Canon law on reconciling with SSPX

Canon law on reconciling with SSPX

Canon lawyer Ed Peters looks at some of the issues involved in a Vatican reconciliation with the separatist Society of St. Pius X.

As I see it, there are only three options here: either the Holy See decides that John Paul II’s decree of excommunication was insufficiently grounded in law and/or fact, and on that basis it lifts the penalty without addressing the merits of the situation today; or, the SSPX leadership somehow acknowledges its wrong-doing and repents sufficiently to allow lifting of the penalty under 1983 CIC § 2; or the SSPX remains fixed in its position and the excommunication remains in place while talks continue—or not, as the case may be.

The first option has the proverbial snowball’s chance of ever happening; a fourth option (that the SSPX remains contumacious of the penalty, but the pope simply lifts it anyway) is not realistic: Pope Benedict XVI cares about truth, even when the truth hurts.

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  • Is there the equivalent of a “consent decree” in canon law?  In civil law, it goes like this: “We’re not saying we did it, and if we did it, we’re not saying we are guilty of a crime, but we promise never to do what we say we didn’t do.”

  • Pshaw.  Peters, whom I respect, misses the point here by staring too minutely at canons and not seeing the forest for the trees.

    The particularities of canon law apart, what there is is the possibility of assuring such an outcome if it seems to the Pope beneficial to the Church.  “Here’s the problem; find me an acceptable solution.”  The Pope obviously sees this as an exercise in ecumenism and so long as people are willing to sign on to the minimal acceptable terms, then getting them back is the thing to do.  I don’t see it as a matter of respect for truth, since there are deeper truths about scandal in the Church and misinterpretations of the Council that may not justify what was done by Lefebvre, but DO justify bending over backwards to achieve unity with people who are, after all, at the very least CLOSER to us even than the Eastern Orthodox.

    I’m still skeptical that this breach can be healed, but if it can, it should be.  And if it isn’t healed soon, I don’t think it ever will be.  Soon the SSPX will simply be used to its anomolous status and inured to its lasting pretty much forever.  The breach is widening through inanition and Bishop Williamson sounds FAR more schismatic than the traditionalists of the Dietrich von Hildebrand ilk.  If we can acknowledge that “it’s all their fault” won’t do for the Orthodox and the Protestants, then surely we should acknowledge that it won’t do for the SSPX, however maddening and obstreperous they may be.

  • Canon 16 § 1 gives to the “lawgiver” the right to authoritatively interpret the law, or those deputed by him to do so.  Since the Holy Father is the supreme lawgiver, he could very well provide an interpretation of law to justify the lifting of penalty.  I’m not a canonist, but it seems to me that he can rightly govern the penalties of the Church as he sees fit.

  • Jeff is completely correct on all counts.  There is no reason why we can’t treat the followers of the SSPX with at least as much respect as we treat Lutherans & Baptists.

    I also think that there is a wide distribution of feeling within the SSPX and it may be possible to get some of them back and that would be good.  It is what happened at Campos.

    The thing that keeps much of the SSPX where it is is lack of trust, an understandable thing when the rest of the Catholic world treats them like they must be dirt, including most of the bishops at least in the US—many of them for far left ideological reasons which are not in line with most Catholics ANYWAY.  I’m afraid of the bishops and don’t trust them and I’m not even SSPX! 

    If the election of Benedict XVI heartens families currently in the SSPX and it is possible for him to work out a trust relationship with them decent enough to allow them to come back into union of belief, then I don’t see how that’s a problem.  Especially since BXVI was at the council and knows it—we don’t.  So it won’t do to call him on that!

    And yes, Orlando Seminarian, at that time the Pope could do as he wishes.  The pope’s will trumps all and, as catholics, you all should know that.

  • There’s a big difference between the SSPX and the Lutherans and Baptists.  The latter justify their separation from the One True Church on what we’d call heresies: private interpretation of scripture, Sola Scriptura, Sola Fide, etc.

    The SSPX justify their separation on the necessity of continuity with the historical liturgy and with other elements of the Deposit of Faith which they would claim to uphold, while they claim the Catholic Church has deprecated them.

  • Extreme Catholic, read your history. 

    The classical protestants ALSO believed that the church had defaulted on them by going off on tangents.  They ALSO only sought to follow Christ… 

    It’s an analogy, right or wrong.  Here is the crux of the matter: Modernist corruption:SSPX :: the corruption of the papacy/clergy:Lutherans.

    Was there modernist corruption in 1960?  YES.  It’s responsible for the “Spirit of VII” being crammed down peoples’ throats unmercifully which set off the SSPX reaction in 1989. 
    Was there corruption in the papacy & clergy in the 15th century?  YES.  It was rife. One of the popes of that era had a whore in the Campo de Fiori in Rome.  Public knowledge.  There were all kinds of abuses including dioceses with absentia bishoprics bought and sold.  Again, read your history.

    Was it right to leave the church (in either case) over the corruption?? No, of course not.  But you have to admit, corruption can be a horrible thing and we need a way to avoid it, yes.  We have it now.  How to deal with it?  I don’t know. 

    People in the SSPX are not your enemies, anymore than Lutherans are.  Treat them with respect.  You will not win them for the truth otherwise, any more than you would anyone else.

  • It’s highly significant, BTW, that the SSPX departure does not follow immediately upon VII.  There was over 20 years in between. 

    There are many misconceptions about Vatican II on both sides.  VII may not be as responsible for the SSPX fiasco as perhaps both sides think.  I lay the responsibility SQUARELY upon those who distorted V2 and still distort it. 

    We have witnessed in the last 40 years a level of corruption and self-service in the Catholic Church, various locations, that can only be rivaled by the pre-Trent Church.  That’s why this and other large-scale defections have occurred. 

    As long as we have egregious amounts of corruption, they will continue to occur.

  • “There’s a big difference between the SSPX and the Lutherans and Baptists.” – Ya think?

    Jeff K. thanks for mentioning Dietrich von Hildebrand. You want to read some devastating analysis of Vatican II documents!!!! I have an original copy of his, Trojan Horse in the City of God…the title alone gives a big hint.

    (warning: Hillenbrand books refer to doctrines, ideas, practices in Roman Catholicism that predate 1965.)

  • The biggest difference is that the Reformation which resulted in the conventional protestant groups happened in the mid 1500s and the SSPX difficulty happened in 1989.

    Other than that, I don’t think they’re all that much different.

  • The dissidents that stayed inside the church have counterparts too—Arians etc.  That will be dealt with sooner or later too.  And it probably won’t be a lot different than the outcome of their counterparts.

  • This began as a discussion about canon law, and devolved into the same potentially endless polemic of a few days ago. Is there more than one person here who has read diddly-squat about canon law? There’s a place for this sort of round-robin. It’s called “Angelqueen.” Maybe if we all tried to use the words “canon law” and “lawgiver” and “Ed Peters” at least once in each of our posts, that might help.

    It was easy for me, see?

  • David, that’s because Orlando Seminarian pointed out that the Pope has the legitimate power to do as he wishes, which is true.

    And it’s also the case that the willingness and character of the SSPX is a factor in anything that might or might not happen RE canon law. 

    It’s not a simple “light switch” sort of discussion.  Few things are.

  • Come off it, David.  Peters made a claim that the Pope wouldn’t (essentially) manipulate canon law because he “cares about the truth.”  That’s a claim about more than the provisions in the law books; it’s about how law as whole functions in the Church, about the Pope’s relation to it, and the relevance of truth to the question.  Those are all issues that can be intelligently addressed as well by someone who knows nothing about canon law as they can by a canonist.

    Should the Pope “twist” canon law to achieve a settlement?  Is the SSPX worth it?  Would it be “betraying the truth” to do so?  That’s the discussion.

  • I’m not sure it would even be “twisting” anything to get operable agreement from the SSPX.  Like I said before, if the Second Vatican council were the *real* bone of contention, the split would have happened in the 60s, not waiting til 1989.  By 1989, the church was in a shambles both in Europe and here.

    Rather, the problem was the escalating sense that the post-V2 “spirit of V2” was out of control, after 20 heart-breaking and frightening years, which triggered the split.  The rest is pain and overreaction without too much essence.  The strident bit is only a part of the SSPX.  Some will not come back.  But I am convinced if this is handled wisely, some will.

    I’m sure Benedict XVI knows this.

  • I don’t know that it’s twisting anything either.  I’m assuming—for the sake of argument—that canon law does not allow for a straightforward solution, as Peters seems to be claiming.

    You and I are not canonists and we don’t know, do we?  So, I’m simply giving all that a miss and saying that canon law ought not to be treated like the Supreme Court should treat constitutional law, as a thing above and apart from the Highest Authorites in the Church.  Canon law certainly cannot STOP the Pope from doing as he sees fit—he has supreme power of jurisdiction in the Church, given to him by Christ Himself, and only Divine Law can constrain him. 

    As for V2 being the bone of contention, I think it wasn’t in origin, but it has become one.  The only solution now is to come up with a formula acceptable to both sides:  Vatican Two is a pastoral council and its non-infallible teachings have to be interpreted in light of Tradition.  The SSPXers can then take a minimalist view of things like V2s teaching on religious freedom, which might not be correct but is also not heretical.  This is EXACTLY what Benedict has been laying the groundwork for with his December speech to the Curia, for example.  If we can streeeeetch earlier teaching on religious freedom to fit the very different seeming V2 ideas, we can let the SSPXers streeeeeeetch the V2 ideas to fit the earlier ones.  And then trust God and see what the Holy Spirit will do for us in a hundred years.

  • Correct.  And you know as well as I do that if there’s a confession of wrongdoing to be made, it should be made by those understood by the Holy See as misinterpreting Vatican II for their own purposes.  There have been a lot of guilty parties, not just the SSPX.

  • I give my heads up to michigancatholic for making some very good points.  It is true that Clown Ministries and Catholic Action was never excommunicated.  Why?  Because there were many outspoken bishops that supported them. Who did the traditionalists have?  A retired French Archbishop of an Archdiocese in Africa and a Brazilian Bishop.  But not all of the Traditionalists agreed with the illicit Episcopal ordination of 1989.  The Priestly Fraternity of Saint Peter’s was founded by former priests and seminarians from SSPX.  Moreover, the Institute of Christ the King was founded the same year.  Some French monasteries severed their ties my the SSPX and returned to Rome.  Many more traditional orders were founded since 1989.  Many more Bishops began to support the works of the new Traditionalists.

    Michigan’s made an important historical point.  1989 was still a few years before what I think was one of the most important documents to come out of the pontificate of John Paul the Great, Pastores Dabo Vobis (March 25, 1992).  Before this document, there was no real universal priestly formation program.  Many seminary rectors were forced to make broad formation decisions without a clear vision from the post Vatican II Church.  This was also several years before the Encyclical Veritatis Splendor (August 6, 1993), which condemed proportunalism, the bane of moral theology.  The Catechism of the Catholic Church didn’t come out until 1992.  Until then, we didn’t have an “updated” universal Catechism that followed the pastoral vision of

  • sorry
    . . . the 2nd Vatican Council.  Before then, we did not have very good alternative catechism instructions for children and adults.

    It is always a good idea to look at history.  History gives us many hints of where we have been and why things are the way they are.  As a Church, we have a long way to go.  The days of the “post-Vatican II” crowd are numbered.  Liturgy, bio-technology, and Lay Movements seem (to me anyway) to be the most important issue right now.

    It is also important to point out that Archbishop issue was not the liturgy.  He knew he could bring back the Classical Roman Rite.  His issue was with the VII’s Declaration with Religious Freedom, Dignitatis Humanae.  I think he probably had a very good reason.  Remember, he was a Holy Ghost Father in Gabon and the Archbishop of the Archdiocese of Dakar, Senegal.  Can anyone guess what his issue was?  Islam?  This was many years before 9/11.  He knew what Islam wanted to do.  Islam is not some happy religion that believes in sensible dialogue and a happy co-existence.  This isssue is only finally being brought up (perhaps too late).  The other Bishop involved, Bishop Castro Mayer, was bishop of Campos, Brazil.  What is there major problem today?  Losing millions of Brazilions to the protestant sects.

    Nobody wanted to listen to them in 1989.  The issues they were concerned about were never addressed in Dignitatis Humanae and are only being adressed today.

  • I don’t think we are completely understanding the purpose of excommunication. 

    Excommunication is not a declaration about the truth, beauty, or goodness of an action, but a statement that an action places you out of communion with the Church.  The purpose of the statement is not supposed to hurt you but rather bring you to your senses and back into the Church.  Was there an action that place SSPX (at least its bishops) out of communion with the Church?  YES! However, now that they are dialoguing and things look like they are coming closer together, formal excommunication is not nessecary or helpful.  The Orthodox are also not in formal communion, but the excommunications formally issued at the schism have been lifted by the Pope and the Patriarch of Constantinople.

    Christ prayed that we might be one for a reason, we need each other!  In Christs plan all have a role to play.  It is not by chance that the Reformation happened at just the time the Church needed to be strong in the face of Nationalistic Absolute Monarchs and Princes.  Nor is it by chance that four hundred years latter when the Church was most needed to respond to the Ideologies of Evil of the 19th century that it was racked by the French Revolution, the Italian “reunification,” etc.

    Our separated brothers have something to offer to the Church.  For instance 100,000 regular mass-going faithful in France a country that is on a precipice.  They offer a counterpoint to the extreme liberalism that has been served up for the past 40 years.  If only we would listen to them, and they to us, as brothers and sisters in Christ,  WHICH IS WHAT WE ARE, I know the Church would be stronger for it.

  • It’s pretty hard to talk about Canon Law without remembering that Christ fulfilled the law.  Don’t we end up sounding like the Pharisees that Jesus condemned when we get all caught up in the particulars of Canon Law?

    On the other hand, following the spirit rather than the letter landed us in this situation to begin with. 

    So maybe there is a rare justification for suspending the law as Jesus suspended the law of the Sabbath in order to work a miracle?  It would be a kind of miracle to heal the schism considering the polemics, wouldn’t it?

    Is there any way to suspend and reinforce the law at the same time since that is really what we need to do?  By reverting to the law of love?

    The law is made to draw us together, not to force us apart.  When the law works against its very purpose for existence, is it still valid?

  • So maybe there is a rare justification for suspending the law as Jesus suspended the law of the Sabbath in order to work a miracle?

    If there is, it would be in the hands of the lawgiver (that would be the Holy Father), on the principle that forms the basis of the final Canon: “Salus animarum suprema lex.” It is an extension of the same authority “to bind and to loose” that Christ gave his Apostles; that is, Peter and the others (here’s the important part!) in communion with him.

    Don’t expect a repudiation of Vatican II to be on the table though. Therein lies the rub.

  • Wouldn’t an interpretation of Vatican II in the light of Tradition that Benedict has called for amount in essence to a repudiation?  Certainly a repudiation of the “Spirit” business.  It would be a lot easier to accomplish than rejecting the Council outright.

  • No, no, David.  Vatican II is so general that there’s no point in refuting it.  The problem is that most people, including many clergy, don’t really know 10% of what they think they know about Vatican II.  And that probably includes the members of the SSPX.

    Vatican II, taken in a traditional sense, was much more minor than many of the other councils.  It didn’t define doctrine like the early ones—Nicea, Constantinople, Ephesus, Chalcedon, etc.  It wasn’t as important as Trent, which was a major teaching and correctional council.

    There have been councils of which parts were “de-emphasized” in the past (Constance & Basle), even if the whole council was not refuted. It could happen to V2 when the timeliness of certain parts of it is past.  Much of that council was very much cued to the 20th century, you realize.

    The common simple notion that it’s either V2 or the SSPX that goes just isn’t realistic.  There is plenty of room, if only because the SSPX was reacting to the forceful thrust of the “Spirit of Vatican II.”  We all know about that, right?
    Vatican II was hugely distorted and misapplied.  I don’t think that there are a lot of knowledgable people who would deny that now. 

    To the degree that discussion involves the actual documents of V2, and not the “Spirit of Vatican 2” and the 20th century-bound material is not invoked, I think there’s lots of room for discussion with the SSPX.

  • And even more to the point, if the discussion involves the traditional doctrine and teaching of the church, with the *real* V2 integrated into it, in its proper place, I am very sure that many SSPXers would have no more objection to it than any of us.  That point has to be skillfully made and Benedict XVI is the best man on earth to do it, if it’s going to happen.

    The problem with the SSPX was panic over the huge distortion of V2 and the seeming hopelessness of the situation in 1989.  Remember 1989?  It looked like the Church was going to hell in a handbasket in 1989.  There was literally no light at the end of the tunnel.  I remember—that was just about the time I realized what a mess the Church was in, after converting in 1985 and watching for a while.
    The panic was that there seemed to be no recourse whatsoever—no help from Rome, nothing.

    This was the genesis of the deep trust problem that set off the SSPX.

  • Maybe so, Michigan, but ecumenism is still a thorny problem in negotiations with the SSPX.  That is not nearly as easy to skirt given the thrust of the last and current Papacy.  I don’t think there is a snowball’s chance that Benedict would retreat in this area in order to accomplish a reconciliation with the SSPX.

  • This has been interesting to read the whole thread at once.

    The question of the holy father and canon law is interesting. He’s not tied down to a procrustean bed, but he does have to be mindful of precedent; hence, if necessary, find a way not to set one he doesn’t want to rue in years to come.

    Is there any chance SSPX would acknowledge any wrongdoing—or shall we say, imprudence or impetuosity? It’s sort of like the sacrament of penance: the “matter” of the sacrament is admission of some wrongdoing; if someone comes to me and confesses nothing—not even a past sin—it’s rather awkward: what shall I absolve?

    I said it’s like—I’m not trying to make an accusation against SSPX, or cast the society as the villain. My point is that in lifting the excommunication, the holy father would not want to suggest anything negative about his predecessor.

    If I may, it does seem to me that were the SSPX to say, “yes, it wasn’t nice of us to go ahead with the episcopal ordinations,” that would surely be enough. Even something implicit along those lines would be gracious.

    I agree with whoever spoke of trust. That is the key.

    Ut Unum Sint talks about the importance of “dialogue of charity.</i> Surely that would be appropriate here.

    Someone spoke about SSPX folks “being treated like dirt.” Certainly I can think of priests and lay folks who are very negative toward Traditionalists, although in my seminary training, the whole matter was dealt with delicately.

    Meanwhile, there is some bile and lack of charity from the Traditionalist camp that is unhelpful; it appears some at the top of SSPX are attentive to this. I’m guessing this may be one reason SSPV folks didn’t find a home in SSPX, but that’s more than I know.

    In any case, this may be the moment, and it may be well to stop keeping score of hurts and grievances.