The Excommunications of Bishops Bernard Fellay, Alfonso de Galarreta, Bernard Tissier de Mallerais, and Richard Williamson, all of the Priestly Fraternity of St. Pius X, have been withdrawn by decree of the Prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, by mandate of the Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI. Please see the document and the press release from the SSPX posted by our friends at Rorate Caeli.
May the Saints be praised!
In all practicality, though, what does this mean?
First, it accomplished one of the three prerequisites requested by the SSPX in order to regularize the Society. In this regard it goes along with Summorum Pontificum, which gives all priests the freedom to offer the Mass of Pius V. The Society asked as a first step toward full reconciliation with the modern heirarchy the lifting of the excommunitions and the liberation of the Traditional Latin Mass.
The second prerequisite is a resolution of doctrinal questions revolving, for the most part, around ecumenism and religious "liberty". This step may take some doing, but the lifting of the excommunications signals that the Holy Father believes the doctrinal disputes do not hinder ecclesial unity. A serious discussion of the Vatican II documents, their implementation and interpretation, and the degree of relative authority they hold can now take place between brothers instead of adversaries. The theological and doctrinal discussions that will ensue could be very fruitful in deepening our understanding of the Second Vatican Council without the baggage of modernistic interpretation and misrepresentation. At the very least, in these times of grave crisis and doctrinal confusion, clarifications on these contested points can only be a good thing.
The third prerequisite is a settlement upon the proper canonical solution to the Society's relationship with the hierarchy. As the decree from Cardnal Re clearly states, the full communion between the Churh and the Society still remains to be accomplished. The ends and outs of this tricky, legal business may be accomplished before the doctrinal questions can be resolved, and we should all pray that this happens speedily.
What does it mean for the immediate future? Not much, it has to be admitted, at least in regards to the practical day-to-day operations of the Society and the Society's status in specific dioceses. The Society still requires regularization before the priests of the Society can licitly attend to their appostolates in given locales, and it should be noted that the priests of the Society remain suspended until such a time that a canonical solution is found.
What is most important here, though, is the salvation of souls and unity. It is interesting that the Church's hierarchy is moving toward, not away from, reconciliation with Tradition in order to bring about these goals. The Holy Father understands the importance of rectifying, not just a rift with a "Traditionalist" fringe group, but rectifying the rift between the modern Church and the Church's own Tradition. It must be admitted that the steady increase of "traditionalism" makes it more than just a fringe element in the Church. Furthermore, at least in appearance, "mainstream" Catholics have become, in the aftermath of Vatican II, more akin to Protestants and secular humanists in belief and practice. Obvious externals such as liturgy, notwithstanding, there has also been a decidedly abrupt change in the way average Catholics view other religions, and the apparent dissent from what the Church has always taught about the absolute sovereignty of Christ, grace and justification, and the necessity of the Church for the salvation of individual souls, to name just a few. In most cases this shift has been encouraged by Catholic prelates and theologians, sometimes openly dissenting without censure, since the 1960s.
The present pontificate recognizes that this development is not a positive one, but obviously agrees with traditional Catholics that this development marks a grave crisis in the Church. No, in some ways many individuals in the SSPX, and even one of the bishops above, aren't the most attractive examples of Christian humility and intelligence. However, what this brings to the table could be extremely fruitful for the Church, once likened by a post-VCII pope to a ship taking on water. After 20 years of going it without the Society, the Holy Father sees an important role in the future for the Society, along with other traditional fraternities, orders and congregations, in helping to restore to the Church what the Modernism of the 20th century has all but erased, if it had not been for the SSPX (in the beginning), and other organizations inspired therefrom. Yet another sign that the Church is emerging from the liturgical and doctrinal desert.
In Bishop Fellay's statement to the faithful he attributed the lifting of the excommunications to the Blessed Virgin Mary and the rosary. Let us now ask for Our Lady's intercession that this continuing rift in the modern Church might be completely eliminated by a complete restoration of the Traditional Latin Mass and traditional Catholicism.
Some chatter around the Catholic blogosphere that you might be interested in:
Fr. Z's comments regarding the decree and SSPX press release.
I'm very pleased with Fr. Zuhlsdorf's positive attitude toward the ensuing doctrinal discussions and clarifications. Also of interest is his take on the nature of the excommunications.
Further reflections from Fr. Zuhlsdorf here.
A part of Fr Z's post (with my emphasis added):
What it all depends on, to my mind, is the attitude of both sides, the Holy See and the SSPX leadership. If they really want unity, then they must make these concrete gestures, such as that which we saw today, and then get into the same room, roll up the sleeves, and work things out. They have to open their minds and hearts and keep in mind that we don’t have to be in lock step about the putative glories of Vatican II, or the efficacy of the Novus Ordo, etc. It is time to let go of the Council or its "spirit" as some sort of super dogma.
It is also time to start obeying the Roman Pontiff and tone down the language.
There is a whole generation of young people who have grown up in these SSPX chapels, listening to their parents and priests, for whom a state of conflict with Rome, with the bad feelings and attitude of superiority and intractability is normal. They have never known union with Rome and the local bishop. A clear path for walking this division back to real and clear union with Rome is going to become weedier and narrower and harder to find if this goes on much longer. The clock is ticking.
In effect, people on both sides have to stop behaving like jackasses and get to work… if they really want union.