Mercy and the SSPX

Two back-to-back pieces of Catholic news are on my mind this morning. The first is Pope Francis’s new bull, Misericordiae Vultus, which opens the Jubilee Year of Mercy beginning on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. The second, mentioned over at Rorate Caeli, is that the Argentine government now officially recognizes the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX) as part of the Catholic Church. There were rumblings a year ago that Pope Francis himself would intervene on behalf of the Society to ensure they acquired proper legal standing in the Holy Father’s homeland, and so it stands to reason that this is what happened. Civil legal recognition is not the same as canonical recognition of course, though it’s not nothing either—especially if the Pope is involved. If this modest but important act is a demonstration of the sort of mercy Francis has in mind for the upcoming jubilee year, then let us be glad and rejoice in it. That is to say, let even Catholics who are at times understandably confused, perturbed, and/or upset with some of the Pope’s words and deeds recognize that mercy is at the heart of the Church’s divine mission.

This is not to say that Misericordiae Vultus won’t raise a few eyebrows among traditional Catholics, particularly with paragraphs like this:

4. I have chosen the date of 8 December because of its rich meaning in the recent history of the Church. In fact, I will open the Holy Door on the fiftieth anniversary of the closing of the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council. The Church feels a great need to keep this event alive. With the Council, the Church entered a new phase of her history. The Council Fathers strongly perceived, as a true breath of the Holy Spirit, a need to talk about God to men and women of their time in a more accessible way. The walls which too long had made the Church a kind of fortress were torn down and the time had come to proclaim the Gospel in a new way. It was a new phase of the same evangelization that had existed from the beginning. It was a fresh undertaking for all Christians to bear witness to their faith with greater enthusiasm and conviction. The Church sensed a responsibility to be a living sign of the Father’s love in the world.

Given what has transpired over the past 50 years—the smoke of Satan entering the Church (Paul VI); a mass wave of silent apostasy (John Paul II); and the dictatorship of relativism (Benedict XVI)—it is very difficult to take the Holy Father’s optimistic appraisal of the Council and its fruits at face value. Many would argue today that the “new phase of the same evangelization that had existed from the beginning” that began with the Council has already outlived its usefulness. By tearing down the fortress walls, the Church compromised her ability to protect that which is has always been precious to her: the truth. Evangelization cannot proceed on the basis of falsehoods or obscurities, and “accessibility” must not become synonymous with “compromise.” And yet this is precisely what has happened in recent decades to the point where priests and bishops, along with sizable portions of the laity, are calling on the Bride of Christ to dispense with fundamental moral and dogmatic teachings as if that is even possible.

At the same time, however, Misericordiae Vultus does warrant patient consideration for what it says about the need for mercy and reconciliation. Perhaps the jubilee year will have the salutary effect of not only opening up church doors, but keeping the light on in the confessional as well. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if every diocese in the world directed its priests to spend more time in the box, including coordinating schedules to ensure not a day goes by when the beautiful sacrament of Confession isn’t made available to the faithful? That availability alone could serve as a great witness to the need every soul has for the sacrament. Finally, in order to increase the availability of the sacrament for those who harbor some canonical trepidation concerning the validity of absolutions granted by SSPX priests, Rome, in the name of mercy, could settle the matter once and for all by openly granting all Society clerics with proper faculties. That, and the full canonical recognition of the SSPX without compromise or qualification, strikes me as a prudent prayer intention to hold between now and December 8.