Apologia pro Society of St. Pius X
Dr. Fred Wenzel | Guest Article |The Daily Knight
For forty years, enemies of Tradition have advanced a canonical claim of schism against the Bishops and Priests of the Society of Saint Pius X and the faithful who support them. Some Vatican officials persist in these claims, such as Cardinal Burke, who has expressed them in a private capacity in interviews and letters. However, these claims have been and continue to be refuted by Vatican officials speaking in an official capacity as well as by the official actions of Popes Benedict XVI and Francis. Pope Benedict remitted the excommunications of the SSPX bishops and Pope Francis has granted the Superior General of the Society the permission to ordain priests, named Bishop Fellay a canonical minister of the second instance, granted global faculties for hearing confessions and ordered the bishops of the world to witness marriages in SSPX chapels (or otherwise delegate faculties, as most have done). None of these grants would be canonically possible if the SSPX were in a state of schism.
Official Vatican sources:
1. STATUS OF SOCIETY OF ST PIUS X MASSES
1995 Letter, Commission Ecclesia Dei, https://web.archive.org/web/20190622190205/http://www.ewtn.com:80/library/CURIA/CEDSSPX.HTM
The following letter was received from the Pontifical Commission established to oversee the granting of celebrets (right to celebrate) to those priests desiring to offer the Holy Mass according to the Missal of 1962. The authorizing decree of the Supreme Pontiff, Ecclesia Dei, was issued in 1988 on the occasion of the schism of Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre and the Society of St. Pius X, and encourages the generous granting of permission for the Tridentine Mass by bishops, in order to facilitate communion with the Holy See of those who have a particular love for the older Rites.
Not all bishops have been generous, despite the continuing pastoral concern of the Holy Father, causing many traditionalist Catholics to attend the chapels of the Society of St. Pius X or of priests operating independent of their bishop. In a famous case the Bishop of Honolulu excommunicated specific Catholics who frequented such chapels, only to have the excommunication overturned by Rome. This action has encouraged traditionalist Catholics to believe that it is not schismatic, and therefore not excommunicable, to attend such chapels. This response from the Commission was precipitated by a letter to Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger and has been generously shared with EWTN. The letter to the Cardinal had expressed concern for the status of such attendance and asked two specific questions:
1) Is it schismatic in attending the Society of St. Pius X chapels?
2) What does the Hawaiian Case mean to someone attending such chapels?
PONTIFICIA COMMISSIO ECCLESIA DE N. 117/95 Rome 29 September 1995
Thank you for your letter of 4 September 1995 addressed to His Eminence Cardinal Ratzinger. It has been transmitted to this Pontifical Commission as dealing with matters related to our particular competence.
We are aware of the lack of authorized celebrations of the Mass according to the 1962 Roman Missal in [dioceses] and we can appreciate your desire to assist at the traditional Mass. We also recognize your earnest desire to remain in full communion with the Successor of Peter and the members of the Church subject to him, a desire which obviously prompted you to write this letter. In order to answer your questions we must explain the Church's present evaluation of the situation of the Society of St. Pius X.
1. There is no doubt about the validity of the ordination of the priests of the Society of St. Pius X. They are, however, suspended a divinis, that is prohibited by the Church from exercising their orders because of their illicit ordination.
2. The Masses they celebrate are also valid, but it is considered morally illicit for the faithful to participate in these Masses unless they are physically or morally impeded from participating in a Mass celebrated by a Catholic priest in good standing (cf. Code of Canon Law, canon 844.2). The fact of not being able to assist at the celebration of the so-called "Tridentine" Mass is not considered a sufficient motive for attending such Masses.
3. While it is true that the participation in the Mass and sacraments at the chapels of the Society of St. Pius X does not of itself constitute "formal adherence to the schism", such adherence can come about over a period of time as one slowly imbibes a mentality which separates itself from the magisterium of the Supreme Pontiff. Father Peter R. Scott, District Superior of the Society in the United States, has publicly stated that he deplores the "liberalism" of "those who refuse to condemn the New Mass as absolutely offensive to God, or the religious liberty and ecumenism of the post concilliar church." With such an attitude the society of St. Pius X is effectively tending to establish its own canons of orthodoxy and hence to separate itself from the magisterium of the Supreme Pontiff. According to canon 751 such "refusal of submission to the Roman Pontiff or the communion of the members of the Church subject to him" constitute schism. Hence we cannot encourage your participation in the Masses, the sacraments or other services conducted under the aegis of the Society of St. Pius X.
4. The situation of at least one of the "independent" priests . . . to whom you allude is somewhat different. He and the community which he serves have declared their desire to regularize their situation and have taken some initial steps to do so. Let us pray that this may soon be accomplished.
5. Finally, we may say that "the Hawaiian case" resulted in a judgment that the former Bishop of Honolulu did not have grounds to excommunicate the persons involved, but this judgment does not confer the Church's approbation upon the Society of St. Pius X or those who frequent their chapels.
With prayerful best wishes, I remain Sincerely yours in Christ,
Msgr. Camille Perl Secretary
2. 2003 Letter, Commission Ecclesia Dei, Mgr. Perl letter, 2003: http://www.unavoce.org/articles/2003/perl-011803.htm
Letter by Msgr. Camille Perl Regarding Society of St. Pius X Masses
Una Voce America has received a communication from the Pontifical Ecclesia Dei Commission, concerning an article which appeared in The Remnant newspaper and various websites. At the request of the Commission, we are publishing it below.
Pontificia Commissio "Ecclesia Dei" January 18, 2003
Greetings in the Hearts of Jesus & Mary! There have been several inquiries about our letter of 27 September 2002. In order to clarify things, Msgr. Perl has made the following response.
Oremus pro invicem.
In cordibus Jesu et Mariæ, Msgr. Arthur B. Calkins
Msgr. Camille Perl's response:
Unfortunately, as you will understand, we have no way of controlling what is done with our letters by their recipients. Our letter of 27 September 2002, which was evidently cited in The Remnant and on various websites, was intended as a private communication dealing with the specific circumstances of the person who wrote to us. What was presented in the public forum is an abbreviated version of that letter which omits much of our pastoral counsel. Since a truncated form of this letter has now become public, we judge it appropriate to present the larger context of our response.
In a previous letter to the same correspondent we had already indicated the canonical status of the Society of St. Pius X which we will summarize briefly here.
1.) The priests of the Society of St. Pius X are validly ordained, but they are suspended from exercising their priestly functions. To the extent that they adhere to the schism of the late Archbishop Lefebvre, they are also excommunicated. (N.B. This has now changed since the excommunications were lifted by Pope Benedict XVI in 2009)
2.) Concretely this means that the Masses offered by these priests are valid, but illicit i.e., contrary to the law of the Church.
Points 1 and 3 in our letter of 27 September 2002 to this correspondent are accurately reported. His first question was "Can I fulfill my Sunday obligation by attending a Pius X Mass" and our response was:
"1. In the strict sense you may fulfill your Sunday obligation by attending a Mass celebrated by a priest of the Society of St. Pius X."
His second question was "Is it a sin for me to attend a Pius X Mass" and we responded stating:
"2. We have already told you that we cannot recommend your attendance at such a Mass and have explained the reason why. If your primary reason for attending were to manifest your desire to separate yourself from communion with the Roman Pontiff and those in communion with him, it would be a sin. If your intention is simply to participate in a Mass according to the 1962 Missal for the sake of devotion, this would not be a sin."
His third question was: "Is it a sin for me to contribute to the Sunday collection a Pius X Mass" to which we responded:
"3. It would seem that a modest contribution to the collection at Mass could be justified."
Further, the correspondent took the Commission to task for not doing its job properly and we responded thus:
"This Pontifical Commission does not have the authority to coerce Bishops to provide for the celebration of the Mass according to the 1962 Roman Missal. Nonetheless, we are frequently in contact with Bishops and do all that we can to see that this provision is made. However, this provision also depends on the number of people who desire the 'traditional' Mass, their motives and the availability of priests who can celebrate it.
"You also state in your letter that the Holy Father has given you a 'right' to the Mass according to the 1962 Roman Missal. This is not correct. It is true that he has asked his brother Bishops to be generous in providing for the celebration of this Mass, but he has not stated that it is a 'right'. Presently it constitutes an exception to the Church's law and may be granted when the local Bishop judges it to be a valid pastoral service and when he has the priests who are available to celebrate it. Every Catholic has a right to the sacraments (cf. Code of Canon Law, canon 843), but he does not have a right to them according to the rite of his choice."
We hope that this puts in a clearer light the letter about which you asked us.
With prayerful best wishes for this New Year of Our Lord 2003, I remain
Sincerely yours in Christ, Rev. Msgr. Camille Perl Secretary
3. 2009 Decree of Pope Benedict XVI remitting the excommunications of the SSPX bishops: https://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cbishops/documents/rc_con_cbishops_doc_20090121_remissione-scomunica_en.html
4. 2009 Letter from Pope Benedict XVI regarding the lifting of the excommunications of the SSPX bishops: https://www.vatican.va/content/benedict-xvi/en/letters/2009/documents/hf_ben-xvi_let_20090310_remissione-scomunica.html
5. 2014 SSPX Priest Permitted to Say Mass in Saint Peter's Basilica, https://rorate-caeli.blogspot.com/2014/08/sspx-priest-celebrates-mass-in-saint.html
6. 2015 The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has appointed the Superior General of the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX), Bishop Bernard Fellay, as first-instance judge in a case involving a Lefebvrian priest. https://rorate-caeli.blogspot.com/2015/06/for-record-ecclesia-dei-secretary.html
7. 2016 Pope Francis, APOSTOLIC LETTER, Misericordia et misera, extending faculties to SSPX priests to hear confessions. https://www.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/apost_letters/documents/papa-francesco-lettera-ap_20161120_misericordia-et-misera.html
For the Jubilee Year I had also granted that those faithful who, for various reasons, attend churches officiated by the priests of the Priestly Fraternity of Saint Pius X, can validly and licitly receive the sacramental absolution of their sins. For the pastoral benefit of these faithful, and trusting in the good will of their priests to strive with God’s help for the recovery of full communion in the Catholic Church, I have personally decided to extend this faculty beyond the Jubilee Year, until further provisions are made, lest anyone ever be deprived of the sacramental sign of reconciliation through the Church’s pardon.
8. 2017 Letter, Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei, Cardinal Mueller, granting SSPX priests faculties to witness marriages. https://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/pontifical_commissions/ecclsdei/documents/rc_com_ecclsdei_doc_20170327_lettera-presuli_en.html
9. 2017 SSPX bishops authorized to ordain priests without permission of local bishops, https://www.catholicculture.org/news/headlines/index.cfm?storyid=31663
May 24, 2017
Bishops of the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX) have been authorized by Pope Francis to ordain new priests without the approval of the local diocesan bishop, according to Bishop Bernard Fellay, the superior of the traditionalist group.
“Last year, I received a letter from Rome, telling me you can freely ordain your priests without the permission of the local ordinary,” Bishop Fellay reported. He said that the move indicated that although the status of the SSPX remains irregular, “the ordination is recognized by the Church not just as valid but in order.”
The SSPX has been involved in talks with the Vatican, aimed at regularizing the status of the group, and informed sources have indicated that an agreement is close to establish the SSPX as a personal prelature. Pope Francis has already said that SSPX priests have the authority to hear sacramental confessions and preside at weddings that will be recognized by the Catholic Church. Bishop Fellay remarked that the permission to ordain bishops is “one more step in his acceptance that we are... ‘normal Catholics.’“
Analysis by Fr. John Zuhlsdorf
Fr. Zuhlsdorf, member of the Pontifical Ecclesia Dei Commission, founded by Pope John Paul II to oversee the traditional Mass and traditional religious communities (now absorbed into the Congregation for Divine Worship by Pope Francis). Therefore, a very knowledgeable authority on matters pertaining to traditional orders.
ASK FATHER: What’s the truth about the SSPX?
I was informed that some prominent internet wonks were/are having a spat about the SSPX.
I looked around and found all manner of strange, useless and confusion-riddled comments about the status of the SSPX, their objectives and holiness, and blah blah. Various sections of the addled peanut gallery got involved in the online feud. As inevitably happens. Thus, we are again presented with a concrete demonstration that in many of these dust ups a heck of a lot of people don’t know what they don’t know.
Let’s aim for some clarity and charity about the SSPX.
I preface this with my observation, from personal experience, of some of the priests of the SSPX. They are mostly terrific guys, dedicated, zealous for souls, hard workers and determined priests. Better formed in history, philosophy, liturgy and theology than a great many of garden variety priests I know. (Not that we think clergy should be well educated. Sheesh.) I would be, will be I hope, honored to have them working alongside me in this diocese or wherever God takes me.
Here are a few facts.
The SSPX (technically Fraternitas Sacerdotalis Santi Pii X) is a priestly Fraternity or Society of priests. The SSPX does not have formal canonical status other than they are exercising a canonical right to associate with each other. Their “association of the faithful” does not now have canonical recognition. Hopefully one day they will be set up and recognized formally as a, say, Personal Prelature or some variant. However, can. 299 §1 says that by private agreement among themselves, the faithful have the right to constitute associations for the purposes mentioned in can. 298 §1, which are, for example, when clerics or laity want to strive with common effort to foster a more perfect life, promote public worship, etc. The SSPX is an association of the faithful. No question.
Could it have higher status? Sure. It doesn’t have no status.
On 8 December 2015, Francis told the Catholic faithful that for the Holy Year of Mercy they could go to priests of the SSPX for the Sacrament of Penance and that they could be validly absolved. That provision was extended beyond the “Year of Mercy” in the 2016 Apostolic Letter Misericordia et misera. It stands today. This is a little odd, because it was not really a formal grant of faculties in the usual and expected way to the priests of the SSPX, as when a bishop grants faculties to a priest to receive sacramental confessions. Those faculties are demonstrable with a document saying that Fr. Soandso has the faculty, etc. In this case there is no document that I’m aware of that explicitly grants faculties to the priests of the SSPX to hear confessions and to absolve. However, Popes can do what they want in this regard. It’s better when they do things in a way that make things clear, with all the i’s dotted. In this case, Francis said that people can be absolved by SSPX priests and that, as they say, is that. Popes can do that sort of thing, whereas other entities such as dicasteries of the Holy See (e.g., the Pontifical Commission “Ecclesia Dei” (PCED) of old and now CDF, and diocesan bishops) have to use another procedure. So, SSPX priests can validly absolve sins even when there is no danger of death. You can go to confession to them not just because there are no other priests around. You can go to them because you want to. No question.
On 27 March 2017 the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (which had absorbed my old office, the PCED) informed all the bishops of the world that they could give faculties to SSPX priests to witness marriages. As in the case of hearing confessions, marriages require that a priest have the appropriate faculty. There had been considerable debate about the validity of SSPX witnessed marriages. What Francis did removed doubt. The priests can now have the faculty themselves and they can work with a local diocesan priest. Since then, I think most, not all, diocesan bishops have worked with local SSPX priests in this regard and simply given the SSPX priests the faculty.
Something important to note about this is that that letter of the CDF did NOT say that, “Up until now, the marriages witnessed by the SSPX priests were invalid.” The Apostolic Letter Misericordia et misera did NOT say that, “Until now, the absolutions given by priests of the SSPX were invalid.” That’s food for thought. That moves the goal posts significantly. We can’t just think of the SSPX priests and confession and marriages in the same way that we did before those grants.
Furthermore – AND PAY ATTENTION because this is really important – suspended priests cannot receive faculties. If the SSPX priests can receive faculties, and they have, all over the place, then they are not suspended!
Another point, and one that touches close to home with many lay people who love our Catholic tradition: attendance at SSPX Masses.
The Masses celebrated by SSPX priests are celebrated in a Catholic rite. No question. As I have written a zillion times on this blog about fulfilling Sunday and Holy Day obligations, in can. 1248 §1 we read that a person who assists at a Mass celebrated anywhere in a Catholic rite either on the feast day itself or in the evening of the preceding day satisfies the obligation of participating in the Mass. Again, the SSPX priests use a Catholic rite, the Missale Romanum and other liturgical books of the Latin Church. So, yes, you can choose to go to a Mass of the SSPX, not just because there is no other Mass, but because you want to. No question.
As to the question: “Is it sinful to go to an SSPX Mass?” Answer: It depends on why you are going there.
Frankly, yes, it would be sinful to go to their Masses out of sheer desire to hurt local parishes or priests or because you hate the local bishop, or Pope, or some aspect of the Church, blah blah blah. Frankly, yes, it would be sinful to attend a parish where there are liturgical abuses that you happen to know are abuses but you like those abuses and you don’t care about authority. Frankly, no, it is not sinful to attend an SSPX Mass if you are seeking sound liturgy and preaching and other good people who desire the same. No question.
As a matter of fact, you can contribute money to their collections: it is a matter of justice. If you receive services from them, you can contribute.
Sometimes I hear the claim that the SSPX is “not in communion” with the Catholic Church. I have heard that they are “not Catholic”. These claims are absurd on the face of it. No reasonable and even half-informed mind can conclude that they are not “Catholic”. They are clearly not Protestant, who are heretics. They are clearly not Orthodox, who are schismatics. And I am not sure that there is such as thing as “imperfect communion”. What would that be, exactly? You are either in communion or you aren’t. In the past, sometimes we have seen statements, for example in the decree issued by the Congregation for Bishops in 2009 which lifted the excommunications of the SSPX bishops, that such a gesture aimed at “full communion” and as well as “proof of visible unity”. It doesn’t say that there wasn’t/isn’t communion or unity. It aims at making both more apparent, which is not the same as bringing either one about.
Moreover, the three bishop members of the SSPX – excluding the fourth, a separate case – are NOT excommunicated. Benedict XVI lifted that excommunication incurred in 1988 – probably with retroactive effect – in 2009. And the priests are not excommunicated.
Also, it is claimed that the SSPX has been in schism since 1988 because the illicit consecration of bishops by Archbp. Lefevbre was a “schismatic act” (cf. Ecclesia Dei adflicta 3). However, it takes more than “an act” to create a real schism. (Also note that Pope John Paul II himself illicitly consecrated priests as bishop of Cracow, and Cardinal Slipyj of the Ukraine iliicitly consecrated a bishop, both with no consequences, see article below*)
It was obviously, manifestly, NOT Archbp. Lefevbre’s intention to set up a separate or rival Church, or to make himself or someone else an anti-Pope, or to create other aspects of a true schism. The SSPX priests quite openly have used the names of the Popes in the Roman Canon during Mass. They have recourse to diocesan tribunals in marriage and other matters. They follow the decrees of the Sacra Paenitentieria Apostolica in the matter of indulgences. They accept faculties for marriages etc. from local bishops. Recently, they communicated to their followers the dispensations and provisions given by local bishops in this time of Coronavirus lockdown. These are not the acts of schismatics.
The SSPX has common and shared faith, sacrament and governance. Protestants have some shared faith, a couple sacraments, and no governance. Orthodox have shared faith and sacraments but not shared governance. The SSPX has all three, as is clear by the fact that Francis acted in their regard about the Sacraments of Penance and Matrimony in way that would be impossible with, say, heretics or schismatics. They are not “separated brethren”. No question.
Some don’t like the SSPX because they say that people should attend the Traditional Latin Mass and not the Novus Ordo. How shocking that they should say that people would do better to come to their Masses rather than someone else’s, particularly when they sincerely believe that the Novus Ordo is flawed and inadequate. They do NOT believe that it is invalid! They think it is flawed and, in some respects, possibly harmful to the faith. It could be argued that after several decades of the Novus Ordo a large percentage of Catholics have a flawed understanding of a great deal of Catholic teaching. But I digress. The SSPX doesn’t say that Novus Ordo is invalid.
The SSPXers are often said to be against or critical of the Second Vatican Council. However, they acknowledge that Vatican II was, in fact, the 21st Ecumenical Council. What they say about the Council is what the Council said about itself: it was intended to be a pastoral Council (which is itself a historical departure) rather than a Council that would issue dogmatic statements. Paul VI took the documents and he promulgated them. That doesn’t mean that everything in every document is beyond criticism. Some things are crystal clear and others are as clear as mud. Libs say that everything in the mud is dogmatic according to their own interpretations. It is legitimate to debate about the debatable things. We can be convinced one way or another by clarifications made by legitimate authority (e.g., CDF) or by the force of the arguments. For example, the “Dogmatic Constitution” Lumen gentium had a point about the possibility of salvation outside the church (there’s a dogmatic teaching about that). It was not clear. Many debated about it. Hence, in 2000 the CDF issued Dominus Iesus. It is possible to be confused by things in Council documents, debate them, make arguments and then have them clarified, over time, by subsequent authoritative declarations. BTW… one might read the commentary on Gaudium et spes by young Fr. Ratzinger in the book edited by Herbert Vorgrimler (HINT: deep reservations about its drafting, structure and anthropocentrism).
So, the SSPX is in a strange state, but not really the state that some (most?) think they are in. Their chapels are not parishes; a parish is a formal canonical structure. They don’t have a clear ecclesiastical jurisdiction, as dioceses or a personal prelature or religious order does. Their priests are not incardinated anywhere, which make them odd ducks in a way, but not less priests than priests who are incardinated in a diocese or in a religious group. They can and do receive faculties from legitimate authority and, hence, they are not suspended.
Let’s bring this to the bottom line.
When it comes to critics of the SSPX, clerical and lay, it seems to me that a little more charity, thoughtfulness and prudence might be adopted. There is a rigidity running through some conservative or tradition-leaning Catholics which reminds me a little of the attitude of the Pharisees. Libs remind me of Pharisees all the time, by the way.
Within the very heart of how the Church applies and interprets her laws there is a beautiful and gentle principle the spirit of which we can learn from when talking about the SSPX: odiosa restringi et favores convenit ampliari, or else odiosa sunt restringenda et favoribilia amplianda/ampliantur. That is to say, laws that place burdens or restrictions on people must be interpreted strictly so that they don’t put onto people what the laws don’t say. On the other hand, laws which grant favors or freedoms to people should be interpreted as generously as possible so that people can enjoy favors and freedoms. Be narrow and picky with laws that restrict and wide and generous with laws that grant things.
The SSPX is an association of the faithful. They don’t yet have canonical recognition. But they could and, I think, will. Until then they are still a real thing in the Church. Their sacraments are valid. The priests can receive faculties, so they are not suspended. Their bishop members are not excommunicated. They have shared faith, sacraments and governance, which is borne out everyday in practice by their recourse to tribunals, reference to the decrees of the Paenitentieria, etc. They aren’t a separate Church. They aren’t heretics. They aren’t a schism. You can satisfy your Mass attendance obligations at their chapels. You can be validly absolved by them. They can witness your marriages.
Is their situation complicated? Heck, yeah it is! Especially in regard to the question of incardination of the priests. That’s really the most difficult canonical issue.
Also, the situation of the SSPX and of the wider Church is evolving, especially in light of the concession of faculties. As it evolves, we have to step back, cool down and reevaluate.
We probably have a whole bunch of living to do before the trumpet sounds. I think our views can evolve in a constructive way. I sure hope so.
Meanwhile, quite a few people would do well to stick a sock in it when it comes to the SSPX. Carping at them, or parroting inaccuracies, does no one any good and it confuses people. This is a really complicated situation that is not helpfully characterized by glib cliches or reduced to simplistic conclusions. Having a gentler attitude, even in regard to their lawful status, as suggested by the Latin dictum I quoted above, seems to me to be the better and the more Catholic approach. We might apply a little mercy.
Speaking of mercy, during the Year of Mercy convoked by Francis – which the SSPX observed! – the leadership, 250 priests and 5500 followers of the SSPX had their pilgrimage to St. Peter’s Basilica, where they were welcomed. Then-Superior Bp. Fellay gave a sermon and they prayed for Francis.
*Clandestine Ordinations Against Church Law: Lessons from Cardinal Wojtyła, the future Pope John Paul II, and Cardinal Slipyj, in which both prelates performed ordinations against Church law with impunity.
Recent Statements by Tradition-friendly bishops
Bishop Athanasius Schneider, auxiliary bishop of Astana, Kazakhstan
As a delegate on behalf of the Holy See to the SSPX, he visited two SSPX seminaries in 2015 and shared his observations with the news service Adalente la Fe. He recounted how he could see “no weighty reasons in order to deny the clergy and faithful of the SSPX the official canonical recognition.”
Referencing how the SSPX “believes, worship and conducts a moral life as it was demanded and recognized by the Supreme Magisterium and was observed universally in the Church during a centuries long period,” as well as recognizing the legitimacy of the Pope and local bishops and praying for them, he called for full unity to be granted to them.