[Apr. 29, 2023] The big news this week has been the revelations by Bishop Vitus Huonder, retired Bishop of Chur (Switzerland) that Pope Francis had told him privately that the Society of St. Pius X are not in schism.
Traditional Catholic media sources have been abuzz with essays and podcasts jubilantly framing these revelations as a vindication for the position of the Society and traditional Catholic media, who have consistently maintained that the SSPX is not in a state of schism.
I, on the other hand, believe this to be a nothingburger, for three very important reasons:
1. First and foremost, anecdotes about private conversations carry no weight. They are not official statements. They are not policy directives. They are not canonical interpretations. They lack context. They cannot even be independently verified. I have often seen them abused; you may recall occasions during the pontificate of John Paul II where promoters of Medjugorje regularly appealed to alleged private conversations with the late pontiff in support of their activities—statements which Cardinal Ratzinger called "freely invented." Now, I do not suggest Bishop Huonder is lying; I do suggest that what he says cannot be verified, and therefore must be taken with a large grain of salt. Pope Francis is perfectly capable of making his mind known if he wishes. Appeal to a private conversation is an incredibly weak hook to hang one's hat upon.
2. But more importantly, I think, is the inconsistency it demonstrates with regards to the pope's canonical judgments. Traditionalists (myself included) have spent the last decade establishing that Pope Francis either (a) does not understand canon law, or (b) does not care about it. I will not argue these points as I think they are self-sufficient, such that even educated non-traditionalist commentators recognize the Franciscan pontificate as one of chaos and autocracy. Cor Orans, the take-over of the Knights of Malta, the arbitrary sacking of Bishop Torres, Amoris Laetitia, Traditiones Custodes, the Roche Rescript, et al. all demonstrate papal incoherence on canonical norms. Each of the aforementioned actions have been called non-binding, invalid, illicit, etc. by various traditional commentators. This being the case, why are we to assume Francis is 100% authoritative on this specific issue of the Society? The pope who thinks all religions are willed by God; the pope who doesn't even understand why Summorum pontificum was issued (or if he does, willfully misrepresents it); the pope who said atheists go to heaven; the pope who has been relentlessly lambasted for the last decade for these very things by traditionalists—this same pope is now fully competent to resolve the canonical status of the Society?
Please do not misunderstand, I am not saying the pope is incompetent to decide the Society's canonical status; I am saying if you believe he is as canonically inept as Trads make him out to be, then there is no logical reason to assume he has competence here.
3. It must not be forgotten that in private conversation, Pope Francis has demonstrated the tendency to affirm his hearers, even when it contradicts things he has said elsewhere. Francis might thunder against his perceived enemies publicly, but in private audiences everybody walks away hearing what they want to hear. This is characteristic of his fundamentally Peronist approach to governance. In 2015, my Argentine peer Jack Tollers wrote a splendid little essay for Unam Sanctam Catholicam on understanding Francis in the context of Argentine Peronism. I recommend you read the essay, but to get to the point, Tollers described Peronism as "a propensity for anarchy in the public sphere," a system where "words mean nothing unless they are put to work for cunning purposes." It is not so much an political ideology as "a way of playing politics, of handling power, of doing business, of looking at the world," the fundamental characteristic of which is double talk:
[Argentina] is a place where one cannot take words at its face value, where unpunctuality is the norm, where the rule of law is pretty much disdained; a place full of double talk, where people seldom come out with a straight answer, where "tomorrow" doesn't refer to the day after, but to the present day: it only means not today. (source)
This is the context for understanding how Francis handles things. Things are kept vague; people hear what they want privately, so that everyone who deals with him feels like he is on their side. But his public acts display all the chaos or inconsistency inherent in Peronist power politics. In other words, the private affirmations of Francis are vacuous, instances of Peronist "double talk." They mean nothing.
Maybe the pope did say these things, and maybe he does have good reason for saying so. Fine and good. Let him say so publicly or issue some decree to that effect; Francis has demonstrated he has no qualms issuing such documents when it strikes his fancy. Until this happens, nothing has changed or been demonstrated, as far as I am concerned.
Now, if you are interpreting this as an anti-SSPX post, you would be mistaken. I am not anti-SSPX, nor am I pro-SSPX. I am honestly frustrated that Catholics feel the need to self-segregte as pro or anto SSPX, as if one must have a position on them. I am certainly not an SSPX apologist; I have never found the SSPX argument of supplied jurisdiction based on a state of emergency to be convincing, not even a little bit. I do not believe the 1988 consecrations were justified. I do not and have never believed that the Society alone is responsible for the preservation of the Traditional Latin Mass. I do not believe the Society is the future of the Traditional Latin Mass. I have personally never attended a Society liturgy, never felt the need to, and have no plans to.
And the fact is, the Roman pontiffs have treated the SSPX with a benevolence beyond what its detractors frequently allow. I recall the words of Benedict XVI in his letter on the occasion of the remission of the 1988 excommunications, who suggested we adopt an attitude of broad generosity towards the Society. He said:
Is it truly wrong in this case to meet half-way the brother who “has something against you” (cf. Mt 5:23ff.) and to seek reconciliation? Should not civil society also try to forestall forms of extremism and to incorporate their eventual adherents–to the extent possible–in the great currents shaping social life, and thus avoid their being segregated, with all its consequences? Can it be completely mistaken to work to break down obstinacy and narrowness, and to make space for what is positive and retrievable for the whole? Can we be totally indifferent about a community which has 491 priests, 215 seminarians, 6 seminaries, 88 schools, 2 university-level institutes, 117 religious brothers, 164 religious sisters and thousands of lay faithful? Should we casually let them drift farther from the Church? I think for example of the 491 priests. We cannot know how mixed their motives may be. All the same, I do not think that they would have chosen the priesthood if, alongside various distorted and unhealthy elements, they did not have a love for Christ and a desire to proclaim him and, with him, the living God. Can we simply exclude them, as representatives of a radical fringe, from our pursuit of reconciliation and unity? What would then become of them?...should not the great Church also allow herself to be generous in the knowledge of her great breadth, in the knowledge of the promise made to her? Should not we, as good educators, also be capable of overlooking various faults and making every effort to open up broader vistas?
Honestly, I think the Church herself does not know what the canonical status of the SSPX is.