A couple of days ago, I noted the negative response of the Society of Saint Pius X, a traditionalist Catholic body, to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ recent statement on the importance of religious freedom. The SSPX criticized the American concept of religious freedom, which the Conference had endorsed, as a more or less Protestant idea inconsistent with traditional Church teaching. I guessed that the SSPX represented a rather small movement within Catholicism, but thought it interesting that the bishops’ stance on religion in public life could draw criticism from the right as well as the left.
It turns out I may have underestimated the importance of the SSPX. (A lesson: outsiders really should not assume they understand relations at the Holy See). La Stampa reports this week that the Vatican and the SSPX are poised to sign an agreement to make the SSPX a personal prelature of the Pope, like Opus Dei. This is big news. Pope John Paul II excommunicated the founder of the SSPX, the French Cardinal Marcel Lefebvre, for disobedience, but Pope Benedict has been working hard to bring the group back into the fold. One major sticking point has been the issue of religious freedom. The SSPX believes that Vatican II’s famous endorsement of religious freedom, Dignitatis Humanae, contradicts earlier papal statements, most importantly the 19th Century “Syllabus of Errors,” which famously condemned the idea that “every man is free to embrace and profess that religion which, guided by the light of reason, he shall consider true.”
What does this week’s apparent agreement suggest about the Church’s position on religious freedom? According to La Stampa, although the agreement requires SSPX to submit to the Pope on important doctrinal matters, it specifically allows for “legitimate discussion, study and theological explanation of particular expressions or formulations found in the documents of the Second Vatican Council.” Given the SSPX’s long, and apparently continuing, discomfort with Dignitatis Humanae, this language might mean that the concept of religious freedom, at least as understood in at Vatican II, is once again up for debate within the Church. That’s what the La Stampa article suggests. But, as I say, outsiders really should not assume they understand relations at the Holy See.