Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary
Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary

SSPX adherents pose an obstacle to reconciliation

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Sep 23, 2014

I am delighted that the Vatican and the Society of St. Pius X are talking again. This means that hope for a reconciliation of the SSPX with the Church has not been abandoned. But in thinking about this today, I realized something quite significant. Because the SSPX is not territorial in nature, its very adherents constitute a growing obstacle to reunion with Rome.

What I mean by this is best explained by considering an alternative case. In Catholic history, the problem of schism has most often been territorial. For reasons that are largely socio-political, leaders in one region or another resent and reject the authority of a particular pope. They then advance an argument as to why a different pope is really the legitimate one (the typical case in the West, usually arising from dynastic squabbles) or why no pope is really necessary (the typical case in the East, arising from excessive deference to the Emperor in Constantinople).

There is a certain convenience to this sort of schism if it does not go on long enough to become deeply ingrained in the piety of those who are separated. If, at the highest levels of negotiation, a solution is reached, and the wayward parties can be persuaded that it is to their advantage to recognize and obey the lawful successor of St. Peter, then everybody else more or less goes along. Few at the lower levels have any vested interest in perpetuating the separation.

The Case of the SSPX

The Society of St. Pius X, however, is not territorial. In this sense it is far more like a heresy (as in some respects the hardening beliefs of the Society may well prove in time to be). This is so even though the form of the organization is based on a technical refusal (and a practical rejection) of the Pope’s authority to order episcopal jurisdiction in the Church. The ordination of bishops without papal approval and the establishment of a separate ecclesiastical governance are, of course, schismatic acts. They would rupture communion with the Church even if there were no difference in belief whatsoever.

But the SSPX is more like a heresy because in practice it prospers around the world by drawing to it those people in every region who have serious reservations about key Catholic doctrines as they have become more fully understood and developed in modern times, or serious reservations about disciplinary changes which they believe fundamentally alter the salvific efficacy of the Church. These reservations are used to justify what is referred to as the necessity defense for wholesale disobedience.

I will not dwell again here on the absurdity of the necessity defense as a justification for a refusal to accept papal authority over the jurisdiction of all bishops; this so-called defense is in essence a historical and theological myth. The important point here is that, like a heresy, the SSPX attracts—increasingly over time—those who are most disaffected from important elements of Catholic teaching (and of course liturgical discipline). Thus the ever more extreme and recalcitrant doctrinal and disciplinary attachments of the adherents of the SSPX cause the adherents themselves to be a major obstacle to reconciliation with the Church.

It is precisely for this reason that whenever efforts at reunion get to the stage of serious discussion, many voices are raised decrying the slightest compromise with Rome, and insisting on the essential purity of the Holy Way of the SSPX. As I mentioned, these are the earmarks of heresy rather than schism. As soon as this happens, the SSPX bishops, including Bishop Fellay, face the additional dilemma of assuring their volatile and extraordinarily touchy followers that they will never give up anything essential to the Society. Thus there is a marked cultural pressure from within to maintain separation. This pressure is quite different from the socio-political pressures that have most often been characteristic of schism in earlier periods.


We see in the SSPX a schismatic body, possessing no alleged doctrinal difference with Rome concerning the fundamental constitution of the Catholic Church, which behaves exactly as if it is possessed by a classic heresy. In other words, it sees itself as the ultimate custodian of pure Christian doctrine, and refuses to operate in any sort of union with the universal Church, which it regards as having in these latter days fallen away from Christ.

I have often said that this is the way of Luther, of Calvin, of Zwingli, of John Knox, of Roger Williams, et al. This is, in fact, the essence of what in the history of Christianity we call separatism. And separatism is the face that launched a thousand sects.

To be even more precise, separatism has launched a thousand sects whose members all recoil, in the mad euphoria of private judgment, from the horrors of Rome. What is a little odd in the present case is the effort of the SSPX to retain some sort of hierarchical control, reminiscent of Anglicanism, despite presiding over a sort of grand doctrinal and disciplinary confusion. As time goes on, there will be less and less of substance to preside over, as the alleged content of faith splinters and warps to suit the predilections of those who wear a badge that can only read “every man his own pope.”

Please notice that it makes no difference that this reading is performed in the name of tradition. Every sect that has ever been formed has been self-deluded into thinking it alone preserves the true gospel from the previous age. In the absence of religious obedience to a contemporary Magisterium, there is no other argument that can be made without peering into the mirror and seeing a self-evident fool. It is always the same cry: Rome has erred! Rome is corrupt! We alone are called to preserve the Gospel of Christ!


Insofar as Rome can acknowledge some responsibility for a lack of doctrinal and liturgical discipline, she will naturally have one more reason to proceed as rapidly as possible with her own renewal while offering as many assurances as possible to the Society. We saw this especially in the pontificate of Pope Benedict XVI. But ultimately the judgment of what must be corrected and how belongs to the Vicar of Christ, and not at all to any group of gnostic illuminati who fancy themselves to be repositories of the Divine spark. Catholicism is nothing if not an incarnate Faith—a faith of real live sinners—with all the bungling and messiness this must entail.

One is reminded of the famous saying of Hilaire Belloc—living very much in the age so prized by the SSPX—which runs as follows:

The Catholic Church is an institution I am bound to hold divine—but for unbelievers a proof its divinity might be found in the fact that no mere human institution conducted with such knavish imbecility would have lasted a fortnight. [quoted in Robert Speaight’s 1957 Life of Hilaire Belloc; New York: Farrar, Straus, and Cudahy; p. 383]

This classic joke must be deeply understood by every adherent to the SSPX. It points to the necessary intuition that the one true Church cannot be improved by rebellion. The only legitimate radical option is holiness within the one Body. In contrast, the pressure for a form of distorted separatist purity—a pressure necessarily exerted by those attached to the peculiar passions of the Society of St. Pius X—presents a grave obstacle to successful negotiations with the Church of Christ.

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 See full bio.

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Show 10 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: bernie4871 - May. 16, 2016 11:02 AM ET USA

    Younger persons will glibly say, one way or another, that the old don't understand the young and the future will turn out OK as it always has in the past. Today, morally, culturally, historically older educated persons finds that absurd. Many young people can't even tell you who is on the front of a $1, let alone "Who made me?", "Who am I?", "Why am I here?", "What SHOULD I do?". So they live with their girl friend, kill their baby, smoke pot, live in adolescence till they are 24 or someday.

  • Posted by: james-w-anderson8230 - May. 14, 2016 5:29 PM ET USA

    It seems to me that every generation, at some point, thinks that their generation is falling apart in comparison to the previous generation. It may be because it is very difficult to put ourselves into the shoes of the previous generation or maybe it is because we know how the past turned out and we are uncertain how the present will turn out.

  • Posted by: Don Vicente - Nov. 03, 2014 5:11 PM ET USA

    And of course, besides the Mass itself, no one seems to have addressed the question of the invalidity of Novus Ordo Holy Orders in the eyes of the SSPX. I was ordained 37 years ago by Cardinal Baum -- but he used the post Vatican II Ordination Rite. So, according to the SSPX priest I talked to back then, I'm not a priest -- and so aren't the vast majority of RC priests in the world. Curioser and curioser these folks.

  • Posted by: Deo Vindice - Sep. 24, 2014 11:40 AM ET USA

    Jeff i would not go as far as to comapre the SSPX to the protestant reformers such as Luther, Calvin,ect,. The SSPX stands on preserving the true catholic doctrines of the church which have not been diminished. While the reformers created a new personal or wordly doctrine that changed the sacraments, the calendar, the Mass and the breviary while the SSPX holds these sacred. I have been in a few SSPX chaples recently and i have see Pope Francis' picture on display in the back vestibules.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Sep. 24, 2014 11:31 AM ET USA

    While there are some legitimate points made here, there are some factual inaccuracies. This brief little box hardly affords the space for elaboration. Just one example: "and refuses to operate in any sort of union with the universal Church." Specifically in St. Mary's, KS, (and elsewhere) it is a fact that the SSPX priests inform that faithful that the Current Law of the Church regarding fast and abstinence is that promulgated by the Local Ordinary. Many other examples. Too little space.

  • Posted by: garedawg - Sep. 24, 2014 10:54 AM ET USA

    In fairness to John Wesley, he was no separatist. He led a reform movement within the Anglican Church, which was in sad shape, but did not actually start the Methodist Church; he remained an Anglican clergyman his whole life. The Methodist _Church_ came along later.

  • Posted by: - Sep. 24, 2014 10:21 AM ET USA

    As time goes by, the SSPX is digging in and even cultivating a persecution complex. Also, they don't seem to place their trust in God that He will guide them toward unity with the Church. Do they trust that God will keep them separate? What are they hoping for? Yes, the Church is a mess in many ways but it could surely use the help of these ardent people. Instead, is it their intention to decimate the Church? If Bp. Fellay comes home, hopefully others will follow. Let us pray!

  • Posted by: Nuage - Sep. 23, 2014 7:36 PM ET USA

    This is an excellent commentary on today's developments and I pray that it will be read by all who are directly involved in the SSPX-Roman Catholic negotiations. Tragically, the SSPX has indeed already embraced heresy. Although they are careful not to publish this, their priests and bishops preach that the Novus Ordo Mass is invalid, and they repeat any sacraments conferred by non-SSPX priests because they believe these sacraments to be invalid. This is heresy. Pray hard for reconciliation!

  • Posted by: - Sep. 23, 2014 7:36 PM ET USA

    Cool analogy, sepratism akin to Helen of Troy. But Helen's legacy enriched us with The Iliad and The Odyssey. Has separatism produced anything as grand as the slighhtest doggerel?

  • Posted by: lovison4584 - Sep. 23, 2014 7:04 PM ET USA

    The SSPX recent total rejection of Vatican II and calling into question infallibility of recent canonizations of John XXIII and John Paul II fits the definition of heresy so SSPX is like a heresy. Sedevacantists are schismatic. Both somewhat Jansenist in their views as well.