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Defense of the SSPX – A Thomistic Approach

The question of the legitimacy and canonical status of the Priestly Society of St Pius X has been debated in all variety of media and formats. It seems most fitting to me, however, to approach the question from a perspective that would surely meet with the approval of the Society’s saintly founder, Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre. I speak, namely, of a Thomistic approach. The Archbishop attended the famous Roman Angelicum seminary and for the rest of his life spoke glowingly of his rector and teacher there, the famed French Thomist Fr. Henri Le Floch. Lefebvre spoke repeatedly of how the scholastic approach to theology confirmed him in the faith, helped him to reject a brief flirtation with modernism, and set him on the path of solid doctrine and adherence to Eternal Tradition that became the calling card of his entire later career. It is within this Thomistic framework of a well-reasoned argument that I hope to present a defense of the SSPX.

On a personal note, I once counted myself as an ardent opponent of the Society, before I had a “Saul on the Road to Damascus” moment. It was systematic examination of the issue—considering the arguments of the Society, the most common counterarguments, and rebuttals to said counterarguments—that, after over a year of prayer and study, finally convinced me that the Society’s positions are not only defensible, but indispensable. I present here a few common questions and objections regarding the Society and its canonical status, considering and responding to each in the manner of St. Thomas Aquinas in the Summa Theologica. Not all aspects of the SSPX debate can be covered here—and in those questions I address, I offer not a comprehensive coverage of all aspects of the issue, but rather a summary and starting point—but I offer for the reader a few of the more pressing questions. For a deeper examination of these and other questions, I enthusiastically refer the reader to the Society’s “Crisis in the Church” podcast series, which admirably and comprehensively summarizes the entire matter.

Editor’s note: if you are unfamiliar with a Thomistic argument, read the question and then skip to On the contrary where the author gives his argument.

Does the Society of St Pius X espouse the heresy of sedevacantism?

Objection 1: It would seem that the Society is sedevacantist. They have repeatedly disobeyed the popes, an implicit denial of their legitimate authority over the Church.

Objection 2: Further, by discouraging attendance at the Novus Ordo—the Mass celebrated by the Holy Father but which the Society claims is laden with heretical leanings—the Society would have the faithful to believe that the Pope is a public heretic and thus not worthy of obedience.

On the contrary, the Society and its leaders have never denied that the Holy See has been filled and the powers of the papacy have been lawfully exercised by Popes John XXIII, Paul VI, John Paul I, John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Francis.

I answer that, there is manifest evidence that the Society neither espouses nor tolerates sedevacantist attitudes. First and most importantly, the name of the current pontiff is always mentioned in the Canon of the Mass. This alone is sufficient evidence of the Society’s recognition of Pope Francis (and his predecessors) as Pope, as one cannot be “una cum,” in the words of the Canon, “one with” an antipope. The Society’s use of this name in the Canon indicates explicit and visible unity with, and recognition of, Pope Francis as Bishop of Rome. Further, Pope Francis’s picture is readily visible on the walls of SSPX chapels and seminaries around the world. Finally, Angelus Press—the publishing arm of the Society—publishes works specifically dedicated to refuting the sedevacantist position.

Reply Obj. 1: Adherence to the reigning pontiff in all things lawful is so important to the Society that it occasioned a split within the SSPX itself, in 1983. A group of priests advocating greater resistance to Rome and entertaining sedevacantist notions split away from the SSPX and founded the Society of St Pius V, a schismatic group that at the very least tolerates sedevacantism. These priests would have had no reason to leave if the SSPX on these grounds were truly disobedient to the Pope.

Reply Obj. 2: The Society has never said that the Pope is a heretic, simply that he, like the vast majority of prelates and priests, celebrate an immensely problematic rite that could and often does foster heresy. Theological and doctrinal criticisms of the Novus Ordo are not limited to the ranks of the SSPX alone. Theologians, liturgists, scholars, and lay people of every walk of life have sounded the alarm on issues like the obscuring of the sacrificial nature of the Mass, its implicitly ecumenical prejudice, and its violent rupture with the organic development of the liturgy.

Is the SSPX in schism?

Objection 1: It would seem that Archbishop Lefebvre’s consecration of four bishops—against the express orders of Pope John Paul II—constitute ipso facto an act of schism.

Objection 2: Further, the Society sets up chapels and priories around the world without the consent of the local ordinary, thus creating a parallel Church not in union with the bishops of the world.

On the contrary, the Society has never intended to leave the visible unity of the Church, nor to establish a parallel hierarchy. A group that does not declare its intention (by word or deed) to separate from the Pope is not, by definition, in schism.

I answer that, while the position of the Society is one of the complex issues in ecclesiology today, a careful examination of the facts will bear out the truth that they are manifestly not in schism, defined as separation from the visible hierarchy of the Church under the Bishop of Rome.

The Society has never declared the See of Peter to be vacant; has never denied the authority of the bishops; has never called into question the validity of the new rite of Holy Orders; and has never established a parallel hierarchy. All of the above are common features among Catholic schismatic groups. Several times, the SSPX has willingly received apostolic visitators, most recently Bishop Athanasius Schneider. As mentioned above, the priests of the Society name the pope in the canon, and so too do they mention the local Catholic ordinary. The SSPX has a standing policy of answering summons from Rome without question, always willing to discuss. The best thought experiment to show that the Society is not in schism would be to consider how a genuinely schismatic group with lawful orders and apostolic succession, such as the Eastern Orthodox, would respond in similar situations. Can one truly imagine the Greek schismatics naming the Pope or Catholic bishop in their Divine Liturgies? Or accepting official inspectors from Rome? It stretches the bounds of believability. This contrast shows clearly how different in position and temperament is the Society from genuinely schismatic groups.

Reply Obj. 1: The consecration of bishops by Archbishop Lefebvre and Bishop de Castro Meyer endowed four men with the power to confer Holy Orders, Confirmation, and other sacramental prerogatives of a bishop. It expressly did not confer on them jurisdiction—the power of binding and loosing, which is reserved to the holder of the keys, the pope.

Archbishop Lefebvre himself said that he could do no more than consecrate auxiliary bishops, not bishops with dioceses or jurisdiction of any kind. To underscore this point, SSPX bishops have only ever served exceptionally as Superior General of the Society since the death of Archbishop Lefebvre. This role is usually reserved to priests, in part to make clear that the bishops of the Society do not have any more legitimate right to govern than the priests.

To put the matter crudely: Archbishop Lefebvre did not consecrate members of the hierarchy, he consecrated “sacrament machines” whose sole purpose was to ensure the propagation of the faith and the continuity of the sacraments in an emergency situation—his own declining health and the utter lack of likeminded bishops who could carry on his work. Indeed, the move to consecrate was called “Operation Survival,” highlighting the exigency involved. Only the pope could ever award powers of jurisdiction to the bishops of the SSPX, or any other bishop—something that Lefebvre, far from denying, explicitly acknowledged.

Reply Obj. 2: The mention of the name of the local ordinary in the canon of the Mass indicates a visible expression of unity with the head of a diocese where an SSPX chapel exists. On matters where the SSPX has no, and claims no, jurisdiction, such as marriage tribunal cases, said matters are always referred to the local diocese. Before a new SSPX chapel is dedicated, the local ordinary is always notified. A schismatic group would not do any of this.

Was Archbishop Lefebvre legitimately excommunicated in 1988?

Objection 1: It would seem that Archbishop Lefebvre was excommunicated legitimately. In his apostolic letter Ecclesia Dei adflicta, Pope John Paul II wrote that “Mons. Lefebvre…[has] incurred the grave penalty of excommunication envisaged by ecclesiastical law.”

Objection 2: Further, regardless of the provisions of canon law, the pope reserves the right to excommunicate whom he will, even in the absence of a formal canonical trial.

Objection 3: It would seem that, because obedience is essential to the unity of the Church, that there is no excuse for disobeying an order of the Pope.

On the contrary, the excommunication of Archbishop Lefebvre was never promulgated or enacted on a valid basis, and thus cannot be held to have been at any time valid or binding.

I answer that, according to the Code of Canon Law of 1983 (canon 1323),

A person who acted coerced by great fear, even if only relatively grave, or due to necessity, or grave inconvenience unless the act is intrinsically evil or tends to the harm of souls” is “not subject to a penalty when they have violated a law or precept.

A careful examination of this canon supports the official position of the Society, which is that Archbishop Lefebvre was not validly excommunicated, even though the pope qua pope had the power to effect an excommunication. Even a superficial look at the Archbishop’s life reveals a man engaged in profound spiritual battle with the forces of darkness enveloping the Church. Agree or disagree with his positions or actions, one must admit that the Archbishop was genuinely concerned with the situation in the Church and that he saw himself as duty-bound, by virtue of his office, to respond.

He saw his own actions through the lens of a “state of necessity”: as he saw it, no one else was around to carry on the traditional liturgy or the perennial teachings of the Magisterium, especially teachings on Liberalism, Modernism, ecumenism, and religious liberty. A sober analysis of the goings-on of the latter half of the twentieth century revealed a Church in perhaps the starkest crisis since the times of Arius: mass apostasy, scandal at the highest levels of the Church, a turning away from Tradition.

Especially key to understanding Archbishop Lefebvre’s state of mind is the Assisi World Day of Prayer for Peace in 1986, just two years before the fateful consecrations. Motivated by a fear for the loss of the faith and fully convinced of the necessity of action—especially the necessity for his action, as a bishop and successor to the apostles, with obligations and duties proper to his state of life that are not proper to the same degree to the state of life of priests or laypeople—Archbishop Lefebvre saw no recourse but to do what he did. Given these motivations, the fact of his advancing age and declining health, and the fact that the act of consecrating bishops is manifestly not “intrinsically evil or tend[ing] to the harm of souls,” it can only be concluded that no grounds existed for the incurring of ecclesiastical penalty.

Reply Obj. 1: The Pope in this document does not positively excommunicate Lefebvre (i.e., he does not say “I excommunicate you” in the active voice) but rather states, as if it were a matter of fact, that Lefebvre and the others “have incurred the grave penalty” (emphasis added), in the passive. This indicates that it is referring to an act not taken by the pope himself but automatically incurred by canon law, with no positive declaration of the pope needed—indeed, under the 1983 code, such consecrations would be worthy of excommunication latae sententiae; that is, not needing an explicit declaration by the pope. However, the pope predicates his declarative statement on the following phrase: “envisaged by ecclesiastical law.” Thus, the Pope says not “I excommunicate” but “the law excommunicates.” According to the same ecclesiastical law, such a penalty emphatically was not in this case automatically binding for the reasons discussed above.

Reply Obj. 2: Excommunications are not an infallible act of the magisterium and thus are subject to the errancy of the Pope as a man and sinner. History contains numerous examples of nakedly unjust excommunications, with the most famous example being that of the St Athanasius—a man later canonized and declared a Doctor of the Church. In the Middle Ages, Popes Martin IV and Boniface VIII wielded excommunication as a political weapon, without moral justification. In one infamous case, Boniface even excommunicated unborn children. These cases demonstrate that excommunication can in some cases be invalidly applied, and an invalid punishment has no standing in God’s eyes.

Reply Obj. 3: The pope, while owed all lawful obedience, is not to be obeyed blindly and unthinkingly, as if he were incapable of error. We must avoid an exaggerated ultramontanism that violates the strictly defined boundaries of the Pope’s infallibility. According to Canon 1752, “the salvation of souls[…]must always be the supreme law in the eyes of the Church,” taking precedence even over obedience.

If a spiritual work, such as the consecration of a bishop, is necessary for the salvation of souls, it cannot be forbidden or wrong, even if the letter of the law in another place would seem to forbid it. To take an example from secular life: civil law in the United States prescribes driving on the right side of the road. This is ordinary law. But if I am driving in the right hand lane, in full accord with the law, and suddenly see a car ahead of me, hurtling toward me at full speed, am I not only right but bound to swerve into the left lane, supposing that it is empty? In other words, am I not only allowed but obligated to suspend the application of a given law (and human law, as Aquinas tells us, must always be dispensable in principle, as a matter of justice) to adhere to a higher law, that of saving life?

This is essentially what Archbishop Lefebvre did when he consecrated bishops against the orders of the Pope. As the Archbishop said,

We adhere with our whole heart, and with our whole soul to Catholic Rome…to eternal Rome…we refuse and have always refused to follow the Rome of neo-modernist and neo-Protestant tendencies.

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