Benedict’s Bet

A few years ago, I was strolling the Boulevard Saint-Germain with an old friend who lives in Paris. We passed a nice church.

Him: “You know what that is, don’t you?

Me: “No.”

“The Lefebvrite church.”

“What are they up to now?”

“They’re in a big fight over who controls the property.”

We both shrugged. What you can expect from schismatics? They can’t even agree with one another once they step outside the Church. We went off to dinner and I didn’t give the Lefebvrites another thought until Benedict XVI lifted the excommunication on them this week.

He got a lot of attention, even in the secular press, for several unfortunate reasons. If you don’t follow the arcana of Church politics, the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX) is a breakaway priestly group founded by now deceased French Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre in 1970. SSPX professes to be non-schismatic and faithful to the Tradition of the Church – the one that existed before the Second Vatican Council and Paul VI abandoned it. Lefebvre consecrated four bishops in 1988 and was automatically excommunicated, but should not have been, SSPX claims, because of technical matters in canon law, among them that Lefebvre only acted out of necessity – the need for bishops who could continue to ordain priests to perform the only valid form of liturgy, the old Tridentine Mass. For Catholics who accepts the authority of all councils and popes, i.e., for Catholics who are Catholic, SSPX goes up to the border of schism – and beyond.

Benedict’s lifting of the excommunication got widespread attention for two reasons, both partly the result of the very poor press skills the Vatican habitually shows on such occasions. One SSPX bishop, Richard Williamson, is a barking mad Holocaust denier. In a Church of a billion members, odd fellows do crop up. I’ve met several otherwise sane-looking European Catholics, for instance, who think the U.S. government carried out the 9/11 attacks. The Vatican could have spoken, however, with Jewish leaders with whom it is in constant contact and made clear that this pope – who has a long record of good relations with the Jewish people – was dealing with a matter of Church disciplines, not endorsing one man’s delusions.

But the Vatican flubbed the Church discipline question with the press, too. By not spelling out what the lifting of the excommunication did and did not do (it started a tentative dialogue with SSPX), it gave the impression, as The New York Times typically put it, that the pope was “reaching out to the far-right” as part of an overall reactionary strategy. This pope is not so simple-minded as his critics. And political categories of left and right do not really describe the lay of the land in the Church. They become the inevitable default categories, though, when the Vatican does not recognize the degree of explanation it must provide to prevent the grossest misunderstandings by the average modern secularist.

Benedict is nobody’s fool. That much is certain. But he seems to be taking a serious risk. For years, he’s pointed out the haplessness of the Catholic liturgy today, and the wrongness of seeing the work of the Council as a discontinuity with what was valid before in both liturgy and belief. Ratzinger was part of the liturgical reform movement prior to Vatican II. Like Romano Guardini and other orthodox Catholics who expected a more heartfelt liturgy, he soon realized that what we got instead is superficiality and worse. As pope, he has allowed wider use of the Tridentine Mass, but as one element in what he hopes will become a much broader liturgical renewal. It may be that he’s thinking that to bring the one million or so Traditionalists back into full communion, he has to take some bad along with the good, at least to get things started. But we’ll only know what game is afoot as the process goes forward.

There is an asymmetry between the way that the pope has dealt with SSPX and with Church progressives, but it is not merely political bias as some, like the reliably nettlesome Hans Kung, have claimed yet again. Whatever else can be said about SSPX and schism – and I personally think there’s a lot – the Society believes much of what the Church has believed over long stretches of her existence. By contrast, so-called progressives often not only deny the Church’s authority, using Vatican II as cover. The most prominent among them routinely deny or redefine the most basic tenets of the ancient creeds.

SSPX seems very unlikely to swallow the things it would need to in order to become truly Catholic again. Even before we come to big questions like the authority of Vatican II, religious liberty, and the problem of anti-Semitism, there’s the little matter of accepting that newer liturgies are valid, something SSPX has spelled out in great detail that it does not believe to be the case. The website rigorously explains why – with more than a whiff of mania. In a Church that currently permits liturgies as different as the Anglican Use and Byzantine Rite, as well as vernacular and Novus Ordo Latin Masses (a particular bugbear for SSPX), SSPX’s insistence on the Tridentine Mass seems to be an immediate conversation stopper.

But Benedict believes, as his own elegant writing on the liturgy makes clear, that the liturgy is the center of the life of the Church, and therefore the center of the human race. All our hopes rest with that presence of God among us. He may be betting on a longshot, but perhaps a little daring is in order at the moment to get us to places many of us don’t really believe we can go.

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.