If there’s a Catholic analog for Nixon going to China, maybe it’s Pope Francis going to Ecône, the headquarters of the Society of St. Pius X. The entire pontificate of Francis, who has been called “the unlikeliest of bridge-builders,” has been marked by increasingly welcoming gestures to the traditionalist group founded by French archbishop Marcel Lefebvre in 1970, and which was in formal schism from the Church from 1976 to 1988. Even as archbishop of Buenos Aires, Jorge Mario Bergoglio showed a pastoral and pragmatic approach to the SSPX. As pope, he has built on something initiated by Benedict XVI, but in a different way and, most importantly, in a very different theological context: In 2015, he allowed the priests of the SSPX to licitly hear confessions for the Jubilee of Mercy.
The latest step, announced on April 4, is Francis’s decision to adopt a proposal from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and the Pontifical Commission “Ecclesia Dei,” both of which are headed by Cardinal Ludwig Müller, to authorize local bishops to grant faculties for the celebration of marriages of faithful who follow the pastoral activity of the SSPX. While the decision may have little impact on the global Catholic Church—the SSPX has three bishops and six hundred priests, mostly in the United States, Argentina, Switzerland, Germany, France, the UK, Australia, and the Philippines–it is nevertheless another step toward the SSPX’s return to the body of the Roman Catholic Church in communion with the pope. Yet it might also bring new problems for Francis, including the SSPX’s approach to cases of sexual abuse by clergy. Still, the move could be quite consequential, for two reasons.
First, the SSPX would become a “personal prelature” within the Church (with a legal status similar to the one granted by John Paul II to Opus Dei in 1982), which would most certainly split in a definitive way a schismatic traditionalist movement that already has shown signs of fracture. There is a visible rift between those who accept the reconciliation with Rome (like the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter that reconciled with Rome in 1988) because they accept the legitimacy of Pope Francis, and those radical traditionalists and “sedevacantists” who see in the SSPX and in its leadership by Monsignor Bernard Fellay a liberal sellout of the true anti-modernist and anti-Vatican II Catholicism.
The second reason is what it says about Francis’s concrete perception of Catholicism today. He’s dealing with the SSPX in this way because he knows the degree to which traditionalism perhaps even more pronounced than that of the SSPX exists. Less than fifteen years separate the publication of two important books on Catholic traditionalism—Michael Cuneo’s The Smoke of Satan (1997) and Giovanni Miccoli’s La Chiesa dell’anticoncilio (published in Italian in 2011, in French in 2014), yet they each paint a different picture. Cuneo saw traditionalism in a limited number of well-identified streams: conservatism-traditionalism, anti-abortion culture, marianism, and apocalypticism. Miccoli portrays a widespread support of traditionalist causes in the hierarchy of Catholicism.
It’s clear that the traditionalism that’s developed since the 1990s has arisen outside any organized, mass movement of conversion of schismatics. Francis knows that dealing with traditionalism now is less a matter of outreach to the SSPX than it is an issue to be handled internally. Ironically, the new, “home-grown” traditionalism has made the schism with the SSPX a less urgent issue. Today the SSPX of Bishop Bernard Fellay is not much more traditionalist than, for example, some Dominicans, Benedictines, Franciscan Friars of the Immaculate, some diocesan seminaries or even Cardinal Burke—all of whom are in communion with the pope even if their view of Vatican II theology is not so different from Lefebvre’s in 1970.