Is the Society of St. Pius X in Schism? A Recent Response from Rome

Is the Society of St. Pius X in Schism?
A Recent Response from Rome
By: John Loughnan

(Send email concerning this article to John Loughnan at:

This letter was furnished to me by Mr. John Loughnan, a former member of the Society of St. Pius X. He had written to Cardinal Ratzinger’s (prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith) office, asking for clarification on the status of the society. What follows is some introductory comments by Mr. Loughnan, the contents of his letter to Rome, and their declaration on the status of the Society of St. Pius X. The response from Rome is in red.

“The following correspondence was sent to Fr Jean Violette, SSPX District Superior for Australia and to other SSPX adherents.

Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger
August 20, 1998
Prefect, Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith
Vatican City EUROPE

Your Eminence,

On July 2, 1988, in his Apostolic Letter Ecclesia Dei, His Holiness Pope John Paul II forthrightly stated that Archbishop Lefebvre and the priests Bernard Fellay, Bernard Tissier de Mallerais, Richard Williamson and Alfonso de Galarreta have incurred the grave penalty of excommunication envisaged by ecclesiastical law", and that "formal adherence to the schism is a grave offence against God and carries the penalty of excommunication decreed by the Church's law."

On March 22, 1996, Bishop Bruskewitz (Diocese of Lincoln, USA) included the SSPX in twelve organisations, including such groups as Call to Action, Catholics for a Free Choice, Planned Parenthood and the Freemasons, "whose beliefs and practices are perilous to or incompatible with the Catholic Faith."

Since 1988 the Society of St Pius X and its supporters have maintained that 1) they are NOT in schism, and 2) that the bishops named by the Pope are NOT excommunicated, nor are the priests nor faithful who adhere to the SSPX, and 3) that the SSPX is in communion with Rome. Fr Brian Harrison O.S., described arguments by "members and supporters of the Society of St Pius X" (relative to the SSPX denial that Archbishop Lefebvre did, in fact, attach his signature to Dignitatis Humanae and Gaudium et Spes ) as "resort(ing) to (using) the most convoluted hermeneutical acrobatics and bizarre conspiracy theories."

"Letters to Friends and Benefactors" in Australia by the Australian SSPX Superior and his Seminary Rector deny the validity of canonical sanctions and claim that not only are the Catholic faithful free to attend Society Masses - they are specifically NOT entitled to attend Novus Ordo Masses - such "masses" being NOT Catholic and the saying of which by a SSPX priest (and, presumably, diocesan priests) would involve mortal sin!

After twenty odd years of adherence to the traditional Mass, for the last several years I have been attempting to moderate the statements and actions of some of the Australian SSPX priests - to no avail. On January 5, 1998 I sent a 136 page document entitled My Reasons For Withdrawing From The Society Of St Pius X to Bishop Bernard Fellay, Superior General of the SSPX, and a copy of it to Archbishop George Pell, Archdiocese of Melbourne. I enclose the first six pages of that document, together with copies of documents by Australian priests of the SSPX for evaluation.”

The above was sent together with a covering letter to Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, who forwarded it to the responsible authority, the Pontifical Commission, Ecclesia Dei. A three page reply, dated October 27, 1998 has been received from Msgr. Camille Perl, Secretary, of that Commission. His answers to the questions raised include the following:

Dear Mr Loughnan

We wish to acknowledge receipt of your document, Statements and Allegations Made By Some Australian Members of The Society of St. Pius X, which you sent to His Eminence Cardinal Ratzinger for evaluation. It has been transmitted to this Pontifical Commission as dealing with matters that come within our particular competence.

First of all, we thank God that you have been able to be sufficiently objective about the claims of the Society of St. Pius X to leave it and return to full communion with the Church. We recognize that this has been a long journey for you and your wife and we trust that all that you have experienced has helped you to be a better Catholic, aware of the wounds of the Church in its members on earth, but even more conscious of its indefectibility.

You will have noted that we are that very Pontifical Commission referred to in Father Jean Violette's letter to you of 21 January 1995 as made up of "liberals, modernists who have infiltrated the positions of authority in the Church and who are using their authority to do away with Tradition..." We trust that you will now understand that this is not a fair description of us or of our often difficult and delicate work.

We will now attempt to address ourselves to your questions in the order in which you have raised them.

Some questions arise:

The response from Cardinal Ratzinger’s Office to the questions are in red. Mr. Loughnan’s questions are in black

Q1 Was the declaration of Pope John Paul in Ecclesia Dei as to who was NOT in communion with him then legislatively Authoritative, binding and now still in effect? That is: are Bernard Fellay, Bernard Tissier de Malleais, Richard Williamson and Alfonso de Galarreta current excommunicates?

A. The Pope is the supreme legislator in the Church. In an Apostolic Letter which he issued motu proprio (on his own initiative) he declared that Mons. Lefebvre and the priests Bernard Fellay, Bernard Tissier de Mallerais, Richard Williamson and Alfonso de Galarreta, have incurred the grave penalty of excommunication envisaged by ecclesiastical law. (Cf. Code of Canon Law, can. 1382).

Those mentioned above who are still living and have not asked pardon from the Church for the ill which they have caused are still under the censure of excommunication.

Q2 What is the status of all the priests, seminarians and "those who adhere" to the SSPX?

A. While the priests of the Society of St Pius X are validly ordained, they are also suspended a divinis, that is they are forbidden by the Church from celebrating the Mass and the sacraments because of their illicit (or illegal) ordination to the diaconate and to the priesthood without proper incardination (cf. canon 265). In the strict sense there are no "lay members" of the Society of St Pius X, only those who frequent their Masses and receive the sacraments from them.

While it is true that participation in the Mass at the chapels of the Society of St Pius X does not of itself constitute "formal adherence to the schism", such adherence can come 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 classically exemplified in A Rome and Econe Handbook which states in response to question 14 that the SSPX defends the traditional catechisms and therefore the Old Mass, and so attacks the Novus Ordo, the Second Vatican Council and the New Catechism, all of which more or less undermine our unchangeable Catholic faith.

It is precisely because of this schismatic mentality that this Pontifical Commission has consistently discouraged the faithful from attending Masses celebrated under the aegis of the Society of St Pius X.

Q3 What does "adherence" constitute?

A. Thus far the Church has not officially declared what constitutes "formal adherence to the schism" inaugurated by the late Archbishop Lefebvre (cf. Ecclesia Dei 5, c), but the Code of Canon Law defines schism as 'the refusal of submission to the Roman Pontiff or of communion with the members of the Church subject to him" (canon 751). The above citation together with the other documentation which you have included in your dossier and your own exchange of correspondence with Father Violette clearly indicate the extent to which many in authority in the Society of St Pius X corroborate that definition.

Q4 Does the SSPX constitute a group "whose beliefs and practices are perilous to or incompatible with the Catholic Faith"?

A. It may still be difficult to characterize the entire Society of St Pius X, but the documentation which you have submitted witness to a consistent condemnation of the new Mass, the Pope and anyone else who disagrees with the authorities of the Society in the smallest degree. Such behaviour is not consistent with the practice of the Catholic faith.

Q5 Do the unilateral assertions by the SSPX as to "union with Rome" make it so, or is it the Pope who decides who is in communion with him?

A. We reiterate what we stated above: "The Pope is the supreme legislator in the Church." Communion with him is a fundamental, non-negotiable hallmark of Catholicism which is not determined by those who set themselves up to judge him, but by the Pope himself (cf. Second Vatican Council's Dogmatic Constitution on the Church Lumen Gentium #22-25).

Q6 How close to "Feeneyism" is the SSPX?

A. The question of the doctrine held by the late Father Leonard Feeney is a complex one. He died in full communion with the Church and many of his former disciples are also now in full communion while some are not. We do not judge it opportune to enter into this question.

Q7 How authoritative is your response?

A. You want to know how authoritative our responses are. We must indicate to you that this letter accurately reflects the practice and pastoral solicitude of this Pontifical Commission, but is not an official declaration of the Holy See. Those declarations are fundamentally limited to Quattuor abhinc annos of 3 October 1984 and Ecclesia Dei of 2 July 1988, both of which were published in the Acta Apostolicæ Sedis. The Holy Father does not ordinarily make detailed statements on very specific questions such as those which you have submitted. He entrusts such responses to the various dicasteries and organisms of the Holy See which have competence in particular areas. With regard to the matters which you have brought up, the competence belongs to this Pontifical Commission.

Q8 Would a response to the above fall within the competence of the Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Legislative Texts? If so, would that response be infallible?

A. The Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Legislative Texts rules primarily on the interpretation of the law. Any more authoritative response to your questions than the one we have given would be more likely to come from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The fact that the Congregation has transmitted your dossier to us indicates that at this time our response should be sufficient. Statements of dicasteries and organisms of the Holy See which touch on faith and morals are not considered infallible, but should be taken as norms of moral certitude.

Q9 May your response (or any other response) be made public knowledge - particularly to adherents of the SSPX?

A. Our response to your questions may be made public.


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