The pope has never suppressed the SSPX: only the pope, not a local bishop, has the authority to suppress a religious order (1917 Code of Canon Law, canon 493 and 1983 Code of Canon Law, canon 616).
The SSPX is canonically founded.
Several French bishops attack the Society as "sauvage" (renegade). One of them, Pope Paul VI’s Secretary of State, Cardinal Villot, deceives the Holy Father into believing Archbishop Lefebvre had his priests sign a declaration against the pope (Archbishop Lefebvre, Fideliter, no. 59, pp. 68-70).
An apostolic visitation of the seminary at Econe takes place (this is in itself normal procedure; its conclusions, though never published, were “very favorable,” according to Cardinal Garonne, “except that you don’t use the new liturgy, and there’s a somewhat anti-conciliar spirit there.”) The visitors, however, disturb those at the seminary by their expression of highly unorthodox views, prompting Archbishop Lefebvre’s so-called Declaration.
Archbishop Lefebvre meets with an improvised commission of three cardinals, allegedly to discuss the Apostolic Visitation, but ends defending his Declaration against the cardinals’ severe criticism. Having been given no warning as to the primary subject of these meetings, he has no lawyer, and is never allowed a copy of the recorded meetings, even though it was promised him.
The irregular commission writes Bishop Mamie at Fribourg telling him to withdraw his predecessor’s approval of the Society, which is beyond his canonical power (once the bishop has approved a religious congregation, only the pope can suppress it: 1917 Code of Canon Law, canon 493 and 1983 Code of Canon Law, canon 616).
Archbishop Lefebvre submits an appeal to the Apostolic Signature in Rome, in substance:
...it would be for the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to determine whether my Declaration were at fault. Please provide evidence that this commission of cardinals had been expressly mandated by the pope (who by his own authority can bypass the Congregations) to decide as has been done.* And if I be at fault, of course I can be censured, but not the Society which was founded in due canonical form."
*This evidence was never produced.
Cardinal Villot arranges that the appeal is not accepted. Cardinal Staffa is threatened with dismissal if he dare to accept an appeal from Archbishop Lefebvre. (Vatican Encounter, pp. 85 and 191)
Pope Paul VI is convinced to write to Archbishop Lefebvre that he approved of all the actions of the commission of cardinals. It is impossible, however that papal approbation in June could empower this commission which had met the previous February.
On this whole process, Archbishop Lefebvre observes:
...we have been condemned, without trial, without opportunity to defend ourselves, without due warning or written process and without appeal. (Open Letter to Confused Catholics, p. 150)
Over and above the canonical question, there remains that of common sense: whether one must observe a censure when no crime can be pointed out, or when the identity or authority of the judge is unsure.
Read more: Legal existence of SSPX >
Get the book: Most Asked Questions about the SSPX>