We may sympathize with the SSPX, for who would not seek to flee the mediocrity, if not outright mayhem, all too frequently found in modern liturgy, and seek the beauty, reverence, flowing chant, silence, and all that comprises our Catholic Tradition?
Yet how do we do get there, or back there, especially in the liturgical realm? To allude to our recent post: any society has two defining characteristics: an end, and the means to attain that end. For the SSPX, we may agree with their end; it’s the means that raises controversy and, for many, presents a problem.
Schism is a moral problem before it is a legal and canonical one, having its roots in the mind and heart—in each one of us—and only become formalized when manifest. It may be posited that the SSPX as a society is not—at least, not any longer—in such formal schism. We may rather describe their situation as ‘irregular’, but, then, is not much of the Church in a such a state of ‘irregularity’? It is difficult in our chaotic milieu to discern what is regular—that is, according to the ‘rule’—and what is not.
The Pope and the Papacy
Let us take a step back for a moment from the current status of the Society, and return to its origins, which we have previously described very briefly. For a more detailed legal-canonical summary—prescinding from the motives of those involved—one may read Peter John Vere’s balanced summary.
Behind all the motives of those involved, we Catholics must hold that the principle of unity in the Church—at least in her earthly, hierarchical dimension—is the papacy. I do not say ‘the Pope’, which would confuse the office with the man, but the office itself. The man and the office are inextricably linked, sure enough, but they are distinct.
We need not heed, nor follow, everything the Pope—the man—says or thinks, and it would be quite mad to do so, a type of guru-ism, turning the Vicar of Christ into a Delphic oracle whose every word we must hold sacrosanct. As Peter Kwasnieski has cogently demonstrated, the Fathers of the First Vatican Council were quite clear that such is not what they meant in defining the charism of infallibility. On the contrary, their aim was to delineate and circumscribe the limits to which papal authority may bind us. We may disagree with the current pontiff’s opinions on climate change, the efficacy of covid ‘vaccines’, various ecumenical endeavours, and any number of his liturgical views. We may even wiggle around his laws and decrees, submitting insofar as its strict letter requires, exercising the much-needed virtue of epikeia—applying the law to real-life situations with rightly-ordered prudence. Just so may we act praeter legem, alongside the law, interpreting it, without breaking it, according to higher principles and truths.
But can we defy the Pope, and act contra legem, directly against his authority?
That raises any number of intriguing questions, for it would be difficult to distinguish such defiance, from a rejection of the very principle of the papacy itself.
Lefebvre and the Pope
Archbishop Lefebvre had the right aim in mind—to preserve Tradition, and to hold a center of sanity in the chaos after the Second Vatican Council, which is still reverberating through the Church. This is not so much the fault of the Council, whose decrees are conservative, even if ambiguous at times (none of it is heretical, as some members of the SSPX seem to claim). The problem, rather, is with the erroneous interpretation of the conciliar texts, or ignoring them outright according to the ‘Spirit of the Council’, which Pope Benedict rightly called a ‘hermeneutic of rupture’.
Lefebvre founded the SSPX in 1970 to counteract this revolutionary spirit, and to hold fast to Tradition, especially in Liturgy. His society went through a fractious few decades—one may peruse Vere’s article above for more details—with any number of controversies, but it was in 1988 that things came to a head.
To make a long story short, Vere documents that Pope John Paul II promised the SSPX a bishop, to which Lefebvre agreed, but then he backed out for reasons that are complex and controversial. He proceeded to ordain four of his own priests as bishops in June of 1988. He did not do so—again, as Vere points out—without the Pope’s permission, but rather contrary to a specific and direct command not to do so. He did not act praeter legem, but contra legem.
There are any number of proposed justifications for this act, from Lefebvre and others, but canonically it was an act of schism warranting latae sententiae excommunication. I have heard it proposed is that the Vatican, even the Pope and the Cardinal, were just buying time, with no real intention of ordaining any of his priests a bishop, waiting, presumably, for Lefebvre—then 83—to shuffle off this mortal coil.
Any narrative includes many sub-narratives, and this hypothesis requires one to accept either that both Pope John Paul and Cardinal Ratzinger were Machiavellian, duplicitous operatives—liars, in a word—or they were unable or unwilling to stand up to their own curia. Whatever differences one may have with their views, this is all a bit difficult to swallow.
Some supporters of the SSPX, meanwhile, paint Lefebvre in a hagiographical glow, with one devotee, Kennedy Hall, who has just written a defense of the society, comparing the Archbishop to Saint John the Beloved, the only Apostle to have stayed by the Cross (presumably symbolizing Tradition), while all the others fled (into the post-Vatican II-Novus Ordo outer darkness).
Lefebvre, Moses, and Meribah
Archbishop Lefebvre spent much of life as a missionary in Africa, and, from what I have read of him, seems to have been a holy and good priest and bishop. But the good are usually tempted with the good, for obvious evil has no real attraction for them. If the reader will bear with me, I wonder what would have happened if Lefebvre had had just a bit more trust, not just, or even mainly, in the Pope (the man), but in God working through the Pope (the office)?
Scripture may provide some allegorical antecedent, and here I think of Moses at Meribah, of which there are two accounts, referring to two separate incidents:
In Exodus (17:6) Moses is commanded by God to strike the rock once, and water would come forth for the thirsty Israelites wandering in the desert. This he does, water flows, and all is well.
Then, as later recounted in Numbers (20:7-11), Moses is told by God to speak to the rock, and water would flow. Instead, Moses strikes the rock—twice. Water does spring forth, but God is not pleased, with the implication that Moses took matters into one’s own hands, lacked trust, and did not wait for God to act.
There is much more that might be said of this, but, for now, consider the analogy between this act of Moses, and Lefebvre back in that fateful spring of 1988. In both cases, they desired what was rightfully theirs, and what they could rightfully expect from God. But both went about it too hurriedly, using their own power and authority.
Ponder how things might have unfolded had the SSPX been given a bishop. A personal prelature of the Traditional rite, with their own autonomy.
That is, more or less, what they now have, but grasped of their own accord, and not in full union with the papacy.
God still worked though Moses, and led the Israelites to the Holy Land, and we may hope He may somehow use Archbishop Lefebvre and SSPX to lead us back to Tradition, even if in both cases, the route may be more circuitous and difficult than it might have been. I don’t profess to see what God is doing—or permitting—in all of this, but we may hope something good in the end, even if the means be somewhat awry.
Final thoughts for the path ahead
I will close these few thoughts with a few caveats, that apply not just to the SSPX, but to all of us, and ones that I am trying to work through myself:
- One cannot have the Church with the papacy, and without submission to said papacy. But the pope is not infallible in his disciplinary decrees, and may at times be quite fallible. Such obedience—barring intrinsic evil—we should in general accept as penance for our sins, as well as a help to realizing what we have lost. As many saints’ lives attest, doing the less-perfect thing under obedience, rather than the (apparently) more-perfect thing without obedience, bears much good fruit in the end. Like the Israelites, we must wander in the desert for a time, or live in exile before the fulfilment of His promises. That is how I see the current liturgical landscape—a type of Babylonian captivity – and we hope for better days to come, as we seek what oases of beauty and splendor we might along the pilgrimage, and blessed are those that find them.
- There is the danger—as with any refusal of authority—of fissiparity, of breaking apart into ever-smaller splinter groups, all of whom think they have the ‘right idea’. Of the four bishops consecrated by Lefebvre, one—Williamson—has left to start his own society, considering the original SSPX not quite traditional enough. On a smaller scale, at a recent talk I gave, some of the attendees with traditional tendencies started an argument over the 1962 Missal, that we had to go back to 1955, before Pius XII sowed the seeds with his own liberal liturgical modernism. Who decides?
- We should keep our focus on the essentials. I agree with other authors that liturgy is not ‘all about validity’, but it is certainly about validity, as Saint Thomas discusses at length in this treatise on the sacraments (cf., ST., III. Q.60, ff.). Sacramental efficacy is primarily ex opere operato—the work of Christ—and not our own. Certainly, it is dulce et decorum to have beautiful, transcendent liturgy, but that cannot distract us from accessing the grace of the sacraments—not least, the Holy Communion, the Bread of Eternal Life—even if presented in less-than-splendorous garments. We must caution against the tendency to what may be called an ‘aestheticism’, placing more emphasis on beauty and reverence than on growing in holiness in the too-forgotten virtue of long-suffering. Some things must just be offered up in patience.
- Even more must we beware a kind of neo-Donatism, setting up a purified and holy ‘Church within a Church’, even to the extent that those in this small remnant (at least in their own estimation) become the Church, and the rest of the hoi polloi cast into the outer darkness. It is the practice of the SSPX to request permission to set up in a diocese and, if permission is not granted, they move in regardless. Not exactly a recipe for building communion with the Church. And in a recent interview, the official U.S. spokesman of the SSPX, a certain Mr. James Voegel, when asked whether the SSPX recommends that their members attend a Novus Ordo Mass on Sunday if they cannot attend one of their own Masses, replied ‘no’, making no distinction whether this be a reverent Novus Ordo or not. He even recommended—albeit, with less vigour—that SSPX members not attend other traditional liturgies, for, as he put it, they might ‘criticize his marriage’—presumably its canonical status (skip ahead in the video to 1:07 for his circumlocutory response). The Pope has now regularized that, so why is such still a problem? And is that reason to forego one’s Sunday obligation, which is, in any objective, legal sense, grave matter, the failure of which makes one a lapsed Catholic? I can only hope that Mr. Voegel’s opinions do not apply to all who are in some way attached to the SSPX.
Probably not, for the SSPX is, as they say, fluid, from die-hard adherents who would not set foot in a Novus Ordo church, never mind Mass, all the way to those who attend occasionally, often out of necessity. Whatever the status, may the whole society be brought back soon to full union. A crucial juncture will be whether the SSPX consecrates another bishop—the current three are nearing eternity – and whether they wait for the papal mandate this time.
One way or the other, may the Church once again rediscover and re-appropriate her Tradition, without which we are lost. To allude to the title of a book by a beloved and belated priest, we walk to heaven backwards—which gives a new, and more felicitous meaning to indietrism.
Although any given Pope can sow great confusion and scandal—and there any number of examples in history—it is through the papacy that God will correct and clarify what is needed. Without the papacy—the rock on which Christ built His Church—it is every man for himself. And the devil may take not only the hindmost.