In 2012 a reconciliation between the schismatic Society of St Pius X and the Holy See appeared imminent. In 2009 Pope Benedict XVI lifted the excommunication of the Superior-General of the Society, Bishop Bernard Fellay, and the three other SSPX bishops. Furthermore, Benedict relaxed the restrictions on the celebration of the 1962 rite of Mass, effectively raising it on a par with the reformed Missal, which now became the ‘Ordinary Form’ of the Roman Rite. Many Catholics were alarmed that these gestures were too generous, and more than that, conceding the objections of the Lefebvrists.
In the Lefebvrist camp, there were also misgivings. The longer-serving clerics recalled the events of 1988. In that year Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre gave his name to an agreement that would grant the Society autonomy under Rome and its own bishop. Lefebvre did not honor that agreement. Instead, he consecrated four bishops at his seminary in Econe, Switzerland, without a papal mandate, incurring excommunication for himself and the bishops.
Lefebvre would claim that Rome behaved in a faithless manner. What truly happened was far more complex. Certainly many in the SSPX were deeply suspicious of what Lefevbre described as ‘Neo-Modernist Rome.’ The leadership decided that they could not trust Rome. It would only place itself under the authority of the Holy See when Rome explicitly repudiated Vatican II.
Nevertheless, 17 years later Fellay began talks. He had been Superior-General for 18 years (each term is an astonishing 12 years). Many, both in the leadership and rank and file, raised their eyebrows when he appeared to abandon the canonized position on negotiations with Rome. Eyebrow-raising gave way to alarm when Fellay began to speak of interpreting Vatican II ‘in the light of tradition.’ Fellay was angered when his three fellow-bishops warned him against an agreement with Rome and furious when their letter became public. Bishop Richard Williamson was expelled from the Society (as much for his embarrassing anti-semitic statements as his defiance), along with a number of priests. A small group separated and formed the somewhat fatuously-named Society of St Pius X of the Strict Observance. In 2012 an extraordinary General Chapter of the Society met at Econe. Fellay hoped it would rubber-stamp a union. Instead, it rejected reconciliation. Fellay would later thank God that the Society was ‘preserved from any kind of agreement.’ The truth was that he and his supporters did not have the numbers to carry the day.
Despite the decision of the Chapter Fellay continues to talk with Rome. In June 2017 he addressed a letter to all SSPX members, castigating a widening spirit of rebellion. Attempting to justify reconciliation while remaining firm against Vatican II he writes’ we cry out loud and clear that we remain Catholic, even if we do not follow the reforms of the last fifty years, and that we refuse to follow the ecclesiastical authorities whenever they wish to impose them.’ He goes on to state ‘This may give the impression of a certain contradiction: we affirm our submission to the legitimate authority and we almost systematically refuse to follow it.’
This is indeed a contradiction. The dilemma points to the fundamental weakness within the Society of St Pius X. Either the Second Vatican Council is Catholic or it not. If it is Catholic, its teachings are orthodox and demand obedience. If it is not Catholic then it is heretical. The leaders of the Church have apostatized from the faith and a reconciliation with Rome is anathema. While acknowledging the contradiction however Fellay refuses to attempt to reconcile it. He must make a choice, and appears reluctant to do so. Those members of the Society who sincerely follow their consciences find themselves on the horns of a dilemma. Logic dictates that they either accept Vatican II and return to Rome or reject it and have nothing to do with a false Church which has lost the Faith. There is no middle ground.
Fellay also seems unaware of another problem. In order to preserve discipline, he attacks his subjects who are threatening the ‘unity of our fraternity, sowing discord and causing confusion among the members and the faithful.’ But who is Fellay to attempt to come between a conscience and its God? What authority could he possibly invoke to justify this? The haughtiest medieval pope has never reserved to himself the custody of anyone’s conscience. Fellay and the Society leadership find themselves using raw and naked power to preserve unity. Yet authentic authority is never savage or brutal. True authority is based on truth and justice.
I pray daily for the reconciliation of the SSPX. But Fellay is trying to bring the whole organization with him. He will fail. He cannot have full communion without the Council.
The peace of Christ is with you.