Thursday, 22 January 2009

SSPX Reconciliation: What should be our attitude?

Given that many online are going into hysteria at the prospect of the SSPX bishops' excommunications being lifted, I thought it might be worth setting out a few key points to think about from the 'in full communion' traditionalist ('attached to tradition'!) perspective.

Why angst?

Most of the public angst is coming from conservatives and liberals, worried about the implications of a group who don't accept Vatican II's teachings being allowed back in, or some of Bishop Williamson's (and others of his ilk) kookiness.

But it may surprise those groups to know that many traditionalists who have long been in the fold have at best mixed emotions about the SSPX too. Personally, I owe a huge debt to Archbishop LeFevre since it was attending a LeFevrist Mass in France many years ago now that started me on the path to becoming a practicing Catholic. On the other hand, I walked out of the only two SSPX masses I've attended since then because I was so outraged by the sermons.

The reality is that while the organisation as a whole may not necessarily be schismatic or heretical, there are certainly some within it who are. People who attack the indefectibility of the Church for example, in relation to the sacraments. Who don't accept the Church's authority to legislate on things like ecumenism (regardless of our views on whether or not those decisions are prudent or not). Or whose attacks on the Pope and bishops goes far beyond what can possibly be regarded as reasonable bounds.

And then there is the loony tunes factor - no one really wants real traditionalism associated with the sort of nonsense that Bishop Williamson seems to regularly espouse - and for which he clearly has a following.

At the more 'political' level, a lot of people in the Church have endured much, but stayed loyal to the hierarchy. In those circumstances it is pretty hard to turn around and be welcoming to those who have not only basically chosen to desert the ship, but also done a lot of name calling and trouble-making along the way.

Why we should support reconciliation

Nonetheless, there are a number of reasons why I think we should support some form of reconciliation of the the SSPX rather than just trying to work on members one by one.

First, in some places people go to SSPX masses because the alternative is liturgical horrors. Of course, once there, they may well absorb particular attitudes and ideas that are less than helpful, but over time that can be fixed.

Secondly, this is about the salvation of souls. The longer a (quasi?) schism goes on, the harder it is to fix, and the further the group drifts from the guidance of the Magisterium. Then there are the sacraments - SSPX marriages are invalid; their confessions at best doubtful (almost certainly invalid except in extremis). And that has real consequences. Moreover, this is an organisation with leaders and followers - if some of the leaders can be bought back into the mainstream, many (though not all) will follow after them.

The Pope is taking the image of the Good Shepherd to heart here (and in his attempts to bring groups such as the Orthodox and the Lutherans closer to the Church). I think he has more than demonstrated that he isn't going to compromise on doctrine to do this (notwithstanding Rorate Caeli's recent post on the Lutheran issue, which I pretty much agree with in terms of their analysis of the problems with the Declaration, but not the Pope's attitude to it), but if he is willing to bend over backwards to ensure there are no barriers (perceived or real) in people's paths, we should support him!

Thirdly, in the long run the SSPX can help the Church, particularly in this period we are now in where it is finally possible to have real debate on what has and hasn't worked in Vatican II's pastoral initiatives; on what of its teachings can be interpreted in a hermaneutic of continuity and what can't; and what of its ordinary Magisterium (if any) needs to be reformed. They have bought some theological firepower to the table (admittedly of varying quality) and put their views out in public, where others, for whatever reasons, have been reluctant to do so to date.

So what are the implications of the still only rumoured move?

Lifting the excommunications doesn't mean automatic reconciliation

It's worth remembering, as some have pointed out, that the mutual excommunications between Rome and the Orthodox Church were lifted some forty years ago - yet we still haven't achieved reconciliation!

The Pope could of course go further, and lift the suspensions of SSPX priests and give them faculties, or ask Ordinaries to do so - but that seems pretty unlikely at this stage.

More likely a new round of negotiations on theological and canonical issues will take place.

Lifting the excommunications doesn't mean endorsing the bizarre ideas of Bishop Williamson!

Bishop Williamson actually seems pretty intent on sabotaging the whole thing, as a number of blogs have mentioned (have a look at Fr Z and St Mary Magdalen).

But even if he did eventually reconcile, that doesn't imply endorsement of his curious ideas on women wearing trousers, the Sound of Music, or more serious issues such as the Holocaust. Nor does reconciliation necessarily entail giving someone with evident problems faculties or jurisdiction.

I have to admit, it's the Bishop Williamson school that gives some weight to the argument that we need to find a better descriptor for ourselves than 'traditionalists'!

Still, in the end, the Church is (or at least should be) essentially concerned with a person's orthodoxy, not their opinions on things which are not part of the deposit of faith.

Of course, if someone in a position of responsibility continued to make imprudent statements that affect the Church's reputation, or attempted to impose weirdo opinions on anyone he has jurisdiction over (and remember at the moment that is no-one!) sooner or later action will presumably be taken (although it seems to be very much later in a few cases awfully close to home...).

So pray for unity!

So the bottom line I think is, don't panic, and pray for unity!


Anonymous said...

Our attitude should be DEO GRATIAS. The SSPX could breathe new life into the faltering Novus Ordo Church.

Michael Sternbeck. said...

Thank you Terra, for a well-balanced assessment of the implications of these rumours and the need to pray about them.

As to SSPX breathing New Life into the Church, there is already much new life being breathed into the Church by those who have chosen to remain within it, inspired by the Vicar of Christ.

I suppose I'm of the old-fashioned view that it is the Holy Spirit who breathes New Life into the Church.

Son of Trypho said...


I have a very negative view of Williamson's comments - they are IMHO beyond kooky or bizarre. They are repugnant and embarassing for the Church and it needs to deal with this urgently. The Church doesn't need this sort of bad PR and neither does the traditional movement which will be inevitably tarred by its opponents regardless of merit.

I agree that we should pray for unity (I should know have reunified with the Church myself) but I think the personal views of clergy are also important. These people are responsible for the correct development of the faithful, not merely in the realm of faith, but also in conduct, behaviour etc IMHO.

Terra said...

Sof T - Williamson is (as far as we know) an excommunicated and suspended priest. There is nothing the Church can really do about him at the moment!

If the excommunication (due to his illicit consecration) is lifted, he will still be suspended (ie he has no right to say mass, preach or administer the sacraments except in danger of death type situations).

And he could well be excommunicated again (or excommunicate himself by virtue of his words and actions) fairly quickly!

Could one laicise someone who was illicitly ordained in the first place and doesn't recognise your authority to do so? I guess so, but its kind of pointless.

My point about prayers for unity is that they should include the need for the hearts of those concerned to be softened, for them to listen more attentively to God's word, as the Pope suggested in his General Audience comments.

On the capacity of the SSPX to breath life into the Church - I agree strongly with Michael Sternbeck's comments. If the SSPX do reconcile there will need, in my view, to be a period of prayer, reflection and catechesis to enable them to move from a hermaneutic of suspicion to an attitude of respectful, intelligent and reflective response to the Magisterium.

Jakob Sprenger said...

From Rueters:

VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - Pope Benedict will soon lift the excommunication on four traditionalist bishops, in his latest attempt to heal a 20-year-old schism in the Roman Catholic Church, an Italian paper said on Thursday.

Il Giornale said a papal decree lifting the excommunications against the leaders of the Society of Saint Pius X (SSPX), would most likely be announced this weekend.

It would be a major gesture by Benedict to resolve a crisis in the Church that surfaced in 1998, when the late French Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre illegally consecrated four bishops without the requisite permission of the late Pope John Paul.

The result was their self-imposed excommunication, or a total cut-off from the Church, which was later made formal by a Vatican decree.

The group, which has about a million followers compared to 1.1 billion for the official Church, keeps the old Latin Mass and rejects the validity of other religions.

It also rejects some of the reforms of the 1962-1965 Second Vatican Council, which, among other things, introduced the Mass in the local language and encouraged dialogue with other religions.

The decree lifting the excommunication of the four bishops, something they have been demanding for years in order to accelerate dialogue with the Vatican, is the latest of several gestures by the pope to the schismatic group.

Benedict has already granted another concession -- allowing the unconditional return of the old-style Latin Mass. But that move angered Jews because the Mass includes a Good Friday prayer for their conversion.

Several years ago, Father Franz Schmidberger, a top SSPX official who was Lefebvre's right-hand man, said Benedict should tell Jews and members of other religions to convert because they are part of "false systems".

Since his election in 2005, Benedict has made several statements which his critics have seen as proclaiming the supremacy of Roman Catholicism over all other religions.

One of the best-known traditionalist Catholics is American actor Mel Gibson but it is not clear if he supports the SSPX, which is based at the rebel seminary Lefebvre ran in Switzerland.

The group has said they want to remain part of the Church but want their own legal status within it so they can carry on with their traditional services.

There has been speculation they could be given a "personal prelature" similar to that given by the late Pope John Paul to the conservative group Opus Dei. This would allow them to answer to their own leader rather than to a local bishop.

John L said...

Resentment by non-SSPX trads is an interesting point; I think such people need to face up to the fact that were it not for the existence of the SSPX, the FSSP and other traditionalists who are canonically legitimate would never have been allowed to get started, and the motu proprio would never have happened - the need to heal this division in the Church was politically essential for it to occur; mere enthusiasm for the old rite would not have sufficed.

marcel w. said...

This is exceedingly good news. I think all traditionalists should respond with unabashed enthusiasm to these developments. I hope there will be as little enmity as possible between the diocesan approved Latin Mass goers and SSPX adherents. It is a bad witness for us to be sniping amongst ourselves, when we have a common cause.

As for Bishop Williamson, I do not see his comments as a deliberate attempt at sabotaging the process. If you watch the interview he gave it seems he responded to a question on the spot. I do not think it is charitable, whatever ones views on the substance of his remarks, to impute malicious motives to the man. It seems that if a criticism were to be made of him it is that he is too open with his thoughts, rather than being a Machiavellian schemer with a hidden agenda.

All in all this will have been a great week for the Church if the excommunications are recognized as null and void.

David said...

Like a lot of people, I'm in two minds about this.

On one hand, we need guys who are Orthodox and true to the faith. We rejoice at the salvation of any soul. On the other, like or hate The Sound of Music, Holocaust Denial is just wrong - denying what happened (and what Hitler promised would happen) it's turning away from "the cry of the people oppressed in Egypt, [Ex. 3:7-10]".

I've had SSPX laymen express similar views to me. I've always responded that we need the good guys in the Church (in the words of President Johnson "in the tent p-ising out, rather than out of the tent pi-sing in"). They then say "I kinda agree, but...""

The thing is, we need Bishops who kick the backsides of people who fall off the road, whether it be on the right or on the left. If we had that, I reckon everything would be great! Kind of like saying if we didn't sin, everything would be hunky-dory - eh?

Terra said...

John L - I've heard this line before, but I really don't agree that the SSPX helped make SP come about, if anything I think the reverse is true.

Because frankly, the SSPX has few if any friends (and lots of enemies) in Rome (and anywhere else that Church politics counts)!

My view is that the Moto Proprio is above all else about advancing the Pope's own plans to address the problems the Church has experienced over the last forty years.

This Pope has always had as his primary agenda the restortion of a hermaneutic of continuity. And he has long recognised that addressing the problems with the liturgy is crucial in that. He said as much many times as a Cardinal and theologian, and he has consistently taken this line as Pope.

He didn't need the SSPX (or traditionalists generally) cheering from the sidelines to encourage the use of traditional practices, use of good music and nice vestments and more ritual in the liturgy - he would have done that anyway.

Moreover, I think his primary motive for making the TLM more available wasn't really reconciling the SSPX (or being nice to traddies within the Church for that matter) - it was about setting in motion a dymanic to make a 'reform of the reform' possible.

In fact, I think the demands of the SSPX in relation to the TLM have made it if anything harder for the Pope to act as quickly as he would have liked on SP, since it gave the appearance of giving in to their demands, not something the French bishops or quite a number of others were keen on.

As a Cardinal he did a lot to help the traditionalist movement within the Church, and facilitate the reconciliation of groups such as the FSSP, Le Barroux and Flavigny. He has been very consistent in what he has said about the TLM. And he has always recognised the recalcitrance of many bishops in following through on what Pope John Paul II promulgated in 1984 and 1988.

So I think he would have acted anyway.

I also think that while he genuinely wants reconciliation, and will go the extra mile to try and make it happen, he won't be amazed if it doesn't really happen in the end.

Still, I think he believes as Pope he has a duty to try.

David said...

John L - and if Abp Lefebvre consecrated only one Bishop in 1988, with Papal approval? And if the Lefebvrites reconciled in 2000 when Pope John Pual II offered them an Universal traddie Episcopate? Can't be proven. Could have, might have, but didn't. Abp L should be respected for his work as an Archbishop - not for defying the Holy Father. Every week, I see people at Mass who have never gone away we've held on like limpets. Why do we still see, in Australian capitals, SSPX Chapels, side-by-side (practically speaking) with diocesan or FSSP Churches?

Anonymous said...

Sorry Son of Trypho,

Homicidal gassings are not a dogma - the pope has no authority to make membership of the church contingent upon belief that Hitler gassed six million Jews.

What if a precondition of membership was belief that the Bavli gave the green light to child abuse by Jewish parents, and other crimes?

Would you protest at that?

And surely, it strikes you as odd, that when the enemies of Christ have succeeded in placing even the most well established truths up for debate in educational institutions and the media - in the name of masonically derived "free speech", that suddenly there is one alleged truth that one cannot question without in some places being subject to imprisonment??

I'd rather see people imprisoned for, say, membership of secret societies, abortion, sodomy and the like.

The fact that they are not, but leftists/liberals are quite prepared to hypocritically impose penalties upon those who deny the homicidal gassings, just raises suspicion in my mind, as a lawyer, that these leftists/liberals have something to hide...

And one final point. The fact that you, or even most people, find something repugnant, does not prove that it is objectively evil. At the very most, the opinion of a majority simply raises a (not too powerful) inference that the impugned opinion COULD be objectively evil, that's all.

+ Thomas Wolsey

Archieps. Eborac.

Anonymous said...


just out of interest, you stated:

- Abp L should be respected for his work as an Archbishop - not for defying the Holy Father.

Do you accept that there are any limitations on papal infallibility and/or papal jurisdiction, whether as to extent, manner of exercise, regard to the natural law (i.e., natural justice/due process), for instance?

+ Thomas Wolsey

Archieps. Eborac.

Anonymous said...

Oh, another thing I forgot to say is that one of the benefits could be a much-needed resurgence of Thomist metaphysics in the training of the clergy.

The SSPX seminary in Zaitzkofen, Bavaria, (in the past) taught Plato and Aristotle from the Greek primary sources. If you knew Latin and Greek, you had to study Hebrew. If you knew Latin, you had to study Greek.

The standard was so high that the seminary conferred state certified degrees in philosophy and theology.

The former Rector, Dr Paul Natterer, is a noted philosopher. (Unfortunately, he eventually left the Society)

+ Thos Wolsey.

Archieps. Eborac.

Peter said...

Dear Wolsey

would that the traditionalista promoters of a resurgence of St Thomas would engage in some of his careful distinction in thought.

If one holds that the holocaust happened (and btw the arguments that it did not happen seem to boil down to what I would call universal fundamentalist empiricism) it does NOT mean one holds that all the evils of modern liberal polity and society are good. I've heard this fatuous argument so many times in relation to the environment - as if to oppose the needless destruction of animals or the environment means you necessarily support abortion.

Now the effects of Bp Williamson's nutty pronouncements also need to be borne in mind - that those who actually hold those pernicious views of the nazis take solace in his stupid statements, and that others are led into that homicidal mindset.

It seems to me that some within the SSPX and its adherents simply cannot abide or admit that anything of any worth comes from before 1950 and that resorting to the neo-scholastic manuals of that era will magically right all ills.

I am with Terra on this - there is much to be concerned about in many aspects of the practical reality of the SSPX and some of the faithful attached to them.


David said...


"Do you accept that there are any limitations on papal infallibility and/or papal jurisdiction, whether as to extent, manner of exercise, regard to the natural law (i.e., natural justice/due process), for instance?"

Yes, of course.I'm no "magisteriallist". The Roman Pontiff, when he speaks ex cathedra -- that is, when in the exercise of his office as pastor and teacher of all Christians he defines, by virtue of his supreme Apostolic authority, a doctrine of faith or morals to be held by the whole Church -- is, by reason of the Divine assistance promised to him in blessed Peter, possessed of that infallibility with which the Divine Redeemer wished His Church to be endowed in defining doctrines of faith and morals; and consequently that such definitions of the Roman Pontiff are irreformable of their own nature (ex sese) and not by reason of the Church's consent.

The limits of papal infallibility are set out in the Vatican I decree. Most importantly, infallibility applies only to the Holy Father's ex cathedra teachings on faith and morals - not to every prudential act, nor to every doctrinal action. To say that the Pope is speaking "ex cathedra" requires fulfilment of a number of criteria which have been the subject of exegis both before and after the first Vatican council.

I don't know how relevant this really is - I mean, the SSPX Bishops were excommunicated latae sententiae - not because of any action or decision of the Pope, but because Abp Lefebvre went ahead with the Consecrations without the required mandate.

Son of Trypho said...

I have never said that belief in the Holocaust is a prerequisite for Church membership, nor should it be.

What I have said is that Williamson has publicly subscribed to views which are historically wrong and offensive. As he bears a role of leadership in a Christian community, he has a responsibility to conduct himself, not only with regards to faith, in a way that is befitting the positio he holds. Holocaust denial falls far short of this.

I've seen your comments on other sites - why don't you just come out and clearly answer these questions?

Did the Holocaust occur?
Did the gas chambers exist?
Was there an official Nazi policy to exterminate Jews (and other undesirables)?

I'd be curious to see your response as it would give everyone a good idea of where your coming from.

Terra said...

Son of Trypho - I let you comment go up, but I wanted to say that if the debate on whether or not the Holocaust happened is happening on other sites, have it over there.

The issue as far as this blog is concerned is not whether or not the Holocaust happened (and I didn't read Wolsey's comments as suggesting that it didn't), but what our attitude to Williamson should be, what if anything the Church can do about his views, and the effect of his views on the reconciliation of the SSPX.

And on that it is good to see that Bishop Fellay has now unequivocally distanced the SSPX from Williamson's view on this subject.

Son of Trypho said...

I apologise for derailing the thread and am pleased to note Fellay's comments on this.

You are correct that this is not the time or place for this type of discussion - let us humbly ask for the intercession of St Teresa Benedicta of the Cross to our Lord.

Terra said...

Another useful post on this to read is over at the Hermaneutic of Continuity - Fr Finnigan notes:

"'s Italian daily edition of L'Osservatore Romano has put an article on the front page which discusses the lifting of the excommunications and whether it was imprudent for Pope Benedict to have taken this action which might be seen as accepting holocaust denial. At the end of the article, quoting Nostra Aetate, it affirms that anti-semitism is unacceptable, that holocaust denial contradicts this teaching and is therefore very grave and regrettable and remains (despite the lifting of the excommunications) unacceptable."

Hopefully the full article will become available shortly.