ROME — Though casual observers may have been surprised by Pope Francis’s decision this week to offer a path to recognizing marriages conducted by priests of the breakaway Society of St. Pius X as valid, it’s no secret to anyone close to the pope that he’s long worked to bring the traditionalist group back into communion with Rome.
Letters penned in 2011 by then-Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires, today Pope Francis, confirm what has long been rumored — that Bergoglio made several efforts to help the group when he was in Argentina. Those letters were discovered by a Swedish television news program airing tonight.
The letters, short and to the point, are addressed to Guillermo Olivieri, at the time Argentina’s Foreign Ministry Secretary for Religious Affairs. In one, Bergoglio asks the politician to register the Argentinian branch of the society in the national Register of Institutes of Consecrated Life.
In it, dated May 17, 2011, the future pope describes the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX) as a “congregation of Catholics in the process of achieving full communion.”
The society was founded in 1970 by French-born Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, and is popularly known as the “Lefebvrists”.
It was suspended in 1976, when Lefebvre ordained new priests against the wishes of Pope Paul VI. Lefebvre, together with four other men, were excommunicated under Pope John Paul II when Lefebvre ordained the four men as bishops in 1988. Lefebvre died in 1991, without the breach being healed.
Since then, the Vatican has tried multiple times to bring the society fully back into the fold. Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI made it a priority, launching formal talks with the society’s leadership.
The 2011 letters are further proof that Bergoglio was on board with those efforts.
In the second letter, dated July 7, Bergoglio confirms that the society has “religious authorization” to establish itself in Buenos Aires, a permit that he was required to grant. Today, the group runs a seminary on the outskirts of the city, formally called the Seminary of Our Lady Co-Redemptrix, informally known as La Reja.
A third letter, from November of the same year, is signed by Italian Archbishop Adriano Bernardini, at the time the papal ambassador in Argentina. In it, the prelate states that, upon a request by Olivieri, he’d consulted Rome and received confirmation that the society “up to this point is not an entity that belongs to the Catholic Apostolic Church.”
The letters, recovered by Uppdrag Granskning, became accessible as of September 2016, when Argentina passed a bill on the right to access public information allowing the public to request, and obtain, materials from governmental offices.
Despite Bergoglio’s intervention, it wasn’t until 2015 that Cardinal Mario Poli, handpicked by Francis as his successor in Buenos Aires, helped the society earn recognition as a juridical person, which meant it was added to the “Register of the Institutes of Consecrated Life” in which Catholic orders and religious congregations in Argentina are listed.
In Argentina, Catholic religious congregations have to be listed on the register to be able to work within a government-recognized juridical framework.
Pope Benedict XVI in 2009 lifted the excommunications of the four bishops he ordained, hoping it would foster closer ties.
One of those prelates was British Bishop Richard Williamson, who only days before the emeritus pope’s decision was made public gave an interview to Sveriges Television in which he denied the use of gas chambers to kill millions of Jews in the Holocaust.
Williamson would go on to challenge Swiss Bishop Bernard Fellay, Superior General of the SSPX, over Fellay’s support for talks about full reconciliation with Rome. As a result, Williamson was expelled from the SSPX in 2012, and was once again automatically excommunicated in 2015, after he ordained two new bishops without the approval from Rome. He has announced plans to ordain another new bishop on May 11, 2017.
His splinter group is often referred to as the Resistance, though on their website they introduce themselves as The St. Marcel Initiative. They’re not part of the ongoing talks with Rome.
On the Vatican’s side, the outreach is led by the commission Ecclesia Dei, instituted in 1988, soon after the episcopal ordinations, at the request of Pope John Paul II. The commission, which has been folded into the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, is in theory headed by German Cardinal Gerhard Müller, but the day-to-day work is overseen by Italian Archbishop Guido Pozzo.
After several attempts to bring the group into full communion, which included a proposal during the pontificate of Benedict XVI to categorize them as a personal prelature that was rejected in 2012, the situation today is very different from what it was in 1988.
In the Ecclesia Dei document, John Paul II clearly calls on all those linked to the movement to remain “united to the Vicar of Christ,” and cease their links to the society, because adherence to the schism “carries the penalty of excommunication.”
Since his election in March 2013, Pope Francis has offered a couple of olive branches to the traditionalist group, including a decree during the Jubilee of Mercy declaring that confessions heard and absolution given by the SSPX are considered valid by the Catholic Church.
That gesture, in tandem with this week’s move to recognize marriages, is characteristic of the Argentine pope, focusing on pastoral outreach to the more than 600,000 faithful who, as of 2013, are affiliated with the group.
After the Holy Year ended in late November 2016, the pope extended the provision allowing the more than 500 SSPX priests to grant absolution, “lest anyone ever be deprived of the sacramental sign of reconciliation through the church’s pardon.”
The decision to create a path for the Church to recognize SSPX marriages was announced on Tuesday in a letter signed by Müller, saying that despite “objective persistence of canonical irregularity,” due to which, “for the time being,” the group is not in full communion, the new provisions should alleviate “any uneasiness of conscience on the part of the faithful regarding the validity of the sacrament of marriage.”
In a statement released by Fellay on Tuesday, the group thanked Pope Francis for his “pastoral solicitude.”
Speaking to i-Media, a French news agency that specializes in the Vatican, Pozzo said he believes there are no longer difficulties impeding reconciliation and regularization of the SSPX’s situation.
In an April 2016 interview with French newspaper La Croix, Pozzo had listed several issues that need to be discussed and clarified before reinstatement is possible. Among them were the fact that many members of the society reject the documents of Vatican II, as well as inter-Christian dialogue [ecumenism], and dialogue with non-Christian religions.
“But they are not an obstacle for the canonical and legal recognition of the SSPX,” said Pozzo at the time.
Also talking to La Croix, Pope Francis praised both the society, calling them “Catholics on the path to full communion,” and describing Fellay as a “man with whom one can dialogue.”
Yet despite expressing gratitude to Francis on several occasions, Fellay has also accused the pope of encouraging “errors” that have “made their way” into the Church. He’s also said that the interpretation of the Second Vatican Council remains a roadblock.
The bishop has said that the SSPX “will not yield” on questions such as “the way in which ecumenism is practiced, including statements very dangerous for the faith, that make you think all have the same faith; the liturgical question or the relationship between the Church and the State.”
Despite those challenges, there’s something all parties seem to agree on: If and when the time comes for the society to return to the fold, it’ll be done through a “personal prelature.”
Ironically enough, that’s a canonical structure conceived during Vatican II. In a nutshell, it can be defined as a Church jurisdiction without geographical boundaries, designed to carry out particular pastoral initiatives.
At present, the only personal prelature in the Church is Opus Dei, so should they take the offer, the SSPX would become just the second entity to carry that designation.
Rome is currently abuzz with rumors of an imminent announcement in this regard, with some observers even talking about May as a possible date. The Vatican so far has played its cards close to the vest, though it’s making no secret of the fact that it wants reconciliation.
It remains to be seen, however, if Fellay can overcome the internal opposition he faces from many members of the traditionalist movement, who still see Francis as too much of a “modernist.”