Everybody and his dog now knows that Bishop Fellay will be received by Cardinal Levada on 14 September this year, and Bishop Fellay has sketched out what the meeting will be about:
The truth is that Cardinal Levada has called me to Rome and it appears that it will be around the middle of September. That’s the only thing I know. It’s about the discussions we had with Rome. After these discussions, it had been said that “the documents will be given to the higher authorities.” These are the exact words. That’s the only thing I know about the future. All the rest is made up. Please don’t run after these rumors.
Dici, the SSPX's information outlet, gives more details here about the meeting which, it says, will aim 'first to make an assessment of the theological discussions conducted by the experts of the Congregation for the Faith and of the Society of Saint Pius X over the past two academic years, and then to consider the future prospects' (emphasis in the original).
With our baby due imminently and a new job just started, I won't have time to blog about this nearer the date, so these few lines are simply to reflect on what this meeting might signify.
Nobody knows yet exactly what the talks have covered, apart from the basic topics. For all we know, the papers are unlikely ever to be published. What we want to know, however, is what is going to happen now. The SSPX stipulated quite some time ago that no practical agreement with Rome was possible without there being a serious discussion of doctrine. Indeed, while this stipulation might have been couched in rather diplomatic language, the real meaning of these talks for the SSPX was that they would show Rome what the errors of the Council are, i.e. what the errors of the current incumbent of the Holy See and those under him actually are.
This is an important nuance to grasp. While he believed there were errors in the Council, Archbishop Lefebvre talked about the possibility of understanding the Council 'in the light of Tradition'. Bishop Fellay and the SSPX's theologians have believed for some time now that understanding the Council thus is not even possible since the least admixture of error with truth unavoidably harms the truth. Bishop Tissier de Mallerais has even talked before about erasing the Council from the history of the Church.
Now, - and I realise I'm going on a dangerously speculative limb here! - if we take it for granted that the SSPX's dream solution is not about to be realised by the highest authorities of the Church, and if we likewise take it for granted that the SSPX is not about to change its tack and admit that Rome has the final word on matters of doctrinal dispute, what else might happen at the end of these discussions which are by their very nature surely unique and unrepeatable? Several possible scenarios spring to mind:
1. Absolutely nothing. The SSPX are not about to change their modus operandi, their interpretation of the Council or their rejection of Vatican II with all its works and pomps. The Vatican, for its part, is known to be gifted at the long game and may choose simply to let things be until a new generation takes over the leadership of the SSPX - one not directly and personally implicated in the episcopal consecrations of 1988. The problem with this solution from Rome's point of view is that, sooner or later - probably within the next ten to fifteen years - the SSPX will again consecrate its own bishops. It is already operating with only three of its usual four, and none of them are getting any younger.
2. A CDF analysis and condemnation of the SSPX's theological position. In spite of the culture of admonishing rather than condemning, over the last few decades the CDF or the Holy Father have issued analyses and condemnations of various theological positions, notably liberation theology, the theology of Jacques Dupuis, the various ethical theories condemned in Veritatis Splendor and in other encyclicals, etc. The CDF is now in a better position than it ever has been to explain and analyse the SSPX's theology, so why not tease out exactly what has gone wrong with it? Indeed, why not use such an analysis to highlight what they have got right? The problem with this eventuality is that the traditionalist movement is a hodge-podge of views, and such a clarification might only be able to hit certain targets. I also doubt the Pope's willingness to have recourse to such a step if it were judged that most of the SSPX's followers would simply ignore the condemnation anyway. And as Pope Benedict knows, when it comes to condemning theological errors, there are many bigger fish out there to fry.
3. The transformation of the FSSP into an ordinariate. I am told that the SSPX has already said no to an ordinariate as a purely practical solution of their situation. Well, if that is so, why couldn't Rome grant to the FSSP the same status, with bishops and canonical self-sufficiency, by way of launching the traditionalist lifeboat that the SSPX has already said no to? It is not so long since Rowan Williams woke up to find the tanks of the Vatican parked on the lawns of Lambeth Palace. It would be entirely in keeping with Pope Benedict's ability to hatch dramatic coups to offer to the FSSP what the SSPX have already turned down and look like they will never accept, unless it is on their own fanciful terms. The problem with this is that it would signify a clear break with the body of estranged traditionalists in France (not to mention Germany), many of whom regard the FSSP as a gang of spineless ralliés. I'm sure the Pope is intent on trying to recuperate as many people - to rescue as many sheep - as possible from this sorry mess, not least because the SSPX's priests could be an immense force for good in a Church where error, ignorance and irregularity can be found from Poland to Brasil. Surely, there would also be opposition from within the Church to this eventuality. Solving the SSPX's situation is about solving a tangible division; boosting the FSSP's position might look like undue favoritism.
Well, those scenarios far from exhaust the possibilities. Who knows eventually what will happen except for God? My certainties are
1. that the SSPX will not change or even mollify their position and,
2. the Vatican will not throw out the Council.
And so, we come back to the endgame which I wrote about in February. This clash of wills cannot be resolved except by a solution which allows for the Holy See to serve the Church as it is meant to: by having the final word. There is no other solution attested by history:
The final criterion is what it has always been: the final criterion is the faith of the Church of Rome articulated by the Bishop of that holy, ancient See. This is not primarily a juridico-canonical category - though it is that - so much as the corollary of a charism which the Church perpetually needs. We are not talking about a production line of infallible statements here, but just the practical acceptance that the Magisterium of the Pastors (notably of the chief pastor) has priority over the Magisterium of the Theologians (be they in the SSPX or Tubingen); it is the practical acceptance that all charismatic action in the Church (which we might kindly interpret the SSPX's action to have been) must be subject to the hierarchy. Under that umbrella there is immense freedom to criticise, debate and discuss. With that umbrella, indeed, we can have a thumping great debate about the new liturgy, religious liberty and ecumenism, as long as the rules of charity, honesty and patience are observed.
But without that umbrella there is never ANY endgame to ANY doctrinal discussion. Without that umbrella, discussion is only over when I, me, moi, your truly - or every individual from Bishop Fellay to Hans Kung and Mrs Miggens of The Tablet - say it is over.
In other words, without that criterion in the Church we are condemned to fragmentation. This is the lesson of history.
BY WAY OF A PS
I have just read another Dinoscopus letter from Bishop Williamson talking about the Vatican Insider's view of the outcome of the doctrinal talks. Therein Bishop Williamson again repeats his view that the issue is one of Catholic Truth. According to his rather threadbare metaphor, the SSPX believes 2+2=4; the Vatican believes it equals 5. Bishop Williamson repeats this ad nauseam and never seems to show the least sign of realising that he is turning the theological differences between Rome and the SSPX into a blackbox the inside of which we cannot examine.
So let us take just one example and try to explain the complexity of the issues to the good bishop and those who agree with him:
1. There is no definitive Magisterial teaching which condemns the New Mass. Fact.
2. Everyone who finds fault with the New Mass must therefore make a theological argument based on other teachings about the Mass and apply those teachings to the New Mass.
3. Where there is a theological argument, there is room for individual error and there is the potential for theological disagreement.
4. When there is theological disagreement in the Church, and this disagreement reaches critical proportions, it is the Holy See which has the final say.
5. The final say on the Catholic character of the New Mass rests with the Holy See.
It is entirely a misrepresentation of the problem to reduce it to some simple mathematical equation.