In a report that
seems not 100% verifiable is now confirmed, the National Catholic Register has picked up a story that there is a September 21 meeting date between Cardinal Müller, head of the CDF, and Bishop Fellay, superior general of the Society of St. Pius X.
You may recall that there were ongoing talks during the pontificate of Pope Benedict XVI between the traditionalist society and Rome, seeking possible grounds for reconciliation and regularization. During that process, Pope Benedict lifted the excommunications on the four SSPX bishops — excommunications that dated back to Archbishop Lefebvre’s illicit episcopal ordinations (without the necessary mandate from Rome) in 1988.
The canonical status of the SSPX is anything but clear, which has been brought to light again recently by the refusal of Bishop Zubik of Pittsburgh to sell the SSPX a parish that was for sale (despite their history of selling closed parishes to other religions) and when he subsequently issued a warning to Catholics of the diocese after the SSPX was ultimately successful in completing the purchase of a different closed-down parish building that had been for sale.
In that announcement, he wrote:
The purpose of this notification is to assist Catholics in understanding that the Society of St. Pius X is not in full communion with the Catholic Church. The society does not have canonical status in the church. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI stated: “As long as the society does not have a canonical status in the church, its ministers do not exercise legitimate ministries in the church.” The Society of St. Pius X is separated from the Catholic Church. The former St. James church building in the West End is not a Roman Catholic church. The Roman Catholic faithful are to know that free and willful participation with this group, including reception of the sacraments, implies an act of separation from the Roman Catholic Church. This is a serious matter that no Catholic should take lightly.
For many years, the irregular situation of the SSPX has progressed along an inscrutable track. Tradition-minded Catholics who wanted to attend a traditional Latin Mass but only had access to an SSPX chapel sought guidance from Rome. And over the years, this guidance has come in various and contradictory forms.
In a letter on May 3, 1994, Cardinal Edward Cassidy, President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, answered a question sent to him about the SSPX as follows:
As far as your question is concerned, I would like to point out immediately that the Dicastery for ecumenism is not concerned with the Society of St Pius X. The situation of the members of that Society is an internal affair of the Catholic Church. The Society of St Pius X is not another Church or Ecclesial Community in the sense that this Dicastery uses those terms. Certainly, the Mass and the sacraments administered by the priests of the Society of St Pius X are valid.
A year later, in 1995, a letter was written by Msgr. Camille Perl in response to a question about attending SSPX chapels to meet one’s Sunday obligation. In part, he wrote:
In order to answer your questions we must explain the Church’s present evaluation of the situation of the Society of St. Pius X.
1. There is no doubt about the validity of the ordination of the priests of the Society of St. Pius X. They are, however, suspended a divinis, that is prohibited by the Church from exercising their orders because of their illicit ordination.
2. The Masses they celebrate are also valid, but it is considered morally illicit for the faithful to participate in these Masses unless they are physically or morally impeded from participating in a Mass celebrated by a Catholic priest in good standing (cf. Code of Canon Law, canon 844.2). The fact of not being able to assist at the celebration of the so-called “Tridentine” Mass is not considered a sufficient motive for attending such Masses.
3. While it is true that the participation in the Mass and sacraments at the chapels of the Society of St. Pius X does not of itself constitute “formal adherence to the schism”, such adherence can come about over a period of time as one slowly imbibes a mentality which separates itself from the magisterium of the Supreme Pontiff.
And yet in a 2003 letter in a way that shows some evolution of thought, Msgr. Perl responds to additional private correspondence that was made public when he wrote:
Points 1 and 3 in our letter of 27 September 2002 to this correspondent are accurately reported. His first question was “Can I fulfill my Sunday obligation by attending a Pius X Mass” and our response was:
“1. In the strict sense you may fulfill your Sunday obligation by attending a Mass celebrated by a priest of the Society of St. Pius X.”
His second question was “Is it a sin for me to attend a Pius X Mass” and we responded stating:
“2. We have already told you that we cannot recommend your attendance at such a Mass and have explained the reason why. If your primary reason for attending were to manifest your desire to separate yourself from communion with the Roman Pontiff and those in communion with him, it would be a sin. If your intention is simply to participate in a Mass according to the 1962 Missal for the sake of devotion, this would not be a sin.”
His third question was: “Is it a sin for me to contribute to the Sunday collection a Pius X Mass” to which we responded:
“3. It would seem that a modest contribution to the collection at Mass could be justified.”
Moving ahead another two years, On November 13, 2005, Cardinal Dario Castrillón Hoyos, Prefect of the Congregation for the Clergy and President of the Ecclesia Dei Commission, said in a televised interview:
We are not confronted with a heresy. We cannot say in correct, exact, precise terms that there is a schism. In the fact of consecrating bishops with [sic] a papal mandate there is a schismatic attitude. They are within the Church. There is just this fact: there is a lack of a full, a more perfect—as was said during the meeting with Bishop Fellay—a fuller communion, because the communion does exist.
After lifting the excommunications, Pope Benedict gave more specifics in his letter to Bishops concerning the status of the SSPX in 2009:
The remission of the excommunication was a measure taken in the field of ecclesiastical discipline: the individuals were freed from the burden of conscience constituted by the most serious of ecclesiastical penalties. This disciplinary level needs to be distinguished from the doctrinal level. The fact that the Society of Saint Pius X does not possess a canonical status in the Church is not, in the end, based on disciplinary but on doctrinal reasons. As long as the Society does not have a canonical status in the Church, its ministers do not exercise legitimate ministries in the Church. There needs to be a distinction, then, between the disciplinary level, which deals with individuals as such, and the doctrinal level, at which ministry and institution are involved. In order to make this clear once again: until the doctrinal questions are clarified, the Society has no canonical status in the Church, and its ministers – even though they have been freed of the ecclesiastical penalty – do not legitimately exercise any ministry in the Church.
In light of this situation, it is my intention henceforth to join the Pontifical Commission “Ecclesia Dei” – the body which has been competent since 1988 for those communities and persons who, coming from the Society of Saint Pius X or from similar groups, wish to return to full communion with the Pope – to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
And last December, Cardinal Müller made a very strong (and seemingly partially contradictory to Pope Benedict’s letter) statement about the SSPX when he said:
The canonical excommunication of the bishops for their illegal ordinations was revoked, but a de facto sacramental excommunication remains for their schism; they put themselves out of communion with the Church. After that we are not closing the door and never will, but we are inviting them to be reconciled. But they too must change their attitude, accept the conditions of the Catholic Church, and the Supreme Pontiff as the definitive criterion for membership.
And yet strangely, after all of this, the SSPX were allowed to say Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica just last month – on the altar of Pope St. Pius X. How can this be possible if they are “out of communion with the Church”? What sort of signal does this send to those Catholics either within or outside the SSPX? Is it hopeful? Or is it just more of the same back and forth?
For Catholics who love the Church’s traditional Roman liturgy and sacraments, the situation with the SSPX — and the enormous confusion that it generates — is burdensome. The first time I caught up with an old college friend and told him that I had been attending the traditional Latin Mass, he asked me, “So, you’re a schismatic?”
It seems that nobody knows for certain whether the SSPX is in the Church or out of it, or whether it simply has one foot in both places. The questions over the jurisdiction of their sacraments, the “schismatic mindset” of their priests, the fact that their faculties are not suspended and no one currently in the society is under an actual excommunication (but apparently, the CDF would have us believe, they persist under a “de facto” one) makes the entire situation one of the murkiest theological problems in the Church today.
It’s gotten so ugly that it has spread to other orders. The Franciscan Friars of the Immaculate have been under investigation and suppression by the Vatican under the auspices of their “crypto-lefebvrean tendencies” related to the preference of many in their religious community for the traditional Mass.
With all the ecumenical activity going on between Rome and various other Christian and non-Christian religions, it seems worth considering the idea that Catholic unity is for Catholics, too.
I don’t know the answers, but I’d very much like to get some. I am not involved in any way with the SSPX. The group has its share of problems, and they’re not insignificant. But they’re also fully doctrinally Catholic in every way and their masses are valid. They hold no heretical positions. They adhere completely to the teachings of the Catholic Church as they existed at the time of the Second Vatican Council. They don’t have their own patriarch or pope, but rather recognize the authority of the Roman Pontiff. The idea that they are in any substantive way “outside the Church” seems specious at best. How can a group be outside when everything they believe is perfectly compatible with the perennial teachings of the Church?
This makes the rumored upcoming meeting all the more important, and unfortunately, all the less likely to bear fruit. If Cardinal Müller does meet with Bishop Fellay, what will they discuss? Where can they go from here?
This rift within the Church is a wound — a deep one — and there’s no healing in sight. It’s truly a tragic situation.
Steve Skojec is the Founding Publisher and Executive Director of OnePeterFive.com. He received his BA in Communications and Theology from Franciscan University of Steubenville in 2001. His commentary has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today, The Washington Post, The Washington Times, Crisis Magazine, EWTN, Huffington Post Live, The Fox News Channel, Foreign Policy, and the BBC. Steve and his wife Jamie have eight children.