Monday, October 26, 2009

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Movement on all Fronts

Though 82, Benedict XVI is moving on all fronts: Lefebvrists, Anglicans, the Orthodox, Jews. The "pontificate of transition" is becoming the "pontificate of action." Will the Pope's vision succeed?

By Robert Moynihan, reporting from Rome


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Nam oportet et haereses esse, ut et qui probati sunt, manifesti fiant in vobis." ("For there must be also heresies among you, that they which are approved may be made manifest among you.") —1 Corinthians 11:19


Movement on All Fronts...

The talks began today, Monday, October 26.

On this historic Monday, unprecedented high-level theological discussions between representatives of the Society of St. Pius X and of the Holy See got underway to discuss "all the unresolved doctrinal questions" ("grandi temi dottrinali non risolti") related to the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), its implementation and interpretation.

The talks took place in the building once known as the "Holy Office of the Inquisition" and still called the Sant'Uffizio in Italian -- the Holy Office.

On one side, representatives of the Society of St. Pius X, founded by the French Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre (died 1991). From their founder, the members of the Society are often called "Lefebvrists."

On the other, top theologians from the Vatican itself, men very close to Pope Benedict XVI, led by Mosignor Guido Pozzo (yesterday I erroneously labeled him as an archbishop), the head of gthe Ecclesia Dei commission. (Photo: Pozzo at the main door of the Holy Office.)

The talks continued for three hours.

They went very well.

And they will continue.

Not only will they continue, they will continue at an almost frenetic pace for the Holy See, which generally "thinks in centuries": there will be meeting every two weeks for as long as it takes to settle these questions.

Father Federico Lombardi noted this relative haste when he delivered a brief communique on the meeting this afternoon in the Vatican Press Office. "This is a rather rapid paste for the Holy See," he said.

This is worth noting because it suggests that the Pope wants this dialogue on a "fast track," not something that drags on interminably.


What Is at Stake?

If one looks at these meetings in the context of recent events, the essential point is this: Benedict XVI, though now 82, is moving on many different fronts with great energy in a completely unexpected way, given his reputation as a man of thought, not of action. (We are going to have to revise our understanding of his pontificate.)

He is clearly reaching out to reunite with many Christian groups: the Lefebvrists, as these meetings show, but also Anglicans, the Orthodox, and others as well.

He seems to be trying to make Catholic Rome a center of communion for all Christians.

This activity, occurring at an accelerating speed over recent months, looks almost like a "rallying of the troops" before some final, decisive battle.

The activity is critically important, in this sense, for our current global "culture war," especially our anthropology (can man be anything our technology can make him, or are their moral limits we should observe?), our sexuality and sexual behavior (how important is our sexual identity, how important are our gender roles?), and our traditional family structures (are these now outmoded, perhaps even to be completely discarded?).

Now, 44 years after the close of the Second Vatican Council, Benedict XVI evidently has committed some of his best men to seek unity with the most conservative wing of the Catholic Church, the Society of St. Pius X, and by extension, all so-called "Traditionalist" Catholics.

The plan is very ambitious: to go step by step through all of the great, controversial doctrinal issues of the post-conciliar period. This includes religious freedom, it includes ecumenism, it includes the Chruch's teaching on Judaism and the Jews, it includes the new Mass vs. the old Mass and the role of the priest of the laity in the liturgy -- all the great issues of the Council.

Benedict will be watched very closely here by progressives, who seem to be a bit off-balance, wondering what Benedict is really after.

And he will be watched by the Anglicans, some of whom are considering entering into communion with Rome, overcoming a schism which dates from the Protestant Reformation in the 1500s, 500 years ago.

And he will be watched by the Orthodox, some of whom are also thinking of overcoming the "Great Schism" which dates to 1054, as they have stated in recent days.

And he will be watched very closely here by representatives of the world Jewish community, some of whom are wondering which direction Benedict and the Church he leads will take with regard to Catholic teaching regarding Judiasm and the Jewish people.

In short, many eyes are now on Benedict, wondering what he really intends here.

The answer seems simple enough: Benedict is trying energetically to "get his house in order."

But which house?

On one level, it is the Christian Church -- a Christian Church under considerable pressure in the highly secualrized modern world.

In this "house," this "ecclesia Dei" ("church of God" or "community of God"), dogmas and doctrines, formulated into very precise verbal statements, are held as true. These verbal formulas are professed in creeds. Benedict is seeking to overcome divisions over the content of these creeds, these doctrinal formulas, in order to bring about formal, public unity among separated Christians.

He is trying to find unity not only with the Lefebvrists (and all Traditionalists within the Church) but also, as we have seen in recent days, with the Anglicans and the Orthodox Churches.

So this dialogue with the Lefebvrists must be seen in the context of multiple dialogues, all occurring at once: Catholic Traditionalists, Protestant Anglicans, the Orthodox Churches.

One might almost say this pontificate is become one of "all dialogue, all the time."

But on a second level, considering world events and the evolution of the world's economy and culture, something else is also at stake.

Benedict is rallying his troops. He is trying to reunite all those factions and denominations and groups in the West that share common beliefs in the eternal destiny of human beings, in the sacredness of human life (since human beings are "in the image and likeness of God"), in the existence of a moral standard which is true at all times and in all places (against the relativism of the modern secular culture), in the need for justice in human affairs, for the rule of right, not might.

And so he is doing his best, in what seems perhaps to be the "twilight of the West," to build an ark, centered in Rome, to which all those who share these beliefs about human dignity may repair.

And this means that what Benedict is doing in this dialogue which got underway today is also of importance to Jews, to Muslims, and to all men and women of goodwill. Mankind seems to be entering a new period, a period in which companies and governments may produce, even for profit, "designer humans," a period of resource wars, a period of the complete rejection of the traditional family unit.

Benedict, from his high room in the Apostolic Palace, seems to be trying to rally the West in the twilight of an age, so that what was best in the West may be preserved, and shine forth again after the struggles of our time are past.


Rupture, or Continuity?

What is the real, fundamental issue of these talks?

It is this: Did the Second Vatican Council teach new doctrines not in keeping with prior Church teaching, and so lead the Church into error (as the Society of St. Pius X, and other traditional Catholics, have often argued)?

Or did the Council develop doctrines based on what the Church has always taught, and so open up new, legitimate aspects of old doctrines?

To put it another way: Did a "new Church" come into being after Vatican II, a Church which broke with the "old Church" of the pre-conciliar period?

Or is it still the same Catholic Church of all time, which has simply been passing through a confusing period as it attempts to find a way to live in and bear witness to the modern world?

Benedict has been calling for a reinterpretation of Vatican II for almost 40 years. In book-length interviews when he was Cardinal Ratzinger, in major studies of the liturgy and in addresses as Pope, he has denounced interpretations of Vatican II which claim it as a rupture with the Catholic faith of all time.

The Lefebvrists have maintained that is is difficult, if not impossible, to interpret Vatican II as being in continuity with all prior Church tradition.

But Benedict has said he believes this interpretation can be made.

And he has sent his chosen men into this dialogue to show the Lefebvrists how it can be done.

The true drama of this dialogue is whether his men will succeed.

Because if his men succeed, the Traditionalists will come back into full union with the Church -- and many conservative Anglicans and Orthodox will also feel more willing to enter into Rome's embrace.

But this very success will mean a defeat for... many progressive theologians, who have argued that Vatican II is a clean break with many "negative" teachings of the "old Church."

Therefore, if Benedict and his men succeed in this effort, the result will be to bring the Traditionalists over into a Church that rejects what they too have hitherto rejected, by defining certain teachings of Vatican II in a traditional way which will suddenly close off to progressives avenues of interpretation that they have freely exploited for four decades now.

So what is at stake in these discussions is far more than what happens to the Lefebvrists.

What is at stake is how the Church of the future will judge and interpret Vatican II.


The Communique

"On Monday, 26 October, 2009, in the Palazzo del Sant'Uffizio [Palace of the Holy Office], headquarters of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei, the study commission made up of experts of Ecclesia Dei and from the Society of St. Pius X hed its first meeting, with the aim of examining the doctrinal differences still outstanding between the Society and the Apostolic See," said a Vatican Press Office Communique released just an hour ago.

"In a cordial, respectful and constructive climate, the main doctrinal questions were identified. These will be studied in the course of discussions to be held over coming months, probably twice a month. In particular, the questions due to be examined concern the concept of Tradition, the Missal of Paul VI, the interpretation of Vatican Council II in continuity with the Catholic doctrinal Tradition, the themes of the unity of the Church and the Catholic principles of ecumenism, the relationship between Christianity and non-Christian religions, and religious freedom. The meeting also served to specify the method and organisation of work."


Brief Background to the New Dialogue between the Society of St. Pius X and the Holy See

This dialoge has been nine years in the preparation.

For a number of years after the 1988 consecrations, there was little if any dialogue between the Society of St. Pius X and the Holy See. This state of affairs ended when the Society led a large pilgrimage to Rome for the Jubilee in the year 2000.

A sympathetic Cardinal
Darío Castrillón Hoyos, President of the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei, approached the SSPX bishops during the pilgrimage and, according to Bishop Fellay, told them that the Pope was prepared to grant them either a personal prelature (the status enjoyed by Opus Dei) or an apostolic administration (the status given to the traditionalist priests of Campos, Brazil). The SSPX leadership responded with distrust. They requested two preliminary "signs" before continuing negotiations: that the Holy See grant permission for all priests to celebrate the Tridentine Mass; and that its statement that the 1988 consecrations had resulted in excommunication for the clerics involved be declared void.

In 2005, Benedict XVI became Pope. In August 2005, Benedict met with Bishop Fellay for 35 minutes, at the latter's request.

In July 2007, the Pope issued
Summorum Pontificum, which liberalised the restrictions on the celebration of the Tridentine Mass.

In April 2008, Bishop Fellay issued
Letter to Friends and Benefactors No. 72, informing the SSPX faithful that, in spite of both Summorum Pontificum and the recent Vatican documents on the true meaning of Lumen Gentium and evangelisation, the Society still could not sign an agreement with the Holy See.

By a decree of 21 January 2009 (
Protocol Number 126/2009), which was issued in response to a renewed request dated 15 December 2008 that Bishop Fellay made on behalf of all four bishops whom Lefebvre had consecrated on 30 June 1988, the Prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, by the power granted to him by Pope Benedict XVI, remitted the automatic excommunication that they had thereby incurred, and expressed the wish that this would be followed speedily by full communion of the whole of the Society of Saint Pius X with the Church.

A Note of the Secretariat of State issued on 4 February 2009 specified that, while the lifting of the excommunication freed the four bishops from a very grave canonical penalty, it made no change in the juridical situation of the Society of St. Pius X.

The note added that future recognition of the Society required full recognition of the Second Vatican Council and of the teaching of Popes John XIII, Paul VI, John Paul I, John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

Moreover, it repeated the assurance given in the decree of 21 January 2009 that the Holy See would study, along with those involved, the questions not yet settled, so as to reach a full satisfactory solution of the problems that had given rise to the split.

That is the study that has now begun.


Note to Readers

I would like to greet all new readers of this newsflash.

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I hope that you will find that these newsflashes useful.


Lecture in Rome: Tuesday, October 27, 6 pm., at #141 Borgo Pio

I have been invited by the The Vatican Forum of the Thomas More College of Liberal Arts to present a talk tomorrow night at 6 pm on the Borgo Pio, here in Rome, at the Centro Russia Ecumenica, #141 Borgo Pio. All are welcome to attend. I have been asked to speak on the topic "Unraveling the Mysteries of the Vatican: An Introduction to the Nature and Work of the Holy See."

Entrance is free.


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“He that takes truth for his guide, and duty for his end, may safely trust to God's providence to lead him aright.”Blaise Pascal (French mathematician, philosopher, physicist and writer, 1623-1662)


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