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The Status of the Society of St. Pius X (Part 1)

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Jim Vogel, spokesman for the Society of St. Pius X in the United states, stopped by our offices, and we thought we’d like to hear, in their own words, what the Society sees as their current status. Our chaplain, Father Hugh Barbour, joined us in the studio for a conversation meant to tease out how the Society sees this moment, this pope, and the possibilities for regularization.


Cy Kellett: Hello, and welcome again, to Catholic Answers Focus. I am Cy Kellett, your host. Delighted to have you with us, and this time, we have two guests in studio with us, because we have big things to talk about. Our first guest is Jim Vogel, editor-in-chief of Angelus Press, and spokesman for the Saint Pius X Society here in America. Hello, Jim.

Jim Vogel: Hello. Thanks for having me.

Cy Kellett: Our other guest is Father Hugh Barbour, our chaplain, here to make sure that I remain charitable to Jim. Did you know that’s your role?

Hugh Barbour: And your wife.

Cy Kellett: And my wife. Yeah, well you help me with that all the time, Father. Okay, so the Saint Pius X Society, there will be many among our listeners, I imagine, who are not even familiar with the society. I want to start with the basic question that you probably get a lot: What is wrong with you people? Oh, wait. No. That came out wrong. Maybe you could tell us about the Saint Pius X Society.

Jim Vogel: That’s fine. I do think it’s important to start with some historical perspective, because I don’t know that you can understand any of the current events surrounding the society without knowing where they came from, and that means, in a way, starting with their founder, a French archbishop named Marcel Lefebvre, who before the Second Vatican Council, before there was such a thing as the Society of Saint Pius X, was an archbishop in primarily French-speaking Africa, where at one point, he was the apostolic delegate of Pope Pius XII. Then, he was subsequently elected superior general of the Holy Ghost Fathers, the Spiritans, and retired in the late 1960s after many decades of service to the Catholic church, and in a way was forced out of retirement, providentially, one might say, by some seminarians who had come to him asking for a formation that would’ve been something similar to what they would’ve found before the Second Vatican Council.

Jim Vogel: Having had experience in that field, Archbishop Lefebvre tried to organize… What would you say? A formation that would be recognizable to someone who had gone to a Catholic seminary prior to the Second Vatican Council. This eventually led to the creation of a religious congregation called the Society of Saint Pius X.

Cy Kellett: The council ends in ’65.

Jim Vogel: That’s right.

Cy Kellett: About what year are these men asking?

Jim Vogel: This was 1968 and 1969. At the time, he tried to find existing programs. I think Fribourg in Switzerland was one of the places where he was sending men for formation, and for a lot of reasons it wasn’t working out. This led to the discussion of an institute that would focus on the formation of priests.

Hugh Barbour: An international seminary.

Jim Vogel: That’s right. That’s interesting because I think your listeners probably know the Society for things which they oppose, such as certain aspects of the liturgical reform of the Second Vatican Council; whereas, if you read the statutes of the Society of Saint Pius X when they were canonically erected by the Church, it’s entirely focused on priestly formation. All of these other controversies, which are real, come as a result of disputes that arise primarily in the 1970s because of what Archbishop Lefebvre was trying to do in his international seminary.

Cy Kellett: All right. You may not know this, but in the period after, since the Vatican Council, we have actually had some problems in the Catholic Church with the formation of priests. You may not be aware of that. This comes in the context of not just the Society wanting a certain type of formation, but also a general kind of tumult in formation. This meant a lot of conflict.

Jim Vogel: It did. I think if you go back and read some of the firsthand testimonies of seminarians coming to this retired archbishop in the late 1960s, it would give some valuable historical perspective as to what would have led even to the idea of founding an international seminary at the time dedicated to a more traditional or classical priestly formation.

Hugh Barbour: In terms of my own community, which is the Norbertine Fathers of Saint Michael’s Abbey in Orange, our founding abbot, Abbot Ladislaus, who was very concerned about the formation of the priests of the community, and he wanted to send them abroad, because he didn’t think there was anything in the States that would be sound, and he considered Rome, but before he considered Rome, he went to Fribourg, and visited a bishop there, and Lefebvre, and all that.

Hugh Barbour: Our seminarians went and experienced what they had there. This was in ’69, ’70. It was still legitimate. I mean, legitimate in the sense of the full sense of the term. They were very impressed by what they saw, but they were not happy with the attitude of contestation to the Holy See, so they were, as you would understand, with American Catholics, they didn’t want anything which sounded like they were opposing the Holy Father.

Hugh Barbour: The abbot actually, eventually, moved them from Austria to Rome to study there. But there was always that deep sympathy from the beginning, and he tried, but he figured it would’ve complicated things for us. I’m just saying that, from a personal point of view in our own local history, it’s pretty close, because there were bishops from all around the world trying to establish themselves, and with the help of Archbishop Lefebvre and the international seminary, which then was trashed, basically, later on.

Cy Kellett: You ask any average layperson, what’s the Society of Saint Pius X, what’s the issue there? They would say “They are right wing Catholics who want the traditional mass.”

Jim Vogel: To the extent that the average man in the pew has heard about the Society of Saint Pius X, it is probably in reference to a perceived schismatic or parallel church that broke away from the Catholic Church in 1988, when our… We’re jumping over a lot of history of here, but Archbishop Lefebvre consecrated four bishops without the explicit permission of Pope John Paul II, and traditional mass would obviously be a part of that equation, but I think in 2019, because of the vast… There are many religious orders, and diocesan priests who now say the traditional mass. I don’t know to what extent people identify the traditional mass with the Society of Saint Pius X.

Jim Vogel: I get the impression–and maybe you would be able to answer this better than I could–the impression is one of almost an esoteric and bizarre splinter group. That, I think, is the average impression that a Catholic might have of the Society of Saint Pius X. I don’t think they would know much about-

Cy Kellett: I don’t know if esoteric and bizarre as much as maybe angry. I’m just trying to formulate what’s out there. I don’t know, Father?

Hugh Barbour: I would say angry or stilted.

Cy Kellett: Sorry. We’re not giving you our impression. Just what’s out there.

Jim Vogel: No, of course.

Hugh Barbour: The public image is that these people live with themselves. It’s kind of the Amish image. Which they’re not.

Jim Vogel: Which gives the impression to me, a self-enclosed community.

Cy Kellett: Two things that surprised me in our earlier conversations, off-air conversations, in preparation: one, that you don’t have lay members of the Society of Saint Pius X.

Jim Vogel: It’s true. People who attend mass at a Society of Saint Pius X chapel are not members. The members are the priests.

Hugh Barbour: It’s like Opus Dei. Opus Dei, the members are the priests who are under the prelature. Everybody else is just receiving their services.

Jim Vogel: Right, so as a practical example, I am not a member of the Society of Saint Pius X, unless I were to be ordained, which is unlikely given my current circumstances.

Cy Kellett: Because your wife would disapprove. We know that.

Jim Vogel: I suspect that’s the case.

Hugh Barbour: How many kids do you have?

Jim Vogel: I have four.

Cy Kellett: I mean, the kids wouldn’t like it either.

Jim Vogel: I suspect not.

Cy Kellett: The other thing… Oh, I’m sorry.

Jim Vogel: No, go ahead.

Cy Kellett: The first is, I didn’t know that it wasn’t a community that had lay members. The second is, if you had asked me, I probably would’ve said the primary issue is the mass, the liturgy. That is not the case. That is not the primary issue that’s kind of at the heart of the contention.

Jim Vogel: It’s true. The doctrinal issues at stake would be, if you want to say, the central issue; but I think the liturgical question is probably the more practical, on-the-ground reality for people who would attend a chapel of the Society of Saint Pius X before the organization, as an organization, as a Catholic religious order, it’s more… Yeah, the question of doctrinal continuity or perceived lack thereof in the documents of the Second Vatican Council, and the more theoretical concerns about the liturgical reform. You’re right.

Cy Kellett: The primary doctrinal concern has to do with what is called, variously by various different people, a religious tolerance, religious liberty, religious freedom. Is that the primary?

Jim Vogel: I think it’s fair to say, that’s probably… If you had to say, is there one issue which there seems to be a disparity of opinion regarding pre-Conciliar magisterial teaching and the Second Vatican Council, it would surround the question of religious liberty. Especially, again, not to mention something we were discussing off-air, maybe if you took a look at Dignitatis Humanae, which is the document of the Second Vatican Council on this question, and something like Pius XI’s cyclical Quas Primas, you would get a sense, even from a layman’s perspective, of the apparent-

Cy Kellett: Difference.

Jim Vogel: Yeah, and then, we could probably do two whole issues or two whole hours on the question of religious liberty, but it does get into a more complicated doctrinal question.

Hugh Barbour: The doctrinal question is very firmly that Christ, as the incarnate word, is the head of the human race, and therefore, he’s the king of the human race. Therefore, the religion revealed by him, and the worship which he established for the human race is normative for human beings, and so the Church needs to assert that continuously and not treat what our Lord instituted for our salvation, the sacraments, the mass, all of that, as though it were some kind of observance that we can then accommodate to various traditions. That’s the problem, and it could be dealt with very, very simply in the sense that we recognize, and we can tolerate, the particular limitations on human freedom or human understanding that exist within the cultures of the world, or in their politics, but the Church always has to assert firmly that Christ has the right to be worshiped as the head of the human race.

Hugh Barbour: Just take it to Jesus. It’s not an ideological, it’s not a political doctrine. It has to do with the headship of Christ of the human race.

Cy Kellett: The way you phrase it, Father, I have to say is very sympathetic to the Society’s position. I would think you would find those words-

Jim Vogel: You know, I would like to say, first, that I don’t like phrasing it in terms of “the Society’s position.”

Cy Kellett: Okay, fair enough.

Jim Vogel: Maybe I’m-

Hugh Barbour: It’s the Church’s position.

Jim Vogel: Well, that’s one way I could put it, but I would say that what seems to be the teaching of the Catholic Church, insofar as it was manifested in magisterial documents before the Second Vatican Council, would be “the Society’s position.” I would argue that they don’t have a position of their own as such, and so to Father’s point, I think the practical dilemma becomes: if there is a difference of language in magisterial documents, and if there is an apparent change between, let’s say Pius XI and Vatican II, and I’m just giving that as an example, is it a change of policy based on prudential circumstances which have changed, or is it something deeper? Is it a manifestation of a different doctrinal perspective?

Jim Vogel: This is actually played out in the liturgy, because the feast, at least in the Latin church, the feast of the Kingship of Christ, I think, was instituted as a result of Quas Primas by Pius XI.

Hugh Barbour: Yes, in that encyclical he establishes it.

Jim Vogel: I think in the new calendar, that feast has been retained, but it’s been moved to the end of the liturgical year.

Hugh Barbour: The last Sunday of the liturgical year, yeah.

Jim Vogel: Which has, I think, a different dimension, eschatologically, or there was some… I get the impression, anyway, that when the reformers moved that feast, there was a desire to emphasize the coming kingship of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Hugh Barbour: Right, and not the actual social and public kingship. Yeah, that’s true. What Pius XI had in mind was the fact that the feast of Christ the King would be on the last Sunday of October, which was, in Europe, and Germany, and other countries, the feast of the Reformation.

Cy Kellett: This is something similar to today, the feast of St. Joseph the Worker, and May Day, right?

Hugh Barbour: Exactly. Right. May Day was established with Joseph the Worker, and Christ the King was the feast of the Reformation Sunday. Anybody that lives in the Midwest knows that Reformation Sunday, on the Midwest. That was one aspect of the whole question that inspired Pius XI to do what he did. But I wouldn’t say that the new liturgy is entirely wrong in this regard, because the kingship of Christ is eschatological, it is for the end times, it is for the final fulfillment of all things, but it is true that they removed from the liturgy, in the new liturgy at least, any references to Christ’s actual and current governance of the human race. That’s a question which is for theologians, but it’s a real question.

Cy Kellett: So what does a Society member, or a person affiliated with the Society of Saint Pius X mean by the word “modernism,” then? This is a very common word. Does it mean just this idea of the separation of Church and state, or what does modernism refer to?

Jim Vogel: Modernism, as a theological concept, has to do with terms like vital eminentism and things which, I guess if I were to try to summarize it in a sentence, the notion that objective religious truth comes from inside one’s own personal experience and has less to do with an objective deposit of faith which is taught by the Catholic Church.

Cy Kellett: Ah, I got it.

Hugh Barbour: Exactly right.

Jim Vogel: I think it’s true that, colloquially, most people who use the word “modernist,” whether they’re traditional Catholics or not, probably use it just to mean all of the changes that have happened in the 20th century, sometimes even before the Second Vatican Council. As a theological term, I would defer to Father, but I think it has a much more restricted usage than most people would imply by it.

Hugh Barbour: It means basically that revelation is a result of subjective human experience. It’s a post-Kantian idea of the way in which God would relate Himself to the human race. It’s pretty sophisticated, actually.

Jim Vogel: It seems historically to derive out of these historical controversies about the person of Jesus Christ, and how to make His nature and person known to human beings.

Hugh Barbour: And how He experienced himself as a man, his relation to the Father. There’s some deep theology there, and the modernist crisis, it wasn’t entirely… I mean, the modernists were not entirely off-base. They needed some guidance from the magisterium, but they were so far off-base that they just received a very firm doctrinal correction, which then made it difficult for many people to accept, but in point of fact, it was a great grace for the Church which kept many confusing ideas from being diffused among the faithful.

Cy Kellett: I’m going to move to the current status of the Society, but did we reflect enough on the history?

Jim Vogel: I think so. If we have a chance, we can always go back and delve into it deeper, but again, that’s something that we could…

Cy Kellett: The Society was formed as a priestly society to form men in the pre-Vatican II–or is that pejorative to say that way?

Jim Vogel: No, I would actually-

Cy Kellett: The way that men were-

Hugh Barbour: They didn’t observe the pre-Vatican II liturgy. They observed the Vatican II liturgy as it was established up to that point.

Cy Kellett: I see. But to give a formation, that was a more traditional formation.

Jim Vogel: That’s correct.

Hugh Barbour: Yes, exactly.

Cy Kellett: Okay, so at a certain point, this means that a community forms around this society, this priestly society. In 1988, Archbishop Lefebvre, who is leading this society, is obviously considering his own mortality. Things happen, things are said, but four bishops are consecrated by Archbishop Lefebvre. This is an act that results in what canonical consequences? What comes from that?

Jim Vogel: In 1988, what happens is that… Even before 1988, the archbishop had been… and this is where maybe the history is important. He had already been suspended in 1976 for ordaining priests without the permission of Rome. That’s its own complicated history, but for the sake of brevity, by 1988, he was older, the relationships with Rome, even on a human level, were rather difficult; and there had been an agreement in May of 1988, in principle at least, to allow Archbishop Lefebvre to consecrate another bishop and to clarify even then some of the canonical irregularities that had surrounded the Society of Saint Pius X.

Jim Vogel: The real point of departure was that they couldn’t agree on a date, so Archbishop Lefebvre, in a way, made an ultimatum to Rome, saying, “If we can’t agree on a date for the agreement of episcopal consecrations, I will go ahead anyway,” and arguing, to be fair to him, that he thought–he would argue that, in principle, Rome had given him permission to consecrate a bishop, but they were haggling over details, which…I’m not trying to simplify this very complicated question, but-

Cy Kellett: No, but you’re just giving his perspective.

Jim Vogel: It’s true that in 1988, four bishops are consecrated without the explicit permission of the Holy Father, which in canon law is, at least theoretically, a very grave offense. There is a notification then from Pope John Paul II saying that it was an act of schism, and that, by consecrating these bishops, Archbishop Lefebvre had essentially excommunicated himself. It’s true, he had been warned by Rome that if he went ahead, this would be the consequence. In that sense, it wasn’t a surprise.

Jim Vogel: Of course, this inaugurates this period, I would say, that leads roughly from the consecrations in 1988 to around the year 2000, where there was the appearance, on the one hand, of a parallel church, a real schism, but the Society would have argued at the time that they had taken advantage of certain provisions in canon law and theology that would have allowed them to operate in a kind of state of emergency where the normal laws didn’t apply. Again, we could go into what those arguments are, but I think it’s probably more helpful for this conversation to say that from the period of 2000 to, essentially, 2019, there has been a series of developments, canonically and pastorally, that affect the Society of Saint Pius X.

Jim Vogel: To sum it up to the extent that I can, I would say in 2019, there’s still not a clear canonical solution. There’s no longer any language of not being Catholic or being in schism. Pope Benedict XVI lifted any excommunications and obviously with Summorum Pontificum, made it evident that the traditional mass, the extraordinary form as it’s often called, can be offered by any priest if they so desire. And Pope Francis has extended permissions for jurisdiction for marriages and confessions, which were historically a disputed point.

Jim Vogel: So right now, in 2019, it’s a gray area. We can use words like “it’s a canonically irregular situation,” which, while true, doesn’t necessarily clarify things as much as we might like.

Cy Kellett: It’s kind of a descriptor, and a gentle descriptor. But it strikes me that, in all that you’ve said, you get a sense of a lot of practical accommodations being made on both sides that are allowing for a practical working relationship without actually resolving doctrinal issues.

Jim Vogel: I think that’s fair. On the one hand, from the perspective of the Society of Saint Pius X, a lot of these practical provisions that would affect confessions, or marriages, or even the establishment of new houses, or other canonical questions that are important, are meant to be signs of a practical willingness to submit to Rome, to show that, you know, we’re not a parallel church, that we don’t think we have the authority to just do whatever we want. On the other hand, these questions that go back long before the episcopal consecrations of 1988–for instance, “How can we resolve this apparent discontinuity on the question of religious liberty?”–are still to be clarified.

Jim Vogel: I think it’s fair to say that the Society of Saint Pius X would very much like Rome to demonstrate how certain questions we have can be read in continuity with tradition. In a way, you can say that we’re waiting on the authorities, the proper authorities, let’s say the CDF, to make those clarifications.

Cy Kellett: Frankly, it seems that you’ve kind of won and lost with the current pope. He’s all about practical solutions and seems not particularly interested in doctrinal issues, in many ways. I’m not saying that in any way to be pejorative towards the pope. It’s just people have their priorities, and he doesn’t-

Jim Vogel: What’s interesting about the present pope is that before he was the Holy Father, when he was the cardinal archbishop of Buenos Aires, he got to know the Society of Saint Pius X on the ground, so to speak. We operate a seminary right outside of Buenos Aires, and so there had been reason for contact. I forget initially, I think we had asked permission maybe to use one of the churches in Buenos Aires for a pilgrimage or some occasion, and so he got to know our priests there. And on a personal level, it seems like they hit it off. We were perceived to be working on the periphery, or not looking for a clerical career. I think it’s safe to say we’re not wealthy as an organization, and so, you know, maybe we didn’t have the nicest cassocks in Argentina, or we weren’t “out there.”

Cy Kellett: That means a lot to this pope.

Jim Vogel: It seemed to mean a lot to the point where… This is maybe getting off into the weeds a bit. After he became the pope, there was a legal question in Argentina about whether or not we could operate as a Catholic organization, because there’s some kind of concord or legal understanding between the state and the church in Argentina, where if you are recognized by the Catholic church, you have a claim to the title Catholic, and you have certain legal or financial benefits, which you wouldn’t get, let’s say, as a… I’m not privy to the details of the nonprofit laws in Argentina, but Pope Francis personally intervened with the state of Argentina to have the Society of Saint Pius X, at least in Argentina, recognized as a Catholic organization. That doesn’t really mean anything canonically, but it shows on a personal level, the attitude of Pope Francis towards the Society of Saint Pius X.

Cy Kellett: It seems to me more practical benefits, more practical goods, but still no advancements of the doctrinal issues.

Jim Vogel: I think that’s fair. I also think it’s fair to say, broadly speaking, that, you know, from the early- to mid-’70s until now, it’s the Society of Saint Pius X that has requested clarification of these issues. In fact, to your point earlier, there was a formal attempt in the mid ’80s, I think it was 1985, where a dubia was sent, a formal document was sent to the CDF on the question of religious liberty. Isolating that particular question, and laying out in great theological detail what our concerns were, what our objections were, and asking the CDF to answer these questions.

Jim Vogel: And there was a response, both of which are public. You can find them. We actually sell the dubia, if you want to read it. You can find them both online. They’re easy to find. To our perspective, and really, I don’t think you can… It’s actually written like the document Dignitatis Humanae because the opening letter of the response to the dubia says, “Well, of course it’s an incontestable novelty.” That’s the words of the response to the dubia is, “Of course the doctrine’s an incontestable novelty.” I would say that that did not resolve… The Society of Saint Pius X tried to get some doctrinal clarity, and I don’t know that the response to the dubia did that.

Jim Vogel: I don’t know, Father, if you have anything to add there. That’s a little bit ancient history at this point.

Hugh Barbour: Not at this moment. Yeah. I would say, no, it didn’t clarify things.

Cy Kellett: Well, this is a good point for us to take a quick break, then. I want to ask you about Society of Saint Peter, your relationship there, about whether or not you accept canon law, that new promulgation of canon law, and what your relationship is with Sedevacantists. And also, then, to talk about possible ways forward.

Jim Vogel: Great.

Cy Kellett: All right. Thank you for listening and joining us this week on Catholic Answers Focus. Part two, of course, will be next week on Catholic Answers Focus, and if you like what we do here, would you please share it? Let people know that they can go over to CatholicAnswersLive.com and become members of Radio Club. If you’re a member of Radio Club, we send Catholic Answers Focus right into your email account each week.

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