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Splintering: The SSPX Dilemma

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | May 17, 2012

Let me say again that I hope the reconciliation of the Society of St. Pius X to the Church is swift and complete. Sadly, however, current information suggests there is real danger of a split within the organization if SSPX head Bernard Fellay signs an accord with Rome. This should not be surprising, and it underlines what has been wrong about the SSPX from the first.

The SSPX has no real authority principle. To claim adherence to tradition is not an authority principle. Even to claim acceptance of papal authority while refusing to obey the ecclesiastical decisions of the current pope is not an authority principle. Those who have no authority principle have no recourse other than private judgment, because these are the only two possibilities. Either you accept some authority, or you decide for yourself.

Thus traditionalist organizations are as plagued by separatism over time as is Protestantism. Separatism in religious history is the principle of separating off into one’s own special church when disagreements arise over the content of Christian faith or morals, or even sometimes devotional and disciplinary issues. Separatism is what Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre precipitated when he began to speak for “real” Catholics around the world and ultimately broke from Rome by ordaining his own bishops without authorization. In years past, we have seen the Society of St. Pius V spin off from the SSPX because of conflicts over the proper interpretation of Tradition (for Tradition always requires interpretation, just like Scripture; it is not the authoritative guide to its own meaning). We have also seen a portion of the Society return to the Church as the Fraternity of St. Peter, while many more refused to do so. Although we hope this will not be the case now, we may well see more separatism if Bishop Fellay agrees, in his official capacity, to restore full communion with the Church.

The evidence and the rumors suggest that three of the four SSPX bishops may bolt, even though in theory the final decision concerning reunion belongs to Bishop Fellay, the Superior General of the Society. (I am choosing the word “reunion” very carefully here, as it is a myth that there has been no breach. Self-evidently, there would be no basis for negotiations if a breach had not occurred.) In this connection, the noble effort of the District Superior in the United States to preserve unity is telling. Lamenting reports of internal conflict, and lamenting even more that evidence of the conflict was leaked to the press, Fr. Arnaud Rostand has advised American members of the Society that the decision belongs to Bishop Fellay, and that all members should be prepared to follow it.

But why? There is no true authority principle in the SSPX, and Bishop Fellay has no more of a Divine right to determine the path and duty of these souls than Joe Palooka. That’s what happens when you don’t have an authority principle. Everything is based on makeshift alliances. Enemies of enemies may be friends, but if enmity disappear among some, it will increase among others. For every split that is overcome, more splits will occur. In the end, each man is his own judge of the Tradition; each man is his own judge of the Truth.

It will be wonderful indeed if all or most members of the SSPX actually deeply regret having let themselves be hardened into a breach with Rome, so that while still unwilling to overcome that breach personally, they fully intend to jump at any opportunity to do so corporately. All of us should pray that they will both receive and accept a fresh opportunity to grasp the authority principle which the Church alone possesses and hang on to it once and for all, until they die. Ideally, getting caught up in the passion of these divisions will be remembered at some point as a bad dream.

Right now, however, it looks like many members of the Society intend to exchange any remaining misunderstanding for an ever stronger conviction that the Faith is not what the Magisterium of the Catholic Church defines it to be. Therefore as this unfolds we must be prepared to understand a most important point: In the last analysis, where there really is no authority principle, unity exists only if it pleases me.

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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  • Posted by: Erik George - May. 22, 2012 8:18 AM ET USA

    I think the comparison to Protestantism is incorrect as is the contrast of Tradition and Authority. The comparison should be to Orthodoxy instead and the contrast should be between an overweighting of Tradition which is error of the Orthodox and the SSPX and the overweighting of authority, which is the historic tendency of Rome. The wound in the Church is the severance of Authority from Tradition. This is something only Rome can heal...and the Pope knows it.

  • Posted by: Jeff Mirus - May. 18, 2012 8:33 PM ET USA

    In response to GymK: I am astonished that anyone who read this article could even remotely conceive that it was directed against the Holy Father. The whole point was to comment on the problem of those who seem to be on verge of rejecting his overtures.

  • Posted by: - May. 18, 2012 7:16 PM ET USA

    I'm not sure this is a helpful article. At this time, we should all be hoping and praying that all the SSPX bishops wish to be reconciled with the Church. SSPX has provided many Catholics with a port in a storm when scandalous and abusive Masses and heresy have been proclaimed. SSPX needs to be reconciled, but we need them too.

  • Posted by: JimK01 - May. 18, 2012 6:20 PM ET USA

    Thank God our Holy Father does not share your negative attitude towards those folks who have been led astray into the SSPX. Pope Benedict truly represents the Good Shepherd who would leave the ninety-nine to save even one lost sheep. Many well-intentioned folks in the SSPX need to be reconciled with the One, True Church and Pope Benedict is doing everything within his power to facilitate that. True Catholics should joyfully support his efforts without criticism and/or “pontificating” against him.

  • Posted by: - May. 18, 2012 1:00 PM ET USA

    Articles on the SSPX North America website indicate that the divisions within SSPX are being over exaggerated. From what I've read, there and elsewhere, the other bishops are prepared to accept the authority of Fellay, even if they don't agree with it. You're right, however, there is no moral imperative for them to do so, as they are already separated from the Church, though they consider the excommunications to have been invalid...

  • Posted by: koinonia - May. 17, 2012 8:45 PM ET USA

    Interesting analysis but something is missing. It's at the heart of it all. It's interesting to note the tone of Peter's successor thruout. It's interesting to note conditions required to date of the SSPX. Anyone expecting any "deep regret" from anyone-including Fellay-is not understanding what has been unfolding these years. Anyone who does not see the miracle in what has happened to date is not seeing. And anyone not cautiously, joyfully prayerful in these recent days is "missing the Boat."

  • Posted by: John J Plick - May. 17, 2012 8:10 PM ET USA

    To easy to make negative comments particularly from a position of strength ("I thank You that I AM NOT like that 'tax collector'") Let us pray... We should be facilitating this.

  • Posted by: AgnesDay - May. 17, 2012 6:03 PM ET USA

    I think you are right, Dr. Mirus. I am acquainted with several SSPX adherents who left as soon as a FSSP Mass was available to them. They did not want to separate from the Church, but Catholic liturgies were extremely abuse-ridden in the places they lived. Bishop Fellay and many others are obviously very uncomfortable in their positions. We need to pray for them.

  • Posted by: - May. 17, 2012 4:09 PM ET USA

    You're oversimplifying a complex situation. It is very telling that the one man who knows more about it than anyone, living or dead, is now Pope and clearly pushing this through on his own initiative. He's had to fight his own curia and bishops thru out the world who have not respected his motu proprio. Benedict very much wants this wound healed even at personal cost. It's difficult to see how your statement at this time is assisting Benedict to whom, you too, owe "religious submission".

  • Posted by: - May. 17, 2012 3:23 PM ET USA

    Traditionalists: It is the Pope who carries the keys. Your lock pick is not a viable alternative.