Extraordinary news came on the afternoon of January 24, with the removal of the excommunications of four bishops from the Society of St. Pius X. In a document signed by the Prefect of the Congregation of Bishops in the Holy See, Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re dated January 21, 2009 (see text below). Bernard Fellay, Bernard Tissier de Mallerais, Alfonso de Galaretta and Richard Williamson (two Frenchmen, a Spaniard, an Italian, and an Englishman) were consecrated bishops on June 30, 1988, by the Society's late founder, Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, and his co-consecrator, Bishop Antonio Castro de Mayer (also deceased), in a ceremony at the seminary in Econe, Switzerland.
The following day it was announced by Cardinal Bernardin Gantin, at that time head of the Congregation of Bishops in Rome, that all six men had incurred excommunication latae sententiae (automatic excommunication), the penalty laid down in the revised Code of Canon Law, Canon 1382, for directly participating in an episcopal consecration in the absence of a papal mandate.
The January 21 document says that Bishop Fellay, the Superior General of the Society (one of the four consecrated bishops, photo left) had written in December to Cardinal Dario Castrillon-Hoyos, Prefect of the Ecclesia Dei Commission, requesting the removal of the excommunications, saying, “We are always firmly determined in our will to remain Catholic and to place all our efforts at the service of the Church of Our Lord Jesus Christ, which is the Roman Catholic Church. We accept its teachings with filial animus. We believe firmly in the Primacy of Peter and in its prerogatives, and for this the current situation makes us suffer so much."
For his part, Pope Benedict, increasingly impressed by the attitude of the group to open a dialogue about remaining questions, and to respect the legitimate authority of the Holy Father, decided to lift the excommunications.
The document says this was the Pope's reason: “This gift of peace, at the end of the Christmas celebrations, is also intended to be a sign to promote unity in the charity of the universal Church and to try to vanquish the scandal of division.”
In a message published on the Society of St. Pius X website, Bishop Fellay said, “We express our filial gratitude to the Holy Father for this gesture which, beyond the Priestly Society of St. Pius X, will benefit the whole Church. Our Society wishes to be always more able to help the Pope to remedy the unprecedented crisis which presently shakes the Catholic world, and which Pope John Paul II had designated as a state of 'silent apostasy.'”
In the next issue of the Osservatore Romano, there will be an explanatory note further outlining the reasons for lifting the excommunications. We will report on that when it appears.
Lefebvre founded the Society in the diocese of Lausanne, Geneva & Fribourg in 1970, in order to train young men for the priesthood because of disquieting trends he had observed since the close of the Second Vatican Council, primarily in regard to the reform of the liturgy and the training of clergy. Previously he had been the Superior General of the Holy Ghost Fathers, and administered dioceses in France and Senegal. During the Council, he had been allied to the International Group of Fathers, the group that remained unyielding with regard to what they saw as the excesses of aggiornamento, or updating.
The success of Econe and affiliated seminaries throughout the word contrasted to the dearth of priestly vocations elsewhere in the 1970s, and it quickly drew the ire of the French Bishops' Conference, and a number of persons within the Holy See (the trump card being French Secretary of State Cardinal Jean Villot). The principal issue was Lefebvre's rejection of the Novus Ordo Missae of 1969. He did not contest the validity of the new rite, but he and others charged it contained numerous theological errors, and he argued for the primacy of the Roman Missal promulgated in 1570 after the Council of Trent, and for that reason known as the Tridentine Mass.
Things finally came to a head in 1975, with Lefebvre's first ordination of a group of priests. The following year, after an ordination ceremony at Econe on June 29, 1976, Lefebvre and the priests within the Society were suspended a divinis from clerical activity.
Despite this, the Society flourished. Soon there were Lefebvrist priests with traditional Mass, parishes in many countries around the world. By the end of the 1980s, as Lefebvre realized that he was coming near to the end of his life, he felt the desire to consecrate bishops to carry on his work. But Rome refused to grant permission for any such consecration. To try to head off a schism, Rome decided to send an "apostolic visitor" from the Vatican, the late Cardinal Eduard Gagnon, to inspect Lefebvre's seminaries and schools.
Gagnon and Lefebvre sought a comprehensive agreement in which Lefebvre would be allowed to consecrate one bishop, if he agreed to certain things the Vatican asked of him. Considrable progress was made, and by May of 1988, it seemed Lefebvre would agree to the proposed conditions, and received Vatican permission to consecrate a bishop to lead the Society after him. However, things fell apart at the last minute. After signing a protocol of agreement on May 5, 1988, in which relations between the Society and Rome were to have been normalized, and the Society was granted a juridical structure, Lefebvre changed his mind. Those close to him say his decision came after a night without sleep spent almost entirely in prayer.
The next morning, he told Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger that he doubted the terms of the agreement would, over time, protect the integrity of his Society. Lefebvre's decision to withdraw from the agreement set the stage for the events which followed less than two months later, when he proceeded to consecrate the four new bishops. Lefebvre passed away in 1991.
In 1994, Bishop Fellay was chosen to be the second Superior General of the SSPX, following Fr. Franz Schmidberger. In his public discourse and manner, he was perceived as the most moderate and conciliatory of the four bishops.
Felllay was instrumental in organizing a pilgrimage to the four patriarchal basilicas in Rome, during the Jubilee Year of 2000, in cooperation with the Holy See.
This seemed to open the way to a new round of negotiations with the Vatican. Such talks had been impossible due to completely opposing views over three main issues in addition to the liturgy: ecumenism, religious liberty, and collegiality. Lefebvre taught that erroneous "progressive" or "modernist" interpetations of the texts of the Second Vatican Council had led many in the Church to break with the Church's perennial teaching on these three matters. His Society was uncompromising in its opposition to modernism, and based its opposition on the condemnations of many Popes, especially the Pope from whom they took their names, St Pius X.
During the first years of the new millennium, and especially after the election of Pope Benedict XVI in April, 2005, the Holy See had become much more favorable to the celebration of the Old Mass, with the emergence of groups like the Priestly Fraternity of St Peter and the Institute of Christ the King. What was especially noted in Rome was the attendance of many young people at these celebrations of the Latin Mass. Increasingly, many Catholics who had not grown up prior to the Council (1962-1965) seemed eager to attend the old rite of the Mass, where there was a certain decorum, reverence, solemnity (Gregorian chant, communion on the tongue, kneeling for communion, the priest turned ad orientem or "toward the east") which seemed to be missing in celebrations of the new rite.
It was starting to become quite evident that it was not only Archbishop Lefebvre and his followers who shared concerns about the direction of Church life following Vatican II. At the same time, the "Lefebvrists" continued to flourish, coming to number about 700 priests, 500 seminarians and tens of thousands of laity in 62 countries.
In their talks with officials of the Holy See, representatives of the Society always stressed that for any normalization of relations, all restrictions on the celebration of the Old Mass throughout the word were to be removed. [Following the 1988 excommunications, John Paul II had promulgated the apostolic constitution Ecclesia Dei encouraging all who wished to attend Mass in the old rite, which was never prohibited by law but which in fact had been almost universally suppressed, to seek permission from a local bishop.]
This goal was seemingly accomplished, in large measure, with the motu proprio Summorum Pontificum which Pope Benedict issued on July 7, 2007, and the Pope's decision was greeted with joy among more traditional Catholics, and praised by Bishop Fellay. The document said that the old Missal had never been abrogated -- an argument used by Lefebvre to defend his attachment to the old rite. [John Paul II had appointed a Commission of Cardinals to investigate the issue, and they had concluded the same. However, in 1988, when Lefebvre consecrated the four bishops, John Paul felt the time had not arrived for liberalization of the celebration of this liturgy, because of the overwhelming opposition of European bishops.]
Bishop Fellay met with Pope Benedict at Castel Gandolfo on August 29, 2005, only four months after Benedict's election, and from that moment discussions started in earnest for the removal of the excommunications, which had always been another pre-condition for normalization of relations.
The President of the Ecclesia Dei Commission (set up to manage issues involving the traditional liturgy), Cardinal Dario Castrillon-Hoyos said in November 2007, a few months after the new rules regarding the celebration of the liturgy: “The lifting of the excommunication weighing on the bishops of the Priestly Fraternity of St. Pius X since 1988 can happen but that it definitely depends on them."
On June 4, 2008, just half a year ago, Cardinal Castrillon-Hoyos set several conditions to be met by the SSPX to facilitate a lifting of the excommunications:
1. The commitment to a response proportionate to the generosity of the Pope.
2. The commitment to avoid every public intervention which does not respect the person of the Holy Father and which may be negative to ecclesial charity.
3. The commitment to avoid the claim to a Magisterium superior to the Holy Father and to not propose the Society in contraposition to the Church.
4. The commitment to display the will to act honestly in full ecclesial charity and in respect for the authority of the Vicar of Christ.
5. The commitment to respect the date -- fixed for the end of the month of June  -- to respond positively. This shall be a condition necessary and required as an immediate preparation for adhesion to accomplish full communion.
[Signed] + Darío Card. Castrillón Hoyos
At a pilgrimage on the Feast of Christ the King in November 2008 to the sanctuary in Lourdes, France, Bishop Fellay initiated a rosary campaign for the removal of the excommunications, receiving in excess of 1 million pledges.
Reaction to the Pope's decision to lift the excommunications has been divided. Many Catholic believers attached to tradition (whether in communion with the Church or not) have attributed the decision to the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary. But a number of more "progressive" Catholics have said they are surprised that the Pope has acted in such a positive way toward bishops holding such conservative positions.
The remarks of Bishop Williamson on a number of subjects, particularly on the subject of the Nazi persecution of the Jews (1933-1945), has led to the accusation that he is a "Holocaust-denier." Lifting his excommunication seems likely to present problems for Catholic-Jewish dialogue.
The SSPX reverts to the penalties given by Rome prior to the episcopal consecrations, and all six bishops in the Society remain suspended a divinis. The Society remains a group of Catholics in an irregular state. No chapel of the Society of St Pius X in the world is in communion with the Universal Church, and its priests sharing in the suspension are deprived of the clerical state (a separate matter from the validity of their ordinations). They cannot offer the sacraments of matrimony and penance validly, because that requires faculties from a local bishop.
But the first great hurdle in the way of a full ecclesial communion for the Society appear to have been removed.
Andrew Rabel writes for Inside the Vatican Magazine and appears here with permission.
Text of the decree:
Saturday, January 24, 2009
Document repealing excommunications
CONGREGATIO PRO EPISCOPIS
By way of a letter of December 15, 2008 addressed to His Eminence Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyos, President of the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei, Mons. Bernard Fellay, also in the name of the other three bishops consecrated on June 30, 1988, requested anew the removal of the latae sententiae excommunication formally declared with the Decree of the Prefect of this Congregation on July 1, 1988. In the aforementioned letter, Mons. Fellay affirms, among other things: "We are always firmly determined in our will to remain Catholic and to place all our efforts at the service of the Church of Our Lord Jesus Christ, which is the Roman Catholic Church. We accept its teachings with filial animus. We believe firmly in the Primacy of Peter and in its prerogatives, and for this the current situation makes us suffer so much."
His Holiness Benedict XVI -- paternally sensitive to the spiritual unease manifested by the interested party due to the sanction of excommunication and faithful in the effort expressed by them in the aforementioned letter of not sparing any effort to deepen the necessary discussions with the Authority of the Holy See in the matters still open, so as to achieve rapidly a full and satisfactory solution of the problem posed in the origin -- decided to reconsider the canonical situation of Bishops Bernard Fellay, Bernard Tissier de Mallerais, Richard Williamson, and Alfonso de Galarreta, which arose with their episcopal consecration.
With this act, it is desires to consolidate the reciprocal relations of confidence and to intensify and grant stability to the relationship of the Fraternity of Saint Pius X with this Apostolic See. This gift of peace, at the end of the Christmas celebrations, wishes also to be a sign to promote unity in the charity of the universal Church and to try to end the scandal of division.
It is hoped that this step be followed by the prompt accomplishment of full communion with the Church of the entire Society of Saint Pius X, thus testifying true fidelity and true recognition of the Magisterium and of the authority of the Pope with the proof of visible unity.
Based in the faculty expressly granted to me by the Holy Father Benedict XVI, in virtue of the present Decree, I remit to Bishops Bernard Fellay, Bernard Tissier de Mallerais, Richard Williamson, and Alfonso de Galarreta the censure of latae sententiae excommunication declared by this Congregation on July 1, 1988, while I declare deprived of any juridical effect, from the present date, the Decree emanated at that date.
Rome, from the Congregation for Bishops, January 21, 2009.
Card. Giovanni Battista Re
Prefect of the Congregation for Bishops
Bishop Fellay's letter in response to the decree:
Letter of the Superior General of the Priestly Society of Saint Pius X
As I announce in the attached press release, "the excommunication of the bishops consecrated by His Grace Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, on June 30, 1988, which had been declared by the Congregation for Bishops in a decree dated July 1, 1988, and which we had always contested, has been withdrawn by another decree mandated by Benedict XVI and issued by the same Congregation on January 21, 2009." It was the prayer intention I had entrusted to you in Lourdes, on the feast of Christ the King 2008. Your response exceeded our expectations, since one million seven hundred and three thousand rosaries were said to obtain through the intercession of Our Lady that an end be put to the opprobrium which, beyond the persons of the bishops of the Society, rested upon all those who were more or less attached to Tradition. Let us not forget to thank the Most Blessed Virgin who has inspired the Holy Father with this unilateral, benevolent, and courageous act to. Let us assure him of our fervent prayers.
Thanks to this gesture, Catholics attached to Tradition throughout the world will no longer be unjustly stigmatized and condemned for having kept the Faith of their fathers. Catholic Tradition is no longer excommunicated. Though it never was in itself, It was often excommunicated and cruelly so in day to day events. It is just as the Tridentine Mass had never been abrogated in itself, as the Holy Father has happily recalled in the Motu Proprio Summorum Pontificum of July 7, 2007.
The decree of January 21 quotes the letter dated December 15, 2008 to Cardinal Castrillon Hoyos in which I expressed our attachment "to the Church of Our Lord Jesus-Christ which is the Catholic Church," re-affirming there our acceptance of its 2,000-year-old teaching and our faith in the Primacy of Peter. I reminded him that we were suffering much from the present situation of the Church in which this teaching and this primacy were being held to scorn. And I added: "We are ready to write the Creed with our own blood, to sign the anti-modernist oath, the profession of faith of Pius IV, we accept and make our own all the councils up to the Second Vatican Council about which we express some reservations." In all this, we are convinced that we remain faithful to the line of conduct indicated by our founder, Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, whose reputation we hope to soon see restored.
Consequently, we wish to begin these "talks" -- which the decree acknowledges to be "necessary" -- about the doctrinal issues which are opposed to the Magisterium of all time. We cannot help noticing the unprecedented crisis which is shaking the Church today: crisis of vocations, crisis of religious practice, of catechism, of the reception of the sacraments ... Before us, Paul VI went so far as to say that "from some fissure the smoke of Satan had entered the Church", and he spoke of the "self-destruction of the Church". John Paul II did not hesitate to say that Catholicism in Europe was, as it were, in a state of "silent apostasy." Shortly before his election to the Throne of Peter, Benedict XVI compared the Church to a "boat taking in water on every side."
Thus, during these discussions with the Roman authorities we want to examine the deep causes of the present situation, and by bringing the appropriate remedy, achieve a lasting restoration of the Church.
Dear faithful, the Church is in the hands of her Mother, the Most Blessed Virgin Mary. In Her we place our confidence. We have asked from her the freedom of the Mass of all time everywhere and for all. We have asked from her the withdrawal of the decree of excommunications. In our prayers, we now ask from her the necessary doctrinal clarifications which confused souls so much need.
Menzingen, January 24, 2009