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The SSPX "Schism" in Review

The New Doctors of the Law

Father François Laisney, SSPX POSTED: 4/18/12

Editor’s Note: There is a lot of chatter on the Internet and elsewhere this week about an imminent agreement to be signed by the SSPX, which would establish the groundwork for a formal solution to their decades-old stand-off with the Vatican over the conciliar revolution in the Church. It is our opinion that reading too much into the "positive response" to the Vatican from SSPX Superior General Bishop Bernard Fellay is unwarranted. Anyone who knows Bishop Fellay personally is well aware of the fact that he is not the bombastic renegade the media make him out to be whenever it suits their purposes. Ever the consummate gentleman and loyal son of the Church, it is unthinkable that Bishop Fellay would respond to Cardinal Levada in anything less than a positive and respectful manner. In other words, the "doctrinal discussions" between the Vatican and the SSPX appear to have simply moved on in accordance with the Vatican's April 15th deadline. To conclude anything more than that at this point is to engage in idle speculation that serves no good end. While we wait for something a bit more definite, it seems appropriate to calmly recall the reasons why so many faithful Catholics have for so long been urging caution when it comes to the SSPX laying down their swords and surrendering for peace. Of course the “schism” must end eventually; there can be no doubt of that. Archbishop Lefebvre never sought it out, and Bishop Fellay obviously (and rightly!) yearns to see it healed.  The question is when and according to whose terms.  The following article by a priest of the Society of St. Pius X attempts to explain why it is that although sincere Catholics long for the day when unity in the Church will be restored, many nevertheless harbor grave misgivings over any attempt to announce the dawning of that day prematurely.  This is a pivotal moment in the history of the Church, and much is at stake. Let's pray for Bishop Fellay and for the Holy Father, while consigning idle speculation to the purview of secular journalists and clueless agitators on the Internet...Michael J. Matt

From time to time one hears the argument: “The Society of Saint Pius X does not follow the Canon Law, therefore they fall under canonical sanctions and are forbidden from exercising the priestly ministry”; sometimes long lists of canons are given by these new Doctors of the Law to impress the faithful. This objection is not new: already in the Gospel was it said: “This man is not of God, who keepeth not the Sabbath” (Jn 9:16). And the answer to this objection also is not new: “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath” (Mk 2:27). Or in the words of St Paul: authority is “unto edification, not unto destruction” (2 Cor 10:8).

When all these canons are aligned, I simply answer: “I would fully agree with you… IF… there were no crisis in the Church!” It is indeed amazing to notice how they can go on with their long list of offenses against the canon law completely ignoring that the Church has been going through a very deep crisis of faith and authority.

Perhaps they are too young to remember the 1970s. But they need to know that there were many bishops who forbade the Traditional Mass in their diocese in 1975, following the infamous “note” of Archbishop Bugnini forbidding the use the Traditional rite of Mass to any priest except above 75 years old and only with one servant. I remember Fr Patrick Fox in Australia brandishing from his pulpit on his 50th anniversary of priesthood a newspaper from 1975 with the big title: “Latin Mass Forbidden.”  Thanks be to God that he continued to say it.

I remember a Dominican priest in my city (Rouen, France) telling us after Mass at that time, “you need to know that ‘they’ forbid you to come to my mass.” But, he concluded: “let them tell that to you themselves!” He did not forbid us to come, Deo gratias. The same bishops let proliferate abuses without restriction: communion in the hand was a big one, well understood at that time, but now it has become so common that many no longer appreciate the scandal to the faith of many that it caused – and is still causing (most faithful at the time were unaware of the grievous moral abuses which many bishops did not correct as they should have); thus when such bishops used their authority to cast out priests faithful to the Mass of all times, already at that time there was no need to be a doctor of the law to understand that there was a problem with authority: in the words of St Paul, authority was not used “unto edification, but unto destruction.” It was a complete abuse of authority. How could it be ratified by God?

Those relatively few priests who were faithful to the Traditional Mass represented for the faithful at the time havens of sanity (and sanctity) in the middle of a very confused time… but they were accused of being disobedient.

That which happened to these scattered priests happened also to Archbishop Lefebvre and his Society. He had been careful to establish it according to Canon Law, yet he was aware that by keeping faithful to the Tradition of the Church and not going along with the new orientations of the Council, there was going to be a conflict. On 6th May 1975 came the pretended suppression of the Society of Saint Pius X by the new Bishop of Fribourg; this itself was against Canon Law since once a bishop has established a new religious society only Rome can suppress it (Can. 493). Archbishop Lefebvre appealed this decision; he was told that the Pope would take the matter in his own hands; he appealed again, asking for the documentary proof of such an assertion. That second appeal was simply filed and never answered (upon pressure of Cardinal Villot). Cardinal Villot wrote on 27th October 1975 that the Society of Saint Pius X had ceased to exist and thus no support could be given it by local bishops. However, since such suppression is not valid until the appeal is judged, in truth the Society of Saint Pius X continued in existence. Up until then, even the letter of the Canon Law was in favour of Archbishop Lefebvre.

A decisive moment came in 1976 for the priestly ordinations on June 29th: after receiving the letter of Cardinal Villot, bishops had not given the required dimissorial letters[1]. The letter of the law forbade Archbishop Lefebvre to ordain them. But the real reason was the Mass. I will include here a long extract of the ordination sermon of the Archbishop, because the younger generation needs to know and meditate on these historic words, as they go straight to the heart of the matter; they clearly show what true obedience is. And they were particularly important for me, since I entered the seminary of Ecône three months later:

But if in all objectivity we seek the true motive animating those who ask us not to perform these ordinations, if we look for the hidden motive, it is because we are ordaining these priests that they may say the Mass of all time. It is because they know that these priests will be faithful to the Mass of the Church, to the Mass of Tradition, to the Mass of all time, that they urge us not to ordain them.

In proof of this, consider that six times in the last three weeks – six times – we have been asked to re-establish normal relations with Rome and to give as proof the acceptance of the new rite; and I have been asked to celebrate it myself. They have gone so far as to send me someone who offered to concelebrate with me in the new rite so as to manifest that I accepted voluntarily this new liturgy, saying that in this way all would be straightened out between us and Rome. They put a new Missal into my hands, saying “Here is the Mass that you must celebrate and that you shall celebrate henceforth in all your houses.” They told me as well that if on this date, today, this 29th of June, before your entire assembly, we celebrated a Mass according to the new rite, all would be straightened out henceforth between ourselves and Rome. Thus it is clear, it is evident that it is on the problem of the Mass that the whole drama between Ecône and Rome depends.

Are we wrong in obstinately wanting to keep the rite of all time? We have, of course, prayed, we have consulted, we have reflected, we have meditated to discover if it is not indeed we who are in error, or if we do not really have a sufficient reason not to submit ourselves to the new rite. And in fact, the very insistence of those who were sent from Rome to ask us to change rite makes us wonder.

And we have the precise conviction that this new rite of Mass expresses2 a new faith, a faith which is not ours, a faith which is not the Catholic Faith. This New Mass is a symbol, is an expression, is an image of a new faith, of a Modernist faith. For if the most holy Church has wished to guard throughout the centuries this precious treasure which She has given us of the rite of Holy Mass which was canonized by Saint Pius V, it has not been without purpose. It is because this Mass contains our whole faith, the whole Catholic Faith: faith in the Most Holy Trinity, faith in the Divinity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, faith in the Redemption of Our Lord Jesus Christ, faith in the Blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ which flowed for the redemption of our sins, faith in supernatural grace, which comes to us from the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, which comes to us from the Cross, which comes to us through all the Sacraments.

This is what we believe. This is what we believe in celebrating the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass of all time. It is a lesson of faith and at the same time a source of our faith, indispensable for us in this age when our faith is attacked from all sides. We have need of this true Mass, of this Mass of all time of this Sacrifice of Our Lord Jesus Christ really to fill our souls with the Holy Ghost and with the strength of Our Lord Jesus Christ.

Now it is evident that the new rite, if I may say so, supposes[2] another conception of the Catholic religion – another religion. It is no longer the priest who offers the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, it is the assembly. Now this is an entire program – an entire program. Henceforth it is the assembly also that replaces authority in the Church. It is the assembly of bishops that replaces the power of (individual) bishops. It is the priests’ council that replaces the power of the bishop in the diocese. It is numbers that command from now on in the Holy Church. And this is expressed in the Mass precisely because the assembly replaces the priest, to such a point that now many priests no longer want to celebrate Holy Mass when there is no assembly. Slowly but surely the Protestant notion of the Mass is being introduced into the Holy Church.

And this is consistent with the mentality of modern man – absolutely consistent. For it is the democratic ideal which is the fundamental idea of modem man, that is to say, that the power lies with the assembly, that authority is in the people, in the masses, and not in God. And this is most grave. Because we believe that God is all-powerful; we believe that God has all authority; we believe that all authority comes from God. “Omnis potestas a Deo.” All authority comes from God. We do not believe that authority comes from below. Now that is the mentality of modern man. And the New Mass is not less than the expression of this idea that authority is at the base, and no longer in God. This Mass is no longer a hierarchical Mass; it is a democratic Mass. And this is most grave. It is the expression of a whole new ideology. The ideology of modern man has been brought into our most sacred rites.


We cannot accept these things. They are contrary to our Faith. We regret infinitely, it is an immense, immense pain for us, to think that we are in difficulty with Rome because of our faith! How is this possible? It is something that exceeds the imagination, that we should never have been able to imagine, that we should never have been able to believe, especially in our childhood – then when all was uniform, when the whole Church believed in Her general unity, and held the same Faith, the same Sacraments, the same Sacrifice of the Mass, the same catechism. And behold, suddenly all is in division, in chaos.

I said as much to those who came from Rome. I said so: Christians are torn apart in their families, in their homes, among their children; they are torn apart in their hearts by this division in the Church, by this new religion now being taught and practiced. Priests are dying prematurely, torn apart in their hearts and in their souls at the thought that they no longer know what to do: either to submit to obedience and lose, in a way, the faith of their childhood and of their youth, and renounce the promises which they made at the time of their ordination in taking the anti-Modernist oath; or to have the impression of separating themselves from him who is our father, the Pope, from him who is the representative of Saint Peter. What agony for these priests! Many priests have died prematurely of grief. Priests are now hounded from their churches, persecuted, because they say the Mass of all time.

We are in a truly dramatic situation. We have to choose between an appearance, I should say, of disobedience – for the Holy Father cannot ask us to abandon our faith. It is impossible, impossible – the abandonment of our faith. We choose not to abandon our faith, for in that we cannot go wrong. In that which the Catholic Church has taught for two thousand years, the Church cannot be in error. It is absolutely impossible, and that is why we are attached to this tradition which is expressed in such an admirable and definitive manner, as Pope Saint Pius V said so well, in a definitive manner in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.

Tomorrow perhaps, in the newspapers, will appear our condemnation. It is quite possible, because of these ordinations today. I myself shall probably be struck by suspension. These young priests will be struck by an irregularity which in theory should prevent them from saying Holy Mass. It is possible. Well, I appeal to Saint Pius V – Saint Pius V, who in his Bull said that, in perpetuity, no priest could incur a censure, whatever it might be, in perpetuity, for saying this Mass. And consequently, this censure, this excommunication, if there was one, these censures, if there are any, are absolutely invalid, contrary to that which Saint Pius V established in perpetuity in his Bull: that never in any age could one inflict a censure on a priest who says this Holy Mass.

Now Archbishop Lefebvre was not a Doctor of the Law (he held a doctorate in philosophy and a doctorate in theology, but not a doctorate in canon law). But he was a man of Faith; it is at the light of Faith that he applied the right principles: obedience is a moral virtue, between a defect (disobedience to a legitimate order), and an excess, viz. servility, i.e. obedience to an abuse of order, and such was the prohibition of the old rite. It is so true that this was an abuse of authority that 31 years later, Pope Benedict could say that the Traditional rite had never been abrogated – i.e. in truth it had never been forbidden, though there had been prohibitions of it by local bishops, and even Pope Paul VI said that he wanted everyone to accept his new rite, but he had not said so as a legislator (not every word of a Supreme Judge is a judgment of the Supreme Court, and not every word of the Pope is a definition of Faith.) Pope Benedict went on to say: “What earlier generations held as sacred, remains sacred and great for us too, and it cannot be all of a sudden entirely forbidden or even considered harmful.” This sets a principle in which lies the whole rehabilitation of Archbishop Lefebvre.

The same principles applied in 1988: those who wanted to postpone his episcopal consecration wanted him to die and his work to die with him. [Others wanted the consecrations to take place but not to involve a priest chosen by the Archbishop himself, but rather a candidate of Rome’s choosing. Now why would Rome have insisted on that? MJM] The Archbishop initiated “Operation Survival”. The necessity of that situation must be considered in the light of the scandal of Assisi (27th October 1986): if any bishop had conducted such a meeting fifty years before, undoubtedly he would have been immediately suspended. Now, does wrong become right just because the Pope does it? Papal authority does not make right and wrong; it has been given to Peter to declare the truth authoritatively, not to change it. When the successor of Peter goes so far away from the right path as to “walk not uprightly unto the truth of the gospel” (Gal 2:14), there is need of a successor of St Paul to “withstand him to the face, because he was to be blamed” (Gal 2:11). The necessity of continuing the work of fidelity to Tradition was so much greater.

The righteousness of his choice is manifested by the fruits he has brought: the many good old priests to whom he gave hope in those very difficult years, the many priests whom he trained, the many families and individuals who are today attached to Tradition, living the Faith often in an exemplary manner. The stark contrast of chapels attached to the Traditional Mass with the common Novus Ordo parishes indicates that the choice of fidelity to the Traditional Mass was the right one. The criterion given by Our Lord fully applies: “by their fruits you shall know them. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles?” (Mt 7:16). The good fruits of the Archbishop are the clearest proof that he was not a thorn, nor a thistle.

Some would argue: but even if he thought the command was unjust, he should have submitted as some saints submitted to unjust restrictions. The example of these Saints is certainly a good one, and Archbishop Lefebvre was ready to do that IF there had been some other good seminaries where he could have sent his seminarians under faithful bishops standing up for the Traditional Mass. But where were they? In 1975, even Fontgombault[3] abandoned him! Could a father abandon his children? Souls in distress were calling for his help—could he leave them “half-dead on the wayside” like the local priest and Levite of the Gospel? No, like the Good Samaritan, he took care of them. “And the Pharisees seeing them, said to him: Behold thy disciples do that which is not lawful to do on the Sabbath days. But he said to them: … if you knew what this meaneth: I will have mercy, and not sacrifice: you would never have condemned the innocent” (Mt 12:2-7). It is out of compassion for those souls that Archbishop Lefebvre went ahead with his work, knowing that it would cost him his reputation, but knowing also that “mercy is the utmost of charity” according to his own expression[4].

Some, with Cardinal Seper[5], would argue further: “But they make a banner of the Mass!” – that is, a banner for rejecting Vatican II. But Archbishop Lefebvre and his Society do not reject everything in Vatican II; we carefully distinguish between that which is in conformity with the previous teachings of the Church (and we fully accept this), and that which is ambiguous – and we interpret that in accordance with the previous teachings; that which is new, in opposition with the past teaching.  Concerning this, out of fidelity to what the Church has always taught we reject the untested novelty.

Indeed our principle of action holds in one word: fidelity. As St Paul says: “Let a man so account of us as of the ministers of Christ, and the dispensers of the mysteries of God. Here now it is required among the dispensers, that a man be found faithful” (1 Cor 4:1-2). That fidelity can be summed up in the other words of St Paul: “I delivered unto you that which I also received – tradidi quod et accepi” (1 Cor 15:3), which words Archbishop Lefebvre wanted to be engraved on his tombstone. That is simply the very example of Our Lord Jesus Christ: “My doctrine is not mine, but his that sent me” (Jn 7:16).

On the contrary, the hallmark of heresy is novelty, as St Paul says: “But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach a gospel to you besides that which we have preached to you, let him be anathema. As we said before, so now I say again: If any one preach to you a gospel, besides that which you have received, let him be anathema. For do I now persuade men, or God? Or do I seek to please men? If I yet pleased men, I should not be the servant of Christ” (Gal 1:8-10).

Why is it so? Because the motive of Faith is the authority of God who spoke. Not every word of a prince of the Church is “doctrine of the Church”. How can the faithful recognise the authority of God in the words of a prince of the Church? For the faithful to be able to see Christ speaking in the prince of the Church (“He that heareth you, heareth me,” Lk 10:16), this man needs to be transparent to Christ. A window is transparent when the image behind it can be seen. Similarly a prince of the Church is transparent if the doctrine he teaches is that which he himself received-- the age-old doctrine of the Church.  But in as much as the doctrine he teaches is new, in that measure he is not transparent. Hence, fidelity in the minister of Christ is absolutely necessary so that those who listen to him can make an act of the supernatural virtue of Faith, based on the teaching of Christ, the Son of God. Otherwise it is mere human faith based on the new teaching of a man.

Some object here: “How can you say that Vatican II taught some new doctrine? You erect yourself as judges of Tradition. The Pope is the judge of Tradition, i.e. it is the living Magisterium of today that is the right interpreter of Tradition.” True, if there is something unclear in Tradition the ultimate authority to clarify it is the Pope; he is the supreme judge (on earth, yet subject to Christ) in matters of faith and morals. The error insinuated by the objection, however, is that one cannot know Tradition except by following today’s Magisterium. That error assumes all the faithful to be stricken with amnesia! This is manifestly false, especially since the duty of the faithful is not only to receive the teachings of the Faith from the Church, but also to “hold fast” (2 Thess. 2:15) to that Faith “once for all transmitted – semel tradita” (S. Jude v.3). St Paul, quoted above, clearly bids the faithful to cling to “what we have preached” in order to reject the novelties of today.

Now it is a matter of fact that Vatican II taught new doctrines. John Paul II himself acknowledges it, when he calls “for a renewed commitment to deeper study in order to reveal clearly the Council’s continuity with Tradition, especially in points of doctrine which, perhaps because they are new, have not yet been well understood by some sections of the Church.”[6] In other words, it is evident to all that they are new, but let there be some “studies” to reveal that they are in continuity! The modernists were not interested in doing such studies, since they did not mind novelties. Some conservatives have attempted such studies. To my knowledge the best effort of this kind is found in a book[7] published in 1988 by an American priest, trying to prove that Vatican II’s doctrine on religious freedom was in continuity with the past. Yet the core of that book is a sophism!

He properly demonstrated that the Church taught tolerance, i.e. patience, with regard to false religions; he demonstrated how far the Church taught that tolerance, to the point that in some circumstances the State was not only allowed but even bound to tolerate false religions. So in a word, the Church taught that sometimes there was a duty to tolerate. Now he brings up a true principle: every duty is correlative to a right. And he concludes: therefore there is a right to be tolerated. That right is nothing else than the “right to immunity in religious matters”, i.e. religious freedom as taught by Vatican II.

The sophism is easy to resolve: yes, the duty to tolerate is correlative to a right, but whose right? Not the private right of those who, by spreading religious errors, are dangerous to many souls; but the right of the other citizens to peace, lest the repression of the religious errors harms this common good.

A simple comparison makes this very clear: the Church taught that sometimes a mother is not only allowed to tolerate her husband abuse, but ought to be patient with him. Yet this is obviously for the sake of the rights of the children, lest the complete breakdown of the marriage bring more damage to the children than her sufferings. But who would dare to conclude that the husband has “a right to be tolerated” for beating his wife?

So the age-old teaching of the Church remains firm: evil has no right. The spreading of religious errors is evil, and therefore at most may be tolerated, but has no right, not even a “right to immunity”. It remains also true that all efforts should be “not to the death of the sinner, but that he be converted and live” (Ez. 18:23). Hence the Church uses patience, kindness, gentle instructions, good example, etc. to convert them. Yet the Church does not ignore the damage done to souls by heresies, and never acknowledged a “right” to such errors. This is the doctrine--faithfully taught for centuries-- from which Vatican II departed. We reject such novel departure from the age-old doctrine, not out of any attachment to personal judgement but out of fidelity to what the Church herself taught for centuries, even since the Old Testament.

Yes, our canonical situation is irregular, but the responsibility for that irregularity is not ours, it is on those who tried to forbid the Traditional Mass and doctrine! The needs of souls not only permit but also oblige us to continue to minister to them until such time as the Pope will rectify our canonical situation – not to stop our work, but to continue within a proper canonical situation. That time is perhaps not so far away; let us pray for this intention. But in the meantime, let us not abandon the good work. May our Lady, the Mother of the Church, help us to remain faithful.


[1] When a candidate from one diocese is to be ordained by a bishop from another diocese, he needs a “dimissorial letter” from the bishop of his diocese of origin.

[2] Note the careful choice of words: he does not say that the new rite is invalid; he does not say that everyone who uses it or even less who attends it agrees with this new “conception of the Catholic religion”; he says that those who fabricated the new rite were inspired by such new conception; it is a hidden poison, yet very much present, undermining the faith of the users, to which people resist more or less, often less than more. Hence the many who left the Church, the many who do not practice anymore, and the general languor of many who still practice more or less.

[3] A Benedictine abbey in the centre of France that was very Traditional. Its abbot, Dom Roy, was a personal friend of Archbishop Lefebvre, who came to his abbey in 1971 and worked out the program of the year of spirituality in his seminaries with him and his master of novices. They had kept the traditional Mass until 1975, but ceded to the Roman pressures and took the new Mass then; later in 1988 they returned to the Traditional Mass: they had made a foundation in 1971 (Randol), made no new foundation during their novus ordo time, and have made at least two (Triors and Clear Creek) if not three new foundations since they returned to the Traditional Mass.

[4] La miséricorde est le comble de la charité.

[5] Prefect of the Congregation for the Faith, which Pope Paul VI put in charge of the Lefebvre dossier in September 1976. He said so during the meeting of John Paul II with Archbishop Lefebvre in 1978.

[6] Ecclesia Dei, 2 June 1988.

[7] Religious Liberty and Contraception, Melbourne: John XXIII Fellowship, 1988.

"I recommend to you ... Religious Liberty and Contraception which is distributed by Catholics United for the Faith in Steubenville, OH. This is the best book available on this subject and shows that there is no conflict between Vatican II and previous papal teaching on this matter." (Art Sippo, The Catholic Legate, at:

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