The Vatican has formally proposed a way to reconcile with a breakaway group of ultra-traditionalist Catholics in a final bid to end a quarter-century of schism, offering it a special legal status in the church currently enjoyed only by the conservative Opus Dei movement.
The Vatican said Thursday it had proposed making the Society of St. Pius X a "personal prelature" -- akin to a diocese without borders -- during a meeting Wednesday with the society's superior.
The superior, Bishop Bernard Fellay, promised to respond within a "reasonable" amount of time to the proposal and the Vatican's outstanding demands that the group accept a set of core doctrinal points to come into full communion with Rome, the Vatican said in a statement.
The society, founded in 1969 by the late Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, split from Rome over its opposition to the liberalizing reforms of the Second Vatican Council, which among other things introduced Mass in the vernacular and revolutionized the church's relations with Jews. In 1988, the Vatican excommunicated Lefebvre and four of his bishops after he consecrated them without papal consent.
Pope Benedict XVI has been working to bring the group back under Rome's wing, fearing the spread of a parallel, pre-Vatican II church. The fear is not unfounded: The society, which is based in Menzingen, Switzerland, has six seminaries, three universities and 70 primary and secondary schools around the globe.
In a bid to bring its members under his wing, Benedict in 2009 removed the excommunications of the four bishops and has allowed greater use of the pre-Vatican II Latin Mass, which they celebrate.
Despite years of talks over doctrinal differences, the group still hasn't signed off on the Vatican's demands that it accept some core doctrinal teachings, presumably stemming from Vatican II, and there is the threat that the group itself may splinter if Fellay decides to sign.
The question of the group's legal status in the church is significant because it currently has no canonical standing; the Vatican, for example, says the ordinations of its priests are illegitimate.
The Vatican's top orthodoxy official, Cardinal William Levada, discussed reconciliation with Fellay one day after he met with representatives of the largest umbrella group of U.S. nuns, who have been placed under Vatican receivership for flouting church teaching with a too-liberal bent.