Let’s thank God for the return of the prodigal sons
Those who wish to cast out the SSPX are like the elder son in Jesus's parable, says Alcuin Reid
30 January 2009
"I am delighted that you are back. I do not agree with everything you did, but today my heart is filled with joy. You're back; that is all that now matters." Might not these not have been the sentiments of the father for his prodigal son in the Gospel of St Luke? Might they not also be the sentiments of our Holy Father, Pope Benedict, in lifting the excommunications from the bishops of the Society of St Pius X?
This act is nothing if not an act of paternal love and mercy designed to bring back into the fullness of the family of the Church those who had - at least in one sense - strayed from it. It may also be said to be a true fruit of the bouquet of prayers offered in recent months for this precise intention by members of the SSPX, as well as of the ongoing prayer for Christian unity that is such a feature of the modern Catholic Church.
This is the second major step towards the full canonical integration of the SSPX (the first being the Motu Proprio Summorum Pontificum). But it is not the last. The four bishops are now "in communion", but as yet they have no canonical mission and they and their clergy still labour under the irregularities that follow from the positions taken since the Seventies, including suspension.
To wave this suspension in the face of returning brethren is hardly in the spirit of the reconciliation that Pope Benedict clearly desires, but it exists and it does need to be addressed, and quickly. This is a delicate period. There is much more to do in preparing for the peaceful integration of the SSPX and that will take time, just as it is taking time to give an appropriate canonical status to the former "Transalpine Redemptorists" in Scotland, reconciled last June.
During the somewhat untidy months ahead, charity and patience are called for - from all perspectives. We ought to note, though, that Rome has been clear for some time that Catholics may attend SSPX Masses out of devotion to the Church's Latin liturgical tradition, and that they do not thereby commit sin or incur any canonical penalty, so long as they do not do so out of "a schismatic mentality which separates itself from the teaching of the Supreme Pontiff and the entire Catholic Church". Given Pope Benedict's acceptance of the SSPX's declaration of its determination to remain Catholic and its acceptance of the Church's teachings, including the Primacy of the Pope, with filial disposition, it is hard to see how any barrier in simply attending Mass now remains.
The issue the validity of the Sacraments of Penance and Matrimony celebrated by SSPX priests (who because of their suspension are unable validly to marry couples or absolve penitents except in danger of death) remains, but we may hope and pray that this is addressed equitably and swiftly.
Of course, there are other issues involved. That is why Bishop Fellay, while expressing profound "filial gratitude" for Pope Benedict's "unilateral, benevolent" act has also called it "courageous". The key issue is Vatican II - or certain aspects of it. Archbishop Lefebvre, a Father of Vatican II, signed its Constitutions and Decrees. He lobbied against some of the stances finally adopted, but he nevertheless signed up to them. Later he reacted against their interpretation with what Pope Benedict calls "a hermeneutic of rupture" that was not in continuity with the Tradition of the Church. And the SSPX has continued this reaction - at times intemperately, without making the necessary distinctions between the Council's pastoral policies and its articulation of Catholic doctrine.
Now Bishop Fellay speaks of "reservations" about Vatican II. Reservations are not denials of doctrine, and anyone may have reservations about even an Ecumenical Council's pastoral policies and be a Catholic in good standing.
It is certainly courageous for the Holy Father to allow bishops who have strong reservations about an event that has so profoundly dominated Catholic life in the past few decades to return to communion with the Church. In doing so he has added to the dialogue about Vatican II - which the Holy Father has himself fuelled - some substantial participants from a very specific perspective. They, too, may be able to contribute to the reading of the Council with that "hermeneutic of continuity" for which Pope Benedict has so famously called.
And then there is Bishop Williamson: it is courageous indeed to welcome back such a prodigal. He is not the first Catholic bishop to espouse untenable positions and he probably won't be the last. It may help us to retain perspective if we realise that priests and bishops committed to the ordinary use of general absolution, the ordination of women, baptisms using invalid formulae, etc, may - without in any way excusing the extremes of either - seem as beyond the pale to the SSPX as do anti-Semitic holocaust deniers or multi-faceted conspiracy theorists (practically all of the SSPX would reject both).
It is telling to see Bishop Fellay distancing himself from such positions. Every Catholic bishop is subject to the Church's discipline, and if Bishop Williamson behaves inappropriately the Holy See may have to act. But the Pope has demonstrated that paternal love and mercy are to be offered even - perhaps especially - to him.
In spite of the difficulties, there is every reason for hope that the SSPX, for their part, truly want and will work for unity. Bishop Fellay has stated that he is "confident" and that he thinks "we will reach a true solution". Their superior in England, Fr Paul Morgan, said when explaining the Holy Father's act to his faithful last Sunday that the situation is now better than they could ever have expected. This is a tremendous shift.
What has been said hitherto has, at times, been - to put it mildly - somewhat less open. These people are Catholics. They love Christ and His Church and wish to serve her mission. There are also number of small, devout, monasteries and other religious communities who, while not belonging to the SSPX, rely on their bishops for Holy Orders, etc, and who are simply trying to live the Catholic faith as it had been lived for centuries. For the SSPX and these associated communities once again to be in full, unimpeded communion with and under the Bishop of Rome cannot but be for their good and for the good of the Church and of the world.
There were two sons in the parable in St Luke's Gospel. The older one, who had always remained faithful, felt utterly indignant at the celebration of the return of his profligate brother and stood aloof in disapproval. He was rightly rebuked. Let's not make the same mistake.
Dr Alcuin Reid's new edition of the classical guide to celebrating the traditional Mass, Ceremonies of the Roman Rite Described, is published by Continuum in February
Thursday, January 29, 2009
From The Catholic Herald, Dr. Alcuin Reid speaks upon the recent lifting of the excommunications and our approach in these times to these questions.
Posted Thursday, January 29, 2009