Report on Recent Developments
Nothing new – that is everything one can say about the first half hour of the talk by Father Niklaus Pfluger at this year’s Spes Unica Sunday. The First Assistant to the Superior General of the Society of St. Pius X summarised once more how relations with Rome have developed in recent years.
After that, however, a noticeable tension could be felt in the town-hall of Hattersheim, as Father Pfluger unexpectedly began to reveal the events of the past months up to the present. In addition, he announced that these events had led Bishop Fellay to dispense with the previous position of the Society in its negotiations with Rome.
Pressure from Pope Benedict for a Solution
"No practical agreement without doctrinal agreement" – that was the principle of the SSPX when it entered into discussions with the Holy See. But the negotiations of the past two years have made it clear that the different points of view regarding central matters of Church doctrine cannot be reconciled.
In recent weeks, however, it has become clear that Pope Benedict XVI is so interested in a canonical solution for the Society that he is ready to come to an agreement even if they do not recognise the controversial texts of the Second Vatican Council or the New Mass. But if, under even these circumstances, the SSPX still refuses a reconciliation, it is certainly faced with the possibility of a renewed excommunication.
Freedom to Continue Unhindered
Under these circumstances, the Superior General, Bishop Bernard Fellay, does not see that it is possible to reject the offer of the Pope. It would be the equivalent of sliding into sedevacantism if one were to refuse a wish of the Pope, so long as this does not involve any acceptance of false doctrine. In addition, it would be a matter of prudence not to break off all relations with Rome. One should keep the door open, even though for the present there is no convergence in sight regarding the doctrinal issues.
The condition, of course, would be that an agreement included the promise that the Society of St. Pius X would in the future be allowed to disagree with Rome’s position in controversial matters and that it would be given the freedom to continue its work unchanged in its houses and institutions. An autonomous status would also include the right openly to criticise the Council and Modernism.
Offer of Archbishop Lefebvre and Historic Parallels
To support Bishop Fellay’s decision, Father Niklaus Pfluger recalled the actions of Archbishop Lefebvre in 1987 and 1988. The Archbishop made a very far-reaching proposal for an agreement, by means of which he wanted to reach a pragmatic interim solution that would be advantageous for the whole Church. The agreement the Archbishop was prepared to sign at that time required far greater concessions from the SSPX than are demanded by Pope Benedict now.
In addition, we must recognise the extent of false doctrines in the Church. Even if a theological agreement had been reached with the Holy See, we could never have expected the errors to disappear overnight just by order of the Pope. Fr. Pfluger pointed to parallels in Church history. Even after the condemnation of Arianism, the heresy remained widespread for a long time, in some places for decades. And 50 years after the Council of Trent, the Bishop of Milan was asking Rome for advice: almost his entire clergy had wives and children, what should he do? Rome’s reply shows the prudence and common sense of the Church in such cases - if he couldn’t replace the clergy, he would just have to keep them.
Unstoppable Resurgence of Tradition
Finally, the recognition of the SSPX is an official confirmation of the importance of Tradition, and as such will be extremely influential throughout the Church. And it will repair the injustice of the Society’s stigmatisation.
Is there not a danger that hostile local bishops will use the agreement to oppose and prevent the work of the Society? In answer to this predictable objection, the First Assistant cited the developments of recent years. The movement towards Tradition, especially the desire of young priests to say the Old Mass, has become so strong, that despite intimidation and suppression it can no longer be stopped. It has also become strong enough to enable the Society to defend itself against the predictable demands of modernist bishops.