I tend to avoid discussing the traditionalist Society of Saint Pius X outside of reporting on their ongoing discussions (now, it seems, stalled) with the Vatican regarding the regularization of their status. Emotions regarding the SSPX tend to run high on all sides, and the best we can do, generally, is to pray that the Holy Spirit effects a reconciliation before hearts harden entirely and the SSPX finds itself going the way of the Old Catholics.
But the most recent "Letter to Friends & Benefactors" by the SSPX superior general, Bishop Bernard Fellay, has left me scratching my head. It is, as far as I know, only the second public statement by the SSPX regarding Pope Francis, the first being a very short "Communiqué from the SSPX's General House on the occasion of the election of Pope Francis." Bishop Fellay has had plenty of time to observe the Holy Father since his election, and, in particular, to pay close attention to his daily preaching. And yet the portion of Bishop Fellay's letter that discusses Pope Francis seems written by someone who has, to put it gently, not paid much attention at all:
We beg Heaven and the authorities of the Church, in particular the new Supreme Pontiff, Pope Francis, Vicar of Christ, Successor of Peter, not to allow souls to perish because they no longer learn sound doctrine, the revealed deposit of the faith, without which no one can be saved, no one can please God.
What good is it to devote oneself to serving people if one hides from them what is essential, the purpose and the meaning of their life, and the seriousness of sin that turns them away from it? Works of charity done for the poor, the needy, the infirm, and the sick have always been a true concern for the Church, and we must not excuse ourselves from it, but if it becomes merely man-centered philanthropy, then the Church is no longer carrying out her mission, she is no longer leading souls to God, which can really be done only by supernatural means: faith, hope, charity and grace. And therefore by denouncing anything that is opposed to them: errors against faith and morality. Because if people sin, for want of that denunciation, they are damned for eternity. The Church’s reason for being is to save them and to help them avoid the misfortune of their eternal perdition.
If Bishop Fellay's words, with their implied criticism of the first month of the Holy Father's pontificate, seem familiar, that's likely because you've read Pope Francis's first homily. When Bishop Fellay speaks of the need to preach sound doctrine and warns of the danger that serving the poor might become "merely man-centered philanthropy," he's simply echoing (albeit in a way that strikes my ear as a touch less than charitable) the Holy Father's own words in that first homily (emphasis added):
We can walk as much as we want, we can build many things, but if we do not profess Jesus Christ, things go wrong. We may become a charitable NGO, but not the Church, the Bride of the Lord. When we are not walking, we stop moving. When we are not building on the stones, what happens? The same thing that happens to children on the beach when they build sandcastles: everything is swept away, there is no solidity. When we do not profess Jesus Christ, the saying of Léon Bloy comes to mind: "Anyone who does not pray to the Lord prays to the devil." When we do not profess Jesus Christ, we profess the worldliness of the devil, a demonic worldliness.
. . . When we journey without the Cross, when we build without the Cross, when we profess Christ without the Cross, we are not disciples of the Lord, we are worldly: we may be bishops, priests, cardinals, popes, but not disciples of the Lord.
I can understand the SSPX's concerns about Pope Francis's liturgical style, though I think that they are overblown. (His inaugural Mass was marked by its simplicity, dignity, and beauty, and it even reintroduced traditional elements that had fallen by the wayside in pontifical Masses over the past several decades.) And I understand that, yes, the SSPX will regard with suspicion any pope who does not do what no pope could ever do—namely, renounce an ecumenical council of the Church. But all of Pope Francis's homilies (not just his first) have been as solid as the rock of Peter, reiterating (for example) the Catholic understanding of the relationship between Scripture and Tradition and the necessity of belonging to the "hierarchical and Catholic" Church in order to know Christ and, thus, to be saved.
Will Pope Francis renounce Vatican II? Of course not. But he will continue in the footsteps of Benedict XVI by interpreting it through the hermeneutic of continuity. Will he do what Benedict did not do, and abolish the Novus Ordo and replace it with the Traditional Latin Mass? No. And neither will his successor. Or his successor's successor. Or the successor of any of his successors. I don't say that because I despise the Traditional Latin Mass; my family and I attend it exclusively. I say it because it's clearly true. The future of the liturgy for most Catholics in the Latin Rite lies in some form of the Novus Ordo. If those of us who are attached to the Traditional Latin Mass quit regarding ourselves as living in a liturgical ghetto, we might help the Church move the new Mass in the direction of the old. If, however, we content ourselves to follow in the footsteps of the Pharisee and thank God that we're not Novus Ordo publicans, then the new Mass will never be properly informed (and reformed) by the old, as Pope Benedict hoped it would be when he issued Summorum Pontificum.
Pope Benedict XVI made Christian unity the core mission of his pontificate. He offered the SSPX an opportunity—or, rather, several opportunities—to reunite fully with Rome and to be granted a canonical structure that would preserve and protect the Society's attachment to liturgical tradition. To put it bluntly, the leadership of the SSPX blew it.
If the SSPX wants another such opportunity, that same leadership will have to seek it out; Pope Francis is less likely to approach them than Pope Benedict was. Bishop Fellay, however, is starting off on the wrong foot. If he wants to be taken seriously in Rome, he needs to listen closely to the Holy Father—and not criticize him for saying things that he not only has not said, but has explicitly denounced.