More Catholic than the Pope: SSPX Edition
In the history of the Church, there have always been men and women who have claimed to be more informed than the Pope. In this series entitled More Catholic than the Pope, we are going to speak about these movements and why they fail. This edition is dedicated to the Society of Saint Pius X (SSPX).
To begin, here is a basic crash course on the Society of St. Pius X (if you know the story, skip ahead):
- The Priestly Fraternity of St. Pius X began under the leadership of Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre in November of 1970 in response to the whirlwind of changes brought about in the wake of the Second Vatican Council. They wished to hold true to the tradition of the Church, especially in her Liturgical practices.
- The Society began from there to slowly separate itself from the Roman Catholic Church, including going above the local Bishop and right to the Vatican to seek approval for their society. This did not recognize the proper channels one must go through to seek approval, and it was intended this way.
- After an official canonical visitation in 1974, after the Vatican got word of the possible error of the Society, Lefebvre released a “declaration” concerning the apparent “liberal” trends presently seen in the Church and the errors that he found in the writings of the Second Vatican Council documents. This was Lefebvre’s equivalent of Luther’s 95 theses, which has become a cornerstone for Protestantism.
- In 1975, the Bishop of Fribourg, Monsignor Pierre Mamie, whose predecessor had given the SSPX “Pia Unio” status (the first stage through which a Catholic organization passed prior to gaining official recognition as a religious institute or society of apostolic life), wrote to Rome to withdraw this the Pia Unio status. It was approved, and from that point forward, the SSPX was no longer recognized as an association within the Catholic Church. The SSPX continued to work as if nothing had occurred.
- On May 24th,1976, while in the Consistory, Pope Paul VI rebuked Archbishop Lefebvre by name. The was supposedly the first time in 200 years that a Pope had publicly called out a Catholic bishop. Paul VI urged Lefebvre and his followers to change their minds, sadly to no avail.
- Lefebvre further distanced himself from Rome in June 1976 when in complete disobedience to orders from Rome, he performed priestly ordination. This landed him into being automatically suspended from conferring ordination and the priests he ordained from being able to exercise their ordination for one year. Again, this did not stop him.
- After this, Cardinal Sebastiano Baggio, Prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, reached out to Lefebvre on behalf of Rome, advising that if he did not attempt to repair the scandal he caused, that he would incur further penalties.
- On July 17th, 1976, Lefebvre wrote a letter telling the Pope that he felt his actions were legitimate and so on July 22nd, 1976, Lefebvre found himself suspended indefinitely from all exercise of Holy Orders.
- The wayward Bishop Lefebvre continued his rampage of schism, and continued to perform Liturgical and Sacramental rites in direct disobedience to the Holy Father.
- After being reached out to by the then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger and Pope John Paul II, advising him of the consequences of his intended actions, Bishop Lefebvre on June 30th, 1988, conferred illicit and invalid Episcopal ordination(Under canons 1013 and 1382 of the Catholic Code of Canon Law, to ordain someone a Bishop requires Papal approval), making four priests Bishops for the SSPX.
- The following day, the Congregation of Bishops, in union with the Holy Father, conferred automatic excommunication upon Lefebvre and on the Bishops he ordained.
- This did not stop them. They continued business as usual in opposition to the Pope, as they felt that he was not acting properly as a Bishop.
- In January 2009, the Holy See removed the excommunication she conferred upon the four Bishops, in hopes that they would come back to full communion with the Holy Father and the Catholic Church. The Church however, did not grant them canonical status and so the SSPX is disallowed from performing any ministry within the Church.
Which brings us to today. In September 2011, discussions began with the SSPX to seek to reach an agreement; to bring them back to the fold. The Holy See recently offered them a “Doctrinal Preamble”, which advised them of the things they need to adhere to in order to be reunited with Rome. Bishop Fellay, one of the four Bishops ordained in 1988, and the official SSPX spokesman was optimistic, however in leaked documents, the world soon saw that the Society found the Preamble to be unacceptable. From interviews people had with him, it seemed that Fellay was headed in the right direction, but it appears that something turned. It appears the Spirit of Lefebvre has yet to be expelled from the Society, and the Society has stated that in order to agree to come back into full communion with Rome, that the Vatican must agree to the following conditions (thanks to Vatican Insider for this information):
1. “The freedom to preserve, share and teach the sound doctrine of the constant Magisterium of the Church and the unchanging truth of the divine tradition and the freedom to accuse and even to correct the promoters of the errors or the innovations of modernism, liberalism, and Vatican II and its aftermath.”
2. The exclusive use of the Liturgy of 1962. The retention of the sacramental practice that we currently maintain (including: orders, confirmation, and marriage).
They also requested “the possibility of having a separate ecclesiastical court of the first instance; the exemption of the houses of the Society of St. Pius X from the diocesan bishops and a Pontifical Commission for the tradition of Rome, which depends directly from the Pope, with the majority of the members and the president in favour of tradition.”
Herein lies the issue:
The Pope has reached out his hand after the Society, under Lefebvre, spat in his face, and removed the excommunication that they justly incurred and then has made every effort possible to unite them with the Church. Let it be said that our Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, is a Pope of unity. He has, during his papacy, effectively united the faithful Anglicans back with the Church, giving them their own Ordinariate, and though it has been a little rocky for them, things have been going well for them. Protestants have come back to the Church. This is awesome. The Pope also restored the ancient Liturgy, and ensured that any priest who wishes to say the Mass of 1962 should be free, and not hindered in any way through a document known as the Motu Proprio. So we see the Pope is taking active steps to restore the Sacred. The Pope has prepared a place for the SSPX to come home to, where they can feel they can be free to perform the Mass the way they desire. Everything has been done which the Catholic Church can do. The Church will not retract the statements made during an Ecumenical Council.
Now, let us examine the SSPX. They have claimed to be Catholic from the get-go, however at every turn they’ve had their own conditions and demands to which the Church has to comply to. The Church in 2,000 years only complies with one thing, the Holy Spirit’s guidance. We as Catholics may have issues with certain things that the people in the Church do, including Bishops and even Cardinals, and maybe even God-forbid, the Pope. Yes, all of them are human, and none of them are impeccable, however the Pope when speaking on faith and morals in an “ex cathedra” statement is infallible. We believe this as Catholics because it is a dogma of the Church and Sacred Scripture supports this. We also believe that the Bishops, in union with the Pope, have the authority to bind and loose just as the Apostles did. So, when Vatican II came around, the Church, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, was able to reevaluate certain things, including her understanding of things such as Religious Liberty and Ecumenism. The Church’s understanding did not change on these matters during the Council, but instead grew, expanded, if you will. It’s understanding broadened. Now, have liberties been taken incorrectly under the banner of the “Spirit of Vatican II”? You better believe it. Too many liberties.
The Church, especially at her heart, understands that these abuses have occurred, however they are not the fault of the Council, but due to a lack of fidelity in the hearts of the leaders of the church across the globe. The problem is, Lefebvre and his successors were seduced by the very same spirit that seduced the liberal catholics of his time—both were plagued with an unfaithful heart. This is not a judgment on my part. Our blessed Lord told us that “You will know them by their fruits”. Both parties instead of seeking the unity of the faithful, have sought their own wills. This type of spirituality is antithetical to what it means to be Catholic and a true Christian. The Saints exemplify this point. The SSPX refuse to be united, to assent to the Holy See’s legitimate authority. They demand the Pope submit to them. This is direct disobedience to Christ, to the Church which he established. It breaks from our Blessed Lord’s prayer that the Church may be “one” (John 17). This is Protestantism at its finest. Though it looks in many ways like traditional Catholicism, we see now that it is a grand masquerade. What do we do with this?
Firstly we pray and make sacrifices for the unity of the Church. We pray for the conversion of heart of the members of the SSPX, as well as all schismatics. Perhaps reach out to them via a letter, expressing our desire to see them come back. It did not hurt for St. Catherine of Siena to write letters, so maybe we should. I will include an address to Bishop Bernard Fellay’s residence below and provide a link for what I am writing to him here. Please share your ideas as well as to how to better write this letter…but please also put it on paper, stamp it, and send your thoughts to him. Please remember to be charitable and prudent. The work of unity is not simply the Pope’s job, it is up to us to call people to full communion with Christ and the Church which He established on Peter and his successors.
So in conclusion, schism happens, but we know that this is not what the end product is meant to look like. So, let’s do our best to fix it while we can, before it is too late.
Bishop Bernard Fellay FSSPX
Priorat Mariae Verkundigung
Menzingen, ZG, CH-6313,