Interview with Bishop Fellay


In an exclusive interview conducted for the religious information bulletin PACTE (No. 56, Summer 2001), His Excellency Bishop Bernard Fellay spoke with Fr. de Tanoüarn about the long-term effects of the negotiations that have taken place with Rome over the last six months.

Your Excellency, what is the current state of the negotiations with Rome?

They are presently at a standstill, an impasse. I think that this stoppage results from the groundwork on which the dialogue was started. In any case, we have to recognize that, in a certain way, the current stalemate allows us to regain our positions. Currently, we hear from Rome the same kind of talk we were used to hearing from the Conciliar Church; we find the habitual ways of thinking, the usual limitations imposed on the discussions they entertain with us. We know very well the situation in which we find ourselves; we recognize the same old dilemma they impose on us: either you return to the bosom of the Church, and then they cage you or muzzle you; or else you stay outside. As for us, we reject the dilemma they are trying to snare us in again. It is very clear: we are not outside, nor we will not allow ourselves to be caged. After six months of negotiations we find that once again this is Rome's fixed position; I say that this allows us to regain our positions.


You are telling us that these negotiations are just so much sound and fury, signifying nothing?

Not nothing; on the contrary. Without a doubt, something has happened to permanently alter the climate in which future exchanges will take place. We are in a phase of withdrawal, it is true, because Rome does not want to discuss anything of substance, but at the same time there was something new. First of all, last autumn, Rome approached us in an entirely uncharacteristic way, and made us offers it is still difficult for us to completely assess. In fact, considering current ecclesiastical forms, such arrangements have never been seen before. We could never have imagined that Rome would make us such an offer. Undoubtedly you have heard about the idea of an apostolic administration. The Society of Saint Pius X would have been integrated into an apostolic administration. What does that mean? An apostolic administration is ordinarily a diocesan or quasi-diocesan organization established in time of crisis over a given territory. Well, for us, the territory was the whole world. In other words, they offered us an organizational form that encompasses the whole world, a kind of personal diocese.


Pardon me, Your Excellency, but are you talking about a personal prelature?

No, it is something more. An apostolic administration is even better than a personal prelature. First, a personal prelature is not necessarily governed by a bishop; an apostolic administration, which is a kind of diocese, usually is. What is more, the scope of an apostolic administration's action is not limited to its own members. The Opus Dei, which is the only personal prelature existing today, is not subject to the local bishop for what concerns its members, but it cannot contemplate any external action without the local bishop's approval. With an apostolic administration, we would escape that limitation. We would be able to carry out our apostolate autonomously, without needing to obtain the authorization of the diocesan bishop, since we would have a real diocese the special characteristic of which is to extend to the whole world. The fact that such a proposition was made is very important because, after all, this legal solution is unprecedented, it is "sui generis." [i.e., "one of a kind"—Ed.] Since this solution has been formulated, it can represent for us a bench mark, a point of comparison, especially since it was to the Society of Saint Pius X that this possibility was suggested, which goes to show how seriously Rome takes our resistance. Believe me, it is not boasting that leads me to say that: symbolically (it is not principally a question of our numeric size) we represent something important for Rome, and this is also new.


Your Excellency, if this proposition is so extraordinary—and it certainly seems to be—then one cannot help but ask why you didn't immediately accept this practical arrangement that was handed to you on a platter.

You're right, it is an extraordinary proposition, and if Rome desired a real reform, then the plan I just described would indeed be the one to follow. But it requires a genuine will to reform. So it is very difficult to know exactly where we would have ended had we signed an agreement on the practical level. One thing is sure: other circumstances were not favorable to concluding an agreement rapidly, without precaution. These known factors were, firstly, the way Rome dealt with the Fraternity of St. Peter, imposing the principle of celebrating the New Mass, going against their con stitutions, going against the very right that Rome had conceded to them ten years ago. Then again, some priests of the Fraternity came to see us, telling us not to accept this solution, not to sign anything, that it would be to our loss....Also, we saw very quickly the reaction of a certain number of bishops and cardinals: they were furious, furious to the point that some of them (I am speaking of French bishops) threatened disobedience. What would have been Rome's reaction? A formidable battle would have broken out and we would only have been able to wage it if Rome clearly supported us. It was with this in mind that we proposed two preliminaries, which we conceived as two indispensable marks of Rome's support. It was not a matter of conditions properly speaking, as has been written here and there: a Catholic cannot subject Rome to conditions! No, it was simply a question of preparing ahead for the battle that would inevitably break out by obtaining a clear sign of Rome's adherence to her Tradition. We asked for these two marks: the retraction of the decree of excommunication, and the granting of permission to all priests of the Latin rite without distinction to celebrate the traditional Mass. I think that, were these two measures to be implemented, by their very nature they would effect a change of climate in the whole Church.


Did you believe at the time that, despite the reasons for circumspection which you just related, these two preliminaries might be accepted?

Firstly, we were not in a hurry. That is the big difference between now and 1988: in 1988, Archbishop Lefebvre had to settle the future of his work quickly. Today, that future is no longer up in the air, it has become our present. We have shown for more than ten years that it is assured. Now we have the time to study the propositions that are made. For a moment we really believed that there was a real change of heart at Rome. I have to say that there was a noticeable change of language in each of our meetings from the outset. On the 13th of March, for example, they were still saying, "The Pope is in favor of this solution (the organizational solution that I described); you have nothing to fear. The Church needs you and asks you to help her in her combat against liberalism, modernism, and masonry. You must not refuse to help." Oh! It is just a way of talking; we have always wondered if words have the same meaning for the Vatican as for us. I think not.


A moment ago, you mentioned the negotiations of His Grace Archbishop Lefebvre with Rome in 1988. Can the two series of talks be compared?

They are really different from each other. In 1988, His Grace, sensing that his end was near, desired above all else to guarantee the continuation of the society. Rome wished to avoid the consecrations conferred without its endorsement, and, by means of an ambiguous formulation, to obtain Archbishop Lefebvre's recognition of the Council. The hasty discussion was partly on doctrinal matters. What we have been going through is something completely different. They approached us, and the doctrinal matters were avoided from the start. Rome did not want to talk about doctrine.


Would you please briefly relate the chronology of these talks?

Certainly. The initiative for the negotiations came from Rome. I received a letter from Cardinal Castrillon Hoyos dated November 18th, containing an invitation (a result of the interview published in 30 Days) to meet him in order to prepare a visit to the Holy Father. This visit took place December 29th. On the 30th the meeting with the Pope occurred: it was very brief due to a fault in planning. There was no conversation to speak of.


The Vatican press bureau Zenit said that you had assisted at the Pope's Mass...

Now that's a tall tale. I saw the Pope for some five minutes at most, and for a good while we remained in his private chapel in silence. Then the Pope rose. He wished me a happy new year; we exchanged greetings; he asked if we had been able to talk. Cardinal Hoyos replied, yes. The Pope said: "I am pleased." He gave us a rosary, blessed us, and then we left.


This meeting, then, did not have any immediate consequences?

No. On January 13th I summoned an expanded general council, with the assistants, the bishops, and a priest, Fr. Rifan, of the diocese of Campos, Brazil, representing Bishop Rangel. On January 16th, I orally communicated our decision to Cardinal Hoyos: we requested two preliminaries: the retraction of the decree of excommunication, and the Mass for all the priests of the Latin rite. On February 12th, Fr. Simoulin, who is the Superior of the Society in Italy, was informed that the second preliminary as such could not be granted, but that it was necessary to trust the Holy Father. The 19th, in reply to this response, I delegated Fr. Selegny, co-author of the recent book on the liturgical reform, to say that we were withdrawing from the talks since we had not obtained the two preliminaries. At the same time, he offered the book, then just recently published, to Cardinal Hoyos in order to help him to find another, more doctrinal, subject of discussion. [This book has been published by Angelus Press in English titled, The Problem of the Liturgical Reform. Price: $9.95.—Ed]

We can say that since then, the discussions have not really resumed, each side maintaining its positions. On March 13th, there was another telephone call between the Cardinal and Fr. Simoulin following  a plenaria of the Ecclesia Dei Commission, which governs the Fraternity of St. Peter. My feeling is that since then, the die is cast. They announced a plenaria of the Curia (a meeting of all the Roman cardinals) solely to discuss our case. Cardinal Hoyos said that they would give us everything at the same time, but not as a preliminary. "The Pope will speak of the Mass, but only at the time of the (new) motu proprio, in order to set off just one bomb at a time." On the 19th of March, I wrote to him to reaffirm the necessity of the preliminaries as unequivocal marks of Rome's good will, underlining that a purely practical solution without treating of doctrinal matters was impossible.

On Good Friday, April 13th, Fr. Simoulin received a telephone call to confirm that it was not possible to agree to the preliminary on the Mass: "It is not possible to disavow the work of the Council and of Paul VI by freeing the traditional Mass." "Opposition from the cardinals is too strong; the Pope cannot not take it into account." Certainly, the traditionalists "can make theological remarks on particular points," but criticism of the Council is not allowed.


From this moment, then, there has been a change in tone?

There has been a change of tone, and I think that the root cause is the cardinals' refusal (to the point of public disobedience, if need be, as I told you). While paying a call at the Vatican on May 2nd, Fr. Rifan and Fr. Simoulin heard this strange word, which gives some insight into the state of the Church: "Just as the Society does not want to be divided, so the Pope cannot divide his cardinals." I think that this sentence takes us to the heart of the problem: a good agreement does not depend just on the good will of both parties. The bureaucracy of the Conciliar Church is very influential, and the fierce hostility of a certain number of the cardinals prevents Rome from contemplating a real reform of the Church.


Today, in any case, hope wanes...

Cardinal Hoyos, even as he was refusing the pre­liminaries, asked us for trust: "The question of the Mass will be resolved simultaneously with that of the Society. Trust us." Which meant: no preliminaries, you will be given everything at once. Our entire problem was to know whether, beneath the words, we understood the same thing. From reading the last letter of the Cardinal, dated May 7 [See pp. 5-6 in this issue—Ed.] and written with the advice of the cardinals of the Ecclesia Dei Commission, I can say that we do not. Take, for example, this judgment of Cardinal Hoyos, justifying himself for not being able to accord the permission sought for all priests of the Latin rite: "With respect to the first condition, a certain number of cardinals, bishops, and faithful believe that such a permission ought not to be granted...." This reticence surprised me because we did not speak with a certain number of cardinals, bishops and faithful, but with Cardinal Castrillon Hoyos himself. And now this is the response he gives us. In the beginning he said, that the Pope is in agreement, he will grant everything. And now it is no longer possible. One no longer knows who governs the Church.

Then, in the same letter of May 7th, here is another phrase: "...for such a permission could create a confusion in the minds of many people, who would understand it as depreciating the value of the Holy Mass as it is celebrated in today's Church." As I told you at the beginning, we come back to the Vatican's classic discourse as soon as the question of the traditional Mass is discussed. "It is not possible to disavow the work of the Council by freeing the traditional Mass" (Cardinal Hoyos). Or take this passage on the Council: "It is not permissible, fall into the error of reading it in a 'free' manner, or of having recourse to interpretations that are not authorized...[T]he Council's language has since been improved and made more precise on several points, thanks in particular to the addresses and teachings of Pope John Paul II." So, then, there is only one authorized way to understand the Council: not according to Tradition, but according to the current pope's teaching. I feel like answering: "Well, then, if one were to follow the Holy See's own directions, one would end up at Assisi in the midst of a prayer meeting of religions, or in the sacred forests of Togo, in the synagogue or a mosque—who knows? If those are the clarifications that one can expect...."

One even finds reiterated in this letter the famous reproach of the motu proprio of 1988, couched in a more benign expression, certainly, but it still says: "I am sure that on this point [on the point about interpreting the Council] we shall be able to arrive at an agreement once we understand the deepest needs of the Church [so, one does not understand them], needs that must be understood in a larger historical perspective." He cites St. Vincent of Lerins and the idea of the progress of tradition. Stated otherwise, according to Rome, we do not have a correct concept of Tradition; we retain a congealed notion, and an agreement can only be reached once we become unstuck, if you will permit the expression. In other words, the Council has to be rightly understood, and Rome understands it well whereas we understand it badly. That is what the Cardinal writes to us. Is it because one reads authors that are not good (who are out-of-date in the Conciliar Church)? Is it because one has not understood that there is a legitimate evolution of thought? In any case, in this last letter, our critique of Vatican II is disqualified in advance.


Your opinion, then, is that, obviously, we cannot make concessions on questions of doctrine?

One must begin at the beginning: why are we where we are? Rome approached us, saying: Listen, you have a problem; it needs to be solved. You are outside; you must come back in, under certain conditions. Now it is our turn to respond: No, it is not like that. If we are in the situation in which we currently find ourselves (a situation of being marginalized and persecuted), we are not the cause. The cause is to be found in Rome; it was because there are grave deficiencies at Rome that Archbishop Lefebvre had to adopt certain positions in order to conserve certain goods of the Church that were being vandalized. Rome gives itself the role of hero, while in fact it is Rome that should be saying a "mea culpa" for this terrible internal crisis that is tearing the Church apart. Rome has committed an injustice in blaming us. Obviously, the solution is not to be found with us, it is to be found in Rome. Rome must put things back in their places and come back to Tradition, to its own Tradition. Then everything would right itself. There would be no more problem of the Society. "We must maintain our freedom to act for the sake of the entire Church."


Ultimately, you are asking for repentance?

It would have to be a true repentance... and that would suppose a discussion of theology. You see, I believe that in the recent negotiations we have gone in circles because the preliminary (though not expressed as such) that Rome imposed on us is "No theology." A practical agreement, a legal solution right away; as for theology, we shall see about it later on. We say the opposite: doctrine governs our practice, and it has from the start. I am persuaded that now is the time to talk about doctrine, especially to young priests, to the faithful who are beginning to be aware of the gravity of the internal crisis in the Church. In particular, there is a movement in favor of the traditional Mass that needs to be encouraged, and even pushed. We need to welcome and form all those who request it. For the time being we must especially encourage the inductive movement that is bringing a lot of people back to Tradition because of their experience of concrete problems in the Church (the Mass, ecumenism, etc}. Many people are ready to listen to us on the Mass. On ecumenism, we need to work at posing the question so that people can receive our analysis. Rome is not ready for a debate on subjects that matter?! Rome does not want to discuss anything with us?! Then we have to launch the debate so that they understand that it is not possible to close one's eyes and act as if nothing is happening while the ship has sprung leaks all over.


Your Excellency, you have spoken about the faithful who must come to Tradition, but what about the traditionalists themselves, those who are already in the house. Have they understood your approach?

Thank you for asking that question. I must tell you that very often during the last few months, before being able to speak, I have met with a certain lack of understanding among some of the faithful, who imagined that our negotiations would result in compromises, while that was never my intention. We are engaged in a warfare using every means, both conventional and unconventional. It is not a matter of concessions or compromises, or even of temperament. We are not arranging to rally the traditionalists into the Conciliar camp. We are trying to do all that we can to bring about a real reform of the Church, and because this reform is not something that we can effect, we are trying to save all that can be saved by utilizing all the means that the good Lord places at our disposition. From this point of view, I believe that in these last few months we have scored many points. We must continue; and it is for that reason that I do not want to speak of a rupture [of the negotiations]. On the contrary, we have been able to observe that there is a mutual exchange, albeit not on the same wavelength.


What about the future, Your Excellency?

I would like to make a somewhat audacious com­parison. The Conciliar Church is like a termite that bores away from the inside. For 30 years and more, the same principles have been applied with an imperturbable coherence, despite their catastrophic fruits. These negotiations have fomented within the Conciliar Church itself great hopes in those who, in increasing numbers, desire to turn the page of the Conciliar revolution. In this context, the propositions that were made to us six months ago led us to hope that all would be golden. On advancing a bit, we saw that in fact what they offered was a gilded cage, for our critiques were not received and they even treated us as illegitimate in the Church. So, we prefer to keep our freedom to act for the whole Church rather than let ourselves be isolated in a zoo. We must shake the Catholic world from its post-Conciliar lethargy, relaunch the debate, but without their imposed condition that any agreement can only be practical. It certainly is a long-term task; the fruits cannot be seen immediately, but we must use all the means at our disposal to bring about the change of ambiance that will allow Tradition to assume her rightful place at Rome, and Rome to rediscover her Tradition.