Are They Excommunicated? Sanctions, Part III

Q: Since all priests are now permitted to say the Tridentine Latin Mass, do you think that the Pope will lift the excommunication on the Society of Saint Pius X?  –Marjorie

A: This is a question that is asked more and more frequently, now that Pope Benedict XVI has declared, in his motu prioprio Summorum Pontificum, that the traditional Latin Mass (also known as the Tridentine Mass) may be celebrated by all priests without an indult. But before we talk about the possibility of the lifting of the excommunication imposed by Pope John Paul II on the leaders of the Society of Saint Pius X, it is necessary to understand the actual reasons behind the imposition of this sanction in the first place. And for the benefit of those readers who may be unfamiliar with this issue, let’s also review very briefly the origins of the Society and the events leading up to the excommunications.

The Society of Saint Pius X (SSPX) is a religious institute that was founded by the late Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre after the Second Vatican Council. The Archbishop watched with dismay the liturgical upheaval that was then initiated, ostensibly in accord with the “spirit of Vatican II,” and he was determined to found a group of priests who would be faithful to Catholic liturgical traditions. From the start, the Society eschewed celebration of the Novus Ordo Mass, continuing instead to use all the liturgical rites that were in force before the Council.

A detailed description of the origins of the SSPX is beyond the scope of this article; but it should be noted that from its very inception, the Society had a questionable canonical status, as it was not established fully in accord with the canonical norms in force at the time. It attracted, and continues to attract, large numbers of Catholics throughout the world, including many young men who wished to enter the priesthood and celebrate Mass using the traditional rites.

For decades, there were sporadic talks between Archbishop Lefebvre and various Vatican officials, in an attempt to straighten out the status of the SSPX within the Church. While occasionally it appeared that some progress was being made,  reconciliation always proved illusory. In the meantime, Archbishop Lefebvre continued to function as the head of the SSPX’s seminaries, and to ordain priests in the traditional Latin rite.

As the Archbishop grew increasingly older, however, there were concerns about the future of the SSPX after his death. Without a bishop, future SSPX seminarians could not be ordained, and eventually the entire Society might conceivably die out altogether. To prevent this, Archbishop Lefebvre decided in June 1988 to consecrate four priests of his Society as bishops. In this way the future of the SSPX would be safe, as it would be possible for new priests to be ordained for the Society even after the Archbishop’s death.

From a canonical standpoint, this was a very serious matter. Canon 1013 states unequivocally that no bishop is permitted to consecrate anyone else as bishop, without a ponfitical mandate. In other words, the Pope must first determine that there is a need for a new bishop, and he must select the candidate (or approve of a candidate whose name is suggested to him). This requirement touches on a very fundamental element of the Church’s hierarchical structure: the Pope, as successor of Peter and Vicar of Christ, chooses men to be elevated to the episcopacy when he finds that there is a particular need. For example, if the Bishop of Diocese X retires or dies, the Pope as a rule chooses someone to replace him. On some other occasion, the Pope might determine that Diocese Y has grown too large and should be divided into two new dioceses, in which case he will approve their official territorial boundaries and select a bishop for each. Conversely, the Pope might decide that for demographic or political reasons, one diocese should be merged with another. The point is that all such decisions ultimately belong to the Pope. Catholics always know that their bishops govern their dioceses because the Pope chose them for that office. And all such bishops maintain hierarchical communion with the Holy Father in Rome. They constitute the College of Bishops, the successors to the Apostles, who were chosen by Christ Himself (c. 336).

This is why consecration of a bishop without first receiving a mandate from the Holy Father to do so carries with it serious consequences. Canon 1382 spells them out: both the bishop who concrates another bishop without a pontifical mandate, and the one who receives consecration from him, incur excommunication. A bishop may not create new bishops on his own initiative! Only the Pope may decide when a new bishop is to be consecrated, and who he will be.

So if a bishop consecrates another bishop without a pontifical mandate, does that mean that the consecration is invalid? Here’s where things get a bit tricky. Every bishop possesses the ability to perform an episcopal consecration validly. If he does so without the approval of the Pope, the consecration is valid—assuming that it is done properly, in accord with the prescribed rubrics—but it is illicit, i.e., illegal. (This distinction between validity and liceity was discussed in more detail back in “Are They Really Catholic? Part II.”) The candidate really does receive the episcopal consecration, so he truly becomes a bishop, with all the sacramental powers which that entails. But if the Pope did not authorize him to be made a bishop, he is not in communion with the Pope, and so he is in schism with the Catholic Church (c. 751). And as such he is subject to excommunication on that ground as well (c. 1364.1)

This is exactly what happened when Archbishop Lefebvre consecrated four SSPX priests as bishops in 1988. Because the Archbishop publicly announced his intention in advance, Pope John Paul II was aware of it, and exerted tremendous efforts to convince him to change his mind. Since much of their communication was kept private, we will never know the full details. But it is clear that the Pope warned the Archbishop of the grave consequences of such an action, and we know that the Archbishop decided to perform the consecrations anyway.

We have seen in both “Am I Excommunicated? Sanctions, Part I” and “Is She Excommunicated? Sanctions, Part II” that if a person commits an excommunicable offense, certain elements must be in place for the penalty actually to be imposed. When, for example, a Catholic is acting from force or fear, or is ignorant of the penalty attached to his action, no sanction is incurred even though he commits the crime. A person must be fully informed and fully free if he is to be held fully accountable for his action.

Although we cannot know the intentions and motivations of both Archbishop Lefebvre and the four men whom he consecrated as bishops, it is clear that Pope John Paul II did. For on July 1, 1988, the Prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation for Bishops decreed publicly that the Archbishop and the four new SSPX bishops had in fact incurred the penalty of excommunication. Interestingly, the decree is more concerned with the fact that the consecrations constituted a schismatic act than with the absence of a pontifical mandate. It appears that the Vatican wished to emphasize that the SSPX hierarchy had by this action removed itself definitively from full communion with the Catholic Church.

Because the Vatican issued this decree, we can safely conclude that the Holy Father had determined that both the Archbishop and the four new bishops had acted with full knowledge that they were committing an excommunicable offense, and with the full freedom to choose not to do it. Otherwise, this announcement to the world would never have been made! The Pope wished to inform all Catholics, including the many who were affiliated with the SSPX, that the Society’s leadership had removed itself from communion with the Church. The wording of the decree also includes a warning to Catholics, urging them not to support the schism, urging them instead to remain within the Catholic Church.

(Note, by the way, that the decree clearly did not excommunicate everyone involved in the SSPX, nor did it state that anyone connected to the Society is ipso facto a schismatic. The Pope recognized that there are many well intentioned Catholics who attend Mass and receive the sacraments from SSPX priests, simply because they prefer the traditional rites, without understanding the canonical issues involved. Similarly, there are SSPX priests who are members of the Society because they wish to celebrate Mass in the traditional Latin rite, and do not wish to be in schism with Rome. It is impossible, therefore, to make any blanket-statements about the status of everyone involved with the SSPX—and a close reading of any document from the Vatican pertaining to the Society will show that Rome studiously refrains from accusing everyone connected with the SSPX of harboring the same schismatic sentiments as those bishops who incurred excommunication.)

How did Archbishop Lefebvre and the four newly consecrated SSPX bishops react to the news of the excommunication? In a nutshell, they insisted (and those still living continue to insist today) that although Rome officially declared that they had incurred excommunication, they really hadn’t! In an attempt to justify their action, both the bishops themselves and various supportive members of the SSPX have formulated elaborate explanations, supposedly grounded in canon law. One such justification argues that there was no excommunication because those involved believed that their action was necessary. Simply put, the SSPX asserts that when you believe you should disobey not just the Code of Canon Law but even a personal directive from the Pope himself, you are justified in doing so and incur no sanction! The absurdity of such an interpretation should be obvious. If we Catholics were all permitted to ignore church laws and papal orders whenever we thought they were wrong and we were right, our hierarchy would have no authority, church laws would be meaningless, and church discipline would disappear overnight.  The undeniable fact is that Rome found that the Archbishop and the four new bishops had met all the necessary criteria to incur excommunication. If the Pope says you are excommunicated, it is spiritually dangerous business to claim that he is in error.

Thus we can see that the bishops who lead the SSPX today are under excommunication, but not simply because they wish to say the traditional LatinMass. They freely and knowingly chose to remove themselves from communion with Rome when they became bishops without papal approval. The fact that all priests are now permitted to say the traditional Mass has in itself no effect whatsoever on these bishops’ canonical status.

The Pope has stated on numerous occasions that he would like the SSPX leadership to return to the bosom of the Church. Many meetings have been held between the two sides, which are rightly kept private. We can only pray that there be sufficient good will on both sides to enable them to come to an agreement, so that we all may be united under the Vicar of Christ once again.

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