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Vatican, Brazil traditionalist group end schism


In a partial healing of the schism involving the late French Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, Pope John Paul II has reintegrated into the Catholic church a rebel group of 27` traditionalist priests in the diocese of Campos, Brazil, along with their illicitly ordained bishop and some 15,000-30,000 faithful.

As NCR went to press, a ceremony of reconciliation was to be held Jan. 18 at the Campos cathedral, celebrated by Cardinal Darío Castrillón Hoyos, prefect of the Vatican’s congregation for the clergy. Castrillón, frequently touted as a papabile, or candidate to be the next pope, also heads the Ecclesia Dei commission for traditional Catholics created in 1988.

As part of the settlement, the group, the Priestly Society of St. John Vianney, has been given the canonical structure of an “apostolic administration,” a reportedly unprecedented step to heal a schism. The structure is a quasi-diocese in which clergy and faithful come under the jurisdiction of an apostolic administrator, who enjoys the rights and powers of a diocesan bishop.

In this case, the administration is “personal” rather than territorial, meaning that it can operate within the boundaries of other Brazilian dioceses. In effect, the move allows Brazilian Catholics to switch dioceses without physically moving.

For 20 years, the Brazilian traditionalists were allied with the schismatic movement of Lefebvre, who rejected reforms of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), above all the switch from the Latin Mass to local languages.

However, while the Lefebvrite Society of St. Pius X, which claims 160,000 members in 40 countries, has spurned recent Vatican overtures to end the schism, the Brazilians decided to make a separate peace (NCR, Jan. 11).

The decision generated a rift in the traditionalist Catholic movement. NCR has learned that the leader of the Society of St. Pius X, Bishop Bernard Fellay, traveled from his headquarters in Switzerland to Campos last fall to attempt to dissuade the Brazilians from accepting the Vatican offer, arguing that the two groups should act together.

A source in the St. John Vianney society told NCR that while the Brazilians rejected the advice, they remain on “friendly terms” with the Lefebvrites.

The Jan. 18 ceremony was to consist of the reading of the papal decree erecting the apostolic administration, plus the singing of the “Te Deum,” a traditional hymn of thanksgiving. It was to be followed by a Marian devotion.

In addition to Castrillón, according to the society, participants were expected to include the apostolic nuncio in Brazil, Archbishop Alfio Rapisarda, Cardinal Eugênio de Araújo Sales de of Rio de Janeiro, and the bishop and priests of the diocese of Campos.

The new apostolic administrator will be Bishop Licínio Rangel, ordained in 1991 by three of the four bishops Lefebvre created in 1988. Though the Vatican regarded Rangel’s ordination as illicit at the time, his status as a bishop will now be recognized.

The reconciliation caught some Brazilian observers by surprise, given the deep theological objections expressed over the years by the Campos traditionalists to the post-conciliar Catholic church. An Easter 1982 profession of faith issued by the group, for example, rejected:

  • “The New Mass, whether in Latin or the vernacular.”
  • “New moral theology … in which little or nothing any longer constitutes a sin.”
  • “The theology of liberation.”
  • “Obsessive concern for human progress.”
  • “Ecumenism that makes the faith grow cold and makes us forget our Catholic identity.”
  • “Religious liberty … laicizing the state, rendered agnostic toward the true religion.”
  • “Democratization of the church by means of a collegial government.”

A spokesperson for the Society of St. John Vianney told NCR that while the priests of the society will take a profession of faith prescribed by the Code of Canon Law to signify their unity with the universal church, they do not see any need to disavow the contents of their 1982 profession.

The sensitivity surrounding the reconciliation is reflected in the fact that just two days before the ceremony in Campos, senior members of the Brazilian hierarchy told NCR they had not been informed of the deal.

The use of an apostolic administration to heal a schism, according to canon law experts, is unprecedented.

In most cases, an apostolic administration is created in mission areas where the infrastructure for a diocese does not yet exist, or where political or ecumenical situations make the erection of a full diocese problematic. Latin-rite Catholics in Russia, for example, are organized in apostolic administrations rather than dioceses in order not to offend the Russian Orthodox church, which is concerned about Catholic expansion.

The lone point of comparison in recent church history, according to canon lawyers, is the pope’s 1982 decision to make the Opus Dei movement a “personal prelature.” In this structure, priests and lay members come under the jurisdiction of the prelature, not local bishops, as regards the internal life of the movement.

An apostolic administration is regarded as granting even greater autonomy, since the traditionalists will constitute, in effect, their own diocese. A source sympathetic to the Brazilians said it was as if they had “won the lottery.”

On the other hand, a canonist told NCR that since apostolic administrations are usually temporary, the Vatican may be hoping that over time the traditionalist priests will “blend into” regular Brazilian dioceses and the need for a separate structure would thus lapse.

John L. Allen Jr. is NCR Rome correspondent. His e-mail address is jallen@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, January 25, 2002