Of all the initiatives taken by Pope Francis, the most surprising is his latest effort to reconcile with Traditionalist Catholics—especially given their relentless criticisms of him as a progressive and even a “Modernist.” But the Pope has a generous heart.
In 2013, Francis gave a surprise phone call to Mario Palmaro, a traditionalist Catholic writer who the Pope had heard was gravely ill. When Palmaro received the call, he was stunned—not least because he had just co-written a sharp op-ed piece, for a prominent Italian daily, entitled, “The Reason Why We Don’t Like this Pope.”
But Francis wasn’t upset—saying he understood the critique was motivated by “love for the Pope”—and expressed far more concern about Mario’s well-being. Palmaro, who sadly would die in 2014, didn’t withdraw his concerns about Francis, but he did balance them with praise: “Pope Francis wanted to act as a priest. … [H]e is a very special priest and bishop, by calling me and paying attention to my health.”
More recently, Francis met with Bishop Bernard Fellay, head of the traditionalist Society of St. Pius X (SSPX), for a friendly discussion at the Vatican. No one knows where it may lead, but both promised to meet again, and there is renewed hope that a long-awaited reunion may finally be at hand.
Ever since the late Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, founder of the Society, consecrated four bishops in 1988—against the expressed will of St. John Paul II—the Society and the Vatican have been at odds, to put it mildly. The Archbishop’s illicit consecrations provoked a schism, the excommunication of Lefebvre and his four episcopal colleagues, and nearly thirty years of intense controversy. At issue have always been Vatican II’s teachings on religious liberty, ecumenism, and non-Christian religions, along with the Church’s modern liturgical reforms, which the Society believes are inconsistent with Catholic tradition. Yet, even during their darkest moments, the Vatican and the Society never completely severed relations, as Fellay recently noted in an important interview with reporter Edward Pentin. The Society maintains that Lefebvre never really wanted to break with Rome and denies it has ever actually been in schism.
Private talks through unofficial channels continued behind the scenes. Relations grew warmer in the year 2000, during a Holy Year in Rome, and reached two turning points—in 2007 and 2009—when Pope Benedict first issued Summorum Pontificum, expanding celebration of the traditional Latin Mass (which the Society reveres) and then lifted the 1988 excommunications against the Society’s leaders.
After Francis was elected, many Catholics assumed that he would be far less sympathetic to Traditionalist Catholics than Benedict. But now it seems possible, if not probable, that Francis might actually be the pope who brings the Traditionalists home.
Francis began his rapprochement toward the Society last year, when, in light of the Jubilee Year of Mercy, he announced that all Catholics who “approach these priests of the Fraternity of St. Pius X to celebrate the Sacrament of reconciliation shall validly and licitly receive the absolution of their sins”—something Rome had not authorized until then.
Francis also spoke well of the Society’s priests, despite their irregular status:
From various quarters, several Brother Bishops have told me of their good faith and sacramental practice, combined however, with an uneasy situation from the pastoral standpoint. I trust that in the near future solutions may be found to recover full communion with the priests and superiors of the Fraternity. (emphasis added)
It seems the Holy See no longer believes that the Society is in schism and may be willing to offer it the status of a personal prelature in order to help heal the rupture. If the projected reconciliation does come about, three segments of the Church will be put to the test.
The first will be Catholics who have been hostile to the Latin Mass (and are still upset about Benedict’s Summorum Pontificum) and toward anyone calling himself a Traditionalist Catholic. Despite frequent talk in the Church about the need for more “dialogue” and “acceptance” among believers in irregular situations, a number of “progressive” Catholics—in contrast to Francis—don’t want any dialogue, much less a reconciliation, with the Society of St Pius X. If the Pope brings one about, will these “open-minded” Catholics practice what they preach, and welcome the Society home—or continue to shun and disparage them as unenlightened reactionaries?
The second segment will of course be the Society of St. Pius X itself. If the Vatican goes so far as to offer them all they desire for reconciliation, will the Society reciprocate and live up to the terms of the agreement, which is bound to include some form of obedience to the Holy See, and support for the essential teachings of Vatican II? Will they respect Catholics who prefer the New Mass to the Old, and are comfortable with the post-Conciliar Church?
Finally, if a reconciliation comes about, Pope Francis will be under intense scrutiny, because if it doesn’t work out, Catholics who warned him not to take the step will say, “I told you so,” and blame him for having been naïve about the rebellious history of the SSPX.
Francis, however, is willing to take that risk, because he cares so deeply about Catholics still living in partial separation from the Church.For the sake of the Church, and the good of so many, one hopes and prays the Pope’s bold mission succeeds.
William Doino Jr. is a contributor to Inside the Vatican magazine, among many other publications, and writes often about religion, history and politics. He contributed an extensive bibliography of works on Pius XII to The Pius War: Responses to the Critics of Pius XII. His previous articles can be found here.