An interview of Bishop Bernard Fellay, then still Superior General of the SSPX, with Die Tagespost, on June 30, 2018.
Editor’s Note: This interview with Bishop Bernard Fellay originally appeared in the German publication Die Tagespost. This translation is printed here with permission. Moreover, this interview was conducted, and published on June 30, 2018, prior to the ongoing General Chapter of the Society of Saint Pius X. As such, Bishop Fellay was still Superior General of the Society at the time it was conducted.
RE: Your Excellency, how did you perceive your episcopal consecration thirty years ago? For you was it a definitive separation of the Society from Rome or an intermediate stage in the conflict, whereby you had reconciliation in view?
Bishop Fellay: If it had been a matter of separating from Rome then, I would not be here today. The Archbishop would not have consecrated me for that purpose, and I would have turned it down, too. Therefore it was not about separating from the Church, but about distinguishing our position from the modern spirit, from the fruits of the Council. Meanwhile others too have admitted that something went wrong there. Many ideas and aspects that we have fought and are fighting against have meanwhile been seconded by others, too. We never said that the Council made heretical statements outright. But it did remove the protective barrier against error and in this way caused error to crop up. The faithful need protection. The constant battle of the Church Militant consists in defending the faith.
RE: But not everyone who criticizes the “Council of the media”—and that includes Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, too—is willing to risk a conflict that leads to excommunication. Why did you not strengthen the ranks of those within the Church who were faithful to Tradition and fight for the truth in union with Rome?
Bishop Fellay: That is certainly due in part to the history of the French. Since the French Revolution quite a few French Catholics have fought against the error of liberalism. Therefore what happened during and after the Council was perceived much more sensitively and more attentively than in Germany. It was not a matter of blatant errors, but rather of trends, of opening doors and windows. The reforms afterward showed this more clearly than the Council itself. Moreover the problem solidified with the new Mass. In Rome they told Archbishop Lefebvre: “Either/or. Just celebrate the new Mass, and then everything will be in order.” Our arguments against the new Mass did not count. And yet the Missal of Paul VI was composed with the collaboration of Protestant theologians. If you are pressured to celebrate this Mass, then there really is a problem. And we were pressured.
RE: Did your rejection of the new Mass fortify you and Archbishop Lefebvre too in your view that separation from Rome was the will of God?
Bishop Fellay: I insist: We never separated from the Church.
RE: But the fact of the excommunication speaks for itself. Why else would Pope Benedict XVI have had to lift it?
Bishop Fellay: In the 1917 Code of Canon Law episcopal consecration without papal mandate is considered not a schism but only a misuse of authority that is possible even without excommunication. All of Church history has a different view of the problem of episcopal consecrations that take place without the Pope’s commission. That is very important.
RE: Why is that so important? In 1988 the new Code of Canon Law was already in force—and even the 1917 CIC [Codex Iuris Canonici] obliges a bishop to be faithful to the Holy See.
Bishop Fellay: We were in a state of necessity, for Rome had nominated a bishop for us. The discussion between Cardinal Ratzinger and Archbishop Lefebvre on May 5, 1988, was about the date of the consecration. Archbishop Lefebvre and Cardinal Ratzinger could not reach an agreement. Archbishop Lefebvre had made a recommendation. I am sure that if Cardinal Ratzinger at that time had confirmed August 15 as the date for the consecration without changing the candidate, the Archbishop would have agreed. Yet the date remained open. When Archbishop Lefebvre asked the Cardinal, “Why not at the end of the year?” he received the answer: “I don’t know; I can’t say.” Therefore the Archbishop thought that they were toying with him. That was certainly one point of mistrust. And to this day mistrust is a key word in our story. We are working to overcome that, and then again something comes between us—it is really troublesome.
Note by the editors of Die Tagespost: The Pope Emeritus told the editors that he no longer remembers the details but is fairly certain that the question of personnel played only a subordinate role. John Paul II had definitely promised an episcopal consecration. Setting a date was not his (Cardinal Ratzinger’s) job. At the end of the conversation Archbishop Lefebvre had signed the protocol which—if he had stood by his consent—would have meant unification. A colleague from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, as previously arranged, visited Lefebvre the following day in Albano to fetch the paper. To everyone’s dismay, Lefebvre declared that he had been unable to sleep the whole night and had come to realize that in reality they only wanted to use unification to destroy his work.)
RE: Cardinal Ratzinger was a connoisseur and veteran promoter of Catholic Tradition and a friend of the Traditional Mass; why couldn’t he reassure the Archbishop?
Bishop Fellay: He did not understand how profound the Archbishop’s motives were or how bewildered the faithful and the priests were. Many were simply fed up with the post-conciliar scandals and nuisances and with the way in which the new Mass was being celebrated. If Cardinal Ratzinger had understood us, he would not have acted that way. And I think that he regretted it. That is why he then tried as Pope to repair the damage with the Motu Proprio and lifted the excommunication. We are truly grateful for his attempts at reconciliation.
RE: But as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith Cardinal Ratzinger also had to consider the difficulties and the exasperation of the rest of the faithful: For example, it is exasperating that the priests of the Society contradict the Church on such essential points as the question about the validity of the Mass. Many of your followers are of the opinion that the Sunday duty is not fulfilled by attending the new Mass, which in their view is “heretical.”
Bishop Fellay: I must contradict that adamantly: We do speak about the invalidity of many Masses. But maintaining that all Masses are invalid is not the line taken by the Society. We have never said that. In our discussions with Rome we have always emphasized that we acknowledge the validity of the new Mass, when it is celebrated according to the [liturgical] books and with the intention of doing what the Church is instructed to do. Here it is necessary to distinguish between valid and good.
RE: And where in your opinion does that distinction lie?
Bishop Fellay: The new Mass has defects and dangers lurking in it. Of course not every new Mass is a scandal immediately, but the repeated celebration of the new Mass leads to a weak faith or even to the loss of faith. We see every day how fewer and fewer priests still believe in the Real Presence. With the old Mass, the liturgy nourishes the faith; there you go to the rock and you are strengthened in this faith; certain liturgical actions lead us further in the faith, for example, to faith in the Real Presence, in the Sacrifice—merely by kneeling, for example, by the silence, the priest’s comportment. With the new Mass you have to bring your own faith; you receive hardly anything immediately from the rite. The rite is flat.
RE: But even before the liturgical reform there were priests with weak faith, Modernists and heretics. The liberal Council Fathers whom you criticize all grew up with the old Mass and were ordained in the old rite. Do you consider conversions that are encouraged even today by the new Mass—think of Nightfever [a spin-off from World Youth Day that organizes nights of prayer to bring people back to the faith]—to be self-deceptions?
Bishop Fellay: No, I’m not saying that. I’m just saying: If you welcome a head of state and have the choice between a silver trumpet and a tin trumpet, do you use the tin trumpet? That would be an insult; you don’t do that. And even the best new Masses are like tin trumpets in comparison to the old liturgy. We have to use the best for the dear Lord.
RE: In a sermon you said recently: “How could they ever dare to make such a wretched, such an empty, insipid Mass? You cannot honor God that way.” Yet the new Mass even today is for Catholic believers the most precious thing in their life, and even today the Church is producing martyrs and saints. Why do you not differentiate in your preaching?
Bishop Fellay: I agree that in theological discussion one must make distinctions. But in a sermon you cannot present everything so theologically. A bit of rhetoric is part of it, also, to shake up souls a little and to wake people up and to open their eyes.
RE: Pope Francis wants to extend a hand of reconciliation to the Society. Do you still anticipate unification, or has that favorable moment passed?
Bishop Fellay: I am optimistic. But I cannot move God’s hour ahead. If the Holy Ghost is capable of influencing the present Pope, then He will do so with the next one too. And in fact that’s how it has happened. And with Pope Francis, too. When Pope Francis was elected, I thought: Now comes the excommunication. But it was the opposite: Cardinal Müller wanted to obtain our excommunication, and Pope Francis refused. He told me personally: “I will not condemn you!” The reconciliation will come. Our Mother the Church at the present time is incredibly divided. The conservatives want us and have said as much even in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The German bishops do not want us at all. Rome has to reckon with all these elements—we understand that. If we were simply accepted just like that, there would be war in the Church. There is fear that we might triumph. Pope Francis told journalists: “I will make sure that it is not a triumph for you.”
RE: There are tensions and fears within the Society too, though. In France quite a few priests and laypeople have separated from the SSPX because the mere fact of negotiations with the Vatican has stirred up mistrust. How would the SSPX members take reconciliation with Rome?
Bishop Fellay: That will depend on what Rome demands of us. If they let us keep doing what we are doing and give us enough guarantees—then no one will go away. The mistrust is based on the fear of having to accept something new. If they demand that we follow new paths, then no one will come.
RE: What makes you so sure that everyone could go along? The mere announcement about the discussions [between the CDF and the SSPX] already unleashed massive unrest and resignations. What conclusion could possibly calm your followers? The mistrust would not just go away after unification.
Bishop Fellay: That is true. But the goodness is there, the good will. For years we have been working with Rome to rebuild trust. And we have made great progress, despite all the reactions. If we arrive at a reasonable unification with normal conditions, very few will stay away. I have no great fear of a new division in Tradition, if the right terms with Rome are found. We are allowed to call into question certain points of the Council. Our dialogue partners in Rome told us: The main points—freedom of religion, ecumenism, the new Mass—are open questions. That is incredible progress. The line always used to be: You must obey. But now our colleagues in the Curia tell us: You ought to open a seminary in Rome, a university to defend Tradition. No longer is everything black and white.
RE: What would a reasonable solution look like?
Bishop Fellay: A personal prelature.
RE: If the canonical form has already been found and the discussions in Rome went well, what explains the failure to make the decisive step?
Bishop Fellay: Last year Archbishop Pozzo told us that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith agreed to the text that we were supposed to sign. With it we were to agree to a personal prelature. One and a half months later Cardinal Müller decided to revise the text and to demand a clearer acceptance of the Council and of the legitimacy of the Holy Mass. First they opened up paths of discussion for us, then they closed them off. What do they really demand of us? The devil is at work here. It is a spiritual battle.
RE: Do you trust the Holy Father Pope Francis personally?
Bishop Fellay: We have a very good relationship. When we let him know that we are in Rome, his door is always open. He constantly helps us on a less important level. For example he told us: “I have problems when I do something good for you. I help Protestants and Anglicans—why can’t I help Catholics?” Many want to prevent unification. We are a disturbing factor in the Church. The Pope stands in the middle.
(He smiles and shows a handwritten note from the Holy Father to him, composed in French, that begins with the salutation Cher frère, cher fils—Dear Brother, dear Son.)