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Anti-SSPX Critics do not Follow the Holy See

Above: Archbishop Lefebvre greeted in Veldhoven after celebrating a Latin Mass in 1981.

Editor’s note: as previously stated, we publish now Mr. Cassman’s reply to Mr. Bartel’s debrief of their debate, which will be the final installment in our SSPX debate series. Editor’s remarks and an official editorial statement will follow reflecting on the year’s debate at OnePeterFive. – TSF


For forty years, enemies of Tradition have advanced a canonical claim of schism against the Bishops and Priests of the Society of Saint Pius X and the faithful who support them.

However, the pontificate of Pope Francis has frustrated these canonical claims; the Holy Father has granted the Superior General of the Society the permission to ordain priests, named Bishop Fellay a canonical minister of the second instance, granted global faculties for hearing confessions and ordered the bishops of the world to witness marriages in SSPX chapels (or otherwise delegate faculties, as most have done).

Consequently, the criticism of the Society has shifted from canonical to moral grounds. On the one hand, friends of Tradition and supporters of the work of the saintly Archbishop Lefebvre have reason to rejoice; the shifting strategies seem an implicit acknowledgement that the four-decade long campaign against the SSPX has been definitively resolved.

Roma locuta; causa finita est.

On the other hand, the newly employed arguments still seem designed to smear the priests of the SSPX, and perhaps even the faithful who attend their liturgies, and to scare away those Catholics who might otherwise be drawn to the beauty of the traditional Latin mass and doctrinal orthodoxy of the SSPX.

The new argument, advanced by my debate opponent, Andrew Bartel, is essentially this: the SSPX is guilty of schism, even if it is not strictly speaking a canonical schism. Their history of schismatic acts means they are dangerous.

It follows, of course, that if they are guilty of schism, no Catholic may approach them for the Sacraments. (I do not believe Andrew has said this explicitly, but any Catholic would agree that we cannot worship with, or be in communion with, schismatics.) That the Vatican has repeatedly said Catholics may attend Masses and receive Sacraments from the priests of the SSPX should be sufficient to resolve the matter once and for all.

And yet…

Andrew claims that the SSPX refuses “submission to the Pope in faith, worship and governance”, although the opposite is clearly true. Did Bishop Fellay, as Superior General, refuse submission to Pope Francis in 2017 when he asked him to institute a process to recognize marriages in Society chapels? Is a son pleading with a father for help, and gratefully accepting that help, the kind of conduct that now constitutes a refusal of submission?

When the Holy Father ordered the bishops of the world to cooperate with priests of the SSPX so that marriages in Society chapels would be indisputably both licit and valid, did the Society reject these new canonical procedures, as a schismatic would? When the priests of the SSPX work with the Vicars General in hundreds of dioceses around the world to get faculties for marriages in their chapels, does that represent a refusal of submission to the Pope’s governance?

When the Superior General and the three bishops of the SSPX announced their eagerness to join the Holy Father in the consecration of Russia, does this constitute a refusal of submission in faith?

Andrew also claims that the continuing ministry of the Sacraments by the priests of the SSPX represents ongoing acts of disobedience, but this is objectively false; how can a priest who has been given faculties directly by the Holy Father be ‘suspended’ when the very nature of a canonical suspension is the withdrawal of faculties?

My debate opponent claims the yearly ordinations of men to the priesthood by the bishops of the SSPX are ‘illicit,’ even though Bishop Fellay announced to the world in 2015 that the Holy Father had, in fact, given his permission for those ordinations. How could an act be illegal when permission to do that act has been granted from the supreme lawgiver in the Church?

Who is it, really, that is guilty of refusing to accept the authority of the Holy Father in these matters? 

Like many critics of the SSPX, Andrew claims the SSPX is guilty of the “rejection of an ecumenical council.” And yet, the SSPX neither denies that the council was ecumenical nor that the pope who called it had the right to do so. In fact, the founder of the Society, Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, was himself a participant in the council and even signed the conciliar documents!

The truth about the Society’s position on the Second Vatican Council is that they have expressed reservations regarding the novel ideas about religious liberty, ecumenism, and collegiality. Priests of the Society advise that, given the confusion about what the Council taught, the faithful are better served to cling to the traditional doctrines of the Church.

In a time of confusion, how could repeating St. Paul’s instruction[1] even be considered controversial?

In fact, the Council itself does not claim to have promulgated any new dogmas requiring the assent of faith, nor does it anathematize anyone who refuses to submit to the pastoral provisions of the council.

Further, the willingness of the Church under the pontificates of Pope John Paul II and Benedict XVI to engage in doctrinal discussions with the SSPX via the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith[2] proves both that questions about the novelties of the council are permissible, and that the priests of the SSPX are Catholic (since dialogue with schismatics would be conducted by the Dicastery for Promoting Christian Unity).

In fact, as Maike Hickson shows (here and here), it was the SSPX’s licit position of reservation to Vatican II that was officially allowed by the Holy See as a legitimate view for Catholics to hold, leading to the lifting of the SSPX excommunications (implicitly reversing the reasoning contained in John Paul II’s Ecclesia Dei Adflicta).[3]

Interestingly, Pope Francis has decided that it is no longer necessary even to hold these doctrinal discussions. If the Holy Father does not see the Society’s reservations about the novelties of the Council as meriting the judgment of the Vatican, and if we recall that Vatican I taught infallibly that it is the role of the papacy to guard and protect the Faith, how then does a critic of the Society conclude that having reservations about such novelties involves sin, let alone schism?[4]

Is it possible that those who usurp the authority unique to the Vicar of Christ and gaslight faithful  Catholics are themselves risking schism by refusing submission to the successor of Saint Peter in these matters?

In his article and in his interviews with other opponents of the SSPX, Andrew has made much of my decision not to answer each and every one of his assertions in the debate. I would point out that first, it was his duty to prove his argument. Seeing that he was failing to do so, I did not see the need to run after every stray argument, but to stick to the central question of schism.

Additionally, Andrew’s argument seems, on occasion, to rely on paraphrasing anonymous priests who are alleged to have said this or that. A debate participant cannot possibly engage on such claims. Who is the priest? What did he really say? What was the context? Does this priest accurately represent the position of the SSPX? With no way to conclude anything with certitude, the debate enters the realm of gossip and conjecture. Such tactics do not merit a reply when there is so little time and so many topics of substance to discuss.

Andrew also insinuates that by offering Mass, witnessing marriages and hearing confessions, the priests of the SSPX are engaged in acts which are, by their essence, evil. He writes, “the ends never justify the means.”

Of course, what the Church teaches is that evil means are never justified, no matter how good the intention. It seems Andrew grants that the Church’s highest law (the good of souls) is the intention, but how is it possible that the Sacraments instituted by Christ for the salvation of men could themselves be evil? How could Sacraments offered by Catholic priests, with permission from the Vicar of Christ, be evil means?

This deeply problematic theological and ecclesiological quandary demonstrates the moral hazards involved when laymen who lack the training and authority to judge the consciences of priests do so anyway, and in a public forum.

In his written conclusion, Andrew asks you to answer two questions.  First, he asks whether I have proven his arguments wrong or fallacious. Secondly, he asks whether through my engagement or lack thereof on certain questions, I have ceded the argument.

These are the wrong questions, of course. 

It was Andrew’s job, arguing the affirmative, to prove the SSPX is in schism. The Editor of OnePeterFive has now graciously given him another opportunity to prove his argument. You alone will decide whether he has won the argument, but you must agree it is not my job to argue in the style he desires of me, to advance the arguments he wishes to confront or to employ what little time I’m afforded to chase every red herring.

I say this not to defend my own performance, which undoubtedly could be improved, but to remind you that the defense of Tradition will not be victorious if we fall prey to rhetorical tricks or to the temptation to answer every possible accusation, regardless of merit.

Neither will we prevail in our defense of Tradition if we fear ad hominems, ridicule, doxxing, discrimination, defamation or ecclesiastical cancel culture. Yes, sometimes the enemies of Tradition will employ these methods to frighten those contemplating an entrance into apologetics – perhaps that is you – in an effort to dissuade you from contributing to the defense of our liturgy and faith.

Instead, we must set aside fear altogether and consider the reasonable man and woman of good will in their search for truth.  They may watch a YouTube debate, read articles here at OnePeterFive or reflect on social media posts.  They will likely talk to family and friends and seek out priests who have a reputation for wisdom and orthodoxy.

I trust they, like you, will conclude for themselves, with the aid of the Holy Ghost, that adherence to the liturgy and faith of twenty centuries of our ancestors is not a canonical or moral crime.

God, in His infinite wisdom, has seen fit to place you and me in this time and place, not to hide behind the keyboard, not to shrink from embarrassing scandals of our time or retreat from public defense of the Church, but to embrace this difficult, awkward struggle against wayward clerics and presumptuous laity who would decree you and your ancestors guilty of sin, heresy or schism for emulating centuries of Saints.

Do not fear. Do not flee the struggle. Do not complain. Do your duty, with joy.


[1] “But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach a gospel to you besides that which we have preached to you, let him be anathema” (Galatians, 1:8).

[2] For a basic introduction to this, see the wikipedia article.

[3] “I should like to remind theologians and other experts in the ecclesiastical sciences that they should feel themselves called upon to answer in the present circumstances. Indeed, the extent and depth of the teaching of the Second Vatican Council call for a renewed commitment to deeper study in order to reveal clearly the Council’s continuity with Tradition, especially in points of doctrine which, perhaps because they are new, have not yet been well understood by some sections of the Church” John Paul II, Ecclesia Dei Adflicta (1988), 5.

[4] “And since before all others she has the duty of defending the truth of the faith, so if any questions arise concerning the faith, it is by her judgment that they must be settled” Pastor Aeternus, ch 4, part 2.

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