Reaching out to the SSPX

May 2nd, 2009 | By | Category: Blog Posts

I’m sure much of our readership is aware of the recent lifting of the excommunications of the four bishops ordained by Archbishop Marcelle Lefebvre under the auspices of the Society of St. Pius the Tenth (SSPX). For those totally unfamiliar, I believe the Pope’s letter on the subject explains the situation quite adequately.

These bishops were ordained in the SSPX to serve the Traditional Latin Mass at a time when it seemed that rite might be dying out after the Second Vatican Council. The problem was that they were ordained without the approval of Rome, which incurred on Archbishop Lefebvre and the Bishops he was ordaining a latae sententiae excommunication. The SSPX remained Catholic and believes all Catholic dogma, but they were operating illicitly without Rome’s permission and thus had no official authority or standing in the Church.

But now, in a move toward reconciliation with the hundreds of thousands of Catholics in this awkward position, the Church has decided to lift the excommunications from these bishops. This does not regularize the SSPX, nor does it give these bishops any jurisdiction within the Church.

It merely makes them able to come to communion with the rest of the Church and opens the door to receiving the SSPX into full communion with the Catholic Church.

Of course, there was also the wrinkle of Bishop Williamson, one of the four bishops who only weeks before the Pope’s announcement was filmed making comments questioning the accepted number of, and methods by which, Jews were killed by Hitler during WWII.

This led a number of liberal Catholics, Jews and other groups to criticize the Pope’s action. In their opinion the Pope’s act of reaching out to what they perceive to be right-wing nut jobs was an insult to them. I believe there is more to it than that, and we’ll get into why below.

With that in mind, there are three issues I think are pertinent to the discussion between Reformed Protestants and Catholics that are made apparent by this move on Rome’s part.

The Church Has a Passionate Heart for Reunion

The Catholic Church loves all her separated children, just like any parent cares for their children who stray. As Pope John Paul II, may his memory be eternal, put it, the Church is “irrevocably committed” to the union of all Christians.

In like manner, Pope Benedict has chosen to go find the lost sheep of the SSPX even at the expense of losing favor in the minds of liberal Catholics, Jews and the secular world.

It should be noted, and is apparent in his letter linked above, that his heart was broken by this misapprehension of his intentions by the aforementioned groups. He longs for reconciliation with them just as fervently as he does with the SSPX.

His highest priority is the unification of the Church and he doesn’t care if he looks as crazy as a man scouring the wilderness trying to find a lost sheep. He must find his children and bring them back, and God help him, he will.

This hits home with our protestant brothers because this is a unique feature of the Catholic Church. As the history of the Presbyterian communions in America plainly attests, dividing is almost part of the essence of protestantism.

The Orthodox Presbyterians are not seeking to reunite with the Presbyterian Church of America, nor is there a reunion afoot between the Presbyterian Church of America and the Presbyterian Church USA. These divisions are almost a comfortable part of their identities.

But the Catholic Church cannot remain divided. It is a critical part of her mission to foster unity between all Christians. Reaching out to the SSPX is just one example of how the Church is unwilling that any Christians should remain separated, even if those Christians were in the wrong when they separated.

Similar efforts can be seen in the communication between Rome and the Orthodox in recent years, which have been very fruitful. Our last two Pope’s have also made great progress in understanding and entering into dialog with protestants. I know of no reformed denomination that is actively seeking to reunite with Rome in any serious fashion.

The Church Pursues a Practical and Humble Path to Reunion

The Catholic Church realizes that she must pursue the nearest and most expedient paths to reunion before attempting to bridge gaps that will take centuries to heal.

It is a very practical concern to heal divisions within the Catholic Church before we go trying to bring Christians who repudiate Rome’s authority into communion.

I believe the Pope chose to work for reunion with the SSPX because they are a low-lying fruit. They love the Catholic Church, its history and liturgy, its structure and its source.

They want to be Catholic, so it’s naturally easier to reconcile them than it is to reconcile groups that believe the Catholic Church to be heretical.

The fact that the Pope was willing to make this gesture even in light of the SSPX’s continued and recent criticisms of the post Vatican II Church and recent Popes reveals a striking degree of humility.

The SSPX was in the wrong from the beginning and is still wrong on some issues, but the Pope realizes that it is not the proud posturing of being “in the right”, but rather the spirit of humble fatherly love that will bring them back into full communion.

The Church has a Fundamental Concern for the Reformation of the Liturgy

The purpose of the SSPX from the beginning was the preservation of a reverent liturgy. It is no mistake that this Pope, who has such a love for true reverence and propriety in the Liturgy has held out the olive branch to a group whose whole existence rests in respect for these very issues.

In fact, one of the significant barriers to full communion was removed when Pope Benedict removed all restrictions on the celebration of the Traditional Latin Mass a few years ago.

Pope Benedict is seeking to bring the excesses committed in the name of the Second Vatican Council into balance. He has restored the practices of kneeling for Holy Communion and receiving on the tongue in his own liturgies and is making an example of what a reverent liturgy looks like in the way he celebrates Mass.

The pursuit of the SSPX clearly displays that this Pope is very concerned with restoring such reverent worship to the high place of honor where it belongs.

Again, this is of particular interest to our reformed brothers who do hold proper, reverent worship in very high regard.

I have spoken with many reformed folk who feel that, based on their experience of Catholic liturgy in the Novus Ordo Missae, their own community worships God more reverently and beautifully, so what interest would they have in becoming Catholic?

This is unfortunately often an apt criticism, but the state of liturgy in the Catholic Church in America is not historically how it has been, nor will it remain as it is now.

I hope our reformed brothers are compelled by the Pope’s concern for right worship and his efforts to promote it in the Catholic Church.

It is the fervent hope of all Catholics, and especially former protestants like the authors of Called to Communion, that one day we will be fully reunited with our protestant brothers. I pray that this small example of the Catholic Church’s heart for reconciliation among Christians will be the impetus for further growth in the unity of the Body of Christ.

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16 comments
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  1. It would be helpful to see some articles about Vatican II and how it isn’t a decisive break from the Catholic tradition, particularly in the area of ecclesiology.

  2. Where, exactly, do you think Vatican II breaks from Catholic tradition? What I mean is, which paragraphs/decrees, reverse something or break with tradition?

  3. I don’t mean to say that I personally hold this position, but I’ve heard it leveled at the Catholic Church by Protestants as well as very traditionalist Catholics (like Sungenis, whose apologetic material I found helpful. I later found out that he is a sedevacantist).

    But more specifically…I guess I’m talking about documents like Lumen Gentium…statements that the Muslims are somehow part of the “plan of salvation,” how people can be saved without being united to the Roman Pontiff (I’ve seen people point to the Unam Sanctam document for this). Do you know the kind of stuff I’m talking about?

  4. David.

    I could be wrong because I don’t follow this stuff too closely but I don’t think Sungenis is a sedavacantist. On his website he has several debates against that position. I also don’t think I’ve ever seen him claim that V2 changed anything.

    The short answer to your question is that V2 itself does not teach that muslims are saved or that people can ordinarily be saved without being united to the Church. I’ve read Lumen Gentium and Unam Sanctum dozens of times and that teaching isn’t there. There is a faction, however, that uses what they see as liberty due to the imaginary “spirit of Vatican Two” (not the Holy Spirit) to promulgate teaching contrary to the church. But this is not the because of something the council produced.

    I consider Vatican 2 a treasure of the church, rightly understood.

  5. Sungenis is not a sede. I know, because I once was and know all those guys. I was in with Matatics, who still is sede. The answer to the SSPX (having formerly attended their masses for 3 years) and Vatican II is in the East. Once a Latin-minded-only trad sees what is in Eastern theology, he can then grasp Vatican II. Great article.

    -Jay

  6. David,

    I think Jay’s right, I found articles from Sungenis strongly opposed to Sedevacantism at least as recent as 2006. I was, however, greatly disappointed to find out that Matatics had gone Sedevancantist because his apologetic work was immensely helpful to me in my conversion.

    On the Vatican II issue, I think you’re right, that could warrant a whole series of posts down the line. I know many reformed folks who feel the Catholic Church went “liberal” at Vat. II because of something they read or think they read (or just heard someone claim) from Lumen Gentium or Nostra Aetatae.

    The sad thing is two-fold: First, the council added no dogmatic teaching. What was required of all Catholics to believe the day before the council convened and what is required of all Catholics to believe to this very day is exactly the same. Second, both of the documents above are completely orthodox. The liberalism was not in the documents the council produced, but in the world and Church that received them.

    I could count on my fingers the Catholic parishes I’ve been to that actually follow the Council’s instructions about communion in the hand or the use of the chalice or extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist. I wouldn’t be surprised if many priests are unfamiliar with these rules. But that’s not the council’s fault. It’s an epic catechesis fail, but that’s another issue entirely.

    All that is to say, the Catholic Church is the Catholic Church, always has been and always will be. Vat. II didn’t make the Church into something new. If you’re running into people claiming otherwise, I would do as Sean did and ask them to cite actual passages from the actual council, in context, that teach anything different than what the Church has always taught.

  7. Oops! Matt, thank you! I meant Matatics, not Sungenis. Sorry for the confusion.

  8. David,

    I have also been thinking about the relation of Unam Sanctum and Lumen Gentium and other authoritative teachings that might appear to be at odds one with another. I attempted to formulate these thoughts here (especially with reference to the doctrine of “no salvation outside the church”).

    In the immediate aftermath of the Council, the Church has been beset with confusion and controversy. But the same was true after Nicea 1. In fact, I cannot think of a Council whose teachings were universally received. One could say that a mark of an Ecumenical Council is that it is followed by dissent and schism.

  9. Andrew,

    They are not out of line, as the Church has always affirmed baptism of desire and that Christ is united to all men via the Incarnation, both of which truths account for the ability of all men to be united to the Church, safeguarding the principle that no one is saved outside the Church. It is rather that people are united to the Chuch in various ways.

    -Jay

  10. “R. Sungenis: First, let me say that I also disagree with the SSPX’s decision not to submit to the juridical decision of the pope. I also do not believe a pope loses his office for private heresy. I have written about both these issues on our website.”

    -From his debate with Larson.

  11. Matt,

    I have spoken with many reformed folk who feel that, based on their experience of Catholic liturgy in the Novus Ordo Missae, their own community worships God more reverently and beautifully, so what interest would they have in becoming Catholic?

    I understand that sentiment. If reverence and beauty were the essence of Christian worship, the persons who say the line above would have a good argument. Yet schism cannot be justified by lack of reverence and beauty in worship, because two wrongs don’t make a right. How could reverent and beautiful worship be pleasing to God while we were disobeying the apostolic command that there be no divisions among us (1 Cor 1:10)? Worship is not ultimately about what we want. Does God want people to form (or maintain) a schism, so that He can receive reverent and beautiful worship from schismatics? Definitely not. If the Church needs reform, then the Church should be reformed while being faithfully united to her. People tend to think of the Counter-Reformation as merely a movement opposing the Reformation. But that’s not accurate. Perhaps the primary difference between the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation is that the former attempted to reform the Church by leaving the Church, while the latter reformed the Church while remaining faithfully within her. To worship God as He is due, we must at least be in full communion with the Church that He founded. That is more fundamentally important than the degree of reverence and beauty in worship. Better to be in full communion, even if the beauty and reverence in worship is deficient, than to enjoy reverence and beauty in worship but be in schism from the Church Christ founded.

    In the peace of Christ,

    – Bryan

  12. Operating outside canonical norms can be justified, especially if the local Bishop is a notorious promoter of heresy, diocesan masses are of doubtful validity and nothing gets doen about it. No one is obligated to be in communion with heretics and notorious pedophiles/occultists.

    -Jay

  13. It’s not just a question of beauty and reverence. Many Novus Ordo masses have been of doubtful validity and are pure sacrilege.

  14. Jay,

    Schism is an intrinsic evil, and therefore can never be justified. As St. Augustine said, “There is nothing more serious than the sacrilege of schism; there can never be any just need for severing unity.” We may never do evil that good may come about, and therefore we may never form or enter or perpetuate a schism, even to bring about some good. Of course we are not obligated to be in communion with heretics as such, but because schism is an intrinsic evil, we may not form a schism if such heretics are allowed to remain in the Church. And so accidentally, in such cases, we are obligated to be remain in communion with them, by remaining in communion with the Church.

    In the peace of Christ,

    – Bryan

  15. Bryan,

    I am aware of those facts. In the instances I gave, it is the bishops/priests who are the schismatics, not the faithful who desire a true mass.

    -Jay

  16. No one is obligated, and in fact it is the opposite–we are obligated to not remain in communion with schismatics or heretics. This is why canon law (both old and new) and the Church’s teaching on the nature of the Church itself, are that heretics and schismatics cease to be members of the Church, ipso facto, and lose all jurisdiction. This is why it has been permitted to receieve communion in extremis from the SSPX when no other options exist (but a Catholic is not to support them).

    -Jay

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