What Happened to the Dialogue between Rome and the SSPX?

This post has been a long time coming.  It recounts much of what ought to be clear to the careful observer, but since it runs contrary to the popular narrative this documentation is in order.  I wish to put to rest the fatuous misrepresentations of the dialogue between Rome and the Society of St. Pius X.

My account is by no means complete, but neither does it omit the pertinent facts. A separate analysis could be devoted to the various nuances of positions represented within the Society.  The Society is by no means a homogeneous group and admits of degrees of intensity in regard to the “hardline.”  It is certainly true that there was more sympathy within the Society towards the Pope Benedict’s efforts at reconciliation than was often manifested in the media.  However, for several reasons, I do not think it is necessary to attend to these nuances in order to bring to light the aspects of the history that are often ignored.  First of all, this is so because it is what the leaders of the SSPX think that is decisive.  The opinions of individual members do not represent the Society per se.  On the other hand, what the leaders, particularly Bishop Fellay, set down is policy.  Secondly, the nuances are not essential to this account because the position of Bishop Fellay is relatively moderate within the SSPX.  In fact, he was greatly criticized by many members for his willingness to consider a doctrinal agreement at all.

Correcting Rome

In 2006, Bishop Fellay was asked whether he was serious about entering into dialogue with Rome, and he answered that the purpose for entering into dialogue was to get Rome to admit that the real cause of the crisis within the Church was Vatican II. Then in early 2011, just two years before the retirement of Pope Benedict, he reiterated this, distinguishing between the purpose Rome had for the dialogue and the purpose of the Society.  Rome’s purpose was to clear up the doctrinal problems with the SSPX and the Society’s purpose was

to tell Rome what the Church has always taught and thereby to show the contradictions between this centuries-old teaching and what has been done in the Church since the Council. As we look at it, this is the only goal that we are pursuing.

But then on September 14, 2011, Cardinal Levada from the CDF presented Bishop Fellay with a doctrinal preamble for his consideration and eventual signature, which the CDF proposed as the means of gaining canonical status. This began a series of extremely important exchanges between the Society and Rome, which ultimately led to the breakdown of the dialogue in December of 2012. The doctrinal preamble was a game changer, because only six months prior to its introduction Bishop Fellay had declared that his only purpose for continuing the dialogue was to point out Rome’s errors.  Now, the Holy See and Pope Benedict were making a concrete proposal that would force decisive action upon the SSPX.  The Society was being offered canonical status in exchange for its willingness to accept the hermeneutic of continuity.  The SSPX could not ignore this proposal.

The Society responded to the proposal on December 21, 2011 with what the CDF characterized as “documentation” rather than a reply.    Less than a month before this submission, Bishop Fellay had indicated in an interview that the preamble was ambiguous and would require further clarification, not only for the good of the Society, but for the good of the whole Church.  He indicated that the larger ecclesiastical impact was a fundamental motive guiding the Society’s involvement in the dialogue.  He said that the discussions concerning the preamble gave the Society the opportunity “to present straightforwardly the principal points of the Council that cause difficulties in light of the Church’s Tradition.”

Outside Help

In this context, Bishop Fellay invoked the work of those who have been the topic of my criticism here many times before, namely, Mons. Brunero Gherardini and Roberto de Mattei.  He specifically mentioned the book of Mons. Gherardini published by the Franciscan Friars of the Immaculate, Ecumenical Council Vatican II:  A Much-Needed Discussion, as well as the conference on Vatican II sponsored by the Franciscan Friars of the Immaculate, which was opened and closed by papers delivered by Gherardini. He also made reference to the petition to Benedict XVI for an in-depth examination of the Council, signed by many Italian Catholic intellectuals, and spearheaded by Mons. Gherardini and Roberto de Mattei, which was also published by the Franciscan Friars of the Immaculate in the appendix to Gherardini’s book.

He concluded these remarks concerning the discussion of the doctrinal preamble with Rome in the following way:

All these initiatives, all these interventions clearly show that the Society of St. Pius X is not alone in seeing the doctrinal problems that Vatican II poses.  This movement is extending and it can no longer be stopped.

Modified Preamble

Not surprisingly, then, the CDF was dissatisfied with the “response” of December 21, 2011, so Fellay responded more substantively the following month.  On March 16, 2012 the CDF delivered its reply, which was that Fellay’s proposal was “not sufficient to overcome the doctrinal problems that are at the basis of the rift between the Holy See and the aforesaid Society.”  The CDF’s reply also stated the following:

At the conclusion of today’s meeting, out of a concern for avoiding an ecclesial rupture with painful and incalculable consequences, the Superior General of the Society of Saint Pius X was invited to be so kind as to clarify his position so as to heal the existing rift, as Pope Benedict XVI wished.

The SSPX met the April 15, 2012 deadline for its response by submitting a modified version of the doctrinal preamble.  The difference between the version proposed by Rome and the one modified by Bishop Fellay was clear and decisive.  It was not a minor difference as reported in many places.  Rome required the Society to accept that Vatican II was in continuity with Tradition, and to aid in the comprehension of this.  Bishop Fellay insisted on the right of the Society to challenge the continuity of the Council with Tradition.


This is where everything gets sketchy.  It is clear from all the above that Bishop Fellay never intended to sign an agreement that had any teeth.   And it is also clear that the CDF never intended to capitulate on the doctrinal question. Indeed, the whole introduction of the doctrinal preamble into the dialogue in order to force the hand of the Society, indicates that the Holy See was offering a concrete proposal of reconciliation only on the condition of a doctrinal shift on the part of the Society.

However, the rumor was now out that an agreement had been reached and reconciliation was only weeks away.  But the fact is that, while Fr. Lombardi, head of the Vatican Press Office, said that Fellay’s response was “encouraging,” he also indicated that the modified preamble would have to be examined by the CDF and submitted also to Pope Benedict for his examination and approval.

But Bishop Fellay was much more optimistic than this.  By the end of May, 2012, he was convinced that Pope Benedict wanted the reconciliation so bad that he was willing to give the Society whatever it wanted, including its version of the preamble.   Indeed, on June 8, 2012, Bishop Fellay claimed that Rome no longer cared about a doctrinal agreement.  When he was asked about his attempts to “convert” Rome by means of the discussions about the doctrinal preamble, he replied:

It must be acknowledged that these discussions have allowed us to present clearly the various problems that we experience with regard to Vatican II.  What has changed is the fact that Rome no longer makes total acceptance of Vatican II a prerequisite for the canonical solution.  Today, in Rome, some people regard a different understanding of the Council as something that is not decisive for the future of the Church, since the Church is more than the Council.  Indeed, the Church cannot be reduced to the Council; she is much larger.  Therefore we must strive to resolve more far-reaching problems.  This new awareness can help us to understanding what is really happening:  we are called to help bring to others the treasure of Tradition that we have been able to preserve.

Anonymous Sources

Later on, after the dialogue had collapsed, Bishop Fellay claimed that during the period between his submission of the modified preamble and he CDF’s response (April 15 –June 13, 2012), he was being assured by unnamed sources very close to Pope Benedict that what the CDF thought did nor really matter because Pope Benedict was determined to regularize the Society on its own terms.  The only source we have for this information is Bishop Fellay, and he admits that his unnamed sources were speaking off the record on their own authority.  There was nothing remotely official about any of this.  In fact, all the official records of the Vatican indicate nothing of the sort.

Then on June 13, 2012, Cardinal Levada of the CDF rejected the modification of the preamble proposed by Bishop Fellay and resubmitted for his signature the original version.  Bishop Fellay indicated that he could not sign such a document and then wrote to Pope Benedict to discover if the CDF really had the Holy Father’s support for this stricter version of the preamble.  Pope Benedict replied in a personal letter in which, according to Fellay himself, the Holy Father not only affirmed that he had agreed to the strengthening of the text of the preamble (55:10), but he also insisted on three points: 1) the SSPX must accept that it is the magisterium which is the judge of what is traditional or not; 2) the SSPX must accept that the Council is an integral part of Tradition; 3) the SSPX must accept that the New Mass is valid and licit  (54:43-56:39).

The End 

This was virtually the end of the dialogue, though this end slowly unwound over the course of nearly another year.  By the end of 2012, shortly after having received the impassioned plea of Archbishop di Noia for reconsideration, and just before the final request of Ecclesia Dei for a positive response to its proposal, Bishop Fellay gave a public conference on the state of the situation with Rome. In that conference he called Vatican II, not a council of the Church but that of the enemies of the Church, namely, “the Jews, the Masons and the Modernists” (1:18:23-1:20:06).  He also said that the question of the liceity of the Novus Ordo was irrelevant because it was just plain evil (56:30-39).

But at the same time Bishop Fellay took consolation in the fact that the number of bishops and priests clandestinely in agreement with the SSPX was growing. He said that enormous progress had been made over the last five years, and that he was even getting requests from bishops to have the SSPX preach at priests’ retreats (1:14:00-1:16:15).  He thus encouraged the members of the Society to continue fighting, without fear, but also without being imprudent.  He did not anticipate a resolution to the conflict in the near future, because, as he openly admitted, the pope, that is, Benedict XVI was not on their side.  He said that until the pope was “absolutely convinced of the necessity of Tradition” reconciliation would not be possible (1:16:15-1:18:05).

The Inconvenient Facts

This irrefutably shows that before Pope Benedict uttered a word about his resignation the dialogue with Rome had already been effectively abandoned by the SSPX.  And for this, Bishop Fellay held Pope Benedict responsible for not having defended Tradition.  It cannot be emphasized enough that the dialogue failed because Bishop Fellay and the SSPX never intended to modify their doctrinal position and remained intransigent in direct opposition to Pope Benedict.

All this places in context the subsequent June 27, 2013 declaration of the SSPX, the ultimate response of the Society to the Holy See’s proposal for reconciliation.  It simply reiterates and renews the commitment of the Society to all the principles is has held since Archbishop Lefebvre consecrated the four bishops.  The document accuses the conciliar and postconciliar magisterium of modernism and an abandonment of the reign of Christ the King.  It reiterates the Society’s rejection of the conciliar doctrine on religious liberty and ecumenism, as well as the conciliar doctrine of collegiality.  It says that the New Mass is based on “false theology.”  Thus, after the failure of the dialogue, the Society expresses no regrets. On the contrary, it continues to maintain the full justification for the episcopal consecrations of 1988.

Within a few months of the declaration, Bishop Fellay went even further, declaring Pope Francis to be a “genuine Modernist.” In addition he said that the dialogue had ended with presentation of a too strict doctrinal agreement, which he refused to sign precisely because he could not accept Pope Benedict’s hermeneutic of continuity.  He said:

it is not true.  It is against reality.  So we do not accept it.  The Council is not in continuity with Tradition.  It is not.  So when Pope Benedict requested that we accept that the Second Vatican Council is an integral part of Tradition, we say, “sorry, that’s not the reality, so we’re not going to sign it.  We’re not going to recognize that.

Users Guide

So the next time a crypto-lefebvrist says that the there is very little that the SSPX actually rejects of Vatican II, or that Pope Benedict was sympathetic to the SSPX position and wanted to reconcile them without an agreement, or if someone claims that Pope Benedict is the one who invited a “permanent interrogation” of Vatican II, just show them this. Particularly, if anyone suggests that it would be a great thing to reconcile the SSPX without an agreement, and then they say that they really do not share the outlook of the Society, but just want to see them do some good within the Church, you know what to do.

A little dose of reality goes a long way.  The crypto-Lefebvfrians could use a bit of cold reality splashed in their faces once in while.


15 thoughts on “What Happened to the Dialogue between Rome and the SSPX?

  1. Thank you, Father, for this very insightful explanation. Pride and self righteousness are truly the most destructive of all sins. Nothing is more effective at blocking the work of the Holy Spirit. I think this ordeal with the SSPX is one of the major reasons why Pope Benedict XVI was so worn out by the papacy that he actually resigned. He put so much of himself out there, and you have shown, the Society never intended to meet the Pope even halfway. They, in effect, spit in his face and continue to do so with Pope Francis, as do many Traditionalists.

    I have only given your post a quick read through and intend to look at it more closely. Thank you again.

  2. Thank you father. Every time I read your blog I feel like I have finally heard the truth. So many opinions and so much confusion out there and when I read you it all just makes sense! Recently I was trying to figure out why I like coming here so often. I feel safe on this site. Your obedience father, makes me feel safe.

  3. Thank you Father Angelo, once again, for bringing all the facts into the discussion. You are always getting us the detail surrounding both sides of this heated argument.

    Beautiful, the mercy Pope Benedict the XVI has bestowed on the SSPX. May heaven reward him, and you, for your many sacrifices in bringing us this full story.

  4. It seems obvious and indisputable to me that the Pope is the ultimate authority to discern what is part of Tradition and what isn’t. It also seems fairly clear that the New Mass is both valid and licit. So I’ll leave those two aside.

    There’s something I’ve been confused about regarding this discussion for a long time. This is phrased in terms of Rome asking the SSPX for a doctrinal change, but the absolute continuity of the Council with tradition does not seem to be a doctrine. Yes, I’m aware that the Christmas Address of 2005 was given in a magisterial context, but a speech to the Roman Curia is the not environment where Popes give binding doctrinal clarifications. All that the council itself asks us to do is to “accept and embrace those parts which have been explicitly stated by the Council to be binding on the Church inasmuch as they are still the teaching of the Church’s supreme magisterium” (cf. Appendix). This is religious submission of mind and will and not fides credenda or fides tendenda. If they are “not binding on the Church”, this implies that the Church’s Supreme Magisterium herself could reexamine them at some point. It also implies that one can have a private opinion about them without becoming a heretic.

    At any rate, it seems to me that Rome should first declare that it IS a tendenda doctrina that the Council is in absolute continuity with tradition before making Catholics sign a document to that effect as a condition for canonical recognition.

    Furthermore, what does it mean to say that the Second Vatican Council is “an integral part of Tradition” (capital ‘T’). Read LITERALLY, this could only indicate that an integral part of Tradition was missing prior to Vatican II, or else the word “integral” does not really mean “integral”. Vatican II most certainly cannot be an “integral part of Tradition”, or else Tradition would have been incomplete prior to Vatican II. At best it can be a genuine expression and interpretation of Tradition and a reform of tradition in fidelity to Tradition.

    It seems to me that we MUST hold, profess, and believe that Tradition and the Deposit of Faith was already complete before the council, even if greater clarity could be reached through further reflection and authoritative pronouncements. E.G. Pius XI was not being unfaithful to Tradition by restating the tradition of prohibiting the giving of Extreme Unction to Christians who are not part of the Catholic Church, therefore communicatio in sacris recommended by the Council, which certainly reversed an ancient tradition, must not be part of Tradition, and one who disapproves of the sharing of sacraments cannot be accused of being disobedient to Tradition, but at most disobedient to Vatican II and the post-conciliar magisterium.

    If Vatican II is “an integral part of Tradition”, then I suppose one cannot question it without questioning Tradition, but it seems (as in the communicatio in sacris example) that one CAN question parts of it while being unquestionably faithful to Tradition. And that really gets to the heart of the matter, because there is an awful lot in Vatican II that is not doctrinal, and Vatican II never explicitly says that it is introducing anything new that is binding on the Church (to my knowledge), but the Appendix explicitly says that nothing is binding on the Church unless that authority is explicitly invoked. So if certain elements were revisited in the future, e.g. communicatio in sacris or the extent of religious liberty, it would not cause a doctrinal crisis. And if the Church can reexamine some of these questions at a future time, then it is strange to make accepting them a pre-condition for union with the Church.

    • Correction: The paraphrase of the Appendix above should have read: ““accept and embrace ALSO those parts which have NOT been explicitly stated by the Council to be binding on the Church inasmuch as they are still the teaching of the Church’s supreme magisterium” (cf. Appendix).

      I forgot the word ‘not’ when I was typing it up.

    • To expand on my example a little bit. The problem of continuity in the teaching regarding communicatio in sacris is aptly presented in this article from Fr. Thomas Crean. Fr. Crean argues that the letter of UR is not explicitly contrary to the traditional understanding, even if the mood is. It cannot be denied, however, that how UR was implemented in the Ecumenical Directory is directly contrary to the traditional understanding. What should a proponent of continuity make of this? The interpretation favored by the Holy See is not in continuity. We have three options:
      (1) Accept the interpretation of the Holy See and posit that V2 corrected the tradition [but this is a form of discontinuity].
      (2) Reject the interpretation of the Holy See and posit that Vatican II must be interpreted in continuity, even if this means interpreting it contrary to the Holy See’s favored interpretation.
      (3) Deny that there is a contradiction either by stating that the material circumstances have changed and the same idea is instantiated in different ways, or by stating that this was never a doctrinal matter but a disciplinary matter and the doctrine admits to flexibility, or by saying that the Ecumenical Directory represents an organic development that makes sense in the light of the history.

      Regardless of which option we take, we take, this example makes it clear that the Church has not told us what the continuity consists in, and we are left to make our own judgements about many aspects of continuity and discontinuity based off of the best research and the best arguments. In a situation such as this, very little should be asked of those who maintain the entire deposit of faith, even if they at times fail to see the continuity that Benedict XVI seemed to see.


      • I believe that this is the key:

        It is clear that in all these sectors, which all together form a single problem, some kind of discontinuity might emerge. Indeed, a discontinuity had been revealed but in which, after the various distinctions between concrete historical situations and their requirements had been made, the continuity of principles proved not to have been abandoned. It is easy to miss this fact at a first glance

        It seems to me that you presume too much, when you say that little should be required of those who “maintain the entire deposit of faith.” No, Catholics should be required to accept the pastoral authority of the Church and apply perennial doctrine in new circumstances. Theological discourse is one thing. Positive opposition is another.

        There are countless inequalities and anomalies in the history of doctrine, though I grant that Vatican II presents a particularly prolific problem. But the argument Pope Benedict makes is that the principles are maintained and the applications are what change, based on historical circumstances.

        Doctrine does not change, but the reasons why a document might be promulgated are matters of history and this influences their expression and what they emphasize. Pope’s do not necessarily foresee the future, and it is up to their successors to take the deposit of the faith and apply it. It is the Pope who must ultimately decided what expression of the magisterium represents dogma, and that which represents application. Theologians may have good reason to argue about particulars, but it is not up to them to decide in the final analysis.

    • Joseph Anthony,

      The sticking point of the preamble is not about what one may or may not personally believe, it is about what an society seeking ecclesiastical regularization and a mandate for ministry may promote. the Church is not going to grant canonical status to a society that is sure to publicly oppose the sitting pope and the teaching of an ecumenical council. This seems so obvious to me.

      The PECD protocol we spoke of before defines a lower standard because it simply concerns those individuals who may legitimately request to have implemented the provisions of SP. It is not about the canonical status of an entire society and an ecclesiastically approved ministry.

      If the Pope had accepted Bishop Fellay’s version of the preamble the latter certainly would have used the document as a justification for what the Society did as a matter of its own policy to oppose the Council. He would have argued that the Church approved his ministry to oppose the Council.

  5. Precisely how far is the SSPX willing to go? I ask because it seems to me that Fellay and company are daring the pope to excommunicate them. What could the intention of people be, that publicly say that the Council is heretical, that the mass is evil and the pope is a heretic, if they are not purposely attempting to provoke the pope? I can only conclude that their motivations are far more political than theological. No Catholic can hold those positions and remain Catholic, and they know it. They can’t not. If they do not come to their senses soon I have a feeling thay they are going to get what they are asking for.

  6. Pingback: I Believe in Ghosts, or Even More on Crypto-Lefebvrism | Mary Victrix

  7. Here is what I have never understood: Why did Rome, at the conclusion of the discussions with the SSPX, not simply explain how we are to reconcile with tradition the portions of the Council documents to which the SSPX objects? Why does Rome not spell out exactly how the “hermeneutic of continuity” demonstrates that no contradictions exist?

  8. It is a pity that in spite of all that you have said, Father, that Bishop Fellay contradicts it by going to Rome in December 2013. If Bishop Fellay was sincere, why did he go to Rome at all with a “modernist” Pope like Pope Francis.

    Secondly, how could Bishop Fellay offer the scandalous Doctrinal Declaration of April 15th 2012 as a compromise to what the Vatican wanted him to sign? He has admitted that it was too subtle and ambiguous. How can you justify an ambiguous statement which, had Rome signed and agreed, subjected the SSPX to Rome’s interpretation of the april 15th declaration.

    .Thirdly, after giving thanks for the Motu Proprio 2007, which reduced the Tridentine Mass to an extraordinary rite (with the N.O. Mass as the ordinary acceptable rite), how can the leader of Tradition not see that he was being led into a trap? Moreover, Bishop Fellay asked for the REMOVAL of the excommunications and received a lifting ( in other words, a suspended sentence) of the unjust excommunications. He gave thanks when a few years ago, Bishop Fellay regarded them as invalid. What has changed?

    Rome has not changed. They still call the shots and the little SSPX led by Bishop Fellay is doing its best to keep positive. Moreover, where there had been a hard line against the N.O Mas and Vatican II, Bishop Fellay told a Vatican official that, had Archbishop Lefebvre seen the N.O. Mass celebrated as in this chapel (details are online) , he would not have taken the steps he did in 1988.

    Bishop Fellay has also stated that the SSPX accepts 95% of Vatican II. Does he not realise that even 5% heresy makes a document heretical? Henry VII of England, Martin Luther, Jean Calvin wrote writings taht were mostly Catholic, yet had hersies in them. For those hersies, their writings were condemned by the church. The same with Vatican II.

    These statements by the Superior General are justified by him and to put the cat well among the pigeons, Bishop Fellay will then contradict himself weeks and months later. Thse statements ressure the faithful for a while. Then he contradicts himself again. When will the Superior General speak clearly and stick to his line instead of speaking in ambigious terms.

    It is high time for this charade to end. Is he working for an agreement with an unrepentant, modern ecumenical Rome, or is he rejecting all contact with the aforementioned authorities until they convert and show their conversion by their fruits

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