liberal supporters if the Lefebvrists are brought up to the high altar of the Church.
A personal prelature would allow the SSPX to celebrate the sacraments and run seminaries exactly as they are doing at the moment; Fellay will not sign otherwise. They would remain uncompromising traditionalists – because Francis has apparently decided not to ask them to make any significant compromises (and must surely understand that he must guarantee their property rights).
So, in a sense, they would be his traditionalists. And if that creates tensions with fellow “trads" who have either remained loyal to the Vatican or already been reconciled to it, then – from the Pope’s point of view – so much the better.
This article first appeared in the February 10 2017 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here