On Rome and SSPX
What's the Deal?

Christopher A. Ferrara

(www.RemnantNewspaper.com) With rumors of an imminent “deal” between Rome and the Society of Saint Pius X continuing to suscitate the traditionalist ranks, the Editor has asked me to express my view on whether the SSPX should “make a deal” with Rome.

My lawyerly answer is: it depends on the deal.  Surely, Bishop Fellay thinks some sort of arrangement is possible, or else he would not have continued negotiations with the Vatican, including a confidential five-hour session on December 8, 2005 with Pope Benedict’s point man for the SSPX negotiations, Cardinal Dario Castrillón Hoyos.  We can be morally certain that during those five hours some sort of approved canonical structure for SSPX was discussed. A Vatican cardinal would not have devoted five hours of talks to a debate with Bishop Fellay over the various points of the traditionalist critique of the postconciliar revolution in the Church.  No, the two men must have gotten down to brass tacks.

It seems to me that what is involved here is not a “deal” as such, but the search for a face-saving solution to the technical legal problem created by the 1988 papal motu proprio Ecclesia Dei. The motu proprio rather gratuitously stated that the consecration of bishops without a papal mandate in violation of CIC (1983) c. 1382 “implies in practice the rejection of the Roman primacy [and] constitutes a schismatic act.” It’s hard to see how Church law could punish an offense “implied in practice,” when there is no Church law providing that episcopal consecrations without papal mandate constitute schism in the first place, and when the canonical warning issued to Archbishop Lefebvre before the consecrations contained no warning that schism would be a consequence of proceeding with consecrations to which the Vatican has already agreed in principle.

Indeed, only three months after the motu proprio was issued, Castillo Lara, John Paul II’s own appointed President of the Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Legislative Texts, conceded in an interview in La Repubblica (October 7, 1988) that “The act of consecrating a bishop (without the agreement of the Pope) is not in itself a schismatic act…” since the only penalty imposed by the canon is excommunication latae sententiae. (The Cardinal went on to assert that the SSPX schism had arisen before the 1988 consecrations, but that argument is without canonical foundation since no Vatican document even suggested the SSPX was schismatic before the consecrations.)

If, as Cardinal Lara admitted, the consecration of a bishop without a papal mandate is not a schismatic act, then of course the whole question of schism was debatable from the very beginning. Not even the late Pope could make the applicable canon say what his own interpreter of Church law, Cardinal Lara, conceded it manifestly does not say. Nor did the motu proprio announce some new law of the Church that applied only to Archbishop Lefebvre and the four bishops he consecrated.

As the Vatican itself now seems willing to acknowledge, despite the letter of the motu proprio the SSPX affair is not, and never has been, a problem of schism in the true sense.  As the crisis within the Church’s official structure continues to deepen, everyone who can be taken seriously on this issue, including the current Pope himself and Cardinal Castrillón Hoyos, now concedes that the SSPX clergy and laity are Catholics in an irregular situation, not formal schismatics as such.  As Cardinal Castrillón Hoyos said in his recent interview with 30 Days magazine, the situation of SSPX is “not a formal schism.”  If Pope Benedict did not believe this as well, the Cardinal would not have dared to say so in such a prominent and respected forum.

The Pope and the Cardinal have simply recognized the reality that SSPX clergy and laity adhere to every point of Catholic doctrine, recognize the authority of the pope, and in fact appeal to that authority for measures which would end the ecclesial crisis of the past forty years.  There has never been such a “schism” in Church history, and the law of the Church clearly does not envision such a “schism.” Moreover, c. 1382 would have no bearing on the canonical status of the priests and laity who did not participate in the 1988 episcopal consecrations.  No one has the right to go beyond even the motu proprio and declare all these people formal schismatics.

If the situation of SSPX is not that of a formal schism, then a “deal” to regularize its situation could be effected by a simple Vatican declaration lifting the declared sentence of excommunication and leaving to further discussion the details of the canonical arrangement under which SSPX would operate with Vatican approval. Following the model of “ecumenical dialogue,” the palaver over those details could go on indefinitely. The important thing is to obtain the formal lifting of the disputed sentence of excommunication, which is only what SSPX itself has requested as precondition to further discussions.

Now if, in order to achieve this “deal,” Bishop Fellay would have to request that the sentence of excommunication be lifted (prescinding from the question whether there was an excommunication in fact), I can see no rational basis for counseling against such a move.  Why not ask for a lifting of the sentence?  Isn’t that what someone who considers himself to have been sentenced unjustly would be expected to do in any case?  Would not such a request be the equivalent of a canonical appeal directly to the Pope followed by a sentence remitting any penalty for violation of c. 1382 while formally and officially recognizing the valid episcopal status of the SSPX bishops?  How could the SSPX be anything but zealous for such an outcome if there are no strings attached to it?

If that is all there is to the “deal,” the quid given by the SSPX would be a trifle compared to the quo that the Pope would provide: the instant “rehabilitation” of the four bishops and with it a total vindication of SSPX’s opposition to the post-conciliar aggiornamento. What could the Novus Ordo establishment say about “extreme traditionalists” once the excommunication was lifted and it could no longer be denied by anyone that SSPX adherents are Catholics in good standing? How could the Novus Ordo establishment continue to purvey with any credibility its ever-more-decadent substitute for Roman Catholicism if the leading worldwide organization dedicated to “extreme traditionalism”—i.e., the unaltered faith of our fathers—could no longer be dismissed as a band of ecclesiastical outcasts?  I cannot see how the lifting of the excommunication could be anything but a stunning victory for the entire cause of Tradition, if not in fact the beginning of a latter-day Cluniac movement that will eventually restore the Church, whether or not that is the Vatican’s intention.

A word here about motives. After forty years of ecclesial disaster provoked by the Vatican’s own acts and omissions, any Catholic with any sense would be suspicious of the motives of Vatican negotiators in suddenly offering to “forgive and forget” the 1988 excommunications. Yet at the same time we know that the Holy Ghost will have the Church restored, and that no human scheme or plan will prevent this ultimate outcome. When the 1988 Latin Mass indult was granted as part of the motu proprio declaring the excommunications, and the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter was erected with Vatican approval, traditionalists saw these developments as a part of a plan to destroy SSPX. One need not be a conspiracy theorist to believe this. The motu proprio itself expressly states the indult was extended to SSPX adherents “to facilitate their ecclesial communion by means of the necessary measures to guarantee respect for their rightful aspirations.”  But the plan has failed completely. The SSPX has continued to thrive.

Certainly utmost prudence is required in dealings between SSPX and the Vatican; and I am not suggesting anything like implicit trust in the promises of Vatican negotiators.  Quite the contrary, I would not trust the current Vatican apparatus as far as I could sling a piano, especially after what was done to the Fraternity of St. Peter in the Protocol 1411 affair.  But prudence itself should tell us that if the Vatican offers a solution to SSPX’s canonical situation to which there is no rational objection—a lifting of the sentence of excommunication upon a request for same—we ought not to let fear of a Vatican betrayal, however justified it may be, blind us to what could well be, in God’s providence, the beginning of a new Cluniac movement in the Church, whether or not the Vatican plans it to be.

If the SSPX is of God it will not be destroyed by even the best-laid plans of men.  If the SSPX bishops are men of God who lead a life of prayer, as indeed they are, they will not lose their salt merely because they have ceased to be regarded as excommunicated. And what sort of Catholic spirituality would make fidelity to Tradition depend upon (as opposed to not being excluded by) the stigma of an unjust excommunication?  The writers for this newspaper, the young militant priests in the Priestly Fraternity, and even our Nicodemus priest friends in the Novus Ordo establishment are all “members in good standing” of the Church’s official structure, yet they have not lost one whit of their militancy in the cause of Tradition.  Why would the clergy and laity of SSPX fare any differently, especially when they are already in possession of their own chapels and seminaries, which exist (and would continue to exist) without dependency on local ordinaries, precisely as did the monasteries of the Cluniac reform? It hardly seems reasonable to suppose that the militancy of SSPX adherents—but not ours—would wither and die unless they—but not we—continue to wear the scarlet letter E (for excommunicated).

And even if there were some malign intent behind a Vatican offer to lift the excommunication, at this point in the crisis who cares?  The Novus Ordo establishment is done for; its desperate strategies for survival have produced nothing but accelerating decay, while more and more Catholics are coming to the realization that the future of the Church lies in the recovery of her past. When all is said and done, it is the Holy Ghost Himself who opposes the enemies of Tradition. They will never outsmart Him.  On the contrary, we can have perfect confidence that in the end they will only outsmart themselves.