Fr. Gerald Murray, a canon lawyer and pastor of St. Vincent de Paul Church in New York City explained to CNA this week that the current discussions between the Holy See and the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX) “hold great promise for progress.”
In the latest submission to CNA’s video commentary project, Fr. Murray addressed the origins of the traditionalist society, which was founded in 1970 by Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre in opposition to the teachings of the Second Vatican Council. Then, in 1988, the archbishop ordained four bishops without the requisite permission of the Holy Father.
Following the ordinations, the bishops were excommunicated by then-Pope John Paul II. However, in January 2009, Pope Benedict XVI lifted the excommunication of the SSPX bishops in a decision he hoped would lead to “real and final unity.” “As you know,” noted Fr. Murray, “the Pope remitted the penalty of excommunication which the four ordained bishops had received by automatic censure penalty...which had been declared by the Holy See at the time they were ordained by Archbishop Lefebvre in 1988.”
“Pope Benedict XVI, in his goodness, decided to remit those penalties,” the canon lawyer observed, “but the bishops were not restored to full communion with the Holy See.” This is because, “to receive ordination without the requisite permission is a canonical offense, and the penalty is suspension,” said Fr. Murray. Thus, the bishops, who are no longer excommunicated, are still under the penalty of suspension.
Now that the excommunications have been lifted, the current point of doctrinal contention is the legitimacy of the Second Vatican Council and its teachings, which members of the SSPX do not accept.
The discussions currently underway, with meetings in Rome every two months, are attempting to resolve the canonical status of the priests and bishops, as well as of the lay faithful, who are a part of the society. Though they do not accept the legitimacy of the council, Fr. Murray stated, “The Lefebrvite faithful, by their own admission, recognize Pope Benedict XVI as a legitimate pastor of the church, but in practice, the failure to submit to the Pope and the bishops in communion is an obstacle to them being at full visible communion with the church.”
Though the SSPX’s bishop Richard Williamson has called the consultations a “dialogue of the deaf,” Fr. Murray said that he thinks “these discussions hold great promise for progress.” He also noted that, though there is no official word of progress yet, the participants on both sides “have referred to the cordial and friendly nature of these discussions.”
Fr. Murray added that Pope Benedict has “widened the availability of the traditional Mass and sacraments celebrated in the traditional formula” but that “the faithful are not encouraged to attend the sacraments in the chapels of the SSPX because the canonical situation of the priests is irregular.”