Canonical situation of the Society of St. Pius X

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The canonical situation of the Society of St. Pius X has been the subject of much controversy since the 1988 Ecône consecrations.

1988 Protocol[edit]

On 5 May 1988, Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre and Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (the future Pope Benedict XVI) signed an agreement intended to open the way for the consecration of a bishop to be a successor to Lefebvre.[1] In the first, doctrinal, part of the document, Lefebvre, in his own name and on behalf of the SSPX:

  • promised fidelity to the Catholic Church and to the Pope
  • accepted the doctrine contained in section 25 of the Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution Lumen gentium on the Church’s magisterium
  • pledged a completely non-polemical attitude of study and communication with the Holy See on the allegedly problematic aspects of the Second Vatican Council and the reforms that had followed it
  • recognised the validity of the revised rites of Mass and of the other sacraments
  • promised to respect the common discipline of the Church and her laws, making allowance for special provisions granted to the SSPX.

The second (legal) part of the document envisaged, apart from the canonical reconciliation of the persons concerned, that:

  • the SSPX would become a Society of Apostolic Life with special exemption regarding public worship, care of souls and apostolic activity, in line with canons 679-683
  • the SSPX would be granted the faculty to celebrate the Tridentine rites
  • a special commission, including two members of the SSPX, would be set up to facilitate contacts and resolve problems and conflicts
  • it would be proposed to the Pope that a member of the SSPX be consecrated as a bishop.

This document was to be submitted to the Pope for his approval. However, Lefebvre quickly developed misgivings. The very next day, he declared he was obliged in conscience to proceed, with or without papal approval, to consecrate a bishop to succeed him.[2]

A further meeting took place in Rome on 24 May. It is said that Lefebvre was promised that the Pope would appoint a bishop from among the members of the SSPX, chosen according to the normal procedures, and that episcopal ordination would take place on 15 August. In return, Lefebvre would have to request reconciliation with the Church on the basis of the protocol of 5 May. Lefebvre, for his part, presented three written requests:

  • the episcopal ordination must take place on 30 June
  • not one, but three bishops, must be consecrated (a requirement that he had already mentioned)
  • the majority of the members of the special commission must be from the SSPX

The Holy See's view[edit]

Following the 1988 episcopal consecrations, the Holy See declared that the six bishops who had been involved in the consecration ceremony had incurred automatic excommunication under the Code of Canon Law, and that their action constituted a schismatic act.[3] With regard to others, it said that "formal adherence to the schism is a grave offence against God and carries the penalty of excommunication".[4]

Ecclesia Dei commission[edit]

At the same time, the Pope set up the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia dei to help SSPX members and adherents who wished "to remain united to the Successor of Peter in the Catholic Church while preserving their spiritual and liturgical traditions" to enter "full ecclesial communion".[5] This Commission has issued many formal written clarifications about the canonical situation of people involved with the Society of St. Pius X.

Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts[edit]

On 24 August 1996, the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts responded to an enquiry from the Bishop of Sion (Switzerland), which had been referred to the Council by the Congregation for Bishops, by expressing its judgment[6] that "in the case of the Lefebvrian deacons and priests there seems no doubt that their ministerial activity in the ambit of the schismatic movement is a more than evident sign of the fact that the two requirements" (internal and external) for formal adherence to the schism "have been met".[7] It added: "On the other hand, in the case of the rest of the faithful it is obvious that an occasional participation in liturgical acts or the activity of the Lefebvrian movement, done without making one's own the attitude of doctrinal and disciplinary disunion of such a movement, does not suffice for one to be able to speak of formal adherence to the movement."[8] It stated that its judgment was about the existence of the sin of schism, since for the existence of the canonical crime of schism, which entails excommunication, the conditions listed in canons 1323-1324 of the Code of Canon Law must also be met.[9] While its reply concerned only one diocese, the Pontifical Council said that, if there were serious general pastoral confusion about the situation of the members of the Society of St. Pius X, the Holy See could consider issuing a general decree on the matter. The Holy See has not yet done so.

Likelihood of schism[edit]

In 1999, the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei stated that it was likely, but not certain, that the SSPX priests were adhering to the schism, which would mean that they were excommunicated, but that people who, "because of their attraction to the traditional Latin Mass and not because they refuse submission to the Roman Pontiff or reject communion with the members of the Church subject to him", attended Mass celebrated by those priests, were not excommunicated, although, the longer they frequented SSPX chapels, the greater the likelihood of imbibing a schismatic mentality that would seem to involve adherence to the schism and so excommunication.[10] It judged that documentation sent to it in 1998 clearly indicated the extent to which "many in authority in the Society of St. Pius X" were in conformity with the formal definition of schism.[11]

Moral impediment[edit]

In 1995, it declared it "morally illicit for the faithful to participate in these (the SSPX) Masses unless they are physically or morally impeded from participating in a Mass celebrated by a Catholic priest in good standing", and added that "the fact of not being able to assist at the celebration of the so-called 'Tridentine' Mass is not considered a sufficient motive for attending such Masses."[12] The Commission recognized the validity of the ordination of the SSPX priests, but added that they were prohibited from exercising their priestly functions because of not being properly incardinated in a diocese or religious institute in full communion with the Holy See. It also said that the Masses they celebrated were valid but illicit, but the lack of proper faculties on the part of the SSPX priests meant that celebrations of Penance and Matrimony under their auspices were invalid. The Pontifical Commission reaffirmed various of these statements in 2003.[13]

Separation but not schism[edit]

Apart from these formal statements, the Commission's President, Cardinal Darío Castrillón Hoyos, who has long favored better relations between the society and the Holy See, commented in press and television interviews about the situation of the members of the Society. In one such interview, he said that the 1988 consecrations gave rise to a situation of separation, even if not a formal schism.[14] While the members of the Society were not, in the full strict sense, in schism, they lacked full communion, and the consecrations indicated a schismatic attitude.[15] While, in consecrating the bishops, Lefebvre committed a schismatic act, the members and adherents of the Society could not be called schismatics, but they were in great danger of falling into schism; the Society's bishops were suspended and excommunicated, but other members and adherents were not excommunicated.[16]

2009 declaration of no canonical status and no legitimate ministry[edit]

In his letter of 10 March 2009 concerning his remission of the excommunication of the four bishops of the Society of St Pius X, Pope Benedict XVI reaffirmed: "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."[17]

The Holy See and sanctions at the diocesan level[edit]

On 1 May 1991 Bishop Joseph Ferrario of Honolulu declared six followers of the Society excommunicated on grounds of schism for having procured the services of SSPX Bishop Richard Williamson to administer confirmation. They appealed to Rome and the Holy See declared the decree invalid because their action, though blameworthy, did not constitute schism.[18]

On 19 March 1996, Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz imposed excommunication on Catholics in the Diocese of Lincoln, Nebraska who after 15 May 1996 remained or became members of any of 12 associations, including the Society of St. Pius X, as well as the Freemasons and Planned Parenthood.[19] One of the associations, Call to Action, appealed the bishop's decree, but the Holy See rejected the appeal.[20]

The Society's view[edit]

Extraordinary jurisdiction[edit]

The SSPX considers itself faithful to the Catholic Church and to the Popes, up to and including Pope Francis. The SSPX bishops do not claim "ordinary" jurisdiction over the Society's adherents, which would make the latter subject to them, not to the local diocesan bishops,[21] and would amount to an obvious challenge to the Holy See's authority act of schism. Instead they say they possess an "extraordinary" jurisdiction. This is of specific importance in Catholic canon law in relation to the sacraments of confession and marriage.

Absolution of sins and assistance at marriage[edit]

To absolve sins validly, a priest must be given the faculty to do so,[22] a faculty that, normally, only the local bishop can give.[23] Similarly, in normal circumstances a marriage can be contracted validly only in the presence of the local bishop or the parish priest or of a priest or deacon delegated by one of these.[24] To overcome this difficulty, the Society says[25] that absolution and marriage under its auspices are valid, on the grounds of its interpretation of canon 144 §1 of the Code of Canon Law, which states: "In common error, whether of fact or of law, and in positive and probable doubt, whether of law or of fact, the Church supplies executive power of governance for both the external and the internal forum", and canon 1335 which states, "If a censure prohibits the celebration of the sacraments or sacramentals or the exercise of a power of governance, the prohibition is suspended whenever this is necessary to provide for the faithful who are in danger of death. If a latae sententiae censure has not been declared, the prohibition is also suspended whenever one of the faithful requests a sacrament or sacramental or an act of the power of governance; for any just reason it is lawful to make such a request." The SSPX also argues if one believes they are outside of the Church,[26]This view has been argued for one is bound to believe that canon 844 §2, applies, which declares that, "whenever necessity requires or a genuine spiritual advantage commends it, and provided the danger of error or indifferentism is avoided, Christ's faithful for whom it is physically or morally impossible to approach a Catholic minister, may lawfully receive the sacraments of penance, the Eucharist and anointing of the sick from non-Catholic ministers in whose Churches these sacraments are valid."

The website of "Advanced Christianity" has published a study that it has taken from writings of a Father Glover and "the priests of Campos, Brazil" (obviously from before the latter reconciled with the Holy See in 2001). The study argues for the SSPX opinion, and also states that a 1 May 1989 letter (No. 1885/89/4) from the Apostolic Nunciature to the United States conveyed "a reply of Cardinal Mayer to a letter written by a troubled Catholic from California asking about the validity of our Sacraments: 'The principle of "common error", whether on the part of only one faithful or on the part of the community, can be applied in this case, and such acts are thereby valid (cf. canons 144, 976, 1331, 1333, 1335)'."[27]

Writing to members of the faithful, the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei has declared invalid the sacraments of Penance and Matrimony officiated by priests of the Society of St Pius X, while also stating that the principle of common error would apply to the sacrament of Penance, if the faithful are genuinely ignorant that the priests in question lack the faculty to absolve. Such private letters to individuals do not have the force of law for the faithful in general. However, "statements of dicasteries and organisms of the Holy See which touch on faith and morals are not considered infallible, but should be taken as norms of moral certitude."[28] In a letter dated 23 May 2008, the Commission stated: "The Sacraments of Penance and Matrimony, however, require that the priest enjoys the faculties of the diocese or has proper delegation. Since that is not the case with these priests, these sacraments are invalid. It remains true, however, that, if the faithful are genuinely ignorant that the priests of the Society of St. Pius X do not have proper faculty to absolve, the Church supplies these faculties so that the sacrament is valid (cf. Code of Canon Law, canon 144)." [29][30]

During the Jubilee Year of Mercy, which starts in December of 2015 and lasts for a year, Pope Francis authorized all priests, even members of the SSPX, to hear confessions, and to absolve from the sin of abortion (which usually must be absolved either by the Bishop, or by priests authorized to do so by him- there are usually, but certainly not always, many of those made available). The SSPX priests only have the faculty of being able to absolve sins during that Jubilee Year; outside of that time frame they do not have it, and they are still to be considered by Catholics who follow the Vatican to be suspended from all ministries except absolution.

Marriage impediments[edit]

The Society provides, for the faithful who request it, a review of marriage annulment decrees emanated from diocesan tribunals, since in its view many tribunals have been granting them without sufficient grounds to do so; in this manner, the faithful can acquire a greater degree of moral certitude when an annulment is doubtful. Critics have interpreted this service as a usurping of the authority to dispense from marriage impediments and to declare marriage annulments, which belongs to the ordinary jurisdiction of diocesan bishops, and which would be schismatic in kind. This has led some priests to leave the Society.[31][32]

Canonical censures on members[edit]

The Holy See lifts excommunication of bishops[edit]

By the power expressly conferred on him by Pope Benedict XVI, the Prefect of the Congregation for Bishops issued a decree on 21 January 2009 remitting, at their request, the excommunication of Bishops Bernard Fellay, Bernard Tissier de Mallerais, Richard Williamson and Alfonso de Galarreta.[33] L'Osservatore Romano of 25 January 2009, spoke of "the excommunication that they (the four bishops) had incurred twenty years ago",[34] said that they "had incurred latae sententiae excommunication"[35] and declared that, by means of the decree, the Pope "remits the excommunication that lay upon the Prelates in question".[36] In view of inferences drawn from that action, Pope Benedict declared that, for doctrinal reasons, the Society had no canonical status in the Church and that the ministries exercised by its ministers were not legitimate in the Church.[17]

Suspension a divinis[edit]

By the January 2009 decree, the 1 July 1988 decree declaring the excommunication of the bishops became "devoid of juridical effect". However, they were still unable to exercise an episcopal or even a priestly ministry in full communion.[37]

According to canon 1383 of the Code of Canon Law, a suspension a divinis affects SSPX clergy who have been ordained to the priesthood illegitimately.


  1. ^ Protocol of Agreement between the Holy See and the Priestly Society of Saint Pius X This is an English translation of the original French
  2. ^ That is why, taking into account the strong will of the present Roman authorities to reduce Tradition to naught, to gather the world to the spirit of Vatican II and the spirit of Assisi, we have preferred to withdraw ourselves and to say that we could not continue. It was not possible. We would have evidently been under the authority of Cardinal Ratzinger, President of the Roman Commission, which would have directed us; we were putting ourselves into his hands, and consequently putting ourselves into the hands of those who wish to draw us into the spirit of the Council and the spirit of Assisi. This was simply not possible. Sermon on the occasion of the Episcopal Consecration, Marcel Lefebvre, June 1988
  3. ^ Decree of excommunication and Motu proprio Ecclesia Dei
  4. ^ Motu proprio Ecclesia Dei, 3, and 5 c
  5. ^ Motu proprio Ecclesia Dei, 6 a; Profile of the Pontifical Council Ecclesia Dei
  6. ^ The full text (in the original Italian) is available on the Holy See's website. A full translation, with a commentary, was published in The Canon Law Society of America Newsletter, No. 115, September 1998, pp 7-13. The salient statements are given in English in A Response to Christopher Ferrara.
  7. ^ Sections 5-6 of the document
  8. ^ Section 7.
  9. ^ Sections 8-9.
  10. ^ Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei: Letter 539/99 of 28 September 1999
  11. ^ Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei: Letter 343/98 of 27 October 1998
  12. ^ Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei: Letter 117/95 of 29 September 1995
  13. ^ Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei: Letter of 18 January 2003
  14. ^ "Unfortunately Monsignor Lefebvre went ahead with the consecration and hence the situation of separation came about, even if it was not a formal schism" (30 Giorni 09/2005)
  15. ^ "It cannot be said in correct, exact, and precise terms that there is a schism. There is a schismatic attitude in the fact of consecrating bishops without pontifical mandate. They are within the Church. There is only the fact that a full, more perfect communion is lacking – as was stated during the meeting with Bishop Fellay – a fuller communion, because communion does exist" (Interview on Italian television channel Canale 5).
  16. ^ "The bishops, priests and faithful of the Society of St Pius X are not schismatics. By the illicit episcopal consecration Archbishop Lefebvre performed a schismatic act. For this reason the bishops consecrated by him are suspended and excommunicated. The priests and faithful of the Society are not excommunicated.... The danger of a schism is great, for instance through systematic disobedience to the Holy Father or denial of his authority" (An English translation adjusted to conform to the original text on Die Tagespost of 8 February 2007).
  17. ^ a b Pope Benedict XVI. "Letter of His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI to the Bishops of the Catholic Church Concerning the Remission of the Excommunication of the Four Bishops Consecrated by Archbishop Lefebvre". Retrieved 2009-05-17. 
  18. ^ "Honolulu Diocese and the "Hawaii Six"". Society of St. Pius X. Retrieved 2009-05-17. 
  19. ^ Statement issued by Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz
  20. ^ Hansen, S. L. (December 8, 2006). "Vatican affirms excommunication of Call to Action members in Lincoln". Catholic News Service. Retrieved 2009-05-17. 
  21. ^ Cf. Code of Canon Law, canon 107 and canon 65
  22. ^ Code of Canon Law, canon 966
  23. ^ Code of Canon Law, canon 969
  24. ^ Code of Canon Law, canon 1108
  25. ^ The Validity of Confessions & Marriages in the chapels of the SSPX, A Canonical Study by Rev. Father Ramon Angles
  26. ^ In the view of Bishop Chandler Holder Jones of the Anglican Province of America, the Society of St Pius X is now in a position similar to that of the Old Catholic Church.
  27. ^ S.S.P.X. Jurisdiction for Confession and Matrimony
  28. ^ Letter No. 343/98 of 27 October 1998 from the Pontifical Commission
  29. ^ Brian Mershom: The PCED confirms officially ...
  30. ^ ZENIT: Mass with the Society of St Pius X
  31. ^ Letter to Bishop Bernard Fellay
  32. ^ Is the Society of St. Pius X in Schism?
  33. ^ Press release on the lifting of the excommunication, with full translation of the decree remitting it
  34. ^ "la scomunica in cui erano incorsi vent'anni fa"
  35. ^ "erano incorsi nella scomunica latae sententiae"
  36. ^ "rimette la scomunica che gravava sui menzionati Presuli"
  37. ^ "Catholic Bishops' Conference statement on lifting of excommunications of SSPX Bishops". Catholic Communications Network. Retrieved 2009-05-17.