Twenty-four years ago this month, on June 30, 1988, Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre took his traditionalist Society of Saint Pius X (SSPX) into schism by ordaining four men as bishops without the permission of Pope John Paul II. Devoted to the Traditional Latin Mass, Archbishop Lefebvre claimed that there was an "emergency" in the Church that justified proceeding with the ordinations without papal approval. John Paul II disagreed, and two days later, in his apostolic letter Ecclesia Dei, made it clear that the archbishop and the four newly ordained bishops had incurred automatic excommunication under canon law for their "schismatic act."
Both in the months leading up to Archbishop Lefebvre's fateful action, and in the 24 years since, one man at the Vatican has worked tirelessly to try to reconcile the SSPX to the Catholic Church. As prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger made some progress, but as Pope Benedict XVI, he is on the cusp on ending the SSPX's years in the wilderness. In January 2009, at the request of the four bishops (Archbishop Lefebvre having passed into eternal life in 1991), Pope Benedict lifted their excommunications.
Three and a half years of negotiations later, Bishop Bernard Fellay, the superior general of the SSPX, has declared the Society's willingness to be fully reconciled to Rome, though the other three bishops appear to disagree. Bishop Fellay, however, has the authority to act on behalf of the SSPX, and they do not. On June 13, Bishop Fellay met with William Cardinal Levada, Pope Benedict's successor as the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and the president of the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei. The Vatican Information Service notes that, during the course of the meeting, "a draft document was submitted proposing a Personal Prelature as the most appropriate instrument for any future canonical recognition of the Society." The only other personal prelature in the Catholic Church is Opus Dei.
After 24 years, there is a sense of urgency on both sides, with Bishop Fellay understanding that Pope Benedict's pontificate represents perhaps the last chance for full reconciliation, and the Holy Father having made Christian unity a central theme of his pontificate. The next weeks and months will be decisive, and all of those who long for Christian unity—which should be all Christians—should pray that this reconciliation does occur.