The most momentous announcement of the last few days of momentous announcements was the statement of the CDF on Wednesday which concluded as follows:
"Regarding the positions taken by the other three bishops of the Society of St. Pius X, their situations will have to be dealt with separately and singularly".
Two considerations explain the amazement and anxiety which this statement produced in the hearts and minds of SSPX supporters and those well disposed to them:
1. Nobody anticipated this: the four bishops have always been seen as a unit, and were enjoined by Archbishop Lefebvre to remain united among themselves. Even though Bishop Williamson has been in disgrace these last few years, he was not expelled from the SSPX, and the faithful in Great Britain have seen him celebrating Mass in London, Leicester and (at least a couple of years ago) in Wales. So, as I say, nobody foresaw this separation coming and it is hard to think of the SSPX operating without their four bishops (even if they have essentially functioned with only three for the last couple of years).
2. The fear of 'divide and conquer': as has been reported on Wednesday night, the reaction of some has already been that this move results from a policy of divide and conquer. Those who are undoubtedly hostile to the SSPX must have broken out into a wave of applause at the sidelining of the three bishops who had written their letter to Bishop Fellay opposing any kind of 'practical accord'. On his own, Bishop Fellay looks more vulnerable. His capacity for manoeuvre certainly looks reduced. How could he now back out of any deal Rome wishes to offer him, given that his silence since Wednesday's announcement seems to denote cooperation with the process of isolating the other bishops?
What must be understood by people who see this separation as a disaster or an ominous portent is that such a separation may actually serve the SSPX's aspirations. Here are a few thoughts on the matter:
1. There is no way Bishop Fellay will agree to a deal which makes the SSPX simply subject to local episcopal and diocesan politics. In that situation, a tiny number of bishops (Cardinal Ranjith, for example) would welcome the SSPX with open arms, while many others simply would not countenance their presence in the diocese. Not even the most renunion-minded SPPX superior would wear the kind of shackles that such a solution would place on them.
2. Thus many have spoken - Bishop Fellay himself has mentioned - the possibility of a personal prelature which would allow the SSPX to function like a roving diocese. Of course there would have to be modifications to the exact liberties this body could exercise, and human wisdom alone would encourage strongly a new kind of cooperative approach on the part of the SSPX who thus far have acted like a canonical vigilante group.
3. The price of such freedom, however, would unquestionably be a much tighter marshalling of the SSPX's leadership. At the moment, many SSPX priests nominated to the status of district superior feel themselves at liberty to blast away at any passing bishop or pope (occasionally with justification). Clearly, a reconciled SSPX would have to exercise this kind of prophetic service for the Church in a rather more canonically ordered way. Now, many will say this means the SSPX giving up its rights and duties with regard to confessing the faith. In reply, I would say that in the process they are likely to win more hearts and minds by powerfully reasoned argument and charity than by fervid denunciations and grandiloquent bandstanding. Thinking that defending the faith requires the kind of splenetic venting that Fr Régis de Cacqueray is prone to is a bit like imagining that good acting requires mouthing and jabbering like a young Laurence Olivier on speed.
4. What I'm saying - and they will not like it! - is that with a deal comes the need for a change of culture in the SSPX. They have been operating like a band of freedom fighters; they need to start behaving like a well disciplined army. They have adopted the tactics of résistants; they have now to adapt to a more centralised modus operandi which does not necessarily allow them the liberty of attacking the local bishop when he is innocently sipping a coffee in the local bistro. All of which brings us to our three bishops.
5. In any deal with Rome, Bishop Williamson was always going to remain out to grass. His views on the Holocaust are not only deplored by Rome but they caused the pope a major diplomatic crisis in 2009. They also caused Bishop Fellay and the SSPX a great deal of embarrassment just at the moment when public focus was taken off the lifting of the excommunications and turned instead to the private opinions of one of the bishops. Bishop Williamson has made himself toxic. Regardless of what he says, association with him is damaging to the SSPX in the eyes of even fair-minded neutrals on the outside.
6. And thus we come to Bishops Tissier and de Galaretta. Their writing a joint letter with Bishop Williamson is in fact indicative of a certain complacency within the SSPX about Bishop Williamson's views. Most SSPX supporters I know do not share Bishop Williamson's views on the Holocaust. But many supporters, and indeed many priests, were complacent about these views within the bosom of the SSPX. I would stake money on the two bishops not sharing Bishop Williamson's views on the historicity of the Nazi gas chambers. They are thus victims of the law of unnecessary consequences. Their mistake has been to write a letter jointly with him to Bishop Fellay opposing any 'practical accord' with Rome. It is irrelevant that this letter concerns a matter entirely unconnected with the Second World War. It is also irrelevant if, as Fr Arnaud Rostand believes, the disagreement between the bishops is not as serious as some have assumed. By association they have thus made themselves as toxic as Bishop Williamson, and for that they can thank especially the person who leaked the letters. Through naivety or through complacency, they have made it impossible for Bishop Fellay to try to usher them through the gates on the ticket of 'members of the SSPX'. They remain members of course, as does Bishop Williamson, though what that membership now means remains to be seen.
7. Of course it could be argued that they would always have been treated in some ways as a special case. Rome is deeply sensitive about the fact that none of these men were elevated to the apostolic succession with papal approval. The fact that they have shown themselves in some ways superior to certain egregious papal appointments is immaterial.
8. There remains also the issue of a doctrinal divergence which many now sense between Bishop Fellay and the other bishops. Some are lamenting the leaking of these letters because they were supposedly no more than a necessary, full and frank exchange of views between the leaders of the SSPX prior to any accord. But thanks to them there have emerged two separate lines of thought within the SSPX which appear opposed, though they are not necessarily irreconcilable:
- there is Bishop Fellay's position which takes issue with various matters in the Council, but which has also taken account of what the Roman theologians argued about the Council during the doctrinal discussions. These are not my interpretations of his words: they are what he himself said.
- there is the position of the three bishops who in their letter repeat Archbishop Lefebvre's condemnation of the Council: it is not a few errors here and there but a complete perversion of the mind.
9. Now, as Fr Arnaud Rostand has said, it may be that all four bishops are not so divergent in their views as the letters gave us to understand. But if they are, does this divergence in their views mean Bishop Fellay has betrayed his position and that of the SSPX? That is what a lot of SSPX hardliners are currently asking themselves. But the question must be asked whether Bishop Fellay has ever adopted the position of the three bishops about Vatican II. The answer to that should be a matter of record. Let those who have the time and the leisure trawl through the files.
10. Finally, would it be betrayal if the record shows he has indeed shifted his ground? Personally, I would argue not. One would have to consider the denunciation of Vatican II as a perversion of the mind to be a proposition proximate to the faith - a possibility I'm sure for some SSPX followers - to claim that Bishop Fellay's current stance is a betrayal. Or one would have to consider that all propositions in such a theological argument enjoy the same absolute authority - and therefore deserve to be defended with equal vigour - which they clearly don't. Or one would have to think that the extreme Traditionalist metanarrative of the last fifty years - as per the bishops' letter - was more essential to the SSPX's position than getting down to the nitty-gritty details of doctrine.
What Bishop Fellay's current stance (whether it is new or whether he has always maintained it) does is to make it possible for the pope to pass judgment on the catholicity of the SSPX's position. Can the pope declare to be sententia tolerata the proposition that the Council is a total perversion of the mind? Not in a million years. Could the pope declare sententia tolerata the redacted doctrinal preamble presented by Bishop Fellay in April? He may well do so (at which point the SSPX dissenters, like the pessimistic dwarves in C.S. Lewis's The Last Battle, will no doubt denounce this solution as the result of papal and fellayan subjectivism).
So where are we now? I have counselled against too much optimism in the last few weeks. While the signs all suggest that Bishop Fellay and the Holy Father want to go ahead and make this resolution possible, can it indeed happen? Certainly, many prayers and aspirations have been offered up to that end. Many sacrifices also. Undoubtedly, many hearts could be broken if the process failed now.
Personally, I'm still not sure. Divinely speaking, everthing is in the hands of God. Humanly speaking, everything is on the pope's desk. Which is as much as to say that the pope's desk must itself be the finest of fine-knife edges imaginable.