1. Religion & Spirituality
Scott P. Richert

The SSPX and the Unity of the Church

By July 9, 2009

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On July 8, 2009, Pope Benedict XVI released a motu proprio entitled Ecclesiae unitatem. The short document concerns the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei, which was established on July 2, 1988, to help bring about the full reunion of the Society of Saint Pius X (SSPX) with the Catholic Church. The four bishops of the SSPX had incurred automatic excommunication when Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, the founder of SSPX, ordained them without the necessary approval from Pope John Paul II.

Those excommunications were lifted on January 21, 2009, and the Congregation for Bishops announced at the time that "It is hoped that this step be followed by the prompt accomplishment of full communion with the Church of the entire Fraternity of Saint Pius X, thus testifying true fidelity and true recognition of the Magisterium and of the authority of the Pope with the proof of visible unity."

Unfortunately, the road toward full communion had some rather nasty bumps. Chief among them was the broadcasting on Swedish television of an interview with one of the four SSPX bishops, Richard Williamson, who denied that the Nazis had used gas chambers during World War II or engaged in a systematic attempt to exterminate Jews. Bishop Williamson later offered an apology for the interview, though he did not retract his statements, and the damage had been done.

As the furor over Bishop Williamson's comments has died down, however, the SSPX and the Vatican have continued talks to resolve doctrinal issues that stand in the way of full communion. The motu proprio Ecclesiae unitatem recognizes these developments by making the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei part of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

As the Holy Father notes in the motu proprio, his 2007 motu proprio Summorum Pontificum, which expanded the use of the Traditional Latin Mass, and his lifting of the excommunications of the bishops of the SSPX had removed the nondoctrinal barriers to full communion. The questions of doctrine raised by the SSPX will now be presented "for study and discernment according to the ordinary requirements of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith," and the results of such study will be submitted "to the superior dispositions of the Supreme Pontiff."

As in his earlier actions regarding the Traditional Latin Mass and the SSPX (not to mention his outreach to the Eastern Orthodox Churches), Pope Benedict has shown his desire to restore unity to the Church, the Body of Christ on earth. He notes that

The duty to safeguard the unity of the Church, with the solicitude to offer everyone help in responding appropriately to this vocation and divine grace, is the particular responsibility of the Successor of the Apostle Peter, who is the perpetual and visible principle and foundation of the unity of both bishops and faithful. The supreme and fundamental priority of the Church in all times—to lead mankind to the meeting with God—must be supported by the commitment to achieve a shared witness of faith among all Christians.

The Holy Father ends Ecclesiae unitatem with "a pressing invitation to pray ceaselessly to the Lord, by the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary, 'ut unum sint'"—that is, that all may be one, the prayer that Christ Himself offered to God the Father (John 17:20-23). We can answer that invitation by making A Devout Exercise for the Unity of the Church a part of our daily prayers.

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July 9, 2009 at 4:42 pm
(1) Ave Maria Gratia Plena says:

I would be nice if the SSPX were a bit more positive in their responses to all the overtures of Mother Church. They give all the impression of sullen teenagers at the moment. Its the Pope who is being gracious, patient and flexible and the SSPX who are pouting and stamping their feet.I appreciate the obstacles to full union seem great from their side of the fence but goodness they could at least give the diplomatic equivalent of a happy smile every now and again.

January 30, 2011 at 8:18 pm
(2) Maree says:

I understand that have the impression that the SSPX is “negative”,” like sullen teenagers”, etc,etc, this is really NOT the case. People usually base such comments on limited knowledge- knowledge usually coming from mass-media rubbish which is often the complete opposite of what the Society’s superiors hold, when it is not taken out of context, misrepresented, etc…

I would invite all persons of good will to beware of popular opinion, news reports, analysis of the positons of the SSPX,etc, by people who either disagree with the SSPX position or who want a juicy story for their tabloid. People should at least access the official websites of the SSPXand let them have a fair say before making a hasty/uninformed judgement.
Jesus Christ Himself was misrepresented time and time again and those who had him crucified would not have succeeded if it were not for the masses who allowed themselves to believe so easily the lies of the enemies of Christ. The SSPX does not consider itself as the Church, but when properly studied/prayed about, the conclusion is that despite the imperfection inherent in all human beings, the SSPX is truly following/proclaiming the Catholic message.

July 9, 2009 at 5:13 pm
(3) Jason says:

“Full communion”… really? That is like saying partially pregnant.

You either are or you are not.

July 9, 2009 at 8:43 pm
(4) Dr John Smythe says:

The Society is in communion with the Church – they always have been. When our Pope was still a Cardinal, he stated numerous times to various liberal “Bishops” around the world that the SSPX is in Communion with the Church and their Sacraments are all valid and he kept telling these people not to persecute fellow Catholics.

Now, as Pope he has more power to finally bring the rest of the Church in line with Catholic doctrine and teachings – the only group who actually does follow the Doctrine of the Church seems to be the Society of St. Pius X.

The Society has never acted like “sullen teenagers” but as mature, responsible s who know what is truly right and have had the guts to stand up and say what is wrong.

The SSPX requested a clarification on the use of the Tridentine (Latin) Mass so all Priests would be free to say it without persecution. The only areas that it was allowed were in areas where the Society had a Church or Chapel. So anyone who appreciates the Tridentine Mass has the Society to thank.

The other request was to state the “excommunications” were never valid. Our Pope remitted them.

After these two things were done, which were impediments, then talks could begin regarding the errors of the Second Vatican Council.

Now those talks will finally begin and the Church will be free from modernism and liberalism.

There will be wailing and gnashing of teeth and you had better expect the mass media to weave its web of lies and deceit.

However, at the end of it all will be true Priests and Bishops loyal to the Truth of the Church of Christ.

Either that, or the end of the world … (ie Fatima secret #3)

January 30, 2011 at 8:21 pm
(5) Maree Poole says:

THANK YOU Dr. Smythe for your well-written defence of the SSPX! God bless you!

July 9, 2009 at 11:05 pm
(6) robert says:

Life is complicated and there are plenty of sacrifices left to be made by all of us. The SSPX is a religious order within the heart of the church without an assignment at this time. There is a certain truth and charity that will need to be expressed in this matter in the future concerning Bishop Williamson and his penchant for provocation and insult. Other than this particular elephant in the room, I see no problems to a reconciliation in the near future. The recent Canadian interview with Bishop Fellay is quite good and should be encouraging for all Catholics of good will. 500 Priests within the Church is quite a number by any calculation.

January 30, 2011 at 8:36 pm
(7) Maree says:

Thanks for your fair-minded comments about the SSPX, Robert! They reflect a good Christian spirit.

I would just like to add to Robert’s comments that Bishop Williamson is NOT the kind of person that he is made out to be in the press, which has taken him OUT of context, time and time again.

Without a doubt, he’s an” original”, but a true man of God with none of the ridiculous/fanatical traits which the press like to ascribe to him. He is actually a bishop who loves God, the truth and souls passionately and who acknowledges his mistakes. Look up his blog Dinoscopus and let him speak for himself.

July 10, 2009 at 12:28 am
(8) Don says:

SSPX is in schism. Plain and simple. When “bishop” fellay claims that the new mass is poison, he blasphemes the Holy Spirit. SSPX is a sect, a cult, and psychotic in nature. They will not reconcile. Their new stall tactic is to offer up another 12 million rosaries. These guys are straight out of rebellious hell.

January 30, 2011 at 8:24 pm
(9) Maree says:

Oh dear, Don! You are actually at odds with the Pope on this!Better read up a bit more before you make such definitive assertions!

July 10, 2009 at 5:21 am
(10) Paul says:

The Latin Mass was never abrogated and all priests have always had a right to say it as Pope Benedict has reminded us in Summorum Pontificum. If the SSPX is in schism because they have rejected a papally approved Mass, then what does that say for the other bishops who have rejected the Latin Mass and shafted any priest who wished to celebrate it as well as all those layfolk wanting to attend (ie Abp Lefebvre and his followers) when the Said Mass was approved by centuries of Popes. Does that make the anti-Tridentine bishops Schismatic as well?
I see why The Holy Father needs to do something the Church is full of Schismatic bishops!
Rather odd of the devil to use the rosary as a weapon against the Church!

July 10, 2009 at 6:55 am
(11) H B Palmaer says:


I wonder what the Pope would say about your remarks… I gather you find the Orthodox to be even more hellish. Whereas the Pope does not.

Now, you wouldn’t be schismatic, would you? Refusing to submit to legitimate authority, and all…

Would you?

July 10, 2009 at 8:00 am
(12) PJF says:

I am Irish, I grew up in Ireland in the early 1960s, I was roughly 10-years old when the Latin Mass was abandoned.

Look at what has happened to the Catholic Church since the 1960s. Look at the state of the Catholic Church in Ireland? Where have all the religious orders gone to? Hmm!

I have always yearned to attend the Latin Mass, I have never, ever sat comfortably with the vernacular versions.

I absolutely resent being told by idiots in the media how the Latin Mass 1962 version somehow offends Jews. Do the Jews pay my bills? Would I ever ask the Jews to pay my bills, so stay out of our business and let us have daily Latin Mass in San Francisco…

July 10, 2009 at 12:00 pm
(13) Joseph says:

Ave Maria GP: Perhaps you should read their web site. Bishop Fellay has been very positive and gracious in his gratitude to the Pope.
Both sides acknowledge that there are doctrinal issues involved that should not be ‘papered over’. May God grant the resolve and strength to the Pope to return the Church to its traditional orthodoxy, and away from Modernist heterodoxy.

July 10, 2009 at 5:36 pm
(14) Russell says:

Ave Maria says the Pope is being gracious, patient and flexible and the SSPX who are pouting and stamping their feet. She’d like ‘a happy smile every now and again.’ Wonderful! Let’s all emote. Let’s forget the Doctrine of the Faith and just smile and think nice thoughts. Get real, Ave Maria, the argument is Doctrinal, not diplomatic. You may be prepared to sell your Faith for a smiling mess of papal neo-protestant potage but I won’t, thanks all the same. Dear Don, your devotion to obedience to the Pope would be laudable if it were adult and mature. It’s not, though. It is emotional, just like dear Ave Maria. This is not about ‘Unity’. This is about unity in the One True Faith. This is not about ‘obedience’. This is about Truth. This is not about neo-liberal and neo-protestant fellow-feeling. It is not about being ‘nice’. It is about honesty and truthfulness and candour and clarity. In short, it is about being a Catholic. ‘Is the Pope a catholic?’ Lots of people are not so sure, any more. You can do as you like. I will stay in communion with all the saints in heaven and all the Popes from John XXIII back to St Peter. If they were right then I am right now. If I am wrong now then they were wrong then. But if they were right it means that I must be right, too…so who is wrong?

July 10, 2009 at 6:07 pm
(15) Russell says:

It is not about Unity unless it is Unity in Truth. It is not abour emoting, Ave Maria, and it is not about smiling…it is about honesty and candour and truth. It is not about unthinking obedience to the Pope it is about obedience to the Faith that comes to us from the Apostles. In so far as the Pope teaches the Catholic Faith he acts as the Successor of Saint Peter. I am with him and all the Popes back to the Apostles but not if the price is adulterating the Faith. It is not my Faith, it is not the Pope’s Faith – it is the Faith of the Church. Stop emoting and start thinking.

July 10, 2009 at 7:00 pm
(16) Kirt Higdon says:

“Doctrinal issues”? “Errors of the Second Vatican Council”? If a general council of the Church acting under the authority of the Pope can err in matters of doctrine, then the Catholic Church is not the true Church of Our Lord which I have always taken it to be. What appears to be the case here is that the SSPX is committed to heresy and has used the dispute over the Tridentine Mass and the unauthorized ordination of bishops to conceal that. If there are Church teachings they do not understand, they have an obligation to accept them, pray and meditate, and ask for an explanation. Acceptance of Church teaching is what is implied by “I believe in the Holy Catholic Church”. If the SSPX has problems with Church doctrines, then dialogue with them is equivalent to dialogue with Protestant sects.

July 10, 2009 at 11:02 pm
(17) Robert says:

I was doing a little searching today and found an article by Christopher Hitchens acting as associate editor of Newsweek’s religion section on why the Holy Father was all wrong about his offers of reconciliation towards the SSPX. Author of ‘God is not Great’giving our Holy Father suggestions about Justice and Mercy, now that really is the greatest!!! If schism is a sin against charity and not faith( St. Thomas would have it so)it seems to me that men of good will should be looking for those signs of charity from both sides as the potential bridge towards unity. Bishop Fellay, Cardinal Hoyos,our Holy Father, invocation of the Mother of God, etc. are all good signs and not to be compared to the signs of the enemy –”who hath done this!” If Beezelbub Hitchens, for instance, is against reconciliation, I am for it all the more.

July 11, 2009 at 5:48 pm
(18) Jake says:

The Tridentine Mass is not a cure all, but it is absolutely clear that every group of dissident Catholics, from those demanding women priests to those demanding abortion be legitimized to those demanding homosexual activity be sacralized to those preaching universalism and indifferentism to those who are the most savagely imperialistic Neo-cons, hates and fears the Tridentine Mass. It is clear that all Bishops who find endless ways to shelter homosexual priests love the Novus Ordo and hate and fear the Tridentine Mass. It is clear that Protestants despise the Tridentine Mass and and welcome the Novus Ordo as being headed right into their arena.

He that hath ears to hear let him hear.

July 11, 2009 at 10:09 pm
(19) J Meng says:

I think the following clause needs to be corrected: “Pope Benedict has shown his desire to restore unity to the Church…” The Catholic Church doesn’t need to be restored to any kind of unity. It is not divided. It is one. The unity of the Catholic Church is both of faith and of communion and is guaranteed by the Primacy of the Pope. A person (or persons) is cut off from the unity of Faith by heresy and from the unity of communion by schism. According to the teaching of Pope Pius XI in his encyclical Mortalium Animos those outside the Church need to be restored to unity by returning to the Catholic Church.

July 17, 2009 at 9:07 am
(20) Mark says:

As a young and proud Catholic, I’ve only known the Novus Ordo most of my life, until recently.All that I know of the Tridentine Mass and the old times stem from the many wonderful stories passed down from mom,my aunts and many of their generation who clearly yearn for what they call “better days” that have dwindled since the Novus Ordo. It was only this year that I learnt about SSPX and I’ve been researching extensively to try and figure this whole saga out.While I continue to learn I must admit that my sympathy does lean towards the traditionalists.Without getting into too much details,we need only look at what the church is now and what is was before Vatican 2.Pews are not fuller but more empty,you can come to Mass on Sunday with shorts and a vest if you so wish,spirituality and dedication are almost non-existent in many areas of today’s Catholicism and it is even sometimes hard to find the “priest” in today’s priests – because they are trying so hard blend in and to be what modernity expects of them.Vatican 2 met with good intentions and I believe that many of the outcomes were good, though many have been misunderstood and even miscommunicated to the faithful.I was surprised to hear Cardinal Arinze say that it was not compulsory for alter rails to be removed after Vatican 2, or for people not to kneel during the consecration,or for people to receive in their hands and not their tongues etc.We were made to believe that these were the changes from Vatican 2 and case closed,there were no options.How many more ordinary people like me are in the same boat of ignorance?When the elders speak of the reverence, prayer and the respect they had for Mass and how they lived out their faith I am amazed because this almost has no relation to today.It doesn’t take an intellectual to see that something is wrong.Why should the Church always change to suite the world when it is the world that it should be saving us from.Does God change for man or does the Gospel not teach us that we should change for God, to be what is pleasing and fitting to Him???This is not rocket science people.Islam is one the most stringent religions with laws that many would condemn as ancient and outdated – yet they are now the fastest growing religions in the world.The Pentecostals all have strict rules and codes and yet their they thrive because they have a clear and uniteed vision.Does this not tell us something???Are we on the right track???Are we Catholics simply by name today and not by practice.There is so much to be desired, ranging from the today’s priest to the way parishes are run.It’s difficult to hear people sing in English speaking parishes or to even hear them respond because people simply go to Mass to get over with it, a weekly routine and nothing more.The Protestants and Pentecostals put us to shame with the reverance, love and brotherhood that they share. And we wonder why Catholics are always in their line of fire???….we give them more than enough reason…..I could go on.Where did we go wrong people???Where did we go wrong!So let us not give SSPX such a hard time because we may eat our words soon when more and more people become fed up with the status quo and sympathise with the traditionalists. We need to stop being so narrow minded and sometimes see things from all perspectives.The Holy Father himself has now made changes in his wonderful mission of mercy, unity and love by making the Latin Mass more accessible and by lifting the excommunications.No doubt that many intellectuals and even clergy have their educated comments and opinions about this issue but blessed be the day when all those on high horses recognise the layman and listen to his needs, whether like tradition or not..I’m not saying that the Novus Ordo is no good, no that is not my opinion because people can experience the beautiful Eucharistic experience in different ways, be it in Latin or the Vernacular. What I am saying is that there should be tolerance on both sides because though there are many opinions we are still one body. The bottom line is that the Church has a mission and as it stands it seems that more traditionalist souls are going to make it, simply by virtue of the examples of their ways of life.Strong words I know, but if the modernists painted the same picture of faith, love, obedience, virtue and reverence I would feel the same way about them – but this simply is not the case.This is also one of the weaknesses of this modern movement, strong words are treated with contempt because there is this strange notion that the Catholic Church must be soft in order to keep people from running away – quite the opposite has happened since Vatican.My prayer is that the good Lord will forgive us our wrongs and that our lives can be a living testament to the good news of our Lord.Being a modernist, traditionalist or even if you are just an obedient who has no preference, these should just be a means to a end whereby God is the centre of our lives for all to see.That would be a nice end.

February 7, 2013 at 8:18 am
(21) Agnes says:

Thanks so much Mark, you`ve said all!

Our God is the right judge.

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