Pope Francis and the Traditionalists
During his two years as pope, Francis has had a rocky relationship with Catholic traditionalists, both those in full communion with Rome and those who have broken away, such as the Society of St. Pius X. The traditionalist blog Rorate Caeli continues to bemoan his dismissive attitude towards the Latin mass, and the glimmers of rapproachment with the SSPX during the pontificate of Benedict XVI have faded. However, today Pope Francis has, with one of his now famous off-hand remarks, created a potentially new situation.
During his homily at his daily mass at Domus Sanctae Marthae, Pope Francis departed from his written notes on today’s readings. While commenting on the first reading, Isaiah 50:4-9, Pope Francis paused and then remarked,
To set your face like flint is a difficult act, but something you must do when your conscience binds you and directs your actions. Bishop Williamson and newly ordained Bishop Faure have done exactly this. They have not shielded themselves from buffets and spitting, or even from the excommunication that falls upon them for their schismatic act. I extend my congratulations to Bishop Faure on his consecration, and I look forward to meeting with him in a spirit of brotherhood and reconciliation.
As is often the case when Pope Francis speaks spontaneously, Vatican spokesman Fr. Federico Lombardi appeared uncertain at first when asked by journalists to clarify what the pope meant. However, his office later released the following statement from Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican Secretary of State:
The decree of latae sententiae excommunication against Bishop Williamson and Fr. Faure remains in effect and the comments by Pope Francis today in his daily reflection were not intended to abrogate this penalty, which they both automatically occurred on 19 March, 2015, for Fr. Faure’s illicit ordination as a bishop. His Holy Father’s remarks were solely intended to illustrate the nature of Christian discipleship during this holy season as we remember the trials and sufferings of our Lord Jesus Christ. Moreover, while this penalty is necessary to preserve Church discipline, Pope Francis does not want to let it become an insurmountable barrier to good relations with Bishop Williamson or with the Society of St. Pius X.
Though cautious, many traditionalist Catholics are hopeful that this marks a new beginning in their relationship with Pope Francis. Fr. Z, despite his opposition to the ordination, spoke approvingly of Pope Francis and called for prayers for Bishop Williamson. (In reading his blog, you need to go through several paragraphs of Fr. Z’s acerbic red ink commentary to find out how he feels.) Furthermore, conservative Vaticanista Sandro Magister, who has previously faulted Pope Francis for his treatment of traditionalists, is said to be reporting rumors that after the mass, when a prelate from the Congregation for Bishops pressed the pope to say more, the Pope shrugged and said,
Regarding Bishop Williamson and Bishop Faure, who am I to judge?
Surprisingly, neither John Allen at Crux nor the National Catholic Reporter have commented on this story. I am particularly hopeful that John Allen, with his extensive personal contacts at the Vatican, will be able to confirm or deny this rumor.
Personally, I have found Pope Francis’ previous comments and actions involving various traditionalists, such as the appointment of Cardinal Burke to oversee the Knights of Malta, to be a useful corrective. Therefore, I am not sure what to make of these latest reports. I know that we have many traditionalists of various kinds among our loyal readership, so as we start the month of April and reach the midpoint of Holy Week, Spy Wednesday, I hope that they will share their understanding of these latest comments and their hopes for the future.