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The Ides of April

Some thoughts on the Society's Imminent Response to Rome

Stephen Dupuy POSTED: April 10, 2012

Bishop Bernard Fellay and Pope Benedict

( In the last few years, the narrative we have heard regarding negotiations between Rome and the Society of St. Pius X is as follows: Rome has bent over backwards to accommodate the renegade Society. The Pope has taken unprecedented measures, at great cost to himself, to appease these “integrists”.  He freed the Traditional Latin Mass upsetting many of his own bishops. He remitted the excommunications of the four Society bishops magnanimously, even though these bishops issued no formal apology for taking part in the illicit 1988 consecrations. And now the Pope has even submitted to the Society’s demand to discuss the doctrinal issues that still separate them. Therefore, so it goes, it is indisputable that the Holy Father has shown an incredible amount of sacrifice and good will towards these rebels, who have shown so little in return.

Now, after all of this, the only thing the Society has been asked to do is to submit to a very elementary statement, a “preamble”, presumably reaffirming that the Pope is the head of the Church, and, as such, has the sole authority to interpret Tradition. If the Society rejects such a generous offer from the Pope, then they show their ungratefulness and recalcitrance and deserve to be cast into the outer darkness. This consequence has already been hinted at in the Roman Communique of March 16, 2012 when Cardinal Levada invited the Superior General of the Society of Saint Pius X, Bishop Bernard Fellay, to clarify his response to the preamble in order to avoid, “an ecclesial rupture with painful and incalculable consequences."1

One particular example of this prevalent narrative can be seen in the interview of Fr. Schmidberger, current Superior for the German District of the Society, by German daily, Die Welt, on February 13, 2012.2  Here are a few examples of the questions posed by the German reporter:

Die Welt: The Pope staked his reputation (and the unity of the entire Church) three years ago for the reconciliation with the Fraternity. What does the Fraternity offer for the reconciliation with the Church?

Die Welt: …I reminded you of what the Pope had risked for the reconciliation, and I would like to know again what you would be willing to sacrifice.

Die Welt: No Pope has been as considerate to you as much as Benedict XVI. He will soon be 85 years old. Do you ever fear that time might work against you?

There is no doubt that the current Pope has shown more favor to the Society than any other. However, is there a case to be made by the Society that these unprecedented acts of the Pope, while definitely praiseworthy, do not necessarily live up to the exaggeration of the media narrative? Let us examine closely the steps that Rome has taken as regards the Society.

The Motu Proprio

The first act of Rome towards the Society was the Pope’s Motu Proprio, Summorum Pontificum, issued on July 7, 2007. By issuing this document the Pope “freed” the Traditional Mass. Indeed, there is no doubt that, by this act, the Pope made it explicitly clear that the Traditional Mass was now allowed to be said by every priest without the need to ask permission of his ordinary. This act has been a blessing for the Church, increasing access to the Traditional Mass around the world as well as increasing the standing and visibility of the Traditional Mass within the Church.

However, the traditional argument has always been that Catholic priests did not need explicit permission from their bishop in order to say the Traditional Mass; in fact, by his own words in the MP and the accompanying letter, the Holy Father himself confirmed this. In many traditionalists’ view, including the Society’s, every Catholic priest had and still has the perpetual right to say this Mass under the bull Quo Primum of Pope Pius V. This is true regardless of a papal indult or Motu Proprio. This right was even confirmed by Rome itself, including then Cardinal Ratzinger, well before Summorum Pontificum was issued in 2007:

 In 1986 Pope John Paul II appointed a commission of nine cardinals to examine the legal status of the Old Mass. The commission consisted of Agostino Cardinal Casaroli, Bernard Cardinal Gantin, Paul Augustin Cardinal Mayer, Antonio Cardinal Innocenti, Silvio Cardinal Oddi, Petro Cardinal Palazzini, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Alfons Cardinal Stickler and Jozef Cardinal Tomko and it was instructed to examine whether the New Rite of Mass promulgated by Pope Paul VI abrogated the Old Rite, and whether a bishop can prohibit his priests from celebrating the Old Mass.

The commission met in December 1986. Eight of nine cardinals answered that the New Mass had not abrogated the Old Mass. The nine cardinals unanimously determined that Pope Paul VI never gave the bishops the authority to forbid priests from celebrating Mass according to the Missal of St Pius V. The commission judged the conditions for the 1984 indult too restrictive and proposed their relaxation. These conclusions served as functional guidelines for the Commission Ecclesia Dei, but they were never promulgated.3

In his accompanying letter to the Motu Proprio in 2007, the Pope publicly confirmed what Rome had known at least since 1986.  In this letter, the Pope stated:

As for the use of the 1962 Missal as a Forma extraordinaria of the liturgy of the Mass, I would like to draw attention to the fact that this Missal was never juridically abrogated and, consequently, in principle, was always permitted. 4 

Thus the first act of the Pope towards reconciliation with the Society, welcome though it was, could be seen more as matter of justice than a pure discretionary gift from the Pope. The Motu Proprio, when looked at from the traditionalist view, consisted of publicly recognizing a right for all priests that they had, in reality, since 1570.  The Society and many other traditionalist groups had been arguing this point from the institution of the Novus Ordo in 1969 onward. Yet, they were continually told by Roman authorities under Paul VI and then John Paul II that this notion was not only incorrect, but that it was an act of disobedience to hold the position. During this time, many priests were suspended for saying the Traditional Mass without permission from their bishop. Unfortunately, many of those surviving priests who were suspended for saying the Traditional Mass before the Motu Proprio are still suspended today.

The Remitting of the Excommunications

On January 21, 2009, the Pope, through the Prefect of the Congregation of Bishops, remitted the penalty of excommunication latae sententiae incurred by the four Society bishops in 1988. There is no doubt that this was a very important and courageous act of justice on behalf of the Pope and he did indeed suffer greatly because of it. The most important words of the decree state:

On the basis of the powers expressly granted to me by the Holy Father Benedict XVI, by virtue of the present Decree I remit the penalty of excommunication latae sententiae incurred by Bishops Bernard Fellay, Bernard Tissier de Mallerais, Richard Williamson and Alfonso de Galarreta, and declared by this Congregation on 1 July 1988. At the same time I declare that, as of today's date, the Decree issued at that time no longer has juridical effect. 5

In order to understand what the decree does, we must notice the key word “remit.” To “remit” means to refrain from inflicting or enforcing a punishment or sentence. In other words, what Archbishop Lefebvre and the four Society bishops did was still wrong in the eyes of Rome. However, the Pope decided to no longer enforce the punishment assigned to the illicit episcopal consecrations under canon law. In other words, the four Society bishops were still guilty of an excommunicable offense, but their just punishment had been mercifully done away with in 2009, before their sentence had been fully served.

Let us review briefly what happened in the view of many traditionalists as regards the excommunications of the four Society bishops in 1988. The following argument has been made repeatedly since 1988 by traditionalists, canon lawyers, and even conservative apologists in “full communion” with Rome. 6  According to this argument, automatic (latae sententiae) excommunication was expressly disallowed in the four Society bishops’ case under canons 1323:4 and 1323:7 of the 1983 Code of Canon Law. If one participates in the consecration of bishops without papal mandate but sincerely believes there to be a state of necessity for doing so, the penalty of automatic excommunication is specifically disallowed by these two canons. The crux of the argument is that no sane person would ever doubt that Archbishop Lefebvre, or the four bishops he consecrated in 1988, sincerely believed there to be a situation in the Church necessitating the consecration of bishops in 1988. Therefore, in many traditionalists’ view, the 1988 decree cannot recognize an excommunication that was never “automatically” incurred in the first place, even if the Pope implicitly acknowledges such a decree.

Therefore, although the remitting of the excommunications was a very important and courageous act of the Pope, there is a counter-point to be made that this act was a matter of justice.  In the Society’s view, justice demanded the termination of a punishment of excommunication based on what they see as a clear violation of canon law.  If true, it is tough to blame them as, for twenty-one years, churchmen and other Catholics have used this decree to falsely accuse these men of schism, marginalize their work, and personally accuse their flock of disobedience.

The Doctrinal Discussions

On October 26, 2009, “the study commission made up of experts from ‘Ecclesia Dei’ and from the Society of St. Pius X held its first meeting, with the aim of examining the doctrinal differences still outstanding between the Society and the Apostolic See." 7 As we know, although the formal doctrinal discussions have ceased, the drama regarding the practical results of those discussions is ongoing. Thus, “the discussions” have now gone on officially for almost two and a half years, covering every possible point of doctrinal disagreement between the Society and Rome. After two and a half years of discussions, Rome’s next move was to demand that the Society sign a two-page “doctrinal preamble” as a condition for a “canonical solution.”   Bishop Fellay admitted as much in his interview with DICI on November 28, 2011. In that interview he stated, “It is indeed a doctrinal pre-amble, the acceptance or rejection of which will then determine whether or not some canonical status is obtained.”8

Therefore, after very lengthy doctrinal discussions with topics including the Mass, ecumenism, religious liberty, collegiality, ecclesiology, and the very nature of Tradition, Rome seemingly ignored the very important theological differences on these issues and instead demanded an unequivocal submission from the Society in order to obtain a practical agreement.

If this is indeed what happened, one can only wonder how the situation the Society faces with Rome today is any different than the one Archbishop Lefebvre faced in the late 1980’s. Consider the following account of a 1987 meeting between Archbishop Lefebvre and Cardinal Ratzinger given by Archbishop Lefebvre’s biographer, Bishop Tissier de Mallerais:

At first the Cardinal persisted in arguing that "the State is incompetent in religious matters." "But the State must have an ultimate and eternal end," replied the Archbishop. "Your Grace, that is the case for the Church, not the State. By itself the State does not know." Archbishop Lefebvre was distraught: a Cardinal and Prefect of the Holy Office wanted to show him that the State can have no religion and cannot prevent the spread of error. However, before talking about concessions, the Cardinal made a threat: the consequence of an illicit episcopal consecration would be "schism and excommunication." "Schism?" retorted the Archbishop. "If there is a schism, it is because of what the Vatican did at Assisi and how you replied to our Dubiae: the Church is breaking with the traditional Magisterium. But the Church against her past and her Tradition is not the Catholic Church; this is why being excommunicated by a liberal, ecumenical, and revolutionary Church is a matter of indifference to us." As this tirade ended, Joseph Ratzinger gave in: "Let us find a practical solution…” 9

One can’t help but see some similarities between this conversation and what is happening now. In 1987 Rome and the Society had a doctrinal discussion, which ended in the two parties holding irreconcilable positions just as they apparently have in 2012. In 1987 Cardinal Ratzinger threatened the Society with schism and excommunication. In 2012, Cardinal Levada warns of, “an ecclesial rupture with painful and incalculable consequences.” In 2007, Cardinal Ratzinger looked past the irreconcilable theological differences and focused on a practical agreement. In 2012, with the preamble offered as the key to a “canonical solution” Rome does the same. Besides taking two and a half years longer to establish the same irreconcilable differences Cardinal Ratzinger and the Archbishop established in one conversation, are we not allowed to ask what exactly has changed?

What Does Rome Want?

Catholics on the right and on the left have often asked why this Pope wants the Society regularized to such a great degree. After all, most conciliar bishops were content with leaving the Society to their leper status “outside” the Church and to continue ignoring them as irrelevant, while pushing the Vatican II revolution forward.

The narrative we hear in mainstream Catholic circles is that, although the Pope was more liberal in his Vatican II days, he has developed into a staunch conservative.  It is said that he wants the Traditional Mass back into the Church and hates liturgical abuses in the Novus Ordo. Therefore, the Society could help further these goals by spreading the Traditional Mass and acting as a conduit towards more rubrical orthodoxy in both forms of the Roman Rite.  Indeed there is evidence this is very true. However, isn’t it fair to ask if the Pope’s reasons in achieving these goals are the same as the Society’s? Is the Pope a traditionalist in the mold of Archbishop Lefebvre? Or could the Pontiff’s vision for the future of the Church be at odds with the Society’s vision?

A clue to the answer might be found in the Pope’s vision for the Mass. On May 14, 2011 CNS News reported the following regarding statements of Cardinal Kurt Koch, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity:

Pope Benedict XVI's easing of restrictions on use of the 1962 Roman Missal, known as the Tridentine rite, is just the first step in a "reform of the reform" in liturgy, the Vatican's top ecumenist said.

The pope's long-term aim is not simply to allow the old and new rites to coexist, but to move toward a "common rite" that is shaped by the mutual enrichment of the two Mass forms...10

This statement came as a shock to many traditionalists. Why would the Pope want to combine the Traditional Mass into a new “hybrid Mass” with the Novus Ordo? Wasn’t one “New Mass” enough? A possible answer may be found in the candid words of Cardinal Ratzinger himself back in 1999.

 In September of 2010, “Fr. Matias Auge CMF, a veteran professor of liturgy in Rome, former consultant to the Congregation for Divine Worship and disciple of the reformers of the 1960's, published an exchange of letters that he had with then-Cardinal Ratzinger on the topic of the reform of the sacred liturgy.”11 In his February 18, 1999 letter to Fr. Auge, Cardinal Ratzinger states:

…a considerable number of the Catholic faithful, especially those of French, English, and German nationality and language remain strongly attached to the old liturgy, and the Pope does not intend to repeat what happened in 1970 when the new liturgy was imposed in an extremely abrupt way, with a transition time of only six months, whereas the prestigious Liturgical Institute in Trier had rightly proposed a transition time of ten years (if I am not mistaken) for such an undertaking, one that touches in a vital way the heart of the Faith.

Here two very important points are admitted. First, that the imposition of the Novus Ordo Mass on the Church touched, “in a vital way the heart of the Faith.” This confirms the traditionalist claim that the changes in the Mass did not represent a superficial or external change, as Paul VI tried to argue many times as the New Mass was first being implemented. Rather, these changes affect the Faith itself.

The second admission is that the imposition of the Novus Ordo upon the faithful in a mere six months was a great mistake. Cardinal Ratzinger believed it should have taken at least ten years. Why? Cardinal Ratzinger knew that a fundamental change on the scale of introducing a new Mass must be gradually revealed to the faithful over a long period of time if they were to eventually accept it.  The New Mass being imposed practically all at once over six months was not enough time. This rapid implementation led to many leaving the Church and the formation of resistance groups such as the SSPX.  Presumably, if Paul VI had listened to the Liturgical Institute in Trier and slowly and methodically transitioned from the Traditional Mass to the New Mass over a period of ten years, Catholic faithful as a whole would have remained in the Church and would have gradually accepted the changes. As a side-effect, Rome would not have faced as great of a traditionalist resistance as it faces today.

In the same letter, the Cardinal states, “The citation from Cardinal Newman means that the authority of the Church has never in its history abolished with a legal mandate an orthodox liturgy.” The Cardinal here re-asserts what he considers to be an egregious error on behalf of the reformers. In attempting to abolish the Traditional Mass by promulgating a new one, Paul VI had performed an unprecedented act that would not stand the test of time. The Cardinal knew, quite rightly, that to do such a thing might have the effect of imposing a new Rite by force, but this new Rite could never truly replace the Old one. Opponents to the suppression of the Traditional Mass could argue effectively that replacing an ancient Rite of the Church could never be legitimately done by a legislative fiat of the Pope. The Cardinal himself, in his 2007 Motu Proprio confirmed this by admitting the Traditional Mass was never abrogated.

In the very next sentence of the letter, the Cardinal states a key point, “However, a liturgy that vanishes belongs to historical times, not the present.” When this statement is read in light of the statements by Cardinal Koch in 2011, they may together provide a clue as to what the Pope believes the original liturgical reform should have accomplished. We know the introduction of the Novus Ordo was meant by conciliar reformers to replace or abrogate the Traditional Mass. Yet, because the New Mass was imposed upon the people in such a short time frame, the Traditional Mass did not vanish, but instead survived underground as a distinctly different Mass than that of Paul VI.  The New Mass was never really accepted by a certain contingent of Catholics. This contingent then began to grow steadily over time, as further liturgical innovations of the Novus Ordo continued to pile up throughout the 1970’s and 80’s.

To understand how a Mass can “vanish”, we must take a look at one that has. For example, the typical edition of the 1884 Roman Rite under Leo XIII has “vanished”. It is now consigned to its historical time in history, having been replaced with a later revision of the same Roman Rite. This revisionary process has been ongoing in the Roman Rite since the time of Pius V.  Popes since then have, from time to time, made very minor adjustments to the Rite. Each revision was not seen as a “New Mass” replacing the old. It was instead seen as a minor organically developed change not altering the character of the Mass in any way. Thus the Society uses the 1962 edition of the Roman Rite, yet it is recognized as the same “Roman Rite” as that of Pius V.

This being the case, the most effective approach to make a Mass “vanish” would be to slowly and gradually, over the course of time, alter it through a series of small revisions. The least objectionable changes could presumably be offered first, and once those were digested, further changes could be offered. Thus, by this process the Traditional Mass we know today could conceivably be transformed, after many years, into a future Missal representing a more “conciliar” Faith.  It would, in a sense, be a simulation of natural organic liturgical development. It would mimic the gradual evolution of the Traditional Mass over centuries, except, this time, the process could be carefully orchestrated and guided towards the goals of Vatican II under more direct supervision of future popes.

If we combine the Cardinal Ratzinger’s letter from 1999 with Cardinal Koch’s revealing the Pope’s goal of a hybrid Mass, we can come to the following conclusion: that although the Traditional Mass could not be successfully replaced at once by a “New Mass”, it can be slowly transformed into a different Mass over time. Thus, in the future, the Roman Missal of 1962 may very well “vanish” and belong to history as the Roman Missal of 1884 under Leo XIII has vanished.

The aversion to the swift implementation of the Novus Ordo in 1970 may explain, in part, the current Pope’s intense dislike for liturgical novelties.  In the same letter the Cardinal states:

…the difference between the Missal of 1962 and the Mass faithfully celebrated according to the Missal of Paul VI is much smaller than the difference between the various, so-called ”creative” applications of the Missal of Paul VI. In this situation, the presence of the earlier Missal may become a bulwark against the numerous alterations of the liturgy and thus act as a support of the authentic reform.

Thus, the Cardinal is opposed to liturgical innovations of the Novus Ordo because they thwart the aims of the more gradual “authentic reform” over time. Liturgical innovations or “abuses” serve to continually present the faithful with a radical stark departure from even the Mass of Paul VI, much less the Traditional Mass. In other words, these innovators have been hurting the cause of the “authentic reform” (slow and gradual assimilation of changes) by instituting their novelties far too rapidly to be digested by the faithful.

In order for the Cardinal’s “authentic reform” to work, these “abuses” must stop and the Mass of Paul VI must move closer to the Mass of Pius V. As Cardinal Koch revealed, the eventual goal of the Pope is to blend these two Masses into one hybrid Mass of the Roman Rite.  In Rome’s view, factions of the faithful have, in a sense, splintered off from the reform movement, like the Society. As long as the Society is outside of this process, they cannot be a part of the “authentic reform”. If the Society stays separated, they will continue to keep the Traditional Mass alive in its current form. Therefore, Rome would be back to the situation it faced in the 1970’s.

To remedy this, the Society must be participating in the “authentic reform”. The reform could ostensibly take the least objectionable elements of the Mass of Paul VI and try to slowly assimilate them into the Traditional Mass. Once the envisioned “hybrid Mass” is accomplished, the reform would once again have one Mass of the Roman Rite to work with as it did before 1969. Future reforms to this “new” Missal could then be introduced very slowly and gradually over the course of years. By this method, at some point in the future, the Traditional Mass, as it was known in 1962 and said in 2012, will once and for all “vanish” and be confined forever to its proper “historical time”.

Lest one think these ideas are purely theoretical, concrete steps to implement the “authentic reform” have already taken place. Less than one year after issuing the Motu Proprio freeing the Traditional Mass, the Pope altered the Good Friday prayer of the 1962 Missal.12  Then, on April 30, 2011, the Pontifical Commission of Ecclesia Dei stated in an official instruction, “New saints and certain of the new prefaces can and ought to be inserted into the 1962 Missal, according to provisions which will be indicated subsequently.”13

Consequences of Regularization

In the final analysis, the Vatican press office has made it appear as if Rome has made tremendous concessions in order to meet the Society’s demands and that Rome has been generous, magnanimous, and willing to go to almost any lengths to secure to return of the traditionalist prodigal sons, while the Society has not been generous in return.

Indeed, the Pope deserves a lot of credit for having the courage to publicly recognize a priest’s right to say the Traditional Mass and for lifting the excommunications of the four Society bishops. These decisions have come at great personal cost to him and were not easy ones to make. However, the Society does have a point that, although these acts were courageous and beneficial to the Church, they were also required out of justice. That this point is lost on the media doesn’t help the Society on the public relations front, should a deal not be struck.

Most importantly, the Pope’s plan for the “authentic reform” poses crucial questions for the Society should they be brought into “full Communion.” Will the Society refuse to say the Pope’s own revised Good Friday prayer? Will they refuse prefaces from the New Mass? Will they recognize the new conciliar Saints in the Traditional calendar? For example, will the Society refuse to recognize the feast day of St. Josemaria Escriva or a potential future feast day of John Paul “The Great”? Will they risk a second “schism” over these issues? And if they consent to these practices, on what basis will they resist future requests for concessions? Can they pursue their mission to restore the Church to Tradition while working with a Pope who has a different view of Tradition? These are important questions the Society must contemplate before giving their long awaited answer to Cardinal Levada on Sunday.  And these are important questions for which we must all pray without ceasing—as though our future wellbeing as Catholics and the very souls of our children depended on the outcome.  For, indeed, that may well be the case.









[9] His Excellency Bishop Bernard Tissier de Mallerais, The Biography of Marcel Lefebvre, Kansas City, Missouri: Angelus Press, 2004, pp. 547-548.




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