March 4, 2016, Menzingen (Switzerland). Bishop Bernard Fellay, Superior General of the Society of St. Pius X answers the questions of DICI.
For several weeks various rumors have been circulating in the press concerning the possible canonical recognition of the Society of St. Pius X by Rome. Rather than compound these rumors with commentaries, DICI preferred to interview the Superior General of the Society, Bishop Bernard Fellay, to ask him to make an assessment of the following issues:
1. The relations of the Society of St. Pius X with Rome
2. The new Roman proposals
3. “To be accepted as we are”
4. The pope and the Society of St. Pius X
5. The jurisdiction granted to the priests of the Society of St. Pius X
6. The visits of prelates sent by Rome
7. The present state of the Church
8. What should we ask of the Blessed Virgin?
1-The relations of the Society of St. Pius X with Rome since 2000
The relations with Rome—as a matter of fact—are ongoing, but that is not quite the correct word… in the sense that they have never been interrupted, they have certainly never been broken off, although their frequency has varied, and their intensity, too…. We can say that, since the year 2000, there has been contact with Rome. The Roman authorities were the ones who asked for this contact, for the purpose of eventually regularizing the situation of the Society. There have been ups and downs, as I say, but starting with Cardinal Castrillon Hoyos, in 2000, this contact—for a time—has been rather constant. After our famous preconditions were well established, there was a time when relations were… I don’t want to say suspended, but almost. In 2005 there was one contact. There was contact in 2005. And after 2009, in other words at the time of the withdrawal—what we call the withdrawal of the excommunications; let us say: the correction of that decree of excommunication—there were more regular contacts, especially with the doctrinal discussions, which were demanded by both sides and lasted around two years. Then there was again what we could call a new phase, this time concerned with a proposed solution, which was twofold: there was a doctrinal declaration, and there was a canonical solution. This lasted almost a year, but it was unsuccessful.
Then for two years these relations were few and far between, only to begin again—I think that we can say that—with the return of Msgr. Pozzo to the Ecclesia Dei Commission. Under Msgr. Di Noia there were contacts, it is true, but under Msgr. Pozzo there was a new phase, which again was twofold. On the one hand, the discussions started again, doctrinal discussions, in a more flexible form, and therefore not entirely official, but rather unofficial, since these were bishops who were sent by Rome. These discussions continue. I think that it is worth the trouble. And at the same time, on another level and somewhat in parallel: last July there was a new proposal, an invitation to reflect so as to see how we could arrive at this canonical regularization. And here too, these discussions, these reflections are making headway. There is no hurry, that’s for sure. Are we really moving forward? I think so. I think so, but it is certainly slow going.
2-The new Roman proposals studied by the major superiors of the Society of St. Pius X
We wanted to involve a large number of confreres, starting with the superiors, in our reflection on the new Roman proposals. I think that this is important. We have learned some lessons from the year 2012, which had caused frictions within the Society. I think that one of the reasons was a lack of communication. It was a somewhat difficult period. Therefore this time we have chosen another path to address these questions which require a lot of reflection.
When we see the situation in Rome, in the Church, obviously we are not encouraged to do something. It is understandable that Rome should extend an invitation, since we pose a problem for the Church. When we see all the efforts on behalf of ecumenism—for God only knows what sort of unity!—and when we see how we are treated in the Church, obviously we pose a problem. We are even a big thorn in the whole contemporary ecumenical system. Nothing else could possibly explain (the step taken by Rome). I think that it is no more than that, but in any case—without considering directly what their motives are—there is a movement in Rome that is trying to settle this problem.
On the other hand, we observe the tragic situation in the Church, where there really is not very much encouragement to go forward. Therefore in-depth reflection is necessary, and that is not done all alone. We need several sets of eyes to observe correctly, to reflect on the ins and outs of these questions. This is why we decided to ask for the reflections of all the superiors on this matter.
3-“To be accepted as we are,” without ambiguity or compromise
It is absolutely necessary to avoid all compromising; “compromising” in both senses of the word. Compromise in the sense that each party gives up something in order to obtain something else. From the start I had told Rome that: “I do not want ambiguities. If you want to reach an agreement on a document that each party understands in a different way, that is setting us up for chaos shortly afterward.” Therefore it is absolutely necessary to avoid that. It is practically obvious, at the start, that in the current situation, given the divergent views, the document will tend to be ambiguous. And we want none of that.
Obviously that makes us “rigid”, if you can say that. In any case, rather rigid, which makes the matter more difficult, but for us there is no easy solution. We can say: “Yes, in theory, there is the solution of the truth, but the truth has to be full and complete.”
This is the initial approach that I thought it important to take with Rome. Already with the first document, I said, “It is ambiguous, this is not going to work, we want nothing of it!” That was the first document, in 2011. This time it seems to me that it is much better. There really has been great progress on that side against ambiguity. That does not mean that all ambiguity has been removed….
Besides the question of the clarity of the document there is another much deeper, much more important question, and that is: What range of activity, what freedom would be or will be given to us, in the case of a regularization? And, in this context, I took as my starting point a phrase, the practical requirement of Abp. Lefebvre, who considered it as a sine qua non condition for any regularization: namely that we should be accepted as we are.
And so I made sure to tell them (in Rome): “If you want us, this is how we are; you have to know us; you can’t tell us later that we hid something from you. This is how we are and this is how we will remain.” We will remain as we are: why? This is not a sign of self-will; it is not that we think that we are the best; rather the Church has taught these things, has demanded these things. It is not only the Faith; there is also a whole discipline which is in perfect agreement with this faith, and this constituted the treasure of the Church, this made saints in the past, and we are not about to let it go. In dealing with Rome I insisted a lot, saying, “Here is what we are; here is what we think,” even giving concrete examples, and if Rome thinks that these thoughts and this attitude should be corrected or changed, then they have to tell us that now. At the same time (I was) explaining to them that, in that case, we will not go any farther.
4- The pope and the Society of St. Pius X: paradoxical benevolence
It is necessary here to use the word “paradoxical”, the paradox of wanting to advance toward we might almost say “Vatican III”, in the worst sense that could be given to that expression, and on the other hand wanting to tell the Society: “You are welcome here.” This is really a paradox, almost an attempt to combine opposites. I do not think that it is because of ecumenism. Some might think so. Why don’t I think that it is because of ecumenism? Just look at the general attitude of the bishops on this subject of ecumenism: they have their arms wide open to everybody except us! Very often people have explained to us why we were ostracized, saying: “They don’t treat you like the others because you claim to be Catholics. Now, with that, you create confusion among us, and therefore they don’t want you.” Several times we have heard this explanation which rules out ecumenism. Well then! If this approach, which consists of saying, “We accept everybody in the household,” does not apply to us, what then is left? I think that the pope is left.
If at first Benedict XVI, and now Pope Francis, did not see the Society in a particular way that is different from this ecumenical perspective that I just mentioned, I think that there would be nothing at all. I even think that instead we would already be laboring once again under penalties, censures, excommunication, the declaration of schism, and that whole attempt to eliminate a bothersome group. Then why was Benedict XVI and why is Pope Francis now so benevolent toward the Society? I think that the two do not necessarily have the same perspective. In the case of Benedict XVI, I think that it was his conservative side, his love for the old liturgy, his respect for the previous discipline in the Church. I can say that many, and I mean many priests, and even groups that had problems with the Modernists in the Church and had recourse to him when he was still a cardinal found in him—at first as a cardinal, then as pope—a benevolent respect, a desire to protect and to help them at least, as much as he could.
In Pope Francis we do not see that attachment either to the liturgy or to the old discipline. We could even say, quite the opposite, given his many contrary statements, and this is what makes it more difficult and more complicated to understand his benevolence. And nevertheless, I think that there are nevertheless several possible explanations, but I admit that I do not have the final word on the subject. One of the explanations is Pope Francis’ perspective on anything that is marginalized, what he calls the “peripheries of life”. I would not be surprised if he considered us as one of these peripheries which he manifestly prefers. And from that perspective, he uses the expression “walk forward” with people on the periphery, hoping to manage to improve things. Therefore it is not a fixed decision to succeed immediately: a development, a walk, goes wherever it goes…, but at least you are being rather peaceful, polite, without really knowing what the result might be. Probably this is one of the deeper reasons.
Another reason: we see also Pope Francis rather constantly critiquing the established Church, what is called in English the establishment—we say that from time to time in French, too—reproaching the Church for being self-satisfied, a Church that no longer looks for the lost sheep, the one that is in trouble, at all levels, whether poverty on the one hand or even physical danger…. But we see in Pope Francis that this concern, despite the blatant appearances, is not just a concern about material things…. We see very well that when he says “poverty” he includes also spiritual poverty, the poverty of souls that are in sin, that should be brought out of it and led back to the Dear Lord. Even though it is not always expressed that clearly, we find a number of expressions that indicate this. And from this perspective, he sees in the Society a community that is very active—especially when compared to the situation in the establishment—very active, in other words it seeks and goes out seeking souls, it has this concern about the spiritual welfare of souls, and is ready to roll up its sleeves and work for it.
He is acquainted with Abp. Lefebvre; he read twice the biography written by Bp. Tissier de Mallerais, which shows, without a doubt, an interest; and I think that he liked it. And also the contacts that he was able to have in Argentina with our confreres, in whom he saw a sort of spontaneity and also candor, for they hid absolutely nothing. Of course, they were trying to get something for Argentina, where we were having difficulties with the State concerning residency permits, but they hid nothing, they did not try to dodge issues, and I think that he likes that. This may be the rather human side of the Society, but we see that the pope is very human, he assigns a lot of importance to such considerations, and this could explain a certain benevolence on his part. Once again, I am not saying the final word on this subject, and certainly behind all this there is Divine Providence. Divine Providence which manages to put good thoughts into the head of a pope who, on many points, alarms us tremendously, and not just us: you can say that everyone who is more or less conservative in the Church is scared by what is happening, by what is being said, and nevertheless Divine Providence manages to bring us through these reefs in a very surprising way. Very surprising, because it is clear that Pope Francis wants to let us live and survive. He even said to anyone who cares to listen that he would never do the Society any harm. He also said that we are Catholics. He refused to condemn us for causing a schism, saying: “They are not schismatics, they are Catholics,” even though after that he used a somewhat enigmatic expression, namely that we are on the way toward full communion. We wish that we could have a clear definition sometime of this term “full communion”, because you can see that it does not correspond to anything precise. It is an opinion…, you don’t really know what it is. Even quite recently, in an interview given by Msgr. Pozzo about us, he repeats a quotation that he attributes to the pope himself—we can therefore take it as an official position—the pope, speaking to Ecclesia Dei confirmed that we were Catholics on the way toward full communion. And Msgr. Pozzo explained how this full communion can come about: by the acceptance of the canonical form, which is rather surprising: the idea that a canonical form would resolve all the problems with communion!
A little further on, in the same interview, he says that this full communion consists of accepting the major Catholic principles, in other words the three levels of unity in the Church, which are the Faith, the sacraments and the government. In speaking about faith, he speaks here instead of the Magisterium. But we have never called into question any one of these three elements. And therefore we never called in question our full communion, but we skip the adjective “full”, and say quite simply: “We are in communion according to the classic term used in the Church; we are Catholics; we are Catholics and we are in communion, because the rupture of communion is precisely schism.”
5-The jurisdiction granted to the priests of the Society of St. Pius X: canonical consequences
If we consider the canon law of the Church, no one can be the subject of an ordinary power of jurisdiction in the Church unless his situation is perfectly regular. That means someone who has not fallen under a censure. Rome has always said and maintained that our priests were under the censure of suspension, because they were not incardinated. We say, of course, that they are incardinated in the Society, which was unjustly or invalidly suppressed at the time with disregard for the Church’s own laws, but nevertheless Rome maintained and to this day maintains that our priests are under suspension. Suspension, what does that mean? It means precisely that the priest is forbidden to carry out his ministry, whether we are talking about the Mass or the other sacraments, including Confession. Now ordinary jurisdiction is necessary to hear confessions, aside from exceptional cases, for instance in danger of death. The Church, in fact, provides for these cases: if someone is in danger of death, if he is dying after a traffic accident, any priest, regardless of his state, even one who is excommunicated, even an Orthodox who is not even Catholic but is validly a priest, can at that moment hear that person’s confession and give absolution not only validly but licitly. These are exceptional cases. This is not an “ordinary power”. Here we are speaking about an ordinary power. In order to be able to have and exercise an ordinary power of jurisdiction it is necessary, once again, to be free of any censure. Since the pope declares that he gives us this ordinary power, he implies by that very fact the cancellation, the suppression of the censure. This is the only way to understand this directive according to Canon Law—not only according to the letter of this or that canon, but according to the spirit of Church law.
6-Visits of prelates sent by Rome: any open doctrinal questions?
These visits have been very interesting. Obviously, some individuals in the Society have looked at them with quite a bit of mistrust: “What are those bishops doing in our home?” Well! That was not my perspective. The invitation came from Rome, perhaps as the result of an idea that I had suggested to them, which was as follows: “You do not know us; we are discussing here in an office in Rome; come see us on site; you will not really know us unless you see us.” A declaration—whether or not it is a smash hit on the Internet—or a communiqué cannot make them know us as we are; because most times in these communiqués we are obliged to take a position, and even possibly to condemn some expression or other, or some action taken in the Church today, but our life as Catholics is not summed up in that alone. We can even say that the essential thing is found elsewhere. The essential thing is the intention to live out our Catholicism by following God’s commandments, by striving to sanctify ourselves, by avoiding sin, so as to live according to the whole discipline of the Church. Our schools, our seminaries, our priests, our priestly life: all that forms a whole that is the reality, the true reality of our Society.
Therefore I was very insistent, I said several times: “So come see us.” They never wanted to. Then, all of a sudden, there was this proposal to send bishops to meet with us. And, whatever Rome had in mind at first, for my part I agreed that it was a good idea. Why? Because that way, in fact, they would see us as we are. That really was the watchword that I gave everywhere they visited: “We are changing nothing, we are not trying to embellish things, we are what we are, and let them see us that way!” And, in fact, a cardinal, an archbishop and two bishops came to see us, to visit us in different circumstances, some in the seminaries, and also in one priory. The first impressions, the comments made during these discussions, during these meetings and afterward, are very interesting. And I think that they confirm that I was right to support this Roman invitation.
The first thing that they all told us—was it a party line or their personal opinion? I don’t know, but the fact is—they all told us: “These discussions are taking place between Catholics; this has nothing to do with ecumenical discussions; we are among Catholics.” Therefore from the start they swept aside all those ideas such as “You are not completely in the Church, you are halfway there, you are outside—God knows where!—schismatics….” No! We are discussing things among Catholics. This is the first point, which is very interesting, very important. Despite what is still said in Rome today in some instances.
The second point—which I think is even more important—is that the questions addressed in these discussions are the classic questions that have always been stumbling blocks. Whether it is a question of religious liberty, collegiality, ecumenism, the new Mass, or even the new rites of the sacraments…. Well, they all told us that these discussions were about open questions. I think that this reflection is of capital importance. Until now they always insisted on saying: You have to accept the Council. It is difficult to state exactly the real significance of this expression: “accept the Council.” What does that mean? Because the fact is that the documents of the Council are utterly unequal: they are to be accepted according to a gradated criterion, obligatory to different degrees. If the document is a document about faith, there is an obligation pure and simple. But those who, in a totally erroneous way, claim that this Council is infallible, demand total submission to the whole Council. Well, then, if that is what “accepting the Council” means, we say that we do not accept the Council. Precisely because we deny its infallibility. If there are some passages of the conciliar documents that repeat what the Church said before, in an infallible way, obviously these passages are and remain infallible. And we accept that, there is no problem with that. This is why, when someone says “accept the Council”, it is necessary to distinguish clearly what is meant by that. Nevertheless, even with this distinction, until now we have sensed an insistence on Rome’s part: “You must accept these points; they are part of the teaching of the Church and therefore you must accept them.” And even today—not just in Rome, but with the great majority of the bishops– we see this attitude toward us, this serious reproach: “You do not accept the Council.”
And now all of a sudden, on these points that have been stumbling blocks, the emissaries from Rome tell us that they are open questions. An open question is a question that you can discuss. And this obligation to adhere to a position is substantially and even perhaps totally mitigated or even removed. I think that this is a crucial point. We will have to see later whether this is confirmed, whether we can really discuss it freely or better, honestly, with all the respect due to the authorities, so as not to aggravate even more the current situation in the Church which is so confused, precisely about the Faith, about what must be believed, and here we demand this clarity, this clarification from the authorities. We have demanded it for a long time. We say: “There are ambiguous points in this Council, and it is not up to us to clarify them. We can point out the problem, but the one who has the authority to clarify them is actually Rome.” Nevertheless, once again, the fact that these bishops tell us that these are open questions is, in my opinion, crucial.
The discussions themselves have played out according to the personality of our interlocutors, more or less happily, because there were also good exchanges [in which we were] not necessarily in agreement…. Nevertheless, I think that all of these interlocutors are unanimous in their appreciation: they were satisfied with the discussions. Satisfied also with their visits. They congratulated us on the quality of our seminaries, saying: “They are normal (fortunately! You have to start with that…), these are not narrow-minded, obtuse people, but lively, open, joyous, normal individuals, quite simply." And this remark was made by all the visitors. This is the human side, undeniably, but we must not forget that either.
For me, these discussions, or more precisely this easier aspect of the discussions is important. For one of the problems is mistrust. Certainly we have this mistrust. And I think that we can also say that Rome certainly has it in relation to us. And as long as this mistrust prevails, the natural tendency is to take whatever is said the wrong way or to assume the worst possible scenario when solutions are suggested. And as long as we are in this mindset of mistrust, we will not make very much progress. It is necessary to arrive at some minimal trust, a climate of serenity, in order to eliminate these a priori accusations. I think that this is still the mindset in which we find ourselves, in which Rome finds herself. And it takes time. Both sides need to come around to appreciating persons and their intentions correctly, so as to get beyond all that. I think that this will take time.
This also requires acts that display good will and not the intention to destroy us. Now we still have this idea in the back of our minds, it is a rather widespread attitude: “If they want us, it is because they want to stifle us, and eventually to destroy us, to absorb us totally, to disintegrate us.” That is not an integration, that is disintegration! Obviously, as long as this idea prevails, we can’t expect anything.
7-The present state of the Church: worries and hopes
I have a lot of trouble seeing a course of action in what is happening. What I see is growing confusion, a confusion that results precisely from contradictory elements, from the dilution of doctrine, morality and discipline. It is leading up to a system of every man for himself. The bishops say what they want, contradicting each other. There are no official, clear calls to order, nor even calls to any party line at all one way or another. A few years ago there was still a line. It was the modernist line. It was the infamous spirit of Vatican II. Today we see profound disagreement between the bishops and even in Rome on these questions. And which line will triumph, which line will prevail? For the moment, I do not see the answer.
Obviously, one can rely on certain reflections, on certain indications, saying that it is plain that the more progress we make, the more the modernists weaken or are weakened. They lack believers, they lack vocations; theirs is a Church that is perishing. And that is true. On the other hand, we see among young people a number—difficult to assess correctly, but it is consistent enough for us to make the observation—young people who want a Church that is much more serious, in all respects, in particular at the level of doctrine. Young people, seminarians, who want St. Thomas, who want a return to sound philosophy, clear, sound theology, the scholastic theology of St. Thomas. We see among these young people also the desire for a liturgy… I would not call it a “renewed” liturgy, but a return to the traditional liturgy. And this number seems to be impressive. For us it is difficult to estimate, but when we listen to priests who work with these young people in the modern seminaries, some go so far as to tell us that 50% of the new seminarians in France and in England aspire to the traditional Mass. This seems like a lot to me, and I hope that it is true.
Nevertheless we see this trend very clearly, it is an ascending line on the chart, and over the years we see this trend growing. Just one example, since last year, with the problem of the Synod on marriage and the Catholic family, we have seen more pronounced opposition between the two camps than before. I think that this comes from a strengthening of the conservatives; if not their numbers then at least their intensity is growing, without a doubt. And on the other hand the majority, which is still clearly dominant but is losing strength, no longer manages to impose its way, at least not to impose everything as it used to.
And so these two lines exist. What is our future in this situation? First of all, to hold strong. There is great confusion. Who will win? Nobody knows. This makes our relations with Rome extremely difficult, because we are speaking with an interlocutor without ever knowing whether, the next day, the document that we have finally come to agree on, after many discussions, will be in fact the definitive text. We witnessed in 2012 how a document was corrected, modified by an interference… from a higher authority which however was not that of the pope. Here again: who is governing the Church? I would say that it is a very interesting question that remains unanswered. There are undefined forces….
8-What should we ask of the Blessed Virgin?
Ah! A lot of things. First of all salvation. Salvation for us, for each person, for each of the souls that come to the Society, who are willing to entrust themselves to it, to its priests, and therefore let us ask her for fidelity for the Society. Fidelity to the Church. Fidelity to this whole treasure of the Church which—God knows why, God knows how—is in our hands, an extraordinary heritage which is the treasure of the Church; it does not belong to us, and our only desire is for it to regain its place, its true place in the Church.
Let us ask for the triumph of the Blessed Virgin. She announced it. I would say that it is keeping us waiting, and we may even be a little impatient, especially when we see everything that is happening, which seems in contradiction to it. Yet this is not a contradiction; it is quite simply a development that the Good Lord permits, a frightening, terrible game: the lack of correspondence between human freedom, even among Christians, and what Heaven demands, the intention of Heaven declared at Fatima—in other words, God’s intention—to introduce into the hearts of Christians a devotion to the Immaculate Heart of Mary, which has so much trouble prevailing. However it is not so difficult; it is so beautiful, so consoling! And we see this major battle between the devil and the Good Lord, the battlefield being souls, the souls which God designed to be free and which He wants to win over, but not by force. He could have imposed His will majestically in such a way that all human beings would be prostrate—that’s what will happen at the end of the world, but it will be too late then. The battle must be waged now.
Therefore ask the Good Lord to send graces that will win souls for Him, and collaborate in this work! In this way we will ask Him for many things. We ask Him that the Church might rediscover all the elements that make up her mission of saving souls. The one thing, the first thing, the only thing that matters for the Church is to save souls!
In order to preserve the distinctive character of this interview, the spoken style has been kept.
Video interview filmed by DICI on March 4, 2016—transcription and translation by DICI on March 21, 2016.
1 See, in DICI no. 332, 3-11-2016, "Press clippings: Aftermath of Bishop de Galarreta’s conference in Bailly".
2 These preconditions were: the Tridentine Mass granted to all priests and lifting the censures against the Society. See DICI no. 74, 4-12-2003.
3 From October 2009 to April 2011.
4 Here is the answer of Msgr. Guido Pozzo, Secretary of the Ecclesia Dei Commission, in the interview that he granted to Zenit on February 25, 2016.
Your Excellency, in 2009 Pope Benedict XVI lifted the excommunication of the Society of St. Pius X. Does that mean that now they are once again in communion with Rome?”
Since Benedict XVI lifted the censure of the excommunication of the bishops of the SSPX (2009), they are no longer subject to that grave ecclesiastical penalty. Even after that step, however, the SSPX is still in an irregular situation, because it has not received canonical recognition by the Holy See. As long as the Society has no canonical status in the Church, its ministers do not exercise in a legitimate way the ministry and the celebration of the sacraments. According to the formula of then-Cardinal Bergoglio in Buenos Aires and confirmed by Pope Francis to the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei, the members of the SSPX are Catholics on the path toward full communion with the Holy See. This full communion will come when there is a canonical recognition of the Society."
5 Msgr. Pozzo, ibid.:
What appears crucial is to find a full convergence on what is required to be in full communion with the Apostolic See, namely the integrity of the Catholic Creed, the bond of the sacraments and the acceptance of the Supreme Magisterium of the Church.”
6 Pope Francis, Letter to Archbishop Rino Fisichella dated September 1, 2015, as the Holy Year was about to start:
Through my own disposition, I establish that those who during the Holy Year of Mercy approach these priests of the Society of St. Pius X to celebrate the Sacrament of Reconciliation shall validly and licitly receive the absolution of their sins.”