Pope Francis, in a letter accompanying Traditionis Custodes — his document restricting the pre-Vatican II form of the Mass — wrote that most people understand that the action taken by his two predecessors to accommodate the celebration of the older form “granted by the indult of the Congregation for Divine Worship in 1984 and confirmed by St. John Paul II in the Motu Proprio Ecclesia Dei in 1988 — was above all motivated by the desire to foster the healing of the schism with the movement of Mons. Lefebvre.”

In other words, according to Francis, the primary reason Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI expanded permission for the Tridentine Mass was to help facilitate reconciliation with the Society of Saint Pius X (SSPX). Pope Benedict says as much regarding his predecessor in his letter accompanying Summorum Pontificum, writing, “At the time, the Pope primarily wanted to assist the Society of Saint Pius X to recover full unity with the Successor of Peter, and sought to heal a wound experienced ever more painfully.”

Many contemporary traditionalists bristle at the notion that appeasing Lefebvrists was the primary motive behind allowing wider permission for the antecedent liturgical form, describing it as revisionist history — especially in the case of Pope Benedict. They point to a handful of quotations by Benedict to suggest that his 2007 letter Summorum Pontificum was motivated instead with the intention of helping to foster a liturgical renewal. Certainly it is true that he wanted to enhance the Church’s liturgy. But it is impossible to understand the documents regulating use of the older Mass by Francis’s two most recent predecessors without considering the relationship between the Vatican and the SSPX at the time of their promulgation.

Pope Benedict and Liturgy

In Benedict’s first book-length interview following his retirement, Last Testament,[1] Peter Seewald quotes Benedict on how two forms of one rite are to be understood. The pope emeritus offered his explanation, saying, “There are two ways to represent it ritually, but they belong to one fundamental rite. I have always said, and even still say, that it was important that something which was previously the most sacred thing in the Church to people should not suddenly be completely forbidden.” Benedict then insisted, “for me it was not about tactical matters and God knows what, but about the inward reconciliation of the Church with itself.”

When Seewald asks whether Benedict lifted the restrictions on the older Mass primarily as a concession to the SSPX, Benedict fires back, “That is just absolutely false! It was important for me that the Church is one with herself inwardly, with her own past; that what was previously holy to her is not somehow wrong now. The rite must develop. In that sense reform is appropriate. But the continuity must not be ruptured.”

In a way, it seems that Benedict was attempting to backfill what he saw as gaps or ruptures in liturgical development by reintroducing the Tridentine liturgy. In the accompanying letter to Summorum Pontificum, Pope Benedict presents a “positive reason” for issuing the motu proprio. He suggests that by allowing two forms of the Roman Rite to coexist side-by-side, there would be a “mutually enriching” effect on both liturgical forms. Perhaps he perceived that there would be cross-pollination between the two or that one would eventually graft itself onto the other. Presumably at some point in the distant future, by an unknown process, their coexistence would eventually lead to the development of a single expression of the Roman Rite featuring the positive elements of both forms and having shed their negative or deficient aspects.

How this might take place “organically” is unclear, especially considering that in 1984, the Congregation for Divine Worship clearly stated in Quattuor Abhinc Annos, “There must be no interchanging of texts and rites of the two Missals.” Summorum Pontificum emphasizes that the two forms are united, yet each is distinct. The Vatican never offered any new insights into how this organic enrichment process might play out.

Sacrosanctum Concilium mentions organic development only once and is quite clear on what is meant by this concept: “there must be no innovations unless the good of the Church genuinely and certainly requires them; and care must be taken that any new forms adopted should in some way grow organically from forms already existing” (23). “Should in some way grow” sets a much lower (and comprehensible) bar for what constitutes organic development than the seemingly magical process that the Gamber school of liturgy apparently envisions.

Benedict certainly envisioned that Summorum Pontificum would enhance the liturgy of the Church, but we also cannot deny that at the time it was clearly associated with something less abstract: reconciliation with the SSPX. Even Benedict, in the same interview, did not exclude healing the rupture with the SSPX as a motivating factor, even if Summorum Pontificum wasn’t driven solely by that motive. He said:

The Society of St Pius X is based on the fact that people felt the Church was renouncing itself. That must not be. But as I said, my intentions were not of a tactical nature, they were about the substance of the matter itself. Of course it is also the case that, the moment one sees a Church schism looming, the Pope is obliged to do whatever is possible to prevent it happening. This also includes the attempt to lead these people back into unity with the Church, if possible.

A more complete analysis of this topic, however, requires a deeper exploration of the situation between the SSPX and Rome. The releases of both Ecclesia Dei and Summorum Pontificum were closely tied to negotiations between the Vatican and the Society, and neither can be adequately understood without that context.

Lefebvre and Rome

French Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre founded the SSPX in 1970 as a response to what he claimed to be errors and innovations in the Catholic Church resulting from the Second Vatican Council. He was suspended from priestly ministry in 1976 by Pope Paul VI for failing to implement the changes mandated by the Church following Vatican II. Despite his suspension, he continued to lead this society of priests, running a seminary in Écône, Switzerland, and conducting illicit ordinations.

Following his suspension, Lefebvre and Paul VI had a heated meeting at Castel Gandolfo, after which the pope sent a pointed follow-up letter. Paul VI criticized the archbishop for refusing to accept the teaching of the Church in its fullness, which includes the teachings of the pope and the Council, adding, “This refusal is accompanied by an action that is oriented towards propagating and organizing what must indeed, unfortunately, be called a rebellion.  This is the essential issue, and it is truly untenable.”

After the death of Pope Paul VI, during the tenure of Pope John Paul II, the SSPX continued to operate independently of the pope and ecclesial authority. At various points during John Paul’s papacy, the Vatican engaged in dialogue and attempts to reconcile with Lefebvre. This all came to a head on May 5, 1988, when then-Cardinal Ratzinger presented Lefebvre with a Protocol of Agreement, which would reconcile the Society with Rome, allow them to continue celebrating the pre-conciliar rites, and would establish them canonically as a Society of Apostolic Life.

The offer was made under five conditions: (1) The Society’s promise of fidelity to the pope; (2) Acceptance of Lumen Gentium 25, which declares the obligation of the faithful to grant religious assent to the pope’s teachings on faith and morals — even if not made by a definitive act; (3) That they avoid polemics and maintain a positive and open attitude towards elements of Vatican II that give them difficulty; (4) That they recognize the validity of the reformed liturgical rites; and (5) that they respect the laws of the Church, especially the Code of Canon Law.

Lefebvre signed the agreement but seems to have almost immediately regretted it. His biographer Bernard Tissier de Mallerais wrote that Lefebvre later told his driver, “If only you knew what a night I passed after signing that infamous agreement! Oh! How I wanted morning to come so that I could give Fr. du Chalard my letter of retraction which I had written during the night” (p. 644). After retracting his signature from the agreement, Lefebvre illicitly ordained four bishops on June 30, 1988, without papal recognition. The following day, the Vatican issued a formal decree stating that Lefebvre had incurred automatic excommunication for committing a “schismatical act” along with Bishops Bernard Fellay, Bernard Tissier de Mallerais, Richard Williamson, and Alfonso de Galarreta (the four illicitly ordained bishops), as well as Bishop Antonio de Castro Mayer, Bishop emeritus of Campos, Brazil, for participating in the consecrations.

The day after that, on July 2, Pope John Paul II issued the Apostolic Letter Ecclesia Dei, in which he lamented the unfortunate series of events. He wrote, “These efforts, especially intense during recent months, in which the Apostolic See has shown comprehension to the limits of the possible, were all to no avail” (1). He also reaffirmed the excommunication of the six bishops, adding, “such disobedience – which implies in practice the rejection of the Roman primacy — constitutes a schismatic act” (3).

The pope was not the only one who thought Lefebvre had gone too far. A number of the priests and faithful connected to the Society believed that Lefebvre should not have rejected the conditions offered by Rome, and agreed that the illicit consecrations were not consistent with Catholic ecclesiology. To these, John Paul II offered an olive branch in the letter: “To all those Catholic faithful who feel attached to some previous liturgical and disciplinary forms of the Latin tradition I wish to manifest my will to facilitate their ecclesial communion by means of the necessary measures to guarantee respect for their rightful aspirations” (5).

This was the famous “1988 indult” that led to the wider celebration of the older form of Mass. Within weeks, a dozen former SSPX priests and some seminarians erected the Fraternal Society of St. Peter (FSSP) in Switzerland. The FSSP, like the SSPX, is a society that celebrates the older liturgical rites, but, unlike the SSPX, is in full communion with Rome. Many Catholics took advantage of the indult, but the arrangement did not improve the relationship with the SSPX. Lefebvre died in 1991, and the four bishops carried on in his place, illicitly ordaining new priests and celebrating sacraments in an ongoing “irregular situation.”

Based on the timing and directives of Ecclesia Dei, it is reasonable to conclude that this letter was indeed a response to the Lefebvrite schism, as both Pope Francis and Pope Benedict XVI said. We can safely assert that the primary goal of Pope John Paul II in issuing Ecclesia Dei was to facilitate defection from the SSPX and restore its former members to full communion with the Catholic Church.

Pope Benedict and the Liturgy

When Benedict XVI was elected to the papacy, hope for a reunion with the SSPX was renewed. Benedict, as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in the 1980s, had been deeply involved in the efforts to reconcile the Lefebvrists to the Church. But he had another reason for attempting to bring the SSPX back into the fold. Benedict was a renowned supporter of classical liturgy and a critic of the way the liturgical reforms were carried out after the Second Vatican Council.

I have written in the past that Benedict was an outlier among postconciliar popes in his views on the liturgy, having adopted many of the ideas of the German liturgical scholar Klaus Gamber. Fundamentally, Gamber believed that the reformed liturgy did not reflect his definition of “organic development,” and therefore was unworthy to be called the “Roman Rite.” As pope, Benedict rejected Gamber’s latter claim, asserting that the reformed liturgy was an equally valid expression of the Roman Rite. He agreed with Gamber on the former, however, writing in a foreword to one of Gamber’s books that after the conciliar reforms, “in the place of liturgy as the fruit of development came fabricated liturgy.”

It’s clear that Benedict’s liturgical sentiments were a significant factor in his promulgation of Summorum Pontificum, and his theological understanding of the Mass rings clearly at various points in the text. Still, there were concrete and practical reasons for the motu proprio, and these reasons were widely reported at the time. The SSPX had demands, and Summorum Pontificum was a direct response to one of them.

Back in 2005, reporter Edward Pentin reported on an August meeting between Pope Benedict and SSPX superior Bernard Fellay. According to Pentin, the SSPX insisted that two conditions be met before they would be willing to entertain formal discussions with the Vatican:

To restore relations, the society demands that the Holy See first make two concessions: a “universal indult” that would recognize the right of Catholic priests throughout the world to celebrate the Tridentine Mass without special permission from their bishops, and the repeal of the excommunication order.

In the months and years preceding the July 2007 release of Summorum Pontificum, Catholic media and clerical circles were abuzz with discussion about not only the possibility of a document further widening the use of the Tridentine Rite, but with rumors of the full reconciliation of the SSPX being immanent. For example, in 2006, the traditionalist blog Rorate Caeli was publicizing rumors that reunification was to be one of Benedict’s “summer projects” that year.

An internet search for “universal indult” yields many results from Catholic websites in anticipation of a papal document that would free up the Latin Mass. And this anticipation was closely tied up with the reconciliation of the SSPX. In 2005, Sean Tribe wrote at New Liturgical Movement that Fellay hoped to ask the pope for it directly, saying, “Bishop Fellay said that he wanted to meet with Pope Benedict, and ask him to give permission for all Catholic priests throughout the world to use the Tridentine rite in celebrating Mass. The following year, Tribe republished a story from CWNews.com in which Fellay saw a universal indult as a “first step” to reunion. The article also repeated the two SSPX demands for resuming dialogue:

In talks with Vatican officials, aimed at restoring full communion between the Holy See and the breakaway traditionalist group, SSPX leaders have demanded that the Vatican allow free use of the Latin Mass throughout the world, and rescind the decrees of excommunication issued against Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre and the four traditionalist bishops he ordained in 1988.

Those two steps, explained Bishop Fellay (who is one of the prelates involved), would help restore traditionalists’ confidence in the Vatican. “The traditional Mass being no longer on probation and the ministry of traditional priests no longer clouded by the suspicion of excommunication,” he said, would give traditionalists reason to trust Vatican negotiators in further talks.

There are countless examples of this framing buried in the internet archives and now-defunct news sites and blogs. But I remember it well because I followed it closely at the time. I was very much in favor of the so-called “reform of the reform” of the liturgy and very much hoped for the liberalized use of the old Mass, as well as reconciliation with the SSPX. Revisionists who claim that Summorum Pontificum had nothing to do with the Society are severely mistaken.

We should also consider Bishop Fellay’s understanding of the situation. He believed that the climate in the Church was such that it would be imprudent for Benedict to simply say he was granting a universal indult to appease the demands of the SSPX. Fellay told an interviewer in 2005, “He is stuck between the progressives on one side and us on the other. If he were to grant a general permission for the Mass on the basis of our request alone, the modernists would stand up against him, affirming that the Pope has given way to traditionalists. … Any promise made by him to the Society in this sense would inevitably expose him to pressure by the progressives.“

If Fellay is to be believed, then Benedict would have had to issue a universal indult under other pretenses, even if his primary motivation was to mollify the SSPX. Of course, we will never have access to the full array of justifications that led to Benedict’s decision.

Something else to consider is the fact that Summorum Pontificum fulfilled the SSPX’s demand precisely. There are ways Benedict could have expanded the use of the Tridentine Rite without acceding to the specific requirements of the Society. But the details are there — Benedict restricted the authority of bishops to regulate the private use of the old missal, the newly-named “Extraordinary Form” (EF) was raised to equal dignity to the so-called “Ordinary Form” (OF), provisions for new communities and parishes centered around the EF were made. The groundwork was being laid — for something.

Of course, we know how the rest of it turned out. SSPX demand number two was carried out in 2009, resulting in a public relations nightmare. The four living SSPX bishops had their excommunications formally lifted and the media pounced on the story because one of them was a notorious Holocaust denier. The Vatican claimed they had been unaware of this. In a letter shortly thereafter, Benedict wrote, “I have been told that consulting the information available on the internet would have made it possible to perceive the problem early on. I have learned the lesson that in the future in the Holy See we will have to pay greater attention to that source of news.”

The next three years led to even more internal tumult within the SSPX. Bishop Williamson was expelled from the society (and eventually re-excommunicated for consecrating another bishop). Fellay was opposed by the other two remaining bishops, who opposed the negotiations with Rome. The saga ended with a final chapter during which Fellay attempted to rewrite a “doctrinal preamble” (essentially the Profession of Faith) from the Vatican, the Vatican said no, all deadlines passed, and the discussions ended once again.

In sum, it is clear that John Paul II’s Ecclesia Dei was primarily a response to the SSPX. And it’s impossible to deny that Benedict XVI’s Summorum Pontificum was motivated significantly by a desire to reconcile with the SSPX. It is also clear that Summorum Pontificum was not successful in that regard. It also led to many problems that its well-intentioned author did not foresee. But that’s another story for another time.


Reader Mark drew my attention to a recent interview with Archbishop Georg Ganswein, in which the longtime assistant to Benedict describes the reaction of the late pontiff to Traditionis Custodes. According to a translation provided in the Catholic Herald, Gänswein said, “I believe it broke Pope Benedict’s heart to read the new motu proprio because his intention had been to help those who simply found a home in the Old Mass to find inner peace, to find liturgical peace, in order to draw them away from [the schism of Marcel] Lefebvre” (emphasis added). If Gänswein’s interpretation of Benedict’s intentions is to be believed, that lends credibility to the claim that reconciliation with the SSPX was a primary motivation for the promulgation of Summorum Pontificum.


[1] Benedict XVI, Pope; Seewald, Peter. Last Testament: In His Own Words (Cited passages found in Kindle Locations 3146-3173). Bloomsbury Publishing. Kindle Edition.

Image: By Marcel Antonisse / Anefo – http://proxy.handle.net/10648/ad001b02-d0b4-102d-bcf8-003048976d84, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=66244639

Discuss this article!

Keep the conversation going in our SmartCatholics Group! You can also find us on Facebook and Twitter.

Liked this post? Take a second to support Where Peter Is on Patreon!
Become a patron at Patreon!

Mike Lewis is the founding managing editor of Where Peter Is. He and Jeannie Gaffigan co-host Field Hospital, a U.S. Catholic podcast.

Share via
Copy link