Catholic outlets, mainstream news, and, of course, one notorious traditionalist web-log are all reporting that Bishop Bernard Fellay, Superior General of the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX), met with Pope Francis on Friday. Rumors have been swirling for months that Francis would unilaterally regularize the Society without requesting the SSPX to sign-on to compromising doctrinal statement. Many will recall the collapse of the Vatican/SSPX talks in 2012 was largely over a so-called “Doctrinal Preamble,” which, inter alia, demanded the Society recognize the liceity of the Novus Ordo Missae and no longer openly dissent from certain problematic elements (by Society lights) contained in the documents of the Second Vatican Council (e.g., religious liberty, ecumenism, and collegiality). Since that time, Bishop Fellay has gone into extensive detail on the ups-and-downs of his dealings with the Roman authorities and the contradictions he was forced to face at that time. Unfortunately, some in the Society, including the now-expelled Bishop Richard Williamson, took the Vatican/SSPX talks as an excuse to both denounce Bishop Fellay’s leadership of the Society and to fire-up their own “Resistance” movement which, at this point, is practically sedevacantist in nature. What, I wonder, will happen this time should Francis move ahead with regularization?
For those aware of recent Eastern Orthodox history, a parallel scenario played itself out in 2007 when the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia (ROCOR) reconciled with the Moscow Patriarchate (MP) after more than eight decades of estrangement. While ROCOR began as a continuation of the MP with the express desire to keep Russian Orthodoxy alive during a period of Soviet domination in the Russian homeland, decades of separation from not just the MP but large swathes of world Orthodoxy began to take their toll as clerics and layfolk alike began to see ROCOR as the “only true” part of the Orthodox Church left. Granted, ROCOR wisely expelled some of these voices from its ranks while making small strides on the ground to patch things up with other local Orthodox churches, but by the turn of the millennium stronger strides had to be taken. Under the courageous leadership of the late Metropolitan Laurus, ROCOR proceeded rapidly down the path of full unity with Moscow and, by extension, the whole Orthodox Church. Some in ROCOR, including a number of priests and bishops, objected to the plan and broke off into their own “Resistance” or “True Orthodox” sects, none of which have experienced significant growth on their own or borne much in the way of good fruit. As for ROCOR, none of the doomsday predictions came true. It still continues on as a conservative voice in world Orthodoxy, opening up new parishes and monasteries in the West while building closer ties with other Orthodox jurisdictions.
Now, some may point out that Orthodoxy is not Catholicism and that the crisis in the Catholic Church dwarfs the problems embedded in the MP (problems which have not fully abated in the decade since ROCOR reconciled with its mother church). However, this is no clear evidence to show that SSPX regularization will spell the downfall of the Society or lead to any sort of compromise. If anything, it will make the Society’s position in the Church stronger insofar as traditional and non-traditional Catholics who, for various reasons, feel uncomfortable drawing too close to the SSPX while it remains in an inrregular canonical position can comfortably rethink that position. Moreover, priests and bishops of the SSPX will no doubt have a greater opportunity to participate in mainstream Catholic discussions on matters of discipline and doctrine while ministering to a larger flock in need of Catholic truth. These possibilities are a cause for celebration, not fear mongering and worry. Still, some will no doubt reject all forms of regularization, preferring to hold to the idea of the SSPX being their Petite Église where only the most “hardcore” and “steadfast” are welcome. And what will come of that mentality? More splinter groups with a tiny audience, no core internal discipline, and little in the way of obedience, either to the lawful authorities appointed by Rome or the transit ones they erect for themselves.