Episcopal action on the SSPX: A basic strategy for unity

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Nov 04, 2014

In the past few days, two bishops have been reported as announcing the excommunication of Catholics who attend Masses offered by priests of the Society of St. Pius X. First we heard from Bishop Marcello Semeraro of Albano, Italy, who reaffirmed the policy of his predecessor. Today there are reports that the same discipline has been imposed by Bishop Óscar Domingo Sarlinga of Zárate-Compana, Argentina.

These are not the only bishops who have ever moved canonically against the SSPX, but their actions seem significant for two reasons. First, they come close on the heels of the reopening of negotiations between Rome and the SSPX in what most believe is a final effort to achieve a reconciliation. Second, Bishop Semeraro is the Secretary to the Council of Cardinals which Pope Francis is using to advise him on the reform of the Curia, and Bishop Sarlinga is an Argentinian, and so these two bishops are more easily linked in the public mind to the Pope.

Either way, it is important to understand why some bishops are adopting this policy. It has nothing to do with the question of whether the SSPX bishops are excommunicated (which is no longer the case), or whether the SSPX is formally in schism (about which the popes have been noticeably coy while seeking to restore full communion). Nor are those who avail themselves of sacraments administered by SSPX priests either in schism or universally excommunicated by that fact. Arguing (as the Latin Mass Society of England and Wales has) that Bishops Semeraro and Sarlinga are on shaky ground because such universal judgments are not in force would seem to miss the point. Rather, at this time such excommunications are imposed diocese by diocese, according to the judgment of the local ordinary. This is because the SSPX constitutes a direct attack on ordinary episcopal jurisdiction in the Catholic Church.

It does not really matter what the SSPX sees itself as doing. The simple fact is that no bishop (let alone an illicitly ordained bishop) can send priests into another bishop’s diocese to administer the sacraments without those priests receiving faculties from the local ordinary. To do so is an assault on the proper authority of the local ordinary, who receives his jurisdiction from the successor of Peter. It is hardly surprising that Catholic bishops should be sensitive on this point. In fact, they are correct to be more sensitive to this issue than to almost any other. After all, for a Catholic to utilize the ministry of SSPX priests is, however muddled the intention, an escape from the jurisdiction of his real bishop and, by extension, of the Catholic Church itself.

Everything done by the SSPX is illicit, and at least some of the sacraments they administer are invalid. Because no SSPX bishop or priest has any canonical assignment within the Church, every one of them lacks jurisdictional faculties for those sacraments which require a judgment of the Church. This is true, for example, of both Penance and Matrimony. The absolution of an SSPX priest in the Sacrament of Penance is invalid in and of itself (though the Church may supply what is lacking in an otherwise innocent confession). Marriages witnessed by SSPX priests are also invalid. These are serious consequences, against which any bishop ought to at least warn the members of his flock, whether or not that warning carries the threat of excommunication.

Disciplinary Context

Although any fair-minded person ought to see why a direct challenge to a bishop’s jurisdiction is likely to occasion a response sharper even than that produced by questions of orthodoxy, it is also true that the history of the Church in the West over the past fifty years has given rise to an important question: Is there a tendency of bishops to punish lapses on the “conservative” or “traditional” side far more vigorously than such lapses on the “liberal” or “modernist” side? Beyond any shadow of doubt, the answer is Yes. Setting aside the immediate jurisdictional issue, why should this be so?

The answer is clearly found in the dominant culture, which selectively honors some sins while disdaining the virtues necessary to overcome them. Because our dominant culture thrives on a strange combination of relativism and political correctness, faithful adherence to contrary truths is discouraged, while challenges to Christian orthodoxy are admired. Since most bishops have been formed—almost inescapably—at least partly by the dominant culture, this makes it appreciably more difficult for them to punish fashionable deviations from Catholic teaching, or sometimes even to recognize their danger.

Now clearly the worst excesses of the sixties generation in the Church have faded. The episcopate and the diocesan priesthood have improved rapidly over the past twenty years or so. Liturgical abuses and heterodox catechetical programs are on the wane; schools under parish or diocesan control are becoming spiritually more reliable. But the process is not complete. For example, Catholic universities and many religious communities remain in serious disarray. Catholic politicians continue to advocate intrinsic moral evils with only rare episcopal intervention. Plus the influence of secular schools, secular media and secular government on Catholic formation requires resistance at every turn. So there is no question that every bishop still has much to do in correcting sins against the Church from the secularist or modernist side.

Even if there are more bishops active in this battle than there were a generation ago, there are still too many who are seriously culture-bound, though perhaps less so than the majority of their flock. What we might call the culture of Catholic renewal remains seriously deficient. Yet even a minimal tactical prudence demands that bishops who wish to guard their people against dangers on the “right” (as all of them should) ought also to be recognized as opponents of dangers on the “left”.

I am not knowledgeable enough to assess whether Bishops Semeraro and Sarlinga have been zealous in rooting out Modernism in their clergy and educational institutions, or in rescuing the faithful from—to take an important example—the faulty understanding of human sexuality and marriage which so dominates Western culture. But I do know that their insistence on proper episcopal authority in the Church will be more credible if that authority is exercised vigorously across the board. Culture blindness is very damaging to episcopal authority. A cowardly refusal to attack fashionable vices is even worse.

It is certainly necessary to correct the unfortunate tendencies which lead people to participate in the work of the Society of St. Pius X. But one of the best ways to restore and enhance Catholic unity is for a bishop to demonstrate palpably to those tempted that he also values their virtues and is unafraid to combat the vices they have correctly identified on the other side. Cowardly and culture-bound bishops never do this. Their failure is no excuse, but the result is always the same. Episcopal convenience is to disunity as dark clouds are to rain.

Note: I am happy to add that, as of April of 2017, Pope Francis is taking rapid steps to regularize the canonical status of the SSPX. During the Jubilee of Mercy last year, the Pope gave canonical faculties to all SSPX priests for hearing confessions, and on April 4, 2017 the Pope gave SSPX priests faculties to witness marriages in the name of the Church, and directed all bishops to make provision for the same. Finally, Pope Francis’ plan (not yet complete) is to reincorporate the SSPX into the normal life of the Church by establishing the Society as a personal prelature.

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 CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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Show 13 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: Nuage - Nov. 06, 2014 9:13 PM ET USA

    What the SSPX claim to teach and what they actually teach are two different things. Find an SSPX priest and ask him whether or not the Novus Ordo Mass is valid. Ask him if he will permit any member of his parish to receive Communion at a Novus Ordo Mass, or even to ATTEND a Novus Ordo Mass. And also as an SSPX priest who his bishop is. He will answer that he submits to the authority of the non-SSPX bishop in whose jurisdiction he resides. Then confirm this with the bishop.

  • Posted by: Nuage - Nov. 06, 2014 9:04 PM ET USA

    "I wish especially to make an appeal...to all those who until now have been linked...to the movement of Abp.Lefebvre, that they may fulfill the grave duty of remaining united to the Vicar of Christ...and of ceasing their support IN ANY WAY for that movement...formal adherence to the SCHISM is a grave offense against God and carries the penalty of excommunication..." Pope St. John Paul II, Ecclesia Dei Adflicta, July, 1988.

  • Posted by: Jason C. - Nov. 06, 2014 1:25 PM ET USA

    Nuage said the SSPX teaches "the Catholic Mass is invalid." I googled "sspx novus ordo valid" and immediately found three SSPX sites explicitly saying the opposite. It's also grossly inaccurate to throw about canonical terms such as "schism" that have not been formally declared, especially when the Church's view of the SSPX's canonical situation is not at all clear. See here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Canonical_situation_of_the_Society_of_St._Pius_X.

  • Posted by: shrink - Nov. 06, 2014 12:29 PM ET USA

    "Now clearly the worst excesses...have faded." I disagree with this. The intellectual engine of dissent and relativism—the university—has been gaining steam for 70 years, and has gone completely unchallenged. Most of the social pathology that we see today, in statism, hedonism, and sexual confusion is completely emeshed in the Catholic university. The harm that this institution has done to the Church and to society is beyond measure. The SSPX problem is a grain of sand by comparison.

  • Posted by: Nuage - Nov. 05, 2014 7:14 PM ET USA

    The SSPX are more than "deeply problematic." They now have well over a million adherents who exclusively belong to SSPX parishes, educate their children at SSPX schools, and support SSPX seminaries where illicit priests are taught that the Ordinary Form of the Catholic Mass is invalid, and then are eventually illicitly ordained, in absolute violation of the explicit demands of the Holy See. Schism is a refusal to submit to the Pope or of communion with the members of the Church subject to him.

  • Posted by: Jason C. - Nov. 05, 2014 10:46 AM ET USA

    The SSPX is deeply problematic as you correctly observe, but without them we would not have substantial clarity on post-Vatican II liturgical issues (e.g., a magisterial statement that the traditional Mass was never abrogated); let us pray that, in the Vatican's doctrinal discussions with the SSPX, we will also have clarity on post-Vatican II doctrinal issues (e.g., not just repeating 'there *is* continuity with tradition'--but an actual document where the Vatican "shows its work").

  • Posted by: John J Plick - Nov. 04, 2014 10:19 PM ET USA

    I am just grateful that these Bishops have identified a substantial problem & have found the courage, if for nothing else, to "try" to be militant. The Holy Spirit can work with a soul that takes a first step.

  • Posted by: Convert96 - Nov. 04, 2014 9:07 PM ET USA

    The more important question is "why now"?

  • Posted by: JARay - Nov. 04, 2014 8:29 PM ET USA

    In the case of Albano, the SSPX leadership in Italy is located in Albano.

  • Posted by: Nuage - Nov. 04, 2014 7:28 PM ET USA

    From St. John Paul II's "Ecclesia Dei Adflicta," July 1988: "...I especially wish to make an appeal both solemn and heartfelt..to all those who until now have been linked..to the movement of Abp. Lefebvre, that they may fulfill the grave duty of remaining united to the Vicar of Christ in the unity of the Catholic Church and of ceasing their support in any way for that movement. ...adherence to the schism is a grave offense against God and carries the penalty of excommunication..." JULY 2, 1988!

  • Posted by: jeremiahjj - Nov. 04, 2014 6:14 PM ET USA

    The bishop of the Colorado Springs diocese worked with a schismatic parish for years trying to bring them back into the fold. Finally, when it was apparent his efforts were in vain, he washed his hands, declared them outside the faith and warned members of his own flock of the consequences should they undertake to participate in schismatic services or sacraments. He did leave the door of reconciliation open slightly, but the next move is up to the schismatics.

  • Posted by: 1Jn416 - Nov. 04, 2014 4:49 PM ET USA

    This brings to mind the excommunications decreed by Bishop Bruskewitz in the Lincoln, Nebraska diocese in 1996. He excommunicated members of many groups, including the SSPX, but also the Hemlock Society, Catholics for a Free Choice, Call to Action, and more. The message was clear: Be Catholic! Be faithful! When a bishop who does not allow the Extraordinary Form in his diocese excommunicates only the SSPX, the message is different. A kindly bishop would at least ensure an EF Mass is available.

  • Posted by: Defender - Nov. 04, 2014 3:47 PM ET USA

    Thanks for a cogent explanation of this problem - it finally makes some sense.