PARIS The leader of a breakaway traditionalist Catholic group has rejected a Vatican offer to rejoin Rome, accusing Pope Benedict of trying to silence dissenting voices.
Bishop Bernard Fellay, head of the Society of Saint Pius X (SSPX) that broke with Rome 20 years ago, said conditions set by the Vatican amounted to muzzling the traditionalists who claim to be the only true Catholics since Church reforms in the 1960s.
Keen to end this schism, Benedict agreed last year to their demand to restore the old Latin Mass. But he insists they must accept the reforms of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) before he can lift excommunication decrees against them.
"Rome is telling us, okay, we are ready to lift the excommunications, but you cannot continue this way," Fellay said in a sermon last Friday now posted as an audio file on the U.S.-based Voice of Catholic Radio website.
"So we have no choice... we are continuing what we've done," the Swiss-born Fellay said in English at an SSPX seminary in Winona, Minnesota. "They just say 'shut up' ... we are not going ... to shut up."
The Milan daily Il Giornale reported on Monday the Vatican had told the SSPX it must pledge to respect the pope and accept him as the Church's final doctrinal authority.
Vatican spokesman Rev. Federico Lombardi told the Paris Catholic daily La Croix: "The pope wants to extend his hand so they can return, but for that to happen, this offer must be received in an attitude and spirit of charity and communion."
Lombardi did not spell out the consequences of rejecting the offer, but Il Giornale's well-informed Vatican expert Andrea Tornielli wrote: "Such favorable conditions for a return to full communion will in all probability not come again."
TIP OF THE ICEBERG
The SSPX claims about a million followers worldwide, many of them in France. It split off when its founder, Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, consecrated four traditionalist bishops -- including Fellay -- in 1988 against orders from Pope John Paul.
Since then, it has regularly appealed to the Vatican to withdraw the excommunications and allow it to return to the 1.1-billion strong Church. But its leaders often publicly denounce the pope.
Fellay said the pope must restore other Church traditions besides the old Latin Mass before the SSPX could return. It is particularly critical of the Vatican Council's reconciliation with Judaism and call to cooperation with other Christians.
"The new Mass is the tip of the iceberg of Vatican II and of these modern ideas." Adding the old Mass to the "iceberg of Vatican II" did not change the reforms hidden below, he said.
Vatican watchers say the ultimatum could split SSPX into a hard core of rebels and a larger group ready to return to Rome now that it has allowed wider use of the old Latin Mass.
"Most people want a reverent Mass and sound preaching. They care little for the loftier theological arguments," Rev. John Zuhlsdorf, a prominent conservative Catholic blogger, wrote in an analysis. "The identity of the SSPX is at stake now."
The ultimatum's deadline of June 30 is the 20th anniversary of the bishops' ordinations that sealed the schism.
(Editing by Keith Weir)