Bishop Huonder’s Testimony: The Great Wound (1)

May 17, 2023

Below is a transcript of episode one of the three videos of Bishop Vitus Huonder's testimony broadcast on the Certamen YouTube channel. 

1. The Journey to the Society of Saint Pius X

By letter dated  January 9, 2015, I received the order to start dialogs with representatives of the Society of Saint Pius X (SSPX). The letter came from the then Prefect of the Roman Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Gerhard Müller. The idea was to create a friendly-interpersonal relationship with the community. On the other hand, the doctrinal questions of the Church were to be addressed. These were questions related to the documents of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), as well as questions related to the Roman pronouncement of previous years. Special mention was to be made of questions concerning the liturgy, specifically regarding the authentic Roman Holy Mass. Further topics concerned the understanding of the Church, ecumenism, the relationship between Church and state, interreligious dialogue and religious freedom.

Since April 9, 2015, this mandate has led to regular contact with the SSPX, with the superior general as well as with other representatives. The relations and discussions were intended to pave the way for the canonical recognition of the SSPX.

The meeting on April 17, 2015 in Oberriet, St. Gallen, Switzerland, was of particular significance. Several important theological subjects were discussed. I wrote a report based on theses discussions for the Vatican’s Ecclesia Dei Commission. As the contacts progressed, I delved into the biography and the writings of the founder of the SSPX, Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre. I thus became more and more familiar with the theological arguments, the concerns and the objectives of the SSPX. In 2019, at the age of 77, I ended my service as diocesan Bishop of Chur. I then had the opportunity to retire to an SSPX institute. This was positively evaluated by the Ecclesia Dei Commission. The Commission also explicitly encourage me to do so. This gave me the opportunity to get to know the inner life and works of the Society better. In this way, as an experienced diocesan bishop, I was able to compare the situation of the faith in the Society with that in a “normal” diocese or parish. In doing so, I hoped to send reports to Pope Francis.

2. The Stages of a Life

The life experience of a contemporary of the Council is of great significance for discussions with the SSPX. I would therefore like to begin by giving a condensed overview of my own past. The papal pontificates that have marked my life are important to me. Because it is all about the Church and the faith. Which popes have I met? Which popes do I know? As I was born in 1942, I well remember the tall, lean figure of Pope Pius XII. I also remember the two canonizations of Pius X and Maria Goretti at that time. When Pius XII died in 1958, I was 16 years old. This pope was generally held in high esteem. After all, he wisely and cautiously guided the Church through various difficult situation: World War II, the communist era, newly emerging ethical questions. His encyclicals and other pronouncements are still theologically fundamental today. We will have to fall back on these documents again and again.

Then I experienced the pontificate of Pope John XXIII (1958-1963). The 1962 Missal with the traditional Roman Rite used today dates back to his tenure. Pope John announced the Second Vatican Council, ordered its preparation, and opened it in 1962. At this time I was a high school student.

Great shifts happened in the Church with the pontificate of Paul VI (1963-1978). Under this pope I was ordained a priest in 1971. It is the actual pontificate of the Council, and thus a turning point within the Church. The pope himself, conservative in appearance, was very fond of liberal, progressive circles. He promoted them. The pontificate gained its own significance through the  introduction of the new liturgy in 1969. This introducation took place with the Apostolic Constitution Missale Romanum ex decreto Concilii Oecumenici Vaticani II instauratum. This was the beginning of the Church’s great suffering caused from within. It has continued to the present day. In the past few decades, nothing has been more disruptive to the unity of the Church than the new liturgical order.

The pontificate of Pope John Paul I (1978) was short, while the reign of Pope John Paul II (1978-2005) was long. We can call it the pontificate of implementation and consolidation the inducements of Vatican II. This became especially tangible in the numerous encyclicals and other doctrinal documents, in the publication of the new Code of Canon Law (1983), as well as in the development of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1992). In this context, we must highlight the Pope's initiative for the so-called Assisi meeting (October 27, 1986). It was a prayer meeting with representatives of the world's religions. For many believers, this event was a tremendous shock. Associated with that was a general loss of trust in the leadership and orthodoxy of the Church.

Pope Benedict XVI (2005-2013) followed John Paul II. In 2007 he appointed me Bishop of Chur. His term of office is the pontificate of continuity – at least of the desired continuity. Pope Benedict XVI perceived like few others the rift in the Church caused by the Second Vatican Council and the time thereafter. He tried to mend this rift with a theology of continuity, especially with regard to the liturgy. For this, he developed the so-called the hermeneutics of continuity. His pontificate was a pontificate of conciliation, indeed an attempt to heal this wound.

Pope Benedict XVI was anxious to correct the negative consequences of the Council. In this regard, we must highlight the year 2007, the year of the Apostolic Exhortation, motu proprio Summorum Pontificum on July 7 of the same year. With that, the pope wanted to restore the traditional Roman liturgy to the Church. In 2009 he also lifted the unjust excommunication of Archbishop Lefebvre and the bishops for the SSPX whom he had consecrated. He thus partially righted an injustice that weighed heavily on the Church.

In 2013, Pope Francis took over the leadership of the Church. We can call his pontificate, as it emerges up to that point, a pontificate of rupture. It is a break with tradition. This is reflected in the fact that he constantly reprimands Tradition and the faithful who are attached to it. On the other hand, he undertakes acts that are clearly contrary to Tradition (e.g., syncretistic acts worship, as in Canada). This will for rupture is evident in particular in the two Apostolic Exhortations, Traditionis custodes (July 16, 2021) and Desiderio desideravi (June 29, 2022). With these writings, the pope wants to eradicate the traditional Roman liturgy. What is more, he has shown himself to be an ardent defender of the so-called world religion. For many of the faithful, this is a stumbling block. However, concerning the SSPX, his decree regarding the jurisdiction of confession and the power to solemnize marriages is important.

3. A Withdrawal

Let's come back to the Society of Saint Pius X. Through contact with the SSPX, the study of its history and the deepening of theological questions, I have a new perspective. It is a new view on the past seventy, eighty years of the Church's life. We can speak of a retractatio, of a new judgment of the state of the faith at the time of the Council and afterwards. It became clearer to me why the Church has come to where it is today. Today, in 2023, the Church is in one of the greatest crises of her history. It is an internal crisis that covers all areas of the Church’s life: preaching, liturgy, pastoral care, and government. It is a deep crisis of faith.

Anyone who delves into the historical development and the life of the SSPX involuntarily encounters the cause and the roots of this crisis. For the SSPX is, in a certain sense, a child of this crisis. It is so insofar as its founder wanted to react to the crisis by setting up this institution and thus help the Church. He was mainly concerned with the faith of the Church and the insecure and abandoned faithful. Following what happened after the Second Vatican Council, many people became sheep without a shepherd. For the archbishop, the reason for action was primarily the salvation of souls (CIC 1983 Can. 1752), as well as the preservation of the purity of the faith. Because faith is the way to salvation. Therefore, it must not be falsified. It is from this principle that the SSPX and its founder must be viewed and judged! It is in this sense that Pope Francis spoke to me and said: “They are not schismatics.”

4. Cause of the Crisis

Let us move on to the question: what is the cause of the severe crisis in the Church? As already indicated, the cause of the severe crisis of the Church lies in the development of ecclesiastical life seventy or eighty years ago. That pretty much aligns with my lifetime so far. But we have to be honest: the beginnings of the crisis predate the Second Vatican Council. The Council (1962-1965), on the other hand,  and the period afterward became the starting point for official – often silent but successful – attacks on the previous Magisterium and on the earlier practices of the Church. These were attacks against the transmitted faith. Those attacks were launched by those bishops and theologians who did not want to accept the rejection of modernism. Likewise, they did not want to accept the demarcation of the Church from certain areas of social life. The result was an often unnoticed, concealed, cryptic moving away tradition, from the authentic teaching of the Church, both in the documents of the Council and in the ensuing magisterium and decisions. Here lies the deeper cause of the crisis in the Church. This is also the reason why the founder of the SSPX, Archbishop Lefebvre, could not follow unreservedly the instruction and doctrinal decisions of the Council and the official Church announcements that followed the Council. His position was factually justified and entirely in line with the faith of the Church. He should have been listened to more. The measures taken against him were a grave injustice, because it is easy to prove that the government of the Church has moved away from Tradition. This is not a subjective and emotional perception of the Archbishop!

The archbishop's position on the Council was clearly expressed in a meeting with Pope John Paul II on November 18, 1978. This position is also absolutely correct. In a letter, the prelate reports the following: “As to the Council, I told [the pope] that I would be ready to sign a sentence like this: 'I accept the Acts of the Council interpreted in the light of tradition'. He found it fully satisfying and completely normal.”

The attitude of the Archbishop towards the See of Peter and the Vicar of Christ is also correct. For example, he says: “It is certain that the Pope is imbued with liberal ideals … If this fact forbids us from following him when he acts or speaks in conformity with these errors, it must not lead us to disrespect and contempt. This out of respect for the See of Peter, which he occupies. We must pray for him so that he only affirms the truth, and that he works exclusively for the establishment of the Reign of Our Lord.”