What the SSPX Reconciliation Means – and Doesn’t Print
By David G. Bonagura, Jr.   
Sunday, 10 June 2012

Few things make Catholics forget the precept of charity more than discussion of the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX), the traditionalist group of bishops and priests who, due to their opposition to the Second Vatican Council and the ensuing ecclesial turmoil, remain outside the Church’s canonical structure.

Pope Benedict, having played the leading role at the Vatican to restore the SSPX to juridical communion for a quarter century, has made reconciliation with the group a priority of his pontificate. By all accounts, a formal announcement of official recognition for the SSPX is close at hand.

Reconciliation with the SSPX will rank among the great achievements of Benedict’s pontificate with lasting implications for the Church. But in the hysteria that will certainly follow a formal announcement, what is truly important will likely be lost in the Church’s internal partisan politics.

On the right, some traditionalist Catholics will jubilantly declare victory: modernist Rome has returned to its senses by endorsing the true remnant of the faith. On the left, where dinner with Martin Luther is preferable to sharing a Church with SSPX leader Bernard Fellay, some will accuse Benedict of undermining – or undoing – the reforms of Vatican II. Both of these perspectives are false.

Before considering what reconciliation means, it is worth assessing what it does not mean.

First, Benedict is not rolling back Vatican II; his entire pontificate is devoted to advancing it (more on this below). In fact, as I wrote when Benedict remitted the excommunications of the four SSPX bishops, the pope is beating partisan Catholic progressives at their own game: he is making a concrete gesture toward the reunion of all Christians, just as Vatican II called for in Unitatis Redintegratio (a document challenged by the SSPX, in a double irony). What is being undone is not the Council, but the ideology of its false “spirit.”

Second, more clever commentators may play the gender card: the retrograde Vatican is accepting a group of conservative bishops and priests back into the Church as it simultaneously launches an attack on the defenseless nuns of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR). No such dichotomy or misogynistic power play exists: Benedict is working to bring both wayward groups – the SSPX de iure, the LCWR de facto – back into full communion with the Church; their differing statuses simply mean differing approaches to reunion.

          Partners in the New Evangelization?

Third, the reconciliation of the SSPX does not mean the “vindication of Tradition” in the way the Society and its supporters understand it: that traditional worship and piety will be restored as the most legitimate expression of the faith. Traditional Catholic theology and practice has already been enjoying a small but vitalizing renaissance throughout the world in religious communities, parishes, and schools who have remained loyal to the pope. A reconciled SSPX will surely add to this growth and vigor; it will not create it anew or give it a lofty status.

What, then, does reconciliation with the SSPX really mean?

First, the “Doctrinal Preamble,” the still secret statement of doctrinal belief that the SSPX must accept for reconciliation, will likely declare – in the most official and authoritative capacity to date – that the entirety of Vatican II must be read and interpreted in light of Tradition. If this is so, then it will not only shape the Society’s future discourse about Vatican II, but also that of the advocates of the “spirit of Vatican II.”

The practitioners of “a hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture” will not go away quietly, but such a declaration will remove their remaining credibility among their readers and students.

Second, as mentioned, the SSPX in full communion with the Roman Pontiff will invigorate traditional Catholic practice and worship, which in turn will contribute to rebuilding Catholic identity in places where it has collapsed. By many accounts Mass attendance at the Society’s chapels in France has grown while regular churches have emptied almost completely.

With the graces that follow from full communion with Rome – and without the invective that has characterized much of the Society’s rhetoric against Rome – the SSPX may become a key player in the New Evangelization, and the Church at large should welcome its contribution.

Third, the reconciliation speaks volumes about the nature of Benedict’s pontificate and the character of Benedict the man. From his lunch at Castel Gandolfo with Bishop Fellay in the first summer of his pontificate, to the lifting of the excommunications in 2009, to the formal discussions with SSPX theologians in the CDF, Benedict, despite the many contrary voices in the Curia, is personally making reconciliation a reality, at his speed and on his terms.

As Bishop Fellay himself wrote, “The pope has told us that the concern for fixing our situation for the good of the Church was at the heart of his pontificate, and likewise that he was aware that for him and for us it would have been easier to maintain the status quo.” Benedict, a true shepherd, is more than willing to lay down his life and his reputation for the good of his flock.

A number of questions concerning the Society’s status – its future organization, the possibility of a breakaway group that rejects reconciliation – awaits the formal announcement. But when the time comes, it is Benedict himself, not the Church’s warring factions or the secular media, who will provide the proper interpretive lens for this incredible feat.

David G. Bonagura, Jr. is an adjunct professor of theology at the Seminary of the Immaculate Conception, Huntington, NY.
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