On July 8, 2009, Pope Benedict XVI released a motu proprio entitled Ecclesiae unitatem. The short document concerns the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei, which was established on July 2, 1988, to help bring about the full reunion of the Society of Saint Pius X (SSPX) with the Catholic Church. The four bishops of the SSPX had incurred automatic excommunication when Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, the founder of SSPX, ordained them without the necessary approval from Pope John Paul II.
Those excommunications were lifted on January 21, 2009, and the Congregation for Bishops announced at the time that "It is hoped that this step be followed by the prompt accomplishment of full communion with the Church of the entire Fraternity of Saint Pius X, thus testifying true fidelity and true recognition of the Magisterium and of the authority of the Pope with the proof of visible unity."
Unfortunately, the road toward full communion had some rather nasty bumps. Chief among them was the broadcasting on Swedish television of an interview with one of the four SSPX bishops, Richard Williamson, who denied that the Nazis had used gas chambers during World War II or engaged in a systematic attempt to exterminate Jews. Bishop Williamson later offered an apology for the interview, though he did not retract his statements, and the damage had been done.
As the furor over Bishop Williamson's comments has died down, however, the SSPX and the Vatican have continued talks to resolve doctrinal issues that stand in the way of full communion. The motu proprio Ecclesiae unitatem recognizes these developments by making the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei part of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
As the Holy Father notes in the motu proprio, his 2007 motu proprio Summorum Pontificum, which expanded the use of the Traditional Latin Mass, and his lifting of the excommunications of the bishops of the SSPX had removed the nondoctrinal barriers to full communion. The questions of doctrine raised by the SSPX will now be presented "for study and discernment according to the ordinary requirements of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith," and the results of such study will be submitted "to the superior dispositions of the Supreme Pontiff."
As in his earlier actions regarding the Traditional Latin Mass and the SSPX (not to mention his outreach to the Eastern Orthodox Churches), Pope Benedict has shown his desire to restore unity to the Church, the Body of Christ on earth. He notes that
The duty to safeguard the unity of the Church, with the solicitude to offer everyone help in responding appropriately to this vocation and divine grace, is the particular responsibility of the Successor of the Apostle Peter, who is the perpetual and visible principle and foundation of the unity of both bishops and faithful. The supreme and fundamental priority of the Church in all times—to lead mankind to the meeting with God—must be supported by the commitment to achieve a shared witness of faith among all Christians.
The Holy Father ends Ecclesiae unitatem with "a pressing invitation to pray ceaselessly to the Lord, by the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary, 'ut unum sint'"—that is, that all may be one, the prayer that Christ Himself offered to God the Father (John 17:20-23). We can answer that invitation by making A Devout Exercise for the Unity of the Church a part of our daily prayers.