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VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - The Vatican on Wednesday told an ultra-traditionalist splinter group it would have to accept some non-negotiable doctrinal principles before it could 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 doctrinal officials to discuss how to finalize two 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 Rome in 1988 by consecrating four 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 favors.
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.
Fellay said after the meeting he would study the proposal and consult with the other SSPX bishops before responding.
He gave no details of the Vatican document but noted that it laid down guidelines the SSPX must accept but left some leeway for disagreement over the interpretation of some Council texts and the Vatican teachings based on them.
This seemed to point toward a compromise by which the SSPX would reaffirm its support for central doctrines of Catholicism and recognize the Council as a whole, but be allowed to disagree on the interpretation of some Council documents.
"Such a distinction will now open a broad debate within the Church," wrote Vatican specialist Jean-Marie Guenois in the Paris daily Le Figaro. "Until now, the authority of the Vatican Council was seen as a bloc, take it or leave it."
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 resolving the matter.
Vatican spokesman Rev Federico Lombardi said there was no deadline for the traditionalists to accept the doctrinal principles, but added 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 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 signaled 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