(Part I of this article on the SSPX was posted on August 1, 2013, and can be read here.)
We’ve been looking at the sacraments administered by priests of the Society of Saint Pius X (SSPX), an institute which, despite numerous attempts at reconciliation, still has no canonical status in the Catholic Church. As was seen in Part I of this article, all of the sacraments administered by SSPX clergy—with the exception of absolution in danger of death (c. 986.2, discussed in “Can All Priests Always Hear Confessions?”)—are administered illicitly. In other words, since these clerics have been given no authorization by competent ecclesiastical authorities to minister to the faithful, their ministry is illegal. This means simply that they are doing something that they shouldn’t be doing!
At the same time, however, this doesn’t necessarily imply that the sacraments administered by clergy in the SSPX are invalid. The bishops who ordained these priests were/are true bishops, with the sacramental power to ordain true priests. This, in turn, means that these priests really do possess the power of orders, and consequently they are able to administer validly those sacraments which require nothing else.
As we saw in Part I, SSPX priests are able to celebrate validly the sacraments of Baptism, Holy Eucharist (because they can celebrate a valid Mass), and Anointing of the Sick. Additionally, SSPX bishops can validly administer Confirmation and Holy Orders. Again, without authorization from church superiors, they shouldn’t be doing any of these things; but the fact remains that they do indeed have the power to do them. These sacraments are valid, but illicit.
But there are two other sacraments which haven’t been addressed yet. Unlike the five mentioned above, celebrating the sacraments of Penance and Matrimony requires more than “just” the sacramental power possessed by validly ordained clergy. Let’s take a look at each of these sacraments in turn, and once we’ve seen what the Code of Canon Law requires for the valid celebration of these sacraments, we can draw some conclusions about what’s really happening when SSPX clergy want to celebrate them.
Matrimony. As we saw in “Does a Catholic Wedding Have to be Held in a Catholic Church?” Catholics are required to observe canonical form when they marry. As canon 1108.1 states clearly, for validity, a marriage must be celebrated in the presence of two witnesses, and also the local bishop, the pastor of the parish, or another priest (or deacon) delegated by either of them. In short, the cleric who officiates at a marriage involving at least one Catholic doesn’t merely need to be ordained; he must be either the bishop or the pastor of the parish, or have delegation from one of them. If he doesn’t, the marriage is invalid.
This is why, for example, when a couple tells the pastor that they’d really like their wedding to be celebrated by the bride-to-be’s uncle, who’s a priest in another diocese, the pastor must delegate that priest-uncle the authority to do this. While most engaged Catholics have no idea how serious the need for this delegation really is, priests do. They understand the significance of the territorial boundaries of the parish where they reside (or in the case of visiting-priests, where they want to celebrate the wedding), and the need to obtain delegation. The validity of the marriage depends on it!
So how do SSPX priests fit into this equation? Put simply, they don’t. The SSPX have erected their own churches in countries all over the world, but they are not parish churches. As was discussed in “Parish Registration,” basically every inch of the populated world has been divided up by the Catholic Church into dioceses (or canonically equivalent entities, cf. c. 368), and these in turn are split into parishes, with precise boundaries. Thus when the SSPX buys a plot of land and builds their own church on it, it necessarily is located within the territorial boundaries of an already existing parish! They may put a sign out front saying, “Saint Andrew’s Roman Catholic Church,” or suchlike, but canonically, it is not a parish church, which can only be constituted by the diocesan bishop (c. 515). It follows logically that the SSPX priest who maintains such a church is not the pastor of the territorial parish—and thus he has no authority to celebrate weddings as per canon 1108.1, mentioned above.
Consequently, if a Catholic marries in a ceremony conducted by an SSPX priest, the marriage is invalid, for lack of canonical form. The SSPX priest is presumably a validly ordained cleric; but for the validity of a Catholic marriage, ordination is not sufficient.
Penance. At first glance, it may appear that merely being a priest is enough for the valid administration of this sacrament, since canon 965 asserts simply that only a priest can administer the sacrament of penance. The very next canon, however, provides a qualification: for the valid absolution of sins, the minister must not only be an ordained priest—he must also have the faculty to exercise the power of order on the penitent (c. 966.1). In other words, and as was discussed more thoroughly in “Can All Priests Always Hear Confessions?” priests have to be given an additional, specific authorization before they can validly hear confessions. Canon 966.2 notes that this faculty is given to a priest either by the law itself, or by competent ecclesiastical authority.
SSPX priests don’t have this faculty, because they don’t have any competent ecclesiastical authority who can give it to them. The diocesan bishop, in whose territory SSPX priests may reside, is responsible for the spiritual well-being of the Catholic faithful entrusted to his care (cf cc. 387, 392.2)—the SSPX is not. Since they have no faculties to hear confessions, SSPX clergy cannot validly absolve penitents in the confessional. (The exception to this rule is in danger of death, as was discussed in the abovementioned column. When a person is dying, any priest validly and licitly absolves him of sins, even if the priest has no faculties whatsoever, c. 986.2.)
The Church supplies, in both the internal and external forum, the executive power of governance in common error, in positive and probable doubt, whether of fact or of law.
Readers who find this classic statement (often referred to simply by its first two words in Latin, Ecclesia supplet) completely mystifying aren’t alone. In many concrete situations, even canonists can quickly find themselves scratching their heads! Scholars have written thousands of pages analyzing the way that this generic assertion is—and isn’t—applicable in real life. That’s why a thorough discussion of canon 144 is simply impossible in this space. Instead, let’s take a look at how it is relevant to the two sacraments we are discussing. Then we should be able to see whether it can be applied at all to SSPX priests, who lack faculties to celebrate Penance and Matrimony.
With regard to Matrimony, the Ecclesia supplet provision can, in certain very circumscribed situations, make valid an otherwise invalid marriage. Let’s say, for example, that a Catholic couple want to marry in their parish, St. Elizabeth’s, on August 31. The pastor has already arranged to go on vacation from August 16 through September 1. (As we saw in “Clergy and Summer Vacation,” that is his right!) The pastor has delegated a retired priest to celebrate weddings during this time. This is exactly what needs to be done according to canon 1111: the pastor can delegate the faculty to assist at marriages within the parish territory, but it must be given to a specific person(s).
So far, so good. But let’s say that in his haste, the pastor worded his written delegation very poorly, stating that the retired priest “is delegated to assist at all weddings in St. Elizabeth’s parish for the next couple of weeks.” Of course the pastor meant the entire time of his vacation, which would include August 31; but if he dated the delegation August 16, it certainly isn’t clear whether August 31 should technically be included or not!
Let’s say that the retired priest interprets the delegation the same way that the pastor did, namely, that it is valid until the pastor’s return on September 1. So without hesitation, he celebrates the wedding on August 31. He assumes he has the faculty to celebrate the wedding. The couple, and their family and friends who attend, all assume the same thing. But did this retired priest really have the necessary delegated faculty to assist at a wedding in St. Elizabeth’s parish on August 31? The validity of the marriage hinges on the answer to this question.
It’s a nightmarish situation, isn’t it? But according to canon 144, the couple in these circumstances (which constitute a “doubt of fact”) doesn’t need to worry, because even if the retired priest didn’t have the necessary faculty, it was supplied by the law itself. Note that the other elements of canonical form in this scenario were clearly met: the couple was married in the parish church, there were at least two witnesses, and the retired priest is definitely a priest! The only thing that may have been lacking here was the faculty—and the Church supplied it.
In the case of a priest hearing confessions without the faculty to do so, canon 144 can apply too. Let’s say that a Catholic enters St. Margaret’s Church and sees a light on in the confessional. He goes in, confesses his sins, and receives absolution from the priest there. The penitent takes it for granted that the priest must have the ability—i.e., the faculty—to forgive sins, or else he wouldn’t be sitting in the confessional in the first place!
But let’s say that in reality, this priest has no faculties to hear confessions at all. Maybe he is a former theology professor at the diocesan seminary, whose faculties were revoked by his bishop after he stubbornly persisted in teaching questionable moral theology to the seminarians. He may have decided, in a huff, to disregard the bishop’s declaration and hear confessions anyway! So did the Catholic who entered his confessional really receive absolution?
Under canon 144, the answer is yes. This is a case of “common error,” as anybody walking into the church and seeing the priest in the confessional would reasonably assume that the priest can hear confessions. The priest in this case didn’t have the faculty (and in this imaginary situation, the priest himself knew that, too)—but for the spiritual wellbeing of the penitent(s), the Church supplied it.
(Note that the priest in the confessional was truly a priest! If he had been an imposter who had gained access to the confessional, canon 144 wouldn’t have helped. The Church supplies the faculty; it does not supply holy orders.)
Many other scenarios could certainly be described in which canon 144 would apply; but the question we should ask now is, does it supply the necessary faculty to an SSPX priest who doesn’t have it? Can an SSPX priest validly hear confessions, and celebrate weddings, because Ecclesia supplet?
In general, SSPX clergy certainly think so! Available on the internet are numerous tedious (and invariably fallacious) analyses of canon law, usually citing the abrogated 1917 Code of Canon Law, asserting defensively that SSPX priests have full faculties like all other Catholic priests. Frequently they term it “supplied jurisdiction,” and invent convoluted justifications for their claims—justifications which in fact are sheer fantasy, pure and simple. As a general rule, they reference Ecclesia supplet as the basic foundation for their argument.
Conveniently missing from these sorts of analyses is any acknowledgement of the fact that the Holy Father himself reasserted just a few years ago (as seen in Part I) that the SSPX clergy have no canonical status in the Church, and thus do not legitimately exercise any ministry. Such an unequivocal statement by the Vicar of Christ inherently carries with it the assumption that these canonically unrecognized, illegitimate ministers have no faculties! Why, then, do they suggest that the Code of Canon Law can somehow give them something that the Supreme Legislator—the Pope—has publicly declared that they lack?
The fact is, Ecclesia supplet does not validate any marriages celebrated by SSPX clergy, period. This is because the marriages aren’t being celebrated in the parish church by a properly delegated cleric—so they are invalid for lack of canonical form. Marriage tribunals rarely encounter such clear-cut invalidity as this.
The confessions heard by SSPX priests, however, may be another matter. That’s because the average lay-Catholic isn’t expected to understand all the niceties of canon law regarding confessional faculties, or the canonically problematic situation of the SSPX overall. A typical Catholic would walk into the abovementioned (and fictional) SSPX “Saint Andrew’s Roman Catholic Church,” see a priest sitting in the confessional, and naturally assume that he could hear confessions! And since this can constitute “common error,” the Church can supply the faculty under canon 144. This is true even if the SSPX priest-confessor himself understands that he doesn’t have the necessary faculty to grant absolution. Obviously that priest-confessor himself has a lot to answer for, canonically speaking; but the penitent who honestly erred in entering his confessional should rest easy.
We can see that while the Church enforces its rules, there are loopholes in certain specific circumstances, thanks to canon 144. This is not because the Church doesn’t mean what it says! Rather, as has been seen before in this space, the Church is concerned above all with the spiritual wellbeing of the Catholic faithful. That’s why in many questionable situations, it steps in to supply what otherwise might be lacking. Nonetheless, Catholics should never abuse the Church’s generosity by pushing it to the limits: if possible, receiving sacraments at SSPX churches is to be avoided.
This article was originally published in 2013, and the law regarding the validity of confessions heard by members of the SSPX was changed in 2016. See “Can I Attend an SSPX Church, Since My Parish is Closed?” for a more recent discussion of the current law.