Elliot Milco has a very good, very lengthy reflection on the current situation of the Society of St. Pius X, especially the events of 1975-1976. (A fuller history of these events may be found, of course, in Michael Davies’s Apologia pro Marcel Lefebvre, which is still freely available on the internet.) Milco observes:
Lefebvre loved the Pope, but he rejected the changes he saw destroying the Church he had served all his life. He embraced the authoritative teaching of Vatican II, but rejected its ambiguous expressions and inversions, which he believed paved the way for abuse and error. Ultimately he loved Christ and the Truth, and would (like any good missionary) have rather died than abandon either. Despite all these virtues, a decade and more of ostracism, injustice, and (occasionally) outright dishonesty from Vatican officials left Lefebvre extremely distrustful of the Vatican. While a million abuses and heresies were permitted and even encouraged throughout the Church, Lefebvre’s little seminary was being targeted and suppressed.
(Emphasis supplied.) Of course, the events of 1975-1976 were overshadowed by the events of June 1988, and one could be excused for thinking that 1988 was the sole relevant year for relations between the Society and Rome.
However, it is perhaps providential that Pope Francis is reigning on the fortieth anniversary of the initial conflict between Lefebvre and Rome. The Holy Father has made the resolution of the SSPX a major priority for his pontificate, and he has been willing to overlook technical issues in favor of dialogue and reconciliation. Recently, in an interview with La Croix, the Holy Father observed:
In Buenos Aires, I often spoke with them. They greeted me, asked me on their knees for a blessing. They say they are Catholic. They love the Church.
Bishop Fellay is a man with whom one can dialogue. That is not the case for other elements who are a little strange, such as Bishop Williamson or others who have been radicalized. Leaving this aside, I believe, as I said in Argentina, that they are Catholics on the way to full communion.
During this year of mercy, I felt that I needed to authorize their confessors to pardon the sin of abortion. They thanked me for this gesture. Previously, Benedict XVI, whom they greatly respect, had liberalized the use of the Tridentine rite mass. So good dialogue and good work are taking place.
(Emphasis supplied.) For his part, Bishop Bernard Fellay, superior-general of the Society, in a lengthy and wide-ranging interview with Edward Pentin of the National Catholic Register, noted:
The Pope’s harshest criticism always tends to be directed to the “doctors of the law” and whom he views as pharisaical. Some would argue that he’s talking about, among others, the Society. What do you say to that, that he seems to be most angry towards people like yourselves?
I asked some people in Rome, who is he aiming at? They didn’t know, they didn’t know what to say. They said “maybe you, but…”. The answer I most got was: “Conservative Americans”! So really, frankly, I don’t know. He definitely dislikes people who are too ideological. That’s very clear. And I think he knows us enough from Argentina to see that we care about people. Yes, we may have a very strong position on the doctrine, but we care. So we show a genuine, so to say, action following this doctrine and I think what he’s reproaching is not that. Certainly he doesn’t agree with us on these points on the Council which we are attacking. Definitely he doesn’t. But for him, as the doctrine is not so important, man, the people, are important, and there we have given enough proof that we are Catholics. That’s the approach that he has.
(Question in italics and emphasis supplied.)
When one thinks on the events of 1975 and 1976—the disastrous “meetings” of February 21 and March 3, 1975, the peremptory decision of the Commission of Cardinals of May 6, 1975, and the Bishop of Lausanne’s irregular suppression of the Society itself—the attitude of the Holy Father is astonishing. Recall the clever technical maneuvers of the Commission of Cardinals and Cardinal Villot, then the Secretary of State, which were anything but clear. Were the meetings between Lefebvre and the Commission mere discussions or a canonical trial? Did the Bishop of Lausanne have the authority of the Holy See to suppress the Society? Did the Holy Father approve the acts of the Commission in forma specifica? If so, when? Were some of the Commission’s actions, in fact, reviewable by the Apostolic Signatura? Pope Francis, on the other hand, makes his distaste for such lawyerly straining at gnats clear: dialogue is the important thing, not technicalities, and he is willing to make concrete gestures to further this dialogue. He meets with Bishop Fellay at Casa Santa Marta, he concedes the Society faculties for the Jubilee Year, and he makes it clear that the Society is on the path to full communion.
It is, in a sense, the exact reversal of the attitude of the Roman authorities in 1975-1976.