Let these sheep return freely to the sheepfold
Dom Alcuin Reid
When family members are estranged hardly a day goes by without those separated feeling pain. Pope Benedict XVI feels the rift with the Society of Saint Pius X deeply, and has done since the break of 1988. “Let the Society know that resolving the problem of the Society is at the heart of the priorities of my pontificate,” he is reported as saying. Yet in spite of years of effort they remain in a canonically irregular position.
He has been criticised for wasting time on this small ultra-conservative group. Critics imply that this is a ‘conservative’ pope with a political motivation in a transitional pontificate that is lasting too long. They misunderstand him. Can the Chief Shepherd ignore straying sheep? He asked in 2009: “Can we simply exclude them, as representatives of a radical fringe, from our pursuit of reconciliation and unity? What would then become of them?” No, this is not Church politics―it is the Gospel.
Everything seemed to climax this past summer―then suddenly fail. When the SSPX Superior, Bishop Bernard Fellay, met with Cardinal Levada of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith it was expected that an agreement would be signed, but points to which the SSPX objected remained in the text despite expectations to the contrary. Fellay wrote to the Pope who responded with a handwritten letter which clarified that “in order to be truly reintegrated into the Church,” the SSPX must “truly accept the Second Vatican Council and the post-conciliar Magisterium,” and must accept the validity and liceity of the Mass promulgated by Pope Paul VI. In a surprising move Archbishop Augustine DiNoia OP was appointed Vice-President of the Ecclesia Dei Commission. Levada retired and was succeeded by Archbishop Gerhard Müller, between whom and the SSPX, apparently, there existed little empathy. The SSPX emerged from its General Chapter united amongst itself―prepared even to expel dissenting senior members.
What must the SSPX accept? That it was a valid Council? Their founder, Archbishop Lefebvre, contributed to it. Its authority? That Lefebvre’s signature is found on almost all the Council’s documents belies this: they were promulgated with due authority. The SSPX are not “Vatican II-deniers.”
Opening the Year of Faith, the Pope observed: “The Council did not formulate anything new in matters of faith, nor did it wish to replace what was ancient. Rather, it concerned itself with seeing that the same faith might continue to be lived in the present day, that it might remain a living faith in a world of change.” This is Blessed John XXIII’s “aggiornamento.” That is it why Vatican II is described as a “pastoral Council”―it was not about doctrine, but policy.
If there was no doctrinal innovation, the theology and practical measures adopted cannot be held to be infallible. They may be judged on their merits, then as today. What is helpful in bringing people to the Christ and His Church may be different now from what was thought useful in the 1960’s.
The documents were the product of lengthy preparation, debate and refinement and of organised politicking by bishops and experts, and reflect those realities. They are authoritative, certainly, enjoying the unparalleled approval of the Pope and the bishops solemnly gathered in Ecumenical Council, and must be taken seriously by any Catholic. But they are not articles of faith. God the Holy Spirit does not protect Councils from possible error in matters of policy or theological style, and about these we may hold differing opinions in good conscience―with the respect that is due to authority in the Church.
This becomes clear when we recall that those to be received into full communion with the Church must affirm: “I believe and profess all that the holy Catholic Church believes, teaches and proclaims to be revealed by God.” Important as Vatican II was and is, its policies and reforms are not believed, taught and proclaimed “to be revealed by God.” To disagree with them is to deny no article of the Catholic faith.
Ecumenical Councils are protected from teaching heresy. Some claim that the documents on Religious Liberty, Ecumenism or Non-Christians move perilously close to this. Whilst it is clear that these propose new policies, it is by no means demonstrated―or demonstrable―that the Council denies Catholic dogma. Similarly with the Mass promulgated by Paul VI and some other acts of the post-conciliar Magisterium: much is very new, even a dramatic change to the tradition, yet it is not heresy: not a knowing, willing, obstinate denial of Catholic doctrine.
After the Council some did cross the line. Appeals to “the spirit of Vatican II” covered much which the Council never intended. This is clear in the liturgical reform and its implementation. In missionary and ecumenical endeavours also, the respect and dialogue desired by the Council often became ends in themselves rather than means serving the “need to bring all men to full union with Christ” (Lumen Gentium, § 1).
In October the Pope recalled: “I have often insisted on the need to return...to the ‘letter’ of the Council―that is to its texts―also to draw from them its authentic spirit, and...I have repeated that the true legacy of Vatican II is to be found in them. Reference to the documents saves us from extremes of anachronistic nostalgia and running too far ahead, and allows what is new to be welcomed in a context of continuity.” Perhaps there is a basis for reconciliation here, for an understanding of what must be accepted?
Recently I asked Bishop Fellay about the impasse. “There is a twofold problem which needs to be overcome,” he said. “First, a correct historical appraisal of the situation of the Church and of the cause of the problem causing this horrible crisis in the Church” is needed. “Secondly,” we need to “overcome the overwhelming ‘not welcome’ [we experience] from a great majority (still) in the Church against us, despite the efforts of the Holy Father. This element cannot be forgotten and we experience it every day.”
The latter requires more Christian charity: it is to our shame that this is lacking. The former is complex and will take time, but if we study Vatican II in its texts and history, we do not find a “super-dogma” or a “defining event” before which everything is bad and after which all is good, the “spirit” of which all must worship. It is one of the Councils of the Church’s tradition with its particular historical contingencies. Statistics alone make it clear that it has been followed by a multifaceted crisis. In evaluating this and in discerning the right measures for today and for the future the SSPX, as Catholics, are entitled to their voice.
Neither ‘side’ has finally slammed the door in the other’s face. That Archbishop DiNoia is on the case is a cause for hope. And in his new role Archbishop Müller shares Pope Benedict’s burden of paternal solicitude for the SSPX, whatever of past skirmishes.
The passing of time does not ease the pain of estrangement―for either party. In this Year of Faith, all concerned might do well to contemplate the Holy Father’s call in 2007: “Let us generously open our hearts and make room for everything that the faith itself allows.”
Dom Alcuin Reid is a monk of the Monastère Saint-Benoît at La Garde-Freinet in the Diocese of Fréjus-Toulon, France.
Friday, December 21, 2012
The following article was published today in the print edition of The Catholic Herald and is reprinted here on NLM with permission of the same.
Posted Friday, December 21, 2012