VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis’ decision to approve a way for the Church to recognize marriages celebrated by priests of the traditionalist Society of St. Pius X is a helpful step toward the priestly fraternity reconciling with Rome, but full communion is most probably still some way off.
This is according to sources both inside the Vatican and the priestly fraternity who, in April 6 comments to the Register, said that the Pope’s decision, made in a March 27 letter to the SSPX and publicized April 4, is not a sign of acceleration toward an agreement.
Rather, they believe it paves the way to creating a possible canonical structure to allow the society to come into full communion in the future.
In the letter from the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei — the Vatican body charged with regularizing the SSPX with Rome — the Pope gave diocesan bishops, or other local ordinaries, the authorization to grant SSPX priests the ability to licitly and validly celebrate the marriages of faithful belonging to the society.
The authorization is granted under the condition that a diocesan, or otherwise fully regular, priest is delegated to hear and receive the consent of the parties during the marriage rite itself, which can then be followed by the celebration of the liturgy by a priest of the society.
The Holy Father approved this authorization following a proposal by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and the Ecclesia Dei commission, as a way to ensure the validity and lawfulness of the sacrament and to “reassure the conscience of the faithful,” the commission’s letter explains.
“Despite the objective persistence of the canonical irregularity in which for the time being the Society of St. Pius X finds itself, the Holy Father … 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,” the letter states.
If the first provision is not possible, or if no priests of the diocese are able to receive the consent of those marrying, then the local ordinary, most commonly the bishop of the area, may then grant the priest of the society presiding over the Mass the necessary faculties to receive the consent in the marriage rite.
In this case, the priest of the society is obliged to then send the relevant documents to the diocesan Curia as soon as possible.
The signatories of the letter — Cardinal Gerhard Müller, prefect of the congregation, and Archbishop Guido Pozzo, secretary of the commission — explained the effort is part of the Church’s current efforts “to bring the Society of St. Pius X into full communion.”
In April 6 comments to the Register, Archbishop Pozzo explained that the measure aims to “avoid doubts” about the validity of marriages celebrated by SSPX priests. For Catholics, he added, “Marriage always demands respect for the canonical form” and, in so doing, a “special attention” to the bonum matrimonii [goods of marriage], which is a right of the Catholic faithful.”
Affirming the validity of SSPX marriages follows the Pope’s decision in 2015 to grant society priests faculties for absolving sins — a move also seen as furthering the reconciliation process.
“This is the second of these initiatives; it’s another piece of candy,” said a Vatican official close to the discussions.
In an April 4 statement, the SSPX expressed its “deep gratitude” to the Holy Father for his decision, adding that it shows the Pope wants to eradicate any doubts about the validity of the sacrament of marriage celebrated by a society priest. The SSPX added in the statement that it hopes all bishops “share this same pastoral attitude” — an indication that it foresees possible obstructions from some ordinaries unwilling to cooperate with them.
Unlike the Pope’s decision on the validity of SSPX confessions, this step is less straightforward to implement, as it requires SSPX priests contacting their local dioceses to receive the necessary jurisdiction.
The society, which only found out about the March 27 letter at the same time as everyone else, is therefore taking a “wait-and-see” attitude to see how extensive that level of cooperation will be.
In recognition of the current crisis in the Church concerning the indissolubility of marriage, the society ended its statement by stressing that its priests will continue to “strive faithfully” to prepare future spouses for marriage “according to the unchangeable doctrine of Christ about the unity and indissolubility of this union, before receiving the parties’ consent in the traditional rite of the Holy Church.”
The society wanted to stress that, whatever the current situation, its priests will continue to uphold the sanctity and indissolubility of marriage.
The Society of St. Pius X was founded by Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre in 1970 in response to opposition to certain teachings of the Second Vatican Council. Its communion with Rome was impaired when the SSPX’s leadership consecrated four bishops without the permission of Pope John Paul II in 1988.
The bishops were consequently excommunicated until Benedict XVI lifted the penalty in 2009, after which talks began on bringing the society back into “full communion” with Rome. Those talks ended in 2013 due to the society’s inability to accept the Vatican terms of an agreement, one that insisted on accepting the teachings of the Second Vatican Council, but informal discussions have continued.
The main obstacles for the society’s reconciliation have been the statements on religious liberty in Vatican II’s declarations Dignitatis Humanae (The Right of the Person and of Communities to Social and Civil Freedom in Matters Religious) and Nostra Aetate (The Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions), which the SSPX says contradict previous Catholic teaching.
The Vatican’s insistence on the SSPX adhering to the Council’s teaching appears unchanged: Archbishop Pozzo told the Register that in order to achieve full reconciliation, the superior general of the SSPX, currently Swiss Bishop Bernard Fellay, “must sign the doctrinal declaration” that the Holy See has asked the fraternity to accept. But he also said the fraternity must be able to “fully safeguard” its “spiritual, disciplinary, theological and pastoral identity,” which will come through the “development of its particular legal statutes” necessary for the creation of a personal prelature — a proposed canonical structure, similar to that of Opus Dei, which would enable the fraternity to operate within a Catholic diocese.
Archbishop Pozzo said he hopes such circumstances and the creation of a personal prelature “will happen soon.”
Sources in both the Vatican and the SSPX, however, say that reconciliation will take some time, and certainly won’t be achieved until after the summer, at the earliest. For the society, a final obstacle concerns modifications, safeguards and clarifications they have requested concerning the canonical structure, but which they have yet to receive. They also say the speed at which an agreement can be made depends on the determination of the Pope.
The Vatican recognizes that delays revolve around questions of “confidence and trust,” as well as finalizing the “mechanics and fine tuning” of a final agreement. Holy See officials see themselves as presenting an “open door” to the society, offering everything they can to realize an agreement.
Sources in the SSPX, speaking on the record only on the condition they would remain anonymous, told the Register they have witnessed greater outreach from the Vatican as internal conflicts deepen, especially concerning ambiguities in the Pope’s apostolic exhortation on the family, Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love). Cardinal Müller, said one, is “more open to solutions” than before and now “seeing us more as allies than enemies.”
Another obstacle, one the society readily admits, is whether it can maintain a united front. Opinions differ over whether now is a prudent time to be regularized, although the general consensus is that most will accept the prelature proposal.
A further concern in the society is that reconciliation is a trap, one aimed at silencing the priestly fraternity and weakening its influence. But the Register understands this is not Bishop Fellay’s view, who is insisting, in the talks, on the freedom to continue to speak up.
One factor heightening fears of a potential snare is the lack of opposition from those in the Church averse to more traditional practices of the faith. So far, contrary voices have been practically silent, although recent allegations that four cases of clerical sex abuse within the fraternity were covered up are being viewed by the society as an effort to derail the talks.
Sources in the society insist there were no “cover-ups” and that the four cases, involving abuse of 12 minors over three decades, were handled “carefully and prudently.” They believe the allegations, broadcast on Swedish television’s Uppdrag Granskning program — the same program that aired a highly inflammatory interview in 2009 with former SSPX bishop Richard Williamson — are being highlighted as part of an attack on the Church and the Pope and, as with the Williamson interview, are aimed at trying to thwart SSPX-Vatican reconciliation.
Overall, however, both sides remain optimistic about a resolution, with Ecclesia Dei the more enthusiastic of the two about the prospects.
The society, meanwhile, is moving cautiously, believing a solution could appear relatively soon, but conscious that some crucial issues still need to be finalized.
Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.