SSPX claims about permission from Rome to ordain priests

SSPX Bishop and Superior Bernard Fellay recently made comments in a video interview which caught my attention.

At about 15:20 listen for him to say:

“Last year, I received a letter from Rome, telling me you can freely ordain your priests without the permission of the local ordinary. So if I can freely ordain that means the ordination is recognized by the Church not just as valid but in order. If I can freely do it it’s clear that this is just already recognized and accepted. So this is one more step in this acceptance that we are, let me call it, ‘normal Catholics.'”

He goes on to say that he does not see any desire on the part of Rome to interfere or “take over”.

Bishop Fellay Answer Recent Questions – April 2017 from Society of St Pius X on Vimeo.

While I am encouraged by Bp. Fellay’s words, I also am compelled to track back to public statements from the effective head of the Pontifical Commission “Ecclesia Dei“, Archbishop Guido Pozzo (technically the head is the Prefect of the CDF, but Archbp. Pozzo runs the show). Last January, La Stampa recounted what Archbp. Pozzo said:

La Santa Sede – spiega il segretario di Ecclesia Dei – permette e tollera le ordinazioni sacerdotali della Fraternità San Pio X, pur continuando a ritenerle valide ma non lecite, previa comunicazione dei nomi degli ordinandi al vescovo del luogo.

The Holy See – the Secretary of Ecclesia Dei explained – permits and tolerates the priestly ordinations of the Fraternity of St. Pius X, even while continuing to consider them valid but not licit, subject to communication of the names of the ordinands to the bishop of the place.

In the absence of any subsequent statements about this matter from the Holy See, this last bit from January is the Holy See’s present position.

When the SSPX ordains, the Holy See (still) considers the ordinations to be valid but illicit.  That’s not quite “recognized and accepted”.  [On this point, there is an interesting argument made in one of the comments which has me pondering. Check it out.]

Bishops must have permission or faculties to ordain, either by the fact that (in a nutshell) they are the diocesan bishop or equivalent or because they receive permission from another bishop through what are called “dimissorial letters”.  Under normal circumstances, were a bishop to ordain without proper permissions to ordain (either because of their office or because legitimate authority granted) then that bishop could be subject to canonical penalties.*

Right now, in regard to the SSPX, it seems that the Holy See is saying, “If you ordain, you are doing so illicitly. However, we won’t punish you for it.  Please let the local bishop know what you did so that there can be an official record of it.”  That also says that the SSPX’s records are not the official records.

Hence, what B. Fellay said perhaps edges just a few inches farther than what the Holy See laid down.

In any event, I am pleased that there is positive movement and there are positive words on both sides.  Pray for a swift and happy resolution.

The moderation queue is ON.

*In 1976, the founder of the SSXP, Archbp. Lefebvre (R.I.P.) ordained priests without the approval of the local bishop and in defiance of letters from Rome forbidding him to ordain.  Though that was under the previous Code of Canon Law, the situation under the 1983 Code is pretty much the same: bishops need permission from a legitimate authority to ordain.  As a result, Archbp. Lefebvre was suspended a collatione ordinum, “from conferring holy orders”.  The situation degenerated and later Lefebvre was suspended a divinis, from licitly conferring any sacrament.

As an aside, to show how serious the issue of dimissorial letters is, when I was ordained a priest, my diocesan bishop had to communicate permission to the Pope’s Vicar for Rome (because I was ordained within the Diocese of Rome – St. Peter’s is within the Diocese of Rome) that I be both validly and licitly ordained.  In the document I received before ordination, this is mentioned:

per praesentes tibi facultatem largimur ut ad Sacrum Presbyteratus ordinem …ab ac Cardinali Urbis Vicario, sive per se sive per alium (i.e., The Pope), praemissis de iure praemittendis, valide et licite promoveri possis et valeas.

As another aside, when I worked in the PCED I wrote a lot of dimissorial letters for ordinations.  As a matter of fact, I recently met a priest ordained for a traditional group whose name I remembered from back in the day.  Fun!

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
This entry was posted in Hard-Identity Catholicism, SSPX and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.


  1. Imrahil says:

    With all due respect to the Holy See, something either is licit or it isn’t. [In this age of Pope Francis, who knows? Time is greater than space, after all. Seriously, keep in mind how he granted to the faithful to go to the SSPX for confessions. He didn’t explicitly give faculties to the priests. It’s confusing.]

    The Holy See – the Secretary of Ecclesia Dei explained – permits [!] and tolerates [!]the priestly ordinations of the Fraternity of St. Pius X, even while continuing to consider them valid but not licit, subject to communication of the names of the ordinands to the bishop of the place.

    So, if they permit them they are licit, and if they want to consider them illicit they cannot possibly permit them. Intermedium non datur. [But now time is greater than space!]

    And if Rome speaks in self-contradictory manner, the more lenient interpretation would be the one to go for…

    however, the condition subject to communication of the names of the ordinands to the bishop of the place is so far quite clear. If that isn’t done, it’s quite illicit. [According to your line, it’s either illicit or not… how can it be quite illicit.]

  2. rmichaelj says:

    The Holy See – the Secretary of Ecclesia Dei explained – permits and tolerates the priestly ordinations of the Fraternity of St. Pius X, even while continuing to consider them valid but not licit, subject to communication of the names of the ordinands to the bishop of the place.

    The above statement is very confusing to me. If an authority permits something doesn’t that make it licit? [I guess not.] I’m sure there is some legal distinction going on here, but for the layman it appears as cognitive dissonance. [That’s okay. These things are not worked out by everyone, just by a few with a expertise.]
    Also regarding the last section, regarding subject to communication of the ordinands to the local bishop- Does this mean that if the SSPX simply communicates the names to the local bishop that the ordinations are then licit, or does the local bishop have to “approve” the ordinations that have already taken place?? [The local bishop is to be informed. It doesn’t say that he has to approve.]
    Finally I note that Bishop Fellay stated he received a letter from Rome- not necessarily from Ecclesia Dei. I wonder if it came from another source and Ecclesia Dei doesn’t know of it? [No. That’s not possible.]

    [You might read what I wrote. I think that fills in a couple blanks.]

  3. Mike says:

    The resurgence of doctrinal, liturgical, and sacramental abuses under this Papacy wouldn’t seem to leave it much room to split hairs over the liceity of valid ordinations in a faithful traditional Society. Yes, the barque of Peter is under attack, but the obsessive scapegoating of the SSPX is beyond grotesque.

    [I’m not sure what you believe you mean by “scapegoating”. Whatever you mean, however, that’s not what’s going on here.]

  4. Imrahil says:

    According to my line, “quite” illicit just means illicit and is merely a figure of language (as “quite clear”). What I was saying is that Rome says that they don’t permit anything if the names aren’t forewarded; so these are still illicit, and the “they permit but say illicit hence let’s take the more lenient of the contradictory approaches” line of argumentation only sets in when the names are forwarded.

    [You have an interesting argument! However, the fact remains that Archbp. Pozzo used the word “illicit”.]

  5. Imrahil says:

    Oh yes, I kept the new confession and marriage faculties in mind. And as they couldn’t possibly be anything else, I have always considered them as just that.

    And of course, why “tolerate” is less than “permit”, “permit and tolerate” is not less than “Permit”. [Ummm…]

  6. tradprof says:

    Not saying I agree with this, but a great many [“great many”? I doubt it. Perhaps “tens” of people.] would argue that YOUR ordination was not only illicit but invalid given the fact that it used the completely revised form after Vatican II. [That’s ridiculous.] It is entirely possible, [No, it isn’t “entirely possible”] you know, that you are evaluating in what is reported elsewhere as a complete recognition of SSPX ordinations [“complete”, not from what we know so far] in relation to what may not be the true Catholic church [?] but a very large contingent of those who only occupy traditional Catholic real estate since that council. [That is entirely absurd.]

  7. S.Armaticus says:

    A little bit off the subject, but not a lot.

    I have a help request for you and your readers.

    The SSPX is trying to purchase a beautiful 17th century Church in Utrecht, the Netherlands. The local District has made an offer and the offer has been accepted. The problem is that the Church is the property of the city council and needs their permission before the sale can be completed.

    And as you might have guessed, the usual suspects have reared their ugly heads. They don’t want to purchase it, but just want the Church to be used as a concert venue, etc…

    A group of us Faithful are trying to help our Dutch brothers in arms by petitioning the city council, etc. Currently, a poll appeared in one of the local newspapers asking if the city council should sell the property to the SSPX. The organist at the Church, one Dome Nico has asked all good souls, if they would like to help, to go to the newspaper website and vote in the poll.

    And given that you and your readers are quite apt at these sorts of things, I am taking the liberty to ask your help.

    Here is the FB post from Dome Nico:

    “We need your help.
    Father said yesterday in the sermon: we have to fight for this church. Deus Vult.
    If you’re pro SSPX, please vote the second poll option:
    Share the links with as many catholics you can find.”

    The link to the newspaper is here:

    The newpaper is in Dutch, but google translate does an adequate job of explaining the background.

    I will end here. If you decide to help us, a big Deo gratias. But even if you don’t, please keep us in your prayers.

    Pax Christi,

    Scipio Armaticus

  8. Gabriel Syme says:

    I expect +Fellay and ++Pozzo are both right: likely the difference is that ++Pozzo stating the official position, while +Fellay is recounting the encouragement he is being given behind the scenes in order to build trust and demonstrate respect (and which – of course – must go both ways, as in every relationship).

    Another interesting titbit is to recall is that, around April last year, the Catholic media widely reported a story that +Fellay had been encouraged to open a seminary in Italy when attending meetings in Rome.

    Of course we all want the situation to return to normal asap. That said, I think if Rome was significantly agitated by the SSPX ordaining men, then the authorities would insist that such ordinations cease as a precursor to talks.

    I think its significant that, in the same interview, +Fellay also remarks that when Diocesan priests approach the SSPX seeking friendship, they often state they are eager to learn about Catholic doctrine from the Society, even before learning about the traditional liturgy.

    [I look forward to the “mutual enrichment”.]

  9. Prayerful says:

    Bishop Fellay is a kindly and saintly man who preferred to endure an untreated and painful fracture rather than have confirmations deferred. His placid tone perhaps upsets those who seem to glory in polemic and rancour. All who hear Mass in SSPX chapels, in fact all Catholics, can have confidence in this good man.

    [I have the same impression of him. I’d like to meet him someday.]

  10. Kevin Fogarty says:

    OK you sent me to the dictionary for the construction ‘posse et valere’. As near as I can tell your dimissorial letter means something like ‘so that you may be well able of being promoted validly and licitly.’ Both posse and valere can mean ‘be able’ and valere often means to thrive, be strong. So here it may just be intensifying posse. Anywhere near correct?

    [The “Roman Thing” likes repetition of technical terms, especially in juridical contexts. These are different ways of saying that authority granted that I was able to be ordained.]

  11. iamlucky13 says:

    @ imrahil:
    “So, if they permit them they are licit, and if they want to consider them illicit they cannot possibly permit them.”

    My take on this is that the Church permits many things that are illicit. By permit in this context, I interpret it not to mean that they endorse it, but that the Church has no intention of imposing a censure or taking other action against SSPX for doing so, even while saying, “you shouldn’t do that.”

    Likewise, the Church has less formally been permitting and tolerating numerous and widespread illicit liturgical practices for decades.

    Similarly considering a secular matter, police usually permit and tolerate jaywalking, but that doesn’t make it legal.

  12. JabbaPapa says:

    I made a virtually identical analysis in the comments here when I first heard of this some months ago — always nice to have one’s thoughts corroborated.

  13. Maltese says:

    Dear Father, is confession still valid in the SSPX even though the year of mercy has ended? [Yes, at the conclusion of the Year of Mercy Pope Francis extended the grant to the faithful for undetermined time.]

  14. rcg says:

    The key to all of this seems to be the forwarding of the names. What is the significance of this? Do other organisations do the same thing? Why make that a salient point? Is it related to the original episode that caused the current situation?

  15. LeeF says:

    Perhaps the confusing language from Rome is purposeful and an attempt not to make too many concessions so that the SSPX gets most of what it wants just short of full recognition and could then not sign an agreement which would place local chapels under the thumb of the ordinaries under whatever canonical structure was being discussed. [That’s pretty cynical. Some 15-20 years ago, I would have agreed. I think that today, however, the that’s not the case. However, one can be forgiven for imagining such a plot, given how the SSPX was viewed in the past by many libs in the Curia.]

  16. MacBride says:

    So this is interesting and explains much. I was wondering why the Society started publishing each ordinand’s home diocese after their names.

  17. Uxixu says:

    Unfortunately, the theory that tradprof related is common in sede circles and was… lurking in some segments of SSPX that Bp. Fellay is balancing (and Abp. Lefebvre had conditionally ordained priests ordained under the Pauline books at least a few times, though later refused to force it if the priest was unwilling, which was one of the issues of the “Nine” when they were split). The main argument being that the duties of the priest explicitly spelled out in the Pontificale Romanum (to bless, to consecrate, to absolve, to Sacrifice) are not in the Pauline.

    Not only that, these same people apply it to priests of FSSP and ICKSP since the sedes also doubt the Pauline form of episcopal consecrations on the same grounds. They are wrong, of course, on both counts.

  18. SJG says:

    I hate to be terribly cynical about the current leadership in Rome, but this is one of those areas where I am torn between a wholly optimistic view of things and a wholly pessimistic view.

    The optimistic view is that the Holy See is clearly laying groundwork to make the eventual reconciliation of the SSPX not only smooth, but even in a sense “inevitable”. Once SSPX priests can provide absolution, officiate marriages, and ordain priests without the local ordinaries’ permission, it seems like more or less a “flip of the switch” to suddenly grant a personal prelature. (I’m sure the canonical implications are a bit more than that, obviously, but I’m speaking in generalities about smoothing the transition to a PP.)

    The pessimistic view, though, is whether our “merciful” Holy Father may be laying the groundwork for Rome to say, “You see, Rome doesn’t really *decide* who is Catholic or not; we don’t really regulate that sort of thing in this day and age. Ergo, Anglican and Lutheran ‘priests’ can receive absolution, officiate marriages, and admit people to holy orders. Rome permits and tolerates it, and who is Rome to judge? Everyone is Catholic now! Ta-da!” I know this is unrealistically cynical, but there’s a part of me that wonders whether the SSPX reconciliation is some kind of trial run for saying, “Well, we bent the rules for those mean, nasty, not-really-Catholic Catholics, so now we’re going to bend the rules for the ‘affirming’, ‘merciful’, actually-Protestant-but-now-suddenly-Catholic ‘Catholics’.”

    I don’t believe the Holy Spirit would permit such a course of action to transpire, but it doesn’t mean that certain types in Rome wouldn’t conspire to attempt it. For me it’s not a question of whether that would be the actual outcome, but whether some people in Rome are motivated to be vague and wishy-washy about the SSPX because they’re hoping to replicate that vague wishy-washiness elsewhere.

  19. Joe in Canada says:

    Are there any repercussions for the man receiving a valid but illicit ordination? If so, could this (the confusion) have to do with not punishing anyone, while maintaining the illicit nature of the ordination?

    [I think the men ordained are at the same moment suspended from celebration of Holy Mass. Apparently they have faculties to hear confessions, but not to say Mass or to preach. It’s a strange situation. I hope that some clear, unambiguous, juridical documents will be forthcoming before too long.]

  20. benedetta says:

    Francis X. Rocca of today’s WSJ calls reconciliation with SSPX “the pope’s Nixon-to-China moment”.

    [Old news. I’ve already been there with that image, quite a few times. Fairly recently, even, HERE.]

  21. GordonB says:

    They can also celebrate the nuptual mass (The Mass!) per the marriage document…[That document limits itself to Nuptial Mass. But it is an interesting development.]

Comments are closed.