Rome and the SSPX: One Heck of an Opportunity

The Holy Father does not think in sound bytes or headlines. That may be the way of most people today — even many world leaders — but it is obviously not his way, for he knows how ephemeral these things are. His is too much the scholar, too much the student of history, and much too much a man of the Church to be preoccupied with all that. He will doubtless see to it that the crisis is “managed,” as the administrative jargon goes today, but that management will be secondary to the more important dogmatic and ecclesiastical realities at the heart of this matter.

I speak, of course, of the SSPX dialogue consequent on the lifting of the excommunications of the four bishops consecrated by Monsignor Lefebvre. As the firestorm over Bishop Williamson’s imprudences are being fanned to white heat by progressivists in the Church and anti-Christians outside it, there is talk of a dialogue between Rome and the Society. Both Cardinal Re (speaking for the Holy See) and Bishop Fellay (speaking for the SSPX) have expressed an eagerness for this. The recent note of the Secretariat of State, part of the “management” referred to above, also confirms this.

While many conservative commentators have stated that such a dialogue would essentially terminate in the SSPX’s conforming to the new order of things in the Church, that does not appear to be the attitude of Cardinal Castrillon Hoyos, a not insignificant figure in all this business, as he heads Rome’s official “Traddie Department,” the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei.

The SSPX, whatever one says about them, has some things to bring to the table. If they put their best foot forward, and have intelligent men with the habitus of theology bring forth their objections in the spirit of Christian gentleness that seems to be a mark of Bishop Fellay’s manner in these recent events, some good things could develop.

For one, the Holy See’s representatives (hopefully disciplined theologians like the Thomist, Father Augustine Di Noia, O.P., undersecretary of the CDF) would recognize that, as theologians, the SSPX spokesmen are doing what the CDF has said theologians should do, namely, to assist the Church in “collaborative relations.” This constitutes the service of the theologian:

This service to the ecclesial community brings the theologian and the Magisterium into a reciprocal relationship. The latter authentically teaches the doctrine of the Apostles. And, benefiting from the work of theologians, it refutes objections to and distortions of the faith and promotes, with the authority received from Jesus Christ, new and deeper comprehension, clarification, and application of revealed doctrine. (Donum Veritatis, No. 21)

It should also be recalled that, “a theologian may…”

…raise questions regarding the timeliness, the form, or even the contents of magisterial interventions. Here the theologian will need, first of all, to assess accurately the authoritativeness of the interventions which becomes clear from the nature of the documents, the insistence with which a teaching is repeated, and the very way in which it is expressed. (Donum Veritatis, No. 24)

Upon these foundations, there could be real dialogue (in the classical sense; after all, however it has been co-opted, it is a good word), and not one more of the many diplomatic exercises carried out under that name.

Secondly, and more importantly, some shocking revelations about the nature of the conciliar and post-conciliar magisterium and its manner of operating could be disclosed. I say “shocking,” not as if these would be disclosures of things formerly unknown, but only in the sense that they would be officially stated in the context of a traditionalist critique of the Vatican II documents. (Before reacting too strongly to that word “critique,” read Now Allowed: ‘Serious and Constructive Criticism of Vatican II’ ?) Were this “critique” to take place as an official dialogue with the Holy See, it would prevent Pharisaical liberals or conservatives from uttering specious accusations of traditionalist “dissent.” For this to go right, the SSPX representatives at the table should be attentive to the Holy See’s own taxonomy in the authoritative gradations of magisterial texts, and then apply them to Vatican II.

Third, that critique itself, in the context of a longer dialogue, could produce some important and much-needed clarifications from the Holy See, such as the document that came out last July 10, clarifying an important and much disputed passage in Lumen Gentium. Similar clarifications on passages dealing with ecumenism, religious liberty, grace, and the nature of the Church would hopefully be produced as a result of a traditionalist dialogue with the Holy See.

In my opinion, Pope Benedict, an Augustinian at heart, is too in love with the Doctor from Hippo to dismiss the traditionalist critiques as baseless. What Saint Augustine says of the doctrine of the Mystical Body, of grace, and of the nature of human freedom, resonates in the soul of the German Pontiff. It also forms the bedrock of the traditionalist critique, or at least it should. And in liturgy, the pope of Summorum Pontificum well knows that the reforms have been problematical.

To isolationist trads who think that nothing good can come from this “conciliar pope,” I say: be careful. To underestimate the grace of state of the Supreme Pontiff is the first step on a short journey towards schism.

I think Pope Benedict wants the SSPX to help him restore doctrine and liturgy, and I’m thrilled as heck that it just might happen.