VATICAN CITY, Mar 23 (Reuters) Pope Benedict's efforts to heal a 17-year schism in the Roman Catholic Church took a big step forward today, but cardinals who discussed the issue said the road to reconciliation still appeared long and rocky.
The Vatican told its cardinals for the first time that it wanted to find an agreement with the traditionalist Society of Saint Pius X (SSPX), an excommunicated group that keeps the old Latin Mass and rejects the validity of other religions.
But the gulf between Rome and the rebel Swiss-based SSPX, which claims about one million followers compared to the 1.1 billion Catholics around the world, appears too wide to be patched over soon with some possible changes under discussion.
''There is a big problem here because they do not accept religious freedom or ecumenism, as the Second Vatican Council did,'' said one cardinal, referring to the 1962-1965 council whose reforms prompted the SSPX to defy the Vatican.
''A few legal or organisational changes will not be enough to change these people's minds,'' said the cardinal, who attended the closed-door meeting with Benedict and requested anonimity.
A senior SSPX official highlighted the gulf last year when he said Benedict should tell Jews and followers of other religions to covert to Catholicism from their ''false systems'', a stand contrary to the tolerance the Council introduced.
The SSPX, which has four bishops and 480 priests around the world, is the only group that split off after the Council. In some countries such as France, it runs as a parallel church and attracts strong loyalty and vocations from followers.
The cardinals met for rare consultations with the Pope a day before he installs 15 new members into their exclusive club. They gave no more details.
''The problem is how to move forward with something that is substantial and not just something pro forma,'' he said.
OPEN ON SOME ISSUES Reports in the Italian media have suggested that Benedict would propose lifting the excommunications that Pope John Paul pronounced on SSPX founder Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre and four bishops he ordained against the Vatican's objections.
The Pope was also said to be ready to find a way to let SSPX priests continue saying Mass in Latin, which the Council dropped in favour of local languages.
But the core of the dispute is the SSPX's view, which echoes that of the whole Church before the Council, that Catholicism is the only true religion and all others are in grave error.
SSPX head Bishop Bernard Fellay said in January he was sure Benedict wanted to bring his group back into the mainstream. But he expressed reservations much like those of the cardinals who heard the Vatican's views at Thursday's meeting.
''We're not opposed to that, but we don't want to take shortcuts that could lead to problems later,'' said Fellay, 48. ''One feels a desire in Rome to solve the problem as soon as possible. That is certainly the Pope's wish.'' Reuters SY BD2022