Is the SSPX in schism from the Catholic Church?

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For about 8 years, I’ve attended mainly Masses of the Society of St Pius X (SSPX), knowing that they were canonically irregular and their sacraments illicit and sometimes invalid, but having sufficient reason to attend. As readers of this blog may be aware, I will never return to their local congregation, and wouldn’t be welcome even if I wanted to. In a few posts, I will express my views on the SSPX, and how they changed over the last 10 years, and how, over the last few years, I have become very disillusioned with the SSPX and right wing Catholicism in general (right wing politically* or theologically). I would classify myself as always having been conservative and pro-tradition (small t and capital T), but over recent years I’ve seen the conservatives become right wing, and the pro-tradition (small t) people become rabid. My blog has always been primarily about Seventh-day Adventism, and my interests have long been in reading material put out by various oddball cults, particularly those linked to the Adventist/Millerite movement. Little did I know that I would slowly become aware of my being in the middle of one.
*Right wing Catholic politics is usually framed in an Americanist sense.

Archbishop Lefebvre in 1981 - suspended even from hearing confessions barring an emergency
Archbishop Lefebvre in 1981 – suspended even from hearing confessions barring an emergency

A question that people often ask is whether or not the SSPX is in schism. A lot has been written, by the SSPX and others. I won’t re-hash it here, other than to provide what I consider to be the conclusive final word on the matter, and tell how I saw it. See the end for links, including a gateway to their defence on their website. It was always fairly obvious to me that the one side had facts and logic to support their argument, and the other side used circular reasoning and imaginary loopholes to defend the object of a personality cult. The more detail you go into, the more convoluted the defence becomes. It was reminiscent of people defending Ellen White and Herbert Armstrong, plugging holes in failed prophecies, propping up failed prophets, finding a sabbath where there was none. Within the Catholic Church, I saw two other defences of the same sort in the last two decades – Fr Marcial Maciel, predator, and Fr John Corapi, “once called ‘father,’ now ‘The Black Sheep Dog‘”. The latter, taking on a rather sinister name with an even more sinister logo, still has a following within the Church. Archbishop Lefebvre was certainly the only one of the three who left me thinking he was a good man, albeit on the nutty side. The failed defences of him and the SSPX didn’t really matter; I could go to the Latin Mass at a chapel that was at least semi-respectable in the conservative Catholic world. That was fine with me. I could pinch salt.

John Corapi - The Black Sheep Dog
John Corapi – The Black Sheep Dog

So, back to the main question.

Is the SSPX in schism from the Catholic Church?

The answers range from Yes to No, with “partially in schism” a proposed option somewhere in between.

The concept of “partially in schism” sounds to most, including me, very much like the idea of “partially pregnant” – i.e. nonsense. Surely schism is a boolean expression – it’s there or it’s not, with no middle ground? That’s the general position taken by most, even if they acknowledge that it’s more complicated than that with the SSPX.

So, I will get my answers from some important people (emphasis mine):

His Holiness, Pope St John Paul II
His Holiness, Pope St John Paul II

Pope St John Paul II, 1988:
“In itself, this act was one of disobedience to the Roman Pontiff in a very grave matter and of supreme importance for the unity of the church, such as is the ordination of bishops whereby the apostolic succession is sacramentally perpetuated. Hence such disobedience – which implies in practice the rejection of the Roman primacy – constitutes a schismatic act. … The root of this schismatic act can be discerned in an incomplete and contradictory notion of Tradition. … Everyone should be aware that formal adherence to the schism is a grave offence against God …”
Pope John Paul II, Ecclesia Dei 3, 4, 5c, 1988

Cardinal Darío Castrillón Hoyos, president of the PCED in 2005 when he made this statement:
“Unfortunately Monsignor Lefebvre went ahead with the consecration and hence the situation of separation came about, even if it was not a formal schism.”
Canonical situation of the Society of Saint Pius X, Wikipedia (references linked from there)

Cardinal Darío Castrillón Hoyos, 2006:
“There is only the fact that a full, more perfect communion is lacking – as was stated during the meeting with Bishop Fellay – a fuller communion, because communion does exist.”
Canonical situation of the Society of Saint Pius X, Wikipedia (references linked from there)

Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, Prefect, Congregation for Bishops, 2009:
“It is hoped that this step will be followed by the prompt attainment of full communion with the Church on the part of the whole Society of St Pius X …”
Decree remitting the excommunication of the 4 living bishops (at the time), 2009

Pope Benedict in retirement
Pope Benedict in retirement

Pope Benedict XVI, 2009:
“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.”
Letter regarding the remission of excommunication of the 4 living bishops (at the time), 2009

Pope Francis, 2016:
“For the pastoral benefit of these faithful, and trusting in the good will of their priests to strive with God’s help for the recovery of full communion in the Catholic Church, I have personally decided to extend this faculty beyond the Jubilee Year …”
Misericordia et misera 12

Derived from the above:

  • Fact: Archbishop Lefebvre’s act was a schismatic act, and explicitly recognised as such three times by Pope St John Paul II
  • Fact: The SSPX “has no canonical status” within the Catholic Church [Pope Benedict XVI]
  • Fact: The SSPX clergy “do not legitimately exercise any ministry” in the Catholic Church* [Pope Benedict XVI]
  • Fact: The SSPX lacksfull communion” with the Catholic Church [Cardinal Castrillón Hoyos, Cardinal Re, Pope Francis]

The fourth fact, like the “fourth” secret of Fatima, is unfortunately a source of disagreement and confusion.

Possible solutions

Archbishop Lefebvre illicitly saying Mass in 1981 while suspended a divinis
Archbishop Lefebvre illicitly saying Mass in 1981 while suspended a divinis

Solution #1 – Schism and lack of full communion are not the same thing and these exist on a spectrum that includes “full”, “partial”, and “none”.

This is the position taken, explicitly or implicitly, by most of those defending the status of the SSPX as being within the Church. They argue that there is no schism, but they acknowledge that full communion is lacking. There must, therefore, be some sort of spectrum on which schism and partial communion occur, such as this:

  1. In full schism, significant doctrinal differences, ecclesial communities, e.g. Lutherans
  2. In full schism, lesser doctrinal disagreement, Churches in their own right, e.g. Greek Orthodox Church
  3. In full schism and partial communion, lesser doctrinal disagreement, e.g. perhaps this is where the SSPX fits in?
  4. In partial schism and partial communion, lesser doctrinal disagreement, e.g. perhaps this is where the SSPX fits in?
  5. Not in schism but in partial communion, lesser doctrinal disagreement, e.g. perhaps this is where the SSPX fits in?
  6. Not in schism at all and in full communion, no doctrinal disagreement, e.g. Greek Byzantine Catholic Church

To my knowledge, the idea of such a spectrum did not exist prior to the breach between the SSPX and the Catholic Church, and is a novel concept to try to appease both the SSPX and their sympathisers in full communion with the Church. Admittedly only the original bishops were excommunicated, and the laity were not. Other clergy are surely on this spectrum, having submitted to the authority of excommunicated bishops for two decades, and, like their bishops after the excommunications were lifted, remain in incomplete communion with the Church without any formal external declaration of schism on their part. Likewise, the laity, who would be even more diverse, some in full schism, some in partial schism, some in no schism. There could be a state of 100% full communion, 90%, 50%, 10% … and who fits in where? I think that’s pushing the limits of what schism and full communion can be taken to mean.

The SSPX are possibly in a unique position today, if their schism is partial – everyone else is either in full communion or in full schism. The closest I can find to a similar situation is the Jesuit suppression by Pope Clement XIV in 1773 – they were deprived of all their ministerial and other activities, yet were not (to my knowledge) excommunicated. Yet there is still a difference – they, for a time, like the SSPX, had no legitimate ministry in the Church, yet they, unlike the SSPX, were never in need of re-establishing full communion (unless I missed that bit). Or maybe they, in part and not as an entire organisation, were in such a need, e.g. the Jesuits in Russia who had continued their activities in violation of Pope Clement’s decree. Archbishop Lefebvre and the SSPX continued their activities in violation of papal suspension of both SSPX and Archbishop Lefebvre, as well as their seminary.

Further note: the word “schism” without qualifiers can either refer to all forms of schism (in which case partial schism is schism) or it only refers to full schism unless qualifiers are used (in which case partial schism needs to be expressly called partial schism).

Solution #2 – Schism is either present or absent, and the schismatic state depends on whether the group is in full communion with the Church or not

Pope Francis in the Philippines
Pope Francis in the Philippines

This solution is easy. The SSPX, then, are clearly not in full communion with the Church and are therefore in schism. Schism is not a partial state, just as pregnancy is not a partial state. The excommunicated bishops in 1988 were certainly no longer in communion with the Church – that’s what “excommunication” means. The current bishops are no longer excommunicated, but that doesn’t mean they have been returned to full communion. Rescinding the excommunication was a step along to road to achieving full communion. Much like rescinding the 900 year old mutual excommunications of the Pope and Orthodox Patriarch in 1965 did not result in full communion. Excommunication establishes schism, but the path to healing is longer than a simple reversal.

Again, the facts derived from official and authoritative statements cited above:

  • Fact: Archbishop Lefebvre’s act was a schismatic act, and explicitly recognised as such three times by Pope St John Paul II
  • Fact: The SSPX “has no canonical status” within the Catholic Church [Pope Benedict XVI]
  • Fact: The SSPX clergy “do not legitimately exercise any ministry” in the Catholic Church* [Pope Benedict XVI]
  • Fact: The SSPX lacksfull communion” with the Catholic Church [Cardinal Castrillón Hoyos, Cardinal Re, Pope Francis]

*Pope Francis gave them faculties for giving absolution in 2015, and permission to local bishops to grant faculties for validly marrying couples.

My conclusion:

I am a fan of the concept of a spectrum in many areas in life. I therefore agree with Pope Francis that they are not in full communion with the Church, and probably agree with the SSPX that they are not in complete schism, and so my conclusion must be that they are probably in partial schism (whatever that means). I am, however, not absolutely convinced that this spectrum idea is a valid concept in this case, and it’s probably not a valid canonical concept. If it is not, then the switch position that the SSPX is set to is undoubtedly “schism”.

At some point in the near future, I hope to discuss what I see as the damage done to the SSPX by insularism, both theologically and morally, and why I can no longer have any part in their (at least partially) schismatic group.

In summary, the SSPX were in schism in 1988 (Pope St John Paul II said so), currently have no canonical status within the Church (Pope Benedict XVI said so), currently do not legitimately exercise any ministry in the Church (Pope Benedict XVI said so), and are not in full communion with the Church (Pope Francis said so).

Next … Part 4 of the SSPX seriesSSPX – the Dangers of a Cult Mentality

I will believe the three popes.

 

Three Popes
Three Popes

Further reading:

SSPX and COVID series:
Part 1 – The SSPX – when a church goes COVID cult
Part 2 – Update on SSPX sect’s evasion of lockdown
Part 3 – Is the SSPX in schism from the Catholic Church?
Part 4 – SSPX – the Dangers of a Cult Mentality
Part 5 – The SSPX – COVID and religious quackery

A Canonical History of the Lefebvrite Schism – by Peter John Vere, JCL/M (Canon Law)
My Journey out of the Lefebvre Schism – by Peter Vere
What’s the truth about the SSPX? – by Fr John Zuhlsdorf
Schism and Archbishop Lefebvre – by the SSPX (you can find more of their defences there)

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2 comments

    • Vjatjeslav on September 3, 2020 at 6:04 am
    • Reply

    Yes, it is so… but what about the Sacraments? Are not Sacraments uniting us? Probably the same applies to the Orthodox Sacraments. Are SSPX Sacraments valid in the Catholic Church? God bless

    1. Orthodox sacraments are valid, and provide some unity. SSPX sacraments are problematic. Confessions have only been valid since 2015. Marriages CAN be valid now IF the local bishop works with the SSPX to make sure they are; I don’t think this happens in most dioceses. Ordinations of priests/deacons and consecrations of bishops are illicit.

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