Fr. John Emerson, FSSP: The Break With the SSPX

by Church Militant  •  •  September 17, 2015   

Former SSPX priest discusses the split from the SSPX in this 1990s Wanderer interview

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By Gary Potter

Father John Emerson began his studies for the priesthood with the Dominicans after graduating from the University of California at Berkeley with a major in history. In 1979 he left the Dominicans and the U.S. for the seminary of the Society of St. Pius X in Econe, Switzerland. There he was ordained a priest by Abp. Marcel Lefebvre in 1981. He is now a priest of the Society of St. Peter.

Q. Father, you are a priest of the Society of St. Peter. When and how did the Society come into being, how does it operate, and what is its purpose?

A. It came into being on July 18, 1988, at a meeting at the Cistercian Abbey of Hauterive near Fribourg, Switzerland. We met there — I wasn't yet a member, so I wasn't there — the Society met there, about 10 priests and a number of seminarians, all of them, except one or two, persons who had just left the Society of St. Pius X because of the schismatic consecration of four bishops by Archbishop Lefebvre. They were all convinced this was not simply a further necessary disobedience in order to keep tradition alive, but a true break with Rome, and they could not in conscience go along with it — particularly after Rome had offered everything that Archbishop Lefebvre had ever wanted of substance. Rome had offered it all, and we were scandalized he refused it, truly scandalized. We weren’t simply surprised or unhappy, we were scandalized because he was our spiritual father and we trusted him, and he did not do in the end what was right.

Q. Perhaps we can conjecture later as to his motives ...
A. Sure, we will.

Legitimate Rights

Q. The point to establish now is how does the Society operate. I have heard you say [in conversation before the interview] that it operates as an Institute of Pontifical Right. What does that mean?

A. That means that we are directly under the Pope through the Ecclesia Dei Commission and Cardinal Mayer. The Pope set up Ecclesia Dei [i.e., the Commission] to deal with all traditionalist groups or even individuals who wish to reconcile themselves with Rome fully and not to follow Archbishop Lefebvre into schism. Those of the Society of St. Pius X who left founded the Society of St. Peter. Rome immediately approved that foundation provisionally and accepted the election of Fr. Bisig as the Superior General and then said that as quickly as possible they would raise it to the status of a Society of Pontifical Right, which, as I say, means that we do not have to go through the process of being under a diocesan bishop, which means he would be our direct superior and would decide everything regarding our life and future. Rome wants to deal with us directly. Rome knows there are bishops who are not interested, and even if we were simply under a bishop that would be something quite chancy in terms of the future. Rome wants traditionalists around the world to see that Rome is serious about giving traditionalists all their legitimate rights within the Church. So, the actual erection of the Society came exactly three months later on Oct. 18, and as I said [again in earlier conversation] it normally takes 20, 30, 40 years for a new order to reach that status. We got it in three months. Again, that is proof Rome is behind us.

What it means in a practical way is that we can take seminarians and train them ourselves. We don't need a bishop's permission to take from his diocese those who wish to come to us. They enter us directly as they would enter directly into the Dominicans, the Salesians, or any group of that type, although we are not a Religious order. We don't take the three vows, poverty, chastity and obedience. We only take a promise of obedience to the superiors.

Also, if a priest wants to leave his diocese or Religious order and come to us, we can directly incardinate him, if his bishop or order allows him to leave, which is normally the case when a man wants to change orders. We can accept them without having, again, to ask somebody else for permission. We can just take them immediately into the Society, and they are incardinated into the Society as a secular priest is incardinated into a diocese.

Q. You're saying, in effect, that any priest has the right to join the Society of St. Peter.

A. That's right. I might add, in regard to our end or purpose, it is of course orthodoxy as it is expressed particularly liturgically. We have been given the absolute right by the Vatican to use exclusively the liturgical books in force in 1962. Now that does not mean simply the missal. It means all the liturgical books. That means our ordinations are according to the old rite, that all the minor orders, exorcist, lector, etc., including subdeacon, are back in existence not only for us but for other traditional groups that I might talk about later that Rome has since reconciled or is in the process of reconciling. It means that those who come to our chapels will expect and will get Baptism, Confirmation Marriage in the old way.

The May 5th Agreement

Q. Okay, you're emphasizing liturgical matters. Let me put something else to you. Really, it's a question in two stages. First stage: Does the Society operate exactly as the Society of St. Pius X would have under terms of the May 5, 1988 agreement [signed by Cdl. Ratzinger and Abp. Lefebvre], had the archbishop stuck with that?

A. Yes, except that he would have had a bishop and we do not. In other words, he would have had a bishop who would have been consecrated for the Society and for the traditionalist movement worldwide. We have to depend upon — and there has been absolutely no difficulty — local bishops or Curia cardinals or bishops who are willing to come and do the Ordinations and Confirmations and so on for us.

Q. Do you envision the day when you may have a bishop?

A. Well, yes, Rome talks of it for the future. For now it would be rather ridiculous for a community of 20 priests and 30 seminarians, as we are now, to have our own bishop. It was sensible for the Society of St. Pius X with 10 times that number.

Q. Okay, let's get back to the second stage of the question at hand. The point I'm really getting at is that as part of the May 5 agreement, the Society of St. Pius X enjoyed the right to be able to raise doctrinal questions, such as notably in regard to the Vatican II Declaration on Religious Liberty. That is, they enjoyed the right provided they weren't creating public furor ...

A. That's right.

Q. Well, does the Society of St. Peter enjoy this same right?

A. It does. It enjoys precisely that same right. Those who founded the Society had to sign absolutely no document of any kind regarding their adherence to the Council, and so on. But it was understood they were the part of the Society of St. Pius X which was willing to continue to accept the May 5 agreement. So it was understood that they had. ... They said it openly: "Archbishop Lefebvre signed in our name, not only his own, we can continue to accept what he signed," and then Rome said, "Fine, you are the ones with whom we will deal."

Those of us who joined afterwards — I was the first to join after the actual foundation — did have to sign a page of doctrinal statements which were exactly, word-for-word, what Abp. Lefebvre signed on May 5. Obviously the other part, the practical part, fell out of relevance, but the doctrinal part remained important, and none of us has found — indeed, the Archbishop found — no serious difficulty in signing that. Indeed. We can continue to critique, without polemic, those parts of Vatican II which appear to us not to be in clear accord with tradition. And we are doing so. And Rome expects us to do so. It's not a problem.

In fact, take one of those documents, the one, Church in the Modern World — it's a dead letter in the Vatican: They realize it was a document written with a sixties sort of optimism that is pointless today, and they just pay no attention to it.

Now on the other hand, the one on religious liberty is a, quote, bone of contention and will continue to be so. And, as I say, without polemic we are continuing to study the question. More actively, it’s being considered very seriously by a group of Dominicans who have reconciled themselves with Rome. They had five of their men ordained priests — again according to the old liturgy — in December, 1988, in France. They are going to be a very interesting group within the Church now.

The Schismatic Mentality

Q. We can get off on some of these other groups and associations later. Right now, you raised an interesting point en passant. You spoke of the consecration of the four bishops [by Archbishop Lefebvre] as not being a ‘necessary disobedience.’ I wonder If you would speak to the difference between disobedience and schism.

A. Yes, well, for example, the priests that Msgr. Lefebvre ordained, including myself, I never believed, and it was entirely clear from their attitude that Rome never seriously thought, this was in any way a schismatic act. It was purely disobedient. It was a disobedience which many of us were willing to go ahead and commit because we believed it was absolutely essential for the life: of the Church, for the health of the Church, that traditional liturgy continue and not simply disappear, and it seemed at the time that was the only way it was going to continue. Now, that can be argued, but in conscience we felt fully able to go ahead and do that without sin, without any kind of real suspension.

The consecration of bishops, on the other hand, is a clear act of schism, of breaking with the head of the Church, of setting up a parallel hierarchy, setting up an independent church. Of course that is exactly what schism is. It is not to be a heretic, which is to say, no, the Pope is, not head of the Church. It is to say, yes, he is, but we are simply going to ignore that and go ahead on our own.

Another part of schism, interestingly, is this: Even if one continues to say, yes, we are under the Pope, we obey the Pope, but it is then to break entirely with those who also are under the Pope, and that the Society of St. Pius X also has done very clearly since the break by considering utterly traditional groups like us, like the Abbey at La Barrou in France, to be now part of the Modernist conspiracy, if you like. In truth, we are in every way traditional, but we accept the Pope and we obey him. Therefore we are outside the pale. That, too, is classically the schismatic mentality.

It's clear the Society [of St. Pius X] has accepted the dangers of a real schism and is just plowing ahead.

Read the rest here. All emphases added.


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