Disclaimer: This article will discuss the canonical status and licities of the Society of Saint Pius X (SSPX). This article will not address the recent accusations of Church Militant against the SSPX, or their response.
When people think of the SSPX, they have many objections. They are called schismatics, sedevacantists, heretics, apostates, excommunicated, and every other canonical term possible with no basis. Here I wish to inform and discuss whether the SSPX sacraments are valid, licit, and whether we as faithful Catholics may attend their Masses. Many dismiss the Society as a whole due to the excommunication of the Superior General, the late Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, and subsequently the 4 bishops he consecrated, in 1988 when the Archbishop consecrated 4 bishops without the permission of Rome. Pope Saint John Paul II stated that the 5 had received an excommunication “latae sententiae” by the act of the consecration. These excommunications were lifted by Pope Benedict XVI on January 21, 2009, in a document which can be found here.
The stance of the Society is that these excommunications never were actually procured by the 5 bishops. This is because of Canon 1323 of the Code of Canon Law. This Canon, seen below, lays out all the pretenses which would not allow an individual to receive an excommunication for violating a law, like consecrating a bishop without papal permission. Those which are bolded apply to this situation.
Can. 1323 The following are not subject to a penalty when they have violated a law or precept:
Archbishop Lefebvre clearly had stated multiple times that in his old age, he was worried that the Society would collapse with no bishop to ordain priests after his death. He also believed that without the SSPX continuing to hold true to the Traditional Latin Mass, souls would be lost, and the Church itself would be harmed. Because of this, Lefebvre acted out of fear. Whether or not there actually was a danger is up for debate, but because Lefebvre believed it to be true, the 7th bullet point of Canon 1323 applies, and Lefebvre, and subsequently the 4 other bishops, could not receive an excommunication for the consecrations.
Another point many people take against the SSPX are the absurd accusations. Some say they are sedevacantists, or do not believe Francis to be Pope, or that they believe the Novus Ordo Missae to be invalid. Both of these are outrageous accusations with no grounds in truth. Every SSPX chapel, mission, priory, and seminary has a large image of Pope Francis, just like in previous times they had images of Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Saint John Paul II, in every sacristy in every church. Every Mass said by a Society priest is said with the name of the Pope and the local Bishop of the diocese the Mass is said in, in the Canon of the Mass.
Many people take a quote from Pope Benedict XVI to discredit the SSPX. The quote as often translated in English is “the Society has no canonical status in the Church and its ministers, even though they have been freed of all ecclesiastical penalty, have no legitimate ministry in the Church.” This is a poor translation of Latin into English, which absolutely distorts the meaning of this text. The Latin, “et eius ministri nullum ministerium legitime agere possunt,” does not mean “legitimate” in the way we use the word in English. This refers to the structure of the SSPX and having no canonical status, which does not mean their Masses are invalid or illicit.
But even if you disagree with the correct translation of that quote, that was in 2009. Things have changed in the last 11 years. Pope Francis in his Apostolic Letter Misericordia et misera extended jurisdiction for SSPX priests to hear confessions validly and licitly, which still applies today. Later Pope Francis and the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei instructed Bishops to, with prudence, extend faculties for valid and licit marriages to SSPX priests working within their dioceses.
Now we must ask ourselves, why would a Pope give faculties for confession validly and licitly, as well as asking for marriage jurisdiction to be extended, to a group of priests to whom we cannot attend their Masses? He wouldn't. This was reinforced later by Msgr. Camille Perl, the Secretary of the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei on May 28, 1996 in a letter and repeated in Protocol No. 236/98 on March 6, 1998: “In the strict sense you may fulfill your Sunday obligation by attending a Mass celebrated by a priest of the Society of Saint Pius X. ...If your intention is simply to participate in Mass according to the 1962 Missal for the sake of devotion, this would not be a sin. It would seem that a modest contribution to the collection at Mass could be justified.” This is a letter directly from a Pontifical Commission saying we may attend SSPX Masses to fulfill our Sunday obligation, but there is even more to it. The Monsignor says “It would seem that a modest contribution to the collection at Mass could be justified.” This is not to be taken lightly. To give to a non-Catholic collection would not be allowed, so to allow this proves that the SSPX is Catholic, as we may attend their Masses, allowed by a letter of the Pope’s commission. Popes have also allowed a Bishop of Switzerland as well as an entire order of Nuns to be incardinated into the SSPX, which would not be possible if the Society was not fully Catholic.
If you have any questions, concerns, or disagreements with what I have written here, please contact me at my email here, or the SSPX U.S. District here.