VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - The Vatican on Wednesday told an ultra-traditionalist splinter group they will have to accept some non-negotiable doctrinal principles before they can fully rejoin the Roman Catholic Church.
Leaders of the dissident Society of Saint Pius X (SSPX) held several hours of meetings with the Vatican's top doctrinal officials to discuss how to finalise several years of negotiations aimed at eventual reconciliation.
A statement said the Vatican told the head of the traditionalists, Swiss-born Bishop Bernard Fellay, that the SSPX must accept the principles outlined in a "doctrinal preamble," before moving on to a "hoped for reconciliation".
The Vatican did not release the text of the preamble handed to Fellay. But it said it included certain doctrinal principles and guidelines for interpreting Church teaching so that the SSPX was not fundamentally out of step with the Vatican.
The SSPX defied the Vatican in 1988 by consecrating four of its own bishops, triggering their excommunication. In a gesture of reconciliation, Pope Benedict has lifted those bans and promoted the use of the traditional Latin Mass the SSPX favours.
But he has until now refused to grant the SSPX bishops the right to reject other teachings of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), such as its historic reconciliation with Judaism and other faiths, or assume official positions in the Church.
Despite their dissent, Benedict values the SSPX's commitment to Church traditions and does not want their splinter group to develop into a permanent schism claiming to be Catholic but outside the Vatican fold. As such Benedict has shown a keen interest in fully resolving the matter.
Vatican spokesman Rev Federico Lombardi said there was no deadline for the traditionalists to accept the doctrinal principles. But he added that the Vatican expected a response "in a matter of months."
"They now have to reflect on this offer. That was the aim of this meeting," Lombardi said.
If the SSPX agrees to any accord, it would probably be offered a special legal status within the Church, similar to a the international prelature enjoyed by the conservative Roman Catholic group Opus Dei.
Refusal to accept the Vatican's offer would leave the SSPX leaders as validly ordained bishops but without any official mission or position in the Church.
Another question to be resolved will be the status of British-born Bishop Richard Williamson, who caused an uproar by denying the Holocaust just before Benedict lifted the excommunication bans on him and the other SSPX bishops.
SSPX leaders have recently signalled they have refused to make any concessions in the talks with the Vatican.
"If their aim is still to have the SSPX accept the Council, the discussions showed clearly enough that we have no intention of going down that path," Fellay said last month.
On Monday, the head of the SSPX in France issued a scathing denunciation of Pope Benedict's plan to host heads of the world's religions next month in the Italian city of Assisi.
Rev Regis de Cacqueray said that joining in prayer with leaders of what he called false religions would be a "dreadful blasphemy against God" and "an invitation to sin."
Additional reporting by Tom Heneghan in Paris; Editing by Matthew Jones