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The Society of St. Pius X and Dissident Traditionalism

Catholic Answers saw plenty of controversy in 2013 over the trend or movement called traditionalism. Reading the resulting online polemics, quite a few Catholics have found themselves wondering to what extent, if any, the faithful are permitted to share and express certain reservations about Vatican Council II and its implementation by popes and bishops. I will address these issues briefly in this article.

In older reference works, the word traditionalism is defined as a rather obscure theological error that pretty much died out after Vatican I censured it in 1870. Several years ago I was asked to write the entry on modern “Traditionalist Movements” for a new Catholic encyclopedia. After running it by a number of well-known Catholics from different points on the spectrum, I came up with the following definition:

“The term ‘traditionalist’ has come to designate those Catholics who adopt a strongly ‘anti-modernist’ stance that is more or less critical even of many positions now approved and promulgated by the See of Peter, insofar as these reflect, or are at least related to, the changes introduced into Catholic life by Vatican Council II.”

Shifting meaning

It’s worth noting that the word is no longer a term of opprobrium. Those who regularly write for publications such as The Remnant and Catholic Family News are quite happy to call themselves traditionalists. It enables them, as Catholics who believe officially approved changes in the Church have gone too far, to distinguish themselves both from “liberals” (“modernists” or “progressives”) who press for still more official changes and from those they call “conservatives” or “neo-Catholics,” i.e., Catholics who generally adhere to all positions espoused by the Holy See and find themselves comfortable with the approved post-Vatican II liturgical rites.

However, it’s pretty clear that there are traditionalists and there are traditionalists. So how are we to talk about the different currents within the movement? Some recent commentators have distinguished radical traditionalists from their more moderate brethren. But not everyone has found these terms helpful, because they can’t be defined precisely.

How about obedient versus disobedient traditionalists? That would be a more objectively verifiable distinction because it refers back to specific Church directives. However, it also gives the impression that the relevant differences here are essentially just matters of Church discipline—outward conformity or nonconformity with canon law. Unfortunately, the discrepancies among traditionalists go deeper than that: They also involve serious differences in belief.

Dissatisfaction with Pope Paul VI’s liturgical reform is the common baseline of the whole movement. No one would now commonly be called a traditionalist Catholic unless he strongly prefers the traditional Latin Mass—the “extraordinary form”—over the “ordinary form” (Novus Ordo). But of course, many Catholics who regularly attend extraordinary-form Masses do not disobey any disciplinary norm of the Church and do not withhold their assent from any recent magisterial teaching.

In contrast, some traditionalists do both of those things and thereby cross a line that is both important and objectively verifiable. Hence, I believe the most useful way to distinguish between the main currents within this movement is to call the latter group dissident traditionalists. Although that adjective refers to doctrine rather than discipline, it adequately covers noncompliance in both areas, because those Catholics who dissent from certain conciliar doctrinal teachings are also usually involved, directly or indirectly, in canonical irregularities.

Dissident traditionalism

Who then are the dissident traditionalists? The most hard-line ten percent or so of this demographic are sedevacantists. They claim not only that Vatican II and the new rite of Mass imply or teach downright heresy but also that, ever since the Council, the white-cassocked occupants of the Vatican’s Apostolic Palace have been notorious formal heretics and hence are not true popes. They hold that the See of Peter is vacant: non habemus papam. This extreme position is at least materially schismatic.

Some traditionalists stop just short of crossing the line into dissent. They express strong reservations about certain Vatican II teachings, such as those on religious freedom and ecumenism, but don’t actually dissent from them. Rather, they say these troublesome conciliar texts are too unclear in meaning for us to know for sure whether or not they are orthodox. They call insistently for the papal magisterium to issue new and authoritative clarifications showing how these texts are to be understood. Prominent among these writers are the veteran Roman theologian Msgr. Brunero Gherardini and the prolific American author Christopher A. Ferrara,a leading columnist for The Remnant.

When it comes to the Society of St. Pius X, we find that the line into outright dissent from Vatican II teaching has been crossed. I know several of the Society’s priests and laypeople who favor the less intransigent position of Gherardini and Ferrara, but their leaders have become increasingly strident and absolute in their public declarations. The Society’s bishops and theological spokesmen have repeatedly insisted in recent years that the Vatican texts on the aforesaid topics and one or two others stand in unambiguous, manifest contradiction with traditional doctrine (even infallible doctrine, in the case of Blessed Pius IX’s encyclical Quanta Cura).

For instance, the Superior General, Bishop Bernard Fellay, acknowledged at a major Kansas City convention in October 2013 that it was the Society’s uncompromising rejection of these conciliar texts that led to the breakdown of the doctrinal discussions with Vatican theologians in 2009 through 2011 that Pope Benedict XVI had initiated in the hope of reconciliation. “Any kind of direction for recognition ended when they gave me the document to sign on June 13, 2012,” Fellay said in a speech. “. . . I told them from the start in September of the previous year that we cannot accept this ‘hermeneutic of continuity’ because it is not true, it is not real. . . . The Council is not in continuity with Tradition. It’s not! So when Pope Benedict requested that we accept that the Second Vatican Council is an integral part of Tradition, we said, ‘Sorry, that’s not the reality, so we’re not going to sign it.’”

In the same speech, Bishop Fellay was just as adamant in condemning the revised Roman Missal: “They want us to recognize not only that the [New] Mass is valid, provided it is celebrated correctly, etc., but that it is licit. I told them: We don’t use that word. It’s a bit messy, . . . so we tell our faithful, ‘The New Mass is bad, it is evil,’ and they understand that. Period.” (See “The Ottaviani Intervention,” p. xx.) Fellay added for good measure that Pope Francis, a “genuine modernist,” is now “exploding everything” and making a “disastrous” situation “ten thousand times worse.”

Schism or heresy?

So what exactly is the ecclesial status of this organization whose leaders excoriate an ecumenical council, the liturgical rites issuing from it, and the present Supreme Pontiff? Is the SSPX in schism, the gravest offense against Church unity, which results in automatic excommunication (cf. Code of Canon Law, c. 1364, §1)? Well, at least not since 2009, when Pope Benedict lifted the longstanding excommunications of the only surviving Society members who had incurred that penalty: its four bishops.

Prior to that, Vatican documents had called the Society “schismatic,” which caused serious canonical debate. Schism has classically been understood as a total “withdrawal of submission to the Roman Pontiff” (cf. cc. 751 and 1364, §1, applied in the light of cc. 18, 1323, and 1324); and Society clergy and their congregations have never gone quite that far. (For instance, they pray daily for the reigning pope in the canon of the Mass, observe some papal initiatives like the Year 2000 Jubilee, submit certain difficult confessional cases to the Vatican’s Sacred Penitentiary, and have so far recognized as valid all canonizations of saints carried out by post-conciliar popes.)

If not schism, what about heresy? Again, SSPX people have not committed that offense, because the conciliar teachings from which they dissent are not proposed infallibly as divinely revealed truth, i.e., as de fide dogma. These new doctrinal developments are indeed authoritative and require our “religious assent of mind and will” (c. 752); but unlike formal heresy, dissent from such lower-level doctrines is not a grave enough offense to put the dissenter outside the Church. The main object of SSPX dissent is the teaching of Dignitatis Humanae that, within the “due limits” laid down in articles 4 and 7, all human persons (non-Catholics as well as Catholics) have a natural right to be left free by government to publicly express their conscientious religious beliefs (DH 2). (See the sidebar on this question.)

Society leaders also emphatically reject the conciliar teaching of the “Decree on Ecumenism” that “the Spirit of Christ has not refrained from using [separated Christian churches and communities] as means of salvation” (Unitatis Redintegratio 3). They seem to overlook the rest of this sentence, and another passage two paragraphs prior, which insist that whatever sources of salvific grace can be found in non-Catholic denominations are always those they have retained from the Catholic Church, never those distinctive doctrines that led them to break away from it. (For a fuller defense of this Vatican II decree, see my article “Is Ecumenism a Heresy?” in This Rock, January 2009, pp. 26-29.)

SSPX in full communion?

SSPX clergy and laity, then, are not outside the Church. But are they in full communion with it? This question requires a nuanced answer. The expressions “full communion” and “partial communion” are part of the Church’s post-Vatican II ecumenical parlance. The latter term has been used mainly in reference to those Christians who have never been Catholics and are therefore presumed to be in good faith (as distinct from ex-Catholics, whom canon law presumes to be guilty of formal schism, heresy, or apostasy). Now, as we have seen, SSPX folks are neither heretics nor schismatics; since they are not canonically prohibited (by excommunication or interdict) from receiving the sacraments, they must all be considered, as individuals, to be in full communion with the Church.

That cannot be said of the Society itself, for, as an organized, structured community, it operates in open disobedience to canon law and hence to Peter’s successor.  As Benedict XVI said in his “Letter to the Catholic Bishops” of March 10, 2009, “The Society has no canonical status in the Church, and its ministers—even though they have been freed of the ecclesiastical penalty [of excommunication]—do not legitimately exercise any ministry in the Church.” In other words, they have the same canonical right as their lay followers to receive the sacraments but no right to administer them. (Interested readers can find the legal basis for Benedict’s assertion in such canons as 1331; 1041, 6°; 1044, §1, 3°; 1015, §1; and 1383.)

Pope Benedict also recognized that the underlying reason for the SSPX’s disciplinary offenses is its dissent from certain doctrinal positions of Vatican II and their liturgical expression in Paul VI’s Missal—the ordinary form of the Roman-rite Mass. The Pope therefore said, in his January 15, 2010, address to a plenary session of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, that he was relying on in the CDF’s “commitment to overcome doctrinal problems that are still an obstacle to the achievement of full communion with the Church on the part of the Society of St Pius X” (emphasis added).  Four years later, unfortunately, that doctrinal obstacle remains firmly in place.                  

Attending SSPX Masses

Does this mean Catholics are forbidden to attend SSPX Masses? The most recent Vatican response to this question came on September 27, 2002, in a letter from the secretary of the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei, Msgr. Camille Perl, to a lay enquirer. It says that such attendance “would not be a sin” if one’s intention is not schismatic but simply “to participate in a Mass according to the 1962 Missal for the sake of devotion.” Msgr. Perl answered a second question from the enquirer thusly: “In the strict sense you may fulfill your Sunday obligation by attending a Mass celebrated by a priest of the Society of St. Pius X.” And in reply to a third question, he wrote, “It would seem that a modest contribution to the collection at Mass could be justified.” The italics in the above citations are mine, emphasizing these singular, rather than plural, expressions (e.g., “a Mass,” not “Masses”).  

It’s also significant that this reply was sent to a correspondent whose letter also begged the Vatican to prod diocesan bishops into allowing a greater number of traditional Latin Masses. These facts show that the Commission’s response has in mind occasional or (at most) temporary attendance at SSPX chapels by Catholics who request, but haven’t yet been granted, access to legitimate traditional Masses. Since this Vatican letter also warns the same enquirer that it “cannot recommend” the Society’s illicitly celebrated Masses, it can scarcely be read as permission for Catholics to regularly attend such Masses in preference to those approved by the Church.

The Commission had already expressed its firm disapproval of habitual SSPX attendance in a 1995 response (also signed by Msgr. Perl) that warned that, “over a period of time,” this often has the effect that “one slowly imbibes a mentality which separates itself from the magisterium of the Supreme Pontiff.” Given the SSPX leaders’ unfortunate return to impassioned public denunciations of Vatican II teachings and the post-conciliar Missal, this disapproval still evidently represents the mind of the Apostolic See.

Appeal to canon law

SSPX clergy, like other “independent” traditionalist priests, have always justified their disobedience to certain church laws and precepts by appealing to the Code of Canon Law itself. Canon 1323, 4° permits violations of ecclesiastical law if they’re carried out “by reason of necessity” in some extraordinary emergency situation. The Society claims that since the whole Church has been manifesting such a grave emergency ever since Vatican II, this canon, along with c. 1752 (according to which “the salvation of souls” is always the Church’s “supreme law”), amply justify its noncompliance with certain other canons.

Now, suppose we grant that the post-conciliar tsunami of liberal dissent, disobedience, and apostasy—far more widespread and (I believe) more harmful than any problems caused by the scattered pockets of dissident traditionalists—has indeed produced a state of emergency. It still by no means follows from this that the kind of disobedience practiced by dissident traditionalists is “necessary” in order to rectify that situation and much less that souls will be lost without it.

The claim that such disobedience is “necessary” for those purposes rests on the erroneous premise that the last five popes have been demanding assent to patently false doctrines and requiring the general (“ordinary”) use of sacramental rites that are doctrinally “evil”—and sometimes even of doubtful validity. And as Pope Benedict pointed out, until the SSPX and other dissident traditionalists give up this ill-advised doctrinal intransigence, no true reconciliation will be possible.

The Church allows Catholics the freedom to be “traditionalist” in the sense of strongly preferring the ancient Latin rite of Mass and disagreeing with some of the recent official changes in pastoral practice and policy (perhaps, for instance, in the area of relations with non-Catholics and non-Christians). But no convincing case has been made for crossing the line into dissident traditionalism that flatly rejects certain recent developments in magisterial teaching and on that basis practices serious, ongoing disobedience to just laws and precepts promulgated by Peter’s successors.


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