Canonical situation of the Society of St. Pius X

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The canonical situation of the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX), a group founded in 1970 by Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, is unresolved – it "is both complex and fluid."[1] The SSPX has no canonical status in the Catholic Church for doctrinal rather than disciplinary reasons.[2] The SSPX has been the subject of much controversy since 1988 when Bernard Fellay, Bernard Tissier de Mallerais, Richard Williamson and Alfonso de Galarreta were illicitly consecrated at the Ecône, Switzerland, International Seminary of Saint Pius X as bishops in violation of Latin Church canon law. Lefebvre and the four other SSPX bishops individually incurred a disciplinary latae sententiae excommunication for the schismatic act;[3](n3) the excommunications of the four living SSPX bishops were remitted in 2009. Pope Benedict XVI explained in 2009 that "its ministers – even though they have been freed of the ecclesiastical penalty – do not legitimately exercise any ministry in the Church."[2]

1988 Protocol[edit]

In May 1988, Lefebvre and Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith signed a protocol intended to regularize the canonical status of the SSPX.[4] The first part of the protocol was doctrinal in which Lefebvre agreed that the SSPX would:

  • promise fidelity to the Catholic Church and its pope
  • accept the doctrine of the magisterium found in Lumen gentium section 25
  • pledge to avoid all polemics and to have a positive attitude of study and of communication with the Holy See
  • recognise the validity of the Mass and of the sacraments as promulgated by Popes Paul VI and John Paul II
  • promise to respect the common discipline of the Church and her laws, including special provisions granted to the SSPX

The second part of the protocol was juridical which negotiated rights and responsibilities of the SSPX as a group, and conditions of individuals affiliated with the SSPX that included that:

  • the existing SSPX would be canonically erected as a clerical society of apostolic life of pontifical right within the Latin Church with special provisions for public worship, care of souls, and other apostolic activity
  • the statutes of the canonical society of apostolic life would require approval by the pope to assure doctrinal compliance
  • either the local bishops or the Holy See would confer SSPX priests jurisdiction "with regard to the faithful"
  • the canonical society of apostolic life would be granted the right to celebrate Tridentine liturgical rites
  • lay SSPX adherents would "remain under the jurisdiction of the diocesan bishop" but could request sacraments administered by SSPX priests
  • a special seven member pontifical commission, which would include two SSPX members, would be established to coordinate relations with the Curia and diocesan bishops, to resolve problems and conflicts, and to "exercis[e] vigilance and lending assistance to consolidate the work of reconciliation and to regulate questions relative to the religious communities having a juridical or moral bond with" the SSPX
  • a proposal to licitly consecrate an SSPX member as a bishop would be submitted to John Paul II
  • the Superior General of the society of apostolic life would send dimissorial letters to any bishop who agrees to ordain members of the society of apostolic life
  • an amnesty could be granted to illicit SSPX places of worship which were erected without the authorization of the local bishops
  • convalidation of existing invalid marriages celebrated by SSPX priests could be resolved by decree
  • regularization of existing illicit ordinations of SSPX priests could be resolved by decree

Ratzinger and Lefebvre suggested in the protocol that:

  • the consecration of an SSPX member as bishop seems useful for "practical and psychological reasons"
  • on the doctrinal level, the superior general should not be the SSPX member who would consecrated as bishop but should be a member of the pontifical commission for stability

The protocol was to be submitted to John Paul II for his approval. However, Lefebvre quickly developed misgivings and declared his intention to consecrate a bishop as his successor, even without a pontifical mandate.[5]

A meeting took place in Rome on 24 May. It is said[by whom?] that John Paul II promised to Lefebvre that he would appoint an SSPX member as a bishop, 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 presented three requests:

  • the proposed episcopal ordination must take place on 30 June
  • not one, but three bishops, must be consecrated
  • a majority of members in the proposed pontifical commission must be SSPX members[citation needed]

The Holy See's view[edit]

Following the 1988 episcopal consecrations without a pontifical mandate, John Paul II declared that the illicit consecrations were a schismatic act which "impli[ed] in practice the rejection of the Roman primacy" and that all six bishops involved in the ceremony had incurred automatic excommunication under the 1983 Code of Canon Law.[3](n3) John Paul II wrote, in Ecclesia Dei, that "the root of this schismatic act can be discerned in an incomplete and contradictory notion of Tradition."[3](n4) John Paul II reminded "that formal adherence to the schism is a grave offence against God" and schism is a delict against religion and the unity of the church with a penalty of excommunication.[3](n5) The individual excommunications of each of the SSPX bishops did not extend to the other SSPX members.[1]

Ecclesia Dei commission[edit]

At the same time, John Paul II set up the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia dei (PCED) 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".[3](n6a)[6] The PCED issued many formal written clarifications about the canonical situation of people involved with the SSPX.

Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts[edit]

In 1996, the Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Legislative Texts (PCILT) responded to an enquiry from Bishop Norbert Brunner, of the Diocese of Sion, Switzerland, 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" for formal adherence to the schism "have been met".[7](nn5-6)[a] The PCILT 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."[7](n7) 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.[7](nn8-9) While its reply concerned only one diocese, the PCILT said that, if there was serious general pastoral confusion about the canonical situation of SSPX members, the Holy See could issue a general decree on the matter. The Holy See has not yet done so.

Likelihood of schism[edit]

In 1999, the PCED stated that it was likely, but not certain, that the SSPX members were adhering to a 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 SSPX 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.[8][b] The PCED judged that documentation sent to it in 1998 clearly indicated the extent to which "many in authority in" the SSPX conform with the formal definition of schism.[9]

Moral impediment[edit]

In 1995, PCED explained that it "morally illicit for the faithful to participate in" 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 not being able to assist at a Tridentine Mass "is not considered a sufficient motive for attending such Masses."[10] The PCED explained that although the ordinations of SSPX priests by SSPX bishops are valid, SSPX priests are prohibited from exercising a priestly function because SSPX priests are not incardinated into local diocese or religious institutes which are in full communion with the Catholic Church. The PCED also explained that the Masses celebrated by SSPX priests are valid but illicit, and that Penance and Matrimony by SSPX priests are invalid because SSPX priests lack conferred faculties.[c]

Separation but not schism[edit]

Apart from the formal declarations by the Catholic Church, Cardinal Darío Castrillón Hoyos, president of the PCED, commented about the status of the SSPX in a 2005 interview that the 1988 consecrations, without a pontifical mandate, created a "situation of separation [...] even if it was not a formal schism."[12] Castrillón Hoyos commented in 2005, about a 2004 meeting between Benedict XVI and Fellay, that it was said at that meeting that, in Castrillón Hoyos words, "It cannot be said in correct, exact, and precise terms that there is a schism. [...] They are within the Church. There is only the fact that a full, more perfect communion is lacking [...] a fuller communion, because communion does exist."[13] Castrillón Hoyos commented in 2007, when asked "Does the Indult support ecumenism, 'ad intra' (internal)?" Castrillón Hoyos answered that he "reject[s] the term 'ecumenism ad intra'." He explained that the SSPX priests and adherents "are not schismatics" since it was Lefebrve who has undertaken an illicit Episcopal consecration and therefore performed a schismatic act. It is for this reason that the Bishops consecrated by him have been suspended and excommunicated. The priests and faithful of the Society have not been excommunicated. They are not heretics. I do, however, share St Jerome’s fear that heresy leads to schism and vice versa. The danger of a schism is big, such as a systematic disobedience vis-à-vis the Holy Father or by a denial of his authority. It is after all a service of charity, so that the Priestly Society gains full communion with the Holy Father by acknowledging the sanctity of the new Mass."[14]

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

In 2009, Benedict XVI reaffirmed that: "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."[2] The status of the SSPX was not changed by Benedict XVI in 2009.[1]

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

In 1991 Bishop Joseph Ferrario, of the diocese of Honolulu, declared that six adherents of the SSPX movement were excommunicated for, among other things, procuring the services of SSPX Bishop Williamson to illicitly administer confirmation. They sought hierarchical recourse from the Holy See to reverse the decree. The Holy See found in a review of the case that the submitted facts of the case were not formal schismatic acts so the decree lacked foundation under the cited canons and was therefore invalid; Ferrario should have, instead, imposed penalties under canon 1373.[15]

In 1996, one of the earliest proponents of the Tridentine Mass, Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz, of the diocese of Lincoln, Nebraska, issued a warning that Catholics within the diocese who are members of the SSPX incur excommunication.[16][d] One of the associations, Call to Action, appealed Bruskewitz's act and the Holy See rejected the appeal.[17]

In 2014, Bishop Marcello Semeraro, of the diocese of Albano, Italy, issued a warning that Catholics within that diocese would incur excommunication for attending SSPX Masses or receiving sacraments from SSPX priests "because the society has no canonical status."[18]

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.[citation needed] The SSPX bishops do not claim ordinary jurisdiction over SSPX adherents, which would make the latter subject to them, not to the local diocesan bishops,[19] and would amount to an obvious challenge to the Holy See's authority and an act of schism. Instead the SSPX claims to possess 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,[20] a faculty that, normally, only the local bishop can give.[21] 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.[22] To overcome this difficulty, the SSPX argues that absolution and marriage under its auspices are valid,[23] because of its interpretation of canon law, for example:

  • canon 144 §1, 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"
  • 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 that if one believes they are outside of the Church,[e] This opinion has been argued for a recipient who bound to believe that canon 844 §2, applies, which declares that, "whenever necessity requires or a genuine spiritual advantage commends it, and provided that the recipient avoids the danger of error or indifferentism, the recipient who 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 published a tract to support the SSPX opinion, the tract claims that in 1989 Cardinal Paul Augustin Mayer confirmed this in a letter that 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"[25][discuss]

The PCED explained that the sacraments of Penance and Matrimony are invalid because SSPX priests are not granted faculty to administer those sacraments, but that the principle of common error applies to the sacrament of Penance, so if a recipient is genuinely ignorant that the priest in question lacks 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."[9] In a letter dated 23 May 2008, the PCED 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)."[26][27]

Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy confessions[edit]

During the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy, which starts in December 2015 and lasts for a year, Francis established that those people who approach SSPX priests to hear their confession during the jubilee "shall validly and licitly receive the absolution of their sins."[28] Francis also granted all priests "the discretion to absolve" from the sin of abortion.[28] (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.

On November 21, 2016, in Misericordia et Misera 12, Pope Francis announced that he had "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."[29]

Marriage impediments[edit]

The SSPX 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;[citation needed] in this manner, the faithful can acquire a greater degree of moral certitude when an annulment is doubtful. Critics[who?] 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 SSPX.[30][31][third-party source needed]

Canonical censures on members[edit]

The Holy See lifts excommunication of bishops[edit]

Lefebvre died in 1991 as an excommunicated person.[1] In their 2008 petition, the four surviving SSPX bishops "acknowledged the supreme authority of the Holy Father, and noted that 'the current situation causes us much suffering'."[1] In 2009, the Congregation for Bishops remitted the excommunication of the four surviving SSPX bishops.[32] "By definition, their request carried with it an acknowledgement of the Pope's authority over the Church here on earth."[1] Benedict XVI explained that the SSPX has no canonical status in the Catholic Church for doctrinal reasons and that SSPX ministers "do not legitimately exercise any ministry in the Church."[2]

Suspension a divinis[edit]

Although the 1988 excommunication of the four SSPX bishops was remitted in 2009, the SSPX bishops and priests were still unable to exercise any episcopal or priestly ministry in the Catholic Church.[2][32]

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. ^ Some statements about attendance at Mass and reception of the sacraments from an SSPX priest are given in Devillers, Arnaud (Summer 2002). "A response to Christopher Ferrara". The Latin Mass. Ramsey, NJ: Keep the Faith. ISSN 1064-556X. Archived from the original on 2004-04-14. 
  2. ^ SSPX clergy and adherents "who take positions regarding both the authority of the Pope, and the validity of the Mass and other sacraments when celebrated according to the post-conciliar liturgical books, which essentially put these individuals in a state of schism."[1]
  3. ^ The PCED reaffirmed various statements in 2003.[11]
  4. ^ The 12 organizations which are "incompatible with the Catholic Faith" that Bruskewitz named include the SSPX, Planned Parenthood, Hemlock Society, Call to Action, Catholics for a Free Choice, and masonic organizations.[16]
  5. ^ Bishop Chandler Holder Jones of the Anglican Province of America, wrote that the SSPX, "now appears to be, by the description of its Superior General Bishop Fellay, Old Catholic. That is, its position is precisely analogous to the status of the Old Catholic Church of the Netherlands, [...] as it has refused definitively to accept the ordinary magisterial authority of the modern papacy."[24][better source needed]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g Caridi, Cathy (2011-10-05). "Canon Law and the SSPX". Rome: Cathy Caridi. Archived from the original on 2012-11-16. Retrieved 2015-09-21. 
  2. ^ a b c d e Pope Benedict XVI (2009-03-10). "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". Archived from the original on 2015-01-09. 
  3. ^ a b c d e Pope John Paul II (1988-07-02). "Ecclesia Dei". Archived from the original on 2015-01-29. 
  4. ^ Ratzinger, Joseph; Lefebvre, Marcel (1988-05-05). "Protocol of agreement between the Holy See and the Priestly Society of Saint Pius X". Archived from the original on 1999-08-19.  Unofficial English translation of French original.
  5. ^ Lefebvre, Marcel (1988-06-30). "The sermon of His Excellency Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre on the occasion of the episcopal consecration [...]". Singapore: Society of Saint Pius X, District of Asia. Archived from the original on February 4, 2011. 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. 
  6. ^ "[Profile of the] Pontifical Council Ecclesia Dei". 1996-05-20. 
  7. ^ a b c Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Legislative Texts (1996-08-24). "The Excommunication of Followers of Archbishop Lefebvre". Translation and commentary by Canon Law Society of Great Britain and Ireland. Archived from the original on 2015-09-19. Retrieved 2015-09-19. 
  8. ^ Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei (1999-09-28). "N. 539/99". (letter of response to personal questions). Archived from the original on 2009-06-21. 
  9. ^ a b Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei (1998-10-27). "N. 343/98". (letter of response to personal questions). Irondale, AL: Eternal Word Television Network. Archived from the original on 2000-05-28. 
  10. ^ Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei (1995-09-29). "N. 117/95". (letter of response to personal questions). Irondale, AL: Eternal Word Television Network. Archived from the original on 2000-03-06. 
  11. ^ Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei (2003-01-18). "Letter by Msgr. Camille Perl regarding Society of St. Pius X Masses". (letter of response to personal questions). Archived from the original on 2003-02-02.  This does not provide the protocol number used to authenticate documents.
  12. ^ Castrillón Hoyos, Darío (2005). "Rapprochement by unhasty stages, but not too slow either". Interview with Gianni Cardinale. Rome. Archived from the original on 2006-02-13. 
  13. ^ Castrillón Hoyos, Darío (2006-01-27). "They are within the Church". Translation by unknown of Italian television interview. Archived from the original on 2006-02-12. 
  14. ^ Castrillón Hoyos, Darío (2007-02-08). "The President of the Ecclesia Dei Commission, Cardinal Hoyos hopes for reconciliation with the Society of St Pius X". Translation by unknown of German interview. Archived from the original on 2007-02-14. 
  15. ^ "Honolulu diocese and the "Hawaii six"". Society of St. Pius X. Archived from the original on 2004-05-02. Retrieved 2009-05-17. 
  16. ^ a b Thorburn, Timothy (1996-03-19). "Extra synodal legislation: Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz". Archived from the original on 2000-05-16. 
  17. ^ Hansen, S. L. (2006-12-08). "Vatican affirms excommunication of Call to Action members in Lincoln". Catholic News Service. Retrieved 2009-05-17. 
  18. ^ "Bishop forbids attendance at SSPX services". London. 2014-11-03. 
  19. ^ Cf. Code of Canon Law, canon 107 and canon 65
  20. ^ Code of Canon Law, canon 966
  21. ^ Code of Canon Law, canon 969
  22. ^ Code of Canon Law, canon 1108
  23. ^ Angles, Ramon. "The validity of confessions & marriages in the chapels of the SSPX". Archived from the original on 2011-10-18. 
  24. ^ Jones, Chandler Holder (2013-01-11). "SSPX". Archived from the original on 2015-09-20. 
  25. ^ "S.S.P.X. Jurisdiction for Confession and Matrimony". [s.l.]: [s.n.] Archived from the original on 2013-12-12.   This tertiary source reuses information from other sources without citing them in detail.
  26. ^ Mershon, Brian (2008-07-11). "PCED confirms officially: Society of St. Pius X within the Church, not in formal schism; Catholics commit no sin nor incur any canonical penalty for Mass attendance". Archived from the original on 2010-07-30. 
  27. ^ McNamara, Edward (2011-06-21). "Mass with the Society of St Pius X". New York: Innovative Media. Archived from the original on 2011-06-25. 
  28. ^ a b Pope Francis (2015-09-01). "To my venerable brother Archbishop Rino Fisichella President of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization". Archived from the original on 2015-09-07. [...] through my own disposition, I establish that [...] 
  29. ^
  30. ^ Neville, Robert L. (1997-12-17). Written at Richmond, MI. "Letter to Bishop Bernard Fellay". West Chester OH: St. Gertrude the Great Church. Archived from the original on 2005-03-13. 
  31. ^ "Is the Society of St. Pius X in schism?". Archived from the original on 1999-10-14. 
  32. ^ a b "Catholic Bishops' Conference statement on lifting of excommunications of SSPX Bishops". (Press release). Catholic Communications Network. 2009-01-27. Archived from the original on 2009-01-31. Retrieved 2009-05-17.