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Is the Society of St. Pius X Schismatic?

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Sep 08, 2006

Recently we’ve been criticized for referring to the Society of St. Pius X as a “schismatic” group. This is the organization founded by the late Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre as a way of preserving what he saw as authentic Catholic values and practices in the wake of the upheaval in the Church since the second Vatican Council. Operating in consistent disobedience to the Holy See, Archbishop Lefebvre eventually engaged in the specifically schismatic act of consecrating new bishops without the Pope’s authorization, for which he was automatically excommunicated.

What, then, of the Society of St. Pius X as a whole? This depends on how one is using its name. In referring to the SSPX as a specific structure, a juridical entity, we are referring to an organization controlled and operated by bishops whose consecrations were schismatic acts. Therefore, it is inescapably logical to conclude that the Society has been taken by its leaders into schism. The Vatican has been loath to drive this point home in public statements because it does not wish to exacerbate divisions while it still hopes for reconciliation. But the Society, as a juridical entity, is clearly schismatic because it adheres, juridically, to the schism perpetrated by those who govern it.

However the issue becomes more difficult when referring to the SSPX as a convenient means of identifying individual persons with a deep commitment to Catholic Tradition and a strong attraction to the Tridentine Mass. The Vatican has made clear, for example, that mere attendance at an SSPX Mass does not place one in schism. The question, clearly, revolves around each person’s degree of adherence to the schismatic character of the juridical organization and its leaders. When a person deliberately gives his ecclesiastical allegiance to schismatic bishops (and their organization), such a person is justly termed a schismatic. But it is unfair (and incorrect) to call any individual a schismatic in the canonical sense without such deliberate allegiance.

There are doubtless varying shades of gray among those who frequent SSPX chapels. Nonetheless, it is important to be clear about the fact that bishops are in schism when, having been consecrated without the approval of the Holy See, they also refuse to accept the conditions set forth by Rome for recognition of their episcopal office. It is not necessary to be a proponent of a rival pope to be in schism. It is enough to resist the pope’s authority in the matter of the making of bishops. Disobedience here breaks the constitution of the Church, thereby in effect making a pope of another bishop or of oneself.

It is perhaps impossible in these nuanced and diplomatic times to expect documentary clarity in such matters. But the SSPX, which exists in protest against all the uncertainties and waffling of the larger contemporary Catholic world, should be the first to recognize the dangers posed by terminological confusion and intellectual dishonesty. So let us stop pretending. Souls are harmed when reality is not correctly described.

NOTE: The following extremely pertinent news story was filed by Catholic World News the day after this commentary was posted: Vatican Approves New Traditionalist Institute.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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