The Vatican told a breakaway traditional Catholic group on Wednesday that its members must accept some core church teachings if they want to be brought back into the Roman Catholic fold.
The Vatican didn't say what the disputed teachings were, but a top official of the group recently made clear it remains opposed to the church's decades-long outreach to Jews, Muslims and members of other faiths.
The Vatican's chief doctrinal official, Cardinal William Levada, met with Bishop Bernard Fellay, head of the Society of St. Pius X, for over two hours to discuss the conditions under which the society could be welcomed back into the church. It was the latest in Pope Benedict XVI's efforts to reconcile with the group opposed to the liberalizing reforms of the Second Vatican Council.
The Vatican said it handed over a two-page note listing core principles of church teaching and interpretation that must be accepted by the society's members. But it said specific issues about Vatican II could be left to "legitimate discussion" and study.
If the society accepts the Vatican terms, the "most plausible solution" would be for it to become a personal prelature within the church, Vatican spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi said. In practical terms, that means that Fellay wouldn't answer to any diocese, but to the Holy See _ a unique church structure currently assigned only to the conservative movement Opus Dei.
The Society of St. Pius X was founded by the late ultraconservative Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre in 1969 and split from Rome over the interpretation of Vatican II's reforms, particularly those that revolutionized the church's relations with Jews and allowed for the celebration of Mass in languages other than Latin.
In 1988, the Vatican excommunicated Lefebvre and four of his bishops after he consecrated them without papal consent.
Despite concerns from liberal Catholics, Benedict has worked for two decades, as pope and as cardinal, to bring the group back into the Vatican's fold, eager to prevent further schism and the expansion of a parallel church.
The society, which is based in Menzingen, Switzerland, has six seminaries, three universities and 70 primary and secondary schools around the globe. Aside from the four bishops, it boasts more than 550 priests and 200 seminarians.
Benedict's outreach to the society is one of many initiatives he has taken in favor of conservative and traditionalist Catholics, while he has punished progressive clerics and silenced debate about priestly celibacy and women priests.
In 2007, Benedict answered one of Fellay's key demands by relaxing restrictions on celebrating the Latin Mass. Two years later, he answered another demand and lifted the excommunication of the four bishops, including that of a Holocaust denier whose rehabilitation sparked outrage among Jews and Catholics alike.
In the two years since, the Vatican and the society met eight times to try to work out the theological and doctrinal differences that separated them in a bid to fully reconcile the society's members with the church. Those talks led to Wednesday's set of minimal requirements issued by the Vatican.
Lombardi said he expected the society would respond within a few months, though there is no deadline.
Fellay said he would take time to study the document and consult with the society's membership.
In an interview with the society's affiliated Dici news agency, Fellay insisted after the meeting that the society's members were in full agreement with core church dogma. He said the Vatican, in issuing its conditions, is clearly making a distinction between dogma that is essential to the faith and "pastoral" issues stemming from Vatican II that can be subject to discussion.
The Holy See had previously insisted that the society's members must "fully recognize" Vatican II as well as the teachings of all the popes who came after it, if they want to be fully reintegrated into the Church. Wednesday's statement seemed to provide some wiggle room: it said there could be further discussion, study and explanation of elements of Vatican II documents.
Lombardi was asked if, in the minimum requirements, the society would be required to accept the Vatican II document "Nostra Aetate," which revolutionized the church's relations with Jews by saying Christ's death could not be attributed to Jews as a whole.
Lombardi said he didn't know. It is clear, however, from recent public statements by some of the society's members, that they still hold Jews responsible for Christ's death and reject Vatican II's interrelgious and ecumenical outreach.
"How can anyone entertain the thought that God will be pleased with the Jews, who are faithful to their fathers, who crucified the son of God?" said society's French superior, the Rev. Regis de Cacqueray, in a Sept. 12 speech. "How could he give ear to prayers addressed to Allah, whose disciples relentlessly persecute Christians?"
The society says it is upholding true Catholic tradition by rejecting elements of Vatican II's teachings, and says the Church's current problems, including a shortage of priests, are a direct result of the 1962-65 Vatican II meetings.
Daniela Petroff contributed to this report.