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An SSPX Deal: But Will the Fat Lady Sing?

The end of the opera at last?

“The opera ain’t over till the fat lady sings.”
— George H.W. Bush

OUR FORMER president’s allusion to Wagner’s interminable four-opera “Ring Cycle,” which ends after fourteen confusing hours with a well-upholstered soprano howling a ten-minute aria, comes to mind now in mid-April 2012, when the press and the trad blogsphere is abuzz with talk of an impending deal between the Vatican and the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX).

The on-again, off-again negotiations over integrating SSPX into the Conciliar Church (Abp. Lefebvre’s term, please note) appear to be heading towards a final act: SSPX’s Superior General, Bishop Bernard Fellay, it is said, will sign a Doctrinal Preamble, making various doctrinal concessions regarding the teaching of Vatican II. In return, the Vatican will grant SSPX some sort of special canonical status.

Everyone seems to think this is virtually a done deal.

And yet, and yet… no fat lady.

For while Father Ferderico Lombardi, head of the Holy See’s Press Office, confirmed receiving Bp. Fellay’s response and called it “encouraging,” he said nevertheless that it contained “the addition of some details or integrations.” These would have to be examined by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) and by Benedict XVI himself before any decision could be reached, he said, adding “I think the wait will not be long because there is the desire to reach a conclusion in these discussions.”

On the other side, an April 18 communiqué from SSPX headquarters in Menzingen, Switzerland says that while the media are announcing that the doctrinal question between the Holy See and SSPX is now resolved, “the reality is different.”

After mentioning that Bp. Fellay’s response will indeed by examined by the CDF and Benedict XVI, the SSPX communiqué concludes by saying, “This is therefore a stage and not a conclusion.”

So, the matter of the Doctrinal Preamble is still up in the air.

Pointing clearly to SSPX's future?

But even if the parties agree on the doctrinal question in the next few weeks, the canonical arrangement for SSPX, the press reported, will still need to be settled.

The discussion could get very complicated. Over the course of nearly forty years, SSPX has set up a worldwide hierarchy and a string of institutions parallel to and indeed in opposition to those of the Conciliar Church. Their existence and operation would somehow have to be brought into line with the 1983 Code of Canon Law.

SSPX would undoubtedly want to retain the ability to continue to do whatever it wants, whenever it wants, anywhere in the world. Benedict XVI, obviously, could not allow this.

Looming over this discussion, moreover, would be the principle laid down in Canon 1256 (1983 Code). This would give Benedict and his successors the trump card to control SSPX’s institutions, because it provides that property ownership is “under the supreme authority of the Roman Pontiff.”

So, if Bp. Fellay wanted to reignite his “We resist you to your face”/ Paul-reproving-Peter routine one day against Benedict XVI or his successors, he would wind up doing so from the sidewalk outside his former residence in Menzingen.

It would not be difficult, therefore, to envision SSPX and the Vatican agreeing on an ambiguous (and therefore mutually satisfactory) doctrinal formulation in the next few weeks, but then failing to agree on the details of a canonical arrangement to SSPX’s liking.

The Protocol: Signing — then "un-signing"

It was on this level, after all, that the May 5, 1988 accord Archbishop Lefebvre signed with Cardinal Ratzinger supposedly went sour, and prompted the archbishop to “unsign” the agreement the next day. (A few maintained, however, that the turnaround was due to the influence of Lefebvre’s sister, Mother Marie Gabrielle, a formidable lady — albeit thin — sometimes slyly referred to as “Her Excellency.”)

When you take all these factors into consideration, a global integration of SSPX into the Conciliar Church is by no means a sure bet at this moment.

The latest installment could wind up being merely one more scene in the ongoing opera of SSPX/Rome “negotiations” — an “Archbishop’s Ring Cycle” that has been playing since the suppression of SSPX nearly forty years ago.

Newcomers to the traditionalist cause, perhaps understandably, find the drama quite riveting: What will Bp. Fellay do now? Will “Rome” make a wily counteroffer? Will SSPX hold together? Will evil cardinals conspire to frustrate the will of our beloved Holy Father, that Rottweiler of Orthodoxy? Will the Hero-Prelate and anti-Wagnerian, Bp. Richard Williamson, sing to Fellay’s score? Will the united-but-not-absorbed SSPX be the new Jesuits who will convert the Novus Ordo Church from its modernism?

Thinking about not singing along?

But old-timers in the trad movement like me have seen this Ring go round and round for decades: the Roman visitation and suppression in ’74, Lefebvre’s battles and kangaroo trial at the Vatican in ’75-76, the Nuncio delivering letters and notices of suspension by limousine in ’76-77, a cardinal appearing in the Ecône courtyard with the ex-President of Senegal as his chauffeur, the “bastard rites” sermon at Lille, innumerable Lefebvre conferences to seminarians on “Rome,” the bear hug from JP2 in ’78, “Let us make an experiment in tradition,” the “official” Church vs. the “real” Church, “sifting” the magisterium to find “Tradition,” ’80-83 negotiations with Ratzinger, Lefebvre’s “anti-Christ” and near-sedevacantist pronouncements in ’88, more negotiations, May 5, 1988 accord signed with Ratzinger and repudiated the next day, more negotiations, episcopal consecrations, “Operation Survival,” excommunications, negotiations to get Lefebvre to reconcile before his death in 1991, two more decades of back-and-forth Vatican negotiations under Schmidberger and Fellay, excommunications lifted, Fellay “preconditions,” Fellay saying he’ll “run to Rome if the Holy Father calls,” Roman pilgrimages with cardinatial lunches, smiling Apostolic Palace photo-ops with Benedict XVI, hot-cold contradictory statements from Fellay for several years, and then the latest.

Forty years, and the fat lady never sings.

But in all this, as with many operas, when you step back from the particular dramatic incidents and closely study the libretto, you encounter absurdities. And the theological absurdities that eventually wound up driving the SSPX negotiation drama should make any thoughtful Catholic cringe.

First, a real Catholic does not negotiate with the Roman Pontiff — he submits to the Roman Pontiff. It is an article of faith that this is necessary for salvation.

Yet Archbishop Lefebvre and SSPX’s whole, grand, forty-year spectacle of resistance and negotiation renders that article of faith utterly and completely hollow in the practical order.

The endless negotiation is, in turn, the consequence of another absurdity, because,

THE question: Catholic or not??

Second, Abp. Lefebvre and SSPX never really answered the key question: Is Vatican II and the whole Novus Ordo system (doctrine, discipline and worship) Catholic? Some things they said and did would lead you to conclude Vatican II was Catholic, while other things they said and did led to the opposite conclusion.

It was a course of pure praxis, attended by theological zigzagging, jury-rigged to justify the desired result of the moment. If Paul VI suspended you, you could talk about heretical popes losing their office. If John Paul II received you warmly, SSPX could not tolerate among its members those who said the pope was not the pope. If the pope was willing to allow you to consecrate a bishop, he was “Most Holy Father.” If not, he was an “anti-Christ.”

The ideal SSPX member followed the Society’s position du jour, ignored the successive contradictions, and generally, did not think. Hardliner and soft-liners might come and go, but in the Society the only long-term survivors were the “flat-liners.”

Bishop Fellay’s latest statement about his demands to the Vatican (4/16), reported by Andrea Tornielli, fits perfectly into this incoherent world. He asks that:

(1) “no concessions be asked from the Society that touch upon the faith and that which derived from it (liturgy, sacraments, morals and discipline)” — implying that the Roman Pontiff would force SSPX to adhere to teachings and practices imposed elsewhere in the Church, but which are harmful to the faith.

(2) “that a true freedom and autonomy of action be granted to [the Society of] St. Pius, which would allow it to grow and develop” — implying that adherence to universal discipline of the Church would compromise point (1)

“How to interpret this message of the Lefebvrist superior?” Tornielli asks.

Indeed, Mr. Tornielli! Good luck trying to square it with standard, pre-Vatican II theology on the indefectibility of the Church, the infallibility of her universal disciplinary laws, and the need for the salvation of every human creature to be subject to the Roman Pontiff!

For while Jesuits take a fourth vow to obey the Roman Pontiff, SSPX-ers seem to have taken a fourth vow to negotiate with him.

* * * * *

NATURALLY, there will be the tendency on the part of some to dismiss all the foregoing as sedevacantist sour grapes.

Far from it. An SSPX deal that officially integrated the whole outfit into the Conciliar Church would draw an unmistakably clear theological line on the issue of accepting or rejecting Vatican II. This I would regard as a positive development.

Moreover, as with my critique of the reformed liturgy, my comments about SSPX are based ultimately upon the truths of the Catholic faith I learned in my youth: The Church of Jesus Christ gives only what is true and good, never evil and error, and that no Catholic can be truly such unless he submits to the pope.

Nothing “sedevacantist” to see there, folks, so please move on.

That said, what advice to give in summing up?

Onlookers should be wary of sitting forward on their wicker chairs and becoming enraptured by the latest dramatic arias in the SSPX/Rome negotiation opera.

But still another act to go?

Bp. Fellay may not sign the Doctrinal Preamble, or he may sign it, and “unsign” it the next day. Or he may sign the Doctrinal Preamble, but then come a cropper over a hundred different canonical issues about how the Society will have to operate. Or he may sign the canonical protocol, and then repudiate it the next day. Or he may wait five years until provisional statutes imposed by Rome on SSPX expire, and then take back everything.

The point is that however this particular episode turns out, we should not get too excited over the drama. Anything is possible with SSPX, because its mode of operation for nearly four decades has been praxis without principle.

So if at the end of this latest act, the fat lady does seem to sing, the pyre is lit, the stallion rears up, modernist Valhalla burns in the distance, and the Swiss Rhone (rather than the German Rhine) overflows into the Tiber, don’t be too surprised if the curtain rises for yet another act!

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