On the Canonical Situation of the Society of Saint Pius X

For many years I have posted on the Catholic Answers Forum (“CAF”).  During my time there, I saw a conversation involving some posters who were advocates for the Society of Saint Pius X (“SSPX”).  The current status of the Society is quite irregular, and their current circumstances can be somewhat difficult to both understand and explain. As a result, I’ve decided to compile some information regarding both the past and present of the SSPX, including a timeline of events and some summaries.

Currently, the priests of the SSPX are canonically suspended, and do not have universal faculties.  “Faculties”, for those unaware, is the permission given to a priest by his diocesan bishop or religious superior which allows him to legally perform the Sacraments in that diocese.  This is done for a couple of reasons, one of which is to prevent “rogue” activities, which helps ensure valid and licit Sacraments.  An invalid Sacrament literally means the Sacrament never actually took place, while illicit means the Sacrament still happened, but performed in a way that is not permitted by the rules or laws of the Church (ie; Canon Law). Due to the universal removal of faculties plus the suspension, even if a local bishop wanted to give them faculties, it wouldn’t matter.

As a result of having universal faculties removed, the Masses the SSPX celebrates are illicit, and ordinarily their Confessions, Marriages, and Confirmations are invalid.  Pope Francis granted them universal faculties during the Year of Mercy (in a merciful gesture, Pope Francis has extended this past the Year of Mercy).  The Vatican has recently asked local Bishops to give the SSPX faculties to witness marriages, which means if a local Bishop does this than their marriages are now valid.

Please note that a Bishop cannot grant faculties to a suspended priest unless the Pope explicitly says they can.

The cliff notes of the current status is;

  • Illicit Masses.
  • Invalid confessions, which for the time being rendered valid due to Pope Francis.
  • Invalid marriages, which for the time being can be rendered valid if the local Bishop grants faculties.

All of this is compounded by most Catholics not even being aware of the existence of the SSPX (or knowing very little about them) and most Catholics are unfamiliar with Canon Law and the process of how a community of priests can gain official recognition from Rome.  So in order to better understand the situation, I began to look more into the history of the Society, and began studying applicable pieces of Canon Law to try and ascertain their current status.  Over the years this continued, and I became more active in these conversations at CAF.

Recently during one such a discussion, a CAF poster mentioned the following; “how was Archbishop Lefebvre’s method of achieving canonical status “irregular”? He went about all the proper protocols of attaining the Society’s status. Furthermore, in order to be put under any ecclesiastical penalty, you need to have committed a crime. When the SSPX was suppressed it was done improperly and unjustly, and the due process was never rightly gone through with. Evidence of fault was never produced”.

Certainly an interesting opinion! One of which I decided was worth looking into.  As such, I did a deep-dive into the history of the SSPX, looking at their history and the actions that surrounded it.  From what I discovered, we can break down the history of the Society into five parts:

  • The “pious union” stage.
  • The ordination of the seminarians.
  • The consecration of bishops.
  • The fallout from the consecrations.
  • Current status.

At this point I would like to say if you find yourself reading this blog post, feel free to provide feedback on any point you see fit by identifying which number was handled in a canonically incorrect manner by posting in the “comments” section.

“The Pious Union Stage”:

1)      In 1970, Bishop Charrière declared that that the SSPX was a “pia unio” (“pious union”).

2)      In May of 1974, a meeting to discuss the SSPX happened in at the Vatican.

3)      In June of 1975, a commission of Cardinals was established to look into the SSPX. With the amount of noise people were making both from within the SSPX and those opposed to the Society, it was the right call to form a group to look into things.

4)      In June of 1974, a canonical visit occurred. According to those within the SSPX, the visit did not go well – the priests sent allegedly held heterodox views. Assuming that the SSPX side of this story is true, it’s important to note that this was still a valid canonical visit, regardless of the visitors’ heterodox views.  It’s not the visitors nor the hosts who determine if the visit is canonical, it’s the people authorizing the visit.

5)      In January of 1975, Bishop Charrière’s valid canonical successor, Bishop Mamie, wrote to Rome stating his intention to withdraw pia unio, which is within Bishop Mamie’s canonical rights as Bishop of that diocese. This is where one may say “this was unjust”, however the Bishop may have been concerned with hostile traditionalists making noise about the errors of a new Missal and errors from the Vatican in general – especially if he read the “declaration” penned by Bishop Lefebvre.

6)      In February and March of 1975, Bishop Lefebvre was summoned to the Vatican to meet with the Cardinals, where they likely wanted to hear Bishop Lefebvre’s side of the story after the intention was stated to withdraw the pious union status – which makes the summoning an appropriate step to take. Allegedly, some of the Cardinals were hostile, with one Cardinal apparently calling Bishop Lefebvre a fool. If true that was said it’s certainly not appropriate, however the hostility of any Cardinal(s) does not take away their canonical authority. And I must admit, after reading the “declaration” and the “suppressed letter”, I have also begun to think it’s possible that Bishop Lefebvre was hostile towards the Cardinals in turn – although this is my opinion based on the text I’ve read.

7)      In May of 1975, with the approval of the Cardinals, Bishop Mamie withdrew the pia unio. Both Bishop Mamie and the Cardinals have the canonical right to do this.

8)      After May 1975, Bishop Lefebvre instructed his lawyer to lodge appeals, and he petitioned the Apostolic Signatura. This is important because it means that Bishop Lefebvre himself recognized the canonical validity of what transpired, otherwise he wouldn’t have lodged any appeals.

9)      After the appeal in 1975, the Apostolic Signatura turned down his complaint. They have the canonical right to do this.

So far, it does not appear that there was anything inappropriate on a canonical level, proper process was followed. It does look like there was hostility from both parties yes, but that doesn’t take away from the canonical process nor canonical authority.  People being uncharitable does not remove their authority.

Out of all of the steps I have outlined, one through nine has the least amount of impact as far as the current canonical situation.  It provides important context as to what happens next, but none of it diminishes the validity of what happened after, nor does it take away from the canonical procedures that followed.

“The Ordination of the Seminarians”:

10) In June of 1976, Bishop Lefebvre announced he was going to ordain some of his seminarians.  The Swiss Nuncio was given instructions by special order of Pope Paul VI to inform Bishop Lefebvre that he was forbidden by doing the ordinations.  It should come as no surprise that the Pope retains the canonical right to prohibit ordinations.

11)  Later in June of 1976, Bishop Benelli (the deputy Secretary of State) wrote directly to Bishop Lefebvre confirming the prohibition – and warning him of the canonical penalties for Bishop Lefebvre himself and those he ordained.  The prohibition was from Pope Paul VI, who once again, is canonically allowed to place such prohibitions.

12) At the end of June of 1976, Bishop Lefebvre does the ordinations anyway, ignoring the multiple warnings.  In his homily during the ordinations, he outright says he will likely suffer penalties, but he doesn’t care.  This is in direct defiance of the lawful prohibition placed by Pope Paul VI.

13) In July of 1976, the Vatican Press Office said that in accordance with Canon 2373, Bishop Lefebvre was automatically suspended for one year from conferring ordination – and those ordained were also automatically suspended.  The press release also said that Vatican was going to look at Bishop Lefebvre’s disobedience, since he was warned multiple times.

14) Later in July of 1976, Bishop Lefebvre signed a certificate of receipt of a letter from Cardinal Baggio (Prefect of the Congregation for Bishops) that was a canonical warning; further penalties would, in accordance with Canon 2331 §1, could happen – concerning obstinate disobedience to legitimate precepts or prohibitions of the Roman Pontiff. Unless, within ten days of receipt of the letter, he took steps “to repair the scandal caused”.

15)  Later in July of 1976, Bishop Lefebvre sent a letter to Pope Pail VI, declaring that he judged his action in June to be legitimate. Pope Paul VI didn’t accept this, and instructed the Congregation for Bishops to suspend Bishop Lefebvre for an indefinite time (suspension “a divinis”). At this point, Bishop Lefebvre could not carry out any ministry within the Church (ie; he could not administer the Sacraments, unless someone was dying).

As you can see, it’s during this time we begin to see a Pope getting directly involved.  A recurring thing for us to remember starting at #10 is that the Pope has “the keys” (per Matthew 16:18), meaning he is the chief judge of Canon Law.  Although others can interpret Canon Law, it cannot be in conflict with the current Pope’s interpretation of Canon Law.

With this in mind, by all accounts, 10 through 16 were handled in a valid fashion.  Pope Paul VI was exercising his valid powers as the successor of Kephas.  Meaning that Bishop Lefebvre, and those who he ordained, were suspended and no longer had faculties – meaning illicit Masses, illicit ordinations, invalid marriages, invalid confessions.  Even if a local bishop wanted to give them faculties, it wouldn’t matter due to the suspension(s).

“The Consecration of Bishops”:

16) In 1987, eleven years later still being canonically suspended, Bishop Lefebvre announced his intention to consecrate a successor.  Under Canons 1013 and 1382, the consecration of a bishop requires papal approval. Consecration of Bishops without papal approval was condemned by Pope Pius XII in “Ad Apostolorum principis” –  which said without such approval it would be “gravely illicit, that is, criminal and sacrilegious”.

17) In May of 1988, a “skeleton agreement” between Bishop Lefebvre and a certain Cardinal named Joseph Ratzinger was reached.  This is incredibly important for two reasons, one of which is that if Bishop Lefebvre was patient, he would have gotten what he originally wanted (the second reason we’ll get to later).

18)  Also in May of 1988, via Pope John Paul II’s instructions, Cardinal Ratzinger replied to Lefebvre – insisting of the agreement he and Lefebvre has reached earlier in the month.  It was mentioned that if Bishop Lefebvre carried out unauthorized consecrations in June, the promised authorization for someone to receive ordination to the episcopacy would not be granted.

19)  In June of 1988, Bishop Lefebvre wrote he was going to go ahead with the consecrations anyway.

20)  Later in June 1988, Pope John Paul II wrote to Bishop Lefebvre, personally imploring him not to proceed, saying that the action “would be seen as nothing other than a schismatic act, the theological and canonical consequences of which are known to you”. Lefebvre did not reply, and the letter was made public later in June.

21)  At the end of June 1988, Bishop Lefebvre did the consecrations, breaking the previous agreement, and going against multiple warnings from the Pope.

22)  In July of 1988, the day after the consecrations, the Congregation for Bishops issued a decree declaring that Bishop Lefebvre and the four newly ordained bishops had incurred the automatic canonical penalty of excommunication.

23)  Also in July 1988, on the following day, Pope John Paul II published Ecclesia Dei.  The Pope stated that, since schism is defined Canon Law as “withdrawal of submission to the Supreme Pontiff or from communion with the members of the Church subject to him” (canon 751), the consecration “constitute[d] a schismatic act”, and that due to Canon 1382 of the Code, it meant excommunication for all the Bishops involved.
“The Fallout from the Consecrations”:

As it stood after the consecrations, the existing priests in the Society were all suspended, with their faculties removed.  Any further ordinations would be illicit, and those being ordained would immediately receive the same penalties as the rest.  As mentioned previously, this meant that the Sacraments continued to be illicit (Mass, ordinations) or invalid (Marriage, Confirmation, and Confession).  The new bishops and Bishop Lefebvre were the only ones excommunicated, however.

There was additional fallout to all of this.  All priests within the SSPX were suspended and had their universal faculties removed, which meant they too had to deal with providing illicit and invalid Sacraments. This was particular untenable for a group within the SSPX, which led to that group approaching Rome saying they wanted no part of the Society, yet had a desire to continue with the Old Form.  The result of this was the founding of the Priestly Fraternity of Saint Peter (the FSSP) – a Society of Apostolic Life with Pontifical Right.  This is where the second important note regarding Point 17 comes into play; the establishment of the FSSP was very quick, because they and Rome essentially fleshed out the skeleton agreement that Ratzinger and Bishop Lefebvre originally had before Bishop Lefebvre performed the consecrations.

24)  Bishop Lefebvre passed away in 1991, without publicly being brought back into the Church.

25)  In December of 2008, Pope Benedict XVI remitted the excommunications of the four living bishops.  He has the authority to do this by virtue of being the successor of Kephas.  This did not change the status of the Society in terms of suspensions or the removal of faculties.

“Current Status”:

Discussions have been ongoing for many, many years about bringing the SSPX fully back into the fold.  The idea of a “personal prelature” ala Opus Dei was presented as an option for the SSPX.  Some would say this is even bigger than being a Society of Apostolic Life; a prelature of this nature would in effect make the SSPX their own “diocese within a diocese”.  A bishop would invite them in to their diocese, and the SSPX would then be self-governing with total autonomy in terms of staffing parishes they are assigned, disciplinary issues, and more.  The only thing that a diocesan bishop could do is remove them from a diocesan parish he assigned them to, but he wouldn’t be able to remove them totally from the diocese after inviting them into the area…..unless he appealed to the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life directly.

Inexplicably, despite this offer, the SSPX has refused it.

Recently, Pope Francis has extended an extensive olive branch to the Society.  First, in September of 2015, he said that those during the Year of Mercy went to the SSPX for confession, will receive the absolution of their sins in a valid and licit fashion.  This was extended past the Year of Mercy, again by Pope Francis, with him saying “trusting in the good will of their priests to strive with God’s help for the recovery of full communion in the Catholic Church”.  Pope Francis has the authority to do this due to being the successor of Kephas.

Then in March of 2017, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith said that Pope Francis granted “local ordinaries (ie; diocesan bishops) the right to give to a priest in good standing the faculty to preside at the marriage of followers of the SSPX, immediately after which they will participate in a Mass celebrated by an SSPX priest, or, if no priest in good standing can receive the consent of the couple, to give the faculty instead to an SSPX priest”.  Basically if a priest without faculties isn’t around, the SSPX priest can receive them.  If a priest with faculties is present, he can do the marriage, and it can be followed by Mass with a SSPX priest.  This document flat out states that the Society itself remains irregular.

At this point in the conversation, you may be asking how the SSPX justifies all of this.  Initially, Bishop Lefebvre justified his actions by saying without the ordinations and the consecrations, the traditional form of the Sacraments would go extinct.  He proceeded to appeal to a couple of pieces of Canon Law.  The first was  Canon 1323, which says that “a person who acted coerced by grave fear, even if only relatively grave, or due to necessity or grave inconvenience unless the act is intrinsically evil or tends to the harm of souls is not subject to penalty for violating a law or precept”.  The second, Canon 1324 says “the perpetrator of a violation is not exempt from a penalty, but the penalty established by law or precept must be tempered or a penance employed in its place if the delict was committed … by a person who thought in culpable error that one of the circumstances mentioned in can. 1323, nn. 4 or 5 was present”.

There’s a few issues with citing these two Canons.  First, with 1323, it says “unless the act is intrinsically evil or tends to the harm of souls”. By directly disobeying the successor of Kephas as it pertained to explicit canonical instructions, Bishop Lefebvre certainly did tend to the harm of souls.  With the second Canon 1324, it mentions penalties could be mitigated based on the culpability of 1323.  The issue; Bishop Lefebvre was warned of the consequences many, many times.  He even said during a homily that he knew penalties were coming.  Hardly someone with reduced culpability when you know the consequences, but you do it anyway.  He made his choices with full knowledge of the consequences.

The other reason who those two Canons are not applicable ties into why the idea of the “crisis clause” being applied (specifically that there is a crisis within the Church, thus extraordinary jurisdiction comes into play when it comes to faculties, and also for the ordinations and consecrations) doesn’t apply.

The reason for this is when you look at who is the arbiter and judge of Canon Law. The chief judge for Canon Law is the one whom is the successor of Kephas, the Pope. Regardless of our interpretation of a portion of Canon Law, when the Pope make a ruling on said portion of Canon Law, the Pope’s ruling overrules our own. In this case, Pope John Paul II made it very clear that the consecrations would not be authorized, and that they would be violating Canon Law.

Simply put, Bishop Lefebvre did not have the authority to circumvent Canon Law in this case. The Pope has the Keys, he is the one who decides such things. Otherwise any Bishop with their own motivations could unilaterally declare a crisis. I mean, if another Arius shows up, he could pull a Lefebvre and declare “crisis!”, and consecrate some Bishops unlawfully. To go against the lawful and valid authority of the office of Kephas, quite simply, is categorically unacceptable.  My wife, a former Protestant, has outright said that it borders having a mindset akin to Protestantism – and I’m inclined to agree with her.

Also of interest is the multiple efforts made by Bishop Lefebvre to essentially say he is loyal to the office of Kephas, but not loyal to the Pope himself. This is wildly dangerous, and certainly bordering outright sedevacantistism. It does reflect certain justification that SSPX supporters use which, among other things, diminish Papal authority and the validity of the 1983 Canon Law – which, again either borders on sedevacantistism or outright approaches it.

There’s irony in Bishop Lefebvre’s accusations towards Blessed Pope Paul VI (none of which have any citations, and some of which are second hand pieces of information), saying he is a “liberal”, when Bishop Lefebvre did what many would call a “liberal” action by going against Canon Law and Saint Pope John Paul II. His successors likewise engage in the liberal practice of administrating illicit and invalid Sacraments without batting an eye. Bishop Lefebvre saying “Pope Paul VI is a liberal and he does not believe in the fixity of dogmas”. If the Lawyer turned Prophet did not believe in the fixity of dogmas, you’d think he’d fold to the pressure of others and not write Humanae Vitae.

Circling back to disobedience. The namesake and patron of the SSPX is Saint Pope Pius X. Pius X was a full member of the Secular Franciscan Order, making him a full Franciscan just like the Friars and Poor Clares. Pius X would have advocated that any internal reforms be done in the same manner that St. Francis did. No actions that would cause the suspensions of clergy, no actions that would cause illicit and invalid Sacraments. And gaining the permission from local Bishops and working with them. Yes you can rock the boat, and you can say your piece. You can articulate your points and present your case. But for St. Francis, there would be no outright disobedience. In this sense, Bishop Lefebvre betrayed the inspiration for his Society, which we see the legacy of today with illicit Masses, invalid confirmations, invalid marriages, and for the longest while invalid confessions.

Additionally, it was mentioned by someone on CAF once that some supporters of the Society justify Bishop Lefebvre’s disobedience because he thought if he did not do this before his death, then all would be lost with respect to having legitimate Mass. He was God’s last hope for the Church. I have heard this in the past a few times, however there’s multiple issues with this line of thinking though.

The idea presumes that the new Missal isn’t legitimate, which if the new Missal was inherently deficient in any theological capacity, then the Pope (and the Church) promulgated an error regarding the Mass. Which then means, you guessed it; sedevacantistism.

The Pope specifically said that “all would not be lost” (or something to that effect), so the Canon Law as it pertained to the ordinations stood. To deny the Pope in this area is to deny the authority of the office of Kephas, to deny the validity of the 1983 Canon Law. Which then means, you guessed it, sedevacantistism.

Let’s say, for a moment though, that the people that think this are correct. That this was an emergency, so Canon Law didn’t apply. By doing this, it means that the authority of the Pope as it pertains to Canon Law is being questioned. That means the authority of the Pope must be questioned when he said that Canon Law applied, because he authoritatively said that it did. It begins to cascade from there when you begin to start questioning the authority of the Pope as a whole. Which then means, you guessed it, sedevacantistism.

Finally, supporters of the Society say that the penalties for violating the Canons and the excommunications which resulted from violating the law were not applicable because you need to have mortal sinned in order for those to happen.  As I mentioned above, Bishop Lefebvre knew exactly what he was doing. Celebrating illicit and invalid Sacraments is a grave matter, while going against the canonical decrees of the successor of Kephas is a grave matter as well.  Bishop Lefebvre and those being consecrated knew full well what they were doing, and did it anyway.  And they certainly consented to those actions.  I would argue that’s not even a subjective mortal sin, that’s an objective mortal sin.

Despite all I’ve written here, I want to make it clear that I want the SSPX to return to the fold with restored canonical status.  However for them to do so, it would require them to acknowledge the full authority of the successor of Kephas as it pertains to Canon law, and also to the full validity of the Missal of Paul VI.  Unless things drastically change within the Society of Saint Pius X, I don’t see this happening in the near future.

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