By Tom Heneghan, Religion Editor
PARIS (Reuters)- Pope Benedict's bid to draw rebel Catholic traditionalists back to the Roman fold, a major effort that has divided Catholics and sometimes embarrassed him, seems to have hit a dead end with little apparent hope of a solution.
Two leaders of the Society of St Pius X (SSPX), which broke away over reforms of the 1962-1965 Second Vatican Council, have recently rejected his conditions for their rehabilitation after a series of contacts following his 2005 election as pope.
SSPX head Bishop Bernard Fellay, who Church officials expect will send a formal reply to Rome soon, has not yet indicated the group's final position but it is not expected to be positive.
A formal or de facto SSPX rejection would be a setback for Benedict, whose decision to lift excommunications on its four bishops in 2009 backfired when it emerged one was a notorious Holocaust denier and the Vatican did not even know it.
"The SSPX has set conditions that are simply unacceptable to the pope," Nicolas Seneze, a French expert on the Society, told Reuters. "Their discussions are now back at square one."
The Swiss-based SSPX broke away from Rome in 1988 in protest against the 1960s reforms that replaced Latin with local languages at Mass, forged reconciliation with Jews and admitted other religions may also offer a path to salvation.
Benedict, who at the time was the Vatican's top doctrinal official, failed to convince SSPX founder Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre not to ordain four bishops. Appointing them meant the SSPX could continue its work outside of Vatican control.
Since becoming pope, Benedict has met Fellay, promoted the old Latin Mass the SSPX champions and lifted excommunications imposed on Lefebvre and the four bishops when they defied Pope John Paul and went ahead with the unauthorized ordinations.
Benedict's 2007 decision to allow wider use of the old Latin Mass met with a mixed reaction among Catholics. A minority welcomed it but many thought that reviving the 16th century ritual was turning back the clock to before the 1960s Council.
Two years later, he set off a firestorm of criticism from Catholics, Jews and German politicians when his decision to lift the bishops' excommunications brought Holocaust-denying Bishop Richard Williamson back into the Church.
Lifting the excommunications meant the four bishops were once again full members of the 1.2-billion member Church, but they and the SSPX - which claims to have 500 priests and a million followers - had no official position or role within it.
In 2010, the Vatican launched closed-door theological discussions with the rebels aimed at an agreement that would make the SSPX a "personal prelature" or autonomous institution in the Church similar to the conservative group Opus Dei.
Benedict insisted they must declare the Vatican Council and Church doctrine since then as valid Catholic teaching. Denying this has been a core principle of SSPX beliefs from the start.
The Vatican issued an ultimatum in March to the SSPX, saying it must accept this condition within a month or face grave consequences, but the exchanges dragged on until Benedict wrote a final letter to Fellay on June 30.
CLERICS AGAINST ACCORD
Rev. Franz Schmidberger, head of the SSPX German branch, mentioned the letter in a video recently posted on a Society website and said that the Council included "inconsistencies" that could not be denied.
"We cannot recognize this hermeneutic of continuity," he said, using a theological term for Benedict's view that the Council's reforms were consistent with Catholic tradition.
The Society insisted on its right to continue to denounce some Council reforms as grave errors and always have at least one bishop chosen from its own ranks, he said.
Bishop Bernard Tissier de Mallerais, one of the four SSPX prelates, told a traditionalist meeting in mid-September about the letter and called its conditions a "breaking point."
"I would never sign anything like that," he said, according to notes published on a traditionalist website.
Asked by Reuters about the letter, a Vatican spokesman declined to confirm it or comment on relations with the SSPX.
Seneze, author of the book "The Integrist Crisis" about the SSPX, said the group might not officially cut off contacts with the Vatican because it believes its mission is to lead Rome back to traditional Catholicism.
For his part, the pope values the SSPX's commitment to Church traditions and wants to avoid a permanent schism claiming to be Catholic but outside Vatican control.
"Nobody wants to be the first to slam the door and be responsible for a failure of the talks," Seneze said. "Some kind of contacts could continue, but without coming to a conclusion."
The author said allowing the SSPX to reject the Council would be a concession too far for Benedict, who has long defended some reforms - especially the recognition of Judaism - even while reversing some liberal changes the Council made.
"Benedict could not give up on the Council, especially now, just weeks before he celebrates its 50th anniversary," he said. The historic Council opened in Rome on October 11, 1962.
(Additional reporting by Philip Pullella; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)