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On the Society of Saint Pius X

by Christopher A. Ferrara
January 12, 2012
Published with permission by The Remnant

Father Brian Harrison argues that in a piece I wrote for the Remnant on the canonical status of the Society of Saint Pius X I was “too optimistic inassessing thecanonical effects that follow from the 2009 lifting of the excommunications on the Society of St. Pius X bishops” because, according to him, “All that followsper sefrom the lifting of the excommunications is that the four Society bishops are legally entitled to receive the sacraments, like any other Catholic who is not under excommunication or interdict.” He proceeds to unfurl technical canonical arguments on why some or all of the Society’s clergy remain suspended under other canons besides the one providing automatic excommunication for episcopal consecrations without an apostolic mandate.

Father Harrison’s objection misses the point of my article, which relates to the Society’s alleged lack of “full communion” with the Church despite the remission of the “excommunications.” The 2009 decree of the Congregation for Bishops provides that the 1988 decree declaring the excommunication of the bishops is “void of juridical effects beginning today” — that is, beginning January 21, 2009. Hence the lifting of the excommunications removed, not merely the inability to receive the sacraments, but also the inability to engage in

  • ministerial participation in celebrating the sacrifice of the Eucharist or any other ceremonies of worship....
  • celebrat[ing] the sacraments or sacramentals...
  • exercis[ing] any ecclesiastical offices, ministries, or functions...
  • Can. 1331 §1, (1), (2), (3).

    Furthermore, as I noted in my article, Pope Benedict himself made it clear in his Letter to the world’s bishops on the remission of the excommunications that the Society’s current lack of a recognized canonical status “is, not, in the end, based on disciplinary but on doctrinal reasons.” By “doctrinal reasons” the Pope apparently means the mysterious “Vatican II impediment” my article discussed, which seems to involve some sort of inchoate demand for a recognition of the Council as expressed in the secret Doctrinal Preamble recently tendered to the Society — but without squarely presenting to the Society any particular conciliar propositions to which an assent is required beyond an assent to what they and Catholics in general have always believed.

    Granted, besides the 1988 “excommunications” Archbishop Lefebvre was declared “suspended” a divinas on July 1, 1976, along with the priests he ordained on June 29, 1976 (including then Father Williamson). But the technical basis for that “suspension” was that the Archbishop (as he had done several times before with Vatican permission) ordained priests for the SSPX without incardination into a diocese. The Archbishop did so only after Cardinal Villot had blocked diocesan incardination and then orchestrated the SSPX’s “suppression” by a peculiar “Commission of Cardinals” (whose irregular decision was purportedly ratified months later by Paul VI). Moreover, as the neutrally written Wikipedia entry notes: “Bernard Tissier de Mallerais was never suspended a divinis, because he was ordained priest on June 29, 1975” — a year before the 1976 ordinations. Thus, how many of the Society’s current priests are (arguably) affected by the original a divinas suspension of the Archbishop thirty-five years ago needs to be clarified.

    Father Harrison also points to the suspension attaching to priests who are not ordained by their “proper bishop,” meaning a diocesan bishop, according to him. But this and other technical objections to the canonical status of the Society’s clerics could be remedied by a decree restoring nunc pro tunc the Society’s original legal standing as a society of apostolic life (or by making it a prelature) within which clergy can be ordained and exercise ministry. The Vatican has already offered a decree of that very sort in return for the Society’s bishops subscribing to the Doctrinal Preamble — proving, again, that no other impediment exists but the “Vatican II impediment.”

    I never argued that further technical regularization was not needed to clarify the Society’s canonical situation, which is a muddle at this point, with the Vatican itself sending mixed signals on whether the Society has a valid canonical mission in the Church. (How does one explain, for instance, the Congregation for Religious authorizing Mother Mary Micaela to transfer in May of last year from the Congregation of the Dominican Sisters of New Zealand to the Dominican Sisters of Wanganuim, an order of nuns affiliated with the Society and under the authority of Bishop Fellay?) My contention, rather, is that a final technical regularization has been halted only by the “Vatican II impediment,” and that otherwise there is no impediment in the sense of “lack of full communion” with the Church.

    Indeed, there cannot possibly be lack of communion with the Church in any meaningful sense if, as even Father Harrison admits, the bishops and priests of the SSPX “are legally entitled to receive the sacraments like any otherCatholic who is not under excommunication or interdict.” It is far from apparent how people entitled to receive the sacraments like any other Catholic could be lacking full communion with the Catholic Church, while any other Catholic is not lacking full communion. Clearly, we are dealing with yet another of those nebulous pseudo-concepts which, virus-like, have invaded the Church since the Council.

    With all due respect to Father Harrison, I believe the problem here is not my optimism, but rather his pessimism, which appears to equate with an impediment on the level of excommunication (or lack of “full communion”) easily remedied technical canonical irregularities of status on the part of priests and bishops whose Catholic faith is beyond reproach.

    Quite simply, it is as ridiculous as it is unjust to deny the Society technical canonical regularization on the grounds that, because of “doctrinal difficulties” with Vatican II that have yet to be reduced to a set of specific propositions calling for assent, its clerics lack “full communion” with the Church whose sacraments they are legally entitled to receive. Please!

    I respectfully suggest to Father Harrison that the good of the Church is not served by arguments which (although he surely does not intend this) lend themselves to the pernicious idea that Catholics who assent to every doctrine and dogma of the Faith are not really Catholics or not fully Catholics because they have a problem with what is self-evidently the most problematical Council in the history of the Church.

    This sui generis notion of a quasi-Catholic limbo inhabited only by the clerics of the Society — a netherworld between schism and “full communion” — is a diversion from the ecclesial state of emergency the Adversary would prefer we ignore: that in the Church at large vast numbers of Catholics are sitting in the pews (however occasionally) while rejecting every teaching on faith and morals they find disagreeable. These legions of silent and not so silent dissenters from clear and infallible Catholic teaching — these legions, indeed, of material heretics — are the ones who have a problem, a desperate problem, with ecclesial communion.

    But I suppose it is a sign of the depth of the post-conciliar crisis, and the diabolical confusion it has engendered, that even among traditionalists vastly more attention is being paid to the canonical Ps and Qs of a comparatively miniscule traditionalist society than to the falling away of millions upon millions of souls from the salvific truths of the Faith that same society has never ceased to defend and promote.