The Situation of SSPX Marriages Today - Part 3 of Canon Law Series on Marriage

August 23, 2017
Source: District of the USA

Part three of the following theological and canonical study, prepared by Fr. Knittel, addresses the attitude of the Church toward marriages celebrated by the SSPX. 

In particular, in this closing segment of Father’s study, he addresses the shift in the Church’s official attitude toward the Society, including the recent allowance for local ordinaries to grant faculties to SSPX priests to celebrate marriages licitly and validly.

Review Part 1 of this series
Review Part 2 of this series

A Logic of Acceptance 

The letter dated March 27, 2017, from the Ecclesia Dei Commission concerning marriages celebrated by the priests of the SSPX is situated simultaneously in a doctrinal and canonical context and in an historical context. Having recalled this twofold context, we now examine the contents of the document.

During the 1970s and 80s, relations between the Vatican and the SSPX were dominated by a logic of confrontation. Although it had been erected canonically on November 1, 1970, by Bishop Charrière, the work of Archbishop Lefebvre was deprived of that recognition by Bishop Mamie on May 6, 1975.

  • First consequence: the ordination of the seminarians was deemed illicit and the ordinands were threatened with suspension a divinis.
  • Second consequence: no diocesan bishop entrusted an apostolate to these priests who were reputedly irregular.
  • Third consequence: the ministry that these priests conducted was considered illicit.

Since the election of Pope Francis, the authorities of the Church have changed their approach. Without going over the past again, the Church authorities have gradually recognized the liceity and the validity of the ministry performed by the priests of the SSPX.

First, Confession:

Through my own disposition, I establish that those who during the Holy Year of Mercy approach these priests of the Fraternity of Saint Pius X to celebrate the Sacrament of Reconciliation shall validly and licitly receive the absolution of their sins” (Francis, Letter to Archbishop Fisichella, September 1, 2015).

These arrangements were extended beyond the Year of Mercy:

For the pastoral benefit of these faithful, and trusting in the good will of their priests to strive with God’s help for the recovery of full communion in the Catholic Church, I have personally decided to extend this faculty beyond the Jubilee Year, until further provisions are made” (Francis, Apostolic Letter Misericordia et miseria, November 20, 2016, no. 12).

Next, priestly ordination:

This summer it was confirmed that the Superior General can freely ordain the priests of the Society without having to ask permission from the local bishop” (Bishop Fellay, Interview with TV Libertés, January 29, 2017).

Finally, marriage:

Despite the objective persistence of the canonical irregularity in which for the time being the Society of Saint Pius X finds itself, the Holy Father, following a proposal by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei, has decided to authorize Local Ordinaries the possibility to grant faculties for the celebration of marriages of faithful who follow the pastoral activity of the Society” (Ecclesia Dei Commission, Letter to Ordinaries, March 27, 2017).

A logic of confrontation is giving way to a logic of acceptance in which the mere appearance of canonical irregularity is not enough to vitiate the ordinations performed by the bishops of the Society nor disqualify the ministry performed by its priests. 

Gerhard Cardinal L. Müller, Prefect Emeritus of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, who signed the Ecclesia Dei letter.

The Interventions of the Bishops

Wishing to see the diocesan bishops join in this step, the Ecclesia Dei Commission “has decided to authorize Local Ordinaries the possibility to grant faculties for the celebration of marriages of faithful who follow the pastoral activity of the Society” (ibid.). Two situations are considered:

Insofar as possible, the Local Ordinary is to grant the delegation to assist at the marriage to a priest of the Diocese (or in any event, to a fully regular priest), such that the priest may receive the consent of the parties during the marriage rite, followed, in keeping with the liturgy of the Vetus ordo, by the celebration of Mass, which may be celebrated by a priest of the Society.

“Where the above is not possible, or if there are no priests in the Diocese able to receive the consent of the parties, the Ordinary may grant the necessary faculties to the priest of the Society who is also to celebrate the Holy Mass, reminding him of the duty to forward the relevant documents to the Diocesan Curia as soon as possible” (ibid.).

The role attributed to the diocesan bishops in the celebration of marriages by the faithful of the Society may cause astonishment or perhaps uneasiness because the arrangements made by Pope Francis concerning confession did not mention them. How can they be seen as anything but a bad omen for the works of Tradition while at the same time they are being lured with the possibility of a personal prelature?

In truth, Our Lord Jesus Christ founded the Church on the Apostles and the bishops who succeed them. To them the Lord entrusted the mission to teach, sanctify and govern (Mt 28:19). Ordinarily, the apostolate performed by priests who do not belong to the diocese also require the approval of the diocesan bishop. Because of its social dimension, marriage is more directly ordained to the common good of the Church than a sacrament with an individual significance such as Penance. Therefore the celebration of this sacrament is of capital interest to the one who is charged with the common good in the diocese. The recent measures concerning the sacraments administered by the bishops and the priests of the Society of Saint Pius X have a temporary character. If the works of Tradition were to be integrated someday into an episcopal structure, they would then receive from their prelate the authority to hear confessions and to assist at marriages.

An End to the Crisis?

In the wake of the Council, the adoption of the liturgical reform, and adherence to the conciliar novelties were viewed as criteria for catholicity. Unless they conformed to them, the faithful were doomed to second-class citizenship and the priests became targets of canonical censures.

In order to respond to the state of necessity that was thus created, a substitute apostolate was set up by the priests for the benefit of the faithful. This state of necessity started to recede with the Motu proprio dated July 7, 2007, in which Benedict XVI acknowledged that the Traditional Mass had never been abrogated. The decisions by Pope Francis relating to the apostolate of the priests of the SSPX accentuate this trend. Logically, the state of necessity is destined to disappear.

Nevertheless, the crisis raging in the Church is far from finished. The question of the degree of authority of the conciliar documents has not been resolved. The responsibility of Vatican Council II in the acceleration of the crisis remains to be evaluated. The reform of the liturgical reform is not yet in sight. And the apparent authorization to admit divorced-and-remarried persons to Holy Communion under certain circumstances only increases the confusion.

To say that the state of necessity is tending to disappear does not mean that the crisis in the Church is over. The transmission of the faith is still problematic, the liturgy—mutilated, confession—neglected, Holy Communion—demeaned. Moreover, contraception is still practiced, preaching is weak, the priesthood and religious life are anemic. In this regard, the priests of the SSPX—whose apostolate is now recognized—have a position and a know-how that could prove to be invaluable in renewing the Christian spirit throughout the Church.