John Allen on upcoming SSPX Summit

My friend John L. Allen, the nearly ubiquitous fair-minded correspondent of the ultra-lefty dissenting National Catholic Reporter is a good analyst.

In his weekly Friday letter he drills into the upcoming talks that are soon to begin between the SSPX and the Holy See.

Let’s have a look with my emphases and comments.

Healing the schism with traditionalists

Bishop Bernard Fellay, superior of the Society of St. Pius X, ordains a priest during a ceremony in Econe, Switzerland, June 29. (CNS/Reuters)

From a strictly demographic point of view, one could argue that the intense interest surrounding relations between the Vatican and the Society of St. Pius X, popularly known as the "Lefebvrites," is terribly exaggerated. Worldwide, the society has a little under 500 priests, roughly the same number as the Diocese of Buffalo. It claims one million faithful, a number impossible to confirm but which, even if true, would represent less than one-tenth of one percent of the global Catholic population. [Sure… but… when we are in a political cycle, don’t we pay attention to "likely voters"?  People who go to SSPX chapels are "likely voters", if you get my drift.]

Yet for a variety of reasons, the Vatican’s effort to put Humpty-Dumpty back together again by reconciling with the Lefebvrites carries a significance way out of proportion to those numbers.  [Problem: the Humpty Dumpty image describes the impossible.]

In the first place, the rupture triggered in 1988 by the late French Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre represents the only formal schism in the wake of the Second Vatican Council. (Some traditionalists reject the idea that the society is in schism, usually offering a version of Ronald Reagan’s famous quip about the Democrats: "I didn’t leave the Democratic Party, it left me." Yet Pope John Paul II’s 1988 motu proprio "Ecclesia Dei" was about as clear as possible, asserting that the ordinations "constitute a schismatic act.")  [Mr. Allen is usually a pretty thorough analyst, but he has left out something very important.  For a long time know, the Holy See has been saying that the SSPX is not in "formal schism".  His Eminence Card. Castrillon, former President of the Pont. Comm. Ecclesia Dei, said on more than one occasion that the SSPX was not in schism.  The official line is that what happened at Econe in 1988 was a schismatic act, but that it didn’t necessarily cause a formal schism.  Of course we have to balance that against John Paul II’s use of the word "schism" in the Motu Proprio Ecclesia Dei adflicta.]

Healing the schism [And we go on, after you are supposed to have accepted the premise.] has been a special priority for John Paul II and Benedict XVI, both of whom participated in Vatican II. Throughout history, popes have always tried to end schisms, since it’s a core principle of Catholic theology that any validly ordained bishop can ordain another bishop, and hence a schism can become self-replicating if not nipped in the bud.  [And for deeper ecclesiological reasons as well, not just for practical reasons.]

When it comes to the Society of St. Pius X, several other constituencies also feel an investment in which way things go:

    * Dissidents of various stripes complain that the Vatican’s outreach to the Lefebvrites has not been matched by similar solicitude for other disgruntled Catholics; [Who would they be?  Is he talking about people on the ecclesial left?  Progressivists?]
    * Theologians, church historians and ordinary Catholics alike wonder about the implications of bringing the Lefebvrites back into the fold in terms of the teaching of Vatican II, especially on ecumenical and inter-religious dialogue and on religious freedom; [Yes… but if they are wondering about that, then they may already made up their minds about what Vatican II means for those issues.]
    * Bishops and other church leaders grumble that offering the Lefebvrites too many concessions would mean rewarding them for disobedience; [ROFL!  Yah… right.  Let’s pause to talk about liturgical abuses, the lack of implementation of Ex corde Ecclesiae, years of protecting priests who hurt children, etc. etc. etc.]
    * Experts in Jewish-Catholic relations worry about Jewish reaction to any deal, given the ambivalent track record of some traditionalists on anti-Semitism — fears turbocharged by the recent cause célèbre involving Lefebvrite Bishop Richard Williamson and his comments on the Holocaust;
    * Some liturgical traditionalists hope that readmitting the Lefebvrites, whose signature issue is the pre-Vatican II Latin Mass, will help tip the scales toward a more reverent, classical style of worship. [Guilty as charged.]

Not only are those perspectives different, they’re usually put forward with more than a little bit of mustard. As a result, news that formal talks between the Vatican and the Society of St. Pius X are set for late October is inevitably a big deal, regardless of the society’s demographic footprint. [Considered from just a couple of those issues, listed above, it should be a big deal no matter how big the group is.]

The news was put into circulation on Monday by Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna, Austria, a theological protégé (and former graduate student) of Pope Benedict XVI as well as a member of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.  [Who has, we have seen more and more over the years, allowed some pretty wierd stuff to go on in Vienna.] In an interview with the German daily Passauer Neue Presse, Schönborn said that talks between the Vatican and the Society of St. Pius X would begin soon, and that the Vatican would make clear "what is not negotiable."

In particular, Schönborn said, the legitimacy of the church’s "dialogue with Jews, other religions and other Christian faiths" is not up for discussion[Fine.  St. Francis of Assisi gave us a pretty good example of that in the 13th c.  I think we are all on board with inter-religious dialogue.]

In that sense, the model for the talks with the Lefebvrites is not so much the Middle East peace process, with each side giving up some ground in order to get a deal. It’s more akin to negotiating a friendly corporate takeover, ironing out how much autonomy the smaller operation will still enjoy and where it must toe the line of its parent company.  [Interesting analogy.]

In light of those comments, reporters in Rome pressed Jesuit Fr. Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesperson, for details. On Tuesday, Lombardi confirmed that talks will indeed take place toward the second half of October. He also identified three experts who will be participating for the Vatican:

    * Swiss Dominican Fr. Charles Morerod, secretary of the International Theological Commission and rector magnificus of the Dominican-run Angelicum University in Rome;
    * German Jesuit Fr. Karl Josef Becker, an emeritus professor at the Gregorian University in Rome and a longtime advisor to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith;
    * Spanish Msgr. Fernando Ocáriz, the vicar general of Opus Dei and an advisor to the Vatican’s doctrinal congregation since 1986. (For the record, Ocáriz was actually born in Paris but to Spanish parents, so let’s not quibble about nationality.)  [Not only… Msgr. Ocariz was also a member of the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei for some years.]

A wag might be tempted to say that the talks have thus already produced one miracle: the Jesuits and Opus Dei are on the same side[/rimshot]

These three figures appear to be carefully chosen. [Get outta town!] Becker and Ocáriz were both major contributors to Dominus Iesus, the 2000 document from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, led by then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, on religious pluralism. That text strongly upheld the uniqueness and the universality of the salvation won through Christ, thereby addressing one of the Lefebvrites’ major doctrinal objections to Vatican II. Morerod is a veteran of Anglican-Catholic and Orthodox-Catholic dialogues, and a figure known for bringing a thoroughly orthodox approach to ecumenical efforts.

It would thus be difficult to argue that these three theologians suffer from a fuzzy sense of Catholic identity, [fuzzy… squishy… sounds familiar…] or represent a sharp break with church tradition. In that sense, they’re good interlocutors for the Society of St. Pius X, because they can’t be accused of heresy (not credibly, anyway) when making the points to which Schönborn alluded, about dialogue with Jews, followers of other religions, and other Christians.

Ocáriz brings another bit of expertise that could be useful. One hypothesis occasionally floated about how to bring the Lefebvrites back into communion is to grant them a special canonical status, perhaps a personal prelature. To date, the only personal prelature in the church remains Opus Dei, so Ocáriz is in a position to evaluate the pros and cons of that idea.  [Good point.  [Msgr. Ocariz was also a member of the PCED.]

As for the long-term prospects of these talks, all one can say is that the jury is still out. Speaking on background, Vatican officials generally say that they sense a division in the Society of St. Pius X between a "moderate" camp centered around the superior general, Bishop Bernard Fellay, which is seriously committed to reunion, and a more "hard-line" current that still thinks of the Lefebvrite movement as the Athanasius of the modern age, [a false analogy, btw] standing alone against the heresy of the post-conciliar church. That second group tends to view reconciliation with Rome in a more eschatological key. [That is to say, the Church will be "reunited" at the return of the Lord.  On an ironic side note, I remember that the escahtological point emerged during the controversy over Pope Benedict XVI’s change of the Good Friday prayer for Jews in the 1962 Missale Romanum.]

If that diagnosis is correct, it remains to be seen which camp might prevail — and whether the end result might actually be a "schism within a schism," [or in some respects, the real schism] with some elements of the society willing to accept reconciliation and others repudiating it.


There are a couple flaws here, but Mr. Allen offered some interesting insights.  

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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  1. Mike says:

    Yes, Fr. Z, nice commentary. I thought Allen’s book on the Work was reasonably balanced. I am hoping and praying that SSPX won’t dig in too hard, and miss this opportunity to bring their charism–clear teaching, reverent liturgy–back into the fold, jurdically, that is. I also hope they see, in particular, how orthodox the Work is. I have read on their site a treatment of St. Josemaria, and it’s a bit, well, odd. He, in my judgment, and JPII’s (!), was a saint who sought 100% fidelity to Christ and the Church, and his special emphasis on being a saint in ordinary life is totally needed in the world today. In fact, the “universal call to holiness” of VII was part of his preaching from about 1928 on.

    So, I am praying for SSPX that their zeal for the Truth will also be strongly informed by the formal perfection of every virtue, charity.

  2. Fr. John Mary says:

    Thanks for the analysis. It helps to clarify these issues for me. God bless.

  3. ThomasM says:

    We’ve been rewarding disobedience for decades. Communion in the hand, altar girls are just for starters. Tom

  4. Sid says:

    Am I wrong in thinking, after reading Allen’s article, that the Holy See has chosen a very good team for the negotiations?

  5. Catholic Dad says:

    Discussion Fatigue – weariness of any discussion of discussions even before the discussions have even been discussed.

  6. Mike says:

    One additional item: in my personal experience, there is a misconception out there (among Catholics, yup, priests too) and some Jewish people believe that Vatican II was a revolution in Catholic teaching on the Jews, and now, presto, we don’t have to pray for their conversion as their covenant is just fine w/o Christ. I have seen a Priest pretty much call B16 a residual anti-semite who has no desire to continue the “work of VII and JPII” in regard to this question.

    I don’t have the theological training to answer this Q: because the RCC, with St. Paul, says that God’s gifts to the Jews are “without repantance”, in other words, he doesn’t regret them, where, my friends, does this imply that the Mosaic covenant was in itself capable of doing w/o the New Testamant revealed in Christ? I don’t get the connection.
    We now have this sorry situation: Jews feel absolutely no need to seriously consider conversion because even Catholics say God thinks they’re wonderful just as they are.

    These same people, Catholics and Jews, consider Dominus Jesus as a slap in the face.

    This is very dangerous, as it removes the question of truth from the equation of how to life one’s life. B16’s major emphasis is just the opposite of this: truth and freedom, truth and love, truth and salvation, are all intrinsically linked.

    Opus Dei, for one, I think, totally goes along with this. I hope SSPX sees that, and embrace the good faith, and Faith, that goes with it.

  7. kgurries says:

    There is another interesting fact about Msgr. Ocariz that many have overlooked. He was one of two involved in the discussions of 1988 leading up to the protocol of accord with Msgr. Lefebvre. The other was (then) Fr. Bertone.

  8. RichR says:

    As always, you bring perspective to things, Fr. Z. This is why I always check this blog before anything else on the web.

  9. Jack Hughes says:

    Mr Allen is entirely correct in his assesment of the divisions within the society, from my experiance the laity are split into 3 camps and the clergy into 2. 1stly the split within the clergy seems to centre on those who take direction from Mgrs Felly and De Galarreta (the party more intersted in reconcillation) and those for whom Mgrs Williamson and Tisser de mallarais (those who appear unwilling to submit to Rome).

    As for the laity
    (1) those who frequent Society Chapels becasue they just want to be good Traditional Catholics and find the vast majority of N.O parishes to be unattentive to their needs especially regarding Summorum Pontificum (allot of Ex-Latin Mass Society people+ those burned by their Bishop for requesting TLM) and Preaching (ex-protestants are also nummorus amongst SSPX laity), with regards to V2a and the N.O this group tends to take the more prevalent traditional view that whilst Valid it contains ambiguities that allow modernist interpritation.
    (2)As above but have serious problems with V2 Documents and the N.O
    (3) closet Sedevacatits/Sedeprivationist who attend Society Mass’s simply because the society Bishops/Priests are validly ordained and there is not Sedevacantist chapel near them.

  10. tzard says:

    Personally, I’m a bit expectant on these talks. I certainly hope what is written (the exchanges) will be published in some form. It would provide for fascinating reading.

    Thought I would certainly enjoy them coming out as they’re written – I’m sure both Rome and the Society are wise enough to not let public opinion sway the discussion – until agreement is reached. That would be a sure way to sabotage the talks.

  11. catholicmidwest says:

    Interesting how John Allen uses the word “rupture.”

    In addition, Mr. Allen stated, “It’s more akin to negotiating a friendly corporate takeover, ironing out how much autonomy the smaller operation will still enjoy and where it must toe the line of its parent company.”

    If Mr. Allen wants to think of it that way, okay. But one might conclude that if he thinks it’s just a case of one company eating another, never to be seen again, he is quite naive. Clearly he hasn’t personally seen many corporate mergers.

  12. mpm says:

    I think the corporate merger analogy is poor. Corporate mergers, even if friendly, are a power arrangement. There are winners and losers. “Fat” is eliminated.

    Ronciliation within the Church must be based, as poster Mike above mentions, on charity, love, in fact, caritas in veritate. The juridical solution ought to be appropriate, so that what power there is, can be channeled properly, but it should come last among the priorities.

    I’m praying for the gifts of the Holy Spirit for the SSPX, so they realize the place that God has in mind for them within the Catholic Church, and embrace it.

  13. catholicmidwest says:

    Not only that, mpm, but the smaller (or less “influential”) of the two ends up having a disproportionate amount of influence FROM THE INSIDE on the larger party–much more influence than it ever could have had as an external entity or competitor.

  14. catholicmidwest says:

    “I’m praying for the gifts of the Holy Spirit for the SSPX, so they realize the place that God has in mind for them within the Catholic Church, and embrace it.”

    Yes, and twice as many prayers ought to be said for the mainstream Catholic church, the members of which must come realize the place that God has in mind for them, once the union has occurred and members of the traditional communities are among them.

  15. Therese says:

    “…the implications of bringing the Lefebvrites back into the fold in terms of the teaching of Vatican II…”

    I’d say this bugaboo is very much on the minds of liberals, who cannot imagine any place for the SSPX in a “post-Vatican II” Catholic Church. (They must find the prospect of reunion repugnant in the extreme.)

  16. Thank you for your analysis, Father. Some points: The discussions will be DOCTRINAL. No fluff here. The Council and its documents will really be examined. Dominus Jesus. This came out Sept. 5, 2000 and was, frankly, mostly suppressed. It controverted decades of discussions with Jews which assured them their “covenant could still afford them salvation” without Christ. Pope Benedict issued it AGAIN on July 10, 2007, three days after Summorum Pontificum, to make clear salvation ONLY comes through Christ. This stirred another controversy. NOTA BENE: the “progressives” at Vat.II (in the majority) stated that Luther was correct, i.e, the New Testament does not reflect a formal priesthood and therefore no sacrifice at an altar (a table will do). The Church has three marks to prove Its Divine Authority: The Eucharist, a sacerdotal priesthood with charisms to “confect” the Eucharist and the Apostolic Succession.
    Items of this depth are the ones which will be discussed in October!!!

  17. MichaelJ says:

    Based on my best understanding, I would have to respectfully disagree that St. Athanasius is a false analogy. To me there are remarkable similarities. Of course, my understanding could be false, but a simple denial will not serve to correct it.

    Perhaps it would be more fruitful if you would acknowledge the similarities but then explain what St. Athanasius would have done differently had he been in Archbishop Lefebvre’s position.

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