Father Kenneth Doyle

Q. I have seen conflicting reports relative to the Masses celebrated by the clergy of the Society of St. Pius X. Their members, it seems, adhere to all the core beliefs of the church but do not agree with some of the teachings of the Second Vatican Council. I understand that the Holy Father has lifted the excommunication of the society’s bishops. What is the current status of the society, and does attending one of the society’s Masses fulfill a Catholic’s Sunday obligation? (Sidney, Neb.)

A. Of the several questions that you ask or suggest, the “current status” is the hardest one to pin down because it is all so fluid. New information seems to come almost weekly from Rome and Switzerland (where the society is headquartered).

I am well aware that my response may be out of date before you even read it. As I write this, the Vatican and the SSPX are involved in a continuing series of high-level discussions in hopes of achieving reconciliation.

A bit of background might help. The SSPX was established in 1970 by the French Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre to counter what he believed were errors in church teaching and practice stemming from the Second Vatican Council (1962-65).

Relations with the Vatican were further strained in 1988 when Archbishop Lefebvre ordained four bishops despite being warned not to by Pope John Paul II, resulting in the excommunication of those bishops by the Vatican. In 2009, as you indicate, Pope Benedict XVI lifted that excommunication in a clear invitation to the society to be reunited with Rome.

The Vatican has proposed to the society a “doctrinal preamble” as a basis for reunion, but so far no formal response has come from the society. The SSPX did, however, offer three conditions for reunion in a July 17 letter from its general secretary to the society’s superiors throughout the world.

Two of those conditions seem already to have been met: The Vatican in 2007 offered to all stable Catholic communities the opportunity of celebrating Mass using the 1962 Roman Missal, commonly known as the Tridentine rite; and the Holy See has offered to the SSPX that it be designated a “personal prelature,” similar to Opus Dei (a type of “diocese without geographical boundaries,” with its own bishop.)

The third condition, though, would seem to be the sticking point: SSPX wants “the freedom to accuse and even to correct the promoters of the errors or the innovations of modernism, liberalism and Vatican II and its aftermath.”

The SSPX has consistently felt that the council’s themes of ecumenism, religious liberty, collegiality and liturgical reform were faulty approaches theologically. (As you suggest in your letter, SSPX does accept the hierarchical structure of the church in which, in the SSPX’s words, “the supreme power of government over the universal church belongs only to the pope, vicar of Christ on earth.”)

Clearly, theological differences remain and will be the subject of further discussion.

Your final question, about the Sunday Mass obligation, is a tricky one, too. Since the SSPX priests are validly ordained, their Masses are valid. So, I suppose that, technically, you would fulfill your Sunday obligation.

The right thing to do is to attend, instead, a Mass celebrated by a priest in union with the church of Rome, since, at this moment, reconciliation has not yet been achieved, participation at an SSPX Mass would stand as an act of disobedience and defiance to the Vatican and to the papacy.

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Questions may be sent to Father Kenneth Doyle at askfatherdoyle@gmail.com and 40 Hopewell St., Albany, N.Y. 12208.