MUSINGS: Society of St. Pius X By Fr. Fran D. Villegas, Ph.D. cand
“Everyone should be aware that formal adherence to THE SCHISM is a grave offence against God and carries the penalty of excommunication decreed by the Church’s law.” (St. Pope John Paul II, Ecclesia Dei, 1988)
ST. POPE JOHN PAUL II called it “the schism” and not “a” schism. It’s definite. In other words, the Holy Father considered the SSPX to be really in schism. What Archbishop Lefebvre did (disobedience by ordaining bishops) constitutes a schismatic act (Apostolic Letter “Ecclesia Dei” # 5c, July 2, 1988).
During the time of POPE BENEDICT XVI a letter dated Dec. 17, 2007 was sent to Cardinal Hoyos asking the Pope to remove the excommunication of 4 bishops illicitly ordained by Archbishop Lefebvre in 1988. The letter was written by no less than Bishop Fellay, then Superior of SSPX, in behalf of the other 3 bishops.
As a gesture of mercy, Pope Benedict XVI removed the latae sententiae excommunication of the 4 bishops. But it should be noted that the said penalty refers only to specific persons, and not to the institution itself, the Society. The Supreme Pontiff said, “Here I return to the distinction between individuals and institutions. The remission of the excommunication was a measure taken in the field of ecclesiastical discipline: the individuals were freed from the burden of conscience constituted by the most serious of ecclesiastical penalties. This disciplinary level needs to be distinguished from the doctrinal level. The fact that the Society of Saint Pius X does not possess a canonical status in the Church is not, in the end, based on disciplinary but on doctrinal reasons. As long as the Society does not have a canonical status in the Church, its ministers do not exercise legitimate ministries in the Church. There needs to be a distinction, then, between the disciplinary level, which deals with individuals as such, and the doctrinal level, at which ministry and institution are involved. 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” (Pope Benedict XVI, Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church Concerning the Remission of the Excommunication for the Four Bishops Consecrated by Archbishop Lefebvre, 10 March 2009).
The 4 bishops are no longer under the penalty of excommunication. But the Society remains to have no canonical status in the Church. Its ministers do not exercise legitimate ministry in the Church.
They are also not in full communion with the Holy Catholic Church and with the Successor of St. Peter. But full communion is something we pray and hope for. “It is hoped that this step will be followed by the prompt attainment of full communion with the Church on the part of the whole Society of St Pius X, which will thus bear witness to its genuine fidelity and genuine recognition of the Magisterium and authority of the Pope by the proof of visible unity” (Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, former Prefect, Congregation for Bishops).
Then comes POPE FRANCIS in the scene. During the Year of Mercy, the Supreme Pontiff decided to grant all priests of the said Society the faculty to validly administer the Sacrament of Penance to the faithful, such as to ensure the validity and liceity of the Sacrament and “lest anyone ever be deprived of the sacramental sign of reconciliation through the Church’s pardon” ( Misericordia et Misera, n.12). After the Holy Year ended, the Holy Father extended that provision, again for the sake of the faithful.
Added to that, as part of the Church’s continuing initiative of reconciliation with the said Society, Pope Francis also allowed nuptial Mass that would be celebrated by SSPX priests provided that Catholic bishops appoint priests to assist at SSPX marriages and formally receive the consent of the couples. Also, the Holy Father gave bishops the option of granting SSPX priests the necessary faculties to officiate validly over the marriage rite “if there are no priests in the diocese” available to do so. The explicit permission of the bishop is necessary, not presumed.
These gestures of Pope Francis, continuing those of his predecessors, show the sincere efforts of the Church towards reconciliation that the Society be established in full communion with the Church. These actions also demonstrate to us the Holy Father’s pastoral solicitude.
Having said these, the truth remains: the Society of St. Pius X, though given by the Supreme Pontiff limited faculty in celebrating some sacraments validly, remains to be in an “objective persistence of the canonical irregularity” (Cardinal Müller, President, Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei, 24 March 2017). This will remain “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” (Pope Benedict XVI, Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church Concerning the Remission of the Excommunication for the Four Bishops Consecrated by Archbishop Lefebvre, 10 March 2009).
In spite of the indults granted by Pope Francis, for the benefit of the faithful, allowing SSPX priests to hear confessions and officiate weddings on certain conditions, the official status of the SSPX has not changed. They have no canonical status in the Church. Until the said Society gives up its doctrinal intransigence against Vatican II and the Novus Ordo Missae, no true reconciliation will be possible.