A problem confronting the builder of bridges

News has broken in the last several days that Fr. Franz Schmidberger, former superior general of the Society of St. Pius X and rector of the Society’s “Herz Jesu” seminary in Zaitzkofen, Germany, has written a lengthy memorandum for the consideration of other Society leaders regarding the (increasingly likely) prospect of full regularity in its relations with Rome. (We say “full regularity” for lack of a more euphonious term: it is plain that the Holy Father does not view the SSPX as schismatic, though he acknowledges some canonical irregularity.) Richard Chonak, at New Liturgical Movement, has prepared a translation of Fr. Schmidberger’s memorandum. While Fr. Schmidberger’s memorandum was originally prepared as a private brief, Chonak’s translation has been approved by Fr. Schmidberger. Rorate Caeli has provided the French original.

There has already been some media coverage of Fr. Schmidberger’s memorandum. At the National Catholic Register, a news story notes that Fr. Schmidberger’s memorandum comes in the wake of Archbishop Guido Pozzo’s extraordinary recent interview, in which the secretary of the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei suggested in very strong terms that complete acceptance of the various documents of the Second Vatican Council was not a precondition for full union. And, of course, Bishop Fellay recently met privately with the Holy Father in Rome. Plainly, things are happening.

For our part, the collapse of negotiations in 2012 was a bitter event, not least since full union—or full regularity—between Rome and the Society was plainly a project of immense personal significance to Benedict XVI. However, it certainly appears that Pope Francis has picked up where his predecessor left off, and made a commitment this time to take concrete steps to regularize the Society one way or another.

We were particularly struck by a couple of points that Fr. Schmidberger made, which seems especially apt in the wake of Amoris laetitia, and the reactions in some quarters to some responses to that exhortation. First, Fr. Schmidberger emphasizes the distinction between the papacy as a divinely ordained institution and any particular pope:

The Church is infallible in her divine nature, but she is led by human beings who can go astray and also be burdened with failings. An office should be distinguished from the person in it at a given moment. The latter holds office for a certain time and then steps down—either through death or through other circumstances; the office remains. Today Pope Francis is the holder of the papal office with the power of the primacy. At some hour that we do not know, he will step down and another Pope will be elected. As long as he occupies the papal throne, we recognize him as such and pray for him. We are not saying that he is a good Pope. On the contrary, through his liberal ideas and his administration he causes much confusion in the Church. But when Christ established the papacy, He foresaw the whole line of popes throughout Church history, including Pope Francis. And nonetheless He permitted the latter’s ascent to the papal throne. Analogously, the Lord instituted the Most Blessed Sacrament of the Altar with the Real Presence, although He foresaw many sacrileges over the course of history.

(Emphasis supplied.) Setting to one side the tricky question of the extent to which the Holy Spirit participates in the selection of a particular man as pope at a particular time, Fr. Schmidberger’s second point there (or the second point we emphasized) is something that traditionally minded Catholics should repeat to themselves whenever they are troubled by this or that coming out of Rome. Fr. Schmidberger went on to note:

We have already pointed out the necessary distinction between office and officeholder. No doubt the current Pope has the God-given task of showing everyone plainly what the Council really was and what its ultimate consequences are doing to the Church: confusion, the dictatorship of relativism, setting pastoral concerns above doctrine, friendship with the enemies of God and the opponents of Christianity. But precisely because of this, people here and there are coming to understand the errors of the Council and to infer the cause from the effects. Furthermore, those who relied too much on Benedict XVI personally, instead of putting the papal office first and its holder second, were left out in the rain by the resignation of the Pope emeritus. Let us not make the same mistake again of relying too much on the specific person, instead of on the divine institution! Maybe, too, Pope Francis is precisely the one who, with his unpredictability and improvisation, is capable of taking this step. The mass media may forgive him for this expedient, whereas they would never ever have forgiven Benedict XVI. In his authoritarian, not to mention tyrannical style of governance, he would probably be capable of carrying out such a measure even against opposition.

(Emphasis supplied.) This, too, is a point that ought to be considered very seriously, especially as traditionally minded Catholics seem to be looking to other prelates than the Holy Father for guidance and reassurance.