Warning: An SSPX Priest Is Incapable of Absolving You from Sin
In certain sources which I refuse to publicize, it is being strenuously argued that sacramental absolution given by the priests of the Society of St. Pius X is perfectly valid. On this basis, one might suppose that the faithful may confess their sins to an SSPX priest and be assured of God’s forgiveness. Unfortunately, this simply is not true.
Some may assume that absolution by an SSPX priest would be illicit but still valid. If this were true, then the Sacrament of Penance celebrated by an SSPX priest would be unlawful, yet it would still “work”. But again, this is not the case, because the Sacrament of Penance requires ecclesiastical jurisdiction to be valid, and there is not a shred of ecclesiastical jurisdiction in the entire Society. Several popes—the source of all jurisdiction in the Church—have made this perfectly clear. For example, when Pope Benedict lifted the excommunications of the SSPX bishops in a gesture of good will, he emphasized that it was still the case that “the Society has no canonical status in the Church, and its ministers cannot legitimately exercise any ministry in the Church” (Ecclesiae Unitatem, 4).
This renders illicit all the ministries of SSPX bishops and priests, but it also renders some things, including absolution, invalid. When a sacrament is celebrated invalidly, it simply does not take effect. What this means is that SSPX bishops and priests lack the sheer ability to absolve from sin—except in danger of death, as we will see below.
Canon 966 in the Code of Canon Law states the matter succinctly: “For the valid absolution of sins, it is required that, in addition to the power of order, the minister has the faculty to exercise that power in respect of the faithful to whom he gives absolution.” The “faculty” is a grant of jurisdiction to hear confessions from someone who has jurisdiction. This could be the pope (who has universal jurisdiction), the local bishop (who has jurisdiction from the pope in a particular region), or a religious superior (who has jurisdiction from the pope within his order and/or for express circumstances). Thus faculties can be Apostolic (papal), episcopal, or regular (from a religious superior).
The second paragraph of Canon 966 explains that this jurisdiction can be conferred either by law or by “a concession issued by the competent authority”. By law, all priests can offer absolution to a penitent in danger of death. All other jurisdiction or faculties must be expressly conferred. And, as should be obvious, a bishop or religious superior can grant faculties (jurisdiction) only within the scope of his own jurisdiction. Thus, for example, a religious priest may be able to absolve members of his own order but not lay persons in the region where he exercises his ministry, unless he has faculties from the local bishop (which are often granted in more-or-less blanket form).
However, there is a bit of a twist with respect to bishops, because not only does the pope have the universal faculty for confession by virtue of his office, but Canon 967 accords universal faculties by law to cardinals and bishops, who accordingly can hear confessions and grant absolution throughout the world. Therefore, a bishop can (and commonly does, I believe) grant faculties to his priests to hear confessions anywhere in the world. But as the second paragraph of Canon 967 makes clear, such faculties are operative only if not denied by the local ordinary. The local ordinary has the authority by virtue of his supreme local jurisdiction to deny the use of the universal faculties to any visiting priest and even to a visiting bishop. In this sense, then, the universal faculties of bishops and priests, when granted either by law or by specific concession, are dependent on the acquiescence of the local ordinary, which is presumed unless otherwise stated. There is no such dependence for the pope or for cardinals, who represent the universal Church. [Note that this paragraph is a change made at 10:25 pm on May 27th to correct technical inaccuracies in my original explanation of episcopal and priestly faculties under the current Code of Canon Law.]
As the example of the religious priest above indicates, jurisdiction is not purely territorial. It can also be limited in scope in other ways, and it almost always is. Thus a pope or bishop may grant faculties in some matters and not others, and in fact it is usually the case that both the pope and the bishops reserve certain kinds of cases to themselves. In these cases, the priest not only may not give absolution, he can not. That is, he is incapable of doing so.
The point in this context is that the validity of confession depends in part on jurisdiction (faculties). Unfortunately, all SSPX bishops are illicitly ordained; they incurred excommunication immediately upon ordination, and though the excommunication has been lifted, they are still operating illicitly. This is because they lack canonical jurisdiction, as all recent popes have plainly said (see again the quotation from Pope Benedict cited above). Therefore, though they may claim to grant faculties for confession to their priests, they do not possess the requisite jurisdiction to do so. Nor, indeed, do they have the requisite jurisdiction to grant valid absolution themselves. They do not have it by law, as their episcopates are illicit, and they do not have it by concession from the pope. For this reason, the following conclusion is inescapable:
Unless you are in danger of death, do not confess your sins to an SSPX priest. If you do, it will sound like you are being absolved, and you may think you are being absolved, but in fact the Sacrament of Penance will not “happen”. This invalidity is exactly like a layman donning vestments to say Mass. Things may look and sound the same, but the ritual will be empty of effect.
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Posted by: demark8616 -
May. 29, 2013 9:19 PM ET USA
Warnings from Rome since the suspension a divinis of Archbishop Lefebvre in 1976 have been repeatedly issued. The SSPX has mountains of literature "proving" their claim to "extraordinary jurisdiction" to validate their sacraments. It remains, to this day, the hottest topic among them & their faithful - forever trying to 'square a circle' to justify their position. The SSPX are convinced that they are the "remnant" that hold the "True Faith" (lost to Rome) & that only their sacraments are valid. Their 'house of cards' depends on this "paranoid" position. That's why Bishop Fellay can blithely state that the Mass is "evil" and can continue the "rebellion" (Pope Paul VI)against Peter and Christ's Church. "... in your case... the expression of a warped ecclesiology...We cannot accept this erroneous judgment, this unjustified accusation, nor can We tolerate that the Lord's Eucharist, the sacrament of unity, should be the object of such divisions (cf. I Cor. 11:18), and that it should even be used as an instrument & sign of rebellion" Letter of Pope Paul VI to Archbishop Lefebvre (http://jloughnan.tripod.com/pvi2lefebvre.htm.
Posted by: Nuage -
May. 29, 2013 7:22 PM ET USA
demark616: Yes, I understand your argument, but few if any people don't know that the SSPX clergy do not have canonical status, and that the SSPX is separated from Rome. This automatically raises the question about the validity and lawfullness of their sacraments. The RC Church bears a huge responsibility to inform the faithful of the dangers in receiving or attempting to receive absolution from SSPX priests. Perhaps the reason for her silence is anti-traditionalist fervor among Catholic clergy.
Posted by: ramonantonio3455448 -
May. 29, 2013 2:41 PM ET USA
When will we leave something to God to be discussed between Him and the person affected and subject to His Supreme Authority, Justice and Love?
Posted by: jg23753479 -
May. 29, 2013 8:46 AM ET USA
GymK's comment points to the reason SSPX is successful when it is: pride, overconfidence in the mercy of God. In a word, presumption.
Posted by: demark8616 -
May. 29, 2013 2:31 AM ET USA
" the president of the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei stated that, in accordance with canon 144 someone who confesses to an SSPX priest while genuinely not knowing that the priest does not have the required faculty will be validly absolved, but that, with this exception, the sacraments of Penance and Matrimony in which SSPX priests are involved are invalid." http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Canonical_situation_of_the_Society_of_St._Pius_X
Posted by: Nuage -
May. 28, 2013 10:57 PM ET USA
The silence of the Roman Catholic bishops and priests whose faithful have been lured into SSPX parishes is truly deafening. It is as though they have said, "Good-bye and good riddance - don't let the door hit you on your way out!" The penalty for not protecting their flock, or the unity of the Church, will not be light. Those who have a large SSPX presence in their jurisdictions, and who have remained silent, bear a very heavy responsibility for the current situation.
Posted by: GymK -
May. 28, 2013 8:18 PM ET USA
while I agree with all of this as it is written, it sounds so much like the Pharisees of old. I remember a few years ago when there was a priest imposter in Italy. After he was exposed, the Pope declared that all of his confessions should be considered "valid" as the penitent had the right intention, etc. Again, I agree that you have stated the law correctly, but believe that God will grant absolution to those who in good faith confess to an SSPX priest if they are of good will. God help us all!
Posted by: jamesbell431857 -
May. 28, 2013 5:22 PM ET USA
Great article. If the SSPX had formed a personal prelature, that would have required enough humility and afforded enough grace to result in the SSPX being a gift to the Church. But their non serviam will lead them even further off the rails. Sad. I once comprehensively checked latinmasstimes.org. Sedevecantist TLMs and diocesan TLMs already both outnumber SSPX TLMs. They could have joined the Pope or the sedes. They chose the latter. They will become ever more influenced by their sede flank.
Posted by: AgnesDay -
May. 28, 2013 10:45 AM ET USA
Thank you, Dr. Mirus. I used to have contacts with people who went to SSPX "churches," and they would be astounded with this very important news. It needs to be spread widely and often.
Posted by: Nuage -
May. 28, 2013 8:15 AM ET USA
This is a very important commentary. Failure to point out when souls are in danger of perdition, even thru fear, causes complicity in the sin. Roman Catholic Faithful have been attracted to the SSPX in droves. They receive ALL their Sacraments EXCLUSIVELY from SSPX clergy - including Matrimony. They refuse to attend Mass anywhere else, although diocesan Latin Masses are readily available. All Catholic bishops know this. The Vatican knows this. This knowledge brings an obligation.
Posted by: Jeff Mirus -
May. 27, 2013 10:55 PM ET USA
To answer AnnH: My understanding is that the Eastern Orthodox and other non-Catholic Eastern churches have jurisdiction in descent from the original apostles and patriarchs, which is one of the reasons the Catholic Church regards them as a true churches (unlike Protestants). Therefore, the absolution of Eastern Orthodox bishops and priests is ordinarily valid, though the schism occasioned by the refusal to accept the Papal Primacy is a grave scandal and a serious injury to the unity of the Church.
Posted by: AnnH -
May. 27, 2013 7:46 PM ET USA
Does that mean that Eastern Orthodox priests, being separated from Rome, can not give valid absolution to their own people?