Pope Francis has made another concession to the traditionalist Society of St. Pius X (SSPX),in an attempt to bring the group into full communion with the Church.
The latest olive branch was extended on Tuesday, when a method was announced for their marriages to be considered valid in the Church.
Currently, priests of the society lack the necessary permissions to conduct Catholic weddings, so the marriages in their chapels are not considered valid by Church authorities.
Under the new system – outlined in a letter by Cardinal Gerhard Müller, the head of the Vatican’s doctrine office, who also serves the President of the Commission which deals with the SSPX – a local bishop would have a priest of his diocese attend the wedding at the SSPX chapel, and receive the consent of the parties, while the SSPX priest celebrates the wedding liturgy according to the traditional rite.
Müller also said if no priest of the diocese were available, then the bishop could give the necessary faculties to the SSPX priest to receive the consent from the parties, and have him send the necessary paperwork to the diocese.
The Society of St. Pius X was founded by French Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre in 1970, in the wake of the reforming Second Vatican Council. It’s been in rupture with Rome since 1989, when the late archbishop ordained four new bishops without papal approval.
The four were excommunicated, and remained so until 2009, when, in an attempt to bring the society fully back into the fold of the Church, Pope Benedict XVI lifted the excommunications.
However, they are still not considered in full communion with the Church, and when he lifted the sanctions Benedict clarified the priests of the society “do not legitimately exercise any ministry in the Church.”
This latest move by Francis comes after another concession in 2015, when he allowed the priests of the SSPX to licitly hear confessions for the Jubilee of Mercy, a permission he extended indefinitely.
The pope has been working feverishly to end the rupture, a goal never achieved by his two predecessors.
Under Benedict’s time in office, the Society was offered the possibility of being a personal prelature, which is 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, they would become the second entity to embrace it.
The leader of the traditionalist order, Swiss Bishop Bernard Fellay seems keen on the idea, saying it may be the best option for unity.
However, Fellay faces opposition from many of the adherents to the traditionalist movement, who fear being “corrupted” by what they view as a “modernist” pope.
Although a breakthrough has seemed to be on the horizon for years, talks have always broken down over the SSPX’s refusal to accept doctrinal statements (mostly dealing with the teachings of Vatican II) the Vatican says are necessary for full visible communion.
Francis seems to be trying to sidestep this doctrinal roadblock by looking directly at the pastoral situations, with this latest letter citing the pope’s concern over “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.”
Perhaps by increasing contact between the local bishops and local SSPX congregations – which often have no communication at all – the pope is hoping to break down some of the psychological and cultural obstacles to unity.
However, the SSPX does not think it needs these permissions, and a visit to any of their websites will give you pages and pages of explanations of why their priests have all the faculties necessary to perform their ministry.
And although Francis is known as a “pope of gestures,” these gestures on priestly faculties are probably not the ones the rank-and-file traditionalists want to see him make, and that takes the pope back to the doctrinal roadblock he has been trying to circumvent.
In an interview earlier this year, Fellay said “the main obstacle is the degree of obligation of adherence to the Second Vatican Council,” in particular mentioning 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.”
Those are questions which it is doubtful this pope will answer in a way the traditionalists will accept, even if they don’t have to worry about the validity of their marriages.