VATICAN CITY – The Vatican and a breakaway group of traditionalist Catholics appear to be nearing an agreement that could bring the group back into Rome's fold and end a quarter-century of schism.
The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said Wednesday the Society of St. Pius X had delivered an "encouraging" response to the Vatican's demands that it accept some core church teachings.
The Vatican had rejected as "insufficient" the group's initial response last month, but Lombardi said the revised position marked "a step forward." No decision, however, has been made.
The Society was founded by the late ultraconservative Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre in 1969 and split from Rome over his opposition to the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, the 1962-65 meetings that modernized the church, revolutionized its relations with Jews and allowed for the celebration of Mass in languages other than Latin.
In 1988, the Vatican excommunicated Lefebvre and four of his bishops after he consecrated them without papal consent. The society's members contend that the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, or Vatican II, ruined the church and are responsible for a "crisis" of faith in the world today; they consider themselves the true upholders of Catholic tradition and celebrate the pre-conciliar Latin Mass, which they see as more solemn and reverent compared to the New Mass in the vernacular.
Benedict, as cardinal and then as pope, has tried to bring the group back into full communion with Rome, eager to prevent further schism and the expansion of a parallel, pre-Vatican II church.
The society, which is based in Menzingen, Switzerland, has six seminaries, three universities and 70 primary and secondary schools around the globe. Aside from the four bishops, it boasts more than 550 priests and 200 seminarians.
In 2007, Benedict answered one of the society's key demands by relaxing restrictions on celebrating the old Latin Mass. After Vatican II bishops had to approve such celebrations, an obstacle that greatly limited its use. Two years later, Benedict answered another demand and lifted the excommunication of the four bishops, including that of a Holocaust denier whose rehabilitation sparked outrage among Jews and Catholics alike.
In the years that followed, the Vatican and the society met more than a half-dozen times to try to work out the theological and doctrinal differences that separated them in a bid to fully reconcile the society's members with the church. Those talks led to a two-page set of minimal doctrinal requirements issued by the Vatican last September for the Society to accept.
The society's superior, Bishop Bernard Fellay, initially rejected some of the Vatican's demands. The Vatican on March 16 gave him a month to reconsider, and on Tuesday Fellay's revised doctrine document arrived at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
The new document contains "precisions" to the Vatican's original set of demands that will be studied quickly before being sent to Benedict, Lombardi said.
He stressed that no decision had been made as to welcome the group back into the church. The Society also insisted in a statement Wednesday that no deal had been reached and that its response was merely "a step and not a conclusion."
Lombardi has said that if an agreement can be reached, the most likely scenario will be for the Vatican to make the Society a "personal prelature," a unique church structure currently assigned only to the conservative movement Opus Dei. A personal prelature functions almost like a diocese without borders.
Even if a deal is reached, it is unclear what will become of Bishop Richard Williamson, the Holocaust denier who was one of the four bishops originally consecrated by Lefebvre.
On the same day the Vatican decree was signed lifting his excommunication in 2009, Williamson was shown on Swedish state television saying historical evidence "is hugely against 6 million Jews having been deliberately gassed" during World War II.
The outcry was immediate, with both Jews and members of the Catholic hierarchy criticizing the pope's rehabilitation of a Holocaust-denier. While condemning Williamson's remarks, the Vatican defended its decision since the excommunication had nothing to do with Williamson's personal beliefs about the Holocaust. Only later did the German-born pope say he never would have lifted the excommunication if he had known of Williamson's position, and he indirectly criticized his advisers for having failed to flag it to him.
The Vatican has set out particular conditions for Williamson to be fully brought into the church, saying he must "absolutely and unequivocally" distance himself from his Holocaust remarks if he ever wants to be a prelate in the church. Williamson has apologized for causing scandal to the pope but hasn't publicly repudiated his views.
Fellay ordered Williamson silenced after the scandal erupted and Argentina kicked him out of the country, where he had been the director of the Society's seminary. Williamson continues to write a weekly column, frequently about classical music but occasionally on issues such as a woman's role in family life.
He was convicted in 2010 and fined €10,000 ($13,000) in a Regensburg, Germany court of incitement for his Swedish TV interview, which was recorded in Germany. The conviction was upheld on appeal though the court lowered his punishment to a fine of €6,500 ($9,136) because of his financial circumstances.
Follow Nicole Winfield at www.twitter.com/nwinfield