Updated: Jul 21
In "SSPX: Indefensible," Noah and Wesley Weidig, both former SSPX adherents, offer us a tour de force which thoroughly and conclusively demonstrates what the Magisterium's position on the SSPX actually is. Drawing from our work ("True or False Pope" and "The Logos Project") and several other sources, they present the inevitable conclusion that the Society of Saint Pius X's position is indefensible. The goal of this text, however, is not to “bring down” some “bad guy group," or to win an irrelevant argument. Rather, the membership to (and communion with) the Catholic Church of many Catholics is what is at stake.
A few observations need to be made: The Eastern Orthodox are separated churches which are attached to Apostolic Sees that are still profoundly connected to the undivided Church of the Fathers of the first millennium. Striving for unity with these churches is a Christian duty. The Protestants are denominational communities that do not identify as Catholic and are not, for the most part, sacramental communities (Lutherans and some others are a different case, one which could benefit from the Confessio Augustana): Unity is much more difficult in this case and will require a gradual change in Protestant confessions toward a more sacramental understanding of ecclesiology (although healing the East-West schism would be a powerful and effective witness to our Protestant friends). As for the Church of England, much of what has already been said can also be applied.
But with the SSPX, the situation is of a completely different order. That unity is desired is of course a given, but in this case, we are dealing with four Roman Rite bishops (three, depending on how one counts them) and the priests they've ordained (scattered throughout the world) which claim to offer true Catholicity (true Roman Catholicity) to our fellow Roman Catholic brothers and sisters. And they do so in the same territories where the Catholic community lives. In other words - and intentions are irrelevant at this point - this acephalous organization of vagus priests is preying on the Catholic community's ecclesial and sacramental unity in an incredibly detrimental way.
Our goal is not only to warn the Catholic community, but to help those who have already bought into this group to come back to the unity of bishop and sacrament, a unity which has always been understood to be the core of Catholicity. And we warn these faithful precisely because they are Catholic.
In 29 pages (reproduced here) Noah and Wesley put to shame what can only be described as the dishonest 250 pages of Kennedy Hall's recent book "SSPX: The Defence." If you, a loved one, or an acquaintance has questions about the SSPX, this is an excellent place to start.
A Concise Treatment of the Canonical Status of the Society of St. Pius X
Introductory Note: The authors wish to express their deepest gratitude to John Salza Esq. and Robert Siscoe for their incredible writing on this subject. They have brought extreme clarity to the issues surrounding the SSPX, and their work can be found at True or False Pope. The authors also wish to thank Dom Dalmasso and Andrew Bartel at The Logos Project as well as Michael Lofton at Reason and Theology for their tireless work on this topic. For further reading on these subjects, please refer to the SSPX Page on trueorfalsepope.com, which has served as an invaluable resource in this project. The authors claim no originality in these arguments since this is a summary or compilation of the work of the individuals mentioned herein.
The canonical status of the Priestly Fraternity or Society of Saint Pius X (SSPX) is among the most highly debated subjects within the traditional Catholic movement. Is the SSPX a part of the Catholic Church? Is it schismatic or excommunicated? Do its priests and bishops have jurisdiction? Does the Society have a canonical mission? While these questions may appear to be a wholesale dismissal of the organization, they are of serious concern since roughly 600,000 Catholic faithful regularly attend SSPX Masses and receive their sacraments. To avoid these questions would be gravely negligent, as the salvation of souls is at stake. Fr. Ramon Anglés, SSPX, ironically admits that,
If… [the priests of the SSPX] have no faculties, all the priestly work they perform every day is illegitimate and therefore evil. If this is so, it would be a sin to receive their services, maybe even to ask for them. If such is the case, the Society is deceiving the good traditional Catholic faithful! (emphasis added)
No one can deny the tireless work that the SSPX does in teaching the catechism, preserving the rubrics of the 1962 Roman Missal, and consistently administering the sacraments to the faithful. While these are all good and desirable things, the accidents such as cassocks, bells, incense, and Latin do not justify their ministry or give them a status within the Catholic Church’s hierarchical structure.
This article aims to clarify the legal standing of the SSPX by comparing the statements of its founder, leaders, and priests to the perennial teachings of the Church. Moreover, some of the doctrinal errors of the SSPX will be treated in brief. A careful examination of both the authoritative statements of the Church as well as the words and actions of the Society's leaders brings one to the inevitable conclusion that the SSPX is indeed schismatic. Our treatment of this subject is not a personal interpretation of canon law or papal encyclicals, but rather a recapitulation of what the Church has said concerning the SSPX. The official declarations of Popes Paul VI, John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Francis explicitly demonstrate the SSPX’s position outside the Catholic Church.
As St. Augustine states, “For my part, I should not believe the gospel except as moved by the authority of the Catholic Church.” The First Vatican Council sets forth the following as an article of faith and anathematizes anyone who says otherwise:
Wherefore we teach and declare that, by divine ordinance, the Roman church possesses a pre-eminence of ordinary power over every other church…
So, then, if anyone says that the Roman pontiff has merely an office of supervision and guidance, and not the full and supreme power of jurisdiction over the whole church, and this not only in matters of faith and morals, but also in those which concern the discipline and government of the church dispersed throughout the whole world; or that he has only the principal part, but not the absolute fullness, of this supreme power; or that this power of his is not ordinary and immediate both over all and each of the churches and over all and each of the pastors and faithful: let him be anathema. (emphasis added)
In his papal bull Unam Sanctam, Boniface VIII states, “Furthermore, we declare, we proclaim, we define that it is absolutely necessary for salvation that every human creature be subject to the Roman Pontiff” (emphasis added).
A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE SSPX
For more on the founding of the SSPX, see John Salza’s Refuting the SSPX’s Claims about its Establishment and Suppression Part I and Part II
In the wake of the liturgical reforms that followed the Second Vatican Council, the retired Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, former bishop of Tulle and Superior General of the Holy Ghost Fathers, was approached by several seminarians who wished to be formed under him in the pre-conciliar ways. On November 1, 1970, he founded the Society of St. Pius X as an ad experimentum (experimental) "Pia Unio" (Pious Union) under Bishop François Charrière, the bishop of Lausanne-Geneva and Fribourg, for a probationary period of six years., If, after this term, the group was not formally and permanently sanctioned, it would be dissolved. According to canonists, a pious union “is described as a lay association without juridic personality,” even though the SSPX claims that they are a “Priestly Society.” According to its own statutes, the SSPX could not incardinate priests but was dependent on the Local Ordinary, Bishop Charrière and his successors to perform this work.
Lefebvre set up a seminary in Écône, Switzerland, and began forming priests according to the Roman Missal of 1962. Everything appeared to be going well, until, in November of 1974, Pope Paul VI sent two apostolic visitors to examine their operations. After being scandalized by statements made by these visitors, Archbishop Lefebvre published his (in)famous “Declaration” on November 21, 1974. In it, he stated,
We refuse, on the other hand, and have always refused to follow the Rome of neo-Modernist and neo-Protestant tendencies which were clearly evident in the Second Vatican Council and, after the Council, in all the reforms which issued from it.
Bishop Pierre Mamie, who had succeeded Charrière in December of 1970, recognized Lefebvre’s rebellious spirit that was explicitly manifested in his “Declaration.” Lefebvre was asked to clarify or retract this declaration but refused. He was subsequently warned that the SSPX would be suppressed but continued without regard for this admonition. On May 6, 1975, Bishop Mamie officially suppressed the Society, a decision that Paul VI later supported. Notwithstanding this suppression, Lefebvre continued in his disobedience.
On July 23, 1976, Lefebvre received a suspension a divinis for ordaining priests without dimissorial letters, which is in direct violation of canon 1383:
A bishop who, contrary to the prescript of can. 1015, ordains without legitimate dimissorial letters someone who is not his subject is prohibited for a year from conferring the order. The person who has received the ordination, however, is ipso facto suspended from the order received.
For the next twelve years, Lefebvre continued this illegitimate work while disregarding his suspension. In the meantime, the Holy See sought to reconcile him to the Church, despite his blatant disobedience and rejection of the Second Vatican Council. At one point, Lefebvre requested permission from the Holy See to consecrate a bishop, which Rome considered, provided he renounced his error and submitted to the authority of the Church. After many correspondences, Lefebvre came to an agreement with Rome on May 5, 1988. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who was then serving as the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) (now the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith), agreed to allow Lefebvre to consecrate one bishop, although the candidate and date had not yet been selected. Lefebvre asked for the consecration to take place on June 30, 1988, but Cardinal Ratzinger refrained from setting a date. A “Protocol of Agreement” was also ratified by both parties, which read as follows:
I, Marcel Lefebvre, Archbishop-Bishop Emeritus of Tulle, as well as the members of the Society of St. Pius X founded by me: Promise always to be faithful to the Catholic Church and the Roman Pontiff, its Supreme Pastor, Vicar of Christ, Successor of Blessed Peter in his primacy as head of the body of bishops. We declare our acceptance of the doctrine contained in §25 of the Dogmatic Constitution Lumen gentium of Vatican Council II on the ecclesiastical Magisterium and the adherence which is due to it. Regarding certain points taught by Vatican Council II or concerning later reforms of the liturgy and law, and which do not appear to us easily reconcilable with Tradition, we pledge that we will have a positive attitude of study and communication with the Apostolic See, avoiding all polemics. Moreover, we declare that we recognize the validity of the Sacrifice of the Mass and the Sacraments celebrated with the intention of doing what the Church does, and according to the rites indicated in the typical editions of the Roman Missal and the Rituals of the Sacraments promulgated by Popes Paul VI and John Paul II. Finally, we promise to respect the common discipline of the Church and the ecclesiastical laws, especially those contained in the Code of Canon Law promulgated by Pope John Paul II, without prejudice to the special discipline granted to the Society by particular law. (emphasis added)
After further consideration that night and the following morning, Lefebvre changed his mind and immediately proceeded to write a threatening letter to Rome:
During the night between May 5 and May 6, I said to myself: “All this is impossible. I cannot accept Ratzinger’s answer, which avoids fixing the date of the ordination.” Then I thought that I should write a letter to the Pope and to Ratzinger: if they would not grant me the ordination on June 30, I would do it anyway. On the morning of May 6, I wrote the letter and I sent it to them. (emphasis added)
On May 10, 1988, Lefebvre reiterated his threat: “If there is no agreement with Rome, we shall just have to continue our work.” On May 27, 1988, Ratzinger offered Lefebvre a date of August 15 of that year for the episcopal consecration, but without deciding on how many candidates would be consecrated. Dissatisfied with this response, Lefebvre wrote a letter to Pope John Paul II on June 2, claiming that he would nevertheless proceed with the episcopal consecrations on June 30. One week later, the Holy Father urged the Archbishop to reconsider his course of action:
In the letter you sent me you appear to reject all that was agreed on in the previous conversations, since you clearly manifest your intention to "provide the means yourself to continue your work," particularly by proceeding shortly and without apostolic mandate to one or several episcopal ordinations, and this in flagrant contradiction not only with the norms of Canon Law, but also with the Protocol signed on May 5th and the directions relevant to this problem contained in the letter which Cardinal Ratzinger wrote to you on my instructions on May 30th. With a paternal heart, but with all the gravity required by the present circumstances, I exhort you, Reverend Brother, not to embark upon a course which, if persisted in, cannot but appear as a schismatic act. (emphasis added)
On June 15, Lefebvre held a press conference reiterating his intent to consecrate four bishops on the 30th of that month. On June 17, Cardinal Bernardin Gantin, Prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, issued a formal canonical warning to Lefebvre:
Since on June 15th, 1988 you stated that you intended to ordain four priests to the episcopate without having obtained the mandate of the Supreme Pontiff as required by canon 1013 of the Code of Canon Law, I myself convey to you this public canonical warning, confirming that if you should carry out your intention as stated above, you yourself and also the bishops ordained by you shall incur ipso facto excommunication latae sententiae reserved to the Apostolic See in accordance with canon 1382. (emphasis added)
On June 29, Cardinal Ratzinger also pressed Lefebvre to refrain from proceeding with these illicit consecrations:
For the love of Christ and His Church, the Holy Father asks you with paternal firmness to leave today for Rome without proceeding to the episcopal consecrations on June 30 which you have announced.
On June 30, 1988, Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre and Bishop de Castro Mayer consecrated four bishops against the will of the Holy Father in Écône, Switzerland: Bernard Fellay, Bernard Tissier de Mallerais, Richard Williamson, and Alfonso de Galarreta. By this act, he and the four bishops incurred an ipso facto latae sententiae excommunication under canon 1382 (A bishop who consecrates someone a bishop without a pontifical mandate and the person who receives the consecration from him incur a latae sententiae excommunication reserved to the Apostolic See).
To read more about Lefebvre’s communications with Pope John Paul II and Cardinal Ratzinger during this time, see Lefebvre Correspondence with Rome (April To June 1988)
Were the Episcopal Consecrations Justified?
Herein lies the crux of the argument: if Archbishop Lefebvre’s act of consecrating four bishops against the express will of the Holy Father was justified due to a state of necessity (e.i., the Catholic Faith would be lost), he was a saintly hero and champion of the Catholic Faith. If, however, his act was one of schism, he was an enemy of the Church and died excommunicated from her. Understanding this situation is, therefore, a serious and imperative matter. Let’s examine the evidence.
1. State of Necessity
Lefebvre thought that he had a duty from God to save the Church and Catholic Tradition, which, in his mind, would otherwise be lost. During the homily of the Mass of the episcopal consecrations, Lefebvre said, “We find ourselves in a case of necessity… This is why we are convinced that, by the act of these consecrations today, we are obeying... the call of God.” He repeated this sentiment on July 8, 1988, stating,
The permanent will to annihilate Tradition is a suicidal will, which justifies, by its very existence, true and faithful Catholics when they make the decisions necessary for the survival of the Church and the salvation of souls.
Lefebvre’s motivation to save the Church stemmed from an erroneous ecclesiology, upon which we will later expound. He failed to understand (1) the indefectibility of the Catholic Church as promised by Christ Himself and (2) the meaning of Catholic Tradition. Paul VI recognized this as early as 1976 when he wrote a letter to Lefebvre exhorting him to submit to the Church’s authority and abandon his false position:
A fortiori, a single bishop without a canonical mission does not have in actu expedito ad agendum, the faculty of deciding in general what the rule of faith is or of determining what tradition is. In practice you are claiming that you alone are the judge of what tradition embraces. You say that you are subject to the Church and faithful to tradition by the sole fact that you obey certain norms of the past that were decreed by the predecessor of him to whom God has today conferred the powers given to Peter. That is to say, on this point also, the concept of “tradition” that you invoke is distorted. Tradition is not a rigid and dead notion, a fact of a certain static sort which at a given moment of history blocks the life of this active organism which is the Church, that is, the mystical body of Christ. It is up to the pope and to councils to exercise judgment in order to discern in the traditions of the Church that which cannot be renounced without infidelity to the Lord and to the Holy Spirit—the deposit of faith… Hence tradition is inseparable from the living magisterium of the Church, just as it is inseparable from sacred scripture. (emphasis added)
What Lefebvre failed to understand is that the continuation of the indefectible Church of Christ, that is, a divine institution, is not dependent on the action or inaction of “a single bishop without a canonical mission.” The promise of God Himself to His Church is completely independent of anything that an individual does. Moreover, Christ does not leave us to decide whether a necessity exists to do something contrary to the express command of the Holy Father. The First Vatican Council defined that God has given the supreme pontiff possess,
…the full and supreme power of jurisdiction over the whole church, and this not only in matters of faith and morals, but also in those which concern the discipline and government of the church dispersed throughout the whole world. (emphasis added)
It would be gravely erroneous to suggest that an individual’s conscience is the sole rule of faith in such grave matters as disobedience to the Successor of Peter. Every protestant sect throughout history sought to justify their departure from Rome by a subjective decision that the unerring Church which Christ established had indeed erred.
2. Divine Law and the Right to Select Bishops
Despite numerous canonical warnings, the archbishop proceeded to consecrate four bishops against the will of the Supreme Pontiff and without a papal mandate. Canon 1013 states that “no bishop is permitted to consecrate anyone a bishop unless it is first evident that there is a pontifical mandate.” However, Lefebvre’s act of schism was not in consecrating without a papal mandate but in selecting bishops against the will of the pope.
Now, the Catholic Church teaches that the right to select bishops belongs exclusively to the Roman Pontiff as a matter of divine law. Only the Head of the College of Bishops can decide who enters that College. In his encyclical Quartus supra, Pius IX makes this abundantly clear:
The writings of the ancients testify that the election of Patriarchs had never been considered definite and valid without the agreement and confirmation of the Roman Pontiff. … Everyone knows that the eternal and at times the temporal happiness of people depends on the proper election of bishops; the circumstances of time and place must be considered referring all the authority for selecting the bishops to the Apostolic See. … He instructed him “by the Apostolic authority given to Us by the Lord through the most holy Peter, prince of the Apostles,” to appoint bishops, … But We considered that We should not keep silence on Our right to elect a bishop. … But even if We had remained silent, this right and duty of the See of blessed Peter would have remained unimpaired. For the rights and privileges given to the See by Christ Himself, while they may be attacked, cannot be destroyed; no man has the power to renounce a divine right which he might at some time be compelled to exercise by the will of God Himself. (emphasis added)
This right is not a matter of human or ecclesiastical law but divine law. When can someone break divine law? The answer is never. No imperative or perceived state of necessity allows one to circumvent the express law of God because it is of the highest order. The SSPX publicly admits this in an article written by Fr. Jean-Michel Gleize SSPX, in which he states:
To communicate somehow the power of jurisdiction in the Church contrary to the will of the Pope contradicts a principle of divine right and is therefore a theological impossibility. No exceptional situation, no extraordinary circumstance could ever legitimize, much less make possible, the communication of the power of jurisdiction against the Pope’s will. (emphasis added)
Fr. Gleize goes on to claim that Lefebvre did not intend to confer jurisdiction but only episcopal orders. However, divorcing jurisdiction from the sacramental power is a “theological impossibility” since the episcopacy is ordered to acts of governance. Canon 375 clearly shows that these two things are inseparable:
Through episcopal consecration itself, bishops receive with the function of sanctifying also the functions of teaching and governing; by their nature, however, these can only be exercised in hierarchical communion with the head and members of the college. (emphasis added)
For more on Fr. Gleize’s arguments around jurisdiction, see John Salza’s SSPX Priest Proves the Society is in Schism
Lefebvre’s selection of bishops contrary to the will of the Holy Father constituted a usurpation of the papal primacy, an act which carries with it the gravest of ecclesiastical penalties. In his encyclical Charitas, Pius VI teaches that,
For the right of ordaining bishops belongs only to the Apostolic See, as the Council of Trent declares; it cannot be assumed by any bishop or metropolitan without obliging Us to declare schismatic both those who ordain and those who are ordained, thus invalidating their future actions. (emphasis added)
Pius VI here refers to the Twenty-third Session of the Council of Trent, which decreed that,
…those who of their own rashness assume them to themselves [the ordination of bishops], are not ministers of the church, but are to be looked upon as thieves and robbers, who have not entered by the door.
Pius XII reaffirmed the ecclesiastical penalty found in canon 1382 in his encyclical Ad apostolorum principis, also calling those who consecrate without papal approval “thieves and robbers” (John 10:8):
From what We have said, it follows that no authority whatsoever, save that which is proper to the Supreme Pastor, can render void the canonical appointment granted to any bishop; that no person or group, whether of priests or of laymen, can claim the right of nominating bishops; that no one can lawfully confer episcopal consecration unless he has received the mandate of the Apostolic See. Consequently, if consecration of this kind is being done contrary to all right and law, and by this crime the unity of the Church is being seriously attacked, an excommunication reserved specialissimo modo to the Apostolic See has been established which is automatically incurred by the consecrator and by anyone who has received consecration irresponsibly conferred. (emphasis added)
Many SSPX apologists attempt to justify Lefebvre’s actions using the principle of epikeia (from the Greek ἐπιείκεια, “fairness” or “indulgence”), that is, the temporary suspension of positive human law when it conflicts with a higher law. They refer to canon 1324 §1:5:
The perpetrator of a violation is not exempt from a penalty, but the penalty established by law or precept must be tempered or a penance employed in its place if the delict was committed… by a person who was coerced by grave fear, even if only relatively grave, or due to necessity or grave inconvenience if the delict is intrinsically evil or tends to the harm of souls.
However, the error in this logic is quite evident: the right of the primacy in selecting and accepting bishops into the college is a matter of divine law, which no other law can supersede. Lefebvre’s personal judgment does not allow him to circumvent the highest form of law. One cannot be part of the college of bishops against the express will of its head. How would the college be an identifiable college? How would it be “One” and “Catholic”? Are orthodox, Anglican, and sedevacantist bishops now part of the college?
Some proponents of the SSPX use the clandestine ordinations and consecrations of Cardinal Karol Wojtyła (later Pope John Paul II) and Cardinal Josef Slipyj, respectively, as justification for Lefebvre’s disobedience. However, Pope Saint John Paul II understood the meaning of “necessity” when he ordained priests, not against the pope’s will, but while cut off from communication with the pope behind the iron curtain; an act which was later sanctioned by the Church. Pope Saint John Paul II knew that, had he or Slipyj been expressly told by the pope not to ordain priests or consecrate bishops, they would not have been able to. On the other hand, it was Pope Saint John Paul II himself who condemned Lefebvre’s schismatic act of consecrating bishops against his express will. This is a fallacious comparison since the Holy See had individually and emphatically forbidden Lefebvre from consecrating bishops on at least three different occasions. Episcopal consecration without the Roman Pontiff’s immediate knowledge is not necessarily an act of schism; doing so contrary to his express will is.
In 1996, the Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Legal Texts (PCILT) (now the Dicastery for Legislative Texts), the organ of the Church responsible for interpreting canon law, issued the following authoritative statement, which further supports the argument herein:
…doubt cannot reasonably be cast upon the validity of the excommunication of the Bishops declared in the Motu Proprio and the Decree. In particular it does not seem that one may be able to find, as far as the imputability of the penalty is concerned, any exempting or lessening circumstances. (cf CIC, can. 1323) As far as the state of necessity in which Mons. Lefebvre thought to find himself, one must keep before one that such a state must be verified objectively, and there is never a necessity to ordain Bishops contrary to the will of the Roman Pontiff, Head of the College of Bishops. This would, in fact, 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.
1. Definition of Schism
Schism is defined in canon 751 as “the refusal of submission to the Supreme Pontiff or of communion with the members of the Church subject to him.” The SSPX refuses to submit to the Holy Father in matters of discipline and to commune with Catholics who attend any Mass besides their own. Their actions fall under both categories of schism.,
In 1991, The SSPX established a parallel canonical tribunal called the “St. Charles Borromeo Canonical Commission” which appropriates to itself the authority to lift censures, grant dispensations, and annul marriages. This constitutes a further usurpation of rights that alone belong to the Local Ordinary or the Holy See, thereby confirming the establishment of a parallel church and refusing to submit to the authority of the Catholic Church.
The SSPX discourages the faithful from attending valid Masses, even those said using the 1962 Missal by priests of the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter (FSSP), the Institute of Christ the King Sovereign Priest (ICKSP), and diocesan priests. By disassociating themselves from the Catholic Church and refusing communion with its members, the SSPX proves their schism:
He is schismatic who refuses to act as part of the Church. It does not matter what the reasons are: as soon as one refuses to act as part of the one Catholic Church, one falls into schism. However varied the reasons and passions may be that impel Christians to withdraw from communion, to want to sanctify and be sanctified, to instruct and be instructed, to lead and be led . . . , not as parts of the Catholic Church, but as if they were themselves separate "wholes," they are schismatics.
To read more about this, see John Salza’s The SSPX Rejects All Church-Approved Traditional Groups
To be Catholic in the internal forum, one must be baptized and in the state of sanctifying grace. However, to be legally Catholic in the external forum, one must have the threefold juridical bond: one must be united to the Church (1) in her profession of faith, (2) worship, (3) and governance. The Church does not judge one’s internal forum but only their actions. The SSPX’s public rejection of the Catholic Church’s official 1989 Profession of Faith is a direct attack on her unity of faith. Their refusal to commune with other Catholics and attend Masses according to a valid missal constitutes a rejection of the unity of worship. And their refusal in submitting to the hierarchy of the church in matters of discipline (i.e., erecting a parallel canonical tribunal) is a rejection of the unity of governance.
In this way, the SSPX triply separates herself from the legal structure of the Church and is therefore not Catholic in the external forum. In his encyclical Mystici Corporis Christi, Pius XII makes it clear that “those who are divided in faith or government cannot be living in the unity of such a Body, nor can they be living the life of its one Divine Spirit” (emphasis added).
2. Statements from the Magisterium
On July 1, the day following the illicit consecrations, Cardinal Gantin, representing the Office of the Congregation for Bishops, issued a formal decree of excommunication:
Monsignor Marcel Lefebvre, Archbishop-Bishop Emeritus of Tulle, notwithstanding the formal canonical warning of 17 June last and the repeated appeals to desist from his intention, has performed a schismatical act by the episcopal consecration of four priests, without pontifical mandate and contrary to the will of the Supreme Pontiff, and has therefore incurred the penalty envisaged by Canon 1364, paragraph 1, and canon 1382 of the Code of Canon Law. Having taken account of all the juridical effects, I declare that the above-mentioned Monsignor Marcel Lefebvre, and Bernard Fellay, Bernard Tissier de Mallerais, Richard Williamson and Alfonso de Galarreta have incurred ipso facto excommunication latae sententiae reserved to the Apostolic See. Moreover, I declare that Monsignor Antonio de Castro Mayer, Bishop emeritus of Campos, since he took part directly in the liturgical celebration as co-consecrator and adhered publicly to the schismatical act, has incurred excommunication latae sententiae as envisaged by canon 1364, paragraph 1. The priests and faithful are warned not to support the schism of Monsignor Lefebvre, otherwise they shall incur ipso facto the very grave penalty of excommunication. (emphasis added)
On July 6, 1988, the leaders of the SSPX replied publicly to Cardinal Gantin, stating:
We have never wished to belong to this system which calls itself the Conciliar Church… We ask for nothing better than to be declared out of communion with this adulterous spirit which has been blowing in the Church for the last 25 years; we ask for nothing better than to be declared outside of this impious communion of the ungodly… To be publicly associated with this sanction which is inflicted upon the six Catholic Bishops, Defenders of the Faith in its integrity and wholeness, would be for us a mark of honor and a sign of orthodoxy before the faithful. They have indeed a strict right to know that the priests who serve them are not in communion with a counterfeit church… (emphasis added)
On July 2, 1988, Pope John Paul II issued a motu proprio Ecclesia Dei Adflicta, formally condemning the illicit consecrations and confirming the ipso facto excommunication of Marcel Lefebvre and the four bishops whom he consecrated,
In itself, this act was one of disobedience to the Roman Pontiff in a very grave matter and of supreme importance for the unity of the church, such as is the ordination of bishops whereby the apostolic succession is sacramentally perpetuated. Hence such disobedience - which implies in practice the rejection of the Roman primacy - constitutes a schismatic act. (emphasis added)
Furthermore, he states that “formal adherence to the schism is a grave offense against God and carries the penalty of excommunication decreed by the Church's law” (emphasis added). Although Pope John Paul II did not clarify exactly what “formal adherence” entails, in 1996, the Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Legal Texts issued a document that puts forth two requirements for adherence:
a) one of internal nature, consisting in a free and informed agreement with the substance of the schism, in other words, in the choice made in such a way of the followers of Archbishop Lefebvre which puts such an option above obedience to the Pope (at the root of this attitude there will usually be positions contrary to the magisterium of the Church),
b) the other of an external character, consisting in the externalizing of this option, the most manifest sign of which will be the exclusive participation in Lefebvrian "ecclesial" acts, without taking part in the acts of the Catholic Church. (emphasis added)
On July 7, 2007, Pope Benedict XVI issued his motu proprio Summorum Pontificum, allowing the use of the extraordinary form of the Roman Rite. In a letter accompanying this document, he stated that, by publishing Ecclesia Dei Adflicta, Pope John Paul II “primarily wanted to assist the Society of Saint Pius X to recover full unity with the successor of Peter, and sought to heal a wound experienced ever more painfully. Unfortunately, this reconciliation has not yet come about” (emphasis added).
On January 1, 2009, Pope Benedict XVI remitted the excommunication of the four bishops whom Lefebvre consecrated but not that of Lefebvre. The SSPX claims that this act proves that they were never schismatic. However, in a follow-up letter, Pope Benedict XVI made it clear that “the remission of the excommunication has the same aim as that of the punishment: namely, to invite the four bishops once more to return [to full communion with the Church]” (emphasis added). He went on to state that,
Until the doctrinal questions are clarified, the Society has no canonical status in the Church, and its ministers – even though they have been freed of the ecclesiastical penalty – do not legitimately exercise any ministry in the Church. (emphasis added)
Pope Benedict’s remission of the excommunications only affects the canonical censure imposed upon the four bishops and says little about the SSPX as a whole. For example, the Catholic Church also previously lifted the excommunications of the Eastern Orthodox Church, yet, they remain in schism.
On September 1, 2015, Pope Francis delegated specific faculties to the SSPX, thereby giving them jurisdiction to hear confessions as well as to conditionally witness marriages when done with the permission of the Local Ordinary during the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy. With the close of this Year of Mercy, Pope Francis, in his letter Misericordia et misera, decided to extend these faculties indefinitely “For the pastoral benefit of these faithful, and trusting in the good will of their priests to strive with God’s help for the recovery of full communion in the Catholic Church” (emphasis added). Some SSPX apologists claim that Francis’ delegation of faculties proved that the SSPX had always possessed them. However, Pope Francis made it clear that this decision was made out of mercy for those faithful whose confessions and marriages in the SSPX were previously not valid, lest they continue to live in sin. The Holy Father’s reason for this action was to alleviate “any uneasiness of conscience on the part of the faithful who adhere to the Society of St. Pius X as well as any uncertainty regarding the validity of the sacrament of marriage” (emphasis added). Since SSPX priests “do not legitimately exercise any ministry in the Church,” Cardinal Burke says that ‘there is no canonical explanation for [this delegation of faculties], and it is simply an anomaly” (emphasis added).
Later, Pope Francis wrote a letter to the bishops of the world to accompany his motu proprio Traditionis custodes. In it, he stated that Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI’s allowance for the use of the Roman Missal of 1962 “was above all motivated by the desire to foster the healing of the schism with the movement of Mons. Lefebvre” (emphasis added). In referring to the SSPX (“the movement of Mons. Lefebvre”) as a schism, Pope Francis remains consistent with the popes in recognizing the legal reality of the situation, and this was the last authoritative statement made by the current pontificate concerning the status of the SSPX.
3. Statements from Other Ecclesiastical Authorities
When asked in an interview about the SSPX, Cardinal Raymond Burke, a canon lawyer who served as the prefect of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura, stated that “the Society is not part of the one Roman Catholic Church throughout the world” (emphasis added). In a conference in Medford, Oregon he added:
Despite the various arguments surrounding the question, the fact of the matter is that the Priestly Society of St. Pius X is in schism since the late Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre ordained four bishops without the mandate of the Roman Pontiff. And so it is not legitimate to attend Mass or to receive the sacraments in a church that’s under the direction of the Priestly Society of St. Pius X. (emphasis added)
Archbishop Guido Pozzo, former secretary of the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei, also reiterated what the Church has consistently stated:
The priests and bishops of the Society of St. Pius X nonetheless exercise their ministry illicitly and illegitimately. They are not excommunicated, of course, not anymore; the excommunication was lifted, so they are not formally schismatic – it is absolutely false to claim that the SSPX is schismatic from a formal, canonical point of view because there is no longer a schism since they are no longer excommunicated; that is very clear. But they are in an irregular situation, and insofar as they do not have a canonical recognition, they do not exercise their ministry legitimately, except for confessions and marriages, as granted by the pope. We must be very clear about this. (emphasis added)
When Archbishop Pozzo says that the SSPX is not “schismatic from a formal, canonical view”, he is equating “formal schism” with “declared schism”; he does not address automatic “occult” excommunication for schism under canon 751.
Cardinal Gerhard Müller, former prefect of the CDF and president of the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei, in speaking to the Italian Press, adds a level of clarity to Pozzo’s former statement:
The canonical excommunication of the bishops for their illegal ordinations was revoked, but . de facto sacramental excommunication remains for their schism; they put themselves out of communion with the Church. After that we are not closing the door and never will, but we are inviting them to be reconciled. But they too must change their attitude, accept the conditions of the Catholic Church, and the Supreme Pontiff as the definitive criterion for membership. (emphasis added)
Monsignor Camille Perl, former secretary of the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei, accurately summed up the SSPX’s canonical status:
The priests of the Society of St. Pius X are validly ordained, but they are suspended from exercising their priestly functions. To the extent that they adhere to the schism of the late Archbishop Lefebvre, they are also excommunicated. (emphasis added)
The above-quoted individuals held important offices in the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei, which specifically deals with the canonical status of the SSPX. These three statements conclusively show the SSPX’s lack of communion with the Catholic Church and its illegitimate ministry. When understood together with Pope John Paul II’s motu proprio Ecclesia Dei Afflicta, it stands to reason that, while no longer formally excommunicated or in formal schism due to the lifting of the excommunications, those who formally adhere to the schism of Archbishop Lefebvre commit a grave offense against God that carries the penalty of excommunication.
INCARDINATION AND CANONICAL MISSION
To read more about this, see John Salza’s Does the Society of St. Pius X Have an Extraordinary Mission? John Salza Responds to Fr. Jonathan Loop, SSPX
For a priest to validly and licitly exercise his ministry within the Catholic Church, he must be incardinated to a bishop (from the Latin cardō, “hinge”) with ordinary jurisdiction. Canon 265 states:
Every cleric must be incardinated either in a particular church or personal prelature, or in an institute of consecrated life or society endowed with this faculty, in such a way that unattached or transient clerics are not allowed at all.
SSPX priests are not incardinated to any bishop, and their own bishops do not possess ordinary or supplied jurisdiction. Since the SSPX is a pious union, which is not a juridic person, it is unable to incardinate priests. According to the SSPX’s own statutes, priests were supposed to be incardinated to the Local Ordinary. But they are not and never have been. Subsequently, their work is independent of and often contrary to that of their local bishop. Their actions directly violate ecclesiastical law, further proving the illegitimacy of their ministry.
A minister must also have a mission (from the Latin missio, “sending”) from the proper authority, and this is a prerequisite for jurisdiction. In the “Great Commission,” Christ sent his apostles, saying,
All power is given to me in heaven and on earth. Going therefore, teach ye all nations; baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and behold I am with you all days, even to the consummation of the world. (Matt. 28:18-20)
The Council of Trent teaches definitively that a minister must be sent by lawful authority and this is a matter of divine law:
If any one saith … that those who have neither been rightly ordained, nor sent, by ecclesiastical and canonical power, but come from elsewhere, are lawful ministers of the word and of the sacraments; let him be anathema. (emphasis added)
The Church calls this sending of her ministers canonical or juridical mission. Pope Pius XII reaffirms that this mission is a matter of divine law in his encyclical Mystici Corporis Christi:
For in virtue of the juridical mission by which our Divine Redeemer sent His Apostles into the world, as He had been sent by the Father, it is He who through the Church baptizes, teaches, rules, looses, binds, offers sacrifices. (emphasis added)
In his Apostolic Constitution Veritatis gaudium, Pope Francis reaffirms the Church’s teaching that mission only comes from legitimate authority:
Those who teach disciplines concerning faith or morals must receive, after making their profession of faith, a canonical mission from the Chancellor or his delegate, for they do not teach on their own authority but by virtue of the mission they have received from the Church. (emphasis added)
Mission is either ordinary or extraordinary. Ordinary mission comes from Christ, through the pope, and subsequently through the local bishop. In special circumstances, a priest or bishop can have an extraordinary mission. However, the Church does not recognize an extraordinary mission unless it is (1) proven by miracles or the testimony of scripture and (2) not in opposition to the work of the Church. In the encyclical Cum ex injuncto, Pope Innocent III teaches that:
It can and should certainly be answered reasonably that when that inner mission is hidden, it does not suffice for anyone to assert so boldly that he is sent by God, since any heretic may profess this: but it is necessary that he proves that invisible mission by the working of miracles or by special testimony of the Scriptures… Therefore, he who says that he is sent by God should not be believed, since he has not been sent by man, unless he personally offers special testimony from Scripture, or he shows an obvious miracle. (emphasis added)
Pope Benedict XIV later reaffirmed this when he said,
No credit is to be publicly given to him who says he has invisibly received a mission from God unless he confirms it by a miracle or a special testimony of Holy Scripture. (emphasis added)
St. Francis de Sales clearly states those with an extraordinary mission from Christ never work in opposition to the authority of the Church:
Where will you ever show me a legitimate extraordinary vocation which has not been received by the ordinary authority?... I saw, thirdly, that the authority of the extraordinary mission never destroys the ordinary, and is never given to overthrow it. (emphasis added)
However, the SSPX publicly admits that they work “contrary to the known intentions, the known will of those successors of the Apostles, the Princes of the Church.” There are no miracles or testimony of scriptures to justify the existence of the SSPX, and their work is opposed to that of the Church. Therefore, they do not possess an ordinary or extraordinary mission, and their ministry is illegitimate.
Cardinal Billot, who is considered "the most important Thomistic speculative theologian of the late nineteenth century," makes it clear that anyone ministering without a mission does so illicitly:
This introduction shows, first, that legitimate dispensation of the sacraments can only come from the Catholic Church, so that anyone who does not have a mission from her, by that very fact administers illicitly, and anyone who by receiving the sacrament communicates with the sin of the minister receives sacrilegiously. ... But the sacraments are the property of Christ. Hence they can be legitimately dispensed only by those who have a mission from Christ, i.e. those to whom the apostolic mission has been transmitted. (emphasis added)
The Baltimore Catechism, Volume 3, Question 1004, further makes this truth clear:
Q. 1004. Can bishops, priests and other ministers of the Church always exercise the power they have received in Holy Orders?
A. Bishops, priests and other ministers of the Church cannot exercise the power they have received in Holy Orders unless authorized and sent to do so by their lawful superiors. The power can never be taken from them, but the right to use it may be withdrawn for causes laid down in the laws of the Church or for reasons that seem good to those in authority over them. Any use of sacred power without authority is sinful, and all who take part in such ceremonies are guilty of sin. (emphasis added)
For this reason, Francis de Sales reprimands those who leave the Church to follow those who have not been sent by Christ:
Tell me, what business had you to hear them and believe them without having any assurance of their commission and of the approval of Our Lord, whose legates they called themselves? In a word, you have no justification for quitting that ancient Church in which you were baptized, on the faith of preachers who had no legitimate mission from the Master.” (emphasis added)
Dom Prosper Gueranger, whom the SSPX frequently reference when speaking about the liturgy, also says:
We, then, both priests and people, have a right to know whence our pastors have received their power. If they claim our obedience without having been sent by the bishop of Rome, we must refuse to receive them for they are not acknowledged by Christ as His ministers. They must be aliens to us, for they have not been sent, they are not pastors.(emphasis added)
For a more in-depth treatment of this subject, see John Salza’s Do Sedevacantist Clergy Receive Supplied Jurisdiction? Part I and Part II
The SSPX claims that, since they do not receive ordinary jurisdiction from the bishops in whose diocese they carry out their ministry, the Church supplies jurisdiction (Ecclesia supplet, i.e., the Church supplies). Their extremely convoluted argument uses juridical analogy and canonical equity to assert that they possess supplied jurisdiction. They reason that, since there is an unprecedented crisis in the Church and thus a state of necessity, they are justified in administering sacraments that require jurisdiction for validity, such as confession and matrimony. However, the Church alone gets the last word on the interpretation and application of ecclesiastical law, specifically as to what constitutes a state of necessity, as she is the lawmaker: “The legislator authentically interprets laws as does the one to whom the same legislator has entrusted the power of authentically interpreting (can. 16 §1). If this was left to the individual’s conscience, then Martin Luther as well as almost every other heretic, schismatic, and apostate throughout history would have been justified in their actions. Jurisdiction flows from Christ, through the pope and bishops, to the priest. Incardination and mission are prerequisites for jurisdiction, and, since SSPX priests have neither, they lack any form of jurisdiction.
Here, we wish to briefly introduce the reader to supplied jurisdiction as it clearly articulated in canon law. The Catholic Church only supplies jurisdiction in three very specific circumstances: (1) danger of death (can. 976), (2) common error, (3) positive and probable doubt (can. 144, §1).
Even though a priest lacks the faculty to hear confessions, he absolves validly and licitly any penitents whatsoever in danger of death from any censures and sins, even if an approved priest is present.
In factual or legal common error and in positive and probable doubt of law or of fact, the Church supplies executive power of governance for both the external and internal forum.
Since no one claims that SSPX priests have ordinary jurisdiction (including themselves), common error and positive and probable doubt do not apply, as both circumstances require the assumption of ordinary jurisdiction. Moreover, the SSPX does not appeal to either canon in justifying their supposed supplied jurisdiction. Unless an individual is in grave danger of death, Canon 976 does not apply either. Nowhere in Canon Law does it state that, “in a state of necessity, the Church supplies jurisdiction.”
Pope Pius XII explains that those who receive episcopal consecration without a papal mandate possess no jurisdiction:
Granted this exception, it follows that bishops who have been neither named nor confirmed by the Apostolic See, but who, on the contrary, have been elected and consecrated in defiance of its express orders, enjoy no powers of teaching or of jurisdiction since jurisdiction passes to bishops only through the Roman Pontiff as We admonished in the Encyclical Letter Mystici Corporis… (emphasis added)
Bishop Fellay, the former superior general of the SSPX, himself admits that “the problem of jurisdiction shows the importance of being recognized canonically.” (emphasis added) If the SSPX has indeed lacked both ordinary and supplied jurisdiction, their confessions and marriages have been invalid for the last four decades. In 2015, however, Pope Francis remedied this by indefinitely delegating faculties to SSPX priests during the Year of Mercy.
Many Catholics wonder whether attending SSPX Mass fulfills one’s Sunday obligation. This is a legitimate question since SSPX priests are validly (but illicitly) ordained and have the priestly function (munera) by which they are capable of carrying out the sacraments. However, they lack the right to do so since their ministry is illegitimate. Canon 1247 states that “On Sundays and other holy days of obligation the faithful are bound to participate in the Mass” This is a matter of ecclesiastical precept and different from the divine precept that states “Remember that thou keep holy the sabbath day” (Ex. 20:8). The latter is a general, positive law, commanding us to sanctify Sundays in some way. One can fulfill this divine precept by attending Mass, praying, or performing other pious acts. However, the Church requires all baptized Catholics to “participate in the Mass,” which adds a secondary requirement. Canon 1248 §1 instructs us on how to fulfill this precept:
A person who assists at a Mass celebrated anywhere in a Catholic rite either on the feast day itself or in the evening of the preceding day satisfies the obligation of participating in the Mass. (emphasis added)
The New Commentary on the Code of Canon Law clarifies the meaning of Catholic rite:
The Mass must be celebrated in a Catholic rite, i.e., in the liturgical rite of any Catholic church sui iuris, but not in a church which is not in full communion with the Catholic Church, although using a Catholic liturgical rite. (emphasis added)
A church sui iuris (“of its own right”) is defined as,
A community of the Christian faithful, which is joined together by a hierarchy according to the norm of law and which is expressly or tacitly recognized as sui iuris by the supreme authority of the Church.
(1) The SSPX itself admits that it is “not in full communion” and that they are in an “irregular” status with the Catholic Church. (2) SSPX chapels, which are not churches in the legal sense, are not recognized as “sui iuris by the supreme authority of the Church,” since they are erected without the consent of the Local Ordinary. Therefore, it is clear that SSPX chapels do not fulfill either of these requirements, and attendance therein does not satisfy the Sunday obligation.
A celebration of Holy Mass should be done in communion with the Church and with the Pope, and with the bishop of the place. The celebration of the Mass should be done by a priest who is in union with the Church. ... Now, the priests of the SSPX are not in union with the Church because of their adherence to the schism of Abp. Lefebvre who provoked the schism by his ordination of some bishops contrary to the will of the Pope… (emphasis added)
In the words of Monsignor Perl, if one attends an SSPX Mass, he “must abstain from receiving Holy Communion” and “it is a sin to depart from the discipline of the Church regarding the Sunday obligation.”
The Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei (PCED) issues formal replies to dubia presented by the faithful, and these replies are intended for the whole Catholic Church. Here are some of the dubia and responses:
Question: May we lean upon canon 844 to justify participation in the sacraments in the chapels and houses of the Society St. Pius X [since there is no Indult Mass in my vicinity]?
Response: No. The canon referred to speaks of ‘the physical and moral impossibility to have recourse to a Catholic minister’ and not of the absence of a Mass in one rite rather than in another.
Question: Could [one] attend a Mass celebrated by an SSPX priest or a priest from a community close to this Society and receive Holy Communion on a Sunday?
Response: No. Holy Mass must be offered in communion with the Church, the Pope and the local Bishop.
Question: Strictly considering the aforementioned canon [1248§1], would a Catholic be able to fulfill his Mass obligation by assisting at Holy Mass at this ‘Friends of the Society of St. Pius X’ chapel, called…Roman Catholic Church in…?
Question: Upon the condition that the answer to the first question is in the negative, does a Catholic sin by assisting at Holy Mass at the aforementioned chapel?
Response: Negative, unless the Catholic substitutes it for his Sunday obligation.
While it is true that participation in the Mass at chapels of the Society of St. Pius X does not of itself constitute “formal adherence to the schism” (cf. Ecclesia Dei 5, c), such adherence can come about 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. While we hope and pray for a reconciliation with the Society of St. Pius X, the Pontifical Commission “Ecclesia Dei” cannot recommend that members of the faithful frequent their chapels for the reasons which we have outlined above. (emphasis added)
Most schisms are accompanied by heresy since the schismatic must fabricate ideas to rationalize their position. The SSPX publicly rejects the Second Vatican Council stating that it teaches heresies and ambiguities, specifically concerning collegiality and religious liberty. They discourage the faithful from attending the Novus Ordo Missae (1969 Roman Missal) even in cases where no other Mass is available to fulfill one’s Sunday obligation. They reject the Catholic Church’s 1989 Profession of Faith, promulgated under Pope John Paul II, which is universally required by both Latin and Eastern Catholics “to be in full communion with the Catholic Church.”,, Additionally, their flawed understanding of sacramental intention leads to a wholesale rejection of a valid rite of the Mass. Pope Benedict XVI recognized that:
The problems (with the SSPX) now to be addressed are essentially doctrinal in nature and concern primarily the acceptance of the Second Vatican Council and the post-conciliar Magisterium of the Popes. (emphasis added)
Cardinal Gerhard Müller, former prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and president of the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei, echoed the same sentiment when speaking about the SSPX:
No compromise is possible on the level of the Catholic Faith, in particular as it was correctly formulated by the Second Vatican Council. Vatican II is not in contradiction with the whole of the Church’s tradition; strictly speaking it is opposed to certain erroneous interpretations of the Catholic Faith. We cannot negotiate the Catholic Faith; no compromise is possible. (emphasis added)
1. “Vatican II Taught Heresy”
For a more thorough treatment of this subject, see John Salza’s Exposing the SSPX’s Rejection of the Hermeneutic of Continuity John Salza Responds to Fr. Reuter, SSPX – Part I and Part II, and Robert Siscoe’s Was Vatican II Infallible? Part I and Part II
In the words of their patron, “with an affectation of submission and respect,” the SSPX ”...proceed[s] to twist the words of the Pontiff to their own sense” by attempting to find heresy in everything he and the Second Vatican Council states. They claim that the Council taught ambiguities and even heresies, specifically collegiality, religious liberty, and ecumenism, which Lefebvre compared to the three-pronged motto of the French Revolution: liberty, equality, and fraternity.
However, to state that an ecumenical council of the Catholic Church publicly teaches and promulgates heresy directly contradicts the dogma of infallibility, promised by Christ Himself and defined during the First Vatican Council. Heresy is a bold accusation, particularly when directed towards the Church herself. Ambiguity is quite another thing. Ambiguity would imply that a teaching is not clearly articulated. If the teaching has not been previously established by the Church, then it is still subject to scrutiny. If the teaching has been defined by the Church, one has only to look in other authoritative places to find the clearest answer. Attempting to find discontinuity between statements of the Church shows either ignorance or malice.
Moreover, one’s subjective perception of error or heresy is of little importance. In interpreting ambiguous statements made by the Church, the benefit of the doubt always goes to the Church. One must reject any heterodox interpretations. In his Bull Auctorem fidei, Pius VI teaches that:
Whenever it becomes necessary to expose statements that disguise some suspected error or danger under the veil of ambiguity, one must denounce the perverse meaning under which the error opposed to Catholic truth is camouflaged. (emphasis added)
Pope Benedict XVI makes this clear when he spoke about using a “hermeneutic of continuity” as a tool to properly interpret Church teaching, specifically as it relates to the Second Vatican Council. This is opposed to a “hermeneutic of rupture” or “suspicion”, which seeks to show discontinuity between the teachings of the Second Vatican Council and those of the pre-conciliar Magisterium. As sons and daughters of the Church, we are meant to defend and harmonize her teachings rather than pitting them against themselves.
What’s interesting is that Lefebvre signed every document of the Second Vatican Council., At the time of signing the documents, he understood them in light of true Catholic teaching, that is, in a hermeneutic of continuity. It was only later that he interpreted them in the most twisted way possible to justify his wholesale rejection of the Council. Lefebvre and the SSPX make the same fatal error as Luther: namely, leaving truth up to personal interpretation and divorcing the infallible Church from those same truths she is charged with safeguarding.
2. Erroneous Ecclesiology
When speaking about the “Conciliar Church”, Archbishop Lefebvre and the superiors of the SSPX demonstrate their grave misunderstanding of ecclesiology, that is, the study of the nature of the Church. She has seven properties: four marks and three attributes. The Catholic Church is one, holy, catholic (universal), and apostolic. She is also visible, infallible, and perpetually indefectible. This is the dogmatic teaching of the Church, originally pronounced at the First Council of Constantinople in 381.
The Catholic Church is defined as the visible, social, and hierarchical institution founded by Christ and governed by the Pope and the Bishops in union with him. However, the words of the Archbishop imply that the Church is “the body of those who profess the true faith,” or more specifically, those who adhere to their interpretation of tradition and attend Mass according to the 1962 Roman Missal. This is fundamentally a Protestant view and constitutes a rejection of the dogma of the visibility of the Church.
The SSPX often states that they submit themselves to the Magisterium of the Church by following sacred tradition, and this is what makes them authentically Catholic. However, this is the same error that the Protestants made with scripture. Both scripture and tradition are nested in and safeguarded by the Catholic Church. She is the supreme arbiter of truth which is found in scripture and tradition (1 Tim. 3:15).,
On numerous occasions, Lefebvre stated that the “Conciliar” or “counterfeit” Church is no longer the Catholic Church. This explicit rejection of the Roman Catholic Church shows Lefebvre’s adoption of a sedevacantist mindset:
It is not we who are in schism but the Conciliar Church… we are talking about a counterfeit version of the Church, and not the Catholic Church… It is no longer the Catholic Church. (emphasis added)
[T]hey have put us out of an official Church which is not the real Church… (emphasis added)
Obviously, we are against the Conciliar Church which is virtually schismatic, even if they deny it. In practice, it is a Church virtually excommunicated because it is a Modernist Church. ... That is no longer the Catholic Church…  (emphasis added)
This Council represents, in our view and in the view of the Roman authorities, a new Church which they call the Conciliar Church. (emphasis added)
A Church which no longer brings forth good fruits, a Church which is sterile, is not the Catholic Church. (emphasis added)
But the Church against her past and her Tradition is not the Catholic Church. (emphasis added)
…salvation is in the Catholic Church and not in the Conciliar Church that becomes more and more schismatic. (emphasis added)
It is a matter of the radical incompatibility between the Catholic Church and the conciliar church, the mass of Paul VI representing the symbol and the program of the conciliar church. (emphasis added)
In more emphatic terms, Lefebvre went so far as to reject altogether the Church, the Second Vatican Council, the 1969 Missal of Paul VI, the priests, the sacraments, and everything else associated with the “Conciliar Church.” He even went as far as to say that “the See of Peter and the posts of authority in Rome [are] being occupied by anti-Christs.” This undoubtedly constitutes explicit sedevacantism. The following two quotes make this fact incontrovertible:
How could it be clearer?! From now on it is the conciliar church one must obey and be faithful to, and not to the Catholic Church. This is precisely our problem. We are suspended a divinis by the conciliar church, of which we do not want to be a part. This conciliar church is a schismatic church, because it breaks with the Catholic Church of all time. It has its new dogmas, its new priesthood, its new institutions, its new liturgy, already condemned by the Church in many official and definitive documents… Rome has lost the Faith, my dear friends. Rome is in apostasy. These are not words in the air. It is the truth. Rome is in apostasy. They have left the Church. This is sure, sure, sure. It is a schismatic council. The Church which affirms such errors is both schismatic and heretical. This Conciliar Church is therefore not Catholic. To whatever extent pope, bishops, priests or faithful adhere to this new Church, they separate themselves from the Catholic Church. The Novus Ordo Mass is a bastard rite. The Novus Ordo sacraments are bastard sacraments. The Novus Ordo priests emerging from the Novus Ordo seminaries are bastard priests. … It is a Church that I do not recognize. I belong to the Catholic Church… I am not of that religion, I do not accept that new religion. It is a liberal, modernist religion. We are not of this new religion! We do not accept this new religion! We are of the religion of all time; we are of the Catholic religion… It is, therefore, a strict duty for every priest wanting to remain Catholic to separate himself from this Conciliar Church for as long as it does not rediscover the Tradition of the Church and of the Catholic Faith. (emphasis added)
Has the Church founded by Christ defected? Did Our Lord lie when He said that “the gates of Hell will on prevail against” her (Matt. 16:18)? Or when he said “and behold I am with you all days, even to the consummation of the world” (Matt. 28:20)? Lefebvre’s statements show an explicit denial of the dogma of indefectibility. Is the Church no longer visible? Where are her marks? Well, to evade his error in ecclesiology, Lefebvre claimed that “we [the SSPX] truly represent the Catholic Church such as it was before, because we are continuing what it always did. It is we who have the notes of the visible Church: One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic. That is what makes the visible Church” (emphasis added). These statements show Lefebvre’s grave error in understanding the nature of the Church, specifically visibility and indefectibility.
Later, Bishop Bernard Fellay recanted this position when he said “the official church is the visible church; it is the Catholic Church, period.” This contradiction flows from an implicit recognition of the sedevacantist position of the Society’s founder and the logical inconsistency that follows from it.
3. Validity of the Novus Ordo Missae
Lefebvre and the SSPX have publicly stated that the 1969 Missal of Paul VI’s, also called the Novus Ordo Missae, is, by its very nature, an “offense to God,” a fruitless “bastard rite,” and “a danger to the faith.” In the words of Lefebvre,
The rite of the new mass is a bastard rite, the sacraments are bastard sacraments. We no longer know if they are sacraments which give grace or do not give it. The priests coming out of the seminaries are bastard priests, who do not know what they are. (emphasis added)
Ironically, Archbishop Lefebvre actively participated in the Novus Ordo Missae on several occasions, and there is significant evidence that he said Mass according to this missal.
In 2011, the SSPX released an article entitled Is the New Mass legit? In which they made the following claim:
Now, even if one wanted to contest the heretical elements of the New Mass, the sole refusal to profess Catholic dogmas quintessential to the Mass renders the new liturgy deficient. It is like a captain who refuses to provide his shipmen with a proper diet. They soon become sick with scurvy due, not so much to direct poison, as from vitamin deficiency. Such is the new Mass. At best, it provides a deficient spiritual diet to the faithful. The correct definition of evil—lack of a due good—clearly shows that the New Mass is evil in and of itself regardless of the circumstances. (emphasis added)
The Church, however, is incapable of publicly promulgating an evil liturgy. In the papal bull Auctorem fidei, Pius VI clearly establishes that the Church cannot promote a liturgy (“discipline”) which, in the words of the bull, is dangerous and harmful:
In so far as by the generality of the words it includes and submits to a prescribed examination even the discipline established and approved by the Church, as if the Church which is ruled by the Spirit of God could have established discipline which is not only useless and burdensome for Christian liberty to endure, but which is even dangerous and harmful and leading to superstition and materialism, – false, rash, scandalous, dangerous, offensive to pious ears, injurious to the Church and to the Spirit of God by whom it is guided, at least erroneous. (emphasis added)
The Council of Trent echoes the same sentiment in a de fide statement:
If anyone says that the ceremonies, vestments, and outward signs, which the Catholic Church uses in the celebration of Masses, are incentives to impiety rather than the services of piety: let him be anathema. (emphasis added)
The SSPX also casts doubt on the validity of the Eucharist when confected according to the 1969 Missal, which Lefebvre called “bastard sacraments.” They teach that the celebrant at Mass must believe in transubstantiation and intend the sacramental effect (i.e., the change from bread and wine into the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Christ) for the sacrament to be valid. In his An Open Letter to Confused Catholics, Archbishop Lefebvre himself said,
Are not priests who lose the faith in the same case? There are already priests who no longer wish to confect the sacrament of the Eucharist according to the Council of Trent's definition. "No", they say, "The Council of Trent was a long time ago. Since then we have had Vatican II. Now its's trans-signification, or trans-finalisation. Transubstantiation? The Real Presence of the Son of God under the appearances of bread and wine? Not in these days!" When a priest talks like this, he makes no valid consecration. There is no Mass or Communion. (emphasis added)
Moreover, in Most Asked Questions of the Society of Saint Pius X, the SSPX teaches that:
The Novus Ordo Missae will no longer in and of itself guarantee that the celebrant has the intention, that will depend on his personal faith, generally unknown to those assisting that more and more doubtful if the crisis in the church is prolonged. Therefore those masses can be of doubtful validity and more so with time. (emphasis added)
However, the Catholic Church does not place the burden of investigation on the faithful but safeguards the validity of the Mass and sacraments in a special way. She has always taught that the minister is not required to intend the sacramental effect (i.e., transubstantiation) or even believe in the doctrine of the Holy Eucharist. The minister must only intend to do what the Church does, and this is externally manifested by carrying out the liturgical rite:
All these sacraments are made up of three elements: namely, things as the matter, words as the form, and the person of the minister who confers the sacrament with the intention of doing what the Church does. If any of these is lacking, the sacrament is not effected. (emphasis added)
St. Robert Bellarmine succinctly clarifies this when he said:
The Council of Trent does not mention the purpose of the sacrament or say that the minister ought to intend to do what the Church intends but what the Church does. Moreover, what the Church does refers to the action, not the purpose. There is required the intention with regard to the action, not in so far as it is a natural action, but in so far as it is a sacred action or ceremony, which Christ instituted or Christians practice. If one intends to perform the ceremony which the Church performs, that is enough. (emphasis added)
If Christ was unable to guarantee that His Church would administer valid sacraments, the very means of salvation, He would have lied when he said, “the gates of hell will not prevail against” her. Even the SSPX’s foremost apologist, Michael Davies, conceded this point that “The Church could not be considered a perfect, visible supernatural society (and it is of Divine faith that the Church possesses these characteristics) if the possibility existed of it offering its members invalid Sacraments.” (emphasis added) And yet, the SSPX continues to cast doubt upon the ministry of other priests and the validity of the Novus Ordo Missae.
In studying the magisterial teaching of the Church, one comes to the inescapable conclusion that Lefebvre’s act of consecrating bishops without a papal mandate and against the express will of the Holy Father was indeed a schismatic act that incurred the ipso facto latae sententiae excommunication under canon 1382. The Holy See formally declared that “such disobedience - which implies in practice the rejection of the Roman primacy - constitutes a schismatic act,” and that “formal adherence to the schism is a grave offense against God and carries the penalty of excommunication decreed by the Church's law.” No perceived state of necessity can justify the usurpation of a divine right that alone belongs to the primacy. Even though the excommunication of the four bishops was lifted in 2009, “the Society has no canonical status in the Church, and its ministers… do not legitimately exercise any ministry in the Church.” Therefore, the ministry of the SSPX is illicit and sacrilegious, and attending their chapels does not fulfill the Sunday obligation and leads the faithful to “slowly imbibe a schismatic mentality which separates itself from the teaching of the Supreme Pontiff and the entire Catholic Church.”
In separating itself from the Roman Catholic Church, the Society of St. Pius X has created a parallel church with its own profession of faith, worship, and governance. The self-evident doctrinal errors and heresies invented to justify the SSPX’s position contradict over two millennia of Catholic teaching. Their erection of a canonical tribunal, which appropriates to itself rights that alone belong to the Local Ordinary or the Holy See, only further shows their separation from the Church. Lastly, their failure to obey the Supreme Pontiff in matters of discipline and refusal to commune with other Catholics constitutes, by its very definition, schism.
What we present here is not our personal opinion but official decrees of the Holy See, perennial teachings of the Magisterium, and the statements of competent ecclesiastical authorities. Let the Catholic Church speak for herself. We refuse to follow someone who breaks divine law to uphold his own erroneous notion of “tradition”. Our identity is not Lefebvrian but Roman Catholic. Our rule of faith is not the words and actions of Lefebvre, but the two-thousand years of Catholic teaching. St. Paul shows the foolhardiness of siding with anyone other than Christ when he said:
For it hath been signified unto me, my brethren… that there are contentions among you. Now this I say, that every one of you saith: I indeed am of Paul; and I am of Apollo; and I am of Cephas; and I of Christ. Is Christ divided? Was Paul then crucified for you? or were you baptized in the name of Paul? (1 Cor. 1:11-13) (emphasis added)
We do not deny that there is a crisis in the Church, perhaps the worst in her history. We assert that bad actors have indeed infiltrated the Church and caused tremendous scandal and apostasy. But, just as Christ, humiliated and disfigured, remained God during His passion, so also His Mystical Bride suffers her own passion and yet still retains her true identity as the means to salvation. We should imitate, not the apostles who fled in the face of hardship, but Our Lady who faithfully remained with her Son until the end.
Attendance at the Society of St. Pius X’s chapels is a false solution to a real problem. The battle against modernism, which Pope St. Pius X calls “the synthesis of all heresies”, can only be fought from within the Church, not from without.
In a spirit of charity, we pray that both the clergy and faithful of the Society of St. Pius X recognize the errors of their position and return to the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church, “the pillar and foundation of truth,” (1 Tim. 3:15) so that “there shall be one fold and one shepherd” (John 10:16).
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Noah Weidig is a graduate student at the University of Florida conducting research on the role that wildfires and prescribed burns have on ecosystem health. He adhered to the Society of St. Pius X for roughly 14 years, during which time he attended one of their boarding schools in the United States. After thoroughly examining the canonical issues surrounding the SSPX, he returned to full communion with the Catholic Church in January 2023.
Wesley Weidig is a classical guitarist, educator and music instructor. Wesley holds a Masters in Music from the University of Cincinnati College Conservatory of Music. He and his wife reside in Scottsdale, AZ. Wesley attended SSPX masses for 13 years.