Canon Law and the SSPX

Q: Can you explain the status of the Society of St. Pius X within the Catholic Church today? My family and I know that Pope Benedict undid the excommunication of the bishops who head it up. Does that mean it’s okay now for us to attend Mass and receive the sacraments in an SSPX parish, or is there more to it?  –Michelle

A: The canonical status of the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX), which was founded by the late Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre after the Second Vatican Council, is both complex and fluid. It is evident that talks have been ongoing between the leadership of the SSPX and the Vatican for years, although most of the substance of these discussions remains confidential. There definitely is, to use Michelle’s words, “more to it”! We can certainly take a look at the SSPX’s current canonical status, but please keep in mind that it might very well change at any given moment.

A summary of the history of this priestly society was given back in “Are They Excommunicated? Sanctions, Part III.” But in short, the SSPX’s canonical status has been unclear since its very inception in 1970, when it was founded by the late Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre for the purpose of celebrating Mass and the sacraments using the preconciliar liturgical rites.

The canonical status of its leadership, however, was unfortunately clarified all too well in 1988, when Pope John Paul II formally declared that the four bishops consecrated for the Society by Archbishop Lefebvre were excommunicated, along with Lefebvre himself. As was discussed in the post noted above, the consecration of these four bishops without a papal mandate was in direct violation of canon 1382. Only the Pope has the authority to decide who is to become a bishop, and to mandate that man’s episcopal consecration (c. 1013). Archbishop Lefebvre had made the decision to consecrate four priests of the SSPX as bishops without the Pope’s approval, and according to the Vatican, he thereby engaged in a schismatic act.

What is confusing to many Catholics is the fact that while Lefebvre and the four new bishops were punished, the sanction of excommunication did not render the episcopal consecrations invalid. As a bishop, Lefebvre had the sacramental power to consecrate new bishops, and that is exactly what he did. The four men whom he consecrated are really and truly Catholic bishops! They consequently possess the sacramental powers that all bishops have: they can ordain priests, confirm, and even consecrate additional bishops themselves. All of these actions are valid if performed by any of the four bishops; but they are illicit, or illegal. These four men can administer these sacraments, but they shouldn’t, since they have not been authorized by the Holy Father to act in the role of bishops.

To complicate the matter even further, many Catholics are unaware that the excommunication of Lefebvre and the four new SSPX bishops did not extend to the SSPX as a whole. Yes, there are undoubtedly priests and laypersons involved with this society who take positions regarding both the authority of the Pope, and the validity of the Mass and other sacraments when celebrated according to the post-conciliar liturgical books, which essentially put these individuals in a state of schism. But there are many persons connected to the SSPX who are completely faithful to the teachings of the Church, and who merely wish to attend Mass—or in the case of clergy, wish to celebrate Mass—according to the old liturgical rites. It is the keen awareness of the innocent intentions of these people that has studiously kept the Vatican from making blanket-statements to the effect that every member of the SSPX, or everyone who attends Mass at their churches, is automatically in a state of schism—they’re not.

The situation was, therefore, perplexing enough to most Catholics already! But in 2009 this complex state of affairs began to change.

For years, the official position of the SSPX toward the excommunications of its four bishops along with the SSPX’s founder was to argue (wrongly) that the sanction had not been incurred, because Lefebvre and the four new bishops believed that they were acting with justification when they disobeyed the Holy Father. Lefebvre himself died in 1991, still under excommunication. But in 2008, the four bishops whom he’d ordained quietly petitioned Pope Benedict, requesting that their excommunications be lifted. Their petition acknowledged the supreme authority of the Holy Father, and noted that “the current situation causes us much suffering.” Gone were the claims that John Paul II’s declaration of their excommunication had had no effect, and that their direct disobedience had been justified. The four men wanted to return to union with Rome.

In January 2009, Pope Benedict agreed. Convinced of their good will, he remitted the penalty incurred by the bishops when they had been consecrated by Lefebvre back in 1988. With this act, the four were restored to communion with the Church.

Ironically, Benedict’s action was largely misunderstood, not only by the mainstream media and the Catholic faithful as a whole, but even by some Catholic bishops! It was wrongly thought that by this decree, the Pope had somehow legalized the entire SSPX, or approved of the episcopal consecrations performed by Lefebvre—neither of which is the case. To top it off, the news media fixated on the controversial views held by one of the four bishops about World War II and the Holocaust, and erroneously concluded that Pope Benedict was bestowing his approval on these views. The Pope himself appears to have been quite shocked by all the negative, misleading publicity that resulted from what he rightly regarded as a purely pastoral action.

For in lifting the excommunications of the four bishops, Benedict was addressing their own personal, individual status as Catholics within the Church. Each of these men had been, up to that point, out of communion with the Catholic Church because of their actions back in 1988. They respectfully sought, from the Vicar of Christ himself, to be in communion with the Church again as individual Catholics. By definition, their request carried with it an acknowledgement of the Pope’s authority over the Church here on earth—and it logically follows that they were simultaneously admitting the rightful authority of the previous Pope, who had been the one to warn them in advance that they should not be consecrated bishops without his permission.

In agreeing to their request, Pope Benedict focused not so much on the SSPX and its status within the Catholic Church, as on the spiritual state of these four men, who had been living in a state of excommunication for over twenty years. In a subsequent papal audience, the Pope described his action as “an act of paternal compassion.” Nowhere in his decree does the Pope make any mention of the status of the SSPX as a whole, nor does he indicate approval of each individual bishop’s political opinions! They essentially asked pardon for what had happened in 1988—and they got it. It was as simple as that.

Nevertheless, to obviate all the confusion that followed, Pope Benedict issued a letter to all bishops, pointing out the need to make a “distinction between individuals and institutions. The remission of the excommunication was a measure taken in the field of ecclesiastical discipline: the individuals were freed from the burden of conscience constituted by the most serious of ecclesiastical penalties.” He noted that “the Society [of St. Pius X] has no canonical status in the Church, and its ministers – even though they have been freed of the ecclesiastical penalty – do not legitimately exercise any ministry in the Church.” In other words, the four bishops are no longer excommunicated, but that does not mean that they (or any other cleric in the SSPX) can licitly administer sacraments to the Catholic faithful. Before they can engage in Catholic ministry, it is first necessary to straighten out the legal situation of the SSPX within the Catholic Church.

If the leadership of the SSPX is really serious about maintaining communion with the Pope, the Vicar of Christ, they must obey him and refrain from sacramental ministry until the question of their canonical status is resolved. It appeared from their 2008 letter to Pope Benedict that they were quite sincere in their wish to be in union with Rome—which rendered their later actions all the more surprising.

For the SSPX bishops subsequently conferred the sacrament of holy orders on a number of new SSPX priests, despite being warned that they were not to do this! After assuring the Holy Father of their good intentions, they disobeyed him, and in an open and very public way.

A statement from the Vatican Press Office this past July correctly summed up what had happened. Because these four bishops were validly ordained, they have the sacramental power to ordain new priests, which is what they did. The newly ordained men are therefore truly priests, able in turn to celebrate a valid Mass. Because, however, the entire SSPX has no canonical standing in the Church, these ordinations were illicit. They should not have taken place, because Rome had specifically told the SSPX leaders not to exercise their ministry.

Nevertheless, the Vatican continues private negotiations with the leadership of the SSPX, with the goal of their eventual reunification with Rome. An official statement was just released by the Vatican on September 14 (available so far only in French and Italian), indicating that discussions currently center on some doctrinal difficulties involving the acceptance of the teachings of the Second Vatican Council by members of the Society. If these can be overcome, it seems reasonable to expect a return of the entire membership of the SSPX to unity with Rome.

But in the meantime, and to return to Michelle’s original question, Catholics do well to avoid attending Masses celebrated by priests of the Society. Let’s all pray that this complicated, decades-old canonical problem be resolved as soon as possible. Once Rome can regularize the status of the SSPX clergy within the Church, they presumably will all be able to celebrate Mass and the sacraments for the Catholic faithful, and without raising any of the troubling legal questions that unfortunately still exist today.

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