QUAERITUR: Is the SSPX in schism or not?

From a reader:

Greetings! I am writing in order to ask you abou the SSPX’s canonical status. I’ve heard that they certianly are in schism, as Bishop ___ (my bishop) said, yet I’ve also heard from you that the Prefect of the Pontical Commision Ecclesia Dei has said that they’re not. My question is as follows: would there need to be any talks going on between them and Rome if they are not in schism? Isn’t the point, as Pope Benedict XVI said, something about…”as they discover the path to full communion“? First, that seems to imply that they are not in full communion with the Chuch. And, as noted earlier, it seems like the whole purpose of the Vatican-SSPX discussions is to bring them into communion. Do you see the seeming conflicts? Nevertheless, I’d refuse to associate or attend their Masses until they learn to trust the Magisterium and learn the humility to keep their minds and hearts publicly and officially in syncronization which that of the One Chuch.

Since the Pontifical Commission “Ecclesia Dei” has competence in this area, I will opt for the position of the PCED rather than the opinion Bishop of X diocese.

The situation is confusing.  In the 1988 Motu Proprio Ecclesia Dei adflicta Pope John Paul used the word “schism“.  It looks like a schism, to be sure.  But officials of the PCED have affirmed over the last few years that while Archbishop Lefebvre’s actions in 1988 were schismatic acts, the SSPX did not in fact go into schism.  I don’t really understand that, but I will take the PCED’s word on this.

What we need to do is pray pray pray that the SSPX will accept the CDF’s “Doctrinal Preamble” and some eventual canonical structure which could be offered to them.

I suppose that now all sort of people will jump in with over-the-top declarations that they know with certainty how wrong the Holy See is, the Pope is, the SSPX is.  Ho hum.  Someone will forget to exercise reason and self-editing, I will delete comments and ban a couple people, and the pattern will repeat itself.  Oh well… forest fires renew forests too.

Benedict XVI is the Pope of Christian Unity.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. wchoag says:

    Asking whether or not the Society of Saint Pius X is currently in a state of schism is similar to asking were the Latin and Greek Churches in schism from about 850 until the mutual excommunications of 1054.

    There is no simple answer.

  2. Jason Keener says:

    Cardinal Castrillón, former head of the PCED, was interviewed on Italian television channel 5, November 13, 2005 regarding the status of the SSPX. In this interview, the Cardinal said the following:

    “We are not confronted with a heresy. It cannot be said in correct, exact, and precise terms that there is a schism. There is a schismatic attitude in the fact of consecrating bishops without pontifical mandate. They are within the Church. There is only the fact that a full, more perfect communion is lacking — as was stated during the meeting with Bishop Fellay — a fuller communion, because communion does exist.”

  3. pfreddys says:

    I do hope and pray that the SSPX signs the “Doctrinal Preamble”{DP}; I would imagine it will take some time though as the SSPX will probably ask for alot of clarifications.
    I would not argue with someone who thinks John Vennari is a bit over the top; I dont think so myself but I can see it being a reasonable position to hold. That being said at his Catholic Family News site he does bring up some very pointed practical difficulties in bringing the SSPX into an official established structure in full communion with Holy Mother Church, even assuming they sign the DP.
    This can be read at: http://www.cfnews.org/1001questions.htm
    Of course, the Holy Spirit can clean this all up in less than a nano-second.

  4. Baron Korf says:

    FaceBook can explain it.

    Relationship status: It’s complicated

  5. Deacon Nathan Allen says:

    I suspect the difference is between formal and material schism. The SSPX would claim that they never intended to break communion, that what they did was out of necessity, &c. Whatever one may think of these arguments (the necessity argument seems to me to be particularly weak given that the Pope himself had promised that they would have another bishop chosen from among their own number; it was just a question of vetting the proposed candidates that would have delayed the new bishop’s consecration by a couple of months), intention does matter in canonical delicts like schism.

  6. Jason Keener says:

    By the way, Father, I also think it is somewhat difficult to understand how one can commit schismatic acts as clergy members in the SSPX have done without actually going into schism. It would also seem to me that either someone is in communion with the Church through a full and perfect communion or else they are outside of the Church. I wonder how this apparently flexible attitude with regards to who is in communion with the Catholic Church has changed over the last few decades and how it also affects our understanding of Protestant communities. For example, some will also say that the Protestants are in an imperfect union with the Church. But isn’t an imperfect union really no true union at all? By the way, I do not agree that Protestants are in communion with the Catholic Church. It would seem the only people in communion or full communion with the Catholic Church are baptized people who accept all of the Catholic Church’s teachings and Her governance. If one does not accept these things, they simply are not in communion with the Catholic Church, it would seem. Is it not a bit of a mockery to the concept of communion to insist that people are in communion when in fact they are not in total agreement even on the essential matters like doctrine and Church governance?

  7. pfreddys says:

    One of the things which puts the SSPX in the most danger of schism is the appointment as leader of the organization one of the bishops consecrated. This is not something that Archbishop Lefebvre wanted; I believe he thought that this would give the appearance of authority which the SSPX did not have; the bishops were to be consecrated simply to administer sacraments.
    As an aside, I have always thought that it is rather cold-hearted of the four bishops consecrated that they did not consistently and strongly request that the excommunications of Archbishop Lefebvre and Bishop de Castro Mayer be also lifted.

  8. Daniel Latinus says:

    I think what’s going on here is that Rome is backing away from labeling the SSPX as schismatic as a means of building goodwill, and defusing tensions, in hope that the SSPX can ultimately be fully reconciled to the Church.

    Even if the SSPX meets the definition of the schism, using it to batter SSPX members is probably not going to move them towards reconciliation, either as individuals, or as a group.

  9. BigTin says:

    I have a reprint of Fortescue’s history on the Orthodox Church, and one thing I learned about schism is that it’s more of a word that pertains to specific individuals at specific time periods. For example, at some times in history, the Ecumenical Patriarch was supporting fast-track reconciliation, whereas at other times the Ecumenical Patriarch was fiercely anti-Roman, so to call the Orthodox Church schismatic when there have been individuals and time periods with a mind oriented towards unity, would be imprecise.

    The same could be said of the SSPX. You can’t really treat the closet sedevacantists in the same sentence as the rest of the group.

    I think a lot of the resistance in the SSPX stems from the fact that they’re more afraid of the local ordinary, and the conferences of Bishops, than they are of the Holy See. Ie. they sort of fear that if they were regularized, the bishops would immediately start making changes in their chapels and seminaries. Fears that would be allayed by the proposed personal prelature.

    Long live Pope Benedict, the gracious conciliator, if anyone can solve this issue, he can.

  10. Speravi says:

    As I understand it:
    As Deacon Allen cited, I think the answer may lie in the distinction between formal and material schism. For example: mortal sin (sometimes called grave sin) requires grave MATTER plus the deliberate intention (formal element). If you have only the grave matter without the deliberate intention, the end result is not mortal sin, but venial.
    Schism involves a willed refusal to submit to the authority of the Church and to be in communion with the other members of the Church. If you don’t have an obstinately willed refusal of submission to authority and refusal of communion with other Catholics, you don’t have formal schism.
    On first glance, many will say that it is obviously schism, however when we look into it, it gets more complicated. The expressed (verbally) intention of the SSPX is to be in communion with the Church. They have deliberately REFUSED THE SEDEVACANTIST position and acknowledge that the post-conciliar popes are real popes, true successors of St. Peter. As such, they have not only every intention of being in communion with the pope, but they have always maintained that they ARE in communion with the pope and the rest of the Church. When they offer the Holy Mass they pray for the pope and for the LOCAL DIOCESAN (Novus Ordo) BISHOP (not their sspx bishops).
    Their expressed intention is to remain in communion with the true Church, which is now offering the Novus Ordo and teaching the Conciliar teachings. However, they believe that the New Mass is a danger to the preservation of orthodoxy and that the teachings of Vatican II contain error. Therefore, while they intend communion with the Church and obedience to the true popes, they maintain that they also have a duty to oppose error and to refuse submission to any order which would lead to a compromise in orthodox doctrine.
    The result is a formal intention against schism and a lot of actions that really look a lot like schism, and very well might be material schism.
    IF they are in material schism, then there is a real danger of going into formal schism. The tricky part is understanding who gets to decide what constitutes an error. Conscience must be formed, as we know. They are trying to form their consciences on the traditional teaching of the Church, which we all should do…but what if a deformity develops? How does that get corrected? There is a living magisterium. What role does the current magisterium play in forming consciences? This is why doctrinal talks were, and are, necessary. It is not merely a matter of reconciliation, but a matter of conscience. Until their consciences are assured, there won’t be a canonical solution.
    Thus, they are a Catholic religious order which holds that certain things said and done by Rome and adhered to by the vast majority of the Church constitute a danger to other things which the Church believes, and therefore are a real danger of sinning against the virtue of faith. Since even the pope cannot legitimately ask us to do something sinful, they refuse to obey commands to conform to the Conciliar changes. Since regularizing their canonical status would compromise their ability to oppose what they believe to be error and sin, they have heretofore refused regularizing their canonical situation.
    May God grant that this doctrinal preamble prove as an important step to helping us all to form our consciences and think with the Church.

  11. Centristian says:

    @Jason Keener:

    “For example, some will also say that the Protestants are in an imperfect union with the Church. But isn’t an imperfect union really no true union at all? By the way, I do not agree that Protestants are in communion with the Catholic Church. It would seem the only people in communion or full communion with the Catholic Church are baptized people who accept all of the Catholic Church’s teachings and Her governance. If one does not accept these things, they simply are not in communion with the Catholic Church, it would seem.”

    The difference between the situation of the SSPX and the situation of Protestant churches, in that regard, is that the SSPX actually accepts the concept of the supremacy of the Roman Pontiff over the universal church, whereas Protestants reject the idea that there is one bishop who is empowered to govern all of Christendom.

    Now, it may be that the Lefebvrists disobey the Holy See through contrived arguments that they feel justify their behavior, nevertheless there is a difference between disobeying a recognized authority, and refusing to even recognize that authority. The Lefebvrists are Catholics: they recognize Peter’s authority as Christ’s Vicar on Earth and as universal shepherd of the Christian Church, whereas Protestants acknowledge no such offices.

    The Lefebvrists furthermore acknowledge that Pope Benedict XVI is, indeed, Peter’s present day successor, endowed with Peter’s mission and authority over the whole Church. Some Protestants may acknowledge the historical apostolic lineage between Peter and Benedict XVI, but what is that to them? They do not imagine themselves to be subject to the bishop of Rome just because St. Peter once had his job. The Lefebvrists, on the other hand, acknowledge that Church which is governed by the Pope and the bishops in union with him to be Christ’s one and only Church and the Church to which they belong.

    Whereas Protestants disregard the authority of the Pope over them because they do not imagine that he has any authority over them, Lefebvrists, on the other hand, do believe in the Pope’s authority over them, but they disobey the Pope because they are convinced that the Pope is misleading the Church against the inspirations of the Holy Ghost and that they are therefore bound to contradict him. They further imagine that they are able to lay claim to his authority in an extraordinary way due to a state of emergency in the Church. This delusion allows them to essentially do whatever they feel they need to do, even if the Holy See tells them they cannot. This includes operating seminaries, schools, convents, and monasteries; ordaining priests each year; presiding at weddings and granting annulments; and otherwise operating as a legitimate ecclesiastical body.

    In the minds of the Lefebvrists, they are the authentic Catholics. It is not they who are being disobedient, but the modern, mainstream hierarchy that is being disobedient. They believe that in disobeying the “Conciliar Church”, they are obeying God. As Baron Korf brilliantly puts it, “it’s complicated”.

  12. JonPatrick says:

    The article by John Vennari makes some good points. I would note however that groups such as the Slaves of the Immaculate Heart of Mary (the group founded by Fr. Feeney) have been operating and thriving under a “Novus Ordo” administration, with the local bishop even performing confirmations using the traditional form. Admittedly being a much smaller group than the SSPX they tend to “fly under the radar” more than the SSPX could ever hope to, however.

  13. Speravi says:

    Speaking of conscience, I cannot help but wonder if the SSPX’s canonical situation could, itself, be an objective danger of scandal to those who grow up in this long-running temporary situation…

  14. Speravi says:

    Correction: Sorry to post again, but I want to correct something I said in my first post. I wrote, “since regularizing their canonical status would compromise their ability to oppose…they have heretofore refused regularizing their canonical situation.” This should be “could compromise,” or the “they thought would compromise.” I believe that a good canonical solution will amplify their voice and broaden their audience, rather than silence them. Bishop X will no longer be telling his diocese that they are schismatics unworthy of a hearing.

  15. Clinton says:

    Baron Korf: Well played.

    I agree that the matter is complicated– far too complex for me to presume to comment on the
    ins-n-outs. That said, I would dearly love to see our bishops, especially those with a diocese
    where the SSPX is active, ask for public prayer for the healing of this rift. I recall a post that
    Fr. Z. made about a year ago concerning a bishop (in France, I think) who invited the local
    SSPX priests to a dinner he hosted for the priests in his diocese. Surely it would please God
    to see us use every opportunity to extend an olive branch to the good people of the SSPX.

  16. TheAcolyte says:

    Canon law and Church precedence both prove that the accusations of “schism” (and excommunication) are indeed false and simply part of the Liberal’s shell game.

    On this quote: “One of the things which puts the SSPX in the most danger of schism is the appointment as leader of the organization one of the bishops consecrated…” Actually no, because Bishop Fellay is merely the Superior General of the SSPX which includes only *its members*, that is the clergy, religious and third order members. All others merely attend the chapels of the SSPX, but are not under its jurisdiction (morally perhaps, but not juridically). It is also quite common to have a prelate act as a Superior General of a religious congregation (as did Archbishop Lefebvre for the Holy Ghost Fathers), though not always (e.g., the current Jesuit Superior General is a priest).

    As long as these distinctions are properly understood (which in the past they always have), then there is no danger of any schism at all, particularly when the congregation in question (the SSPX) has no wish whatsoever to be in a state of schism, but to remain always attached and faithful to the Holy Catholic Church.

  17. Moscatelli says:

    Bearing in mind that “the situation is complicated” and, hopefully evolving (for the greater glory of God and the good of the Church), I would suggest to look at how the parties to the dispute describe the state of play. In the communique of September 14 on the FSSPX, a joint communique as it seems, it is said that “Following the appeal of 15 December 2008, addressed by the superior general of the Society of St. Pius X to His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI, the Holy Father decided to remove the excommunication against the four bishops consecrated by Archbishop Lefebvre. At the same time, he approved the opening of discussions with the society in order to clarify doctrinal problems and to heal the existing rift”. The word used is thus “rift”, in Italian “frattura”, French “fracture”; and as this “rift” is hopefully soon to be overcome, perhaps it could be useful to simply use the word to describe the present situation. Are we, btw, not making huge efforts in order not to use the h-word and the s-word about our Protestants and Orthodox brothers in Christ?

  18. Matariel says:

    I agree with Jason. Either one is in full communion or one is not in the Church at all. Mysterium Ecclesiae makes this clear, and condemns the contention that imperfect communion makes on within the Church, even partially. “Partial communion” or “imperfect communion” can never be an ecclesiological communion or spiritual communion, it is but a mere happenstance association. Likewise, anyone baptized in schism or heresy “does not have the power of the Sacrament, only its form” (and is therefore outside the Church). These were the words of St. Fulgentius and St. Augustine on the matter. They said, “one begins to have the power of the Sacrament of Baptism [effects, such as incorporation into the Body of Christ, the Church, and remission of sins] once one professes the Catholic faith and enters into the Catholic Church”. Therefore, there is no gradation of communion. There is full communion, or a non-ecclesiological “imperfect communion”, which is just association on a conceptual level. There is being “within” the Church, and there is being “without”. Remember, Extra Ecclesiam Nulla Salus… it is still dogma.

  19. RichardT says:

    An SSPX priest I knew said that they accept the authority of the Pope – but they’re just disobeying him for the moment.

    Whether that helps or not I have no idea. But I tend to think that the important thing is not whether they are in schism right now, but which direction they are travelling in – towards Rome, or away.

  20. BaedaBenedictus says:

    It’s complicated these days to figure out these things because there is so much confusion.

    For example, this week I visited my hometown, where the SSPX have a thriving church and school and the diocese is collapsing as rapidly as the Episcopalians. Nearly half of the parishes have closed over the past 20 years, and vocations are so scarces that a significant number of surviving parishes have no priest. Even the cathedral itself has a daily “communion service” instead of Mass (conducted by the cathedral’s “pastoral minister”, a nun) a couple of times a week.

    The cathedral nave has a bookshop (along with everything else except for the bishop’s huge Ikea cathedra, which has the former sanctuary all to itself). In the bookshop, the diocese is selling such works as “Constantine’s Sword” (by ex-priest James Carroll) and “Eternal Life: A New Vision: Beyond Religion, Beyond Theism, Beyond Heaven and Hell” (by the Episcopal bishop John Shelby Spong), as well as other books by such luminaries as Hans Küng, Mary Daly, Joan Chittister, Charles Curran, and Richard McBrien (all of whom, by the way, are “in good standing” and “in full communion”).

    Safe to say that the presence of Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” in the bookshop has a certain sense of apt irony to it.

    Here’s my theory: The Holy See isn’t treating the SSPX as if they are in schism because Papa Benedict, while not accepting the SSPX’s “state of necessity” argument, appreciates better than most that things *are* pretty dicey in a number of places, and that the SSPX priests do a lot of good for the surviving Catholics in these devastated vineyards.

    And that is why the Holy Father is so eager to regularized them. The Holy Father is a *truly* pastoral man and the Pope of Christian Unity.

  21. Murciano says:

    I can understand the difference between acting schismaticly and actually being in schism.
    V.gr. to kiss the koran is to act as an heretic, but John Paul II was not really an heretic.

  22. Mike says:

    I emailed with a prominent Southern Catholic Pastor who also has a degree in canon law, and he told me, without any doubt, that the SSPX is in schism. I argued–politely–with him for several emails, and we left it at that. A lawyer friend reminded me that law, all law, is often a matter of interpretation, and this pastor seemed to forget that. A canon lawyer who is a priest has some standing to speak on this matter; yet, I think wrongly, this priest dismissed Cardinal Castrillon’s comments as irrelevant.

    It was frustrating to dialogue with this priest also, as he is, it seems, firmly against the TLM, even though he offers a highly reverent NO.

    It’s a shame. [It may be that his dislike of the Roman Rite (which has two forms) has colored his judgment.]

  23. No they are not in schism. As the SSPX state in their FAQs with very good reasoning to back their position, I do not view them as in schism. I might also suggest this book: Schism or Not?

    [I don’t think members and followers of the SSPX are necessarily in the best position to judge their own case.]

  24. pledbet424 says:

    I don’t think I would use the FAQ on their website as an unbiased source for determining their status. I don’t think most schismatics consider themselves schismatics. The Pius X folks that I know consider themselves to be the “Church”, and that the folks that go to the NO Mass are the real schismatics.
    I have wondered why the Church does not make their actual status more clear, from the Pope’s perspective, but as mentioned above, it may be to facilitate the eventual healing and reunion with Rome.
    A question to others here: what is the status of their confessions, and marriages?

  25. Imrahil says:

    Yes, and that’s why schism is such a difficult thing to find out. (As is apostasy.) With heresy, it’s easy enough: Utter a heresy, and you are a material heretic; maybe reutter it after formal warning (I’m no canon lawyer), and you are excommunicate as heretic. (Of course, if you report to the public authorities to no longer consider yourself as a Catholic, e. g. for avoiding Church tax, you are a schismatic and no mistake.)

    Schism is defined as denial of communion or denial of submission. It should be formal denial of communion, or formal denial of submission, of course. That they do not formally deny communion is most clear. That they do not formally and openly deny submission is clear from their website; in so far, it is an unbiased source. The question then is: Do they hiddenly commit denial of submission which is different from mere disobedience? Many disobediences, even in important matters, do not sum up to one denial of submission, of course. [I might be thinking that if a Pius brother meets his local ordinary and the latter says: “Do get your cassock in order” (forgive the military example), he would obey at once.]

    Given in addition that
    1. in dubio pro reo and in dubio nulla poena latae sententiae,
    2. Rome itself has lifted the excommunication from the most problematic persons as to this issue,
    3. there has not been a Church authority saying “do this or leave that or otherwise we will count you as a schismatic”,

    it should be clear enough that they are not in schism.

  26. Soldato.di.Dio says:

    Thank you, Father! Your answer could not be more perfect. You stated what Peter said, you stated what the Ecclesia Dei Commission said, you admitted that these were confusing since Peter called the SSPX act schismatic. However, you said you will wait for the Church to explain the matter. Correct me if I’ve misunderstood you, but what you meant was how can Peter say the SSPX is in schism and a Commission set up by him say it is not, when Peter has the keys and the Commission does not when it disagrees with Peter? You are waiting for the Church, our Mother, to clarify that question. Have I understood you correctly? If so, bravo! You’re leading others who read your blog to do the same and I commend you, not that my commendation means anything, but it is good to see a priest tell those “who are more Catholic than the Pope,” to look to Peter for guidance and not to formulate their own doctrines. I’m glad I stumbled upon your blog.

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