By Tom Heneghan, Religion Editor
Paris - France's Catholic bishops called on rebel traditionalists on Thursday to show full loyalty to 1960s Vatican reforms if they want to return to the Roman fold and celebrate the old Latin mass with papal approval.
Their message gave official support to a rare clerical protest spreading across France against the Pope's reported plan to readmit the traditionalist Society of Saint Pius X (SSPX) to the Church without requiring their support for the reforms.
In a carefully worded statement the bishops, meeting in the pilgrimage town of Lourdes in southwestern France, said they shared with Pope Benedict an attachment to "the riches of the teaching of the Second Vatican Council".
The row has focused on use of the Tridentine mass in Latin, which was replaced by updated liturgy in local languages, but also concerns Council changes such as promoting respect for Jews, dialogue with other faiths and more say for lay people.
"The liturgical question is not the only source of difficulties," the bishops said in a message expressing support for their leader, Cardinal Jean-Pierre Ricard, in negotiations with the Vatican on readmitting the SSPX.
"The bishops expect from these faithful a gesture of unequivocal assent to the teaching of the authentic magisterium of the Church," they said, referring to the Catholic dogmas updated by the 1962-1965 Second Vatican Council.
Ricard, who rushed to Rome to meet Benedict when reports of an imminent compromise with the SSPX emerged in October, told the bishops last weekend that the Vatican had not yet made any decision and was open to hearing the French church's views.
The Swiss-based SSPX was expelled from the Church in 1988 when its founder, French Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, consecrated four bishops without Vatican approval. It rejects Vatican II and wants the Holy See to return to its pre-Council traditions.
Its current head, Bishop Bernard Fellay, has said he wants the SSPX to be readmitted without making any doctrinal deals, an approach the French bishops see as bringing a hard-line opposition inside their post-Council church.
The reported reconciliation has met some criticism from bishops in Belgium, Germany and the United States but open opposition in France, where the SSPX has a small but dedicated following and some links to monarchist and far-right movements.
The revived Latin mass would only be an option while the new mass in local languages would remain the widespread norm.
Ricard told the bishops he wanted to welcome traditionalists back into the Church but insisted that the Vatican II reforms remained "the compass that guides our march".
The SSPX claims about 1-million supporters, a small fraction of the 1,1-billion strong Catholic Church, but Benedict seems keen to bring them back to the fold because their schism is the only one that emerged after the Second Vatican Council.