Society of St. Pius X

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The Society of St. Pius X (SSPX) is an international society of priests administered by a Superior General and District Superiors in various countries. Its official name is Fraternitas Sacerdotalis Sancti Pii X (FSSPX) or Priestly Fraternity of Saint Pius X. A well known traditionalist Catholic organization, it was founded in 1970 by then Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, who was opposed to the common interpretations of the Second Vatican Council.

Though many view it as a schism from the Catholic Church, the Church, in its public declarations, does not class it as such, though it considers that many of its leaders are, as individuals, schismatic. After Marcel Lefebvre's controversial ordination of four bishops in 1988, the Holy See's Congregation for Bishops declared him excommunicated lata sententia, a declaration confirmed by Pope John Paul II, who had tried in vain to achieve a reconciliation with Cardinal Ratzinger's help.[1]



SSPX was founded, with the provisional canonical approval of the Bishop of Fribourg (François Charnière), Switzerland in November 1970 by controversed French Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, former Superior General of the Holy Ghost Fathers, a Father of the Second Vatican Council, and one of the best-known modern prelates in Africa, where he spent much of his early career. He retired as head of the Holy Ghost Fathers in 1968 when the order began revisions of its constitutions, which Lefebvre considered modernist. The original founding of SSPX is generally considered to be the result of a conservative backlash within the Catholic Church that developed in response to the apparent radical revisions in both liturgy and Church policy that occurred during and after the Second Vatican Council of the early 1960s.

Shortly after his resignation, Lefebvre was approached by seminarians from the French Seminary in Rome who, they said, were being persecuted for their adherence to traditional beliefs and doctrines. They sought advice on a conservative seminary to complete their studies. He directed them to the University of Fribourg, Switzerland.

In 1970, urged by the Abbot of Hauterive and the Dominican theologian, Fr. Philippe, to teach these seminarians personally, Lefebvre approached the Bishop of Fribourg, who, three months before resigning the see, approved, with a document predated by six days to November 1, 1970, the founding of SSPX at the level of a "pia unio", the preliminary stage towards becoming an officially recognized religious institute or society of apostolic life. ("Pia unio", in English "pious union", was the term used in pre-1983 canon law for such an experimental group, which would now be called an "association of the faithful".) Swiss laymen offered the seminary at Ecône, Switzerland to the newly formed group.

In the normal evolution of such an association within the Roman Catholic Church, the diocesan bishop, after a suitably long period of concrete experience of the "pia unio", and after asking the advice of the Holy See, would raise it to official status at diocesan level. Lefebvre attempted to bypass this diocesan stage, and contacted three different departments of the Holy See for the purpose of passing directly to the stage of recognition at papal level. He succeeded in getting a letter of encouragement from Cardinal John Joseph Wright, Prefect of the Sacred Congregation for the Clergy, but no approval from the Congregation competent for raising the association to the level desired by Lefebvre. Even Cardinal Wright's letter, dated February 18, 1971, was couched in sufficiently prudent terms, speaking of the association "as Your Excellency presents it", and saying, with regard to the field of competence of Cardinal Wright's own Congregation, that the association "will be able to contribute much to accomplishing the plan drawn up by this Congregation for worldwide sharing of clergy".

On 6 May 1975, Pierre Mamie, the Bishop of Fribourg withdrew the "pia unio" status his predecessor had granted the Fraternity.

The "Nine Priests"

Within a decade of its founding in 1970, Archbishop Lefebvre's SSPX had become well established throughout Western Europe and the Americas.

In the early 1980s, several United States SSPX priests ordained by Lefebvre broke with him or were forced to leave his Society, principally because of Lefebvre's insistence on using the 1962 typical edition of the Roman Missal and on accepting John XXIII, Paul VI, and John Paul II as Popes (see Society of St. Pius V).

The 1988 consecrations

A central controversy surrounding SSPX concerns the consecration of four SSPX priests as bishops, despite papal prohibition. The Holy See declared Lefebvre excommunicated as a result.

In 1987, after over 15 years of heavy travelling to confer sacraments and ordain priests, the 81-year-old Lefebvre declared his intention to consecrate a successor, to ensure SSPX seminarians could be ordained and the rest of the sacraments could be conferred using the traditional Catholic rite. The Holy See objected to the plan, but began discussions, which led to the signing on 5 May 1988 of a protocol in two parts (for the contents, see L'Attività della Santa Sede 1988, published by Libreria Editrice Vaticana, pages 520-521).

In the first part, which is of doctrinal character, Archbishop Lefebvre, in his own name and on behalf of the Priestly Fraternity of St Pius X:

  • promised fidelity to the Catholic Church and the Roman Pontiff, Head of the Episcopal Body
  • accepted the doctrine contained in section 25 of the Second Vatican Council's dogmatic constitution Lumen Gentium on the Church's magisterium and the adherence due to it
  • pledged a completely non-polemical attitude of study and communication with the Apostolic See on the points of doctrine of the Second Vatican Council and the later reforms that he and the Fraternity considered difficult to reconcile with tradition
  • recognized the validity of the Mass and the sacraments celebrated with the required intention in accordance with the rites in the typical editions promulgated by Pope Paul VI and Pope John Paul II
  • promised to respect the common discipline of the Church and the ecclesiastical laws, in particular those contained in the 1983 Code of Canon Law, making allowance for special discipline granted by particular law to the Fraternity.

The second (juridical) part of the document envisaged, apart from the canonical reconciliation of the persons concerned, that:

  • the Fraternity would become a society of apostolic life with special exemption regarding public worship, care of souls and apostolic activity, in line with canons 679-683
  • the Fraternity would be granted the faculty to employ the liturgical books in use before the conciliar reform
  • a special commission, including two members of the Fraternity, would be set up to facilitate contacts and resolve problems and conflicts
  • it was proposed to the Holy Father that a member of the Fraternity be appointed a bishop.

This document was to be submitted to the Holy Father for his approval. The next day, however, Archbishop Lefebvre declared he was obliged in conscience to proceed with the ordination of the bishop on 30 June, with or without papal approval.

On 24 May, Archbishop Lefebvre was promised that, on condition that he requested reconciliation on the basis of the protocol he had signed, the Holy Father would appoint a bishop from among the members of the Fraternity, chosen according to the normal procedures, and that the consecration would then take place on 15 August, at the close of the Marian Year. Archbishop Lefebvre, on his part, presented at the same meeting of 24 May three written demands:

  • the consecration must take place on 30 June
  • not one, but three bishops, must be consecrated (this he had been asking for before the discussions that led to the signing of the protocol)
  • the majority of the members of the special commission must be from the Fraternity

On instructions from Pope John Paul II, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger replied to Archbishop Lefebvre on 30 May, indicating that the Holy See found these demands unacceptable and declaring that, if Lefebvre persisted in his intention to carry out unauthorized consecrations on 30 June, the promised authorization for the ordination of a bishop could not be granted.

On 3 June, Lefebvre wrote from Ecône to say he would still go ahead with the 30 June consecrations. On 9 June 1988, Pope John Paul II replied to him with a personal letter, recalling the agreement the archbishop had signed on 5 May and appealing to him not to proceed with a design that "would be seen as nothing other than a schismatic act, the theological and canonical consequences of which are known to you." No reply came from Lefebvre, and this letter was made public on 16 June. This was the first time the term "schism" was publicly used in the discussions.

On 30 June 1988, Archbishop Lefebvre then consecrated as bishops four SSPX priests: Richard Williamson, Bernard Tissier de Mallerais, Alfonso de Galarreta and Bernard Fellay. One of the normal conditions for a consecration is that a consecrating bishop must have two assistant consecrators; thus, the existence of four bishops ensured that, upon the death of one, three would remain to consecrate a replacement. Bishop Emeritus Antônio de Castro Mayer of Campos, Brazil, assisted Lefebvre in these 1988 consecrations.

Pope John Paul II, confirming a decree of the Congregation for Bishops, issued a motu proprio, Ecclesia Dei Adflicta [2] condemning the consecrations as schismatic and as entailing, in view of canon 1382 [3] of the Code of Canon Law (the code of laws of the Latin Church), automatic excommunication of all the bishops involved.

Lefebvre said the consecrations were necessary because the traditional form of the faith and sacraments would become extinct without Traditionalist bishops to pass them down to the next generation. He cited canon 1323, 4̊ and canon 1324, 5̊ [4], the former of which states that the penalty does not bind when someone has acted "by reason of necessity or grave inconvenience, unless the act is intrinsically evil or tends to the harm of souls." The latter canon states that, if the act is intrinsically evil or tends to the harm of souls, the perpetrator is not exempted from penalty, but the penalty must be diminished or replaced by a penance, if the offence was committed by one who was coerced by grave fear, even if only relative, or by reason of necessity or grave inconvenience. It also states that the penalty is to be reduced or replaced if the perpetrator erroneously, but culpably, thought the necessity or grave inconvenience mentioned in the previous canon (excluding therefore acts intrinsically evil or tending to the harm of souls) existed (canon 1324, 8̊). In all these circumstances, canon 1324 §3 concludes, automatic penalties do not apply.

Other canonists counter this argument by quoting canon 1325 ("Ignorance which is crass or supine or affected can never be taken into account when applying the provisions of canons 1323 and 1224") and stating that, in view of the clear formal canonical warnings given to Lefebvre, he could not claim to benefit from what the previous canons stated about action taken in error.[5]

Present canonical status of SSPX

Though the Holy See declared the 1988 consecrations a schismatic act, it does not view SSPX as constituting a schismatic Church, but has stated that some SSPX members are personally schismatic.[6] The department of the Roman curia that has competence for relations with the Society is the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei, created by Pope John Paul II in his 1988 motu proprio. There has never been any question of this commission issuing a general instruction or decree revoking or revising the 1988 decisions of the Holy See. Instead, as well as carrying out the main functions for which it was instituted, it has written to individual enquirers, explaining "the Church's present evaluation of the situation of the Society of St Pius X", spelling out the consequences, and declaring that attendance at SSPX Masses, since they are celebrated by priests suspended from priestly functions, is for Catholics "morally illicit" in normal circumstances.[7] The Holy See views the four SSPX bishops as validly consecrated but excommunicated. It regards the priests ordained by them as validly, but illicitly ordained, with the result that they are by law suspended from exercising priestly functions. No excommunication decree has been issued against the priests or other religious of SSPX (which does not have lay members), nor has any been upheld against those who attend SSPX chapels.

The SSPX, for its part, considers itself faithful to the Catholic Church and all its infallible teachings, while rejecting some interpretations of the documents of the Second Vatican Council, and it has acknowledged Pope John XXIII, Pope Paul VI, Pope John Paul I, Pope John Paul II, and Pope Benedict XVI as Popes. The four SSPX bishops do not claim ordinary jurisdiction over those who receive sacraments from SSPX priests and bishops. An appeal is made to canon 144 §1 ("In common error, whether of fact or of law, and in positive and probable doubt, whether of law or of fact, the Church supplies executive power of governance for both the external and the internal forum") and canon 844 §2 ("Whenever necessity requires or a genuine spiritual advantage commends it, and provided the danger of error or indifferentism is avoided, Christ's faithful for whom it is physically or morally impossible to approach a Catholic minister, may lawfully receive the sacraments of penance, the Eucharist and anointing of the sick from non-Catholic ministers in whose Churches these sacraments are valid") of the 1983 Code of Canon Law in regard to the sacraments of penance and matrimony, for whose validity ordinary jurisdiction is normally required, to justify their actual exercise of a jurisdiction alleged to be supplied extraordinarily, not only for these sacraments,[8] but even for marriage annulments and dispensations. Since SSPX priests consider themselves Catholic, they do not claim that the second of these canons, which concerns reception of sacraments from non-Catholic ministers, applies to their situation, and the first canon quoted protects only those who confess their sins to an SSPX priest while genuinely unaware that the priest lacks the jurisdiction that would make his absolution valid.

SSPX today

In mid-2005, the Society had, as stated on its website,[9] "336 member priests established in 27 countries, 50 brothers, 53 oblates, 226 seminarians in six international seminaries, 130 priories, more than 600 Mass centers regularly-served, nine retreat houses, 14 major schools, and at least 50 connected to priories or chapels." Its main seminary is in Ecône, Switzerland; others are located in the United States (Winona), France (Flavigny-sur-Ozerain), Germany (Zaitzkofen), Australia (Goulburn), and Argentina (La Reja). As indicated on the website, the priests based in its 130 priories travel to well over three times that number of other centres to offer Mass in the Tridentine form.

The SSPX received support for a while from Bishop Emeritus Antônio de Castro Mayer of Campos, Brazil and from his successor as head of the Priestly Union of St Jean-Marie Vianney, from Bishop Salvador Lazo of San Fernando de la Union, Philippines, and from Bishop John Bosco Manat Chuabsamai of Ratchaburi, Thailand. It still has links with "unattached" priests and religious who say they share its Traditionalist Catholic emphasis on law, liturgy and catechism, including a priest of the Ukrainian Rite, Fr Basil Kovpak.

Negotiations with the Holy See

After the 1988 episcopal consecrations, the SSPX and the Holy See had little, if any, dialog or direct dealings. SSPX sources say this ended after the Society led a large pilgrimage to Rome for the year 2000 jubilee, after which Cardinal Darío Castrillón Hoyos, of the Ecclesia Dei Commission, approached the SSPX bishops, stating that the Pope would grant them a personal prelature without territorial limits, like the personal prelature of the Holy Cross and Opus Dei created by Pope John Paul II in 1982 for an organization founded in 1928 by Saint José María Escrivá de Balaguer. The SSPX leadership indicated their distrust, saying Castrillón was vague on how this would be implemented and supported, and citing what they called objectionable Vatican dealings with the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter (FSSP) [10] and on the 1988 consecrations. They demanded two preliminary "acts of good faith" before continuing negotiations: that the Holy See officially declare that every Catholic priest has always been able to celebrate the Tridentine Mass and cannot be forbidden from doing so; and, secondly, that it declare null its declaration that the 1988 consecrations had resulted in excommunication. Cardinal Castrillón reportedly answered that declaring the excommunication null could be readily granted, but that making the statement concerning the Tridentine Mass would cause many of the world's bishops to go into open schism, particularly in France - a situation Rome was not prepared or willing to handle. Others find this account of the cardinal's reply difficult to believe.

For his part, Cardinal Darío Castrillón Hoyos refused to grant interviews on the matter, in order, as he said, "to maintain the privacy of the details of our dialogue". That silence was broken when his letter of 5 April 2002 to Bishop Bernard Fellay, the SSPX Superior, was published.[11] The letter contains the text of a protocol summarizing the meeting they held on 29 December 2000, a document that Bishop Fellay accepted at a further meeting the next day. (The excommunication of the bishops would be lifted, not declared null, if their situation were regularized.) The cardinal proposed personal meetings with Bishop Fellay. He wrote: "It would not serve a useful purpose, it seems to me, to continue our dialogue by direct or indirect writing, in order to shed light on the things that ought on the contrary to be treated on a personal and cordial level, as we have already experienced."

The reports of the Ecclesia Dei Commission appearing in the annual publication L'Attività della Santa Sede (Libreria Editrice Vaticana) for the years 2000 and those immediately following make no mention of these negotiations. The 2000 report says the commission continued its patient work of reconciling with the Catholic Church priests, seminarians and religious communities previously belonging to the Fraternity of St Pius X. In keeping with Cardinal Castrillón's desire to avoid counterproductive publicity, the SSPX name does not appear at all in the published reports for 2001 and 2002, which do speak of the discussions that early in the latter year brought about the admission to full communion of the Priestly Union of St Jean-Marie Vianney in Campos, Brazil, which was granted the status of a Personal Apostolic Administratorship within that diocese.

The 2003 report of the Ecclesia Dei Commission is thus the first of its 21st-century reports to speak of serious dialogue between SSPX and the Holy See:

"During the year, dialogue about the canonical situation of the St Pius X Fraternity continued at various levels. In this connection, the Cardinal President had some high-level meetings and kept up an exchange of correspondence. On the Holy See's side, there has been no change in the effective proposals for regularizing the question. After examining the problems faced by priests and faithful, considering the good will of several members of the Fraternity and the recurrent problems of the faithful attached to the former liturgical tradition who take part in the Fraternity's liturgy, the full membership of the Commission studied and presented to the Holy Father a draft for restructuring the Commission with a view to ... a possible return of the St Pius X Fraternity or of some of its members" (page 1097).

The 2004 report had less to say about SSPX: "Again this year, dialogue at various levels continued, though slowly, with the Saint Pius X Fraternity. The Cardinal President had meetings, some at a high level, in this regard. On the Holy See's side, the effective proposals for regularizing the situation remain unaltered."

Without having the meeting listed as one of his official audiences of the day, Pope Benedict XVI, the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger who in 1988 had in vain negotiated on behalf of Pope John Paul II with Archbishop Lefebvre, received for 35 minutes on 29 August 2005 Bishop Bernard Fellay, who had requested the meeting. There was no breakthrough, but statements from both sides spoke of the atmosphere as positive.

Controversies and politics

In 1982 Juan Fernández Krohn, who had been expelled from the Society in 1979, tried to assassinate Pope John Paul II in Portugal, claiming that the Pontiff was too liberal and was responsible for watering down Catholicism through Vatican II.

There is an ongoing controversy with respect to the Society of St Pius X occupying illegally the church of St Nicolas du Chardonnet in Paris since 1977. Mass attendance at St Nicolas du Chardonnet continues to be very high. An SSPX attempt in 1993 to occupy another church in Paris, that of Saint-Germain-l'Auxerrois, was unsuccessful.

In 2004, three Priests who were associated with the SSPX from the beginning, Fr. Aulagnier, Fr. Laguerie and Fr. Henry, were expelled from the society. It appears that Fr. Aulagnier and Fr. Laguerie were expelled for insubordination, and Fr. Henry was expelled for acting as Fr. Laguerie's canonical advocate.

See also

External Links

Official SSPX Websites


Sites critical of SSPX

fr:Fraternité sacerdotale Saint-Pie X nl:Priesterbroederschap Sint Pius X pl:Bractwo Swietego Piusa X

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