The announcement by Pope Francis that priests of the Society of Pius X (SSPX) will be given faculties to hear confessions during the ‘Year of Mercy’ has stimulated Michael Voris to reiterate once again his view that the SSPX are in schism. I’ve mentioned Voris positively over the years on this blog, and the current issue of the Latin Mass Society’s magazine, Mass of Ages, includes an interview with him, but I have to disagree with him about this, which is far from being a merely theoretical issue.
The reality is that the exact legal status of the SSPX has always been somewhat ambiguous, and as does happen in real life, it is an ambiguity which has been deliberately maintained by both sides to facilitate a positive evolution of the relationship. It is not for Michael Voris to insist on what successive Roman officials have refused to insist on.
Not exactly. He said that Archbishop Lefebvre’s ordination of four bishops without the consent of the Holy See was ‘a schismatic act’, and later in the document pointed out the penalty – excommunication – for ‘formal adherence to schism’.
As Bishop Schneider recently remarked, having been sent by the Vatican to visit an SSPX seminary, they have pictures of the Pope on their walls and they pray for the local bishop in their Masses.
In any case, how has the SSPX been treated in the years since 1988?
In 2002, the PCED were telling enquirers that they could fulfil their Sunday obligation by attending Mass in an SSPX chapel, and could even make a contribution to the collection.
The Bishops, Priests, and Faithful of the Society of St Pius X are not schismatics. It is Archbishop Lefebvre who has undertaken an illicit Episcopal consecration and therefore performed a schismatic act. It is for this reason that the Bishops consecrated by him have been suspended and excommunicated. The priests and faithful of the Society have not been excommunicated.
Then, in 2009, Pope Benedict XVI formally lifted the excommunications on the four bishops consecrated in 1988. No mention is made of any schism in this decree, although it looks forward to ‘the prompt attainment of full communion with the Church on the part of the whole Society of St Pius X’.
Now, in 2015, Pope Francis makes a new gesture to them for the Year of Mercy:
A final consideration concerns those faithful who for various reasons choose to attend churches officiated by priests of the Fraternity of St Pius X. This Jubilee Year of Mercy excludes no one. From various quarters, several Brother Bishops have told me of their good faith and sacramental practice, combined however with an uneasy situation from the pastoral standpoint. I trust that in the near future solutions may be found to recover full communion with the priests and superiors of the Fraternity. In the meantime, motivated by the need to respond to the good of these faithful, through my own disposition, I establish that those who during the Holy Year of Mercy approach these priests of the Fraternity of St Pius X to celebrate the Sacrament of Reconciliation shall validly and licitly receive the absolution of their sins.
The position of the SSPX has always been that their confessions are valid due to what is known as ‘supplied jurisdiction’. This is a concept in canon law according to which a priest without faculties from a bishop, even one who has been suspended, can hear the confessions of – say – someone who is dying and can’t reach another priest, and the Church makes this possible by giving him, as it were, emergency faculties to hear the confession. Whether this argument works in relation to the more ordinary circumstances in which most confessions are heard by SSPX priests, is the kind of question which leads to what the Holy Father delicately calls ‘an uneasy situation from the pastoral standpoint’. I’m not going to comment any more on the validity of the argument, except to say that it is evident that it is made in good faith. But to settle any doubts, the Pope is personally extending to them faculties for the Year of Mercy so that there can be no question about their confessions.
But this is the moment Michael Voris has chosen to tell us that the SSPX is in schism, that all its priests are in mortal sin, and that Catholics who attend their Masses are in peril of their souls. I find this incomprehensible. It is surely absurd to imagine that the Pope has given faculties to schismatic priests for the benefit of people who should on pain of sin have nothing to do with them.
It is a matter of coming to an interior reconciliation in the heart of the Church. Looking back over the past, to the divisions which in the course of the centuries have rent the Body of Christ, one continually has the impression that, at critical moments when divisions were coming about, not enough was done by the Church’s leaders to maintain or regain reconciliation and unity. One has the impression that omissions on the part of the Church have had their share of blame for the fact that these divisions were able to harden. This glance at the past imposes an obligation on us today: to make every effort to enable for all those who truly desire unity to remain in that unity or to attain it anew. I think of a sentence in the Second Letter to the Corinthians, where Paul writes: “Our mouth is open to you, Corinthians; our heart is wide. You are not restricted by us, but you are restricted in your own affections. In return … widen your hearts also!” (2 Cor 6:11-13). Paul was certainly speaking in another context, but his exhortation can and must touch us too, precisely on this subject. Let us generously open our hearts and make room for everything that the faith itself allows.