Tuesday, April 04, 2017

"For the Time Being" – With Wedding Permits, SSPX Reunion Reaches The Aisle

For all the times this beat has seen truth being stranger than fiction, the story would be tough to top: a Pope who traditionalists love to hate succeeds in pulling off the very act his loudest critics have long desired most. Yet now, building on months of positive rumblings on both sides of the split, a letter released this morning at Francis' behest offers the clearest indicator to date that a reconciliation with the Society of St Pius X is indeed well in the works after nearly three decades of schism by the leading traditionalist group.

Issued by the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei – the Curial arm responsible for all things pertaining to the Tridentine liturgy and its adherents – today's text relays the pontiff's decision allowing diocesan bishops "the possibility to grant faculties [to SSPX priests] for the celebration of marriages of faithful who follow the pastoral activity of the Society," albeit under very specific conditions.

While, on its face, the move is a follow-up to the universal faculty granted for the Year of Mercy allowing the Society's 600 priests to licitly hear confessions and give absolution – a permission Francis has since extended indefinitely – in an unusual amount of hand-showing for a Vatican document, the letter pointedly refers to "the objective persistence of the canonical irregularity in which for the time being" (emphasis original) the Swiss-based order "finds itself," then went on to add among the move's reasons an intent "that the process towards full institutional regularization may be facilitated."

As an explicit prod to the world's dioceses to prepare their groundwork for the Lefebvrists' return to full communion, the latter statement is nothing short of a landmark: over nearly three decades of Roman concessions and degrees of approach toward an accord on the part of the Society's leadership, no similar reference to the practicalities of their reintegration has previously been made by the Vatican.

Amid the latest cycle of negotiations between Ecclesia Dei and the Society's superior, Bishop Bernard Fellay – reportedly featuring occasional cameos from the Pope – the most commonly cited prospect for an SSPX pact would see the fraternity's half-million lay members and clergy accorded the status of a personal prelature: an arrangement (now only held by Opus Dei) which effectively renders a community of clergy and laity as a global diocese, free to conduct its own churches and other institutions practically without interference from local bishops and their aides.

Pending their formal profession of Catholic faith and submission in obedience to the Bishop of Rome, SSPX priests remain viewed by the Catholic Church as suspended clergy and their sacraments as valid but not licit – now with the exceptions of confessions and marriages, in the latter case only in those places where bishops have granted the faculty to witness them.

Given the Society's international network of chapels and seminaries, a prelature setup would make for the easiest canonical fit, and notably, today's letter addressed to the episcopal conferences roughly reflects the law's requirement that the conferences are to be consulted before a personal prelature is established. However, the precise shape of the in-communion activity of a restored SSPX – especially in terms of its relations with dioceses and provisions for any future growth – would only be fully known through the requisite statutes governing its work, which the Holy See must approve before they can take force. Even before that, though, simply reaching an accord would be contingent on a mutually-agreed (and, to be sure, heavily-finessed) doctrinal understanding accepted by the Lefebvrists, above all on the development of church teaching on the liturgy, other faiths and religious freedom as articulated at Vatican II and in its wake.

A goal which has eluded both of Francis' predecessors since Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre's ordination of four bishops without papal consent in 1988 incurred the lone major schism of the post-Conciliar era, it almost goes without saying that prior attempts at a reconciliation have stoked significant controversy, not to mention tumult both within the church and on the interfaith relations front. Most prominently, Benedict XVI's 2009 move to withdraw the automatic excommunications on Lefebvre and his four bishops stoked one of the last pontificate's biggest firestorms, as statements denying the Nazi use of gas chambers by one of the Society's prelates, Bishop Richard Williamson, emerged on Swedish television on the eve of the Vatican's announcement that the penalties were being lifted.

Once the SSPX's top figure in the Pope's native Argentina, while Williamson has since been expelled from the Society – and then drew another automatic excommunication for ordaining a bishop in 2015 –  it's already expected that, with Fellay (above) practically certain to lead the offered prelature, the group's remaining two prelates would serve as his auxiliary bishops. As Opus Dei has traditionally had just one prelate at its helm – the movement's elected leader – a unique aspect in this case would be the Society's possible intent to ordain more bishops, and what the vetting role of the Curia would be prior to a candidate's necessary appointment by the Pope.

Given the roiled history, with Francis quietly within reach of a move which would be both the riskiest  call of his four-year pontificate and a top-line achievement of it, it is a reflection of the goodwill Papa Bergoglio's locked up both among church progressives and Catholicism's interfaith partners that the apocalyptic reactions among both groups to Benedict's overtures toward the Society are scarcely in evidence now.

On the ground, meanwhile, the most intriguing piece of a reconciliation deal (if reached) would be the effect of a regularized SSPX on the current population of priests and faithful who worship according to the 1962 Missal in their dioceses following Summorum Pontificum, Benedict's 2007 motu proprio easing the permissions for the celebration of the pre-Conciliar rites. Put simply, would they seek to remain in place, or would the reality of a stem-to-stern traditionalist jurisdiction – with its resulting freedom from local oversight – just be too much to pass up?

Here below, the full letter released this morning, signed by the CDF prefect Cardinal Gerhard Müller, who likewise serves as president of Ecclesia Dei:
Your Eminence,
Your Excellency,

As you are aware, for some time various meetings and other initiatives have been ongoing in order to bring the Society of St. Pius X into full communion. Recently, the Holy Father decided, for example, to grant all priests of said Society the faculty to validly administer the Sacrament of Penance to the faithful (Letter Misericordia et misera, n.12), such as to ensure the validity and liceity of the Sacrament and allay any concerns on the part of the faithful.

Following the same pastoral outlook which seeks to reassure the conscience of the faithful, despite the objective persistence of the canonical irregularity in which for the time being the Society of St. Pius X finds itself, the Holy Father, following a proposal by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei, has decided to authorize Local Ordinaries the possibility to grant faculties for the celebration of marriages of faithful who follow the pastoral activity of the Society, according to the following provisions.

Insofar as possible, the Local Ordinary is to grant the delegation to assist at the marriage to a priest of the Diocese (or in any event, to a fully regular priest), such that the priest may receive the consent of the parties during the marriage rite, followed, in keeping with the liturgy of the Vetus ordo [Ed. "the 'Old order' of Mass], by the celebration of Mass, which may be celebrated by a priest of the Society.

Where the above is not possible, or if there are no priests in the Diocese able to receive the consent of the parties, the Ordinary may grant the necessary faculties to the priest of the Society who is also to celebrate the Holy Mass, reminding him of the duty to forward the relevant documents to the Diocesan Curia as soon as possible.

Certain that in this way any uneasiness of conscience on the part of the faithful who adhere to the Society of St. Pius X as well as any uncertainty regarding the validity of the sacrament of marriage may be alleviated, and at the same time that the process towards full institutional regularization may be facilitated, this Dicastery relies on Your cooperation.

The Sovereign Pontiff Francis, at the Audience granted to the undersigned Cardinal President of the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei on 24 March 2017, confirmed his approval of the present letter and ordered its publication.

Rome, from the Offices of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, 27 March 2017.

Gerhard Card. L. Müller

+Guido Pozzo
Titular Archbishop of Bagnoregio