Pope Benedict: the great unifier?

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On September 14, officials from the Vatican met with the leaders of the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX), a breakaway group of traditionalist Catholics, to present a proposal for the group’s full reunification with the Church. If successful, the pope will have healed a near-schism and brought 1 million energized Catholics back into the fold.

In the disastrous years following the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), millions of Catholics in the West abandoned the practice of their faith. Bishops and priests engaged in wanton dissent from Church teaching while the sexual revolution wreaked havoc on traditional morality.

In 1970, a French archbishop named Marcel LeFebvre formed a group of priests called the Society of St. Pius X. Named after the fiercely anti-liberal pope who reigned from 1903-1914, its goal was to preserve traditional Catholic teaching and practice. Its most notable feature was its adherence to the traditional form of the Mass in Latin.

LeFebvre’s group provided a safe haven for confused Catholics during a very troubled time; as a result, his group now has more than 500 priests and hundreds of thousands of lay adherents the world over (estimates go as high as 1 million). In France, the SSPX’s followers comprise a significant percentage of the entire churchgoing population.

However, LeFebvre’s critiques of the ailments of the modern Church were not just directed against dissent from the Church’s teaching by other priests and bishops. He also criticized the actual teaching of certain decrees of the Second Vatican Council, particularly those on ecumenism and religious liberty. This, and his society’s refusal to offer the modern Mass, put his group at odds with Pope Paul VI, and later with Pope John Paul II.

In 1986, John Paul II participated in a scandal-provoking meeting of world religious leaders at Assisi wherein Buddhists and Animists (probably without the pope’s knowledge or approval) wound up using a Catholic sanctuary for their religious services. In reaction to this scandal, in 1988 LeFebvre consecrated four bishops against the pope’s express command. LeFebvre was so horrified by the pope’s actions, and thought that the pope and dissenting bishops had so abandoned traditional Catholicism, that he needed to preserve an authentically Catholic line of bishops for providing the Sacraments.

The Vatican declared that for this schismatic act, LeFebvre and his four new bishops incurred automatic excommunication. Then-Cardinal Josef Ratzinger was heavily involved in the negotiations between Rome and the SSPX.

LeFebvre lost a lot of conservative support at this juncture. Led ideologically by Ratzinger, many faithful Catholics held that LeFebvre’s views on the Council were the same as the leftist viewpoint. Both the SSPX and the left viewed the Council as a complete departure from traditional Catholicism. Ratzinger disagreed; there was no rupture in the essential teaching, and the more controversial statements of the Council needed to be interpreted in continuity with prior Catholic teaching.

Further, most conservatives, and even some of LeFebvre’s own priests, could not condone LeFebvre’s consecration of bishops, a serious violation of Church law that would bring about a near-schism in the Church. LeFebvre would die out of communion with the Church three years later.

Ratzinger’s election to the throne of Peter in 2005 brought renewed hope for reconciliation between the Church and the SSPX. Benedict promptly removed several obstacles to the SSPX’s reintegration by giving universal permission for the traditional Mass and by withdrawing the excommunications from the SSPX’s bishops.

The disagreements on the Council remain. Since 2009, theologians from the Holy See and the SSPX have met to discuss the positions of both sides on disputed doctrinal positions.

On September 14, the Holy See gave the SSPX a document of theological points that are prerequisites for reconciliation. It is uncertain what exactly the document contains, but most observers think it will give the SSPX leeway to debate and discuss content from the Second Vatican Council with which they disagree in a constructive fashion.

The Holy See now awaits the SSPX’s response. It would be one of the major accomplishments of Benedict’s papacy to bring these hundreds of thousands of Catholics back into communion with the Church, as they could instantly help revitalize the weak Catholic identity of many Western European countries, particularly France. The Vatican will also probably afford the SSPX an independent canonical structure to allow its members more freedom and protect them from the liberal bishops they loathe.

While a reconciliation is hoped for, the Church is exposing itself to certain risks by making this offer. Benedict has already suffered negative publicity for removing the excommunications from the SSPX bishops, since one of them was later discovered to be a Holocaust denier. Having been entrenched in an “anti-establishment” position for so long, the reintegration process for the SSPX’s more radical priests could prove difficult, possibly resulting in bad public relations for an already weakened Church.

Further, there is a significant chance that not all of the SSPX will return to the Church even if the group’s leadership agrees to the Vatican’s offer. Most critically, if any of the four SSPX bishops do not agree to the offer, the holdout bishop or bishops will likely consecrate more bishops, thereby perpetuating a schism.

If successful, Benedict will show himself to be the greatest unifier in recent Church history; if unsuccessful, a schism will be perpetuated indefinitely. Whatever the outcome, the next few months will be a historic time for the Church.

John Gerardi is a student at Notre Dame Law School. He writes on topics relating to religion and society.