From time to time on the Catholic Internet, some new controversy arises pertaining to the Society of Saint Pius X. I’ve written before about the beauty of their liturgies and the strangeness of their canonical status. For most Catholics, the SSPX are not even on the radar. For those who find themselves newly drawn to the Church’s ancient liturgy, it’s often difficult to know what to make of them. The lack of clarity from the Vatican on how the faithful should view the Society — and whether or not they may participate in their sacramental life — has not helped the situation. Neither does it help that some have become so histrionic in their opposition to the SSPX that one would think they were fighting the Devil himself.
A reasonable approach is obviously more appropriate. There have been many long and legal arguments made about this topic, and I have no desire to reproduce those efforts. Rome has been clear, at least, in one thing: the Society lacks “canonical status” and thus its ministers do not “legitimately exercise any ministry in the Church.” While this seems definitive, it’s hard to say exactly what it means, practically speaking. Priests of the SSPX were allowed to say Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica just last year, so it’s difficult to take this as a total proscription on their activities. Still, prudence has led me (and many others) to refrain from participating in SSPX activities or attending their chapels. On the other hand, I find their doctrinal arguments compelling, and have met individuals affiliated with them whom I think very highly of. I believe that honesty and fidelity to Christ demand that we consider the particulars of this unfortunate situation with fairness.
The Church is not well. Neither is the Society. Their mutual separation, to whatever degree it exists, seems to have hurt both.
With this in mind, I would say to those who would treat the bishops and priests of the SSPX and the faithful associated with them as enemies of the Church: read the words of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI — a pope who was attacked with “bitterness” because he lifted the excommunications of the Society bishops and tried to bring the group into full reconciliation.
In his 2009 letter to the Catholic bishops explaining his actions, he wrote:
So if the arduous task of working for faith, hope and love in the world is presently (and, in various ways, always) the Church’s real priority, then part of this is also made up of acts of reconciliation, small and not so small. That the quiet gesture of extending a hand gave rise to a huge uproar, and thus became exactly the opposite of a gesture of reconciliation, is a fact which we must accept. But I ask now: Was it, and is it, truly wrong in this case to meet half-way the brother who “has something against you” (cf. Mt 5:23ff.) and to seek reconciliation? Should not civil society also try to forestall forms of extremism and to incorporate their eventual adherents – to the extent possible – in the great currents shaping social life, and thus avoid their being segregated, with all its consequences? Can it be completely mistaken to work to break down obstinacy and narrowness, and to make space for what is positive and retrievable for the whole? I myself saw, in the years after 1988, how the return of communities which had been separated from Rome changed their interior attitudes; I saw how returning to the bigger and broader Church enabled them to move beyond one-sided positions and broke down rigidity so that positive energies could emerge for the whole. Can we be totally indifferent about a community which has 491 priests, 215 seminarians, 6 seminaries, 88 schools, 2 university-level institutes, 117 religious brothers, 164 religious sisters and thousands of lay faithful? Should we casually let them drift farther from the Church? I think for example of the 491 priests. We cannot know how mixed their motives may be. All the same, I do not think that they would have chosen the priesthood if, alongside various distorted and unhealthy elements, they did not have a love for Christ and a desire to proclaim him and, with him, the living God. Can we simply exclude them, as representatives of a radical fringe, from our pursuit of reconciliation and unity? What would then become of them?
Certainly, for some time now, and once again on this specific occasion, we have heard from some representatives of that community many unpleasant things – arrogance and presumptuousness, an obsession with one-sided positions, etc. Yet to tell the truth, I must add that I have also received a number of touching testimonials of gratitude which clearly showed an openness of heart. But should not the great Church also allow herself to be generous in the knowledge of her great breadth, in the knowledge of the promise made to her? Should not we, as good educators, also be capable of overlooking various faults and making every effort to open up broader vistas? And should we not admit that some unpleasant things have also emerged in Church circles? At times one gets the impression that our society needs to have at least one group to which no tolerance may be shown; which one can easily attack and hate. And should someone dare to approach them – in this case the Pope – he too loses any right to tolerance; he too can be treated hatefully, without misgiving or restraint.
Dear Brothers, during the days when I first had the idea of writing this letter, by chance, during a visit to the Roman Seminary, I had to interpret and comment on Galatians 5:13-15. I was surprised at the directness with which that passage speaks to us about the present moment: “Do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love be servants of one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself’. But if you bite and devour one another, take heed that you are not consumed by one another.” I am always tempted to see these words as another of the rhetorical excesses which we occasionally find in Saint Paul. To some extent that may also be the case. But sad to say, this “biting and devouring” also exists in the Church today, as expression of a poorly understood freedom. Should we be surprised that we too are no better than the Galatians? That at the very least we are threatened by the same temptations? That we must always learn anew the proper use of freedom? And that we must always learn anew the supreme priority, which is love? The day I spoke about this at the Major Seminary, the feast of Our Lady of Trust was being celebrated in Rome. And so it is: Mary teaches us trust. She leads us to her Son, in whom all of us can put our trust. He will be our guide – even in turbulent times.
Pope Benedict asked for charity towards the SSPX, whose priests, he surmises, must “have a love for Christ and a desire to proclaim him and, with him, the living God.” He spoke against “biting and devouring” one another. He clearly saw this as a complex situation, not a black and white one. He did not condemn them. He did not compare their Masses to blasphemy. He did not tell the world of their sinfulness.
He showed sympathy to them. He showed a desire to unite them fully within the bosom of the Church. He expressed towards them a paternal sentiment that can only be described as love.
I encourage you not to listen to those who opportunistically use this situation to create division, or cast judgment. This is not an “us” or “them” situation. The members of the Society are, in a very real sense of the word, Catholic. We are Catholic. The differences between us are not insignificant, but neither are they insurmountable. They are closer to us in practice and belief than any other group considered to be “separated” from the Church — and we treat these others, whether Protestant or Orthodox — with much greater kindness and respect. This is an injustice. Any true love of souls demand that it be rectified.
In the mean time, we have real evils to fight. There are things on the horizon that should have us all on our knees, praying with fervor for God’s assistance and mercy. The SSPX, for all their faults, are allies in this effort, not enemies. It would be wise for us all to pray that the confusion about their situation can be cleared up, that their doctrinal concerns be addressed, and that full reconciliation can be established. The Church may well become stronger for all of it.