When is it Okay to Go to an SSPX Mass?

Q: My parents (devout Catholics) have been attending an SSPX Mass on Sundays. I have always understood that SSPX churches are not licit options for a Roman Catholic.

I have read your posts, and showed them to my parents, but they have heard it is okay to attend because they are only going for their love of the Latin liturgy.  My parents use as their defense that the SSPX are not sedevacantists, as they pray for the Pope, so how can they not be in full communion….  However my parents have a plethora of Catholic churches at their disposal and even an FSSP parish about the same distance as the SSPX one.

…[T]here is a lot of vague yet conflicting information online about this issue.  If I am misunderstanding and this is a licit option, I will be happy to admit I am wrong.  Any guidance would be appreciated. –Martina

A: Martina deserves extra points for her open-mindedness, since she is willing to accept correction if she discovers that she is in error.  In reality, both she and her parents are on-track in certain respects—and there’s actually no contradiction here!  The confusion stems from different ways of interpreting what “it’s okay to go” really means.  Let’s take a look.

A brief summary of the history of the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX) can be found 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 SSPX, SSPX Mass, Lefebvre1988, 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.

Archbishop Lefebvre died in 1991, so far as we know still under excommunication,  But as was discussed in “Canon Law and the SSPX,” in 2009 Pope Benedict XVI lifted the excommunications of the four bishops whom Lefebvre had consecrated without a papal mandate.  This action affected the canonical status of these four men personally; it did not alter the irregular status of the SSPX itself.  Benedict XVI addressed this issue himself at the time:

As long as the Society [of Saint Pius X] does not have a canonical status in the Church, its ministers do not exercise legitimate ministries in the Church….  In order to make this clear once again: until the doctrinal questions are clarified, the Society 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, SSPX clergy may celebrate a beautiful and edifying Mass, but since their status in the Church has not yet been regularized, what they’re doing is illicit.  (See “Are They Really Catholic? Part II” for a discussion of the distinction between validity and liceity.)  They do not have authority to minister to the Catholic faithful, because such authority can only be given to them by lawful church superiors—and to this day, they still don’t have any lawful church superiors.

Back in 2013, we saw in “Are SSPX Sacraments Valid? Part I” and “Part II” that SSPX priests—who are themselves validly ordained, since the bishops who ordained them were validly consecrated—have the ability to celebrate a valid Mass.  SSPX priests also administer valid sacraments of baptism (which, to be fair, anyone can administer validly, see “Laypeople Can Always Baptize—But When Should They?” and “What Happens When the Clergy Refuse to Baptize, Because of the Virus?” for more on this), Holy Communion, and anointing of the sick.  SSPX bishops can validly celebrate the sacraments of confirmation and holy orders.  That accounts for five of the Church’s seven sacraments; at the time those two articles were written, SSPX clergy had no faculties to validly hear confessions or celebrate weddings.

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 we saw more recently in “Can I Attend an SSPX Church, Since My Parish Is Closed?” that faculty has since been extended “until further provisions are made” … and to date no further provisions have been made, so the clergy of the SSPX still retain the faculty to validly and licitly hear confessions.

If you find all this confusing, that probably means you understand it correctly!  The Society of St. Pius X (SSPX) could definitely be said to be straddling a fence, in a theological and canonical sense.  On the one hand, it’s not supposed to be functioning at all, and practically everything they do, sacramentally speaking, is illegal; but on the other hand, at least they can truthfully say that their leadership are no longer under excommunication, and the Church has always refrained from declaring the entire SSPX to be in a state of schism.

This brings us directly to Martina’s question about her parents.  They assert that the SSPX isn’t sedevacantist (which is correct, and see “Can You Be Both a Catholic and a Sedevacantist?” for more on this concept), and that therefore the SSPX must be “in full communion” (which is incorrect, as we’ve seen above).  Her parents conclude that “it’s okay to go” to Mass at an SSPX church.  But the key question here is, what do they mean by “okay”?

Touching directly on this subject is a very interesting and illuminating case that was handled by the Vatican back in the early 1990’s, which all started in the Diocese of Honolulu, Hawaii (USA).  Some Catholics of that diocese attended Mass celebrated by an SSPX priest, and also arranged for one of the four SSPX bishops (who at the time were still under excommunication) to come and administer the sacrament of confirmation.  The diocesan bishop declared that these constituted “schismatic activities,” and eventually declared six Catholics of his diocese to be excommunicated (original documents can be read here).  In essence, the bishop’s argument was that the mere fact that these Catholics would avail themselves of Mass and the sacraments from SSPX clergy constituted schism.

The “Hawaii Six,” as they came to be known, made recourse to the Vatican, and their case came before the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), whose Prefect at the time was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.  He overturned the excommunications, observing that “the activities engaged in … though blameworthy on various accounts, are not sufficient to constitute the crime of schism” (here, page 4).  Consequently, Cardinal Ratzinger declared the bishop’s decree of excommunication to be null and void.

If you’re not careful, it’s perilously easy to misunderstand what Ratzinger’s decision said in this case.  He was not declaring that the SSPX is in good standing with the Church—it wasn’t then, and still isn’t now—or that attending Mass and receiving the sacraments from SSPX clergy is totally acceptable.  All he was saying was that just because you go to an SSPX Mass or receive SSPX sacraments, that doesn’t ipso facto make you a schismatic.

The fact is, there are a variety of reasons why Catholic faithful attend SSPX churches.  Some people have absolutely no idea that the SSPX are in an irregular situation vis-à-vis the Catholic Church, and think they are “just” attending a beautiful and spiritually uplifting Tridentine Mass.  Other people might partly understand the canonical issues, but erroneously conclude that because the Mass at an SSPX church is valid, that means there’s nothing wrong with going there (Martina’s parents fall more or less into this category).  Still others may live in dioceses where liturgical abuses are so rife that they reasonably worry that the Masses at their parishes aren’t even valid (see “What Makes a Mass Valid? Part I” and “Part II”), and so they attend an SSPX church—because they know that liturgically speaking, the Mass there is being celebrated correctly.

Still others who attend SSPX Masses, however, are personally convinced that the Pope is a heretic (see “Can a Pope Commit Heresy? (‘Heresy’ Defined”), and/or that there is currently no Pope at all, and that the “true Church” is the SSPX and other similar, breakaway groups.  Note that this mentality is radically different from that of a Catholic who attends the same SSPX church merely because he loves traditional Latin rites!  The bottom line is, if you want to accuse a Catholic who attends an SSPX Mass of schism, you first have to fully understand what his motivations are, and what his own mentality is.  The act of attending an SSPX church is not, in and of itself, schismatic.

Returning to Martina’s parents, we can say this: if, when they claim “it’s okay to go,” they mean that they aren’t automatically committing a schismatic act, then yes, that’s technically right, they aren’t.  But that’s a pretty low bar, isn’t it?  After all, dressing immodestly, dancing in the church aisles, stealing from the Sunday collection, or deliberately burning down the parish church is not “okay”—even though none of these actions amounts to schism.  The basic illogic of the argument should be evident: just because doing X doesn’t make you a schismatic, that doesn’t mean X is okay!

In canon 844 the Church tells us what is really “okay” in this regard.  As we’ve seen many times before in this space (in “Can a Non-Catholic Receive Holy Communion in a Catholic Church?”  among others), the Church’s general rule is that Catholics attend Catholic Mass and receive sacraments from Catholic ministers, and (conversely) that Catholic sacraments are for Catholics (c. 844.1).  The following paragraph tells us under what conditions we can licitly—i.e., legally—receive some (not all!) of the sacraments from ministers other than our own.  Note the precise circumstances under which canon 844.2 tells us we can do this:

Whenever necessity requires it or true spiritual advantage suggests it, and provided that danger of error or of indifferentism is avoided, the Christian faithful for whom it is physically or morally impossible to approach a Catholic minister are permitted to receive the sacraments of penance, Eucharist, and anointing of the sick from non-Catholic ministers in whose Churches these sacraments are valid. (Emphases added)

Let’s take this apart, and look at each condition in turn.  Firstly, “necessity requires it.”  We saw a very real example of this just last year, when Catholic clergy illegally shut down churches and denied Mass and the sacraments to the faithful “because of the virus.”  In “Can I Attend an SSPX Church, Since My Parish Is Closed?” we saw that yes, in this situation canon 844.2 absolutely applied—so Catholics could licitly attend an SSPX church because of necessity.  But as we can see from Martina’s question, her parents do not appear to be prompted to attend an SSPX church by any “necessity” whatsoever.

Secondly, “true spiritual advantage suggests it.”  One of many scenarios that would fit this description was already was suggested above: if the Catholic faithful are physically able to get to a Mass and receive the sacraments at a Catholic parish, but there are such egregious abuses that they have solid reason to fear that the Mass/sacraments are invalid, then their spiritual wellbeing would naturally justify their seeking Mass/sacraments from SSPX clergy.  (Note that the possible sacraments are listed in canon 844.2: penance, Eucharist, and anointing of the sick.)

Next: “provided that the danger of error or of indifferentism is avoided.”  In other words, Catholics can only follow the provisions of canon 844.2 if they understand that attending Mass/receiving the sacraments from non-Catholic ministers (in this case, from the SSPX) is not the same thing as attending Catholic Mass and receiving the sacraments from Catholic ministers. As we’ve already seen above, the SSPX may not be in schism, but their canonical status in the Church is irregular and the clergy administer sacraments illicitly—a far cry from what happens in a Catholic parish church!  In the case of Martina’s parents, it seems pretty clear that they have fallen precisely into this very error, and thus canon 844.2 cannot be applied in their situation.

And finally, canon 844.2 may be applied in the case of those Catholics “for whom it is physically or morally impossible to approach a Catholic minister.”  If there were no Catholic church for (let’s say) 100 miles, but an SSPX church was a few minutes away, one might make the argument that canon 844.2 permits the faithful in that area to attend the SSPX church, rather than travel so far to get to a Catholic parish.  But Martina says that “my parents have a plethora of Catholic churches at their disposal and even an FSSP parish about the same distance as the SSPX one.”  Thus it is abundantly clear that her parents do not face this sort of impossibility at all!

By this point it should be clear that in the case of Martina’s parents, it is not “okay to go” to an SSPX church.  They have the ability to attend Mass and receive the sacraments at a number of different churches which are part of their diocese.  This particular situation is black and white, as canon 844.2 does not apply.

To sum up, the fact that the SSPX has not formally been declared by the Church to be in schism is one thing; but the liceity of attending their Masses and receiving sacraments from their clergy is another.  As we’ve just seen, these are two separate issues.  If we’re able to receive the sacraments from a Catholic cleric in good standing, then as a general rule (as outlined above) there’s no legitimate reason to attend an SSPX church.

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