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by Church Militant  •  •  September 2, 2015   

Refusal to submit to the Roman Pontiff

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The word itself has a nasty, harsh sound to it, and it's not one to be used lightly. Here is the definition from the Code of Canon Law:

Heresy is the obstinate post-baptismal denial of some truth which must be believed with divine and Catholic faith, or it is likewise an obstinate doubt concerning the same; apostasy is the total repudiation of the Christian faith; schism is the refusal of submission to the Roman Pontiff or of communion with the members of the Church subject to him." (Can. 751; emphasis added)

The million-dollar question is: Is the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX) really in schism? Or is such language merely divisive and hyperbole?

The answer is that the SSPX is undeniably in schism, and that talking about it is important, if not obligatory.

First, a distinction needs to be made between formal and material schism. Formal schism means the Church has issued a formal decree declaring a person or group to be in schism. This has never happened with the SSPX. Material schism is when a person or group conducts themselves for all intents and purposes as if they are in schism. Just as a person or group can be in heresy without a formal declaration of heresy, so a person or group can be in schism without formally being declared in schism. We argue that the SSPX is in material schism.

We recognize our position carries no canonical weight — even though prelates at the highest levels are in agreement with our assessment — nevertheless, we maintain that schismatic is the correct designation for several reasons.

Schism consists of two components:

  1. Refusal to submit to the Roman Pontiff
  2. Refusal of communion with the members of the Church subject to him

The case against the SSPX in the first component is strong, but requires some history to understand.

The case against them for the second component is bulletproof.

Pre-Consecration History

There can be no doubt that the SSPX was founded with the best of intentions. The founder of the SSPX was a former French Missionary named Abp. Marcel Lefebvre.

Several seminarians came to him seeking refuge from the liberal and modernist chaos that swept through the seminary system in the 1960s. To form the priests correctly, Abp. Lefebvre established a community in 1970 and named it the Society of St. Pius X. The SSPX received temporary canonical status for a six-year trial.

Things went well until the archbishop's enemies decided to shut down the seminary. This provoked Abp. Lefebvre to issue his infamous Declaration of 1974.

Unfortunately, instead of addressing the specific enemies provoking him, Abp. Lefebvre's declaration took aim at the Second Vatican Council and the Pope himself. This was all Abp. Lefebvre's enemies needed to swiftly crush the society.

An investigation was launched, and after a back and forth, the Society was suppressed. Archbishop Lefebvre appealed the suppression, but his appeal was rejected, and Bd. Pope Paul VI himself lent his authority to the decision.

Archbishop Lefebvre was presented with a difficult situation: The ruling was unjust — but it was legal and binding all the same. Ultimately, he decided to ignore this ruling owing to the fact that hostile bishops and cardinals had been responsible for influencing the decision negatively against the Society.

But the Church operates as a monarchy and not a democracy, and therefore defect in procedure doesn't affect the legally binding nature of the ruling. Rulings come exclusively from the authority of the monarch — the Pope — who freely lent his authority to this decision.

After the ruling, Abp. Lefebvre's first major act of disobedience came when Pope Paul VI denied him permission to ordain priests. The archbishop disobeyed.

Ordaining priests without permission incurs the penalty of suspension, where the cleric is immediately banned from celebrating the sacraments. All priests ordained by a suspended bishop are also suspended. This suspension remains in place to this day. 

The Bishop Consecrations

In 1988, after tense negotiations fell through, Abp. Lefebvre announced that he intended to ordain bishops to continue the SSPX.

Pope St. John Paul II forbade this, and Cdl. Joseph Ratzinger, then prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, pleaded with the archbishop not to go through with the schismatic act — but Abp. Lefebvre proceeded anyway.

It is at this point that disobedience transitioned into schism, and Abp. Lefebvre and the four bishops he consecrated were excommunicated.

Ordaining bishops against a papal mandate is an automatically excommunicable offense (can. 1013). It is possible to presume a mandate in the case of loss of communication with Rome, but no mandate can be presumed if the Holy Father explicitly forbids it outright.

This point is key: Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre excommunicated himself automatically by his defiance of the papal mandate. He was not excommunicated by the Pope, or by the order of a prelate (as in the case of Sts. Mary MacKillop or Joan of Arc).

A common misconception is that there have been no official statements from Rome declaring the SSPX to be in schism. This is untrue.

In the motu proprio Ecclesia Dei, wherein St. John Paul II confirmed that Abp. Lefebvre had indeed excommunicated himself, the Holy Father said the following:

With great affliction the Church has learned of the unlawful episcopal ordination conferred on 30 June last by Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, which has frustrated all the efforts made during the previous years to ensure the full communion with the Church of the Priestly Fraternity of St. Pius X founded by the same Mons. Lefebvre. These efforts, especially intense during recent months, in which the Apostolic See has shown comprehension to the limits of the possible, were all to no avail. ...

The root of this schismatic act can be discerned in an incomplete and contradictory notion of Tradition. Incomplete, because it does not take sufficiently into account the living character of Tradition, which, as the Second Vatican Council clearly taught, "comes from the apostles and progresses in the Church with the help of the Holy Spirit. There is a growth in insight into the realities and words that are being passed on. This comes about in various ways. It comes through the contemplation and study of believers who ponder these things in their hearts. It comes from the intimate sense of spiritual realities which they experience. And it comes from the preaching of those who have received, along with their right of succession in the episcopate, the sure charism of truth." ...

In the present circumstances I wish especially to make an appeal both solemn and heartfelt, paternal and fraternal, to all those who until now have been linked in various ways to the movement of Archbishop Lefebvre, that they may fulfill the grave duty of remaining united to the Vicar of Christ in the unity of the Catholic Church, and of ceasing their support in any way for that movement. Everyone should be aware that formal adherence to the schism is a grave offense against God and carries the penalty of excommunication decreed by the Church's law. (emphasis added)

This statement is an official act of the Church, recorded in the Acta Apostolicae Sedis.

Excommunications Lifted 

In 2009, the excommunications of the four consecrated bishops were lifted by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI as a peace overture towards the society. Notably however, they were not retroactive exonerations, and Abp. Lefebvre's excommunication has never been declared null.

While the excommunications have been lifted, the status of the SSPX has not changed. The following is a statement from Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI when he issued a letter in 2009 to the bishops concerning the SSPX:

The excommunication affects individuals, not institutions. An episcopal ordination lacking a pontifical mandate raises the danger of a schism, since it jeopardizes the unity of the College of Bishops with the Pope. Consequently the Church must react by employing her most severe punishment — excommunication — with the aim of calling those thus punished to repent and to return to unity. Twenty years after the ordinations, this goal has sadly not yet been attained. The remission of the excommunication has the same aim as that of the punishment: namely, to invite the four Bishops once more to return. This gesture was possible once the interested parties had expressed their recognition in principle of the Pope and his authority as Pastor, albeit with some reservations in the area of obedience to his doctrinal authority and to the authority of the Council. Here I return to the distinction between individuals and institutions. 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. This will make it clear that the problems now to be addressed are essentially doctrinal in nature and concern primarily the acceptance of the Second Vatican Council and the post-conciliar magisterium of the Popes. The collegial bodies with which the Congregation studies questions which arise (especially the ordinary Wednesday meeting of Cardinals and the annual or biennial Plenary Session) ensure the involvement of the Prefects of the different Roman Congregations and representatives from the world's Bishops in the process of decision-making. The Church's teaching authority cannot be frozen in the year 1962 — this must be quite clear to the Society. But some of those who put themselves forward as great defenders of the Council also need to be reminded that Vatican II embraces the entire doctrinal history of the Church. Anyone who wishes to be obedient to the Council has to accept the faith professed over the centuries, and cannot sever the roots from which the tree draws its life. (emphasis added)

While other cardinals and bishops have chimed in on the matter of the SSPX, their opinions ultimately carry no weight. The above documents are from the Supreme Pontiff's desk, and any private or public comments by prelates are not binding nor do they repeal or trump anything decreed by the Pope.

The SSPX has indisputably broken communion with those subject to the Roman Pontiff. This is a topic that is not often discussed when talking about the SSPX. There are numerous examples of this.

This partial list notes SSPX behavior and compares it with that of the Eastern Catholic rites — under the authority of the Pope — and that of the clearly schismatic Orthodox Church:

  1. Members of SSPX communities are forbidden and told to avoid the Ordinary Rite of the Church and even the Tridentine Mass when it is celebrated by a group such as the FSSP. Other Catholic Rites (Byzantine, Maronite, Catholic Coptic, etc.) do not do this, and the faithful may attend Mass at any parish in full communion with the Holy Father. The SSPX policy is so strict that it even goes farther than some schismatic Orthodox churches, which don't have this rule.
  2. Members of SSPX communities are strongly encouraged to avoid confession with priests in full communion with the Church. But Catholics in different rites may receive absolution from a priest in any other rite, provided they are in full communion with the Church. Catholics may even receive absolution from a schismatic Orthodox priest in an emergency.
  3. Members of SSPX commuities are told to ignore legitimate marriage tribunals and told rather to submit to SSPX tribunals. The SSPX does not recognize verdicts from the Church's marriage tribunals. This is a blatant violation of jurisdiction. While other Catholic rites are to seek decrees of nullity from their own hierarchy, all Catholic rites recognize one another's annulments.
  4. The SSPX often conditionally baptize and confirm Catholics who received sacraments of initiation in the Ordinary Rite. This goes far beyond anything done in any of the other Catholic rites. This is extreme even for the schismatic Orthodox churches, many of which do not re-baptize or re-confirm people leaving the Catholic Church to join them.

In summary, the restrictions the SSPX puts on its members with regard to communing with Catholics are even harsher than those put on Catholics communing with the schismatic Orthodox Church. The stance the SSPX takes on many aspects of Church life, especially decrees of nullity, closely mimics the Donatist schism in the early life of the Church.

All of the SSPX positions stated above are taken directly from their SSPX USA District website and its archives.


So why hasn't the Church used the word "schism" very often to define the situation of the SSPX?

It's most likely the same reason Protestants aren't called heretics, Orthodox aren't called schismatics, and non-Christians aren't called infidels: ecumenism.

If you compare the approach taken by Rome towards Protestants and the like versus the SSPX, they are one and the same.

We here at seek to aid in bringing the SSPX where they belong: in full communion with the Catholic Church under the authority of the Supreme Pontiff — the Bishop of Rome — the Pope.

This won't happen as long as Catholics keep beating around the bush. The faithful need to start speaking plainly about the SSPX, just as the last three popes have done. No more euphemisms. The SSPX are in schism. 

This puts their followers and potential followers at risk of breaking full communion with the Church — outside of which there is no salvation. There is no pleasure in calling out our brothers and sisters in schism, but as long as the situation of "no canonical status" remains, we are compelled to fight against this schism for the good of souls. Our highest wish is that our separated brothers be brought back into full communion with the Church — for the good of their souls and for the good of the Church.


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