Questions of Authority Bedevil Breakaway Traditionalists

VATICAN CITY — The breakaway Society of St. Pius X, a traditionalist ecclesiastical group not officially recognized by Rome, is suffering its own crisis of authority.

Its leader, Bishop Bernard Fellay, sanctioned two priests after they criticized the conditions of the society's main seminary in Econe, Switzerland.

The two priests also drew attention to what they said was a high number of seminarians who fail to go on to ordination.

In response, Bishop Fellay dismissed both priests from their posts and ordered one of them, Father Philippe Laguerie, to transfer to Mexico. The French priest refused and consequently was expelled from the society.

Speaking to the Register, Bishop Fellay played down talk of a crisis and assigned all blame to Father Laguerie. “He sent a number of priests a very bad, dirty document that was defamatory with the purpose of deposing a rector by claiming that his seminary is badly run,” he said.

Bishop Fellay added that, as far as he was concerned, Father Laguerie was conducting “subversive, revolutionary” activities and producing false statistics that created turmoil and split the society. “(This) finally led or obliged me to act because things went really wild,” he said.

Father Laguerie, who still considers himself a member of the society, repeated his assertions to the Register, saying the society's seminary and vocation situation is “catastrophic” and that Bishop Fellay is engaged in an unjustified exercise of power to stifle criticism.

“If anyone criticizes the seminary, they are severely sanctioned,” he said. “I believe all the other (St. Pius X) priests in France agree with my criticisms.”

The second priest, who the society would not name, was expelled for being the “adviser” to Father Laguerie.

Bishop Fellay dismissed accusations that he was too severe on the priests as “ridiculous.”

“We are a Church society that is, of course, led by obedience, and a transfer is something that is absolutely normal,” he said.

This is apparently the first time that priests have been expelled from the organization founded by the late Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre in the early 1970s.

The society, in its current form for 16 years, aims to hold on to traditions of the Church as they existed before the Second Vatican Council. It opposes post-conciliar developments and, in particular, refuses to accept liturgical changes made after 1962. Other objections include the current form of ecumenism, which Bishop Fellay believes is weakening the faith.


In 1988, the society precipitated an open break with Rome when Archbishop Lefebvre ordained four bishops without the Vatican's permission. In a document issued “motu proprio” (on his own initiative) and entitled Ecclesia Dei Adflicta, Pope John Paul II condemned the consecrations as schismatic and, under Canon Law 1382, excommunicated Archbishop Lefebvre and the four bishops, one of whom was Bishop Fellay.

Several attempts have been made to reconcile the society with Rome. The most recent talks in 2000 ended in failure after the Vatican refused to accept two of the society's demands: to allow all priests to celebrate the Latin Rite Tridentine Mass and to lift the excommunication order upon the four bishops.

The society does not, however, consider itself in schism, but rather obedient to the pre-conciliar Church. This also means that when Father Laguerie wanted to appeal Bishop Fellay's decision, Bishop Fellay said he was unable to arrange a tribunal to hear it.

“The head is Rome,” the Swiss bishop said. “I cannot invent an instance of appeal [i.e. an appellate court] because I would just replace Rome, and that would mean we would go into schism.”

From Rome's point of view, the society is already exhibiting many of the characteristics of schism. John Loughnan, a former member of the society, wrote to the Vatican in 1999 seeking clarification regarding its current status. In its response, posted by Loughnan on the Internet, the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei — constituted in 1988 by the Pope to handle subsequent dealings with St. Pius X adherents — said all of the society's priests remain suspended a divinis. This means that while their ordinations are recognized as valid, they are forbidden to celebrate the sacraments.

The pontifical commission stated that while a lay person's attendance at an invalid St. Pius X Mass “does not of itself constitute ‘formal adherence to the schism,’ such adherence can come over a period of time as one slowly imbibes a schismatic mentality which separates itself from the teaching of the Supreme Pontiff and the entire Catholic Church.”

Authority Problem

Right now, the St. Pius X society is displaying a primary characteristic of schismatics — ongoing problems with authority that often accompany rejection of Rome's leadership. Indeed, both Father Laguerie and Bishop Fellay cite authority as the leading cause of their dispute: The priest accuses the bishop of abusing it, while the bishop blames the priest for refusing to accept it.

Further evidence of problems with authority has been reported in the U.S. Society of Pius X, where small, unattached congregations are reported to have formed. Bishop Fellay denied this claim and said he was “not aware” of any current problems in the United States. “I think we've got fairly good stability,” he said.

This is not the impression of the Vatican, which believes the society is already in a grave situation. Could it be encountering such problems because the society is unwilling to accept the supreme authority of the Catholic Church? “It's not the same,” countered Bishop Fellay. “It's because we want to stay Catholic, to stay obedient to what the Church has always commanded, that we are in the situation in which to we are.”

John Paul's 1988 motu proprio, which remains the last definitive Church statement on the matter, asserted that the problem lies in the society's disobedience, not its self-proclaimed obedience.

The Pope wrote, “The root of this schismatic act can be discerned in an incomplete and contradictory notion of Tradition … especially contradictory is a notion of Tradition which opposes the universal Magisterium of the Church possessed by the Bishop of Rome and the Body of Bishops” (no. 4).

The Holy Father added, “It is impossible to remain faithful to the Tradition while breaking the ecclesial bond with him to whom, in the person of the Apostle Peter, Christ himself entrusted the ministry of unity in his Church.”

Edward Pentin writes from Rome.