Clearing the Air (A Bit)
Apparently Pope Francis isn’t the only Catholic leader who has to clarify his words. Bishop Bernard Fellay, Superior General of the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX), created a stir in October when he referred to Francis as a “genuine Modernist” and accused him of doing nothing to help resolve the crisis in the Church. (You can find my various posts on the matter, along with links to Fellay’s remarks, here, here, and here.) In a French-language video interview, Fellay attempts to refine some of his remarks about Francis while clarifying that he views the Pope as a Modernist not in a theological sense, but in a practical sense. Whether that distinction holds is debatable. An English-language transcription of the interview is available from the Society here.
This isn’t the first time Fellay has had to clarify or refine his remarks. In a talk delivered last December, Fellay referred to the Jews as “enemies of the Church.” The Society quickly issued a clarification in January 2013 that the bishop meant the Jewish religion, not the Jewish people (see here). In that same month Fellay issued a clarification concerning his alleged statement that had Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre witnessed the Novus Ordo Mass served reverently, “he would not have taken the step that he did” (see here). Additionally, Bishop Fellay has had to go to some lengths to explain his thought, words, and deeds related to the failed doctrinal talks with the Vatican in an effort to clear himself (and the SSPX) of the charge of “softening” in the face of possible canonical regularization. Life isn’t easy at the top.
I make mention of this not to single-out Bishop Fellay as being either disingenuous or even careless with his remarks, but only to suggest that all leaders who, by virtue of their position, draw considerably more attention than their subordinates can fall victim to making ambiguous or incomplete statements which are soon taken up by media outlets, blogs, and individuals as absolute proof that they believe something other than what they actually hold to.
Fellay’s position is particularly precarious because he is trying to hold together a united front against what he and the Society sees are the concrete problems within the Church while also being aware that there is a legitimate spectrum of opinion within the SSPX on what that front should look like; how far it ought to advance; and whether or not going on the clear offensive is always wise. Some Catholics will never appreciate the idea that a priest or bishop of the Church should forthrightly criticize the Pope in the manner Fellay has recently done, but if one actually reads the bishop’s words it is clear that he is not issuing an unqualified condemnation of the man. There is a somewhat broad spectrum of faithful Catholics who are uneasy with some of Francis’ actions and statements, particularly with respect to the liturgy. His apparent dislike of traditional Catholics is also a cause for some concern, and so it makes sense that Fellay, the head of the largest body of traditional Catholic priests in the world, would come out against some of the Pope’s positions. It’s an open question, however, whether or not that is always prudent. It’s entirely possible that Fellay is exacerbating tensions with the Vatican by speaking so forthrightly while also inadvertently reinforcing Francis’ prejudices against traditional Catholicism. Thankfully, Fellay strikes a bit more charitable tone in this recent interview than he did at the Angelus Press Conference in October. For that he’ll probably be accused of “selling out.”