Saturday, 21 April 2012

Stop saying there's going to be an accord!

It's taken me nearly a week of thinking over this matter back and forth. I've spoken to the well connected and to the less well connected. I've discussed matters with the wise and the simple. I've studied abstruse theological articles and considered examples of grandiloquent literary showboating. And my conclusion is this: by all that you hold holy, stop, stop, stop saying there is going to be a Vatican-SSPX accord! To whose advantage does it play?


My cautiousness of last weekend - pray, wait and see - was seemingly blown away by Tornielli's article on Tuesday. Bishop Fellay's response is positive; there could be an agreement in a matter of days ... With that news I confess that my wife and I cracked open a bottle of Prosecco (none of that dodgy French pop for me, I'll have you know), devoured a bar of Dairy Milk and talked into the early hours. I texted SSPX-supporting members of my family, telling tham to go and read Rorate. The following day I spoke to various people who were all convinced a deal was definitely on the cards. In spite of pouring cold water on speculation through their press releases, the SSPX were showing themselves cautious for strategic reasons. Fr Lombardi on Vatican Radio seemed to suggest that Bishop Fellay's response was a real step forward. An old friend of mine told me that Bishop Fellay was in Rome on Monday, the pope's birthday, where - my friend intimated - he might meet quietly with the pope without it appearing in any public schedules. And, as another friend said, given that they confess Pope Benedict to be the Vicar of Christ on Earth, how could they seriously refuse a deal if they were given all the freedom they wanted? It's a done deal. Let us merely await the CDF process and the pope's final signature.

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As I say, the counsel of the wisest I have listened to in the last few days is this: a deal is on its way. No other option is possible. The SSPX have a better chance with this pope than with any other. If they don't make an accord now, that's it for years, possibly decades, maybe never.

My first doubt about this reasoning is that this is not how the SSPX reason. In private many of them might think that way. It could be that this kind of pragmatism has set in in the upper echelons. But strictly speaking, their position is not one which is time conditioned. They believe they are defending the faith against the modernism of the post-Conciliar Church. How could that cause possibly have a time limit on it? My point for now is simply that, unless pragmatism has set in behind the scenes, there is nothing in their governing dynamics and logic which demands a reconciliation within a certain time period.

But then, I got to wondering about why people went mad about news of the possible reconciliation. With many traditionalists it was simply the prospect of the traditional position receiving a thunderous validation. Vatican II's life as a superdogma would be over if the SSPX could live within the Church and criticise it freely. And if they could, why couldn't everyone else? No, traditionalists everywhere are rubbing their hands with glee at this prospect, no less than the liberals are wringing their hands. Incidentally, let's not get the current liberal wave in Ireland and Austria out of proportion. The children of liberal Catholics either do not exist (because they've been contracepted) or they are weak believers who exemplify the trend of believing without belonging (because what's the point?). Between the horn of traditionalist / conservative demographics and the recognition of Vatican II as a problematic council, the liberal dream would be subjected to a rude awakening.

But then I got thinking again. My speculation about Tornielli's enthusiasm was that he was part of a body of opinion who wanted a Vatican-SSPX deal to go through. Prematurely announcing the deal in that case looked to my eye like Tornielli's contributing to the pressure on the Vatican to accept the SSPX's modifications to the preambule. But, a friend tells me, Tornielli is no friend of the SSPX; in fact, he is close to Opus Dei, a group who, it is felt, would be quietly rather annoyed by an SSPX reconciliation. Of course it could be that Tornielli was acting like a journalist and hoping to scoop everybody - which indeed he did! There is no doubt that all the talk about a Fellay-Benedict agreement was Tornielli's victory as much as anything else. But what if there is no deal coming, and what if you knew that pretty much for a fact? If you were no friend of the SSPX, might you not trumpet a coming deal and say that it is within reach, so that when no deal comes through, there will be no doubt as to who is to blame? What after all would ensure a greater reaction against a non-reconciled SSPX than to wind up all the hopes of the trad-friendly conservatives? Getting the traditionalist world all excited would prime the guns of those who are thinking about the blame game to be played after what they hope will be the failure of the Vatican-SSPX negotiations.

I'm not saying this is what Tornielli has done. He alone knows hiw own motives. I'm simply reflecting on the fact that we should be very cautious about all this and not take facts at face value. Such matters are often not what they seem. We know that unofficially the noun 'Vatican' declines in the plural and that smart operators are two to three steps ahead of the rest of us pedestrians. Have you noticed that there has been very little reaction from the French episcopate on this matter - one official statement by my reckoning? Have they been reassured as to the dead-end of these negotiations? Or is this a sign of the changing nature of the French episcopate? In such situations I am beginning to believe that we hardly know who to believe any more; that the hither and thither of personal and corporate agendas threaten the Church in ways that we innocents can hardly calculate. I dare say it was ever thus, no matter what hagiographised version of Church history we would like to adhere to.

So my practical conclusion is this: let's not build up expectations any more. We can only stoke the fires of the SSPX's enemies if we do. Anyone who is genuinely interested in a reconciliation has to see the dangers of being overly optimistic.

But, will the SSPX come to an agreement with the Vatican? I have also had many thoughts on this since Tuesday. But they will have to wait until later. It's now dindins time for little Cheslette.

Saturday, 14 April 2012

Deal or no deal?

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.