Bishop Bernard Fellay, superior of the traditionalist Society of St. Pius X, ordains a priest during a 2009 ceremony in Econe, Switzerland. In what the Vatican described as an encouraging "step forward," the society has revised its response to a Vatican document laying out certain basic doctrinal principles and criteria for interpreting church teaching. (CNS photo/Denis Balibouse, Reuters)

VATICAN CITY (CNS) — In what the Vatican described as an encouraging “step forward,” the traditionalist Society of St. Pius X has revised its response to a Vatican document laying out certain basic doctrinal principles and criteria for interpreting church teaching.

The latest response submitted by Bishop Bernard Fellay, superior general of the society, arrived at the Vatican April 17. It will be examined by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and then “placed under the judgment of the Holy Father,” said a brief communique from the Pontifical Commission “Ecclesia Dei,” which is handling the Vatican’s discussions with the SSPX.

Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, Vatican spokesman, told reporters April 18 that a curial official who read Bishop Fellay’s response said it was “substantially different” from one he submitted in January; the doctrinal congregation and Pope Benedict XVI had determined Bishop Fellay’s first response was “insufficient” for healing the breach between the society and the Catholic Church.

Father Lombardi said that because Bishop Fellay’s latest response “asked for changes” in the text of the “doctrinal preamble” the Vatican asked him to sign last September, “the changes must be examined” and then submitted to the pope for his final evaluation.

The society’s response will be examined quickly and given to pope, probably within “a few weeks,” he said.

“We cannot consider the matter concluded,” Father Lombardi said, but “we can say it is a step forward and more encouraging” than Bishop Fellay’s previous response.

A short time later, the general house of the SSPX issued a statement saying, “The media are announcing that Bishop Bernard Fellay has sent a ‘positive response’ to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and that consequently the doctrinal question between the Holy See and the Society of St. Pius X is now resolved. The reality is different.”

The statement, posted on the society’s website, said because the Vatican must study the changes Bishop Fellay requested be made to the original Vatican text, the bishop’s response should be considered another stage in the Vatican-SSPX discussions “and not a conclusion.”

Father Alain Lorans, spokesman for the society in Paris, told the French news agency APIC April 18 that because Bishop Fellay proposed different clarifications or changes to the Vatican document, the matter “is still in a study phase.”

“All is not settled yet” and will not be until the congregation and the pope make their judgment, Father Lorans said.

The text of the “doctrinal preamble” has not been made public by the Vatican or the society, but the Vatican had said it “states some doctrinal principles and criteria for the interpretation of Catholic doctrine necessary to guarantee fidelity” to the formal teaching of the church, including the teaching of the Second Vatican Council.

When the Vatican’s doctrinal discussions with the society began in 2009, both sides said the key issues to be discussed included the concept of tradition in general, as well as the Second Vatican Council’s teaching on the liturgy, the unity of the church, ecumenism, interreligious dialogue and religious freedom.

After a two-hour meeting March 16 between U.S. Cardinal William J. Levada, prefect of the doctrinal congregation, and Bishop Fellay, the Vatican announced that the society’s first response, delivered in January, was insufficient and said Bishop Fellay would have another month to draft a new response.

In a formal communique published after that meeting, the Vatican said it gave the society more time in order to “avoid an ecclesial rupture with painful and incalculable consequences.”

“In compliance with the decision of Pope Benedict XVI,” the communique said, Bishop Fellay was given a letter signed by Cardinal Levada explaining that “the position he had expressed is not sufficient to overcome the doctrinal problems that are at the basis of the fracture between the Holy See and the society.”

At that time, Father Lombardi would not give examples of the points on which the Society of St. Pius X and the Vatican still differed since the original preamble was never published. He said the additional month given to the society showed “the case is not closed,” although the March letter to Bishop Fellay made it clear that the consequence of “a non-acceptance of that which was foreseen in the preamble” would be “a rupture, something very serious for the church.”

Pope Benedict’s efforts to bring about a reconciliation with the traditionalist group included lifting the excommunications imposed on Bishop Fellay and other SSPX bishops after they were ordained without papal permission; establishing a Vatican committee for doctrinal talks with society representatives in 2009; and drafting the “doctrinal preamble” to explain the “minimal, essential” elements on which the society would have to agree for full reconciliation, Father Lombardi had said.

In late November, Bishop Fellay had said, “This doctrinal preamble cannot receive our endorsement, although leeway has been allowed for a ‘legitimate discussion’ about certain points of the (Second Vatican) Council.”

— By Cindy Wooden, Catholic News Service