Online Edition: March 2009, Vol. XV, No. 1
The Pope and the SSPX
by Helen Hull Hitchcock
Pope Benedict XVI has lifted the excommunications automatically incurred by four members of the Society of Saint Pius X (SSPX, also called the Priestly Fraternity of St. Pius X), who were made bishops by the late Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre in June 1988, against the direct orders of Pope John Paul II.
This action was announced by a brief official decree from the Congregation of Bishops, signed by its prefect, Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, dated January 21, and made public by the Vatican Press Office on January 24. Mentioned in the decree lifting the excommunications is a letter sent in mid-December 2008 to the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei, headed since 2000 by Cardinal Darío Castrillón Hoyos, from Bishop Bernard Fellay, superior of the SSPX, requesting that the excommunications be lifted. Cardinal Castrillón Hoyos has been negotiating with the SSPX since he became head of the Commission.
No press conference or explanatory note accompanied the brief decree. It was released on a Saturday, which is unusual for important actions or statements. The decree was made public three days after a highly publicized telecast in Sweden of an interview with one of the four SSPX bishops, Richard Williamson, who claimed that no Jews died in the Nazi gas ovens. (This was but the latest example of Williamson’s outrageous statements about the Holocaust. He also believes the US government bombed the World Trade Center).
The timing of the Williamson telecast — on the very date of the decree, and three days before the decree was announced by the Vatican Press Office — seemed more than mere coincidence. Predictably, the negative reaction to the decree was immediate, intense and worldwide. The pope’s magnanimous gesture to the SSPX, in the hope of advancing the process of reuniting them with the Church, was misunderstood as restoring a virulent anti-Semite to full communion with the Church, thus deepening disunity within the Church, causing further rupture in her relations with other faiths, and fueling anti-Catholicism.
Clarifications from the Holy See were clearly urgently needed. At the end of his Wednesday audience message on January 28, Pope Benedict explained, “I have undertaken this act of paternal benevolence because those same bishops have repeatedly expressed to me their profound suffering at the situation in which they found themselves.
“I hope that this gesture of mine will be followed by a prompt commitment on their part to take the further steps necessary to achieve full communion with the Church, thus showing true faithfulness to, and true recognition of, the Magisterium and authority of the Pope and of Vatican Council II”, he said, and immediately followed this with a strong statement on the Holocaust. He emphasized that that this “cruel massacre” must never be forgotten:
As I once again affectionately express my full and indisputable solidarity with our Brothers and Sisters who received the First Covenant, I trust that the memory of the Shoah will induce humanity to reflect upon the unpredictable power of evil when it conquers the heart of man. In particular, may the Shoah show both old and new generations that only the arduous path of listening and dialogue, of love and forgiveness, can lead peoples, cultures and religions of the world to the longed-for goal of fraternity and peace, in truth. May violence never again humiliate man’s dignity.
The controversy was unabated, however. A week later, on February 3, Vatican press officer Jesuit Federico Lombardi stated: “With reference to the latest requests for clarification concerning the position of the Pope and the Catholic Church on the subject of the Holocaust, it should be borne in mind that the Pope’s ideas on this matter were very clearly expressed at the synagogue of Cologne, Germany, on 19 August 2005, at the concentration camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau on 28 May 2006, in the general audience of 31 May 2006 and, more recently, at the end of his general audience of 28 January this year, with unambiguous words….”
Father Lombardi also said that “The condemnation of Holocaust denial could not have been clearer, and from the context it is obvious that this also referred to the views of Mons. [Bishop] Williamson and to all similar views”.
The very next day the Secretariat of State issued a more detailed clarification, “[i]n the wake of reactions provoked by the recent Decree from the Congregation for Bishops lifting the excommunication of the four prelates of the Society of St. Pius X, and with reference to declarations denying and reducing the Shoah pronounced by Bishop Williamson, a member of that society”.
Concerning the lifting of the excommunications, this unsigned note said: “His Holiness wished to remove an impediment that hindered the opening of a door to dialogue, and he now awaits a similar readiness to be expressed by the four bishops, in complete adherence to the doctrine and discipline of the Church”.
It further explained: “The remission of the excommunication has freed the four bishops from a serious canonical penalty, but it has not altered the juridical position of the Society of St. Pius X which, at the present time, enjoys no canonical recognition within the Catholic Church. Even the four bishops, though released from excommunication, have no canonical function in the Church and cannot legally exercise a ministry within her”.
The note also stated, “An indispensable condition for any future recognition of the Society of St. Pius X is their full recognition of Vatican Council II and of the Magisterium of Popes John XXIII, Paul VI, John Paul I, John Paul II, and Benedict XVI”.
The note denounced Williamson’s views on the Shoah (Hebrew word for the Holocaust) as “absolutely unacceptable”, and stated that “In order to be readmitted to episcopal functions within the Church, Bishop Williamson must absolutely, unequivocally and publicly distance himself from his views concerning the Shoah, which were unknown to the Holy Father at the moment he lifted the excommunication”.
The note from the Secretariat of State, dated February 4, was posted on the Vatican web site the following day in Italian and English.
On February 8, the Vatican reported a personal telephone conversation between Pope Benedict and German chancellor Angela Merkel, described by both German and Vatican spokesmen as “cordial and constructive” and “marked by the common and deeply held adherence to the Shoah’s ever valid warning for humanity”.
In the wake of the controversy, internal splits within the SSPX have begun to appear.
On February 6, the SSPX made public the expulsion of one of its Italian members, Father Floriano Abrahamowicz, by his superior, Father Davide Pagliarani, “for grave reasons of discipline”. Father Abrahamowicz is known for his opposition to Vatican II, his claims that Nazi gas chambers were “only used to disinfect”, and he calls the Jewish people “a people of deicide”. The SSPX stated that “the expulsion, though sorrowful, has been necessary to avoid that once again the image of the Society of St. Pius X be distorted, and therefore, its work at the service of the Church be harmed”.
Two days later, on February 8, the SSPX’s web news, DICI, reported that Bishop Williamson, who headed an SSPX seminary in Argentina, had been relieved of his duties there on January 31.
In a meeting at the Apostolic Palace on February 12 with 60 American Jewish leaders, Pope Benedict was even more emphatic, if possible: “The Church is profoundly and irrevocably committed to reject all anti-Semitism and to continue to build good and lasting relations between our two communities.… The hatred and contempt for men, women and children that was manifested in the Shoah was a crime against God and against humanity. This should be clear to everyone, especially to those standing in the tradition of the Holy Scriptures. It is beyond question that any denial or minimization of this terrible crime is intolerable and altogether unacceptable”.
Jewish leaders applauded Pope Benedict, saying the crisis caused by Williamson’s comments was over.
Leaving aside questions about the way the decision to lift the SSPX excommunications was communicated, and the apparent confusion among the several offices at the Holy See that are involved in such issues, the situation of the SSPX has been a concern of the Holy See for more than two decades.
On July 2, 1988, two days after Archbishop Lefebvre’s defiant action in ordaining the four bishops, Pope John Paul II responded by issuing Ecclesia Dei adflicta, in which he termed the ordinations a “schismatic act”:
In itself, this act was one of disobedience to the Roman Pontiff in a very grave matter and of supreme importance for the unity of the Church, such as is the ordination of bishops whereby the apostolic succession is sacramentally perpetuated. Hence such disobedience — which implies in practice the rejection of the Roman primacy — constitutes a schismatic act. In performing such an act, notwithstanding the formal canonical warning sent to them by the Cardinal Prefect of the Congregation for Bishops on 17 June last, Mons. Lefebvre and the priests Bernard Fellay, Bernard Tisser de Mallerais, Richard Williamson, and Alfonso de Galarreta, have incurred the grave penalty of excommunication envisaged by ecclesiastical law. (ED 3)
Ecclesia Dei adflicta also established a special office, the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei, to aid those Catholics who had been followers of Archbishop Lefebvre and “who feel attached to some previous liturgical and disciplinary forms of the Latin tradition”, but who wish to remain “united to the Vicar of Christ in the unity of the Catholic Church, and of ceasing their support in any way for that movement. Everyone should be aware that formal adherence to the schism is a grave offense against God and carries the penalty of excommunication decreed by the Church’s law”. (ED 5c)
Archbishop Lefebvre had served on the preparatory commission for the Second Vatican Council; and though he had voted in favor of the Council documents, he opposed various aspects of the Council, including religious liberty, ecumenism, and the liturgical reforms. He established a seminary in Ecône, Switzerland in 1969, and founded the SSPX in 1970. Soon after, he illicitly ordained priests, deepening the split with the Church.
In 1987, Archbishop Lefebvre decided to ordain bishops to carry on his work — an action that requires the approval of the pope. In May 1988, Archbishop Lefebvre had conversations with then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), in which it was agreed that one bishop would be consecrated. However, Lefebvre changed his mind, rejected the agreement, defied Pope John Paul’s express warning about the consequences of a “schismatic act”, and proceeded with his plans.
Lefebvre and his followers rejected the authority of the pope, which, he said in a statement in March 1988, “oblige us to submit without reserve to the Second Vatican Council, to the post-conciliar reforms, and to the prescriptions of the Holy See, that is to say, to the orientations and acts which are undermining our Faith and destroying the Church”. He justified this disobedience as “necessary to keep the Catholic faith”. (“Can Obedience Oblige us to Disobey?”, March 29, 1988, The Angelus, July 1988.)
On June 30, 1988, Archbishop Lefebvre ordained the four men as bishops, with Brazilian Bishop Antonio Castro de Mayer (who had rejected the Council and resigned as bishop of Campos in 1981) as co-consecrator.
At the Ecône consecrations, Archbishop Lefebvre stated,
The headlines will, of course, be “Schism”, “Excommunication!” as much as they want to — and, yet, we are convinced that all these accusations of which we are the object, all penalties of which we are the object, are null, absolutely null and void, and of which we will take no account.
He also said that he expected “in several years — I do not know how many, only the Good Lord knows how many years it will take for Tradition to find its rights in Rome we will be embraced by the Roman authorities, who will thank us for having maintained the Faith.…”
By this action, all those involved incurred automatic excommunication from the Catholic Church on that day, June 30, 1988. The excommunications were formally declared by the Congregation for Bishops on July 1. The next day Pope John Paul II confirmed this when he issued Ecclesia Dei adflicta.
Archbishop Lefebvre and his followers never acknowledged the excommunications; they had already rejected the authority of the pope and the bishops in communion with the Holy See, and they formed parishes in defiance of the local bishop. Their separation from the Church is, by definition, schism, as Pope John Paul II said.
The SSPX’s rupture with the Church — the schismatic act which incurred the excommunications — also led to a rupture within the movement. Days later, on July 18, former followers of Archbishop Lefebvre, led by Father Josef Bisig, left the SSPX, were reconciled with the Church and formed the Priestly Fraternity of Saint Peter (FSSP).
Archbishop Lefebvre died in March 1991. His successor as head of the SSPX is Bishop Bernard Fellay.
Discussions between the Holy See and the SSPX continued through the intervening years. Among the demands made by the SSPX before they would consider discussing reconciliation with the Church were that any prohibitions against the celebration of Mass according to the 1962 Missal should be removed, and that the excommunications of the four bishops should be lifted.
More than a year has passed since Pope Benedict issued Summorum Pontificum, which stated that the 1962 Missal had “never been abrogated”, and called for wider celebration of the “extraordinary form” of the Mass. Released in July 2007, it became effective on September 14 that year.
With the encouragement of Summorum Pontificum, many priests and bishops have promoted celebration of Mass according to the “extraordinary form”, and some dioceses have initiated training programs for seminarians and priests to teach them how to celebrate Mass according to the 1962 Missal.
Pope Benedict, in his explanatory letter to bishops that accompanied Summorum Pontificum, said that a reason for this document was to overcome divisions:
It is a matter of coming to an interior reconciliation in the heart of the Church. Looking back over the past, to the divisions which in the course of the centuries have rent the Body of Christ, one continually has the impression that, at critical moments when divisions were coming about, not enough was done by the Church’s leaders to maintain or regain reconciliation and unity. One has the impression that omissions on the part of the Church have had their share of blame for the fact that these divisions were able to harden. This glance at the past imposes an obligation on us today: to make every effort to enable all those who truly desire unity to remain in that unity or to attain it anew.
Pope Benedict has certainly “made every effort” to make this possible. It is not yet clear whether or to what extent the pope’s magnanimous gesture to the SSPX in lifting the excommunications can overcome this rupture, end the schism, and reunite them with the Church.