Unless I attended some as an infant or toddler that I don’t recall (I was born in 1967), I’ve only been to one Traditional Latin Mass in my life, as I described here. I wish I could attend the Latin Mass regularly as well as introduce my wife to it. She converted to Catholicism about 20 years ago in a Japanese diocese that probably hasn’t had a Latin Mass in decades, so the Novus Ordo is all she knows.
We live in the northern Japanese city of Hakodate, though, which means the nearest Latin Mass for us is in Tokyo, more than 500 miles away. That Mass is offered by the Society of St. Pius X, which has been active in Japan for nearly 30 years and opened its first priory in the country just over one year ago.
Until rather recently, I didn’t know much about the SSPX. I’d heard of them, of course, but only in bits and pieces, and the little that I’d read about them didn’t sound good. They don’t have “regular canonical status” or exercise legitimate ministry; their founder was excommunicated for grossly disobeying the Pope; they’re just a bunch of schismatics or even sedevacantists. Perhaps basically good and well-meaning people, I figured, but too far “out there” for the average faithful Catholic.
That’s what I thought, but not anymore. I’m starting to wonder if the SSPX is what the Church needs, given the entrance of the “Smoke of Satan” into the Church since Vatican II and the all-out ramping-up since last year of the decades-long assault on traditional Catholicism.
What has gotten me thinking more positively about the SSPX recently? I’ve begun to hear them out. I’ve started taking the time, especially against the backdrop of a Church clearly in ongoing and even worsening modernist crisis, to see what they have to offer. I’d already heard the entire anti-SSPX narrative – now, I finally thought, it was time to hear their side of the story.
So I began reading the SSPX’s website entries; watching their podcasts; and learning about the life and theological views of SSPX founder Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, whom I now know was anything but an off-the-rails Pope-defying schismatic.
I’m not sure exactly what led me to start seeing the SSPX in a more favorable light; I do remember reading about Pope Francis granting SSPX priests full faculties to hear confessions during the Jubilee Year of Mercy starting in December 2015, even when there is no imminent danger of death – a decision that he extended beyond that year and is still in place. That was one thing.
I’d also heard that in many countries – including here in Japan, despite efforts by the “official Church” to steer the faithful away – the SSPX were still fully ministering to the faithful while so many “regular” Catholic dioceses were shutting down Mass and the other sacraments due to COVID fears.
That mattered a great deal to me. The SSPX wasn’t treating the faithful like lepers or health hazards, as most of the “mainstream Church” was – even in countries where the government (as here in Japan) didn’t order houses-of-worship closures. Fear of COVID has almost become on a societal level a mandatory emotion, one that gained force via government mandates, and yet in at least many places the SSPX seemed to be prioritizing the work of God over the dictates of man.
The biggest sticking point people seem to have with the SSPX, of course, is the consecration of four bishops by Archbishop Lefebvre in 1988 without the approval of Pope John Paul II. In carrying out the Écône consecrations, as this event is commonly known, Archbishop Lefebvre was acting as a wild man, making up his own rules while thumbing his nose at a now-canonized pope and deliberately engaging in a schismatic act. Thus, he and the four men he named as bishops were declared excommunicated latae sententiae, or by the very act – and justifiably so. Or were they?
The more I read about the Écône consecrations and give a fair hearing to the SSPX’s side of the story – explained here by one of the four bishops consecrated that day, Bernard Fellay – the more I’m at least beginning to understand why Lefebvre carried them out. Far from being an ecclesiastical renegade, he seems to me now a man of deep faith who did what he felt he had to do for the survival of traditional Catholicism and, fulfilling the highest law of the Church (Code of Canon Law, Can. 1752), for the salvation of souls.
At least in a way, Lefebvre sort of reminds me (a long-time resident of Japan) of 19th-century samurai leader Saigo Takamori, who saw his 1877 Satsuma Rebellion against the new Japanese government not as an uprising against the Emperor Meiji but actually in service to him – given the harmful direction in which Saigo and others believed the country was being taken by “new ideas” at the expense of its traditional culture. (Sound familiar?)
While canon law prohibits the consecration of bishops without papal approval (Can. 1013), it also states that no penalties apply to one who is acting (Can. 1323.4) or who even genuinely thinks he is acting (Can. 1323.7) out of necessity – and Lefebvre saw the survival of his Society, which required bishops to ordain priests after Lefebvre’s death, as necessary.
When seen in this light and in conjunction with Can. 1752, I can understand the argument that Archbishop Lefebvre and the four bishops he consecrated did not commit an act warranting excommunication – a view seemingly affirmed by the Church in 2009 when Pope Benedict XVI lifted the excommunications against all four bishops. It stands to reason that Lefebvre, who died in 1991, would have had his sanction lifted as well, given that it involved the commission of the same act.
One striking aspect about the lifting of the SSPX excommunications is the language used in the Vatican decree announcing it. Authored by Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re in Pope Benedict XVI’s name, this document formalized the remission of the excommunications “incurred by Bishops Bernard Fellay, Bernard Tissier de Mallerais, Richard Williamson and Alfonso de Galarreta” (emphasis added). This seems to imply, if not outright state, that not only were the excommunications lifted, but that the episcopal consecrations were being legitimized. It’s hard to still regard the Écône consecrations, therefore, as illegitimate and certainly not as schismatic.
As such, there seem to be “no weighty reasons,” in the words of Bishop Athanasius Schneider, to see the SSPX as anything less than a society of “full-on” Catholic priests. All of them can trace their priesthoods back, at least indirectly if not directly, to one of the four men identified as “bishops” in Cardinal Re’s 2009 decree – if not to Marcel Lefebvre himself, who was undoubtedly a bishop.
What’s more, are the SSPX’s clergymen “real priests” only in the confessional, per Pope Francis’ Year of Mercy decree, but then cease being so when they step outside of it? It’s an “absurdity” to think so, at least according to Bishop Schneider, and how can one logically dismiss his point?
Truth be told, if an SSPX chapel or priory – the Society doesn’t call them “parishes,” I’ve come to learn, as they respect the authority of local bishops and would not use that designation without their say-so – were to be opened near where I live, I would seriously consider attending Masses there. “Regular canonical status” to me smacks of not much more than petty Church politics, something with which man and not Christ has corrupted the Church. My “job,” so to speak, as a Catholic layman is not to sink myself too deeply into such politics, but to effect the salvation of my soul and help whoever else I can (starting with my wife) to do the same.
So why wouldn’t I give the SSPX a look? After all, they must be doing something right; their seminaries are brimming with a healthy number of future priests, and they’re growing by leaps and bounds in at least a few places, such as the traditionally heavily Catholic land of Poland.
Also, consider the commitment to Catholic teaching by the SSPX faithful compared to their Novus Ordo counterparts. SSPX priest Fr. John McFarland explains beginning at the 5:30 mark in this video: the list of Catholic beliefs and teachings rejected by large numbers within the latter group is a mile long. In contrast, almost no one who attends Traditional Latin Masses denies any of these fundamental aspects of Catholicism.
As for Vatican II, who is really more unfaithful to it – the SSPX, or Novus Ordo communities? The SSPX, if I were to put a positive pro-Society spin on it, seems tolerantly silent on most of the Council’s statements while taking exception (albeit quite vociferously) to but a few of them.
The Novus Ordo communities, however, have wreaked all sorts of havoc and damage on the Church – liturgically, doctrinally, and even morally – by appealing to a bogus “spirit of Vatican II” to enact numerous “reforms” that the Council never permitted or ordered.
Which is worse – the SSPX’s treatment of Vatican II, which can arguably be seen as polite disregard, or the “canonically regular” Church’s hijacking and misapplication of it? I’d say the latter is, and much more so.
So, when it comes to all that’s wrong in the Church today, the “canonically irregular” SSPX is not the problem – so why are they treated as if they are?
Why are the likes of Fr. Michael Pfleger, who held this sorry excuse for a Christmas Eve “Mass” in Chicago, seen as “priests in good standing” while SSPX priests are not? Why is a good and holy SSPX priest such as Fr. Thomas Onoda here in Japan considered an ecclesiastical outcast, while Fr. James Martin is allowed to prance around advancing homosexuality and Fr. Pat Conroy cheerleads for legalized abortion without being sanctioned by their Jesuit superiors (surprise, surprise) or anyone else in the Church?
And let’s not get started on what “Catholics in good standing” are up to in Germany – people who are still seen as “exercising legitimate ministry” in the Church while the SSPX, the “bureaucracy” tells us, are not.
Why am I supposed to think that attending SSPX Masses would be detrimental to my soul – when going to “regular Masses” runs every risk of exposing us to a doctrinal and moral train wreck?
What happens when a regular SSPX Mass-goer dies and stands before the judgment of God? I wonder if He says this to him or her:
“You chose to attend solemn, sacred, completely reverent Masses at an SSPX chapel instead of the ‘faith community’ down the road with their ‘liturgical dancing,’ comedy-show homilies, flimsy catechesis, and high percentages of people who blatantly deny major Church teachings. But because the SSPX priests don’t have ‘formal canonical status’ while the ‘faith community’ priests do, I’m not sure that I should let you into Heaven.”
I’m not one to speak for God, of course, but I seriously doubt He would say that.
Again, I live nowhere near any Latin Mass community, including an SSPX one. So barring the unlikely event of my relocating to Tokyo, or to an area in the States where a Latin Mass is offered, I’ll have to settle for admiring the Society – and for “attending” the Latin Mass at least in spirit if not physically – from afar.
If God wants me to live near an existing SSPX chapel, or to have a new one opened near me, it will happen. His will be done.
Ken Foye is an American Catholic living abroad, teaching English writing, reading, presentation, discussion, and conversation classes at a four-year university in northern Japan. He is an Oblate of St. Benedict and is married to a Japanese convert to Catholicism. Among his academic research interests is the inclusion of faith and religion discussions in the English language classroom.