The Priestly Society of Saint Pius X (SSPX) was founded in 1970 by Roman Catholic Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, in response to the Catholic Church’s Ecumenical Council in 1965, better known as “Vatican II.”
Until the Council Lefebvre was a distinguished figure in the Church. His decade’s long career was characterized by fidelity to the Church and an emphasis on carrying out his duties without complaining or second guessing his superiors. He was an unlikely revolutionary.
Archbishop Lefebvre (herein addressed as Msgr. Lefebvre) was dismayed at the confusion and laxity that followed the Council. He blamed the vague and ambiguous wording of certain Council documents for the chaos. Most of all, Msgr. Lefebvre was appalled at the changes in the primary form of public Catholic worship, the Mass. Prior to the Council the Mass had always been spoken in Latin, and in strict formula. After the Council the Mass was said in the vernacular, that is, in every language. The result was a diluting of the distinctive Roman Catholic doctrine that made up the Mass. Lefebvre believed some of the “New Masses,” as they were called, were illicit, invalid, and perhaps heretical.
Lefebvre’s Priestly Society of Saint Pius X trained seminary students to say the Mass as it had been said for centuries, and to teach them Catholic dogma and doctrine as it had been taught for centuries. This was not popular with Pope Paul VI, the reigning pope during and after the Council (Pope John XXIII convened the Council but died before it finished). Pope Paul was unable to close down Lefebvre’s seminary, but his obvious displeasure with Lefebvre’s activities opened the field for others to blacken Lefebvre’s name and reputation. Paul’s successor, Pope John Paul I, did not live long enough to take sides in the squabble. His successor, Pope John Paul II, ended up excommunicating Lefebvre and the four priests Lefebvre consecrated as bishops in 1988.
This debacle illustrated the breakdown in communication between both sides. Lefebvre wanted his Order to continue after his death. He had been in bad health and had repeatedly asked Rome to allow him to create a successor to carry on his work; The Vatican never gave Lefebvre a straight answer. Msgr. Lefebvre became suspicious that the Vatican was simply going to let him die and then close down his Society. It was this fear that drove Lefebvre to disobey the Vatican and consecrate four bishops.
Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre died on March 25 1991: the feast of the Annunciation, a significant Roman Catholic feast honoring the Blessed Virgin Mary. For a time the Society of St. Pius X (herein the SSPX) elected a priest to be its Superior General. In 1994 the SSPX broke with this custom by electing Bishop Bernard Fellay of Switzerland as Superior General. Fellay had attended Lefebvre’s seminary, been ordained, and then in 1988 was consecrated a bishop by Lefebvre. It is Bishop Fellay who has led the Society in its negotiations with Rome, particularly the more recent negotiations with Pope (now Pope Emeritus) Benedict XVI.
Benedict badly wanted the SSPX back in the fold. He published the Motu Proprio Summorum Pontificum, which allowed all priests to celebrate the Tridentine form of the Mass (the “Old Mass”). Benedict also lifted the excommunications of Msgr Lefebvre and the four bishops Lefebvre consecrated in 1988. And he agreed to the SSPX’s request for a doctrinal agreement to be drafted for the two parties. Finally, Benedict was rumored to have offered the SSPX a personal prelature similar to Opus Dei. This plum position would have allowed the Society to be brought back into the Church and still retain its distinctive character. In short, Pope Benedict did everything he could to bring the SSPX back within the Church.
For his pains he was humiliated when it was discovered that one of the Society’s bishops, Richard Williamson, is a holocaust denier. This was a public relations nightmare for the Vatican, it subjected Pope Benedict to global infamy, and did not improve the public’s view of the SSPX. Benedict and Bishops Bernard Fellay distanced themselves from Williamson, and remarkably, seemed at one point last summer on the verge of signing an agreement.
At this point the wheels came off the Society’s leadership. Bishop Williamson was against any discussions with Rome. Fellay did not allow Williamson to attend the SSPX’s General Chapter. Williamson responded by calling for open rebellion against Fellay. Williamson was then expelled from the Society. The internal chaos of the SSPX leadership prevented any meaningful discussions of diplomacy with the Vatican. Presently Bishop Williamson is ensconced in an apartment overlooking Wimbledon, apparently delighting in his role as a fly in the ointment.
The remaining bishops are Bernard Tissier de Mallerais of France, and Alfonso de Gallareta of Spain. They are believed to be against an agreement with Rome, but both prefer to stay out of the public eye. In general, Society priests and laity do not want an agreement with Rome, but if one happened they would most likely grumble and acquiesce. Unless all the SSPX bishops galloped off in different directions, where else would the laity go?
It is likely a moot point. The resignation of Pope Benedict XVI this spring sounded the death knell to any serious meeting of the minds between Rome and the Society. No pope could do more to entice the SSPX back than Benedict has. Yet the Society appears to take the position that the Church must renounce its own Council and join them, not the other way around.
In April Bishop Fellay admitted that the SSPX and Rome were not close to agreement. It is clear that Benedict’s successor, Pope Francis, will be taking a different approach with the Society of Saint Pius X.
In recent remarks celebrating the Second Vatican Council, Pope Francis said: “The Council was a beautiful work of the Holy Spirit…(yet) there are voices that want to go back. This is called being stubborn, this is called wanting to tame the Holy Spirit, this is called becoming fools and slow of heart.”
Take a hint, anyone? The ship has sailed.