What is Ecclesia Dei? What does this decision mean? And should traditionalists be concerned?
Pope Francis folded the responsibilities and budget of the commission responsible for traditional Catholics into the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on Saturday. With the motu proprio Da oltre (trent’anni), the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei, historically also tasked with leading negotiations with the canonically irregular Priestly Fraternity of St Pius X (SSPX), is suppressed, and its duties transferred to the CDF.
Pope St John Paul II established the Ecclesia Dei Commission in 1988 to support traditional Catholics who did not follow Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre after he illicitly ordained four bishops to continue the work of the fraternity he founded for the preservation of traditional Catholic worship in the wake of the II Vatican Council and the post-Conciliar reform of the liturgy.
Pope John Paul II ruled that the illicit ordination was a schismatic act, and confirmed that the SSPX leadership had incurred an excommunication latae sententiae resulting from their participation in the illicit episcopal consecration. Pope Benedict XVI in 2009 lifted the excommunications on the four bishops illicitly ordained, though the canonically irregular situation of the SSPX persists to this day, despite significant strides toward reconciliation.
In 2007, Pope Benedict XVI restored the right of priests to use the pre-Conciliar liturgical books, promulgated by Pope St John XXIII in 1962, for public worship with his motu proprio Summorum pontificum. Pope Benedict in 2009 expanded Ecclesia Dei’s competences and made the Prefect of the CDF the ex officio head of the Commission, recognising at the time that the outstanding issues between Rome and the SSPX were prevalently doctrinal.
During the Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy, Pope Francis granted faculties to all SSPX priests to hear confessions. He later made that decision permanent, announcing it in the Apostolic Letter Misericordia et misera of 20 November 2016:
“For the Jubilee Year I had also granted that those faithful who, for various reasons, attend churches officiated by the priests of the Priestly Fraternity of Saint Pius X, can validly and licitly receive the sacramental absolution of their sins. For the pastoral benefit of these faithful, and trusting in the good will of their priests to strive with God’s help for the recovery of full communion in the Catholic Church, I have personally decided to extend this faculty beyond the Jubilee Year, until further provisions are made, lest anyone ever be deprived of the sacramental sign of reconciliation through the Church’s pardon.”
With this latest move, Pope Francis is giving the responsibilities of the now-suppressed Commission to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
“The further step taken by Pope Francis with the suppression of the commission itself is part of this particular need to continue the dialogue on doctrinal issues, the competence of which is the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith,” wrote Nicola Gori for L’Osservatore Romano in a piece accompanying the motu proprio.
The preamble to the motu proprio further suggests the move has been in the works for some time.
Though the move could startle traditionalist Catholics, it has a discernible and unalarming logic to it.
“We are not dealing, therefore, with suppression tout court,” wrote Gori, “but with a transfer of competences, since the main axis on which activity will be set has narrowed to the doctrinal sphere.” Gori also noted the significant advances in the ongoing dialogue thus far. “[P]rogress has been made in communion,” he wrote, “and therefore the current motu proprio offers an implicit recognition to the Pontifical Commission which has carried out its tasks with its efforts and activity.”
“Conditions and circumstances change,” Gori explained, “but the dialogue continues with the SSPX founded by Monsignor Marcel Lefebvre and with those who followed him by adhering to his spiritual and liturgical proposal.”
Speaking on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to discuss the matter, one Vatican official close to the matter told the Catholic Herald: “The motu proprio explains the reasons for the suppression pretty well: the nature of the dialogue with the SSPX has changed; the kind of oversight and promotion needed for traditional communities is different, now that they are firmly established, in their own right, in the life of the Church.”
The source went on to say: “It makes sense to ‘fold’ Ecclesia Dei — its duties and competencies — into CDF. This also fits the logic of Pope Francis’s other curial reforms, combining different offices into single, theoretically more streamlined organisations.”
“Ultimately,” the source said, “this move seems to be more of a reorganisation than anything else. The headlines that the Ecclesia Dei Commission has been suppressed will no doubt cause a great deal of consternation among traditionalists, but the reality is decidedly more mundane.”
Below, please find The Catholic Herald’s unofficial translation of the text of the motu proprio:
For over thirty years, the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei, established by the motu proprio Ecclesia Dei adflicta, of July 2, 1988, has acquitted with sincere and praiseworthy solicitude the task of collaborating with the Bishops and the Dicasteries of the Roman Curia, in facilitating the full ecclesial communion of priests, seminarians, communities or individual religious men and women once attached to the Fraternity founded by Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, who wished to remain united to the Successor of Peter in the Catholic Church, while preserving their spiritual and liturgical traditions.
In this way, the Commission was able to exercise its authority and competence over said Societies and Associations in the name of the Holy See, until otherwise provided.
Subsequently, under the motu proprio Summorum Pontificum of 7 July 2007, the Pontifical Commission extended the authority of the Holy See over those Institutes and religious communities, which adhere to the extraordinary form of the Roman Rite and earlier traditions of religious life, maintaining vigilance over the observance and application of established dispositions.
Two years later, my Venerable Predecessor Benedict XVI, with the motu proprio Ecclesiae Unitatem, of 2 July 2009, reorganized the structure of the Pontifical Commission, in order to make it more suitable for the new situation created with the remission of the excommunication of the four Bishops consecrated without pontifical mandate. Moreover, considering that, after such an act of grace, the matters handled by the same Pontifical Commission were primarily doctrinal, my predecessor linked the Commission to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith more organically, conserving its initial ends, but modifying its structure.
Now, since the Feria IV [the regular Wednesday meeting] of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith of November 15, 2017 had formulated the request that the dialogue between the Holy See and the Priestly Fraternity of Saint Pius X [SSPX] be conducted directly by the aforementioned Congregation, and since the issues treated are of a doctrinal nature, to which request I gave my approval in Audientia to the Cardinal Prefect [Cardinal Luis Ladaria,SJ] the following 24 November, and [since] this proposal was welcomed by the Plenary Session of the same Congregation celebrated from 23 to 26 January 2018, I have come, after ample reflection, to the following Decision.
Considering today the conditions that had led the holy Pontiff, John Paul II, to the establishment of the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei; noting that the Institutes and religious communities that usually celebrate in extraordinary form have today found their own stability of number and life; noting that the aims and issues dealt with by the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei are of a predominantly doctrinal nature; wishing that these aims be ever more visible to the conscience of the ecclesial communities, with the present Apostolic Letter motu proprio data;
I establish (Delibero):
1. The Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei, established on 2 July 1988 with the motu proprio, Ecclesia Dei adflicta, is suppressed.
2. The tasks of the Commission in question are assigned in full to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, within which a special Section will be set up to continue the work of supervision, promotion and protection so far conducted by the suppressed Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei.
The budget of the Pontifical Commission is part of the ordinary accounting of the aforementioned Congregation.
Moreover, I establish that the present motu proprio, to be observed in spite of anything contrary, even if worthy of particular mention, is promulgated by publication in the 19 January 2019 edition of the L’Osservatore Romano newspaper, entering into immediate force, and subsequently inserted in the official gazzette of the Holy See, Acta Apostolicae Sedis.
Given at Rome, in St. Peter’s, January 17, 2019, VI of Our Pontificate.
*An earlier version of this report stated: “With this latest decision, Pope Francis has moved the Commission out of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, and into the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which is the dicastery responsible for doctrinal questions.” That suggested the PCED was at one time under the CDW — it never was — and suggested the Commission had been transferred whole, rather than suppressed. We amended the line to read: “With this latest move, Pope Francis is giving the responsibilities of the now-suppressed Commission to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.”