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Operation Survival: the Case for the SSPX

Along came a man sent by God, and his name was Marcel.” The words of the late Catholic apologist Michael Davies in his debate with Dr. E. Michael Jones. The author of this current missive has been given the opportunity to mount a defense in favor of the Society of Saint Pius X (SSPX) and its founder, Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre. I, a mere layman, do not speak for the SSPX, nor am I one of its members, but I will humbly defend the proposition that a state of necessity exists in the Church and vindicates the mission of Archbishop Lefebvre and allows the SSPX to act freely and legitimately in the Catholic Church.

The reader may rightly ask himself whether or not a state of necessity even exists as an ecclesial and juridical concept within the Catholic framework and can one legitimately invoke such a thing to vindicate a priestly fraternity that “lacks a formal, canonical mission” as Fr. Jonathan Loop, SSPX puts it.

I answer in the affirmative.

The Telos of Law: Against Papal Voluntarism

On June 30, 1988, Archbishop Lefebvre, in a sermon delivered in Écône, Switzerland stated: “we find ourselves in a case of necessity…. This is why we are convinced that, by the act of these consecrations today, we are obeying… the call of God.” On that same day, the Archbishop consecrated four men to the episcopate without papal mandate, which though it is extraordinary, is not without precedence and does not place one outside the Catholic Church. From his words, we can proceed with certainty that the Archbishop himself acted as though such a state of necessity was, indeed, a valid mode of operating within the Catholic Church. The Archbishop’s subjective disposition is important to keep in mind as his position is being defended.

Fr. Jean-Michel Gleize, SSPX, in his essay “The State of Necessity,” posits

If the application of the law goes against the end of the law intended by the legislators, it is no longer legitimate, because it is self-contradictory. The subjects can and must take no notice of it in order to obtain the end of the law despite the authorities who apply the law contrary to the law.

This question of state of necessity points to “first things,” that is, basic principles upon which other truth claims can be established. If the telos or end of a law does not serve the good, can it be considered legitimate? The answer would certainly be “no.” If the power of the legislator were being applied against his own mission and the mission of the Church, such power would be arbitrary by definition. As a result the faithful would be forced to neglect our faculty of reason and conform our beliefs to whomever is in power at a given time (such is the case in the most recent attack on the Latin Mass from the Vatican). In such a case, the faithful would be subject to a kind of papal voluntarism, in which the will of the man who is pope is the supreme governing principle in the Church (editor’s note: this is the definition of the false spirit of Vatican One). The condemnation of this papal voluntarism can be inferred from canon 1752 of the 1983 Code of Canon Law: “the salvation of souls, which must always be the supreme law in the Church, is to be kept before one’s eyes.”[1]

This principle is also refuted by St. Thomas Aquinas in his Summa Theologica. Here I quote from a Thomistic study on the 1988 Consecrations:

Universal laws…are established for the good of the whole. Therefore, in establishing them the legislator bears in mind that which happens ordinarily and in the greater number of the cases (Summa Theologica, II-II, Q.147, A.4)… Therefore, in cases ‘that happen rarely’ and in which ‘one happens to have to act outside the ordinary laws,’ ‘it is necessary to judge on the basis of principles higher than the ordinary laws’ (ST, II-II, Q.51, A.4). These ‘higher principles” are the ‘general principles of divine and even human law’ (Suarez, De Legibus 1. VI c. VI n.5) which supply for the silence of positive law…The Church is authorized to apply said principles when, because of cases not foreseen by the law, it defers to the general principles of law and to the common and constant judgment of the Doctors, which, precisely because common and constant, must be considered canonized by the Church.

Based on of the law of the Church and principles established by St. Thomas, we can conclude with certainty that papal voluntarism is not in conformity with Church teaching and further proof that a hierarch must legislate with clear sight of the telos of the law.

The State of Necessity

When we understand the nature of law and the end which legislative authority of the Church must serve, we can proceed to ask, “is there a state of necessity in the Catholic Church and does this state of necessity justify the SSPX’s mission within the Church?” In order to properly understand the state of necessity present in the Church, we ought to understand the historical context out of which it came, and the theological implications which proceeded from it.

In his 1907 encyclical Pascendi Dominici Gregis, Pope Saint Pius X condemned Modernism as “the synthesis of all heresies.” During his pontificate, he lamented that Modernism had not been rooted out but merely “driven underground.” Indeed, Modernist praxis and theology became the prevailing thought of the Church from the opening of the Second Vatican Council in 1962 to our present day. Vatican II while being mostly orthodox, “cannot be understood in an orthodox way” in reference to certain passages in its documents on religious liberty, collegiality, and ecumenism. Said documents “in their present formulation are unacceptable.”[2] This constant need for clarification and that it is even possible to understand Vatican II as being unorthodox necessarily means that it fails to do what an ecumenical council is intended to do.

Blessed Pope Pius IX summarizes the mission of a council as follows:

To decide with prudence and wisdom all that might contribute to define dogmas of faith; to condemn errors being insidiously spread; to defend, clarify, and explain Catholic doctrine; to preserve and restore ecclesiastical discipline; and to strengthen the lax mores of the people.[3]

The Council (or rather the Concilium after the Council and Paul VI) also foisted upon the Church a liturgy which was intended to “remove even the shadow of a risk of a stumbling block or some displeasure for our separated brethren [Protestants]” according to its principal architect, Archbishop Annibale Bugnini.[4] Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, later Pope Benedict XVI, can be seen tacitly conceding Lefebvre’s claim that it is at least legitimate to interpret certain passages in the Council as erroneous in a letter he and the Archbishop signed dated May 5, 1988.

In the letter, the Archbishop agreed to the following proposition presented by the CDF:

Regarding certain points taught by the Second Vatican Council or concerning subsequent reforms of the liturgy and law which appear difficult to reconcile with tradition, we commit ourselves to a positive attitude of study and of communication with the Apostolic See, avoiding all polemics.

Indeed, this proposition represents a concession on the part of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the faith (CDF) to allow Archbishop Lefebvre and the SSPX to interpret the council as erroneous; if this position excluded one from being Catholic, certainly the CDF would not have left it “open for study,” as it were.

To defer to the principle stated in the prior paragraph, the teaching authority of the Church must instruct the faithful in accordance with tradition, any deviation is logically incoherent and contrary the Code of Canon Law. Given the innovations in theology and liturgical praxis, and the resulting exodus from the Catholic Church – into nominal Catholicism, other religions, agnosticism, or atheism – we can conclude that a state of necessity Archbishop Lefebvre perceived did, in fact, exist.

Operation Survival

Now that a state of necessity has been established, were the 1988 episcopal consecrations justified by a state of necessity being present? Following the consecration of the four bishops, Archbishop Lefebvre was declared “automatically excommunicated” by Pope John Paul II; however, we can turn to canon law and deduce from it that no such penalty was ever incurred by the Archbishop or priests of the SSPX.

The first relevant canon to cite is canon 1323, article 4, which states

The following are not subject to a penalty when they have violated a law or precept: a person who acted coerced by grave fear, even if only relatively grave, or due to necessity or grave inconvenience unless the act is intrinsically evil or tends to the harm of souls.[5]

The Archbishop, as proven in the quotation taken from his sermon on the date of the episcopal consecrations, believed there to be a state of necessity. The Archbishop’s words, however, do not represent the outlier’s position; for accuracy, we shall proceed to list some quotations from post-conciliar popes to support the claim of Archbishop Lefebvre that there has been a state of necessity in the Church since at least the close of the Second Vatican Council. Consider these words of John Paul II early in his pontificate on the occasion of a congress on missions to people:

There is need to admit realistically and with a deep and sober sensibility that Christians today, for the most part, are dismayed, confused, perplexed and even frustrated; ideas conflicting with revealed and constantly taught Truth have been scattered by handfuls; true and real heresies in the sphere of dogma and morals have been spread, creating doubts, confusions, rebellions; the liturgy has been violated; immersed in intellectual and moral “relativism,” and therefore in permissiveness, Christians have been allured by atheism, by agnosticism, by a vaguely moralistic enlightenment, by a socialistic Christianity, without defined dogma and without objective morals.

Famously, John Paul II’s predecessor, Pope Paul VI also conceded that the Church was in in the throes of a significant crisis when he spoke of the “auto-destruction” of the Church, and the proverbial, or perhaps literal, smoke of Satan which entered the temple of God.[6] Therefore, if the reader felt inclined to reject the Archbishop’s interpretation of matters, we have Popes John Paul II and Paul VI there to support the veracity of his claim.


We have now established the claims that any legislative power exercised by the Church hierarchy that is inconsistent with the supreme law of the Church is an abuse of said power. Since the authority and powers given to the hierarchy are not arbitrary, such an abuse is therefore not valid or binding on anyone. Established, too, are the claims that there is a state of necessity in the Church, because of a Council containing within it some erroneous teachings and admissions by both Pope Paul VI and Pope John Paul II.

The final proposition that demands proof is that Archbishop Lefebvre himself acted justly and within the bounds of the Church law. The most polarizing action undertaken by the Archbishop was, without question, the episcopal consecrations of 1988. Was the Archbishop excommunicated as a result of these consecrations as had been alleged by Pope John Paul II? Another look at Canon Law proves beyond doubt that he was not. First, one ought to look at the mode in which the supposed excommunication took place. Pope John Paul II in his Motu Proprio Ecclesia Dei cited canon 1382 to levy the penalty of excommunication on Archbishop Lefebvre, the canon reads “A bishop who consecrates someone a bishop without a pontifical mandate and the person who receives the consecration from him incur a latae sententiae excommunication reserved to the Apostolic See.”[7]

The term latae sententiae quite simply means that he was excommunicated automatically by committing the act of consecrating the four bishops without permission. A close look at canon law and recent Church history proves, however, that no excommunication had taken place. Father Gerald Murray of the Archdiocese of New York, in his thesis examining Archbishop Lefebvre’s episcopal consecrations in light of canon law defended at Gregorian University in Rome, cites canon 1323 article 4, as cited above. In addition to canon 1323, Fr. Murray cites article 8 of canon 1324, which states:

The perpetrator of a violation is not exempt from a penalty, but the penalty established by law or precept must be tempered or a penance employed in its place if the delict was committed: by a person who thought in culpable error that one of the circumstances mentioned in can. 1323, nn. 4 or 5 was present.

The Archbishop’s own words given at his sermon demonstrate that he sincerely believed that a state of necessity existed in the Catholic Church and the Code of Canon Law as cited frees him from the censure of excommunication. Proven already is the fact that there was, and still is, a state of necessity in the Church, but based on this provision in Canon Law, the Archbishop would not have placed himself outside of the Church even if there was no state of necessity, as the 1983 code considers both the objective and subjective dispositions of a prelate.

A final proof for this claim is that episcopal consecration without papal mandate is historically not an objectively excommunicable offense. Pope Pius XII added the penalty of excommunication to the Code of Canon Law to deal with illicit episcopal consecrations occurring in China. Were it to objectively place one outside the Church, this provision would have been in canon law and Church law for 2000 years, but the penalty is not yet a century old.

Against Mr. Salza’s Critique of the SSPX

Having proved that Church law must be legislated for the good of the faithful, that a state of necessity can and does exist in the Church, and that such a state of necessity has vindicated the work of Archbishop Lefebvre and continues to provide the freedom necessary for the SSPX to act, at this point I would like to address an argument made by Mr. John Salza in his work “Does the SSPX have an Extraordinary Mission?

In his article, Mr. Salza claims that “the existence of a crisis in the Church is not relevant to the question of ‘How Can the SSPX Justify its Ministry in the Church?’” His entire case hinges on the veracity of this assumption which ultimately is proven false. The Catholic Church herself – as I have proved above – allows for Archbishop Lefebvre and the SSPX to navigate a Church in crisis, in opposition to the expressed will of the hierarchy (not to be confused with the will of the Church). None of the penalties foisted upon the Archbishop and the SSPX have carried the weight of legitimacy and, as such, the Catholicity of the SSPX has been maintained since its inception.

John Salza has also posited that the SSPX, given its irregular stature, would have to produce miracles to ratify the legitimacy of its work. Mr. Salza’s thesis concerning miracles also relies on a premise that is demonstrably false. He cites Cum Ex Injunctio by Pope Innocent III, who in turn, quotes Romans 10:5: “No one should indifferently usurp the duty of preaching for himself. For, according to the Apostle: ‘And how shall they preach unless they be sent?’” He then proceeds to tell us that Pope Innocent warns us that the SSPX should not be believed because they were not sent by the Church.

On the contrary, the Catholic Church, the logic of her laws, and the mercy she shows to her faithful soldiers, frees the SSPX to proceed with its mission freely. Mr. Salza has conflated the will of individual hierarchs with the will of the Church as such. In other words, he fails to make the distinction as St. Thomas does (quoted above) between ordinary and extraordinary circumstances of law, and between orthodox hierarchs (who act according to the will of Christ) and heretical or misinformed hierarchs (who may act contrary to the will of Christ).

He then alleges that the SSPX can point to no passage in Scripture to make their case. However, there appears a passage which my interlocutor has hitherto not considered: “Jesus said to him, you must see signs and miracles happen, or you will not believe” John 4:48 (Knox). The Catholic Church is the one true Church, established by Jesus Christ. The SSPX, as has already been proven, belongs to the Catholic Church. In closing, I would invite John Salza to consider the words of our Savior and ask himself why it is he or anyone else should expect great wonders from a priestly order as criterion for communion with Rome. The SSPX is merely doing what all priestly orders did before the Council, which was suddenly deemed “illegal” by a misinformed (or heretical!) hierarchy.


[1] Can. 1752: In cases of transfer the prescripts of can. 1747 are to be applied, canonical equity is to be observed, and the salvation of souls, which must always be the supreme law in the Church, is to be kept before one’s eyes.

[2] Gaudron, Father Matthias. The Catechism of the crisis in the Church. (Kansas City, MO: Angelus Press 2014), pt. 6.

[3] Pius IX, Bull of Convocation of the First Vatican Council, June 29, 1869. Ibid.

[4] L’Osservatore Romano, March 17, 1965. Ibid

[5] Can. 1323 The following are not subject to a penalty when they have violated a law or precept: Article 4: a person who acted coerced by grave fear, even if only relatively grave, or due to necessity or grave inconvenience unless the act is intrinsically evil or tends to the harm of souls

[6] Pope Paul VI, Discourse given at the Lombard Seminary in Rome, December 7, 1968.

[7] Can. 1382 A bishop who consecrates someone a bishop without a pontifical mandate and the person who receives the consecration from him incur a latae sententiae excommunication reserved to the Apostolic See.

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