The Vatican has formally proposed a way to reconcile with a breakaway group of ultra-traditionalist Catholics in a final bid to end a quarter-century of schism, offering it a special legal status in the church currently enjoyed only by the conservative Opus Dei movement.
The Vatican said Thursday it had proposed making the Society of St. Pius X a "personal prelature" _ akin to a diocese without borders _ during a meeting Wednesday with the society's superior.
The superior, Bishop Bernard Fellay, promised to respond within a "reasonable" amount of time to the proposal and the Vatican's outstanding demands that the group accept a set of core doctrinal points to come into full communion with Rome, the Vatican said in a statement.
The society, founded in 1969 by the late Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, split from Rome over its opposition to the liberalizing reforms of the Second Vatican Council, which among other things introduced Mass in the vernacular and revolutionized the church's relations with Jews. In 1988, the Vatican excommunicated Lefebvre and four of his bishops after he consecrated them without papal consent.
Pope Benedict XVI has been working to bring the group back under Rome's wing, fearing the spread of a parallel, pre-Vatican II church. The fear is not unfounded: 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.
In a bid to bring its members under his wing, Benedict in 2009 removed the excommunications of the four bishops and has allowed greater use of the pre-Vatican II Latin Mass, which they celebrate.
Despite years of talks over doctrinal differences, the group still hasn't signed off on the Vatican's demands that it accept some core doctrinal teachings, presumably stemming from Vatican II, and there is the very real threat that the group itself may splinter if Fellay decides to sign. The society's three other bishops wrote to Fellay in April asking him not to reconcile with Rome.
The society said in a statement Thursday that after the latest meeting a new phase of discussions was possible, indicating the Vatican's concerted efforts to reconcile with the breakaway group may still take more time.
The question of the group's legal status in the church is significant because it currently has no canonical standing; the Vatican, for example, says the ordinations of its priests are illegitimate. That said, assuming Fellay does reconcile, the proposal to make the society a personal prelature may also be problematic.
Personal prelatures require the tacit, prior approval of local bishops to operate in their dioceses, and not all bishops like the society.
The society's members contend that Vatican II's reforms ruined the church and are responsible for a "crisis" of faith in the world today; they consider themselves the true upholders of Catholic tradition. As it is, many bishops have resisted the pope's 2007 call to revive the traditionalists' Latin Mass, contending it's a rollback on Vatican II.
Opus Dei was named a personal prelature in 1982, in recognition of its global presence of priests and lay faithful who carry out the mission of promoting holiness in ordinary life. But although Opus Dei does exercise some jurisdiction over its members, it stresses that it works within dioceses and that its lay members belong to their local church and to the diocese where they live.
Fellay has insisted that the situation would be different if his society were to become a personal prelature, asserting that it would have broader jurisdiction over its faithful.
The Vatican said Thursday it would deal with the fate of the society's individual bishops separately from any legal recognition of the group as a whole.
One of the society's bishops is Richard Williamson, who made headlines in 2009 when he denied the full extent of the Holocaust in a television interview broadcast on the same day the Vatican decree removing his excommunication was signed. The German-born Benedict has said that if he had known of Williamson's views, he never would have lifted his excommunication.
The Vatican's top orthodoxy official, Cardinal William Levada, discussed reconciliation with Fellay one day after he met with representatives of the largest umbrella group of U.S. nuns, who have been placed under Vatican receivership for flouting church teaching with a too-liberal bent.
It wasn't the first time the Vatican's outreach to the conservative Fellay has coincided with a crackdown on liberals: The announcement of the Vatican overhaul of the U.S. nun group, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, came April 18, the very same day the Holy See announced it was nearing an agreement to reconcile with Fellay's society.
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