Refuting the SSPX’s Claims about its Establishment and Suppression Part II


Establishment and Suppression

Part II

John F. Salza, Esq.
July A.D. 2022



The Suspensions 

          In this section, as you might guess, the Society argues that the Pope’s suspensions of Abp. Lefebvre were invalid. As we will see, the Society builds upon the errors we have refuted in the previous sections like a house on sand (e.g., the invalidity of the suppression; the application of epikeia), and thus the conclusions it reaches, based on these false premises, are also false. In fact, the SSPX descends into its most base level of unsophisticated argumentation, while showing complete disregard for the authority of the Pope and the Church. 

On June 12, 1976, the Holy See, upon the authority of Pope Paul VI himself, warned Abp. Lefebvre not to ordain his initial class of seminarians without the local bishop’s permission, lest he be suspended from conferring orders for one year under canon 2373.1 as a matter of law (suspension ab ordinum collatione). This warning was repeated on June 25, 1976. Lefebvre disregarded these warnings and proceeded with the ordinations, without the consent of the local bishop. 

SSPX Claim: The Society excuses Lefebvre as follows: 

“The entire basis for prohibiting the ordination of priests was the erroneous notion that the SSPX had been suppressed the previous year. Having failed in their attempt to destroy the seminary and the Society, the opponents of Abp. Lefebvre were now trying to impede his work by making it impossible to ordain new priests. Because, as demonstrated in the preceding chapter, the suppression was utterly null and void, so was this unjust decision, which finds its entire justification in the alleged suppression. And because an unjust law is no law, Abp. Lefebvre would have been completely free to disregard this prohibition.” 

Reply: The Society’s claim that Lefebvre could disregard these warnings and proceed with the ordinations on the “entire basis” and “entire justification” that the suppression of the SSPX was “utterly null and void” is completely false for the following many reasons: 

·        If the SSPX were a Pious Union, it was lawfully suppressed by the diocesan bishop (Bishop Mamie).

·        If the SSPX were a society of common life, it was lawfully suppressed by the Apostolic See (Sacred Congregation for Religious / Cardinal Tabera).

·        The Apostolic See’s suppression of the SSPX was confirmed by the Holy Father (Paul VI) in forma specifica which provides no right for appeal, irrespective of the Society’s original canonical status.

·        The SSPX was an ad experimentum association and thus the ordination and incardination of its priests were reserved to the local bishop, not to Lefebvre.

·        The SSPX’s own statutes state that its ordinands must be incardinated into a diocese, and not into the SSPX (Sec IV, 2).

·        The SSPX was not a juridic person capable of receiving priests by incardination or ascription.

·        Abp. Lefebvre had no ordinary jurisdiction which would have authorized him to incardinate priests into the SSPX.

·        Whether or not the SSPX was lawfully suppressed is irrelevant because canon 955 (1917 Code) states that every candidate for ordination must be ordained “by his own proper bishop or with dimissorial letters received from him,” which Lefebvre’s candidates did not have.

·        Canon 2373.1 provides that those who ordain the subject of another ordinary in violation of the precept of canon 955 are automatically suspended ab ordinum collatione, or “from the conferring of orders for one year reserved to the Apostolic See.”

·        Lefebvre’s warnings not to ordain were issued by the special mandate of Pope Paul VI himself (“de mandato speciali Summa Pontificis”) and thus Lefebvre knew the will of the supreme legislator regarding the ordinations, which rendered Lefebvre’s subjective belief about the suppression irrelevant (as there is no recourse or appeal of the Pope’s decision).

·        Canon 970 permits the proper bishop or religious superior to deny his clerics ordination for any canonical cause, even an occult one, without a canonical procedure, and Lefebvre’s candidates were not his subjects, but the subjects of the local bishop (under both canon law and the SSPX statutes), who did not approve the ordinations.

·        Even if Lefebvre were a superior of an association with juridic personality, under canon 218 the Roman Pontiff by divine positive law has supreme authority and universal jurisdiction over the government of the Church, which superseded the authority of Lefebvre.

·        Under canon 17.2, as the supreme legislator of the Church, Pope Paul VI’s interpretation of the law, which led to his suppression of the SSPX and his suspension of Lefebvre, “has the same force as does the law itself.” Thus, Lefebvre’s only choice was to submit to the decisions of the Holy Father. 

Notwithstanding the foregoing, Abp. Lefebvre proceeded with his illicit ordinations on June 29, 1976, and thus rightly incurred, latae sententiae, the suspension ab ordinum collatione. 

SSPX Claim: “In approving the establishment of an institution, the Church necessarily also wills that it have at its disposal the means of perpetuating itself, in order to survive—unless, of course, its authorization were to be later revoked. Because the suppression was invalid, the Church has never withdrawn her authorization of the Society’s mission, which is the formation of holy priests and the exercise of priestly ministry.” 

Reply: This statement, of course, is pure fantasy. It is difficult to believe the Society would make such an argument. The argument is so bad, it seems to reveal a diabolical blind-spot in its own reasoning. Irrespective of one’s view of the legitimacy of the suppression, the fact is that the Church did not approve the establishment of the SSPX in perpetuity. Hence, it did not have a right to “perpetuate itself” beyond the experimental six-year period for which it was approved, and with which Lefebvre himself agreed. The Church willed it to have temporary, provisional status, and the Church also willed its existence to cease.

The SSPX has no mission, and all its “negotiations with Rome” over the years was for the purpose of obtaining one. One wonders what “Church” the SSPX is referring to when it says “the Church has never withdrawn her authorization for the Society’s mission”; it is certainly not the Roman Catholic Church. (Moreover, saying the Society’s mission was “the formation of holy priests and the exercise of priestly ministry” is misleading.  Its mission was the formation of priests, but priests who would exercise their ministry under the bishop in whose diocese they were incardinated, as the Society’s own statutes provide.)

As Pope Benedict XVI (in 2009) made clear: “As long as the Society does not have a canonical status in the Church, its ministers do not exercise legitimate ministries in the Church…In order to make this clear once again: until the doctrinal questions are clarified, the Society has no canonical status in the Church, and its ministers – even though they have been freed of the ecclesiastical penalty – do not legitimately exercise any ministry in the Church.”[11] Cardinal Burke also recently affirmed the same (in May 2021) when he said: “At the present moment, they [the SSPX] are not part of the one Roman Catholic Church throughout the world.”[12]

As has already been proven, whether or not the SSPX was lawfully suppressed is irrelevant to the fact that it is not part of the Catholic Church, and does not have a canonical mission from the Catholic Church, and hence cannot lawfully “exercise the priestly ministry.” Thus, the SSPX’s claim of its right to exist because “the suppression was invalid” is false. The validity of the suppression is not relevant to the fact that it has no juridical mission to carry out a lawful ministry, which is a matter of the divine law. And more fundamentally, for the sake of argument, even if the suppression was invalid, and the SSPX was a juridic person under canon law, and Lefebvre was never suspended, the Society’s experimental period would have expired at the end of 1976 anyway, and hence the Society of St. Pius X would have ceased to exist at that time (further rendering it impossible to have a canonical mission from the Church). 

SSPX Claim: “There could be no canonical penalty incurred if there was no crime committed. Because the Society had already been granted, and still retained, the right to incardinate priests directly, Abp. Lefebvre simply did this instead of relying on his previous plan. Nothing illegal was done, so this suffices to demonstrate the invalidity of the alleged suspension ab ordinum collatione incurred by Abp. Lefebvre as well as the alleged suspension from the orders received by the new priests ordained on 29 June 1976.” 

Reply: The error in reasoning here is astounding. First, it has already been established, under both canon law and the SSPX’s own statutes, that it never had a right to incardinate priests into its association. To briefly repeat: (1) the SSPX was not a juridic person capable of receiving priests through incardination; (2) as an ad experimentum association, incardination remained with the diocesan bishop; (3) the SSPX’s own statutes placed incardination with the diocesan bishop; (4) Lefebvre did not have ordinary jurisdiction to incardinate priests into his association.

          Second, even if the foregoing were not true, and Lefebvre initially had a right to incardinate priests, he was prohibited from doing so in 1976 by special mandate of the Holy Father, along with all the applicable canon laws that were authentically interpreted by His Holiness. Whether or not the SSPX was lawfully suppressed, and whether or not Lefebvre had a right to incardinate priests, is irrelevant to the Holy Father’s subsequent prohibition from him doing so in 1976.   

SSPX Claim: “Additionally, the fact that Pope Paul VI had, as Abp. Benelli wrote to Abp. Lefebvre, prohibited the ordinations de mandato speciali Summi Pontificis is of little relevance; as explained earlier regarding the invalidity of the suppression, the pope may be above his own promulgated laws, but he is certainly not above natural justice and simple reality. Given that the reality, as demonstrated earlier, is that the SSPX was never suppressed and continued to exist in accord with canon 673, possessing the right of direct incardination without the need for dimissorial letters from the local ordinary, there was no reason for anyone, including the Supreme Pontiff, to prohibit the ordinations.” 

Reply: This is more comedy of errors. According to the SSPX, the Pope’s express order prohibiting the ordinations is “of little relevance” because, evidently, unbeknownst to the Pope, the SSPX still existed, had a right to incardinate, was above the Holy Father’s supreme authority and interpretation of canon law and who, by the way, was acting contrary to natural justice and simple reality! It is a simple as that. The Society may attach “little relevance” to the express orders of the Pope, but true Catholics conduct themselves differently, to remain in communion with Christ.

The SSPX likes to claim that Paul VI acted contrary to “natural justice,” but this is also not true, because Paul VI did not take anything away from the Society that it had a right to possess. The Society was an ad experimentum association (whether a pious union or a society of common life) that had no right to perpetually exist, much less ordain priests to carry out a worldwide mission. It's right to perpetuate itself did not depend upon itself, but rather entirely upon the Church and the will of the Holy Father. Pope Paul VI could have simply terminated its experimental period or even let it lapse without renewal, and there would have been no offense against justice. As noted above, canon 970 permits a bishop to withhold orders for any canonical cause, even an occult one, and even extrajudicially (meaning without any canonical procedure), and without offending “natural justice.” Of course, what is good for any local bishop is good for the Pope, whose sentence provides no place for appeal (canon 1880).


SSPX Claim: “Having two obligations here, either to follow the Church’s prior authorization of the Society’s mission in accordance with the still-valid decree of Bp. Charrière issued in 1970, or to follow Pope Paul VI’s ill-founded and unjust prohibition of ordinations, Abp. Lefebvre simply concluded that the former obligation prevailed and the latter disappeared. For if there is any doubt as to whether Paul VI had revoked the right to ordain and incardinate, this doubt must be resolved in favor of non-revocation (c. 23). And as those laws and commands that restrict the free exercise of rights or establish a penalty are subject to strict interpretation (c. 19), Abp. Lefebvre’s presumption of innocence in this case remains.” 

Reply: One wonders who actually authors this material for the SSPX. The argumentation is so bad, it is understandable why the author chose to remain anonymous. Incredulously, the Society falsely posits “two obligations” – either Bp. Charrière’s erection of the Society, or Pope Paul VI’s prohibition of ordinations. What are the problems? 

·        This is a fallacy known as “false dilemma” or “false dichotomy,” which is based on a false premise that erroneously limits what options are available.

·        Bp. Charrière’s erection of the Society is not a basis for disobeying Paul VI’s prohibition on ordinations because the formation of the SSPX, even if lawful, never granted Lefebvre the automatic right to ordain priests (that right was reserved to the local bishop), and certainly not the right to disobey the Pope’s prohibition from exercising that right.

·        Bp. Charrière was no longer the diocesan bishop upon which the SSPX depended; rather Bishop Mamie was, and Bishop Mamie suppressed the Society, as did the Apostolic See, and the Roman Pontiff himself. That would leave the SSPX only one option – obey Paul VI’s prohibition on ordinations – according to its own posited dilemma.

·        The SSPX’s appeal to canon 23 (relating to Paul VI’s prohibition being resolved in favor of the Society) is false, because canon 23 concerns doubt about the revocation of pre-existing laws, but there was no pre-existing law granting the SSPX the right to incardinate priests, and hence no doubt whether it was revoked (since such a law didn’t exist).

·        Even if the SSPX claims that canon law granted the SSPX a right to incardinate priests (it did not, as we have seen), Pope Paul VI was the supreme legislator who has the final, authoritative interpretation of canon 23 and the rest of the provisions of canon law. 

As a result of Lefebvre’s disobedience, and his refusal to repair the damage caused by his illicit ordinations, Pope Paul VI on July 22, 1976 suspended Lefebvre a divinis according to canons 2227 and 2279 which forbade the exercise of every act of holy orders, reserved to the Holy See. Lefebvre’s suspension remained in force all the way up to his excommunication in 1988 and death outside the Catholic Church in 1991.

As with the latae sententiae censure for his illicit ordinations (suspension ab ordinum collatione) which Lefebvre incurred by virtue of the law itself, the SSPX also rejects the ferendae sententia censure of suspension a divinis, which was imposed by the judgment of the Holy Father himself. The reason for Lefebvre and the SSPX’s disobedience of the latter censure is the same – they claim that the censure was “illegitimate” and a violation of “natural justice” and “canonical jurisprudence.” 

SSPX Claim:  Here is how the Society concludes this section: 

“Even if one were to accept that the first suspension was invalid in light of the law, why should one not accept the second, since it was directly imposed by Pope Paul VI himself and thus not subject to appeal?

This objection once again exhibits the error of legal positivism that permeates the entire opposition to the Society. It is true that imposed ferendae sententiae censures are the acts of the judge himself, rather than incurred by virtue of the law itself: the sentence must be passed, as it is not already passed (the definition of latae sententiae). Yet even in the case of the direct imposition of a censure, the principles of natural justice and canonical jurisprudence do not simply cease to exist, even if the pope is acting on his own authority. For while the pope’s authority over the Church is supreme, it is not absolute, and any punitive actions he takes against a member that are not in accord with natural justice are invalid.

Abp. Lefebvre did not commit the delict mentioned in canon 2331 §1, which establishes penalties for those who refuse to obey legitimate orders; as demonstrated earlier, the orders in question were not legitimate according to canonical jurisprudence and natural justice, and thus, this canon is entirely irrelevant to the case at hand. No one may be punished except in accordance with the law, for committing an actual delict contrary to that same law. If no delict is committed, no punishment can be imposed. Insofar as natural justice affects the application of ecclesiastical laws in this way, the pope is bound to observe even his own laws, a fact that modern legal positivists would prefer to deny.” 

Reply: Notice that the Society conveniently throws the blanket of “natural justice” over any decision of the Holy Father’s with which it disagrees, and then claims that the Pope, the supreme legislator of the Church, and all who follow his decisions on the matter, are “legal positivists.” Of course, it is the clergy of the SSPX who are the legal positivists, because they make their will the law, rather than what the law actually says and how it is interpreted by the Pope, whose interpretation of law has the force of law itself. That is the definition of legal positivism. The SSPX consistently throws a lot of terminology around, but fails in its understanding and application of the terminology, often concluding precisely the opposite of what the terminology actually means.

          Equally absurd is the Society’s claim that the Pope acted against “natural justice” in the way he handled Lefebvre. The SSPX cannot claim any offense against “natural justice” because Lefebvre had no moral or legal right or faculty to perform the acts he did, which gave rise to the censures he incurred (i.e., continuing an ad experimentum association after it was suppressed by the Pope; ordaining priests contrary to the will of the Pope). In fact, Lefebvre not only had no right (a claim in justice) to perform these acts, but he was legally and morally precluded by canon law, his own statutes, and the Pope himself from doing so! And, moreover, Lefebvre was informed of the Pope’s will and interpretation of the law in advance, so he knew the consequences of his actions. Indeed, it was Lefebvre who offended against justice by disobeying the Holy Father, which as a bishop he had the special obligation to do (cf. canon 273). The Society’s appeal to “natural justice” is completely invalid ab initio. 

          Also absurd is the Society’s appeal to a “higher law” and “divine law” when attempting to exonerate Lefebvre against the decisions of the Holy Father. First of all, as further explained below, the divine law required Lefebvre to obey the Pope on these matters, since the Pope has supreme authority on matters of discipline and governance. As the councils of Lyons, Florence and Vatican I teach, it is a dogma of the faith that being one with the Church’s government is necessary to maintain communion with the Catholic Church. Second, whether the SSPX was founded as a pious union or society of common life, either way it was a creature of ecclesiastical law, whose existence depended completely on the will of the Church, and not upon divine law. After all, if Pope Clement XIV could legally suppress the Jesuit Order in 1773, after it had existed for over 200 years (and which Order boasted of producing saints and Doctors of the Church!), Pope Paul VI could certainly legally suppress the SSPX, a six-year experimental association of laymen headed up by a retired archbishop!  

          The Society hoists itself on its own petard yet again in this section, in light of its own explanation of the virtue of obedience. The Society correctly summarizes the two principles of obedience taken from St. Thomas. From the Society’s website: 

Therefore, following St. Thomas, we arrive at two criteria for obedience:

-The command does not require the inferior to sin, either in the immediate or proximate case.

-The command is within the sphere of the superior’s authority.[13] 

This is yet another example of the Society correctly articulating a principle, but then failing to properly apply the principle to its facts, just like it does with epikeia, canonical mission, the visibility of the Church, etc.

First, was it in the Pope’s sphere of authority to suppress an ad experimentum association of seminarians headed up by a retired archbishop? Of course it was. No true Catholic would argue the contrary. The association itself was reaching its own canonical expiration date (and it was also within the Pope’s sphere of authority to not renew the ad experimentum period). Allowing the experimental association’s term to expire without renewal, or suppressing the association before it expired, particularly in light of concerns over Lefebvre’s 1974 Declaration, were obviously within the sphere of the Pope’s authority, and such an act did not cause Lefebvre to sin. That goes without question. Thus, Lefebvre was bound to obey the Pope.

Second, was it in the Pope’s sphere of authority to prohibit Lefebvre from ordaining priests? Of course it was, for any bishop has the authority to withhold orders from his subjects, and the seminarians in question were not even Lefebvre’s subjects; they, and Lefebvre himself, were both subject to the diocesan bishop of Lausanne-Geneva and Fribourg, Switzerland, as well as the Bishop of Rome, of course - both of whom expressly prohibited Lefebvre from ordaining priests (not to mention Lefebvre had no authority to incardinate priests, under both canon law and his own statutes). Prohibiting a retired archbishop from ordaining seminarians who were not his subjects, and who were formed in an association that had already been lawfully suppressed, and who were completely dependent upon the diocesan bishop who also opposed the ordinations, was obviously within the sphere of the Pope’s authority, and such prohibition did not cause Lefebvre to sin. That also goes without question. Thus, Lefebvre was bound to obey the Pope.

The principle of epikeia, which the Society invokes throughout this study and even uses in the title of the study, does not apply to Lefebvre, because epikeia suspends human positive law in cases of necessity in order to conform to the true will of the legislator, who would not want to bind his subjects in certain circumstances. But Pope Paul VI was the supreme legislator, who manifested his will in each instance the SSPX alleges that epikeia applies.

The SSPX cannot successfully argue that the laws of the Church limiting (or even suppressing) the Society’s existence as an ad experimentum association should be suspended under the principle of epikeia, because it was the will of the supreme legislator that the association no longer exist. Further, the SSPX cannot successfully argue that the laws of the Church empowering bishops to prohibit the conferral of orders should be suspended, because it was the will of the supreme legislator that Lefebvre be prohibited from conferring orders. The SSPX cannot use epikeia as an excuse to disobey the legitimate commands of the Pope, since the commands of the Pope were in his sphere of authority, they did not cause Lefebvre to sin, and the Pope manifested his will that the applicable laws in question (on the SSPX’s ad experimentum status; restrictions on conferral of orders, etc.) should be enforced, not suspended. Epikeia in no way applies to the circumstances of the SSPX.

Lefebvre, who SSPX adherents tout as a champion of tradition, actually rejected the perennial tradition and ecclesiastical jurisprudence of the Church on discipline and governance, by disobeying the legitimate commands of his superiors, including the Pope himself (he also rejected the doctrinal tradition of the Church on many issues, including the Profession of Faith, the episcopacy, jurisdiction, sacramental intention, among other doctrines). While the Society claims its position is supported by “canonical jurisprudence” (more fancy terminology the SSPX throws around), nothing could be further from the truth, and that is why the Society produces no example in the history of the Church where a retired bishop was permitted to disobey the lawful commands of a Pope, within the sphere of his authority and which did not cause the bishop to sin, especially over the existence of an ad experimentum association of seminarians, who were the subjects of another bishop.

While more could be said, the bottom line is that Lefebvre’s actions, far from being defensible on the grounds of natural justice, canonical jurisprudence or the common good, were attacks on the very unity of the Church, which is one in government, as a matter of divine law. Thus, Lefebvre’s actions necessarily offended not only against the cardinal virtues including prudence and justice, but also the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity. Unfortunately, this has resulted in both Lefebvre and his clergy’s separation from the Roman Catholic Church, outside of which there is neither salvation nor remission of sins.