Brian Mershon
July 11, 2008
PCED confirms officially: Society of St. Pius X within the Church, not in formal schism; Catholics commit no sin nor incur any canonical penalty for Mass attendance
By Brian Mershon

Msgr. Camille Perl, Vice President of the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei (PCED) has recently responded with a letter dated May 23, 2008, to questions I invoked regarding the official canonical status of the Society of St. Pius X and those Catholics who attend their chapels to fulfill their Sunday obligation.

This article is certain to generate much commentary both from die-hard SSPXers who can't bear to believe their marriages and confessions might be invalid to "more Catholic than the Pope" conservatives who will continue to misconstrue the clear teaching of the PCED, Cardinal Castrillón and the Catholic Church regarding laity who attend SSPX chapels to fulfill their Sunday obligation.

Indeed, the repeated public statements of Cardinal Castrillón that the SSPX is not in formal schism certainly rises above the level of a cleric's private opinion on matters outside of his competence. His statements can be viewed by all Catholics as reflective of the current position of the Catholic Church on these matters. While some canonists, in good faith, might disagree, Cardinal Castrillón and the PCED's responses to private correspondence certainly rise above the level of authority of a mere canonist's opinion.

The responses to the letter below can be acted upon with a moral certitude.

His Eminence
Darío Cardinal Castrillón Hoyos
President, Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei (PCED)
Palazzo del Sant'Uffizio

Monday of Holy Week
Anno Domini 2008

Your Eminence,

I have compiled as reference numerous public interviews, both print and television, where you were quoted as stating that the case of the Society of St. Pius X "is not a formal schism" and other words to that effect.

Q: Is this your mere private opinion, or the official teaching of the Catholic Church in your official capacity as head of the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei?

PCED: "Statements made by Cardinal Castrillón need to be understood in a technical, canonical sense. Stating that the Society of St. Pius X "is not in formal schism" is to say that there has been no official declaration on the part of the Holy See that the Society of St. Pius X is in schism. Up to now, the Church has sought to show the maximum charity, courtesy and consideration to all those involved with the hope that such a declaration will not eventually be necessary."

Would you please clarify the following for me in this private correspondence so that I can ensure that my family and I are following the current teaching of the Church on this specific matter?

Q: Does the Catholic Church currently hold that the priests and bishops of the Society of St. Pius X are in formal schism with the Catholic Church?

PCED: "The bishops of the Society of St. Pius X are excommunicated according to the prescription of canon 1382 of the Code of Canon Law which states that "A bishop who consecrates someone a bishop without pontifical mandate and the person who receives the consecration from him incur a latae sententiae excommunication reserved to the Apostolic See." Archbishop Lefebvre was duly reminded of this before his conferral of Episcopal ordination on 30 June 1988 and the Holy Father confirmed that this penalty had been incurred in his Apostolic Letter Ecclesia Dei, #3 [cf. AAS 80 (1988) 1495-1498; English translation in L'Osservatore Romano English edition of 11 July 1988, p. 1].

"The priests of the Society of St. Pius X are validly ordained, but suspended, that is prohibited from exercising their priestly functions because they are not properly incardinated in a diocese of religious institute in full communion with the Holy See (cf. Code of Canon Law, canon 265) and also because those ordained after the schismatic Episcopal ordinations were ordained by an excommunicated bishop.

"Concretely, this means that the Masses offered by the priests of the Society of St. Pius X are valid, but illicit, i.e., contrary to Canon Law. The Sacraments of Penance and Matrimony, however, require that the priest enjoys the faculties of the diocese or has proper delegation. Since that is not the case with these priests, these sacraments are invalid. It remains true, however, that, if the faithful are genuinely ignorant that the priests of the Society of St. Pius X do not have proper faculty to absolve, the Church supplies these faculties so that the sacrament is valid (cf. Code of Canon Law, canon 144)

"While it is true that participation in the Mass at chapels of the Society of St. Pius X does not of itself constitute "formal adherence to the schism" (cf. Ecclesia Dei 5, c), such adherence can come about over a period of time as one slowly imbibes a schismatic mentality which separates itself from the teaching of the Supreme Pontiff and the entire Catholic Church. While we hope and pray for a reconciliation with the Society of St. Pius X, the Pontifical Commission "Ecclesia Dei" cannot recommend that members of the faithful frequent their chapels for the reasons which we have outlined above. We deeply regret this situation and pray that soon a reconciliation of the Society of St. Pius X with the Church may come about, but until such time the explanations which we have given remain in force."

Q: Does the Catholic Church currently hold that the situation of the Society of St. Pius X is not one for ecumenical dialogue because the Society of St. Pius X is an internal matter within the Catholic Church?

PCED: "Up to now the Catholic Church has acted as if the situation of the Society of St. Pius X is an internal matter within the Catholic Church and not a matter of ecumenical dialogue."

Q: Do lay Catholics who frequent Society of St. Pius X chapels, either more less frequently, incur any sin or canonical delict by doing so, if done solely out of devotion to the Church's Latin liturgical tradition and not to separate one's self from communion with one's diocesan Ordinary or local pastor?

PCED: "Catholics who frequent the chapels of the Society of St. Pius X do not incur any sin or canonical delict by doing so. However, we further refer you to what we have already stated in #4 above."

A: What level of authority do your answers to this private correspondence hold?

PCED: "As we already stated to you in our letter of 4 July 2007: "This Pontifical Commission does its best to transmit responses which are in full accord with the magisterium and the present canonical practices of the Catholic Church. One should accept them with docility and can act upon them with moral certainty." We would further add that no dicastery of the Holy See will give other responses than those which we have given here."

Please know that you and your staff and the Holy Father are in my family's constant prayers as we prepare to celebrate the Holy Week and the season of Easter.

Pax Christi in Regno Christi,

Brian C. Mershon

Commentary on the PCED Responses

1. The current language being used by the Catholic Church avoids saying that the Society of St. Pius X is in formal schism.

2. Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre and the four bishops he ordained in the Society of St. Pius X directly against the express will of the Holy Father incurred excommunication, as outlined by the Code of Canon Law and confirmed by the Congregation for Bishops and Pope John Paul II in his motu proprio Ecclesia Dei Adflicta.

3. The Society of St. Pius X priests are suspended from priestly ministry. Therefore, objectively speaking, they are committing sins of grave matter by continuing their active ministry without a specific mandate of the Church. Of course, the Society's official claim, wrongly or rightly, is that the salvation of souls and the current state of emergency in the Church forces them to continue to offer their ministries without ecclesiastical approval. There has been no indication by the Catholic Church that the priests, as a whole, are excommunicated or in formal schism.

4. Therefore, all the sacraments offered by Society of St. Pius X priests, with the exception of Penance and Matrimony, are valid, but illicit, meaning "illegal." Penance and Matrimony both require faculties from the local bishop, which the Society of St. Pius X priests do not have; therefore, they are invalid. Cases of supplied jurisdiction apply to those who are, for example, in danger of death. Those who read and understand the PCED's response can no longer claim ignorance regarding the Church's official teaching on these two sacraments' invalidity.

5. Catholic laymen may attend Mass at a Society of St. Pius X chapel without committing any sin nor incurring any canonical penalty. However, the PCED guidance is that it "cannot recommend" attendance at the Society of St. Pius X chapels due to the danger of imbibing a "schismatic mentality." In other words, someone might find some Society priests fomenting division from full communion with the Church, their local Ordinary and/or the Holy Father in their sermons. The PCED's recommendation is not to attend their chapels habitually, but they acknowledge there is no sin committed nor canonical penalty incurred resulting from attending Mass at SSPX chapels solely out of the desire to worship according to the 1962 missal and in order to fulfill their Sunday obligation.

6. The Society of St. Pius X is in an irregular canonical situation and an "internal matter" and therefore is not a case of ecumenical dialogue.

7. Again, the correspondence from the PCED can be accepted and acted upon with "docility and moral certitude" by Catholics. The specific questions I asked were broad enough in nature to constitute an official response for Catholics to use as guidance.

Catholic priests, bishops or laymen who contradict these specific responses seem to be out of step with the Church's current official position.

© Brian Mershon

Comments feature added August 14, 2011

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Brian Mershon

Brian Mershon is a commentator on cultural issues from a classical Catholic perspective... (more)


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