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Brazil deal viewed with suspicion


An old bit of wisdom has it, “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.” The idea is that it’s easier to manage conflicts by keeping those with whom you disagree inside your sphere of influence.

The tactic comes highly recommended by Don Vito Corleone in The Godfather. Does it also apply to the Catholic church?

That, in a nutshell, is the question now being debated inside the Vatican, in the wake of the healing of a traditionalist Catholic schism in Brazil. The move was engineered by Cardinal Darío Castrillón Hoyos, head of the pope’s Ecclesia Dei Commission for Catholics attached to the Latin Mass, and a man widely seen as papabile -- a candidate to be the next pope.

Detractors say Castrillón’s “why can’t we all just get along?” approach, which emphasizes bringing devotees of the Latin Mass back into the fold ahead of resolving their theological complaints, ignores deep-rooted problems that will only explode later. One Vatican insider called the outcome in Brazil a form of “peace at any price.”

That attitude, ironically enough, finds echoes within the traditionalist Catholic world itself, suspicious of accommodation with “modernist Rome.”

Supporters of the Brazil deal, however, argue that alienated Catholics will reconcile themselves to the church only from the inside.

On Jan. 18, Castrillón celebrated a ceremony of reintegration in Campos, Brazil, to mark the return to the fold of 27 traditionalist priests and some 28,000 faithful in Campos who had been in schism since 1991. The group, known as the Priestly Society of St. John Vianney, was granted the status of an apostolic administration, the equivalent of a diocese, and their illicitly ordained bishop was regularized (NCR, Jan. 11 and 25).

The St. John Vianney Society was founded in close collaboration with the schismatic Society of St. Pius X, created by French Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre.

The deal in Brazil is the unintended fruit of a larger overture by Castrillón to the Lefebvrites, who went into schism in 1988 after Lefebvre ordained four bishops without Vatican permission. While the Latin Mass is the movement’s symbol, Lefebvre’s followers harbor other deep disagreements with the modern church on issues such as ecumenism and interreligious dialogue. Today the movement claims 160,000 members in 40 countries.

When Castrillón was appointed to replace Cardinal Angelo Felici as head of the Ecclesia Dei commission in April 2000, observers expected a more activist approach. The expectation was swiftly fulfilled.

According to Richard Williamson, one of the four bishops ordained by Lefevbre, Castrillón wrote to each of the four bishops, addressing them as “my dear brother” and saying the pope’s arms were open wide. A meeting with three of the bishops took place Aug. 14, 2000, in Castrillón’s Rome apartment. On Dec. 29 and 30, 2000, Castrillón had two long talks in Rome with Bishop Bernard Fellay, head of the Pius X Society. In addition, Fellay had a brief encounter with the pope.

Castrillon offered the Pius X society an apostolic administration without territorial limits, in effect granting them a diocese of worldwide scope.

The Lefebvrites responded with two preconditions. The first was that excommunications from the 1988 schism be declared null and void, in effect an admission that they were imposed unjustly. The second was that a universal permission be granted for all priests of the Catholic church to celebrate the 1962 rite, the last approved version of the old Latin Mass.

At an extraordinary March 22, 2001, meeting of the cardinals of the Roman curia with the pope, a majority opposed a universal permission, arguing that it amounted to a rejection of the Mass approved by Paul VI.

The Society of Pius X walked away. The Brazilians, however, decided to take the deal.

By all accounts, Castrillón handled the negotiations personally. One Vatican source said that the cardinal’s staff was not kept abreast and learned about the Campos breakthrough from the press. NCR also learned that two days before the Jan. 18 reconciliation, the Brazilian bishops conference had not been officially informed that anything was pending.

Within the Vatican, opinion is split. Some applaud the Campos deal as the healing, albeit partial, of the only declared schism of John Paul II’s papacy.

Others, however, believe the deal only delays the day of reckoning, since the underlying theological objections to church reforms prompted by the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) have not been solved.

One piece of evidence to this effect is a 1982 profession of faith published by the Campos priests, which Bishop Licínio Rangel, the illicitly ordained bishop now recognized as apostolic administrator, told NCR they do not see any reason to disavow. It was a broad rejection of post-Vatican II trends in the church, including ecumenism, interreligious dialogue, new thinking in moral theology, and liberation theology.

One Vatican source said the church has been down this road before.

A new religious community, The Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter, was created in 1988 to offer a home for traditionalist priests who wanted to remain in communion with the church. They were given permission to celebrate the 1962 Mass.

The fraternity was immediately elevated to “pontifical right,” meaning that it depends directly on the pope. Normally religious communities start out as “associations of the faithful,” then progress to being of diocesan right, before obtaining papal recognition. The decision to grant the Fraternity of St. Peter this status immediately was heralded as a sign of the pope’s good will.

In July 1999, the Vatican issued a ruling known as “Protocol 1411” saying that religious superiors could not forbid priests from celebrating the new Mass. Some priests in the Fraternity of St. Peter had been discouraged from celebrating the new Mass even on Holy Thursday, when all the priests in a diocese are expected to celebrate in union with the bishop. The intervention triggered bitter infighting.

Later, Castrillón imposed a new superior for the fraternity, Fr. Arnaud Devillers, seen as more flexible on the new Mass than the man he replaced, Fr. Josef Bisig. The decision led some Catholic traditionalists to brand the fraternity a “sell-out,” and to point to its turmoil as a cautionary tale about accepting Vatican overtures.

In this connection, some Vatican insiders fault Castrillón as naive. His attitude is contrasted with the more “realistic” tone of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the Vatican’s top doctrinal authority. “I wish, hope and pray that this wound will be closed, but the path is still long,” Ratzinger said in April 2001.

To judge from the reaction of the Society of St. Pius X to the Brazil deal, Ratzinger’s caution seems warranted.

Complaining of the “hastiness and the partially hidden character of the negotiations,” Fellay said Jan.16: “All of this is not good, for strength lies in unity.”

Fr. Peter Scott, a district superior in the society, was even more blunt Jan. 15.

“The coincidence of Assisi II, last month’s world prayer meeting for all religions, with this ceremony of regularization, just adds to our sorrow,” Scott wrote. “If it was Assisi in 1986 that convinced Archbishop Lefebvre of the gravity of the crisis in the church … it is Assisi II that is our wake-up call that ecumenism is alive and well, that it continues to destroy the church within, at its very marrow, and that it is our duty to stand firm and make reparation for it.”

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

National Catholic Reporter, February 8, 2002