MY attention was again caught by a recent communiqué from the Vatican Press Office reiterating that the priests and bishops of the Society of St.Pius X—founded by the former French Abp.Marcel Lefebvre—“do not exercise legitimate ministries in the Church.” The clarification came “in response to the frequent questions that have been raised over recent days concerning the priestly ordinations…scheduled to take place at the end of June.” As reported by Zenit, Lefebvrite Bishop Alfonse de Galaretta—whose excommunication by John Paul II due to his Episcopal ordination without Papal mandate was recently lifted by Pope Benedict XVI—is scheduled to ordain three priests and three deacons in the society’s Zaitskofen seminary in Bavaria (Germany) on June 27, 2009.
The question in the mind of many Catholics is: If the excommunications of the four bishops ordained by Lefebvre have been lifted, what is the significance of the Vatican statement, which quoted the Pope’s letter sent to bishops in March, concerning his remission of the excommunication of the four bishops concerned. In that letter, Benedict XVI had clearly declared: "As long as the Society (of St. Pius X) does not have a canonical status in the Church, its ministers do not exercise legitimate ministries in the Church. ... Until the doctrinal questions are clarified, the Society has no canonical status in the Church, and its ministers ... do not legitimately exercise any ministry in the Church."
The Church was founded on the pillars of the Apostles who, by the foundational will of Jesus Christ, were constituted into a College. The reason and foundation of such a collegiate body was Peter (Petra = “the rock”): “Thou art Peter and upon this rock I will build my Church” (Mt.16, 18). It was on this College that Christ gave the sacred power to teach, sanctify and govern his flock which was going to be the Church—first giving Peter “the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven” (Mt 16, 19); and later extending to all the Apostles the power to teach and govern in His name and the power to forgive sins (Jn 20, 23). It was on this Apostolic College of the Twelve—Judas Iscariot having been replaced by Matthias (Acts 1, 15-26)—that the Holy Spirit descended on Pentecost, appearing as tongues of fire on their heads (Acts 2, 1-13). Finally, it was by this Apostolic College of the Twelve Apostles that “about three thousand souls” were baptized, after hearing Peter’s discourse that very day of Pentecost (Acts 2, 14-41).
The exercise of the sacred ministry by the ordained ministers—bishops, priests and deacons—is the exercise of that sacred power that Christ invested on the Apostles by the infusion of the Holy Spirit on that first Easter and Pentecost. By the unbroken line connecting every bishop with an Apostle, the former shares in that sacred power invested on the latter, such that—in persona Christi capitis (in the person of Christ the Head)—he can teach, sanctify and govern Christ’s faithful. In fact, the development and auto-organization of the Church is really the result of the interplay of the ministerial priesthood (of the bishops and, in union and communion with them, the priests and deacons) delivering the sources of salvation (the Word of God and the Sacraments) to the community of believers. In other words, the Church grows as a development of the interplay of the ministerial priesthood and the royal priesthood, such that the one Church of Christ is like a living body where all the cells (Christ’s faithful) are nourished and innervated by the nervous and circulatory systems (the Hierarchy).
The Missio canonica: juridic expression of Hierarchical Communion
Without the hierarchical communion—of each priest with his Bishop, and every Bishop (a successor of the Apostles) with the Pope (the successor of Peter, the Vicar of Christ)—there can be no genuine pastoral care in the Church. Theologically this is a doctrine replete with meaning and even imagery: “I am the vine, you are the branches…without me you can do nothing” (Jn 15, 5); or “I am the door of the sheep. All whoever have come are thieves and robbers; but the sheep have not heard them…The thief comes only to steal, and slay, and destroy” (Jn 10, 7/9). The one Catholic Church of Christ exists wherever there is a Pastor (a successor of the Apostles), helped by priests and deacons united to him, effectively ministers to a body of believers. There is effective pastoral care whenever a line can be established between each faithful, passing through an ordained minister (priest or deacon), to a proper Pastor—either a bishop (as in a diocese) or even a priest endowed with Episcopal functions (as in a personal prelature or an Apostolic Administrator).
The theological reality of hierarchical communion is expressed juridically in the institution of the so-called missio canonica, through which a sacred minister—who is ontologically capacitated, by the reception of Holy Orders, to carry out a function in persona Christi capitis—is effectively endowed by the Episcopal College (the successor of the Apostolic College), either as such or by its visible head who is the Pope, with a specific participation in that sacred power invested on it by Christ, to be exercised over a specific flock of Christ’s faithful. Thus, the sacred minister is effectively constituted into a pastor of souls.
Conversely, without the missio canonica, even an ordained person—who by that fact is ontologically capacitated to share in the threefold ministry of Christ of teaching, sanctifying and leading the faithful—would lack the authority to fulfill a pastoral role in the Church of Christ.
The Case of the Society of St.Pius X
With the foregoing discussion, it is easier to understand the full import of the above-mentioned Vatican statement: As long as the Society (of St. Pius X) does not have a canonical status in the Church, its ministers do not exercise legitimate ministries in the Church.
The four bishops ordained by Abp. Marcel Lefebvre were all validly ordained. Their automatic excommunication (subsequently declared by the Holy See), due to their having been ordained against the expressed prohibition of the Holy See, has even been lifted by the Holy Father early this year. But they lack hierarchical communion.
Because of their illegitimate consecration to the episcopate, the four Lefebvrite bishops never received a missio canonica from the Holy See. They never formed part of the Catholic Hierarchy and were never given a specific flock to shepherd, and thus never received the authority to effectively carry out that function.
Moreover, the continued rejection by the Society of St. Pius X of the validity and authority of the Second Vatican Council remains a stumbling block to their being given such canonical mission. This is the reason for the above-mentioned continuation of the Vatican Statement: Until the doctrinal questions are clarified, the Society has no canonical status in the Church, and its ministers ... do not legitimately exercise any ministry in the Church.
Reasons for hope.
Despite all the foregoing discussion, there are reasons for hope in a full reconciliation of the schism brought about by Abp. Lefebvre. In effect, the aforementioned Vatican communiqué also confirmed that the restructuring of the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei should come about soon. That commission was established by Pope John Paul II to facilitate the full ecclesial communion of those people linked in various ways to the fraternity founded by Lefebvre who desire to remain united to the Successor of Peter in the Catholic Church.
In his March letter, Benedict XVI announced his intention to change the status of the commission and make it part of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the dicastery the Holy Father led before his election to the See of Peter. As the Vatican communiqué announced: This constitutes a premise for launching dialogue with the leaders of the Fraternity of St. Pius X, with a view to clarifying the doctrinal questions, and consequently the disciplinary questions, which remain unresolved.
In other words, by putting the Pontifical Commission in charge of re-establishing communion with the Society of St. Pius X under the dicastery (the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith) competent to study doctrinal matters, the Holy See hopes to facilitate ironing out the doctrinal questions that stand in the way of full communion. As we start the Year for the Priests, we can only redouble our prayers that such work of doctrinal clarification indeed bears fruit soon.