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
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.
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
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
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.”
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
(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.