On Monday, news spread quickly that Pope Francis is granting priests of the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX) faculties to hear confessions during the upcoming Year of Mercy. Unfortunately, some misinformation about the SSPX was distributed along with the good news. Although I am in no way affiliated with the society, I have studied their situation, and I’d like to take a moment to set the record straight on some unclear and factually incorrect statements made in a ChurchMilitant.com piece by Peter O’Dwyer.
CLAIM: “The SSPX bishops do not have jurisdiction and are not in full communion, so the priests of the SSPX have never been able to absolve sins in confession”
Generally speaking, the principles outlined in the article are true. Bishops with jurisdiction have to grant canonical faculties to priests in order for absolutions they grant to be valid.
However, in the past, the Vatican has not always acted toward the SSPX as if this were the case. For example, whenever an SSPX priest illicitly hears a confession that touches on one of the sins reserved to the Holy See, the SSPX forwards the proper paperwork to the Holy See to obtain permission to absolve and guidance on what penance should be administered.
Every time the SSPX has done this in the past, the Vatican said that all was “good and licit”, and treated the administration of that sacrament as it would with any priest in good standing.
We thus know that, at least in these limited cases, the Vatican has acknowledged certain absolutions granted by SSPX priests are valid.
Also of note: the Orthodox churches are not in full communion with Rome, but have jurisdiction and therefore valid confessions. So not being in “full communion” has no bearing on whether or not a group’s confessions are valid. It is specifically jurisdiction that does.
CLAIM: “the group was canonically dissolved in the 1970s”
It is true that the Vatican withdrew approval for the SSPX in the 1970s. But it is not true that the approval was withdrawn in a canonical manner.
In 1975, Rome sent an Apostolic Visitation to the sole SSPX seminary. All reports indicate that the visitors did not find anything amiss at the seminary, although documentation of the visit has never been released. The visit, however, prompted Archbishop LeFebvre to write a declaration to members of the SSPX. This declaration was used as the sole justification for closing down the seminary.
Given that the justification for shutting down the SSPX was insubstantial, Archbishop LeFebvre appealed his case to the Apostolic Signatura, as was his right in canon law. He received no response whatsoever. His appeal was not rejected; it was simply never heard, or even acknowledged. This can hardly be considered canonical.
CLAIM: Pope Francis’ decision is an “unprecedented act of ecumenism from the Holy Father”
While this act of Pope Francis’ is unprecedented, it is not an act of ecumenism. Ecumenism describes those relationships developed between the Catholic Church and non-Catholic Christian religions. The members of the SSPX are Catholic, and have never been declared to be otherwise.
Cardinal Edward Cassidy, President of the Pontifical Council for Christian unity, perhaps put it best in a 3 May 1994 letter:
“… Regarding your inquiry (March 25, 1994) I would point out at once that the Directory on Ecumenism is not concerned with the Society of St. Pius X. The situation of the members of this Society is an internal matter of the Catholic Church. The Society is not another Church or Ecclesial Community in the meaning used in the Directory. Of course the Mass and Sacraments administered by the priests of the Society are valid. The Bishops are validly, but not lawfully, consecrated…. I hope this answers your letter satisfactorily.”
CLAIM: “Previously, when asked to sign a doctrinal preamble, the current head of the SSPX, Bp. Bernard Fellay, balked.”
While this claim is factually true, this bare sentence omits some important context. Bishop Fellay balked only because the Vatican, at the last minute, added new conditions to the preamble after previously negotiated, mutually acceptable conditions had already been agreed upon. If those conditions — which at some points completely contradicted the previously agreed-to-in-principle preamble — had not been added at the last minute, the SSPX might already have been integrated into full communion with Rome.
The status of the SSPX derives from certain very technical conditions which are entirely unique to their situation. There are, to my knowledge, no other groups that are described as being in “imperfect communion” or having “no canonical status” while simultaneously being considered “an internal matter of the Catholic Church” or to whom the pope would grant valid and licit status (even if only for a time) to their sacraments. While distinctions such as those I’ve made here can appear pedantic, they are the very technicalities upon which the Society’s irregular status is based. Attention to these details is of paramount importance for those wishing to fully understand this issue.
Patrick Hawkins is the founder of Sermonry, a place to study Mass propers. He writes from Michigan.