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The Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei is a commission of the Roman Catholic Church established by Pope John Paul II's motu proprio Ecclesia Dei of 2 July 1988 for the care of those former followers of Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre who broke with him as a result of his consecration of four priests of his Society of St. Pius X as bishops on 30 June 1988, an act the Holy See deemed illicit and schismatic.

It has the additional tasks of trying to return to full communion with the Holy See those traditionalist Catholics who are in a state of separation, of whom the Society of Saint Pius X (SSPX) is foremost, and of helping to satisfy just aspirations of people unconnected with these groups who want to keep alive the pre-1970 Roman Rite liturgy.

The Pontifical Commission was given additional functions by the motu proprio Summorum Pontificum, issued by Pope Benedict XVI on 7 July 2007, to exercise the authority of the Holy See, supervising the observance and application of the dispositions of that motu proprio, as described below.

In his letter of 10 March 2009 concerning his remission of the excommunication of the four bishops of the Society of St Pius X, Pope Benedict XVI announced his intention to join the Commission to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.


Activities in 2000-2002

In 2000, Cardinal Darío Castrillón Hoyos, who became President of the Commission in that year, approached the bishops of the SSPX about regularizing relations, and told them that the Pope was prepared to grant them a personal prelature without territorial limits — the same canonical structure as that enjoyed by Opus Dei.[1] The SSPX leadership responded with distrust,[2] saying that Castrillón was vague on how this structure would be implemented and supported, and considering what they regarded as objectionable conduct on the Vatican's part at the time of the 1988 consecrations and in relation to the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter.[3] They required two preliminary "signs" before continuing negotiations: that the Holy See grant permission for all priests to celebrate the Tridentine Mass, and declare null its earlier declarations that the 1988 consecrations had resulted in excommunication.[4]

Cardinal Castrillón refused to grant interviews on the matter, in order, as he said, "to maintain the privacy of the details of our dialogue". This silence was broken when his letter of 5 April 2002 to Bishop Bernard Fellay, Superior General of the SSPX, was later published.[5] The letter contained the text of a protocol summarising the meeting between the two men held on 29 December 2000, a document that Bishop Fellay accepted at a further meeting the next day. The protocol envisaged a reconciliation on the basis of the protocol of 5 May 1988; the excommunications of 1988 would be lifted, rather than declared null. In his letter, the Cardinal proposed continuing negotiations with Bishop Fellay by means of personal meetings.

In keeping with Cardinal Castrillón's desire to avoid counterproductive publicity, the reports of the Ecclesia Dei Commission appearing in the annual publication L'Attività della Santa Sede (Libreria Editrice Vaticana) for the years 2000 and those immediately following make no mention of these negotiations.

In another field, the Commission made successful contact in the same year 2000 with the Priestly Union of St Jean-Marie Vianney in Campos, Brazil, which was admitted to full communion with the Roman Catholic Church and was granted the status of a Personal Apostolic Administration within that diocese.

Activities in 2003-2005

The 2003 report of the Ecclesia Dei Commission is the first of its 21st-century reports to speak of serious dialogue between SSPX and the Holy See:

During the year, dialogue about the canonical situation of the St Pius X Fraternity continued at various levels. In this connection, the Cardinal President had some high-level meetings and kept up an exchange of correspondence. On the Holy See's side, there has been no change in the effective proposals for regularizing the question. After examining the problems faced by priests and faithful, considering the good will of several members of the Fraternity and the recurrent problems of the faithful attached to the former liturgical tradition who take part in the Fraternity's liturgy, the full membership of the Commission studied and presented to the Holy Father a draft for restructuring the Commission with a view to… a possible return of the St Pius X Fraternity or of some of its members [6]

The 2004 report had less to say about SSPX: "Again this year, dialogue at various levels continued, though slowly, with the Saint Pius X Fraternity. The Cardinal President had meetings, some at a high level, in this regard. On the Holy See's side, the effective proposals for regularizing the situation remain unaltered."[7]

The 2005 report states: "During the year, the Cardinal President intensified dialogue with the Fraternity of St Pius X, finding that it had somewhat improved, with more concrete prospects of reaching more perfect communion. The Cardinal President had some meetings in this regard with His Excellency Bishop B. Fellay and other members in leadership positions, and kept up an exchange of correspondence."[8]

Without having the meeting listed as one of his official audiences of the day, Pope Benedict XVI, the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger who in 1988 had in vain negotiated on behalf of Pope John Paul II with Archbishop Lefebvre, received for 35 minutes on 29 August 2005 Bishop Bernard Fellay, who had requested the meeting.[9] There was no breakthrough, but statements from both sides spoke of the atmosphere as positive.

Activities in 2006-2008

The Commission marked another success in establishing on 8 September 2006 the Institute of the Good Shepherd with a membership of priests who had belonged to the Society of St Pius X.

Speaking on 16 May 2007 to the Fifth General Conference of the Bishops of Latin America and the Caribbean, Cardinal Castrillón presented the Ecclesia Dei Commission over which he presides as founded for the care of those "traditionalist Catholics" who, while discontented with the liturgical reform of the Second Vatican Council, had broken with Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre "because they disagreed with his schismatic action in ordaining Bishops without the required papal mandate". He added that at present the Commission's activity is not limited to the service of those Catholics, nor to "the efforts undertaken to end the regrettable schismatic situation and secure the return of those brethren belonging to the Fraternity of Saint Pius X to full communion." It extends also, he said, to "satisfying the just aspirations of people, unrelated to the two aforementioned groups, who, because of their specific sensitiveness, wish to keep alive the earlier Latin liturgy in the celebration of the Eucharist and the other sacraments."

Pope Benedict XVI, he said, who was for years a member of the Commission, wishes it to become an organ of the Holy See for the specific purpose of preserving and maintaining the value of the traditional Latin liturgy. He added the comment: "But it must be stated quite clearly that it is not a matter of going backward, of returning to the times before the 1970 reform. What is in question is instead a generous offer of the Vicar of Christ wishing, as an expression of his pastoral will, to place at the Church's disposal all the treasures of the Latin liturgy that for centuries nourished the spiritual life of so many generations of Catholic faithful. The Holy Father wishes to preserve the immense spiritual, cultural and esthetic treasure linked with the old liturgy. Recovery of these riches goes together with the no less precious riches of the Church's present liturgy."[10]

Clearly, the Cardinal already knew the text of the motu proprio Summorum Pontificum, which Pope Benedict published on 7 July 2007, which gave the Pontifical Commission additional functions: it was to exercise the authority of the Holy See, supervising the observance and application of the dispositions of the motu proprio,[11] and, if a bishop was unable to satisfy the request of a stable group of the kind mentioned, the matter was to be referred to the Commission, either by the bishop himself or by others.[12]

The dispositions of the motu proprio whose observance and application were thus entrusted to the Pontifical Commission included the following:

  • Priests of the Latin Rite can freely choose between the 1962 Roman Missal and the later edition "in Masses celebrated without the people".[13] Such celebrations may be attended by those who spontaneously ask to be allowed.[14]
  • Where there is a "stable" group of faithful attached to the earlier form, the priest in charge of the church "should willingly accept their request to celebrate Mass according to the 1962 Missal", provided that the celebrating priest is "qualified to [celebrate] and not juridically impeded."[15] (This would exclude traditionalist priests not in good standing with Rome.)
  • "For faithful and priests who request it, the pastor should also allow celebrations in this extraordinary form for special circumstances such as marriages, funerals or occasional celebrations."[15]
  • "The pastor ... may also grant permission to use the earlier ritual for the administration of the Sacraments of Baptism, Marriage, Penance, and the Anointing of the Sick, if the good of souls would seem to require it."[16]
  • "Ordinaries are given the right to celebrate the Sacrament of Confirmation using the earlier Roman Pontifical, if the good of souls would seem to require it."[16]
  • "Clerics ... may use the Roman Breviary promulgated by Bl. John XXIII in 1962."[16]

Some groups of traditionalist Catholics, such as the Sons of the Most Holy Redeemer (previously known as the Transalpine Redemptorists), that had been in dispute with the Holy See decided that this motu proprio gave grounds for seeking an agreement,[17] contacted the Commission and were received into full communion with the Holy See.[18]

The Commission also continued its conversations with the Society of St Pius X, which, though welcoming the motu proprio, referred to "difficulties that still remain", including "disputed doctrinal issues" and the notice of excommunication that still affects its bishops.[19] After a meeting on 4 June 2008 with the Society's superior general, Bishop Bernard Fellay, Cardinal Castrillón asked in writing to respond positively before the end of that month committing himself:

  1. to give a response proportionate to the generosity of the pope.
  2. to avoid any public intervention disrespectful of the person of the pope and that would be negative for ecclesial charity.
  3. to avoid the claim to a magisterium higher than the Holy Father and to not present the society in opposition to the Church.
  4. to show the will to act honestly in full ecclesial charity and with respect for the authority of the Vicar of Christ.[20][21]

Reuters reported on 26 June 2008 that Bishop Fellay had given a negative response.[22]

Activities in 2009

In his letter of 10 March 2009 concerning his remission, on 21 January 2009, of the excommunication of the four bishops of the Society of St Pius X, Pope Benedict XVI announced his intention to join the Commission to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith:

This will make it clear that the problems now to be addressed are essentially doctrinal in nature and concern primarily the acceptance of the Second Vatican Council and the post-conciliar magisterium of the Popes. The collegial bodies with which the Congregation studies questions which arise (especially the ordinary Wednesday meeting of Cardinals and the annual or biennial Plenary Session) ensure the involvement of the Prefects of the different Roman Congregations and representatives from the world's Bishops in the process of decision-making.

In the motu proprio Ecclesiae Unitatem issued by Pope Benedict XVI on 8 July 2009, PCED's ex officio president is now the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, currently William Cardinal Levada. This is to facilate the discussions of bringing the SSPX into full communion with Rome. The motu proprio, does not deal with the liturgical aspects of the extra-ordinary form, thus the powers given to it in Summorum Pontificum are unaltered. The liturgical governance of the extraordinary form (e.g. liturgical calendar questions) are not discussed within Ecclesiae Unitatem and are to remain with the PCED. The original mandate and scope of action of the PCED was much larger than the SSPX question and was principally to maintain good relations with the communities who now celebrate the Latin Mass under Summorum Pontificum. This remains the principal function of the PCED until it is transferred to the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments in another motu proprio expected after the successful re-integration of the SSPX.

Cardinal Presidents of the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei


  1. ^ John-Paul II went as far as to offer Lefebvre a personal prelature (Aspects of Contemporary France, by Sheila Perry, ISBN 0-415-13180-4, page 159); So I told all these things to the Cardinal and then he said, "So, here's what Rome proposes to you: We want a solution in which we solve the problem of bishops, bishops who would be ordinaries, that is, true bishops, maybe with dioceses, and priests and faithful." He spoke about an arrangement like that of Opus Dei, that is, a personal prelature (talk given by Bishop Bernard Fellay at St. Vincent de Paul Church, Kansas City, Missouri on March 5, 2002). However, on an earlier occasion Bishop Fellay said that what was under consideration was not a personal prelature but an apostolic administration (Communicantes: August 2001).
  2. ^ The Superior General expressed his point of view, his distrust, his apprehension (Statement of Bishop Fellay to SSPX Members & Friends January 22, 2001)
  3. ^ "Rome’s failure to understand our position is such that if today we accepted their agreement, tomorrow we would have to undergo exactly the same treatment as Saint Peter’s Fraternity, which is muzzled, and being led where it does not want to go".See also.
  4. ^ On January 16, there was another meeting with Cardinal Castrillon, during which the Superior General exposed the necessity of having guaranties from Rome before going ahead in the details of eventual discussions or an agreement: That the Tridentine Mass be granted to all priests of the entire world; That the censures against the Bishops be declared null (Statement of Bishop Fellay to SSPX Members & Friends January 22, 2001); We thus did require these two signs, first the withdrawal of the decree of excommunication and, secondly, the permission for all the priests of the Latin rite, without distinction, to celebrate the traditional Mass. I believe these two steps would have been able to create a truly new climate in the universal Church ( Interview with Bishop Fellay, August 2001, Angelus magazine)
  5. ^ Letter to Fellay
  6. ^ 2003 edition of L'Attività della Santa Sede (ISBN 88-209-7583-1), page 1097
  7. ^ 2004 edition of L'Attività della Santa Sede (ISBN 88-209-7752-4), page 1090
  8. ^ 2005 edition of L'Attività della Santa Sede (ISBN 88-209-7831-8), page 1168
  9. ^ Rarely has a 35-minute audience, one that didn't even appear on the pope's official list of engagements, made as much of a splash as Benedict XVI's "private" Aug. 29 encounter with Bishop Bernard Fellay, superior of the Society of St. Pius X, the body founded in 1970 by French Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre. Benedict and the Lefebvrites, John L. Allen, Jr., Word From Rome, National Catholic Reporter, September 2, 2005
  10. ^ Intervención sobre Ecclesia Dei-16 de mayo de 2007
  11. ^ Summorum Pontificum, art. 12
  12. ^ Summorum Pontificum, articles 7-8
  13. ^ Summorum Pontificum, art. 2
  14. ^ Summorum Pontificum, art. 4
  15. ^ a b Summorum Pontificum, art. 5
  16. ^ a b c Summorum Pontificum, art. 9
  17. ^ Declaration on Relations with Rome
  18. ^ Transalpine Redemptorists reconciled with Holy See
  19. ^ Press Release from the General Superior of the Priestly Society of Saint Pius X, 7 July 2007
  20. ^ original French text
  21. ^ [ Holy See issues ultimatum to Pius X Society, Vatican expert reveals]
  22. ^ Catholic rebel snubs pope call to rejoin Rome

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