SSPX: Back to the Bad Old Days?

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“Tomorrow I’m leaving for Mexico,” Bishop Bernard Fellay tells me, “and then on to Cuba.”

I balk. “What’s in Cuba?”

The question seems to confuse him. “The faithful,” he explains. “They need Confirmation, too.” What’s the SSPX presence in Cuba like? “Small,” he tells me, “and mostly underground. They’re still badly persecuted by the communists.”

I make a crack about the Vatican’s concordat with China, which he politely ignores. “You know, I think that’s why Pope Francis likes us,” Fellay postulates. “He’s always saying, ‘Go to the margins. Go to the suffering. Go to the poor.’ Well, we do! Archbishop Lefebvre was a missionary priest in Africa. Everyone knows about the Council, but that’s only half the story.”

 

It reminded me of our interview last year, when Bishop Fellay told me the Holy Father had read the 700-page biography of Lefebvre—twice. “After that he said to one of our priests, ‘You know, they have treated them badly’.” By they, of course, Pope Francis meant the Vatican bureaucracy; them is the Society.

Those who know anything about the Society of St. Pius X may find it strange to hear Bishop Fellay speak this way about Pope Francis, and vice versa. Fellay is a trad among trads, by far the most prominent bishop to demand the Tridentine Mass be restored as the ordinary form of the Latin Church. Moreover, he was a signatory of the “filial correction,” which accused the Holy Father of propagating heresy.

To be sure, many in the Church’s upper echelons are ambivalent towards Fellay. Others, however, see him as the best hope for mending the rift between Latin Mass and Novus Ordo Catholics. And that’s precisely why many traditionalists don’t like him—including some within the SSPX itself.

But maybe we should start at the beginning.

Having gained distinction for his missionary work in Africa, Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre became a decisive figure in Church history during Vatican II, where he led the Council’s conservative faction. Known as Coetus Internationalis Patrum, the conservatives opposed the “Protestantizing” liberals who, they fear, would weaken the integrity of Catholic dogma and corrupt the Church’s liturgical heritage.

Clearly, the Coetus didn’t get their way. And so, in 1970, Lefebvre founded the Society of St. Pius X, a priestly fraternity devoted to upholding traditional doctrine and perpetuating the traditional Latin Mass, both of which Lefebvre and his followers believed were being abrogated (or suppressed) by liberals and modernists within the Church bureaucracy. They continued teaching the old doctrines and celebrating the old Mass as though nothing had changed.

Accused of insubordination by Rome, Lefebvre’s priestly faculties were suspended in 1976. Shortly thereafter, he celebrated Mass for 10,000 supporters in France. “Now, when I’m doing exactly the same thing I have done for thirty years,” he said during his homily; “all of a sudden I am suspended a divinis. Perhaps I shall soon be excommunicated—separated from the Church, a renegade. How can it be…?”

No longer able to ordain his seminarians licitly, the aging Archbishop began to suspect the Vatican intended to starve the Society of priests until it simply faded into nothingness. He pressed them for permission to consecrate a new bishop. Leading the negotiations on the Vatican’s side was Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and himself deeply sympathetic to traditionalism.

What happened next varies depending on whom you ask. The Archbishop claimed that, while permission to consecrate a new bishop had been granted, Rome refused to set a date for when the consecrations might take place. “Cardinal Ratzinger gave us the written authorization to have a member of the Society as a bishop,” Lefebvre later explained. “It’s true that I consecrated four. But the principle itself of having one or several bishops was granted by the Holy Father,” Pope John Paul II.

In any event, by the spring of 1988, Archbishop Lefebvre was convinced the Vatican was not negotiating in good faith. That June, he consecrated four of his priests as bishops in Écône, Switzerland, among them the 30-year-old Bernard Fellay.

John Paul declared that “such disobedience—which implies in practice the rejection of the Roman primacy—constitutes a schismatic act.” He declared that Lefebvre, Fellay, and the three other Écône bishops had incurred excommunication latae sententiae. Rome discouraged all laypeople from seeking the sacraments from SSPX priests, and the order entered a state known as canonical irregularity. A group of Society priests quickly split from Lefebvre and formed a new order in full communion with Rome: the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter, or FSSP.

Lefebvre died in 1991, and Fellay was elected Superior General three years later. The Society carried on its work as usual until 2005, when their old sparring partner Cardinal Ratzinger ascended the Chair of St. Peter as Benedict XVI.

In 2007, Benedict published his motu proprio Summorum Pontificum, which established that Catholic priests are “permitted to celebrate the Sacrifice of the Mass following the typical edition of the Roman Missal, which was promulgated by Blessed John XXIII in 1962 and never abrogated, as an extraordinary form of the Church’s Liturgy.” Then, in 2009, he lifted the excommunications on the four surviving SSPX bishops.

Summorum wasn’t only important because it promoted the widespread use of the Latin Mass: it also acknowledged Lefebvre’s concern that elements within the Church bureaucracy had attempted to suppress it, and nearly succeeded. For nearly half a century, priests in virtually every diocese in the world had been punished by Rome or by their bishops for celebrating the Tridentine Mass without the “proper faculties.” Benedict retroactively declared that no such faculties were necessary, except those conferred upon every priest of the Roman Church upon ordination.

Regardless of one’s view of the Écône consecrations, Lefebvre’s concerns about the Latin Mass being suppressed were valid. In fact, it’s not obvious that interest in the Tridentine movement would have survived were it not for Lefebvre’s radical measures. That isn’t to say he did the right thing—only that the SSPX for decades presented the only organized effort to preserve the old Mass. One might even argue that, were it not for the SSPX’s willingness to play “bad cop,” there would have been no “good cop” like the FSSP to keep the Tridentine flame alive with the Vatican’s permission.

So began the slow, painstaking process of reconciliation between the Society and the Holy See.

Progress came slowly, but it came. The most significant breakthrough since Summorum came in 2017, when Pope Francis recognized the ability of SSPX priests to witness marriages. Raymond Cardinal Burke told InfoVaticana that “what the Pope is saying is that the priests in this society, when they witness marriages, are exercising jurisdiction in the Roman Catholic Church.” In other words, Society priests were already being given unconditional authorization to act as representatives of the Church.

It was as though an exiled politician had suddenly been given the authority to sign trade agreements on his country’s behalf. And it was largely thanks to decades of patient negotiation on the part of Bishop Fellay. Full reconciliation seemed inevitable.

However, many within the SSPX don’t want to be reconciled.

In 2012, another Écône bishop, Richard Williamson, was expelled from the Society. The General House of the SSPX charged him with “refusing to show due respect and obedience to his lawful superiors,” culminating with an open letter he had circulated demanding that Fellay resign. Williamson had been a thorn in the SSPX’s side at least since 2009, when he was convicted of Holocaust denial by a German court. He was re-excommunicated in 2015 for consecrating another ex-Society priest named Jean-Michel Faure. (He has since consecrated two other men as well.)

The priests and faithful who abandoned the Society to follow Williamson have dubbed themselves the “SSPX Resistance.” It’s a relatively small faction, and it represents the most noxious tendencies in the traditionalist movement, being dominated by anti-Semites and conspiracy theorists. Still, no pastor stands by while a soul is lost.

The Resistance views Bishop Fellay as an agent of the “modernist” Vatican attempting to weaken the SSPX from within. According to Williamson and his supporters, it’s the Vatican that must reconcile to the Society—not the other way around. The Resistance have the full deposit of the Faith, which they will preserve until the rest of the Church sees the error of its ways and abandons the Second Vatican Council. Failing that, any concessions granted by Rome must be taken as evidence that the SSPX is weakening in its defense of tradition.

Then, last July, Bishop Fellay was voted out as Superior General. The General Chapter voted instead for Fr. Davide Pagliarani, a priest from the Society’s relatively small Italian district. The consensus among Church-watchers was that the Society priests’ vote was deeply symbolic: they had no desire to further their negotiations with Rome.

It should be noted that Fellay and Pagliarani deny any difference between them on how best to approach reconciliation with the Holy See. And, not for nothing, the SSPX’s charter requires papal permission for a Superior General to serve more than two terms. Of course, whether the Pope would have responded to such a request one way or the other is questionable.

A bit of sunlight appeared to slip between the two leaders last month, however, when SSPX/News published an interview with Fr. Pagliarani. The first question referred to the upcoming Amazon Synod; instead of answering the question, he brought up the Second Vatican Council, saying that it “itself was only possible because it was the result of a decadence that affected the Church in the years before its opening.” Then, when asked about Francis’s controversial encyclical Amoris Laetitia, he again brought up Vatican II. Amoris, he says, is “one of the results that, sooner or later, was to occur as a result of the principles laid down by the Council.” He also compared Amoris to the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, saying that, “humanly speaking, the damage is irreparable.”

This is a far cry from Bishop Fellay’s diplomatic tone and nuanced understanding of the ongoing crisis of Catholic tradition. Clearly, Fellay wasn’t reluctant to call out the Vatican—and even the Pope by name—when he thought it was in grave error. The “filial correction” he signed in 2017 (nine months before his ouster) dealt largely with the ambiguities and perceived errors in Amoris Laetitia. But Fr. Pagliarani’s preoccupation with the Second Vatican Council and his excoriation of Francis is beyond anything that passed from Archbishop Lefebvre’s own lips. One almost expects him to claim that original sin itself is a product of Vatican II.

The difference between the two men, it seems to me, is this: Bishop Fellay sees the Society as a vanguard of orthodoxy and orthopraxy. He wants to share that charism with the rest of the Church, which is why he pursued rapprochement so vigorously. Meanwhile, Fr. Pagliarani seems to agree with the Resistance that the charism of truth is now outside of Rome and kept alive by the SSPX itself. These interviews give the appearance that Fellay sees the Society as being out of communion with the Church, whereas Pagliarani sees the Church as being out of communion with the Society.

There are about 650 priests in the Society of St. Pius X serving approximately one million souls around the world, over half of whom are under 18. That may not seem like a lot—less than 0.1 percent of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics. But, whatever their other faults, they are Catholics. We should hope for all men to be in full communion with Rome; surely that includes “Lefebvrists.” Surely we would benefit from their witness to the traditional Faith and ancient rites of the Church.

As Bishop Fellay said, they’re willing to “go to the margins.” In fact, they’ve lived on the margins for over half a century. There, they have built strong communities full of faithful young families, like the town of Saint Marys in Kansas. Their seminaries, monasteries, and convents are bursting with vocations.

Instead, Fr. Pagliarani seems to confirm the liberals’ worst suspicions: traditionalists are defined more by what they reject rather than by what they believe. Traditionalism becomes less about preserving the ancient teachings, rites, and devotions of the Church than about negating Vatican II.

The contrast with Fellay really is striking. As the bishop himself told me last year,

The attachment to the Mass of centuries is a guarantee of community – and, more than that, of being the Church. So, I rejoice every time a Tridentine Mass is celebrated anywhere in the world…

This Mass is the concentration of the Catholic spirit, of Catholic religion. This Mass is not just liturgy, because it is genuine liturgy. You’re nourished from beginning to end. It is the Catholic spirit in action. You are drawn into the adoration toward God. The first duty of man toward God is to worship Him, to adore Him. And there you are! Now there, too, you’re put in your place: begging forgiveness for your weakness, your sins, and for His help. And, so, you have the whole of the Catholic faith.

We must then agree with Cardinal Burke: when asked if reconciliation with the SSPX would be “good news,” he responded,

Yes. I pray for it, and I hope that it will come about. But the reconciliation of course has to be based on a common understanding. We cannot just simply will it. In other words, if there is not a common understanding, what we reconcile will result in all sort of conflicts and difficulties. We have to make sure that there it is [sic] a common understanding in regard to all the questions which, in the past, the [SSPX] has had about the Church, the Holy See and the direction of the Catholic Church.

Both his hope and his misgivings are well-founded, which is why Bishop Fellay and his counterparts in Rome never achieved full reunion. Yet it’s difficult to see how any reconciliation will be possible under the SSPX’s new leadership. This is a loss, not only to the Society, but to the entire Church.

Photo credit: AFP/Getty Images

Michael Warren Davis

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Michael Warren Davis is the editor-in-chief of Crisis Magazine.

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