Why détente between Rome and traditionalists was always a pipe dream

Why détente between Rome and traditionalists was always a pipe dream

Watching Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu surge to victory after jettisoning a two-state solution with the Palestinians, it’s hard not to flash back to that fateful moment in 2000 at Camp David when Yasser Arafat was offered 92 percent of the West Bank and walked away. Whether Arafat had his

Watching Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu surge to victory after jettisoning a two-state solution with the Palestinians, it’s hard not to flash back to that fateful moment in 2000 at Camp David when Yasser Arafat was offered 92 percent of the West Bank and walked away.

Whether Arafat had his reasons is still debated, but the hardening of positions on both sides in the years since seems a direct consequence of that road not taken.

Catholics may have a similar sensation this week upon hearing the news that a traditionalist Catholic bishop is ordaining a new bishop in defiance of Rome, thus further cementing a breach with the Vatican.

Schism with the traditionalist Society of St. Pius X, founded by the late French Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre in 1970, was set in cement in 1988 when Lefebvre consecrated four bishops in defiance of Pope John Paul II.

In general, Lefebvre and his following protested the liberalizing reforms of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). Their signature issue is the old Latin Mass but their objections cut much deeper, generally including ecumenism and inter-faith dialogue and the church’s effort to reach out to the secular world.

Just like the Palestinians, the traditionalists were offered almost everything they wanted during the Pope Benedict XVI years as a condition for reunion: Their own juridical structure under church law, giving them autonomy from what they regard as excessively liberal bishops, and a doctrinal statement that acknowledged legitimate diversity in interpreting the documents of Vatican II.

Like Arafat they demurred, and the rest is history – the election of a pope not similarly invested in relations with the traditionalists, broader movements in Catholicism that make reunion less likely, and now an internal cleft in the traditionalist world.

In truth, however – and as staggering a claim as this may seem – détente between Rome and the Society of St. Pius X was always, if anything, even less likely than Israeli/Palestinian peace.

This week’s news, first reported on the Rorate Caeli blog, is that Bishop Richard Williamson, who made a name for himself in 2009 by denying that the Nazis used gas chambers and asserting that historical evidence is “hugely against” the idea that Hitler killed 6 million Jews, plans to ordain a new bishop in defiance of Rome.

(Catholic News Service reported Thursday evening that Williamson went through with the illicit ordination and therefore was automatically excommunicated.)

Williamson was declared excluded from the Society of Pius X in October, 2012, and the priest he plans to ordain is in the process of being kicked out. This act should certainly put an exclamation point on things.

In the short run, Williamson’s act of defiance may prove a boon to dialogue between what’s left of the Society of St. Pius X and Rome.

The head of the society, Bishop Bernard Fellay, is viewed as a realist who sees his movement’s future eventually in coming in from the cold. His freedom of action, however, has been constrained by the more intransigent elements in the fold.

It’s conceivable that without Williamson and his following, Fellay may be able to move more boldly.

One might wonder why any of this matters to the Vatican. The Society of St. Pius X claims a global following of around 1 million, which, if true, would represent .01 percent of the full Catholic population of 1.2 billion. Investing resources in trying to lure such a relative footnote back might seem disproportionate.

There’s a good reason, however, why every pope since Paul VI has worked hard to try to heal the schism.

Catholic theology holds that any validly ordained bishop can ordain another bishop. Hence the Vatican will be constrained to recognize the Rev. Christian Jean-Michel Faure as a bishop after Williamson ordains him, though it will insist the ordination was illicit and will not recognize any ministry he exercises.

In other words, a schism led by a real bishop can become self-replicating, a scenario any pope would want to avoid.

Yet there are three reasons why corporate reunion with the traditionalists was probably always a pipe dream and remains so today.

First, Fellay is not Arafat, the founder of the Palestinian Liberation Organization and the mythic father of the nation. Arafat may have been the only one who could have convinced the Palestinians in something resembling unified fashion to accept a deal.

In the traditionalist world, that iconic role belongs to Lefebvre and no one else. As a result, when negotiations under Benedict XVI reached the moment of “fish or cut bait,” nobody had the moral authority to bring everyone along.

Second, one massive obstacle to an Israeli/Palestinian deal is Palestinian insistence on a “right of return,” meaning reclaiming lands and homes seized by the Israelis in the early stages of the conflict. However understandable it may be, it’s not going to happen, and makes any final resolution a non-starter.

Similarly, many traditionalists see a formal renunciation of the Second Vatican Council as a condition for reconciliation with Rome, and that’s every bit as implausible.

Popes may be willing, as Benedict was, to acknowledge different interpretations of an ecumenical council, or that a council was badly applied in some instances. To concede that the highest teaching authority in the Catholic Church was simply wrong, however, is just a bridge too far.

Third, once the genie of schism is out of the bottle, it’s awfully hard to put it back in. Having lionized Lefebvre for breaking with Rome, one wonders how long it would be after a reunion deal before some elements of the traditionalist camp would find something else intolerable and walk off again.

In the days to come, there may be speculation about the impact of the Williamson decision on relations with Rome, and some may predict that the path has been cleared for improvement.

Observers with long memories, however, will be tempted to say, “Don’t hold your breath.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article said that Williamson was “in the process” of being expelled from the Society of St. Pius X. In fact, Williamson was declared excluded from the society in October 2012.

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