As expected, Pope Francis on Saturday formally abolished the “Ecclesia Dei” commission, ending its over thirty-year run as the Vatican’s primary forum for relations with the Society of St. Pius X, founded by the late French Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, and the broader traditionalist galaxy in the Church.

First reported by a series of traditionalist blogs in December, the new move came in the form of a motu proprio, meaning a legal ruling by the pope, decreeing that from here on relations with the society will be handled directly by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which will also absorb the commission’s modest budget.

For the record, Ecclesia Dei didn’t deal just with the society but with a variety of other traditionalist groups that never broke with Rome. Those groups may have perceived an ally in the commission, and regret its demise — especially since they tend not to feel especially beloved under this papacy as it is.

Still, the $64,000 question about Saturday’s move is what it portends for the idea of one day bringing the breakaway Lefevbrist group back into the fold. The bottom line appears to be that this is not, at least not necessarily, the Vatican throwing in the towel.

For one thing, when St. John Paul II created the Ecclesia Dei commission back in the late 1980s, there were critics who thought it was a mistake.

Given that the issues raised by the Society of St. Pius X are basically doctrinal, ultimately they have to be settled by the Vatican’s doctrinal congregation and the pope. Creating another layer of bureaucracy between the decision-makers, according to this analysis, would simply slow things down and complicate them unnecessarily.

From this point of view, enabling the society to deal directly with Spanish Cardinal Luis Ladaria Ferrer and his top aides at the CDF may eliminate the middle man, ensuring time isn’t wasted on possibilities that may turn out to be non-starters.

As a related point, the Ecclesia Dei experiment also had the built-in disadvantage that it tended to attract figures inclined to be sympathetic to at least some of the doctrinal and liturgical critique advanced by the Society of St. Pius X, which, over the years, may have encouraged unrealistic expectations about how much Rome was prepared to give in order to ink a deal.

That dynamic seemed clear in the period between 2009-2011, after Pope emeritus Benedict XVI lifted the excommunications of four bishops of the society ordained without papal authorization (including one with a history of Holocaust denial, but that’s a different story.) Afterwards, a panel for talks between the society and the commission was created that met periodically throughout 2009-2010, leading to a much-anticipated 2011 summit between Bishop Bernard Fellay, at the time the head of the Lefevbrist group, and American Cardinal William Levada, then the prefect of the CDF.

The Vatican side consisted of:

  • Then-Monsignor, now Archbishop Guido Pozzo, of the “Ecclesia Dei” commission.
  • Ladaria, then the secretary of the doctrinal congregation.
  • German Jesuit Msgr. Karl Becker, a longtime adviser to the congregation and a close friend of Pope Benedict.
  • Monsignor Fernando Ocáriz, then the vicar general and today the prelate of Opus Dei.
  • Then-Father Charles Morerod, at the time the rector of the Dominican-run Angelicum University in Rome and today the bishop of Lausanne, Geneva and Freiburg in Switzerland.

The talks focused on four areas: liturgy; ecclesiology, including ecumenism and interfaith dialogue; religious freedom; and the magisterium of the Second Vatican Council.

Though introduced to considerable fanfare, the talks stalled in 2010 when Fellay gave a controversial interview in which he said that for the traditionalists, the aim of the sessions wasn’t finding compromise but rather explaining to the Vatican the “contradictions” between eternal Catholic teaching and the innovations introduced at Vatican II.

Looking back, one of the participants in those talks later told me it had been a mistake to tap people on the Vatican side inclined to give the Society of St. Pius X too much rope, especially given the rather intransigent positions its negotiators brought to the table.

“The problem was that we sent our doves,” this participant said at the time. “They sent their hawks.”

Perhaps dealing directly with Ladaria and his team will foster a more sober appraisal of where things stand.

Despite his reputation as a progressive deeply committed to the reforms of Vatican II, Pope Francis has made several conciliatory moves towards the Lefevbrist camp, including granting all of its priests faculties to hear valid confessions during and after the Jubilee Year of Mercy.

Granted, it may be unlikely there will be any reunion with the traditionalists under Francis, whose own approach to dialogue – playing down theological differences in favor of practical cooperation – seems singularly unsuited to relations with an outfit for which doctrine is its raison d’être.

Still, Francis – and, if necessary, his successor, and the pope who comes after that, and so on – will doubtlessly keep plugging away. That may mystify some observers, who understandably could wonder why such a disproportionate share of time and resources is being devoted to a relatively small fraction of the overall Catholic population.

The reason is simple: The rupture triggered in 1988 by the late French Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre represents the only formal schism in the wake of the Second Vatican Council. (Some traditionalists reject the idea that the society is in schism, usually offering a version of Ronald Reagan’s famous quip about the Democrats: “I didn’t leave the Democratic Party, it left me.” Yet Pope John Paul II’s 1988 motu proprio “Ecclesia Dei” was about as clear as possible, asserting that Lefebvre’s illicit ordinations “constitute a schismatic act.”)

Healing the schism was a special priority for John Paul II and Benedict XVI, both of whom participated in Vatican II. Throughout history, popes have always tried to end schisms, since it’s a core principle of Catholic theology that any validly ordained bishop can ordain another bishop, and hence a schism can become self-replicating if not nipped in the bud. (The “Old Catholic” cluster of churches that issued from the First Vatican Council are a good example.)

For that reason alone, Saturday’s move is not the death of efforts at reconciliation, just the latest twist. Probably the best take-away is this: It means Rome isn’t slamming shut the door, but, for the moment, the red carpet isn’t being rolled out either.