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Is the SSPX Schismatic? My Debate with Jeff Cassman

Editor’s note: in view of our editorial stance to unite the clans, we continue the SSPX debate series with a review of the recent debate by Mr. Bartel. This will be followed by a response by Mr. Cassman and another contribution to the general debate. As we noted in our update concerning the assertions of Mr. Salza, our editorial stance regarding the SSPX is according to the Vatican’s own stance and the principles enunciated by the current Magisterium: any Catholic can commune at an SSPX chapel with no sin whatsoever. Nevertheless we publish Mr. Bartel’s fraternal critique here as a means to sharpen the traditional movement by fielding criticisms of the SSPX, which also bear upon many current questions among Trads who are not affiliated with the SSPX.

Schism is not a nice subject. Debates are exciting and provoking. Internet malfunctions are always irritating. Mix these three together with a sprinkling of Australian accent, and you have the recipe for my debate with Jeff Cassman.

A debate is like boxing: you give blows and receive blows. It is even more like chess, since it is a complex and sophisticated struggle of ideas and emotions. Most people do not have the knowledge or background to be able to properly judge or even understand a debate, and they usually decide who won based on a gut-feeling, or by choosing whoever they wanted to win. They can’t really be blamed; the study of logic and rhetoric disappeared from schools long ago, and the rules of formal debate are known by few. Many people even think that debate is a waste of time, and honestly, if a mangled, messy, mad-bull Q&A session can be called a “presidential debate,” I would be inclined to agree with them.

However, debate is a time-honored tradition stretching back millennia, and when its rules are known by debaters and spectators alike, it is a critical and valuable tool for discerning truth and dispelling error. So let us review my debate with Jeff Cassman in light of these rules. First, a few preliminary remarks.

The resolution of the debate was “The Society of St. Pius X is Schismatic,” myself representing the affirmative and Jeff the negative. The debate took place live on Matt Fradd’s “Pints with Aquinas” YouTube channel, with Matt as our outstanding moderator. He was a gracious and competent host, and he was very patient when I encountered internet issues. This was my first public debate, and I am grateful to Matt for making it as pleasant an experience as possible.

Jeff is an experienced debater, and his performance was just what I hoped it would be. His delivery was smooth and well-executed, and I will readily admit that Jeff had an edge on me in this area. He also knows his subject well and came with a prepared case, although this actually worked against him as we shall see later. Jeff was also courteous and magnanimous for the entirety of the debate, and I would like to highly commend him for this.

Now let us begin. I made the first opening statement, since I was arguing the affirmative of the resolution and the burden of proof was on me. Here is a summary:

  • Schism is a sin before it is a crime, therefore the debate will be focused on the actions of Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre and of his bishops and priests, and the official positions taken by the SSPX as a collective body; the current canonical status of the SSPX is a closely related but separate issue. Schism is a canonico-moral problem; this debate is centered on its moral aspect, and the wording of the resolution was carefully chosen to indicate this. (This is not a non-starter, as some have claimed. Moral theology is objective, although it treats of subjective guilt. If you witness a public act of murder, theft, or defamation, you can know the perpetrator is murderer, thief, or liar before a court of law declares it to be so. The same applies to public acts of violence against the body of Christ, the Church, i.e, schismatic acts.)
  • To win the debate, I needed to show that the members of the SSPX, through their consistent actions as an official body over the last fifty years, have manifestly and publicly committed schismatic acts. To prevent this win, Jeff was required to show that the SSPX has never been guilty of schismatic acts, and if they have, to demonstrate that they have repented and renounced them.
  • I provided a basic overview of schism and its definition by the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, with further important elaborations by two recognized theologians (Journet and Cajetan). Finally, all of this was condensed into three simplified criteria by Fr. Ignatius Szal, which I then presented. This included the important distinction that the rejection of the pope’s authority to command is not necessary to constitute pure schism, which cuts off the SSPX’s primary line of defense (claiming they recognize the pope’s authority and are therefore not schismatic).
  • To conclude, I proceeded to list all of the well-known and documented schismatic acts of the SSPX over the last half a century that match these definitions and criteria, which include, but are not limited to: refusal of submission to the pope in faith, worship and governance, viz., repeated acts of disobedience such as continuing ministry of the sacraments in a state of suspension, illicit ordinations and episcopal consecrations, rejection of an ecumenical council, a universally promulgated missal, sacramental and liturgical rites, parts of the 1983 Code of Canon Law, canonizations, and most of the magisterial teaching and pastoral decisions of the last five popes. If this was not enough, they are also guilty of schism on the horizontal level, by refusal of communion with those under the pope, warning its adherents under pain of sin to avoid worshiping with other Catholics according to the reformed missal and receiving the reformed sacraments, and viewing their validity as suspect, even if theoretically valid. The SSPX even goes so far as to warn its adherents away from traditional communities offering the 1962 missal and sacraments, such as the FSSP and ICKSP, because of their acceptance of Vatican II, Novus Ordo Missae, etc. (Bear in mind that these actions are nearly identical to those historically condemned by the Church as schismatic, and that they have even been identified as such in multiple recent papal documents, such as the motu proprio Ecclesia Dei, and in the letters accompanying Summorum Pontificum and Traditiones Custodes.)

Here is a syllogism to help break down the argument above:

  1. A person or group of persons can be recognized as schismatic if they commit public and manifest acts of schism (major premise).
  2. The SSPX has committed many schismatic acts and continues to do so (minor premise).
  3. Therefore, the SSPX is schismatic (conclusion).

I will now proceed to summarize Jeff’s principal arguments as faithfully as I can, so we can judge them according to the rules of logic and debate:

  • Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre was a very important and holy man who did great work for the Church, and he founded a priestly society which now has 700 holy priests who travel the world ministering with martyrs’ devotion. These priests are merely trying to do what priests have always done, and the Holy Ghost is working through them to minister to Catholics. They are bearing much fruit, and as Our Lord said, we should judge people by their fruits.
  • There is a devastating crisis in the Church, worse than any since the Arian heresy. There has been a great falling away from the faith, massive loss of vocations, abuses of the blessed Sacrament, sodomy and sexual abuse at the highest levels of the hierarchy, and liberalism and the modernist heresy abounds throughout the Church. Archbishop Lefebvre and his priests have recognized this crisis, and therefore they have taken extraordinary action which has been necessary for the good of souls.
  • There are three kinds of law: divine, natural and human (civil and canon law). These laws are to be obeyed except under certain circumstances, such as when a lower law comes into conflict with a higher law, or when a law is unjust or fails to promote the common good (St. Augustine). If a law comes into conflict with what truth and love require, we cannot abandon truth and love for the sake of the law.
  • The SSPX should be contrasted with the Orthodox church, which is truly schismatic. The Orthodox: 1) reject the pope’s primacy, 2) refuse communion with Catholics, 3) reject the validity of Catholic sacraments, 4) are heretics, 5) have set up parallel churches all over the world. The SSPX: 1) are defenders of the pope’s primacy, 2) include the pope’s and the local bishops’ names in their liturgies, 3) create private chapels and avoid terms like “parish” and “pastor”, 4) introduce themselves to the local bishop and ask for his blessing when establishing a new chapel, 5) have received permission from Rome to ordain and discipline priests, to offer confession to the faithful, and to witness marriages in coordination with the local ordinary.
  • In conclusion, there is no such thing as “irregular canonical status” in either canon law or moral theology. Either you’re Catholic or you’re not. If the SSPX was schismatic, Rome would deal with them through the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity, not the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Rome has given faculties to the SSPX to hear confessions, witness marriages, ordain and discipline priests, and when Bishop Bernard Fellay was superior general of the SSPX he was even made an official canonical minister of the second instance. Catholics may receive sacraments from the SSPX without incurring the penalties associated with schism, as the Hawaii Six situation demonstrated. Finally, no competent legal authority has ever declared the SSPX to be in schism, and the final judgement of the pope should be accepted in humility, or risk schism yourself. It is not possible for the pope and Catholics to be in communion with schismatics, therefore, the SSPX is not schismatic.

Finally, we can now assess whether Jeff succeeded or failed at dismantling my case according to three criteria: 1) Did he directly address my proposition that the SSPX is schismatic according to the principals of moral theology? 2) Did he demonstrate fallacies in the structure of my argument/syllogism (formal logic)? 3) Did he disprove or disqualify all the evidence which I presented (material logic)?

1.) One of the ways a debate is judged is how well the challenged arguments are answered, and especially if they are not. Because if they are not, the argument still stands. What is not said is just as important as what is. Throughout the debate, Jeff defaulted to his defense of the SSPX according to canonical principles and recognition, and on their positive interactions with Rome. It seems that this is what he came prepared to argue. But my proposition was based on specific moral actions of the SSPX themselves. Pointing to non-schismatic actions does not disprove the existence of other schismatic actions. It’s like pointing to a husband’s act of kindness to his wife to disprove that he does not beat her on a regular basis. Jeff needed to directly address the actions I presented as evidence of schism. He completely failed to do this. He even tried to slough off the evidence I had presented by ignoring it, stating that I was begging the question and still needed to prove there had ever been schismatic actions!

2.) Jeff did not indicate that my argument was invalid (which means that the conclusion does not follow from its premises). In fact, he admitted the validity of my syllogism during the debate, when he acknowledged the schism present among Catholics in Germany. To come to this conclusion about schismatics in Germany, Jeff used the same logical sequence as my syllogism above about the SSPX. This can be seen by substituting the words “German church” for “SSPX”. If Catholics can thus recognize parts of the German church and Fr. James Martin to be heretics/schismatics, then the SSPX should not expect to be immune from the same prudent judgment applied to them.

3.) One of the most explosive moments of the debate (although one that seems to have been lost on many), is when Jeff affirmed the truth of my major premise not once, but twice! (See here and here.) This was, as mentioned above, related to the Catholic Church in Germany. As to the truth of my minor premise, did he disprove or disqualify the evidence I presented in my opening statement and in the cross-examination period? As you can see for yourself in the video, not only did Jeff neglect to address the specific evidence I provided, but he even deflected and avoided pointed questions from me to do so. The only time he came close was during his opening statement, when he obliquely made references to a state of necessity which required such actions. I answered this argument with the immutable moral principle “the end does not justify the means” and pointing to the constant teaching of the Church that acts of schism are never justified (see Catholic Encyclopedia article here, section “Attempts to legitimize schism”).

As we have seen, Jeff did not: 1) stay within the framework and boundaries of my affirmative defense of the resolution, which focused on specific moral actions, rather than canonical status and recognition; 2) demonstrate fallacies in my argument’s structure; 3) disprove or disqualify the evidence of schismatic actions which I presented. Therefore, according to the rules of logic and debate, the case was proved that the SSPX is indeed schismatic, while Jeff failed to disprove it.


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