In a decree dated 21 January, Benedict XVI lifted the excommunication pronounced on four bishops - Bernard Fellay, Bernard Tissier de Mallerais, Richard Williamson and Alfonso de Galarreta - consecrated by Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre in 1988 for his Society of St Pius X (SSPX) in defiance of Pope John Paul II.
Benedict's bold move followed a prior commitment by the SSPX superior-general, Bishop Fellay, to resolve outstanding differences with the Holy See as a prelude to gaining full communion and canonical status for its bishops, priests and religious.
The late Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre founded the Swiss-based SSPX in 1969 over his opposition to a number of reforms mandated by the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), although, according to recent research in the Vatican archives, Archbishop Lefebvre actually put his signature to all 14 of the Council documents.
Worldwide, the Society has seminaries, universities, primary and secondary schools, several hundred priests and seminarians, and up to one million followers or supporters.
Quest for unity
Benedict XVI made clear from the start of his pontificate in 2005 that he wanted to restore the SSPX to full communion, and within months of his election met with the Society's leader, Bishop Bernard Fellay.
In 2007, Benedict answered one of Bishop Fellay's key requests by relaxing restrictions on celebrating the traditional Latin Mass. Now, in lifting the excommunication, he has answered the second request as the basis for theological discussions on the status of the SSPX and its reservations about some aspects of Vatican II's teachings.
In recent years, Brazilian traditionalists and a large community of American nuns have sought and regained communion with Rome, while Benedict has eased tensions between the schismatic Chinese Patriotic Church and the Holy See.
Elsewhere, Benedict's quest for unity has seen discussions with Anglicans seeking communion with Rome and improved relations with the Eastern Orthodox Churches (see page 9 report).
The decree lifting the SSPX excommunication drew attention to a letter of 15 December 2008 addressed to Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyos, president of the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei, in which Bishop Fellay once again requested, also in the name of the other three bishops consecrated in 1988, the removal of the excommunication.
Bishop Fellay affirmed, among other things, that the SSPX would 'continue firmly resolute in our desire to remain Catholics and to put all our strength at the service of the Church of Our Lord Jesus Christ, which is the Roman Catholic Church. We accept her teachings in a filial spirit. We firmly believe in the Primacy of Peter and in its prerogatives, and for this reason the current situation causes us much suffering'.
The decree explained that the excommunication was lifted on the basis of Bishop Fellay's commitment 'to spare no efforts in examining outstanding questions through the requisite discussions with the authorities of the Holy See in order to reach a prompt, full and satisfactory solution to the original problem'.
Removal of the excommunication, the decree said, would 'consolidate reciprocal relations of trust' and 'intensify and stabilise the relations of the Fraternity of St Pius X with this Holy See' removing 'the scandal of division'.
The decree concluded: 'We hope that this step may be followed by the caring accomplishment of the full communion with the Church of the whole Society of St Pius X, thus witnessing true fidelity and truthful recognition of the Magisterium and the Pope's authority with the proof of visible unity.'
Benedict confirmed this expectation in comments at the end of his general audience on 28 January:
'I have undertaken this act of paternal benevolence because those same bishops have repeatedly expressed to me their profound suffering at the situation in which they found themselves.
'I hope that this gesture of mine will be followed by a prompt commitment on their part to take the further steps necessary to achieve full communion with the Church, thus showing true faithfulness to, and true recognition of, the Magisterium and authority of the Pope and of Vatican Council II'.
The decree, in other words, is just the beginning of a process of dialogue, as Cardinal Jean-Pierre Ricard, Archbishop of Bordeaux, a member of the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei, explained.
Two fundamental issues still need to be resolved before the matter can be considered healed, 'the integration of the juridical structure of the Fraternity of St Pius X in the Church' and 'agreement in dogmatic and ecclesiological questions.' The decree does not grant the SSPX bishops regular status as Catholic bishops and for the time being they remain under suspension, without canonical status.
An editorial in L'Osservatore Romano noted that 'with this act the Pope clears the field of possible pretexts for infinite arguing, thus entering into the true problem: the full acceptance of the Magisterium, including obviously the Second Vatican Council'.
Respected American editor and journalist Philip Lawler commented: 'Pope Benedict has made a bold move toward ending a split that began more than 20 years ago. At the same time, he has cleared the way for a debate on the most important theological issue facing the Christian world today. The outcome of that debate will have an importance that stretches far beyond the circles of Catholic traditionalism.'
Here Lawler was referring to the very nature of the Catholic Church and its authority to teach in the name of Jesus Christ.