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.

What are the differences between the old 1970s traditionalism of the SSPX and the new traditionalism?

So what’s happened during these last two decades, and what are the differences between the old 1970s traditionalism of the SSPX and the new traditionalism? One of the big changes is that traditionalism is no longer confined to a small and well-identified ecclesial group that put itself outside the Catholic Church of Rome, but rather is spread through the Church and its structures (clergy, religious orders, media outlets, universities). Nor is the new traditionalism an expression of a 19th-century, anti-Enlightenment, French Catholic culture, but rather of a piece with (what remains of) the “culture wars” in the English-speaking world. In some cases it is now also associated with high-profile conversions to Catholicism in the West.

Another difference is how this new traditionalism was able to find a home in the Catholic Church of Benedict XVI. John Paul II opened the door by creating some practical conditions for its return in the early 1980s (the 1984 indult to celebrate the pre-conciliar Mass, for example), though without conceding much in terms of theological reassessment of Vatican II in a traditionalist sense. But Benedict XVI went further. Just a few examples:

  • His December 2005 programmatic speech for a hermeneutic of Vatican II as “continuity and reform vs. discontinuity and rupture.” Originally, the speech had an anti-traditionalist intent (since the SSPX sees Vatican II as rupture), but it became a tool in the hands of Benedict-appointed bishops and curia officials pushing the traditionalist agenda.
  • His liberalization of the pre-Vatican II liturgy in July 2007, which invigorated—if not created—a neo-traditionalist liturgical movement that did not exist before with the strength it has today.
  • His decision to lift the excommunication of four bishops of the SSPX in January 2009, which signaled the unilateral willingness of the papacy to readmit the schismatic group that hosted the disturbing anti-Semitic views of one of Bishop Richard Williamson (who was expelled from SSPX in 2012).

These were not just accommodations made for the SSPX. They were also changes in the Church’s stance on the latest fifty years of Church history, changes that in the eyes of the traditionalists vindicated what they had been saying all along since the beginning of the post-Vatican II period.

There were clearly also other factors. The rise of Catholic conservatism and traditionalism was also a reaction against globalization, and most of all a reaction to 9/11 and to the rise of radical and political Islam. Finally, there was the rise of digital communications: if you consider the impact of the printing press in cementing the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation in early modern Europe, you cannot overlook the impact of the blogosphere and internet for cementing and mainstreaming old and new Catholic traditionalism.

Now, nobody knows what is going to happen next between Francis and the SSPX. One of the peculiar elements of this pontificate is that in dealing with the SSPX, the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Müller—who was appointed to the position by Benedict XVI—has become the defender of Vatican II, while Francis seems to be willing to ignore or discount the ongoing refusal of the SSPX to accept the binding value of the teaching of Vatican II. On the other hand, some in the SSPX say that it is time to re-enter in communion with Rome because Pope Francis does not really care about Vatican II.

But I think it’s even more complicated than that. Francis’s reaching out to the SSPX is his own way of implementing Vatican II. Like Benedict, he is offering the SSPX a deal. But unlike Benedict, he has inaugurated a new phase in the reception of Vatican II, and not only for the sudden and complete disappearance of the traditionalist, anti-Vatican II issues from his agenda. Francis has often warned against liturgical, dogmatic, disciplinary traditionalism already within the Roman Catholic Church. He has also acted to curb traditionalist tendencies in the Church; for example, he has disciplined religious orders like the Franciscan Friars of the Immaculate for their use of the Latin Mass, among other things. 

Francis’s reaching out to the SSPX is his own way of implementing Vatican II.

The SSPX has a track record of pulling out of agreements at the last minute. But even if this agreement will not be signed, what is happening says a lot. Of course, the consequences of the possible return of the SSPX to the Church are tied to the success or failure of Francis’s reforms in the long run. It might curb traditionalism, or it might instead give it a boost. Part of the thinking is that in the future global Church, both old-school French-speaking traditionalism and new, English-speaking traditionalism will be more marginal.

The regularization of the SSPX might also erode or limit the validity of the motu proprio Summorum Pontificum, which might no longer be justified if a new “personal prelature” for the traditionalists delimits the application space of the extraordinary form of the Roman Rite. It would be another step for Francis dealing with the Ratzinger legacy in liturgical matters, after the decision to create a commission to review the 2001 Vatican instruction Liturgiam Authenticam.

What the traditionalists do not seem to perceive is that the possible recognition of the SSPX would not come at the expense of Vatican II, but thanks to it: the dialogue towards all in the Church (for example: the divorced and remarried, LGBT people) enables and justifies a bold opening toward the SSPX as well. As Italian ecumenist Lorenzo Prezzi observed, a deal between the Vatican and the SSPX in 2009 or in 2012 would have legitimized and solidified a restrictive reading of Vatican II, while also influencing the conclave of 2013. Now the opposite seems likely. The return of the SSPX will give some more power to the conservatives, but in a process of reform. Of course, this scenario makes more sense for Catholic churches in which Vatican II was implemented more fully than in the United States, where during these last few decades an institutional “Vatican II revisionism,” pushed especially by the bishops, has been a subset of the culture wars.

Massimo Faggioli is professor of theology and religious studies at Villanova University. His most recent book is The Oxford Handbook of Vatican II, co-edited with Catherine Clifford (Oxford UP). Follow him on Twitter @MassimoFaggioli.

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