Sometimes it is important to cast a glance back to see where you have been, before you decide where you will go.
Courtesy of DICI
The stages of the dialogue between Rome and the SSPX
DICI: Your Excellency, from the very beginning of your discussions with Rome, five years ago, you set two preliminary conditions to any doctrinal discussion. They were: freedom for every Catholic priest to celebrate the Latin Mass and the withdrawal of the decree of excommunication against the bishops of the Society. What are the reasons for these preliminary conditions? Aren’t they just a dilatory maneuver which would enable you to gain time in order to reassure priests and faithful uneasy about a possible rapprochement? Are you not thus running the risk of missing an unhoped-for opportunity of reconciliation?
Bishop Fellay: All such political considerations, I would even say such politicking calculations, are foreign to the spirit of the conversations that the SSPX has been having with Rome ever since Archbishop Lefebvre instigated them. The preliminary conditions I set have for their purpose to create a new atmosphere in the official Church. It would be a first step towards making traditional Catholic life possible again. The present situation has pushed the faithful, confronted with the post-conciliar disasters, to flee their parishes and join the SSPX in spite of the opprobrium attached to traditional priests. No Roman sanction, no bishop’s warning could deter these families from choosing Tradition. That’s a fact. So I asked the pope for public acts in favor of Tradition because our faithful cannot be satisfied with mere words of encouragement. These acts are namely freedom for the traditional Mass and withdrawal of the decree of excommunication. If the news presently rumored in the papers about the withdrawal of the excommunication prove to be true, than we will say that the Sovereign Pontiff took into account one of these two preliminary conditions.
DICI: Are you not asking Rome to solve the crisis with Ecône unilaterally, without any corresponding act on your part?
Bishop Fellay: Not at all. Because the crisis with Ecône does not come first. It only reveals a deeper crisis in Rome itself, and the solution to this major crisis is in Rome’s hands. There is no question for us of trade-union type negotiations, because we do not have any private interest, nor any personal advantage to bargain for. We desire that Rome recover her own Tradition. Ecône is only safeguarding what is first and foremost the patrimony of the universal Church. It belongs to Rome to give back to Tradition its rightful place, full and whole, so that it can then play its part in the solution of the crisis in the Church.
DICI: But the excommunication is a personal situation which affects you and your confreres?
Bishop Fellay: We are asking for the withdrawal of a decree of excommunication to which we never ascribed any canonical validity; otherwise it is obvious that we would not have exercised any ministry, neither conferred priestly ordinations nor confirmations…But we are very much aware of the practical consequences of this decree: it efficiently demonizes Tradition, its prevents traditional priests from doing any good in parishes. If a family calls upon us for a sacrament in the traditional rite, the bishop or the parish priest only has to say: "Do not even think about it, they are excommunicated!". This is how Tradition is concretely neutralized.
The two preliminary conditions: liberalization of the use of Saint Pius V missal and withdrawal of the excommunication – are meant, beyond the traditional faithful, for the good of the whole Church. It is a question of allowing Tradition to recover its right of citizenship in the Church and to prove itself in fieldwork. In this manner we can help Rome to solve the crisis in the Church. These two preliminary conditions work – according to the theological expression – as a removen prohibens, they must remove the interdicts which prevent Tradition from acting practically, pastorally.
DICI: Could clarify your thought?
Bishop Fellay: The traditional Mass being no longer on probation and the ministry of traditional priests no longer clouded by the suspicion of excommunication, we will be able to see the experiment of Tradition at work.
In this experimental phase, which will have to last as long as is necessary for a right evaluation of the results, neither Rome nor the Society would commit themselves in any way. But at the end, Rome will be able to judge the work accomplished by traditional priests from the results. And I have said that the SSPX was ready to receive Roman visitors who could judge its apostolic work on the spot.
DICI: All this is practical and pastoral, now the crisis in the Church is mainly doctrinal. What about the root problems, for instance this religious liberty about which Archbishop Lefebvre expressed his Dubia, his doubts communicated to Cardinal Ratzinger? What about ecumenism to which you devoted a study sent to all the cardinals two years ago?
Bishop Fellay: About the issue of ecumenism, the silence of the cardinals to whom this study was sent is very significant. It shows the gap between us on the doctrinal level. You are quite right to say that the two preliminary conditions have a practical reach, and that is why they constitute the first necessary step before doctrinal issues can be tackled. Indeed, discussions on the root problems begun outside or prior to this pastoral step, seem a priori doomed to failure.
Here it is important to realize that Rome and Ecône – to put things in a nutshell – converge on one point but disagree on another. Today, Roman authorities are aware of the dramatic situation of the Church – indeed it was the future Benedict XVI who said that the Church was like "a boat leaking at every seam", on this point we do agree. But we disagree as to the cause of the crisis. Rome will only consider as the main culprit the secularized hedonist and consumerist society, which ignores or combats the Gospel message. Whereas we affirm that Council Vatican II when opening up to the spirit of the modern world let principles contrary to the Gospel message enter its bosom. Principles such as religious liberty or ecumenism are responsible for the present situation. We mean something quite different from a superprogressist "false interpretation" of the Council.
It is easy to understand that Roman authorities can think but with difficulty of tracing the cause of the crisis back to Vatican II, because it would be tantamount to question the council to which they remain very much attached. And the way things stand, we must acknowledge that no doctrinal discussion is possible, as Michael Matt and John Vennari quite rightly said in a recent joint statement (see the main excerpts from this statement in our Document section. Ed.)
DICI: Can we then surmise that, deep down, you are not seriously considering a dialogue with Rome?
Bishop Fellay: I would rather say that this dialogue must be both doctrinal and practical, with facts to support the theological arguments. Starting from the point upon which Rome and we agree – the common observation of a disastrous crisis –, we must attempt to resolve the disagreement by trying to make Rome admit the real cause of the crisis. The purpose of the doctrinal discussion is to obtain that Rome acknowledge this cause, but given the modernist principles with which Roman authorities are imbued, this discussion cannot take place without the help of a lesson given by the facts themselves. Or more precisely, it cannot be done without considering the concrete work that Tradition can accomplish for a solution to the crisis of vocations, of religious practice…
From our point of view, the results of traditional apostolate will show a contrario where the cause of the crisis lies. This is why these preliminary conditions seems to me to be indispensable for the smooth development of the doctrinal discussions.
The freedom of action given back to Tradition would enable it to prove itself and decide between the two sides, which cannot agree doctrinally on the cause of the crisis. This lesson given by the facts, which we ask Rome to please accept, is based first of all on our faith in the traditional Mass. This Mass in itself demands an integrity of doctrine and of the sacraments which is the pledge of any spiritual fruitfulness for souls.
DICI: Is your course of action shared by most of the priests and faithful attached to Tradition?
Bishop Fellay: Archbishop Lefebvre already used to say that Roman authorities were more sensitive to the figures and facts presented by the SSPX than to theological arguments. Obviously, our founder did not mean to elude a necessary doctrinal discussion. This is why, in this second stage, we would like to submit to Rome the theological arguments supported by the facts of traditional apostolate, before approaching the third stage, i.e. the canonical status of the Society.
It is important to see clearly how these stages in the dialogue follow one upon another in order to understand that we want to neglect neither the speculative or doctrinal aspect, nor the practical or pastoral aspect, any more than we want to ignore realistic prudence and supernatural spirit.
Those who want to mind only the practical or canonical aspect, will consider our doctrinal exigency as a loss of time, and these different stages as dilatory maneuvers. On the other hand, those who want to consider only the speculative aspect will find that our pastoral preliminary conditions are sidestepping the root issues, and they will say that this dialogue is the beginning of a compromise with modernism. Both are right in what they affirm, but wrong in what they deny. We must both affirm the necessary lesson from the facts and the indispensable doctrinal discussion.
DICI: What then? Is the canonical agreement to be postponed indefinitely?
Bishop Fellay: There is talk of apostolic administration, personal prelature, ordinariate… All this seems premature. To desire an immediate canonical agreement at any cost would expose us to see an immediate resurgence of the problems opposing us to Rome, and the agreement would at once become null and void. The regularization of our canonical status must come last, as if to seal an agreement previously achieved, at least in its essentials, on the level of principles, thanks to the facts observed by Rome.
Besides, let us imagine for a moment that we accept a canonical structure only to consider the doctrinal issues afterwards – inside, in the "visible perimeter" of the dioceses –, we would not be able to accomplish our ministry with all its pastoral efficacy. The practical conditions would not be there to allow a full and entire lesson from the facts, i.e. a convincing lesson. As such is already the case with the Ecclesia Dei communities, our traditional apostolate would be on probation, and allowed to show itself parsimoniously here and there, in dribs and drabs.
The crux of the question is whether the tragic situation of the Church today – the impressive crisis of vocations, the drastic drop of religious practice – allows her to be satisfied with remedies so sparingly applied.