The prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, Cardinal Antonio Canizares, recently explained to CNA that Vatican II “was not at all a break” with the tradition of the Church.
The cardinal’s comments came in response to a question about the main obstacle preventing dialogue between the Holy See and the Society of St. Pius X. In 2009, Pope Benedict XVI lifted the excommunication against four bishops ordained in 1991 by Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, who died excommunicated.
The Lefebvrists have held since their founding that Vatican II was a break with the Church’s tradition, and therefore they have rejected the magisterium of every Pope beginning with John XXIII.
The Spanish cardinal said the main obstacle is that the Lefebvrists do not accept “that there has been no break at all with tradition; tradition continues to be alive and open, and Vatican II is (part of the) tradition.” Unity in the Church cannot be achieved by ignoring the council’s place in the Church’s tradition, he said.
Cardinal Canizares explained later that while he is unfamiliar with the specifics surrounding the dialogue with the Lefebvrists, “I do know one thing, which is that the Pope and the Church are very willing and have a great desire for there to be unity and for those who have left the Church to return to full communion.”
Society of St. Pius X
On July 5, after the Society of St. Pius X ordained 20 men to the priesthood in Switzerland, Germany and the United Sates, Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi told CNA the ordinations were illegitimate. He reiterated what the Vatican said in 2009, “As long as the Society does not have canonical status … its ministers do not exercise a legitimate ministry in the Church.” Fr. Lombardi added that such status could not be defined “until doctrinal matters are clarified.”
The lifting of the excommunication
On January 24, 2009, Benedict XVI decided to lift the excommunication imposed on four bishops ordained by Lefebvre: Bernard Fellay, the current leader of the society, Richard Williamson, Alfonso de Galarreta and Tissier de Mallerais.
On January 28, 2009, at the conclusion of his general audience, the Pope explained the decision to lift the excommunication as “an act of paternal compassion” and that it was made “because these Bishops repeatedly manifested their active suffering for the situation in which they had found themselves.
“I hope that this gesture of mine will be followed by an earnest commitment on their behalf to complete the necessary further steps to achieve full communion with the Church, thus witnessing true fidelity to, and true recognition of, the Magisterium and the authority of the Pope and the Second Vatican Council,” he said.
The Vatican Secretary of State further clarified the extent of the Pope’s actions on February 4, 2009, and said the four bishops are obliged to grant “full recognition to the Second Vatican Council” and to the teachings of all the Popes since Pius XII.
The statement also required Bishop Richard Williamson to distance himself from the statements he previously made questioning the Holocaust, which were unknown to the Holy See at the time of the lifting of the excommunication.
“The remission of the excommunication has freed the four bishops from a very serious canonical penalty, but it has not changed the juridical status of the Society of Saint Pius X, which presently does not enjoy any canonical recognition by the Catholic Church. The four bishops, even though they have been released from excommunication, have no canonical function in the Church and do not licitly exercise any ministry within it,” the statement said.
Lefebrivst rejection of the Pope’s outreach
In January of 2010 Bishop Richard Williamson said the negotiations between the Society of St. Pius X and the Vatican were “a conversation between the deaf” that would never result in an agreement because the positions of both sides were “absolutely irreconcilable.”
In February of 2011, Bishop Bernard Fellay confirmed Williamson’s opinion, and in an interview with members of the society in the United States he said that talks with the Holy See were unsuccessful in convincing Vatican officials that the Church needs to return to a state prior to Vatican II.
Fellay said the Holy See told them that "doctrinal problems exist with the Society and that they must be clarified before canonical recognition” can be granted.