|Benedict XVI waves to the faithful gathered in Castel Gandolfo during his last public appearance (Photo: ANSA)|
In one of his last acts, Benedict XVI gave the Society of St. Pius X a new opportunity to fully join the Church. Before Christmas 2012, the Vice President of Ecclesia Dei
Commission, Augustine Di Noia O.P., sent the SSPX a letter, which was personally reviewed and accepted by the Pope. With hindsight, it can be considered as Benedict XVI's testament to the SSPX. It proposes two solutions (see text of the letter further below).
Subsequently, Archbishop Gerhard Müller, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, sent another letter (dated 8 January 2013) to the SSPX asking it to give a positive response to the Vatican's conditions for ecclesial reunion by 22 February 2013, the Feast of the Chair of St. Peter. This was the 'final' chance to reconcile with Rome before Benedict XVI's resignation came into effect.
Alas the SSPX (currently facing internal divisions) did not agree to sign the doctrinal preamble the Holy See sent to it last June by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Together with the doctrinal preamble, a proposal for a Canonical settlement which involved transforming the SSPX into a Personal Prelature was sent.
The conditions were that the SSPX:
- recognises that the papal magisterium is the authentic interpreter of Tradition,
- that the Second Vatican Council agrees with Tradition, and
- that the post-conciliar liturgical reform promulgated by Paul VI was not only valid but legitimate as well.
Had the SSPX agreed, it would then have become the second Personal Prelature in the Church, following Opus Dei.
Full Text of the Advent Letter from Archbishop J. Augustine Di Noia Vice-President of the Ecclesia Dei Commission to the Fraternity of St. Pius X
Your Excellency and dear Priestly Brothers of the Fraternity of St. Pius X,
Our recent declaration (28 October 2012) affirmed in a public and authoritative manner that the Holy See’s relations with the Priestly Fraternity of St. Pius X remain open and hopeful. Until now, apart from its official pronouncements, the Holy See has for various reasons refrained from correcting certain inaccurate assertions regarding its conduct and competence in these interactions. A time is rapidly approaching, however, when in the interest of truth the Holy See will be compelled to address some of these inaccuracies. Particularly dolorous are statements that impugn the office, and person, of the Holy Father and that, at some point, would demand some response.
Recent assertions by persons holding significant positions of authority within the Fraternity cannot but cause concern about the realistic prospects for reconciliation. One thinks in particular of interviews given by the District Superior for Germany, formerly General Superior of the Fraternity (18 September 2012) and by the First Assistant General of the Fraternity (16 October 2012), and a recent sermon of the General Superior (1 November 2012). The tone and content of these interventions have given rise to a certain perplexity about the seriousness and, indeed, the very possibility of straightforward conversation between us. While the Holy See patiently awaits an official response from the Fraternity, some of its superiors employ language, in unofficial communications, that to all the world appears to reject the very provisions, assumed to be still under study, that are required for the reconciliation and for the canonical regularisation of the Fraternity within the Catholic Church.
What is more, a review of the history of our relations since the 1970s leads to the sobering realisation that the terms of our disagreement concerning Vatican Council II have remained, in effect, unchanged. With magisterial authority, the Holy See has consistently maintained that the documents of the Council must be interpreted in the light of Tradition and the Magisterium and not vice versa, while the Fraternity has insisted that certain teachings of the Council are erroneous and are thus not susceptible to an interpretation in line with the Tradition and the Magisterium. Over the years, this stalemate has remained more or less in place. The three years of doctrinal dialogues just concluded, though permitting a fruitful airing of views on specific issues, did not fundamentally alter this situation.
In these circumstances, while hope remains strong, it is clear that something new must be injected into our conversations if we are not to appear to the Church, to the general public, and indeed to ourselves, to be engaged in a well-meaning but unending and fruitless exchange. Some new considerations of a more spiritual and theological nature are needed, considerations that transcend the important but seemingly intractable disagreements over the authority and interpretation of Vatican Council II that now divide us, considerations that focus rather on our duty to preserve and cherish the divinely willed unity and peace of the Church.
It seems opportune that I should introduce these new considerations in the form of a personal Advent letter addressed to you as well as to the members of the Priestly Fraternity. Nothing less than the unity of the Church is at stake.
The Preservation of the Unity of the Church
In this context, the words of St. Paul spring to mind: “I, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to live in a manner worthy of the call you have received, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another through love, striving to preserve the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace: one Body and one Spirit, as you were also called to the one hope of your call; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Eph 4:1-6).
With these words, the Apostle Paul admonishes us to maintain the unity of the Church, the unity that is given by the Spirit and which unites us to the one God “who is over all and through all and in all” (Eph 4:6). True unity is a gift of the Spirit, not something of our own making.
Nevertheless, through our actions and decisions we are able to cooperate in the unity of the Spirit, or to act against the Spirit’s promptings. Therefore, St. Paul exhorts us to “live in a manner worthy of the call you have received” (Eph 4:1) to live so that we may preserve this precious gift of unity.
In order to persevere in the unity of the Church, St. Thomas Aquinas notes that, according to St. Paul, “four virtues must be cultivated, and their four opposite vices shunned” (Commentary on the Letter to the Ephesians §191). What gets in the way of unity? Pride, anger, impatience, and inordinate zeal. According to Aquinas, “the first vice which he [St. Paul] rejects is pride. When one arrogant person decides to rule others, while the other proud individuals do not want to submit, dissension arises in the society and peace disappears. ... Anger is the second vice. For an angry person is inclined to inflict injury, whether verbal or physical, from which disturbances occur. ... The third is impatience. Occasionally, someone who himself is humble and mild, refraining from causing trouble, nevertheless will not endure patiently the real or attempted wrongs done to himself. ... An inordinate zeal is the fourth vice. Inordinately zealous about everything, men will pass judgement on whatever they see, not waiting for the proper time and place; and a turmoil arises in society” (ibid).
How are we to overcome these vices? St. Paul says: “With all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another through love” (Eph 4:2).
According to Aquinas, humility, by recognizing the goodness in others and accurately acknowledging our own strengths and weaknesses, helps us to avoid contention in our interactions with others. Mildness “softens arguments and preserves peace” (Commentary on the Letter to the Ephesians, §191). It helps us to avoid inordinate displays of anger by giving us the serenity to do what we are called to do in a spirit of equanimity and peace. Patience enables us to endure suffering when it is necessary for the sake of the good we seek, especially in the case of a difficult or arduous good or when external circumstances militate against the achievement of the goal. Charity casts out inordinate zeal by allowing us to support one another in charity, “mutually bearing with the defects of others out of charity” (ibid.). St. Thomas counsels: “When someone falls he should not be immediately corrected—unless it is the time and the place for it. With mercy these should be awaited since charity bears all things (1 Cor 13:7). Not that these things are tolerated out of negligence or consent, nor from familiarity or carnal friendship, but from charity. ... Now, we that are stronger ought to bear the infirmities of the weak (Rom 15:1)” (ibid.).
The prudent counsel of St. Thomas may be of assistance to us if we can allow ourselves to be formed by his wisdom. In the past forty years, has there at times been a lack of humility, mildness, patience, and charity in our mutual relations?
Consider these words Pope Benedict wrote to his brother bishops to explain why he promulgated the Motu Proprio Summorum Pontificum: “Looking back over the past, to the divisions which in the course of the centuries have rent the Body of Christ, one continually has the impression that, at critical moments when divisions were coming about, not enough was done by the Church’s leaders to maintain or regain reconciliation and unity. One has the impression that omissions on the part of the Church have had their share of blame for the fact that these divisions were able to harden. This glance at the past imposes an obligation on us today: to make every effort to enable for all those who truly desire unity to remain in that unity or to attain it anew” (Letter of 7 July 2007).
How might the virtues of humility, mildness, patience, and charity shape our thoughts and actions? First, by humbly striving to recognise the goodness that exists in others with whom we may disagree, even on seemingly fundamental issues, we are able to approach contested issues in a spirit of openness and good faith. Secondly, by practising true mildness we may maintain a spirit of serenity, avoiding the introduction of a divisive tone or imprudent statements that will offend rather than promote peace and mutual understanding. Thirdly, by true patience we will recognize that in our striving after the arduous good we seek, we must be willing, when necessary, to accept suffering while waiting. Finally, even when we still feel the need to correct our brothers it must be with charity, in the proper time and place.
In the life of the Church, all of these virtues are aimed at preserving “the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” (Eph 4:3). If our interactions are marked by pride, anger, impatience, and inordinate zeal, our intemperate striving for the good of the Church will lead to nothing but bitterness. If, on the other hand, through the grace of God we grow in true humility, mildness, patience, and charity, our unity in the Spirit will be maintained and we will grow deeper in our love of God and of our neighbours, fulfilling the whole of God’s law for us.
We place such emphasis on the unity of the Church because it reflects and is constituted by the communion of the Holy Trinity. As we read in a sermon of St. Augustine: “Both the Father and the Son wished us to have communion both with them and among ourselves; by this gift which they both possess as one, they wished to gather us together and make us one, that is to say, by the Holy Spirit who is God and the gift of God” (Sermon 71.18).
The unity of the Church is not something that we grasp for ourselves by our own power, but is a gift of divine grace. It is in recognition of this gift that Augustine is able to say: “But one who is an enemy of unity has no share in the love of God. Those, therefore, who are outside the Church do not have the Holy Spirit” (Epistle 185 §50). These are chilling words: one who is an enemy of unity becomes an enemy of God, for he rejects the gift that God has bestowed on us. “What proof is there that we love the brotherhood?” St. Augustine asks. “That we don’t sever its unity, because we maintain charity” (Homilies on the First Letter of John, 2.3). Hear what Augustine has to say to those who divide the Church: “You don’t have charity because, for the sake of your honour, you cause divisions in unity. Understand from this, then, that the spirit is from God. ... You are removing yourself from the world’s unity, you are dividing the Church with schisms, you are tearing to pieces the body of Christ. He came in the flesh so as to bring it together; you are crying out so as to scatter it” (ibid. 6.13). How can we avoid becoming enemies of God? “Let each one question his heart. If a person loves his brother, the Spirit of God is abiding in him. Let him look, let him probe himself before God’s eyes. Let him see if there is in him a love of peace and unity, a love of the Church spread throughout the earth” (ibid. 6.10).
What about those with whom fellowship is difficult? Listen to St. Augustine: “Love your enemies in such a way that you wish them to be brothers; love your enemies in such a way that they are brought into your fellowship” (ibid. 1.9). For Augustine, this authentic form of love can only come as God’s gift: “Ask God that you may love one another. You should love all people, even your enemies, not because they are your brothers but so that they may become your brothers, so that you may always be aflame with brotherly love, whether towards one who has become your brother or towards your enemy, so that by loving him he may become your brother” (ibid.10.7).
The example for loving our enemies so that they might become our friends ultimately comes from Christ himself: “Let us love, because he loved us first (4:19). For how would we love if he had not loved us first? By his love we were made his friends, but he loved us as enemies so that we would become his friends. He loved us first and bestowed on us the means of loving him” (ibid. 9.9).
For St. Augustine, then, the unity of the Church flows from the communion of the Blessed Trinity and must be maintained if we are to remain in communion with God himself. Through God’s grace, we must preserve this unity with great determination, even if it involves suffering and patient endurance: “Let us endure the world, let us endure tribulations, let us endure the scandals of trials. Let us not turn aside from the way. Let us hold onto the unity of the Church, let us hold onto Christ, let us hold onto charity. Let us not be torn away from the members of his bride, let us not be torn away from the faith, so that we may glory in his presence, and we shall remain secure in him, now through faith and then through sight, the pledge of which we have as the gift of the Holy Spirit” (ibid. 9.11).
The Place for the Priestly Fraternity in the Church
What, then, is being asked of the Priestly Fraternity in the present situation? Not to abandon the zeal of your founder, Archbishop Lefebvre. Far from it! Rather you are being asked to renew the flame of his ardent zeal to form men in the priesthood of Jesus Christ. Surely, the time has come to abandon the harsh and counter-productive rhetoric that has emerged over the past years.
That original charism entrusted to Archbishop Lefebvre must be recaptured, the charism of the formation of priests in the fullness of Catholic Tradition for the sake of undertaking an apostolate to the faithful that flows from this priestly formation. This was the charism the Church discerned when the Priestly Fraternity of St. Pius X was first approved in 1970. We recall Cardinal Gagnon’s favorable judgment of your seminary at Ecône in 1987.
The authentic charism of the Fraternity is to form priests for the service of the people of God, not the usurpation of the office of judging and correcting the theology or discipline of others within the Church. Your focus should be on the inculcation of sound philosophical, theological, pastoral, spiritual, and human formation for your candidates so that they may preach the word of Christ and act as instruments of God’s grace in the world, especially through the solemn celebration of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.
Attention should certainly be paid to the passages of the Magisterium that seem difficult to reconcile with magisterial teaching, but these theological questions should not be the focus of your preaching or of your formation.
With respect to the competence to correct, we might well consider the example of St. Pius X and his interventions on the question of sacred music. In 1903, St. Pius promulgated the famous motu proprio Tra le sollecitudini, promoting throughout the Church a reform of ecclesiastical music. This document, however, was in a sense the culmination of two earlier initiatives of the then Giuseppe Sarto: a votum on sacred music written at the request of the Congregation of Sacred Rites in 1893, and a pastoral letter on the reform of sacred music to the Church of Venice published in 1895.
These three documents essentially contained the same message, and yet the first was a suggestion for the Roman Curia, the next was an instruction for the faithful under his jurisdiction as Patriarch of Venice, and the third was a command for the universal Church. As Pope, St. Pius X had the authority to address abuses in ecclesiastical music throughout the world, whereas as bishop he could only intervene within his diocese. St. Pius X was able to address problems in the church on a universal level in his disciplinary and doctrinal prescriptions, precisely because of his universal authority.
Even if we are convinced that our perspective on a particular disputed question is the true one, we cannot usurp the office of the universal pontiff by presuming publicly to correct others within the Church. We may propose and seek to exert influence, but we must not disrespect or act against legitimate local authorities. We need to respect the proper fora of different types of issues: it is the faith that should be preached from our pulpits, not the latest interpretation of what we take to be problematic about a magisterial document.
It has been a mistake to make every difficult point in the theological interpretation of Vatican II a matter of public controversy, trying to sway those who are not theologically sophisticated into adopting one’s own point of view regarding subtle theological matters.
The Instruction Donum Veritatis on the Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian (Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, 1990) states that a theologian “may raise questions regarding the timeliness, the form, or even the contents of magisterial interventions” (§24), although “the willingness to submit loyally to the teaching of the Magisterium on matters per se not irreformable must be the rule.” But a theologian should “not present his own opinions or divergent hypotheses as though they were non-arguable conclusions. Respect for the truth as well as for the People of God requires this discretion (cf. Rom 14: 1-15; 1 Cor 8; 10: 23-33). For the same reasons, the theologian will refrain from giving untimely public expression to them” (§27).
If, after intense reflection on the part of a theologian, difficulties persist, he “has the duty to make known to the Magisterial authorities the problems raised by the teaching in itself, in the arguments proposed to justify it, or even in the manner in which it is presented. He should do this in an evangelical spirit and with a profound desire to resolve the difficulties. His objections could then contribute to real progress and provide a stimulus to the Magisterium to propose the teaching of the Church in greater depth and with a clearer presentation of the arguments. In cases like these, the theologian should avoid turning to the ‘mass media’, but have recourse to the responsible authority, for it is not by seeking to exert the pressure of public opinion that one contributes to the clarification of doctrinal issues and renders service to the truth” (§30).
This part of the task of a theologian, acting with a loyal spirit, animated by love for the Church, can at times be a difficult trial. “It can be a call to suffer for the truth, in silence and prayer, but with the certainty, that if the truth really is at stake, it will ultimately prevail” (§31).
Nevertheless, critical engagement with the acts of the Magisterium must never become a sort of “parallel magisterium” of theologians (cf. §34), for it must be submitted to the judgement of the Supreme Pontiff, who has “the duty to safeguard the unity of the Church with concern to offer help to all in order to respond appropriately to this vocation and divine grace” (Apostolic Letter, Ecclesiae Unitatem, §1).
Thus we can see that for those within the Church who have the canonical mandate or mission to teach, there is room for a truly theological and non-polemical engagement with the Magisterium. Intellectually speaking, however, we cannot be satisfied merely with generating and sustaining controversy. Difficult theological problems can only be adequately dealt with through the analogy of faith, that is, the synthesis of all that the Lord has revealed to us. We must see each doctrine and article of faith as supporting the others, and learn to understand the inner connections between each element of our faith.
To engage in the study of theology, we must have adequate cultural, biblical, and philosophical training. I think for instance of a passage from the 1917 Code of Canon Law that is printed in the introduction to the 1947 Benziger English edition of the Summa Theologiae: “Religious who have already studied their humanities should devote themselves for two years at least to philosophy, and four years to theology, following the teaching of St. Thomas in accordance with the instructions of the Holy See” (CIC 1917, can. 589). Consider the wisdom embodied in this directive: theology is to be undertaken only by those who have been adequately formed both in the humanities and philosophy. Recently, the Congregation for Catholic Education has required that the study of philosophy continue for three years during priestly formation. Without this breadth of learning, our theological inquiry will not have the rich soil of culture in which the faith took root and which is indispensable for fully understanding both the philosophical concepts and terms that underlie the doctrinal formulations of the Church.
If we concentrate only on the most difficult and most controversial questions—which, by all means, need to receive careful attention—we might over time lose a sense of the analogy of faith and begin to see theology mainly as a sort of intellectual dialectic of competing claims, rather than as a sapiential engagement with the living God who has revealed himself to us in Jesus Christ and who inspires our study, our preaching, our pastoral care through the Holy Spirit.
Pope Benedict XVI, in his magnanimous exercise of the munus Petrinum, is striving to overcome the tensions that have existed between the Church and your Fraternity. Would a full ecclesial reconciliation bring about an immediate end to the suspicion and bad feeling we have experienced? Perhaps not so readily.
But what we are seeking is not a human work: we are seeking reconciliation and healing by God’s grace under the loving guidance of the Holy Spirit. Let us recall the effects of grace articulated by St. Thomas: to heal the soul, to desire good, to carry into effect the good proposed, to persevere in good, and finally, to reach glory (cf. Summa theologiae 1a.2ae, 111, 3).
Our souls need first to be healed, to be cleansed of the bitterness and resentment that comes from thirty years of suspicion and anguish on both sides. We need to pray that the Lord may heal us of any imperfections that have come about precisely because of the difficulties, especially the desire for an autonomy that is in fact outside the traditional forms of governance of the Church. The Lord gives us the grace to desire certain goods, in this case the good of full ecclesial unity and communion. This is a desire that many of us share humanly speaking, but what we need from the Lord is for him to let this desire suffuse our souls, so that we may desire with the same desire of Christ ut unum sint.
Only then does God’s grace allow us to carry into effect the good proposed. It is He who prompts us to seek reconciliation and brings it to completion.
This is a moment of tremendous grace: let us embrace it with our whole heart and mind. As we prepare for the coming of the Saviour of the world during this Advent season of the Year of Faith, let us pray and hope boldly: may we not also anticipate the longed for reconciliation of the Priestly Fraternity of St. Pius X with the See of Peter?
The only imaginable future for the Priestly Fraternity lies along the path of full communion with the Holy See, with the acceptance of an unqualified profession of the faith in its fullness, and thus with a properly ordered ecclesial, sacramental and pastoral life.
Having received from the Successor of Peter this charge to be an instrument in the reconciliation of the Priestly Fraternity, I dare to make my own the words of the Apostle Paul in urging us “to live in a manner worthy of the call you have received, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another through love, striving to preserve the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.”
Sincerely yours in Christ,
+Archbishop J. Augustine Di Noia O.P.