Bishop Bernard Fellay, superior of the Society of St. Pius X, is pictured near an image of St. Pius X at the society's headquarters in Menzingen, Switzerland

Uniting a diverse flock

By 
  • May 22, 2012

ROME - Pentecost is a feast of unity, as the gift of the Holy Spirit makes possible the unity that the Lord Jesus desires for His Church. To preserve the unity of the Church is one of the first duties of the pastor. The flock is to be brought into the one sheepfold. Yet that remains a very difficult and delicate task. Two current examples, much discussed in Rome these days, point to different approaches.

Consider first the Anglicans. For the better part of 40 years there have been significant numbers of Anglicans looking Romeward, particularly after the unilateral decision in the Anglican Communion in the 1970s to ordain women, something never done by either the Catholic or Orthodox Churches. Many thought that such a unilateral rupture of common sacramental practice meant a definitive abandonment of the ecumenical path by the Anglican Communion, and therefore some measure should be adopted by Rome to make it easier for Anglicans to become Catholic while preserving something of their ecclesial communities and liturgical heritage. The Holy See took rather a different view. While provision was made for individual Anglican clergy, and individual Anglican lay people could always become Catholic in the normal fashion, there was no provision for groups to enter full communion together.

The thinking was that any such provision would attract the most Catholic-minded Anglicans, thereby sucking the life out of the ecumenical energies on the Anglican side. Better that such Anglicans remain with Canterbury, providing a critical mass there working toward unity. It was a noble enough idea, but in the event, the two bodies moved farther apart. By the 21st century, as Anglicanism itself was in danger of splitting apart, unity between Anglicans and Catholics was no longer a realistic possibility. Hence the “critical mass” option no longer made sense, and generous provisions were made for groups of Anglicans to become Catholic, as happened across Canada last month.

Consider now the case of the Society of St. Pius X, the traditionalist group founded by Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre in 1970, and in impaired communion with Rome as it questioned the validity of the Second Vatican Council. In 1988, despite a personal and specific request from Blessed John Paul II, Archbishop Lefebvre ordained four bishops without papal approval, thereby incurring the penalty of excommunication upon himself and the four bishops. The SSPX was thus thrust into an ambiguous situation of fractured communion with Rome. Wanting to provide an option for those SSPX members who desired full communion with the Successor of Peter, the Holy See created a new society, the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter (FSSP). Large numbers of priests and faithful then left the SSPX to join the fully Catholic FSSP.

There was some urgency in 1988 to provide an option for those SSPX members who did not want to follow Archbishop Lefebvre into potential schism. The FSSP provided that option — traditional liturgy in full communion with Rome. Yet it also had an effect on the internal dynamics of the SSPX. Those members who were most concerned about communion with Rome left the SSPX; there was no longer a critical mass for full communion in the SSPX.

The consequences of this became apparent last month. Bishop Bernard Fellay, the SSPX superior general, submitted a final response to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith after years of doctrinal talks. It is widely reported here in Rome that Bishop Fellay is ready to return to full communion with Rome. By his own acknowledgment though, there will be a split in the SSPX, as many members — including the three other bishops ordained in 1988 — may well refuse to return to Rome.

In 1988, something had to be done for those SSPX members who wanted to remain with Rome. But in providing a welcome option for them, the Holy See inadvertently deprived the SSPX of those members most concerned about full communion. Since 1988, the SSPX has lived more than two decades dominated by those who have become accustomed to fractured communion, and seem to prefer ideological purity to the fullness of Catholic faith. Bishop Fellay’s almost impossible task will be to lead the SSPX into full communion without the benefit in his ranks of those who already opted for unity back in 1988.

The differing approaches toward Anglicans and the SSPX were both animated by a good faith pastoral judgment about what was best at the time. The decisions are defensible even now, but demonstrate how very difficult the task of unifying the flock remains.

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