As most readers will be aware, this weekend marks the deadline for the SSPX to offer clarifications concerning its position to the Vatican.
The statement of Cardinal Levada of 16 March had made us aware that there was still some distance to go. Fr Ray Blake has offered his thoughts on the matter, and Rorate Caeli relates one report in the French press which is amazingly optimistic about an eventual deal. The original is here (in case Rorate pulls its frequent trick of deleting the post).
Fr Blake enjoyed the article of John Lamont on Chiesa. Personally, I found it a little ... er ... tautological. Maybe it's the hour (10.50pm). Maybe it's his style. There appears to be great optimism among cetain people. Others cannot see what could possibly impede an agreement now. Lamont remarks that, at a rough calculation of percentages, the SSPX adheres to a much greater proportion of Vatican II's teachings than most Catholic theologians in institutions in North America, Europe and Australasia. So surely, an agreement cannot be far away!
Dear reader, I find myself divided on the issue. Personally, I hope for a resolution, a deal which would somehow legitimise the SSPX's position and enable their regularisation. That is my heart talking. With my head, I'm afraid I see no posibility of a deal even in the medium term, let alone the short term. May all parties decide to play the game of "cheat the prophet" to deprive me of the satisfaction of anticipating the outcome of Sunday's deadline. Still, as things stand now, my counsel is to pray for the best and expect the worst.
But what is the worst? Various fears have been voiced. The Vatican on 16 March stated that it wished to "avoid an ecclesial rupture with painful and incalculable consequences" - the outcome, presumably, of the SSPX's non-compliance. Some people have evoked the possiblity of a re-excommunication of the SSPX's bishops, and possibly even of the faithful who attend Mass at the SSPX's chapels. One venerable professor of Santa Croce in Rome has said that if the SSPX did not agree to make a deal, it would no longer be a question of schism but now of heresy.
Personally, I think that is all talk. If we have no deal rather than a deal, I don't think for a minute that Benedict's Rome will embitter the situation with punitive measures. There is no point throwing out the baby with the bath water, and Benedict is all too aware of the quality of many of the SSPX's cadres to resort to the rubbish tip solution. These are desperate times elsewhere in the Church, in case you had forgotten.
No, if there is no deal, the worst that can happen is that things will simply return to the erstwhile situation of stalemate, but with this difference: that there will be no point recommencing negotiations until there is some change in the fundamental positions of the parties. Bishop Fellay, in his sermon of 2 February this year, evoked the possibility of having to wait for another generation; until - this is my gloss - those who had pinned their careers on the Vatican II legacy had passed on. Surprisingly, he does not follow the same logic through: that if he must wait for the old guard to pass away, he or his successors risk at the same time having to negotiate with a new generation of clergy who will be attached to Vatican II not personally but because it sits within the Church's tradition. Bishop Fellay hasn't calculated that they may prove even more stubborn about its legacy than their predecessors. It's all very well comforting themselves that a new generation of more traditionally minded clergy are on the way; this new generation is also likely to be marked by a strong authoritarianism, the reaction to several decades of episcopal invertebrates.
Bishop Fellay is naturally doing some thinking about the next generation of SSPX priests, but ... well, it's difficult, isn't it? In his sermon of 2 February he insisted to those who were going to receive the cassock that the SSPX wants to remain utterly faithful to Rome. But what does that mean if, for all practical purposes, they have very little to do with Rome? Just how can a Roman spirit be preserved? In fact, is it not more likely that if Bishop Fellay maintains his current course - a course which would change with any deal - the next generation of SSPX priests will draw their own conclusions about the institutional Church? The SSPX position is more or less that the authentic Catholic faith is not available through the fonts of the institutionally visible Church which remains attached to Vatican II and the reformed liturgy. Give it fifty years and the awful implications of that particular idea will not simply be clear but imperative to those who accept it.
All this would seem to urge a deal between Rome and the SSPX, but here is my problem. I have seen next to nothing in the rhetoric of Bishop Fellay which suggests he is preparing to make a deal. Again, on 2 February, he stated (I paraphrase): when they say we are protestants (for exercising our own judgment), we say they are modernists. Bishop Williamson in his regular circular letter at the end of March said that even if they are given all the freedom they want to run their own show and criticise Vatican II the SSPX should not make an agreement. What is necessary, in his view, is for the Vatican to correct the errors of the Council. Now, don't think for a minute that his is an extremist position! The SSPX's stance is one which they have adopted in order to save the faith: nothing less. They are not interested in gaining entry to the club of the officially recognised; they want the Church to be cured of the modernist errors which they claim she embraced with the Council.
Now, I would argue that fundamentally Bishop Fellay holds the same position as Bishop Williamson. The question is this, therefore: is Bishop Fellay be capable of seeing that there is more than one way to skin a modernist? Is he capable of seeing that the real heroes of any illness are the antibodies on the inside? One wonders actually what the SSPX want the pope to do. They pray for him and the Church with exceptional fervour: let nobody doubt it. But whenever one asks them about the situation, they claim that only the pope can give the solution to the crisis (while they still manage ungraciously to pick holes in practically everything he does in that direction). In that way, however, they unconsciously articulate their awareness of the incalculable complexity of the burden which the pope carries: how does one rule a Church which suffers such grave problems from top to bottom? Bishop Fellay ought to understand this. After all, he has had enough rebellions in his own ranks.
And so we come to the current situation. The parties are all talked out. If, as I maintain, Bishop Fellay is unlikely to come to acceptable terms, we cannot underestimate Pope Benedict's proclivity for sudden and forceful action. I do not discount the possiblity of a caucus of SSPX priests - those who realise the current dead-end nature of the SSPX's trajectory - having negotiated with the Vatican independently while the doctrinal discussions have been going on. Only time will tell. Pope Benedict could easily do something significant for the Ecclesia Dei communities - something which would speak to the faithful who follow the SSPX, even if not to the clergy of the SSPX.
I speculate. Time may cheat the prophet. By while I pray for the best, I prepare myself for the worst. Worse tragedies have befallen the Church in her history, but few have been so unnecessary as this one.
God grant peace to his Church and light and grace to all those involved.