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Pope Francis has taken a huge leap in helping to bring the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX) back into full communion with the Church. In a statement released September 1, Pope Francis is granting all clergy the power to absolve the sin of abortion. Abortion incurs a latae sententiae — or automatic — excommunication, and requires the faculty of a bishop to lift such a penalty. Because the sin of abortion is so common, most bishops give all or most of their priests permission to absolve the sin and lift the excommunication. But in the Jubilee Year of Mercy, the Holy Father is granting all priests this faculty — including the priests of the SSPX:
A final consideration concerns those faithful who for various reasons choose to attend churches officiated by priests of the Fraternity of St Pius X. This Jubilee Year of Mercy excludes no one. From various quarters, several Brother Bishops have told me of their good faith and sacramental practice, combined however with an uneasy situation from the pastoral standpoint. I trust that in the near future solutions may be found to recover full communion with the priests and superiors of the Fraternity. In the meantime, motivated by the need to respond to the good of these faithful, through my own disposition, I establish that those who during the Holy Year of Mercy approach these priests of the Fraternity of St Pius X to celebrate the Sacrament of Reconciliation shall validly and licitly receive the absolution of their sins.
The sacrament of confession is known as a juridical act. To absolve sins, one must not only have received holy orders, but have faculties from a bishop in communion with Rome. 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.
But in the year of mercy, starting on December 8, all that will change. For one year from that point on, the faithful may confess their sins to a priest of the SSPX.
The SSPX is a fraternity of priests opposed to the Second Vatican Council. They are notable for declaring the missal of Paul VI to be evil and a threat to the Faith. Founded by French archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, the group was canonically dissolved in the 1970s after releasing a controversial document blaming the changes in the Church on the Second Vatican Council and the Pope.
But it was a dozen years later in 1988 when the SSPX achieved their greatest notoriety. In order to continue his project, Abp. Lefebvre ordained four bishops against the wishes of Pope St. John Paul II. Lefebvre and the four new bishops incurred automatic excommunication.
Ever since, negotiations between the SSPX and the Vatican have been deadlocked. In 2009, in a generous gesture, Pope Benedict lifted the excommunications on the four bishops (even though Lefebvre's excommunication remains in place), but the talks afterward stalled.
This unprecedented act of ecumenism from the Holy Father may bring the Society back to the negotiating table, and even if it comes to nothing, it is an undeniable gesture of goodwill. It's to be hoped that Pope Francis will be the Pope who brings the SSPX back into full communion with the Church.
While this overture on Pope Francis' part may be the beginning of the end of a particularly bitter separation, there is still much work to be done. The SSPX still has no canonical status, and all marriages its clergy witness are still invalid. Their Masses, baptisms, ordinations, last rites and confirmations remain illicit. The SSPX still needs to bring itself into full communion with the Church to be fully integrated in the life of the Church.
Certain doctrinal points still need to be hashed out, such as the role of Vatican II in the Church's timeless teaching, and the ordinary magisterium of recent popes. Previously, when asked to sign a doctrinal preamble, the current head of the SSPX, Bp. Bernard Fellay, balked. Coming up with a formula that both parties can shake hands on will be a difficult task.
The remaining hurdles notwithstanding, this initiative is a major olive branch that will go a long way in repairing the relationship between the SSPX and the Church. This act could be seen as being even more significant than Benedict's lifting of the excommunications in 2009. And it opens the possibility of other sanctions against the SSPX being lifted, or even permanent faculties being granted.
The separation of the SSPX from the Church is lamentable, and we all should rejoice at this good news. Pray for reconciliation. During this crisis in the Church, they would be an invaluable ally.