Benedict and the Lefebvrites; Speaking with Fr. Franz Schmidberger and the Vatican; The skittishness was palpable
By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
Rarely has a 35-minute audience, one that didn't even appear on the pope's official list of engagements, made as much of a splash as Benedict XVI's "private" Aug. 29 encounter with Bishop Bernard Fellay, superior of the Society of St. Pius X, the body founded in 1970 by French Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre.
The "Lefebvrites," known for their adherence to the pre-Vatican II rite of the Mass, split with the Vatican in 1988 when Lefebvre ordained four bishops without the pope's permission.
Benedict has a personal history on this score. It was then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger who, in 1988, was asked by John Paul II to oversee negotiations to avoid just such a schism. Ratzinger worked out a "protocol of agreement" with Lefebvre, promising to appoint a bishop to head the society, and requiring only that the Lefebvrites approach doctrinal disputes with "a positive attitude of study and of communication with the Apostolic See, avoiding all polemics."
(CNS/ Catholic Press Photo, CIRIC) Schismatic Bishop Bernard Fellay, superior general of the Society of St. Pius X, is seen near a portrait of Pope Piux X in Econe, Switzerland, in this Sept. 17, 2004, file photo.
Lefebvre, however, balked at the last minute and went ahead with the ordinations. In response, John Paul excommunicated Lefebvre and the four bishops (including Fellay). Lefebvre died in 1991.
Today, the Society of St. Pius X claims roughly 200,000 followers worldwide in 27 nations, with 450 priests, 180 seminarians, 50 brothers and 110 sisters, six seminaries, three universities, and 20 secondary schools and 50 primary schools.
After Fellay's plans for a meeting with the pope became public in July, the Catholic rumor mill had been awash with speculation. Some felt that Benedict XVI would announce a universal "indult," or permission, for celebration of the Mass according to the 1962 Missal, the last before the reforms of Vatican II. Others felt the pope would offer the Lefebvrites a special juridical structure, such as an apostolic administration. (A similar strategy was employed in 2001 to reintegrate a group of traditionalist Catholics in Campos, Brazil). Part of this deal, according to the speculation, would have involved "regularization" of marriages performed by Lefebvrite priests and annulments handed out by their tribunals.
None of this came to pass, at least in the immediate wake of the meeting. Instead, both sides issued statements commenting on the positive atmosphere and vowing to proceed "by degrees," but both in their own way acknowledging the serious difficulties that remain.
That doesn't mean, however, that the encounter is without interest.
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On Friday, Sept. 2, I spoke by phone with Fr. Franz Schmidberger, the current number two official in the Society of St. Pius X, and the man who did the preparatory work for the Aug. 29 meeting between Fellay and the pope. Schmidberger was Lefebvre's first successor as Superior General of the Society of St. Pius X.
It was Schmidberger who preached the homily at Lefebvre's April 1991 funeral in Ecône, Switzerland.
In the lead-up to the Aug. 29 encounter, Schmidberger said he met in Rome with five cardinals and other officials of the Roman Curia, including Colombian Cardinal Darío Castrillón Hoyos, head of the Ecclesia Dei Commission created in 1988 to meet the pastoral needs of Catholics attached to the old Mass. Those five cardinals, he said, included three currently in the Vatican and two who are retired. Aside from Castrillón Hoyos, he declined to name the cardinals involved.
Schmidberger told me that he believes reconciliation between Rome and the Lefebvrites "is a question of some years, rather than months."
Schmidberger said he was bothered by a Vatican statement after the meeting which spoke of moving towards full communion.
"We have always considered ourselves to be in full communion with Rome," he said. "Talk of restoring 'full communion' is psychological rather than theological."
That Vatican statement also spoke of moving forward by "degrees," so I asked Schmidberger what those degrees might be.
Schmidberger cited the two pre-conditions that have routinely been laid down by the Lefebvrites: the pope should acknowledge the right of any priest to celebrate the pre-Vatican II Mass, and the Vatican should stop referring to the "excommunications" of the four bishops consecrated by Lefebvre in 1988.
At the same time, Schmidberger said, for its part the society should "multiply our contacts with the bishops and the Roman Curia."
Then, Schmidberger said, "We have to have serious conversations about the Second Vatican Council."
"There are many points we simply do not agree with," he said.
Schmidberger cited the council's ecumenical teaching, which he characterized as, "The Holy Ghost has used other denominations as means of salvation." This, Schmidberger said, is unacceptable.
He said the same point applies to the council's teaching on other religions.
Schmidberger also said the society "cannot accept" the council's teaching on religious liberty.
"This is not because it is our position, or because we want to puff ourselves up with glory, but because it is in contradiction with what other popes have said," Schmidberger said. "It is in contradiction, for example, with what Pius IX said in the encyclical Quanta Cura. I really don't see how these two things can be reconciled."
Issued in 1864, Quanta Cura was accompanied by Pius IX's famous Syllabus of Errors, in which religious liberty was denounced as "liberty of perdition."
Finally, Schmidberger pointed to the Vatican II document Gaudium et Spes, which in paragraph 12 says that "all things on earth should be ordained to man as to their center and summit."
"We do not agree," Schmidberger said. "The center and summit must be God."
"These are very substantial points," he said. "It's not just a matter of working out a few minor things."
I asked Schmidberger if, in his view, these theological debates had to be resolved before the Lefebvrites could be reconciled with Rome.
"No, but we have to be able to express our reservations about the council," he said. "We must have this liberty. We must be able to criticize the council. … It's for the welfare of the church. There are profound wounds coming forth from this, and those wounds must be healed."
Hence, Schmidberger said, it's not that Rome must renounce chunks of Vatican II before "normalization" can occur. It's rather that, from the Lefebvrite point of view, a right to challenge the council's teaching must be guaranteed.
Schmidberger, who was present for Benedict XVI's meeting with Fellay, said the pope said nothing about any of this.
"But we are patient," he said. "We have waited years. We can go on waiting."
Finally, Schmidberger addressed what he described as a "calumny" against the Lefebvrites: that they do not accept popes since John XXIII as legitimate.
"We always have held to the pope, we pray for him, and we insert his name in the canon of the Mass," Schmidberger said. "This is an attempt to mix us up with other agendas."
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Both John Paul II and now Benedict XVI have reached out to the Lefebvrites in ways that they have not with other "dissident" factions. This has puzzled some observers, who wonder why Rome has gone to such lengths to reconcile with the Society of St. Pius X, which, after all, has roughly the contours of a mid-sized diocese.
I spoke with a senior Vatican official on this point on Tuesday, Aug. 30. He observed that the Lefebvrites represent the only formal schism in the church in the wake of the Second Vatican Council, which creates a special set of problems. The heart of his answer has to do with the distinction in Catholic theology between the "validity" and the "licitness" of a sacrament.
To take an example, according to Catholic theology, whenever a legitimate Catholic priest celebrates the Eucharist, the sacrament is valid -- the bread and wine really do become the body and blood of Christ. Yet canon law restricts the number of times a priest can say Mass on a given day, twice on weekdays and three times on Sunday. If a Catholic takes communion at a priest's third Mass on a Tuesday, he or she is still receiving the Body of Christ, but it's not "licit" and the priest could get into trouble for doing it (depending on the circumstances).
Hence "validity" has to do with sacramental theology, "licitness" with the requirements of canon law.
Applied to the Lefebvrites, the point is that the bishops consecrated by Lefebvre are fully valid, meaning that they have an undeniable claim to apostolic succession. The priestly ordinations they in turn perform are also valid, albeit illicit. Thus the Lefebvrites can in effect build a parallel church, the legitimacy of which the Vatican cannot challenge, even if it is outside church law.
This is what makes the Lefebvrite situation different, according to the senior Vatican source, from other groups of disaffected Catholics. The concerns of other groups represent a pastoral challenge, but the Lefebvrites are a genuine ecclesiological nightmare -- legitimately ordained bishops acting outside of communion with the pope, spawning an entire ecclesiastical structure that Rome is constrained to recognize but cannot control.
This Vatican official said that it's not just that Benedict XVI sympathizes with some criticisms of the post-Vatican II liturgical reforms, or that as a basic conservative he's more open to the Lefebvrites than, say, to Voice of the Faithful, or that he has a sense of unfinished business from 1988 (however true all these points may be).
At bottom, the official said, any pope would feel a special urgency to try to resolve an honest-to-God schism, because it risks further formal division in Christianity, which, among other things, runs contrary to everything the ecumenical movement has tried to achieve over the past 40 years.
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Both sides were eager not to over-play the Aug. 29 meeting.
As noted above, the Vatican didn't put the meeting on the pope's official list of audiences, and care was taken to ensure that TV crews did not get images of Fellay entering or exiting Castel Gandolfo. Neither Navarro nor any other Vatican official gave on-camera remarks about the encounter.
On the part of the Lefebvrites, the skittishness was palpable.
Journalists had been sent a communiqué by the Italian branch of the society on Wednesday of the week before the meeting, which triggered an avalanche of requests for interviews with Fellay. Spokespersons told journalists that their plans were not yet clear, but if Fellay said anything to the press, it would be at the society's headquarters in Albano, not far away from Castel Gandolfo.
During the morning of Aug. 29, however, spokespersons did not return phone calls.
The result was that a group of journalists, including RAI, TG-5 and Sky (the main television news outlets in Italy), ANSA (the main Italian wire service), the Associated Press and NCR showed up Monday afternoon at the Albano headquarters, where we were detained outside the main entrance. At one point, a car carrying an Associated Press TV camera crew was allowed to enter, only to be expelled a few moments later.
Priests of the society wearing cassocks periodically arrived at the gate to find out who we were, promising to relay requests and get back to us.
In the end, only the RAI crew was allowed to speak with Fellay. After a further hour of waiting, the rest of us were informed that members of the society were praying the breviary and would be unavailable for further comment.
This hesitation is understandable, given that both sides have to worry about forces within their own camps who viewed the meeting with skepticism.
Richard Williamson, for example, another of the four bishops consecrated by Lefebvre in 1988, bristled.
"In fact, a Rome-Society of St. Pius X agreement seems impossible," he wrote in July. "And if the Society rejoined Rome, the resistance of Catholic Tradition would carry on without it, and if the Pope 'converted', then instead of the gentle war now being waged on his right by Tradition, he would be faced with a savage war being waged on his left by the cabal of neo-modernists. Either way, the war goes on between the friends and the enemies of the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ."
On the Vatican side, Cardinal Francesco Pompedda, the former prefect of the Apostolic Signatura, told the Italian daily La Stampa that full communion can only be achieved "if the Society of St. Pius X submits itself to the legitimate authority of the Pope" and recognizes the validity of Vatican II decrees.
Pompedda said the society was founded upon "an attitude of condemnation of the Second Vatican Council."
Pompedda said that he did not perceive a "new climate between the two parties." He said that "it was not the Holy See that created the division," but the defiance of the traditionalist groups.
Another Vatican official who has been involved with negotiations with the Lefebvrites put it more simply to me on Sept. 2: "They need to be converted."
Given those reactions, neither Benedict nor Fellay wants to risk the impression of a too-hasty "surrender."