Answering Six Objections from the SSPX

Andrew Bartel is a lay Dominican of the Province of the Most Holy Name of Jesus. He lives with his wife and their three children in Montana, where he works as a glazier. He is also pursuing a degree in English and Philosophy.

Bishop Athanasius Schneider has recently praised Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre as “a prophet of our time”; here are six common arguments that have been made by Bishop Schneider and other defenders of the SSPX, each followed by a brief rebuttal.

Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre (center) giving Communion in a 1981 photo. (Image: Marcel Antonisse / Anefo | Wikipedia)

Bishop Athanasius Schneider has recently thrown down the glove in an interview with LifeSiteNews, claiming that those of us who believe the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX) is still in schism has “a very narrow, legalistic view of the reality of the Church” and we are “putting the letter of the Canon Law above the importance, the primary importance of the fullness of the Catholic faith and of the traditional liturgy.”

Is this a fair and accurate assessment? Should we trust the auxiliary bishop of Astana when he praises Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre as “a prophet of our time” and tells priests they can “go to the SSPX” if they are forbidden to use the 1962 Missal? Should the laity be prompted by his encouragement to attend SSPX Masses and financially support them?

At the beginning of last year, I wrote an open letter, published by CWR, to a Polish priest who left the Dominican Order to adhere to the SSPX. This was a testimony of my experiences with this fractious and splintering religious group in the traditional Catholic movement, and of my decision to leave its boundaries and embrace the unity of Rome. Since my letter was published, I have publicly debated a pro-SSPX apologist and engaged in many discussions with both former and current supporters of Msgr. Lefebvre’s movement, and created the “Contra Traddom” YouTube and podcast series with John Salza and Dom Dalmasso at The Logos Project.

Our collaborative investigation into the confusing and controversial situation of the SSPX has brought some key issues into focus, and I will present some of them in this article as a more thorough counterpart to my personal testimony. While not exhaustive, it will suffice to show the shoddy scholarship and even outright dishonesty of the SSPX and its apologists.

In my letter to Fr. Gołaski, I stated that the movement of Msgr. Lefebvre was indeed a schism. I knew this both from my own unexpected journey and from Pope St. John Paul II’s declaration in Ecclesia Dei Afflicta. But I have been surprised to discover that a significant number of Catholics do not believe that the SSPX is in schism at all. Why is there such a wide divergence between the judgment of four popes (Paul VI, John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Francis) and Catholics who are sympathetic to the SSPX? The reason is the same as I gave in my open letter: the SSPX and its proponents have erected a “Catholic façade”, and they have built it over many years with the help of complicit bishops and priests they have won over to their cause. In the thick clouds and clamor of sophistry and subterfuge, they have drowned out the simple and clear words of the Church’s highest authority.

Let us unveil the truth of the matter, as it stands today. Here are six common arguments that have been made by Bishop Schneider and other defenders of the SSPX, each followed by a brief rebuttal:

Objection 1: The SSPX accepts the entirety of Catholic teaching on the papacy; it acknowledges the authority of the reigning pope and desires to be united with Rome. Because of this, it rejects Sedevacantism (a theory that the last true pope was Pius XII in 1958) and includes the pope’s name in the Canon of the Mass and in prayers at Benediction. Unlike the Orthodox churches, the SSPX has not set up a parallel hierarchy and ecclesial institutions, nor has it denied the divine right of the pope to command, two necessary requisites for schism. Therefore, the SSPX is not schismatic.

On the contrary, the members of the SSPX and its adherents do not give the full assent of both intellect and will to the Church’s doctrine of the papacy, nor do they submit to the Supreme Pontiff in important matters of faith, discipline, and governance. They profess faith in the papacy and recognize the reigning pope, but in their public works of teaching, government, and sacramental worship they deny the primacy of Peter’s successor, and the authority of the apostolic bishops in whose territories they have erected independent chapels. Our Lord Jesus Christ teaches: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Matt 7:21); and the apostle James writes: “For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so faith apart from works is dead” (Jas 2:26).

The continued sacrificing of Sedevacantists as scapegoats fall flat, for they also confess belief in the Petrine doctrines, and only differ in their refusal to acknowledge the legitimacy of the current pope (indeed, the SSPX is even more culpable than the Sedevacantists, for its leaders have no doubts as to the Pope’s existence and identity). Otherwise, the modus operandi of both SSPX and Sedevacantist clergy are in almost perfect accord, justifying their independent ministry from Rome by proclaiming a state of necessity in the Church and claiming supplied jurisdiction for themselves. The Church’s authority does not have the final say in their practice of religion and the instruction of their followers…they do. Thus, in practice, they have set up a parallel hierarchy, even if not a parallel papacy or bishoprics. They have also erected rival institutions, such as seminaries, schools, and chapels with independent celebrations of the Eucharist, Baptisms, Confirmations, Marriages, and Ordinations, each with sacramental registries separate from the local Catholic churches overseen by the bishop. They have even erected their own marriage tribunals and annulment process, during which they require their adherents to swear on the Holy Gospels to have nothing to do with the bishops’ tribunals!

The facts presented above demonstrate that the SSPX do indeed deny the pope his divine right to command, and have done so for almost fifty years. They do the same by undermining the rights of the bishops he has appointed. Their actions proclaim what is in their hearts, though their lips bring forth concealing lies. Some Old Catholics include the Pope’s name in their Masses, but they are not in communion with him by this fact. Believing in the papacy and recognizing the pope is not enough; a Catholic must be united to him through the bonds of charity achieved only by full unity of governance and worship, as St. Augustine makes clear: “By sinful dissensions, schismatics deviate from fraternal charity, although they believe what we believe” (De fide et symbolo).

Objection 2: The SSPX has never officially been declared to be in schism, and no Catholic can do so on his own authority. Members of the hierarchy who have been appointed to various assignments related to the SSPX, such as Cardinal Gagnon, Cardinal Hoyos, and Bishop Schneider, have all denied the SSPX is in schism. Even Pope Francis anecdotally told Bishop Vitus Huonder that the SSPX “is not a schismatic community”, and gave him permission to move into a residence of the SSPX in Switzerland. Therefore, the SSPX is not schismatic.

On the contrary, the movement of Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre (viz., the SSPX, its associates, and adherents) has been declared to be in schism by the highest authority in the Church. In a letter sent to Lefebvre on October 11, 1976, Pope Paul VI reprimanded him for “acts committed in rebellion against the one true Church of God” and admonished him to become “once again an edifying subject in full ecclesial communion.” Lefebvre refused, continuing to operate in a state of suppression and suspension, unlawfully ordaining priests throughout the next decade.

Then, following his four consecrations of bishops against the will of the Supreme Pontiff, Pope John Paul II made the definitive declaration of schism twice, both in the decree of schism and excommunication issued on July 1, 1988, by his prefect for the Congregation of Bishops, Cardinal Bernardin Gantin and in his apostolic letter Ecclesia Dei Afflicta on July 2, 1988. This declaration has never been withdrawn; in fact, it has been upheld by both Benedict XVI and Francis, even after the lifting of the excommunications on the four SSPX bishops in 2009 and the granting of faculties for confession in 2016. This will be explained in the answers to Objections 3 and 4.

Bishop Huonder’s unsubstantiated anecdotal account of Pope Francis’ personal opinion is outweighed by the pope’s official statements given in his letter to the bishops accompanying Traditiones Custodes and in his apostolic letter Misericordia et Misera. In the former, he unambiguously refers to the movement of Mons. Lefebvre as a “schism”, and in the latter, he stresses that the priests of the SSPX must “strive with God’s help for the recovery of full communion in the Catholic Church.” Concerning the permission given to Bishop Huonder to retire to a house of the SSPX: I will grant this as favorable if Pope Francis’ appointment of Fr. James Martin to the Vatican’s Secretariat for Communications is also praised as right and prudent.

For each of the opinions by cardinals and bishops that the SSPX is not in schism (assuming these opinions have been presented accurately), there are other opinions by equally authoritative cardinals and bishops who have affirmed that the SSPX is in schism; for example, Cardinal Raymond Burke, Cardinal Gerard Mueller, and Venerable Fulton Sheen, to name a few. Therefore, to settle the matter we must prefer the opinions of those who are in accord with the determination of the Bishop of Rome, who has clearly stated that the leadership of the SSPX was guilty of “schismatic acts” and that Catholics must “be aware that formal adherence to the schism is a grave offense against God and to cease their support in any way for the movement.”

Objection 3: Pope Francis has granted habitual, ordinary, and universal faculties to the SSPX for confessions and marriages, and since this would contradict Canon Law if they were schismatics, the Roman Pontiff has implicitly declared that they are not, de facto. Therefore, the SSPX is not schismatic.

On the contrary, it does not contradict Canon Law because there have always been exceptional instances of necessity in which the Church recognizes as valid and licit the reception of sacraments from priests who may be immoral, schismatic, or even laicized and irreligious (see Canons 844 §2 and 976-977). This demonstrates an important precedent: for the good of souls, the Church has the power to grant faculties even to priests who are not in good standing, but this is not an approval of them or their situation. In fact, this is precisely what Pope Francis states in his letter Misericordia et Misera: “For the pastoral benefit of these faithful [who attend churches officiated by the SSPX], and trusting in the goodwill of their priests to strive with God’s help for the recovery of full communion in the Catholic Church, I have personally decided to extend this faculty beyond the Jubilee Year until further provisions are made, lest anyone is deprived of the sacramental sign of reconciliation through the Church’s pardon.”

It is therefore ignorant or dishonest to claim that Pope Francis has “implicitly declared, de facto” that the SSPX is not schismatic, when he explicitly declares that they need “to recover full communion in the Catholic Church”! (Nota Bene: There are only three ways not to be in full communion with the Church: heresy, apostasy, and schism).

Objection 4: The situation of the SSPX has changed since the episcopal consecrations by Lefebvre in 1988: the excommunications on the four bishops were lifted by Pope Benedict in 2009, and Pope Francis granted them, faculties, for confessions and marriages in 2016-17. Therefore, the SSPX is not schismatic.

On the contrary, the contumacy of the SSPX’s schismatic actions (i.e., illicit Masses, ordinations, annulment courts, rejection of the new rite of Mass as evil, etc.) has remained the same to the present day, as also evidenced by the fact that no reunion with Rome occurred after the doctrinal discussions and negotiations held from 2009 to 2012. According to Pope Benedict XVI in his Letter to the Bishops Concerning the Remission of the Excommunication of the Four Bishops Consecrated by Archbishop Lefebvre, the lifting of the censures from the four bishops in 2009 was “a gesture of mercy” and “the remission of the excommunication has the same aim as that of the punishment: namely, to invite the four bishops once more to return [to unity].”

He clarified further that “until 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.” It is also worth pointing out the precedent set by Pope Paul VI in 1965 when he lifted the declared excommunication on the Orthodox church, which obviously did not end the schism. A distinction must be made between the declared censure and the crime/sin.

Pope Benedict XVI also addressed the situation of the SSPX in his letter to the bishops accompanying Summorum Pontificum, where he explains that with the motu proprio Ecclesia Dei Afflicta Pope John Paul II “primarily wanted to assist the Society of Saint Pius X to recover full unity with the successor of Peter, and sought to heal a wound experienced ever more painfully. Unfortunately, this reconciliation has not yet come about.” These papal pronouncements by Pope Benedict are consistent not only with those of his predecessor but also with one of the first public statements he made as Cardinal Ratzinger in his Address to the Bishops of Chile in 1988, where he expressed the hope that “the schism of Lefebvre would not be of long duration.”

Regarding the sacramental faculties given to the SSPX by Pope Francis, see reply to Objection 3.

Objection 5: The fact that the situation of the SSPX is being handled by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith proves that it is Catholic since dialogue with schismatics would be conducted by the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity (PCPCU). Furthermore, in 1994 the head of the PCPCU, Edward Cardinal Cassidy, issued a statement that “the situation of the members of this Society is an internal matter of the Catholic Church. The Society is not another Church or Ecclesial Community in the meaning used in the Directory.” Therefore, the SSPX is not schismatic.

On the contrary, the situation of the SSPX is handled by the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) because the Ecclesia Dei Commission (EDC), established by Pope John Paul II to heal the schism of Lefebvre, was joined to it by Pope Benedict XVI. This is yet another example of poor scholarship on the part of the SSPX apologists. In his Letter to the Bishops Concerning the Remission of the Excommunication of the Four Bishops Consecrated by Archbishop Lefebvre, Pope Benedict XVI declared: “It is my intention henceforth to join the Pontifical Commission “Ecclesia Dei”—the body which has been competent since 1988 for those communities and persons who, coming from the Society of Saint Pius X or from similar groups, wish to return to full communion with the Pope—to the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith. This will make it clear 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.”

Although Pope Francis suppressed the EDC in 2019 at the request of the CDF, he reassigned the duties of the EDC in their entirety to the CDF, directing that within the Congregation “a specific Section will be instituted, committed to continuing the work of supervision, promotion and protection” previously done by the EDC. Therefore, the duties of the suppressed Commission, as decreed by Pope John Paul II in Ecclesia Dei Afflicta, are now the responsibility of the CDF. The first of these is “the purpose of facilitating full ecclesial communion of priests, seminarians, religious communities or individuals until now linked in various ways to the movement of Mons. Lefebvre, who may wish to remain united to the Successor of Peter in the Catholic Church.” This brief account of the historical and legal development of the EDC demonstrates that the work of this new Section of the CDF is the same as that of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity: a reunion with the Church and the Pope. (Although the former names for these two curial departments have been used for the sake of historical clarity, they are now called the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith and the Dicastery for Christian Unity).

The 1994 statement issued by Cardinal Cassidy, does not prove that the SSPX is not a schismatic movement, especially in light of all the papal declarations. The fact that it is not recognized by PCPCU as “another Church or Ecclesial Community” in the specific sense used by the Directory does not mean that the SSPX is in full communion. Also, it is an “internal matter” of the Catholic Church in the same way that dissident movements like Call to Action, Association for the Rights of Catholics in the Church, Women’s Ordination Conference, New Ways Ministries, and most recently, the German Bishops’ Conference, are “internal matters” of the Catholic Church. These are not members of established Protestant or Orthodox Churches; they are recent breakaway groups of men and women who were Roman Catholics. Nonetheless, they are schismatic and/or heretical and need to be reconciled with the Church. The same holds true for a society of vagabond Roman clergy and their adherents who have refused to accept and participate in the common faith, worship, and governance of the Church for half a century.

Objection 6: The SSPX is not to blame for its irregular canonical status, rather this is an unfortunate and temporary result of the extraordinary crisis in the Church since Vatican II. The Society’s leadership has the duty to resist and disobey the popes and the bishops when they believe that their teaching and commands come into conflict with the higher laws of God or with the received Tradition. Therefore, the SSPX is justified and not schismatic.

On the contrary, there is never a justification for schismatic actions and the fabrication of a schismatic movement. This has always been the constant attitude of the Church toward schism, as the Catholic Encyclopedia makes surprisingly clear:

Some have claimed the introduction into the Church of abuses, dogmatic and liturgical novelties, and superstitions, with which they are permitted, even bound, not to ally themselves. Without entering into the foundation of these charges it should be noted that the [Fathers of the Church cited in the article] do not mention or admit a single exception. If we accept their statements, separation from the Church is necessarily an evil, injurious, and blameworthy act, and abandoning the true way of salvation, and this is independent of all contingent circumstances. Moreover, the doctrines of the Fathers exclude a priori any such attempt at justification; to use their words, it is forbidden for individuals or particular or national churches to constitute themselves judges of the universal Church; the mere fact of having it against one carries its own condemnation. St. Augustine summed up all his controversy with the Donatists in the maxim: “The whole world unhesitatingly declares them wrong who separate themselves from the whole world in whatsoever portion of the whole world.”

Good ends or intentions can never justify evil means; this is an immutable principle of the moral law of God. I may not run over a man in my car because I need to get my child to the hospital. Neither can any Catholic inflict wounds upon the Body of Christ because there is a crisis in the Church. No saint in history ever has acted or ever will act in such an abusive and destructive manner.

* * *

From what has been presented thus far, it should be evident that Bishop Schneider and other SSPX defenders have not diligently or impartially assessed the situation of this independent clerical organization in light of the Holy See’s past and recent statements, nor have they fully considered the ongoing behavior of its members and adherents. Yet they do not hesitate to give it their full and unqualified praise and approbation. Many souls are now flocking to the SSPX and embracing its tenets and attitudes as a result of this scandalous irresponsibility.

Perhaps these men are not fully aware of the gravity of what Archbishop Lefebvre did in 1988; only thirty years prior in 1958, Pope Pius XII had described the same actions by Chinese bishops as “criminal and sacrilegious”. Lefebvre’s decision to consecrate bishops against the will of the Holy Father was an act of violence toward holy Mother Church, but the SSPX has never repented of its founder’s acts of clerical dominance and injustice. To this day, they exalt him as a hero and revere him as a saint. This is ignored by the bishops, priests, and laymen who are eager to cover up this abuse of the Church and her sacraments, eagerly presenting Lefebvre and the SSPX as model Catholics to be imitated and admired.

The SSPX has also broken away from God’s chain of command, the inseparable links of the Great Commission. This Great Commission flows from both the divine nature and the works of God in salvation history. God is an eternal procession of divine missions, and his authority on earth is communicated in the same way. We learn from the Church that the plan of God is “a grace which was given to us in Christ Jesus before the ages began, stemming immediately from Trinitarian love. It unfolds in the work of creation, the whole history of salvation after the fall, and the missions of the Son and the Spirit, which are continued in the mission of the Church.” Only those ministers who have been properly commissioned can teach, govern, and sacramentally sanctify God’s holy people.

The bishops and priests of the SSPX still have no canonical status in the Church, meaning they are literally “unhinged” priests (a.k.a., not incardinated). For those who have already abandoned the Church to join the movement of the SSPX, St. Francis De Sales has these words: “Tell me, what business had you to hear them and believe them without having any assurance of their commission and of the approval of Our Lord, whose legates they called themselves? In a word, you have no justification for quitting that ancient Church in which you were baptized, on the faith of preachers who had no legitimate mission from the Master.”

Let us, therefore, hold to account all complicit clergy who are soft on sin, no matter how genuine they might seem or how beautiful their liturgies are. This is not “narrow” or “legalistic”, this is the apostolic nature of the Church as Christ our Lord constituted it. We join our voices with the great abbot and Benedictine reformer, Dom Prosper Gueranger: “We, then, both priests and people, have a right to know whence our pastors have received their power. If they claim our obedience without having been sent by the bishop of Rome, we must refuse to receive them for they are not acknowledged by Christ as His ministers. They must be aliens to us, for they have not been sent, they are not pastors.”