My mother enjoys going to Mass at the Our Lady of Victories Church along Valley Road in New Manila (Quezon City)—under the care of the Society of St Pius X. She finds the Tridentine Mass more solemn and pious. Besides, she is quick to add, the priests there are always in cassock and more approachable for confession. But I also seem to remember a circular from the late Cardinal Sin that those Lefebvrist priests were schismatic and the Catholic faithful were not supposed to go to them for anything. Now, to heighten my confusion, I just read a circular from the Roman Catholic Diocese of Cubao reprinting a Decree of the Congregation of Bishops (Vatican City, 21.I.2009) concerning the lifting of the excommunication pronounced on the four bishops consecrated by Abp. Marcel Lefebvre in 1988. Can you shed some light on this matter?
IN the previous issue, we had summarized the events leading to the schismatic act which brought about the automatic excommunication of Abp. Marcel Lefebvre and the four original bishops whom he consecrated for the Society of St Pius X in 1988, and the subsequent declaration by the Holy See of such excommunication. We had also seen the criteria given by the Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Legislative Texts regarding the different status of priests and laity involved with that Society. Now we shall conclude this article with the continuing efforts at restoring communion, especially by the same person who had worked so hard to prevent the schism in the first place: Card. Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI.
Efforts at Restoring Communion
In the very act of declaring the schismatic nature of the Society of Pius X, through his Apostolic Letter Ecclesia Dei (2.VII.1988), Pope John Paul II also decreed the formation of a Pontifical Commission—henceforth referred to as the Ecclesia Dei Commission—to work for “full ecclesial communion of priests, seminarians, religious communities or indivi¬duals...linked in various ways to the Fraternity founded by Mons. Lefebvre, who may wish to remain united to the Successor of Peter in the Catholic Church, while preserving their spiritual and liturgical traditions, in the light of the Proto¬col signed on 5 May by Cardinal Ratzinger and Mons. Lefebvre.” Thus, on 18 January 2002, for example, a group in Campos (Brazil), under Bishop Licinio Rangel—who had been consecrated by the three bishops illicitly consecrated by Lefebvre—was constituted into the Personal Apostolic Administration St. John Mary Vianney.
On the other hand, as soon as Card. Ratzinger ascended to the papacy as Benedict XVI, he expressed his concern for a return to full communion by those who followed Archbishop Lefebvre and wished to offer welcome gestures. Thus, in September 2006 for example, The Good Shepherd Institute—a society of apostolic life of pontifical right—was established in Rome. Composed of five priests and seminarians, including past members of the Society of St Pius X, it represented a return to full communion with the Catholic Church.
On 7 June 2007, Pope Benedict XVI issued motu proprio the Apostolic Letter Summorum Pontificum, which—among other things—declared more availability of the Tridentine Mass through the extended use of the 1962 Missal, which he dubbed as the “extraordinary form” for celebrating Mass (vs. the ordinary form which is the Novus Ordo established by Vatican II). The letter brought attention to the situation of schismatic groups, such as the Society of St. Pius X, that had been refusing to celebrate the Novus Ordo. The response was immediate. As early as January 2008, Card. Castrillón Hoyos—President of the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei—reported that in response to Summorum Pontificum, many faithful of the Society of Pius X from all over the world had expressed their desire for full communion.
The Lifting of the Excommunication of the Four Original Lefebvrite Bishops
With a Decree dated 21 January 2009—though made public only on January 24— the Congregation of Bishops lifted the excommunication of the four prelates of the Society of St. Pius X, illicitly ordained to the episcopate by Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre in 1988. In an accompanying statement, the Vatican Secretariat of State made the following clarifications:
1) The decree lifting the excommunication came in response to repeated petitions from the superior-general of the Fraternity of St. Pius X, and the Holy Father's desire to “remove an impediment that adversely affected the opening of a door to dialogue.” It added: “Now [the Pope] expects that the same willingness be expressed by the four bishops, in total adhesion to the doctrine and discipline of the Church.”
2) “The lifting of the excommunication has freed the four bishops from a most grave canonical penalty, but it has not changed in any way the juridical situation of the Fraternity of St. Pius X, which for the moment does not enjoy any canonical recognition in the Catholic Church.”
3) “Neither do the four bishops, though liberated from the excommunication, have a canonical function in the Church and they do not licitly exercise a ministry in it.”
4) Finally, the statement pointed out some requirements for the official recognition of the Fraternity of St. Pius X, and underlined the commitment of the Holy See in resolving the problems that caused a fracture.
The Canonical Status of the Fraternity of St Pius X, its Bishops and its Priests
Based on the aforementioned Decree, the accompanying clarification of the Secretariat of State and subsequent statements of the Holy Father himself, we can summarize the canonical situation as follows:
1) Only the four original bishops ordained by Abp. Lefebvre in 1988, who were the subjects of the Decree of Excommunication of 1988, are affected by the present decree lifting that excommunication. In other words, only those who were excommunicated ferendae sententiae—explicitly excommunicated by decree—are now freed of that excommunication.
It must be noted that any bishops that may have been consecrated by them—equally without the permission of the Holy See—would also have automatically fallen into the excommunication latae sententiae provided by Canon Law for such unauthorized episcopal consecration. In this latter case, these excommunicated bishops would not be affected by the recent remission of excommunication—i.e., they would remain under the excommunication latae sententiae.
2) Those same bishops—the four original bishops and any other bishop they may have consecrated afterwards—remain without canonical function in the Church—i.e., they are not inserted in the hierarchical structure of the Church, have no missio canonica and therefore do not enjoy any power of jurisdiction over the faithful.
3) The question of whether the priests and deacons—that up to now would be under the same canonical censure latae sententiae—remain under that censure, unaffected by the recent remission, is more problematic, since their being in that state is dependent on whether or not they subscribe to the schismatic posture of Lefebvre. It could happen that with the lifting of the excommunication of their particular bishop, a priest or deacon might already have distanced himself from such schismatic posture. The latest decree and explanatory statements have not touched on this ticklish issue.
4) Nevertheless, since the power of jurisdiction of the bishops, as shepherds of particular flocks within the one Church of Christ, is the basis for any sacred ministry exercised by the priests who form part of their presbyterate, the absence of such power of jurisdiction of the Lefebvrite bishops implies the lack of such legitimate ministry on the part of their clergy as well. So regardless of whether or not such clergy are excommunicated, the fact is they do not exercise legitimate ministry in the Catholic church.
5) The Fraternity of St. Pius X itself does not enjoy any canonical recognition in the Catholic Church—i.e., juridically it does not exist. As such non-entity, it cannot really be recommended for the Catholic faithful.
Towards Full Communion: Lefebvrite Progress Hinges on Doctrine
In an unprecedented letter addressed to Catholic bishops worldwide, dated 10 March but made public only on 12 March 2009—Pope Benedict XVI reiterated the clarification made by the Vatican Secretariat of State last month, which affirmed that the society has no canonical status in the Church. More importantly, he clarified that this is “not, in the end, based on disciplinary but on doctrinal reasons.”
The consequence of this lack of canonical status, he explained, is that the society's “ministers do not exercise legitimate ministries in the Church. [U]ntil the doctrinal questions are clarified, the society has no canonical status in the Church, and its ministers—even though they have been freed of the ecclesiastical penalty—do not legitimately exercise any ministry in the Church.”
To resolve the pending doctrinal issues, Benedict XVI announced that he will join the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei, established precisely to oversee the process of healing the society's separation from the Church, with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. “This will make it clear—he said—that the problems now to be addressed are essentially doctrinal in nature and concern primarily the acceptance of the Second Vatican Council and the post-conciliar magisterium of the Popes.” The Holy Father went on to speak of the centrality of the Second Vatican Council for any progress with the Society: “The Church's teaching authority cannot be frozen in the year 1962; this must be quite clear to the society.”
While it is true that participation at Mass and other liturgical acts in the chapels of the Society of St. Pius X does not of itself constitute formal adherence to the schism, such adherence can come about over a period of time, as one slowly imbibes a schismatic mentality, which separates itself from the teaching of the Supreme Pontiff and the entire Catholic Church—classically exemplified in a SSPX Handbook, which states that the SSPX defends the traditional catechisms and therefore the Old Mass, and so attacks the Novus Ordo, the Second Vatican Council and the New Catechism of the Catholic Church, all of which—it claims—more or less undermine our unchangeable Catholic faith.
It is precisely because of this schismatic mentality inherent in the Lefebvre Movement that the Pontifical Commission responsible for the implementation of Ecclesia Dei has consistently discouraged the Catholic faithful from attending Masses celebrated under the aegis of the Society of St. Pius X.
The present remission of the excommunication latae sententiae of the four original bishops has not changed either that status of the Society of St Pius X or the general recommendation for the Catholic faithful to avoid attending the liturgy in their temples. As the Pope has just now clarified: “its ministers—even though they have been freed of the ecclesiastical penalty—do not legitimately exercise any ministry in the Church.” If they do not exercise legitimate ministry in the Church, then the Catholic faithful should not legitimately subject themselves to such ministry.