Breakaway traditionalists send Vatican mixed message about ending quarter-century schism

Associated Press/July 19, 2012

Vatican City -- A breakaway group of traditionalist Roman Catholics sent the Vatican mixed messages Thursday about ending a quarter-century of schism, indicating that there's still no resolution in sight for realizing one of Pope Benedict XVI's key priorities as pope.

The Swiss-based Society of St. Pius X said it had approved the technical, legal way it could eventually reconcile with the Holy See. But at the same time, it said it is still waiting for an "open and serious debate" to begin with the Vatican to bring church authorities around to its view of the "errors" of the modernizing reforms of the Second Vatican Council.

The late Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre founded the society in 1969 out of opposition to Vatican II's introduction of Mass in the vernacular and outreach to Jews and people of other faiths, among other issues. In 1988, the Vatican excommunicated Lefebvre and four of his bishops after he consecrated them without papal consent.

Benedict has spent nearly his entire seven-year pontificate seeking to accommodate the society and end the only formal schism created since Vatican II. He has restored the use of the old Latin Mass favored by the society's members, removed the bishops' excommunications and allowed them two years of theological dialogue with the Vatican.

Aside from being sympathetic to the society's point of view, Benedict fears the growth of a parallel, pre-Vatican II church that is even more conservative than his own.

But the society, which boasts 550 priests and 200-plus seminarians, has so far refused to sign off on a core set of doctrinal points required by the Vatican to come back into the fold, and has said more talks are necessary.

Last month, the Vatican formally proposed a way to bring it back in, saying the society could exist within the church as a "personal prelature" — essentially a diocese without borders, which would enable it to most easily maintain its identity and liturgical traditions.

In a statement Thursday, the society said its recent general meeting had "determined and approved the necessary conditions for an eventual canonical normalization" in relations with the Vatican. The conditions maintain that the society's leadership would take a vote about reconciling, if it gets to that stage.

But at the same time, the society repeated many of the issues that have prevented reconciliation to date, suggesting that the documentation issued from Vatican II didn't form part of the church's core "magisterium," or definitive teachings. Rather, the society said it used as its guide the constant tradition of the church "while waiting for the day when an open and serious debate will be possible which may allow the return to tradition of the ecclesial authorities."

The Rev. John Zuhlsdorf, who follows developments in the society's discussions with Rome on his blog, said the society's statement wasn't negative but offered some clarity.

"They keep the door open for continuing discussion," he said in an email. He noted that this was a public document, and must be read in that context. "Over the years the SSPX has used some strong rhetoric for the consumption of their supporters, even while edging closer to (having a) closer dialogue with the Holy See."

The Vatican said Thursday it still awaited an official word from the society about the outcome of its general meeting and that the statement by no means constituted a "formal response."

In an indication that discussions are expected to drag on further — and that Benedict would tolerate further delay — the pope recently named a trusted aide, Monsignor Augustine Di Noia, to take charge of negotiations with the society, which are handled by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

The Di Noia appointment was announced a few days before Benedict named Bishop Gerhard Ludwig Mueller of Regensburg, Germany, as the head of the congregation.

Mueller has publicly lashed out at the society, saying in a 2009 interview with the Catholic agency Zenit that he wanted its seminary in his diocese shut down and the four bishops to resign to live as simple priests "as part of the reparation for the damage that the schism has caused."

Daniela Petroff contributed.

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