Mark has written about the SSPX (the Priestly Fraternity of St. Pius X) here and here. As Mark mentioned, the SSPX is a canonically irregular Catholic group with a traditionalist orientation (in terms of liturgy, discipline, and doctrinal interpretation). I had hoped to report upon the group’s full re-integration into the Catholic Church this month – which is something that well-founded rumours had predicted. Alas, the latest indication is that if such a re-integration occurs, it will occur in July at the earliest. As this is a story that I’ve been following closely for some years now, I thought I’d spend a post laying the situation out and offering a few observations.
The SSPX was founded in 1970 by French Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre. It was formed in the stormy years following the Second Vatican Council, and largely in opposition to the Council’s aftermath. Since that time, it has been a refuge for seminarians, priests, religious, and laity uncomfortable with the “Post-Vatican II Church.”
The SSPX has had a rocky relationship with the Church hierarchy from the start, which came to a head in 1988, when Archbishop Lefebvre, 83 years old and concerned about the future of the SSPX, impermissbly ordained four bishops. This resulted in Pope John Paul II’s declaration that Lefebvre, and the four bishops he ordained, were all excommunicated. And although not condemned as being in formal “schism,” the Vatican has made clear that since the excommunications, the SSPX remains in a state of canonical irregularity.
At the heart of efforts to avoid this crisis in 1988 was none other than Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. And ever since his elevation to the Papacy, Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI), has been trying to mend this wound. In fact, he has poured a tremendous amount of personal attention toward the matter – and taken quite a bit of criticism for doing so on a number of levels.
One might ask: why? Well, there are a number of reasons.
The first is personal. Those close to Pope Benedict report that he regrets the failure of his efforts to avert the 1988 debacle, and wants to make amends. To this end, in 2009 Pope Benedict XVI lifted Pope John Paul II’s excommunications.
Second, Pope Benedict has observed that “what once was holy, is always holy.” The SSPX is known primarily for its attachment to the traditional Latin Mass – the Mass as it was celebrated for hundreds of years before the radical innovations that followed the Second Vatican Council. The Pope believes there is nothing wrong or improper with such an attachment. In fact, the Pope has decried some of the deformities of the new liturgy as frequently practiced, and praised the beauty and splendor of the old Mass. Moreover, he has condemned the efforts of his precedessors to literally stamp out the traditional Latin Mass. On this front, in 2007, Pope Benedict XVI issued a motu proprio making clear that the traditional Latin Mass has not been abrogated, but rather remains the birthright of every Catholic priest and layman.
Third, and perhaps most difficult, becomes questions of doctrine. The Second Vatican Council is one of those subjects upon which the “far left” [such as ultra-progressives within the Church] and “far right” [such as the SSPX] seem to agree: it launched an entirely new Catholic Church. To the left, this is a good thing; to the right, a deplorable thing. Pope Benedict XVI has repeatedly condemned each approach, and instead called for intrepreting Vatican II via a “hermeneutic of continuity.” That is, Vatican II must be read and intrepreted within the light of tradition. (Indeed, by its very own account, the Council defined no new dogma, but was instead strictly pastoral in nature.)
Pope Benedict’s approach is the only possible Catholic approach in my humble opinion. Unfortunately, it is not an easy one. As a trained attorney, I have had incredible difficulty reconciling certain Vatican II documents with traditional Church teaching. It can be done, but, as stated, it takes the skills of a contortionist.
And it is on this third point that talks between Pope Benedict XVI and the SSPX have run upon particularly rough ground. SSPX wants Pope Benedict XVI to repudiate Vatican II; Pope Benedict XVI wants the SSPX to accept Vatican II “within the light of tradition.”
Some think that the Pope and the Society may ultimately agree to disagree. Although may initially seem difficult to imagine, bear in mind that there have been 21 councils in Church history. Can anyone name more than five of them? Some were quite forgettable – and as such have been largely forgotten. Is there a reason why history can’t consign Vatican II to a similar fate?
A wise priest once remarked that the key to getting through the wake of Vatican II is to recognize the Council as “a” Church council, rather than “THE” Church Council. I think that herein may lie the key to an SSPX reconciliation. The SSPX may be willing to sign on to an agreement which recognizes Vatican II as simply 1 of 21 Church Councils – and one which must be interpreted in a manner consistent with the previous 20.
Finally, although correlation does not imply causation, Christ has taught us that “by your fruits you shall know them.” Since 1970, the mainstream / post-Vaticn II Catholic Church has been in free fall. Entire religious communities have collapsed, and vocations and Church attendance have declined precipitously - by over 90% in some regions. (All this is meticulously and painfully chronicled in Kenneth Jones’ book, “Index of Leading Catholic Indicators“). Over the same period of time, the SSPX has grown steadily. So has other traditionalist Catholic groups, most notably the FSSP ( Priestly Society of St. Peter), which was formed in 1988 by Cardinal Ratzinger and Pope John Paul II precisely to serve as a home for traditionally-minding Catholics WITHIN the Catholic Church. Pope Benedict XVI is well aware of these facts, which could also be fueling his desire to see the SSPX fully reconciled with the Church.
Finally, to put this whole affair in still broader context, let us not forget Pope Benedict XVI’s outreach to the Anglican Church as well – culminating in his establishment of an Anglican Ordinariate. Further still are his outreaches to the Orthodox Christian communities and the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association. In short, Pope Benedict XVI is keenly interested in a reunified Catholic Church – to the extent that many have begun to refer to him as “The Pope of Christian Unity.”