Can I Attend an SSPX Church, Since My Parish Is Closed?

Q1:  In these trying times when our Archbishop is denying the sacraments to the faithful, what do you think of attending Mass at the nearby SSPX church?  It’s my understanding that currently all their sacraments excepting marriage are licit.

The SSPX priests are complying completely with the state law, yet are being creative enough to meet the needs of their flock at the same time.  Our pastors and our Archbishop have turned a deaf ear to our pleas that they utilize similar creative ways within the law to feed the flock, nor are they commenting upon any time at which they might allow the laity to return to Mass. –Brooke

Q2: Thank you for taking my question. Does canon 844.2 apply to Sedevacantist chapels and churches?  I understand I have no obligation to attend Mass but out of devotional reasons I would like to attend.  Every diocesan, Eastern Rite, Ordinariate, Orthodox, SSPX, etc. Mass/Divine liturgy in my area has shut down.  The only liturgy left is a Sedevacantist church. Am I permitted to attend Mass? –Spencer

A: Brooke and Spencer weren’t the only ones to submit queries like these in recent weeks, not by a long shot!  As we Catholics know full well, these sorts of questions would probably not be raised at all, but for the mind-boggling spiritual situation that Catholics in huge portions of the globe currently find themselves in.

It only stands to reason that practicing Catholics want to attend Mass and receive the sacraments on a regular basis.  But if the Catholic clergy are illegally preventing them from doing so, as discussed in “Do Bishops Have the Authority to Cancel Masses Completely?” and  “Can Priests Cancel Masses, and Say a Private Mass Instead?” it’s equally reasonable that Catholics begin looking for other places where they can find a valid Mass and valid sacraments.  After all, as has been discussed many times before in this space, this is their right.

Canon 844.2 is of direct relevance here, as it provides us with direction in those cases when it is impossible to receive the sacraments from a Catholic cleric.  It notes that whenever necessity requires it, or true spiritual advantage suggests it, and provided that danger of error or of indifferentism is avoided, Catholics are permitted to go to non-Catholic ministers for the sacraments of penance, Holy Communion, and anointing of the sick, if the Catholic Church holds that these sacraments are valid in their churches.  (We took a look at this canon already in a different context, in “When Can Catholics Receive Communion at a Non-Catholic Service?”)  The Latin term that is translated into English as “permitted” indicates that this is not only valid, but also licit—see “How Do You Fix an Illicit Sacrament?” for more on the distinction between validity and liceity.  Let’s take this canon apart and see how it applies to our current questions.

First of all, canon 844.2 only applies if it is physically or morally impossible to approach a Catholic minister for these sacraments.  If you are asking your Catholic priest for the sacraments and he is illegally refusing them to you “because the bishop said so,” or if the church is locked and you are trying to contact the priest, but nobody answers the phone or the door, that certainly fits the bill here.  Likewise, if you’re located in a state where the government has imposed a “lockdown” that renders you unable legally to travel across town to meet a Catholic priest (even if he otherwise is willing to help you!), you’ve met this condition of canon 844.2.

Next, canon 844.2 states that necessity must require it, or true spiritual advantage must commend it.  This too is a condition that is being met by the current situation, as many dioceses have illegally banned the faithful from receiving the sacraments indefinitely.

In theory, if bishops had stated up-front that the ban would last (let’s say) “only” a couple of weeks, it might be arguable that this should be endurable, and that Catholics shouldn’t actually need to receive the sacraments elsewhere.  But since in many places, Catholics have absolutely no idea when they will once again be able to attend Catholic Mass and receive Catholic sacraments, this clearly suggests that it will be to their spiritual advantage to get them from a non-Catholic minister if and when they can.  (By the way, kudos to those non-Catholic clerics who—unlike so many Catholic bishops and priests who are making no effort whatsoever—are doing their utmost to keep their churches open!)

Thirdly, canon 844.2 requires that the danger of error or of indifferentism be avoided.  The Church’s concern here is that Catholics might come to believe that it makes no difference whether they attend Mass/receive the sacraments from a Catholic priest, or from a non-Catholic.  If you’re a Catholic, under normal circumstances it absolutely does matter—and it’s important for the faithful to understand this.  When it becomes possible again for Catholics to approach a Catholic cleric for the sacraments, Catholics are expected to do exactly that.

In general, therefore, the situation of people like Brooke and Spencer meets the criteria laid out by canon 844.2.  The next question is this: from which non-Catholic ministers can they receive these sacraments?

Canon 844.2 tells us clearly that they must be clergy in whose churches the sacraments are valid.  And as was discussed in “Why is a Catholic Permitted to Marry in an Orthodox Ceremony?” the Catholic Church will tell you that you can’t have valid sacraments like penance and the Eucharist, if you don’t have a valid priesthood.  In other words, in those faiths where the clergy are validly ordained, by bishops who themselves have been validly consecrated, one can receive valid absolution in confession; and since validly ordained priests can say a valid Mass, one can receive a valid Eucharist from them too.

So who’s got a valid priesthood, apart from us Catholics?  It might be easier to start by mentioning who doesn’t.  As was discussed in “The Validity of Anglican Holy Orders,” during the protestant reformation, those who left the Catholic Church to form what are today the various protestant denominations did not retain a valid priesthood.  This is likewise true of the Church of England, which was formed when King Henry VIII chose to break away from Rome, establishing himself as the head of the church as well as of the state.  Lutherans, Methodists, Episcopalians and many others may speak of “Holy Communion,” and it may often look like they’re doing what Catholics do … but theologically it isn’t the same at all.  Catholics, therefore, cannot receive the sacraments from protestant ministers.

There are, however, plenty of other Christians whose churches do fall within the definition of canon 844.2.  The Orthodox are numerically the largest group by far.  We saw in “Can a Catholic Ever Attend an Orthodox Liturgy instead of Sunday Mass?” that the Orthodox Churches (such as the Greek, Russian, and Romanian Orthodox, to name only a few) are officially in a state of schism vis-a-vis the Catholic Church (cf. c. 751).  That’s because for nearly 1000 years, the Orthodox have refused to recognize the primacy of the Bishop of Rome over the universal Church.

That said, however, the Catholic Church recognizes the validity of Orthodox sacraments, because the Orthodox have valid bishops, who down the centuries have continued to validly ordain priests.  In normal circumstances, when it’s possible to attend a Catholic church, it is not licit for Catholics to attend an Orthodox liturgy instead of Sunday Mass, or to receive Orthodox sacraments instead of Catholic ones.  But as we all know too well, these days we’re not dealing with normal circumstances.

If your Catholic clergy violate your rights by refusing to hear your confession or give you Holy Communion, but you can get to an Orthodox church where the priest is willing to do these for you … then don’t hesitate to go to the Orthodox church.  (Bear in mind, though, that as Catholics, we don’t have a right to receive anything from the Orthodox clergy—so it’s quite possible that they may not wish to minister to anyone other than their own faithful.  That obviously wouldn’t be a satisfactory response to a desperate Catholic, but it is entirely their own prerogative.)

Apart from the Orthodox, another group of significant size which falls under canon 844.2 is the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX).  The confused canonical status of the SSPX has been SSPXdiscussed in a number of articles in this space, such as “Are They Really Catholic? Part II,” and “Canon Law and the SSPX,” but in general, the SSPX was founded in 1970 by the late Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, for the purpose of celebrating Mass and the sacraments using the preconciliar liturgical rites.

The canonical status of the SSPX’s 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.  The consecration of these four bishops without a papal mandate was in direct violation of canon 1382, which tells us that 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.

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. Thus the SSPX clergy are validly ordained, and celebrate Mass validly—which means of course that one can receive Holy Communion from a SSPX priest validly as well.

Back in 2013, we took a look at the validity (or not) of all seven sacraments as celebrated in SSPX churches, in “Are SSPX Sacraments Valid? Part I” and “Part II.”  At the time, there were two sacraments which SSPX clergy were unable to administer validly, because they require not only valid holy orders (which the SSPX priests have), but also faculties granted by the local bishop who is in full communion with the Pope (which they don’t).  These sacraments were penance and  marriage.

But in 2015, in anticipation of the Jubilee Year of Mercy, Pope Francis declared that he was giving SSPX clergy the faculty to celebrate the sacrament of penance validly, for the duration of that year:

I establish that those who during the Holy Year of Mercy approach these priests of the Fraternity (sic) of St Pius X to celebrate the Sacrament of Reconciliation shall validly and licitly receive the absolution of their sins.

As the Supreme Head of the Church (c. 331), Pope Francis had the authority to do this for all the SSPX clergy around the world.  As can be seen from his wording above, the assumption was that when the Year of Mercy ended in November 2016, the priests of the SSPX would once again lack the faculty to hear valid confessions.  But in his Apostolic Letter Misericordia et Misera, issued at the conclusion of the Jubilee Year, Pope Francis said this:

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 (sic) 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. (12)

To date, the “further provisions” have not been made—which means that the priests of the SSPX continue to have the faculty to celebrate the sacrament of penance validly and licitly, no matter where in the world they are located.  Consequently, Catholics can now approach SSPX clergy and receive all three of the sacraments mentioned in canon 844.2: penance, the Eucharist, and the anointing of the sick.

Another group that is almost-but-not-quite like the SSPX in canonical terms is the Old Catholics.  The history of this breakaway group was addressed at length in “What is the ‘Old Catholic Church?’” but in short, these Catholics left the Church after the First Vatican Council, and have been in a state of schism ever since.  Because the original splinter group included a validly ordained Catholic bishop, who could validly ordain priests and consecrate other bishops, the Old Catholics have maintained a valid priesthood until today (except that nowadays they also “ordain” women, something which the Catholic Church does not recognize as valid—see “Can Women be Ordained Priests?” and “Could the Pope Change the Law to Allow Women Priests?” for more on this).

It’s possible, therefore, to receive Holy Communion validly from a (male) Old Catholic priest, and also to be anointed validly by him.  But like the SSPX priests in the years before Pope Francis intervened, the Old Catholic clergy are unable to hear valid confessions, because they do not have faculties to grant absolution.

We’ve just seen three different groupings of non-Catholics whose members are not in full communion with Rome, but which nevertheless retain a valid priesthood.  These are not the only ones whom a Catholic could approach for the sacraments under canon 844.2; there are other, smaller groups in various parts of the world, which are more or less in the same canonical situation.  Speaking broadly, many tend to be traditionalists who use the pre-Vatican II liturgical books, which they follow scrupulously.  Some of them, as Spencer indicates, are sedevacantists, something which was discussed in detail in “Can You Be Both a Catholic and a Sedevacantist?”  In quite a few cases, these clergy are validly ordained and can, at the very least, celebrate a valid Mass.

But Catholics must be very wary of approaching just any Catholic-fringe group out there—because not everybody who claims to be a priest actually is.  As we saw in “How Can You Tell a Real Priest From a Fake?” and “Why Can’t These Priests Ever Celebrate a Valid Catholic Wedding?” there are men out there claiming to be bona fide Catholic priests, who aren’t ordained at all.  At the same time, there are also validly ordained Catholic priests out there who have gone AWOL, and are liturgically doing their own thing, which may or may not be valid (see “How Can You Tell a Real Catholic Monastery From a Fake?” for an example of this).  Under current conditions, it’s easy to understand how desperate a Catholic can be for Mass and the sacraments; but receiving invalid sacraments from someone who’s either not able to administer them, or not administering them correctly, is not the solution.

Canon 844.5 references the fact that in some regions of the world, individual diocesan bishops or Episcopal Conferences may have already established norms that explain to the faithful whether or not they can ever receive the sacraments from non-Catholics in their area.  In large parts of Eastern Europe and the Middle East, for example, Catholics routinely rub shoulders with members of a variety of different Orthodox Churches, who are often in the majority; while in some areas of North America there are significant populations of other non-Catholic groups whose sacraments are in fact valid.  If the existence of such churches has in the past confused the Catholics living in the same region, the faithful may already have been informed as to their status, and maybe even warned that “that group in our diocese calling themselves ‘Catholic priests’ are not valid priests at all.”

Who would ever have imagined that we Catholics would find ourselves in this dire situation, asking questions like these?  Let’s keep praying for our parish clergy, that more and more of them will realize that ministering to the Catholic faithful is their raison d’être, and that they should be doing everything in their power for our spiritual wellbeing—no matter what unconstitutional civil directives and illegal episcopal orders are thrown their way.

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