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  • Writer's pictureDom Dalmasso

Communion with the Church and the SSPX

Updated: Aug 18, 2023

By Andy M


Growing up in traditionalist circles, I often heard the phrase “in communion with the church,” especially regarding the SSPX and whether or not they did indeed operate in communion with the Church. Living near one of their chapels and attending their school for several years, and later finding it convenient to attend when I was dating a young woman from their community, I accepted that receiving their sacraments was permitted, and I was assured of this by several online figures whom I trusted in this matter. However, as I began studying ecclesiology and began understanding the Eucharist as the origin and heart of the Church, and measuring these findings against the positions of the SSPX, I can say with certainty that I had made a mistake. I failed to see that their strict, legalistic understanding of communion with the Church was not enough to justify their ministry. I did not understand that being in communion with the Church, for a Catholic, was indispensably tied to the Eucharist and to the juridical structure of the Church. I did not see that, as Pope Benedict XVI wrote, “The Church is Eucharist.” [1]


Pope Benedict’s book Called to Communion elucidates this concept quite clearly. He connects the union of the Eucharist, the sacramental Body of Christ, with the union of the Church, the Mystical Body. The Church is defined by her mission to spread the Gospel to all corners of the earth, but it has no means by which to carry out this mission without the bishops, as they became a constitutive element of the Church from the very moment of the institution of the Eucharist, and are united in common mission from Christ by His instruction to “take” and “do this.” Just as the Eucharist could not exist without the bishops, the bishops have no purpose without the Eucharist. Benedict XVI writes,

The episcopal office is an essential component of the Eucharist- as a service to the unity that follows necessarily from the character of the Eucharist as sacrifice and reconciliation. A Church understood Eucharistically is a Church constituted episcopally. [2]

The Eucharist has no purpose if no unity flows from it, and if it does not unite us all into communion with each other and help us to overcome every barrier (the “reconciliation” of which he speaks). Without the unity of the bishops that coalesces into one Body, the very purpose of the Eucharist is thwarted. This necessary connection between the bishop, the Eucharist, and communion is manifested when we see the loss of divine mission in the thousands of Protestant denominations that have sprung into existence after abandoning the episcopal lineage of the Church. As the Father sent Christ, and as Christ sent the apostles, the apostles sent their successors, and this divine mission is perpetuated through apostolic succession.

[...] the Church is communion, communion with the whole Body of Christ. Expressed in different terms: In the Eucharist I can never demand communion with Jesus alone. He has given himself a Body. Whoever receives him in Communion necessarily communicates with all his brothers and sisters who have become members of the one Body. [3]

By this statement we see that the Eucharist cannot be received in isolation from unity with the Church. Episcopal lineage is necessary, as Pope Benedict’s previous quote stated, but what necessarily follows from these observations is that valid orders and a validly confected Eucharist is not enough. The successors of the apostles are given jurisdiction by lawful authorities, a jurisdiction that makes the Mystical Body visible and identifiable. Pope Pius XII, in his encyclical Mystici Corporis Christi, says, “the invisible mission of the Holy spirit and the juridical commission of Ruler and Teacher received from Christ […] mutually complement and perfect each other - as do the body and soul in man - and proceed from our one Redeemer who not only said as He breathed on the Apostles ‘Receive ye the Holy Spirit,’ but also clearly commanded: ‘As the Father hath sent me, I also send you […]’” [4] The episcopal character and the juridical character are necessary to form the visible Body of Christ; without the former, there is no Eucharist, and without the latter, there is no unity in the Body. This is why the proper worship due to God must be offered in union with the bishop, otherwise it is celebrated in isolation from the unity that is essential to the Church’s character.


Pope Benedict emphasizes the unity between these two essential marks by once again connecting them to the very essence of the Church and her Tradition:

In truth, the imposition of hands with the accompanying prayer for the Holy Spirit is not a rite that can be separated from the Church or by which one can bypass the rest of the Church and dig one's own private channel to the apostles. It is, rather, an expression of the continuity of the Church, which, in the communion of the bishops, is the locus of tradition, of the gospel of Jesus Christ. […] As an ecclesial sacrament, the sacrament of the imposition of hands is, at the same time, an expression of the traditional structure of the Church. It binds apostolicity and Catholicity together in the unity of Christ and the Spirit, which is represented and completed in the eucharistic community. [5]

The authority of a bishop that is received and exercised in isolation from (and in opposition to) the Church’s ecclesiastical order is antithetical to the very idea of communion. If the Church’s mark of “One” is established by the institution of the Eucharist and maintained through its perpetual celebration, both of which are made possible by the divine authority of the bishops, then offering this sacrament of unity outside of the Church’s juridical structure can only be seen as a contradictory offering. I again return to Pope Benedict in Called to Communion to support this point:

Unity is a key characteristic of the Church’s essence, so that the juridical expression of unity in the office of Peter’s successor and in the necessary dependence of the bishops both on one another and on him belongs to the core of her sacred order. Hence, the loss of this element wounds her at the point where she is most truly Church. [6]

On this topic of “most truly Church,” Pope Benedict XVI also writes in Principles of Catholic Theology:

The designation of the Church as a sacrament thus deepens and clarifies the concept of Church [...]; by her nature, she is a liturgical community; she is most truly Church when she celebrates the Eucharist and makes present the redemptive love of Jesus Christ…. [7]

If the juridical structure of the bishops in communion with each other and with the Pope (the “necessary dependence”) is a constitutive component of the Eucharist, and if the Bride of Christ is most truly Church when she celebrates the Eucharist as a community, how serious a wound Pope Benedict must be speaking of when this is disrupted or violated! The loss of unity, especially as characterized by denial or rejection of a bishop’s authority, denies the unity that is manifested in the Eucharist. Pope Benedict uses language for the Church that we are so accustomed to hearing for the Eucharist: a sacrament, its core and essence realized in unity. The two are inseparable.


Pope Benedict also points out that St Ignatius of Antioch, in epistles written as early as the first or second century, repeatedly spoke of the Eucharist and obedience to the bishop as indicators of communion with the church. Ignatius writes:

See that you follow the bishop, even as Jesus Christ follows the Father. [...] Let no man do anything connected with the Church without the bishop. Let that be deemed a proper Eucharist which is administered either by the bishop or by one to whom he has entrusted it. Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the assembly also be - just as, wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church (Letter to the Smyrneans 6-8).
For all those who belong to God and to Jesus Christ are also with the bishop. [...] If anyone follows a man who makes a schism in the Church, he shall not inherit the kingdom of God. [...] Take care, then, to have only one Eucharist. For there is one flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ, and one cup to show forth the unity of his blood; one altar, as there is one bishop… (Letter to the Philadelphians 3-4).
He, therefore, who does not assemble with the Church, has thus manifested his pride and condemned himself. For it is written, "God resists the proud" (1 Pt 5:5). Let us be careful, then, not to set ourselves in opposition to the bishop, in order that we may be subject to God (Letter to the Ephesians 5).

St Cyprian of Carthage is also quite explicit in this regard when he writes:

Truly, how inseparable is the sacrament of unity, and how hopeless are those who cause a schism and forsake their bishop, appointing another in his place. What extreme ruin they earn for themselves from the indignation of God (Letter to Magnus 6 [Epistle 75]).

These and many other church fathers identify that since its earliest days, the Church has recognized and taught that autonomy and rejection of authority are incompatible with the union of the Eucharist and the bishops. I once again turn to Pope Benedict XVI, who reminds us of the spousal dimension of the Church when he says that "Christ and the Church are one body in the sense in which man and woman are one flesh," and that "[t]he Church must constantly become what she is through unitive love and resist the temptation to fall from her vocation into the infidelity of self-willed autonomy [emphasis added]."[8]


Let us now apply these principles to the ministry of the SSPX.


The facts are as follows: the SSPX celebrates the Sacrifice of the Mass throughout the world without the approval of the local ordinaries in whose dioceses it functions. Its bishops carry out confirmations, ordinations, church consecrations, etc in the dioceses of other bishops (contrary to the Council of Trent, which defends the aforementioned episcopal unity of the Church in Session VI, chapter 5: “It shall not be lawful for any bishop, under the plea of any privilege soever, to exercise pontifical functions in the diocese of another, save by the express permission of the Ordinary of the place […]” [9]. It essentially operates as a parallel church with rival altars, claiming to accept the local bishop’s authority but acting as though it is not binding. Foreseeing the disastrous effects this would have on the church, the Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Legislative Texts stated that consecrating bishops against the express command of the Pope, as Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre did, would “[...] imply the possibility of ‘serving’ the church by means of an attempt against its unity in an area connected with the very foundations of this unity.” [10]) Pope Benedict XVI was quite clear when he stated that, “[the SSPX’s] ministers do not exercise legitimate ministries in the Church.” [11]


This illegitimate ministry has sprung up from the belief propagated by their founder that the new form of the Mass is actually harmful to the faith, and that since other traditionalist groups accept the supposed errors that brought this new form into existence, they are similarly compromised and should be avoided. By extension, this would mean that the Church as a Body is compromised, since the Church promulgated this new form of the mass in an official, magisterial capacity, and that the bishops of the world have succumbed to its errors. Thus, according to the SSPX, their priests must function independently of the bishops and the dioceses; a stance completely incompatible with Church teaching and governance, but one that is nevertheless adhered to by many priests and many lay faithful. They publicly promote the views of those who claim that Catholics must abandon their bishop, and that they “can only sit safe and secure outside the dioceses.” [12] Their founder, Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, expressed the same sentiment in 1988 when he said, “It is therefore necessary to get out of this milieu of bishops, if one wishes not to lose one's soul.” [13]


The SSPX has unfortunately disregarded the structure of the Church as a necessary mark of her unity and apostolicity, thereby also disregarding the unity of the Eucharist. By their actions, they demonstrate their belief that somehow the errors in the Church will be corrected by celebrating the Eucharist and administering sacraments while rejecting the communion that is necessary for the Body of Christ. This, it must be said, is quite the paradox.


To echo the words of St Cyprian, those who adhere to this movement have indeed forsaken their bishop and appointed another in his place. The SSPX considers that no bishops in the entire world except their own have authority to which they are subject. Does this not result in the schism of which St Cyprian speaks? The SSPX denies any charges of schism with a number of defenses, but the Code of Canon Law says very clearly in Can. 751, “[...] schism is the refusal of submission to the Supreme Pontiff or of communion with the members of the Church subject to him [emphasis added].” [14] What is “refusal of communion” if not a refusal to celebrate the Eucharist with the Church? As the New Commentary on the Code of Canon Law says, “Communion finds its paramount expression in and through the celebration of the Eucharist; [...] According to the Ecumenical Directory, ‘Eucharistic communion is inseparably linked to full ecclesial communion and its visible expression’ (#129)." [15]


I have seen and heard this rejection of the bishop’s authority and the Church many times while attending one of their chapels and schools. I have witnessed priests lambasting the local Catholic church in their sermons, accusing them of compromising in matters of faith or offering a “Protestant mass,” then consecrating the Eucharist several minutes later, as if their public denunciation of the church had no connection to the very sacrament of unity they were offering to the Father. I have attended multiple weddings in which SSPX adherents in the congregation refused to receive the Eucharist (and this is not a case of one or two extremists; in one instance, an entire half of the church who were relatives of the bride did not receive, and this was not a Novus Ordo, but a Mass celebrated by a priest of the Fraternity of Saint Peter). I have relatives who drive an hour and a half to attend mass offered by an SSPX priest at a hotel rather than attending the diocesan Latin mass at their cathedral ten minutes away. Their book Retreat Manual and Family Prayer Book has the following entry listed under sins against the 3rd Commandment: “Have you attended and actively participated in the ‘New Mass’?” (This is also listed in their book Christian Warfare, distributed through their publishing house, Angelus Press.)


They not only refuse communion with their fellow Catholics; they teach and believe that it is a sin! That it is an offense to Our Lord to participate in the very act that confirms our communion with His Mystical Body! To claim it is a sin to commune with the faithful who are subject to the Pope is essentially to claim it is a sin to be Catholic! Lest anyone think this is merely inflammatory rhetoric, a former priest of the SSPX cited the same conclusion as one of his reasons for leaving them: “It is, we say, objectively a sin to receive, give or assist at Novus Ordo rites and to submit to the Novus Ordo Magisterium (the consequence indeed, which we refuse to formulate in actual words, is that it is sinful to have a juridical relationship with the Pope and the College of Bishops - hence our condemnation of the Indult, St Peter's, etc.).” [16] I understand not every SSPX adherent holds to this opinion, but it is a fact that the SSPX does approve of it and circulates it in their publications.


How can this be reconciled? This is a blatant contradiction, one that I think speaks to a grave misunderstanding of the sacrament. Receiving communion is not merely an action we perform at mass; it is representative of a greater reality that is inseparable from the essence of the Eucharist.


To accept communal worship and reception of the Eucharist only with a certain subset of believers is to attempt to maintain unity with the Mystical Body on our own terms, not Christ’s terms. Saint Paul says in 1 Corinthians 12:20-21, “As it is, there are many parts, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’” With some words substituted, “The SSPX cannot say to the local Catholic church, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor again the priest to the local bishop, ‘I have no need of you.’” Celebrating the Eucharist while actively denouncing all other Catholics, and rejecting the bishop’s authority by conducting an illicit ministry, are actions that the early Christians and church fathers have repeatedly denounced. Even if the local bishop has tried to work with them, as I know has occurred in at least one diocese, I maintain that their communion with the Church cannot be claimed, because the SSPX would still warn against attending a mass offered by this bishop or his priests, and would refuse to cease their ministry if he changed his mind and ordered them out (as was explicitly confirmed by Fr David Sherry in their SSPX Interview Series, episode 7).


There are some who will claim that the SSPX is in communion with the bishop or the church because they pray for the local bishop at every mass, as is stipulated in the rubrics of the canon. But to imply that the wondrous spiritual reality of communion in the church can be achieved simply by pronouncing a certain name at a prescribed time, while offering the sacrifice without the approval of that bishop they are naming, is further proof of their deficient understanding of the idea of communion. If it were that simple, communion is no more than a legalistic delineation that is dependent on imposed rubrics, rather than a sacramental reality. And the Church is not a temporal structure held together by legalism. The Church is the Body of Christ, a reality held together by His perfect sacrifice which loses its meaning when offered in a contradictory manner.


It is no wonder, then, that bishops are so vocal about warning their flock about this sect. One does not need to search very long to find statements from dioceses around the country warning against attending SSPX chapels present there. The Diocese of Richmond quite succinctly said, in a statement from December 7, 2016, that communion in the Church meant union with the Pope and the bishops, and that “[...] To receive Communion in any other church or Ecclesial body implies a unity which doesn’t exist. It is not to be done.” [17]


Canon lawyer Peter Vere offers a similar musing on the topic. When explaining why he decided to leave the SSPX, he writes, “[…] in frequenting the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass outside the visible communion of the Church, why was I dividing Christ's Sacramental Body ([Blood], Soul and Divinity) in the Eucharist from Christ's Mystical Body, the Church? For didn't expressions such as "Body of Christ" and "Communion" carry this double meaning: the first sacramental, meaning the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist, and the second ecclesiological, meaning the sacred unity of the Church?” [18]


Separating the unity in the Eucharist from the unity of the Body of Christ is impossible. To then claim that it is necessary to administer this most holy sacrament without proper delegation or mission, from a bishop who was consecrated against the express order of the Holy Father and who ministers in any and all dioceses as he sees fit (violating the rights of other lawfully appointed bishops), is diametrically opposed to the very concept of sacred tradition. In the words of Pope St. Paul VI to Archbishop Lefebvre in a letter from 1976, "We cannot [...] tolerate that the Lord's Eucharist, the sacrament of unity, should be the object of such divisions (cf. 1 Cor. 11:18), and that it should even be used as an instrument and sign of rebellion." [19] The trials in the Church today will be overcome by remaining in union with Our Lord and his delegates, not by spurning their authority or rejecting the most pure and holy form of communion in the Eucharist. Let us then heed the words of St. Paul, when he says to the Corinthians, “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.” (1 Cor 10:17) Let us take care to remain in union with our Holy Mother by having one Eucharist, one altar, and one bishop.





__________________________________________________________________________________ [1] Joseph Ratzinger, Called to Communion: Understanding the Church Today (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1996), 82. [2] Joseph Ratzinger, Called to Communion, 79. [3] Joseph Ratzinger, Called to Communion, 82. [4] Pope Pius XII, Encyclical on the Mystical Body of Christ Mystici Corporis Christi (29 June 1943), §65.

[5] Joseph Ratzinger, Principles of Catholic Theology: Building Stones for a Fundamental Theology (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1987), 246. [6] Joseph Ratzinger, Called to Communion, 94. [7] Joseph Ratzinger, Principles of Catholic Theology, 50.

[8] Joseph Ratzinger, Called to Communion, 39-40.

[9] Council of Trent, Session 7, Decree on Reformation, Chapter 5 (13 January 1547). [10] Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Legislative Texts; Commentary from the current issue of the magazine of the Canon Law Society of Great Britain and Ireland (Vatican, August 24, 1996), https://www.catholicculture.org/culture/library/view.cfm?recnum=1224. [11] Pope Benedict XVI, Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church Concerning the Remission of the Excommunication of the Four Bishops Consecrated by Archbishop Lefebvre (10 March 2009). [12] https://sspx.org/en/news-events/news/looking-beyond-dioceses-tradition-76674. [13] Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, The visibility of the Church and the current situation, September 9, 1988 (https://www.amissfs.com/textes-publies/la-visibilite-de-leglise-par-mgr-lefebvre). [14] Code of Canon Law, c. 751 (https://www.vatican.va/archive/cod-iuris-canonici/eng/documents/cic_lib3-cann747-755_en.html). [15] J. P. Beal, J. A. Coriden, and T. J. Green, New Commentary on the Code of Canon Law (New York: Paulist Press, 2000), 244.

[17] https://richmonddiocese.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/Frequently-asked-Questions-12_7_16.pdf. [18] Peter John Vere, My Journey Out Of The Lefebvre Schism. All Tradition Leads to Rome (https://www.catholicculture.org/culture/library/view.cfm?recnum=4120).

[19] James Likoudis and Kenneth D. Whitehead, The Pope, The Council, and the Mass (Steubenville, Ohio: Emmaus Road Publishing., 2006), 351.





About the author

Andy M grew up in the Catholic traditionalist movement, attending the SSJ, FSSP, an SSPX high school, and the ICKSP. He earned a B.A. in English from Kansas State University and currently lives with his family in upstate New York.

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