Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Quo Vadis, FSSPX?

Msgr. Marcel Lefebvre, archbishop of Dakar, superior of the Holy Ghost
Fathers, Apostolic Delegate for French speaking Africa, participant
in Vatican II, and founder of the FSSPX.
source: dici.org

In 1970 a retired missionary Archbishop named Marcel Lefebvre founded a pious brotherhood in Econe, Switzerland under the jurisdiction of the local ordinary. Lefebvre reacted to the requests of French seminarians ostracized by the national seminary in Rome for wearing the cassock and praying the Rosary. Lefebvre eventually broke his silence in 1974, beginning a circuit of old rite Masses throughout Europe which eventually included St. Mary Major in Rome. During a Mass at Lille he attracted the attention of Rome for calling the 1969 Ordo Missae and other new rituals "sacrements b√Ętards" ("illegitimate Sacraments"). In 1975 the Seminary of St. Pius X, run by his brotherhood, ordained its first class of priests and gave them to dioceses for incardination, as was the original purpose of the Econe seminary.

Seminary of St. Pius X in Econe
source: sspx.org
All this changed in 1976 when Pope Paul VI, declining in age and increasingly isolated by the Vatican bureaucracy, upheld the dissolution of the brotherhood and seminary by the local ordinary. As the brotherhood, or FSSPX, had established canonical priories outside of Econe they protested that the local bishop could only remove their faculties within his diocese and had no authority over the organization as a whole. They may have been right, but Paul VI, as one can see in the correspondence recorded in Michael Davies' near hagiography of Lefebvre, really did not care. An interesting article on the matter can be found in the Catholic Herald's archives.

Consequently, Lefebvre found himself, canonically, a man without a diocese, religious order, honorary see, or place in another kind of fraternity. A cleric without an assignment is de facto suspended a divinis. Lefebvre pressed on and ordained a new set of priests in 1976 without permission, suspending the new priests as well. Every ordination class since then incurred canonical suspension at the laying of hands. The FSSPX makes the case that the suspension was unjust—and it may have been—and that the current state of the Church warrants their arrangement. All that is fine, but this post will not weigh their arguments.

Msgr. Lefebvre celebrates Mass in
the presence of Cardinal Gagnon
source: fsspx.org
Lefebvre quieted down and, although he continued ordaining priests, more or less accepted the wider results of his suspension. Many these days forget that numerous priests scattered throughout the world's dioceses initially resisted the liturgical changes and kept with conventional catechism. These men sometimes worked in unison with the FSSPX for the sake of networking, resource sharing, and keeping up moral, but they were still diocesan clergy. When Fr. Peter Morgan came to England from Econe most of his collaborators were diocesan priests still in good standing with their bishops, even if their bishops did not like it. In continental Europe, particularly in France, many practicing Catholics attended Lefebvre's "rally Masses" by the thousands—many with five digit attendance figures. Lefebvre could have been the visible figure who could lead the then-nascent traditionalist movement to keep traditional liturgical and catechetical practice within the Church's legal system and diocesan structure. When he withdrew from public sight to his seminary in Econe, Lefebvre let the traditionalist movement—which had the potential to attract a significant fraction of the Catholic world—whither and decay. A few odd cases in Evreux, Campos, and Gabon can be found where diocesan clergy continued the old liturgy, but generally any conservative tendencies died after losing their lifelines. From then on the FSSPX, as an organization, became almost exclusively identified with Catholic tradition.

At this point I would like to end the history, now that the familiar narrative begins: the three Roman visitors to Econe, the 1979 audience with John Paul II, the visit of Cardinal Gagnon, the Ratzingerian protocol, and the Econe consecrations. My private opinion is that, as pope, Benedict XVI de-restricted the 1962 rite and lifted the 1988 decree Ecclesia Dei because he felt the liturgical changes, although justified, happened too quickly and because he thought he played some role in the melt down of relations between Msgr. Lefebvre and the Vatican in 1987/1988.

Bishop Bernard Fellay after an ordination Mass
What concerns the Rad Trad about the FSSPX is not their past (far too young to care), but their future. The year is 2014. In another year the FSSPX will arrive at the 40th anniversary of its first and last canonically sanctioned ordination—which included bishop Tissier de Mallerais, the most radical of the four men Lefebvre consecrated to the episcopacy. The next class of seminarians to begin ordination studies with the FSSPX will commence the third generation of clergy within that organization that never knew a normal relationship with a bishop, either the bishop of Rome or the bishop of Rhode Island. Instead of tangible relations with other priests and with Rome or a canonical administration of the Sacraments (save the few cases when the Roman Penitentiary grants them absolution jurisdiction) forty years of priests will have known nothing but the "true Sacraments," "eternal Rome," and assumptions about Modernism. Amid their Platonic formation, would these men know the opportunity for a regularization if it came to them?

The former superior claimed forces within the Vatican derailed the regularization while the current superior, bishop Bernard Fellay, reported the Pope himself added new and more stringent criteria for reconciliation. More mainstream commentators suggested that the FSSPX missed the last boat to normality. Why did that ship sail in 2012? Could it not have sailed before then?

Bishop Fellay is a spry 55, but in a decade or so he will have to think concrete thoughts about the future of Msgr. Lefebvre's brotherhood. How could he normalize three generations of priests who have rarely had a positive thought about their local bishop or the neighboring parish in the last half century? Would the situation in 2024 justify consecrating another bishop or four? Will 2028 be like 1988 or will the situation have changed?

June 30, 1988 at Econe
Most problematic for a reconciliation is that time has accustomed the FSSPX to independence from canonical structures. Lefebvre expelled nine priests in 1983 for, among other things, rejecting diocesan tribunals' decisions on the nullity of certain marriages. Somehow the FSSPX now exercises, and has for some time, its own judgment on the validity of marriages done in the mainstream of the Church. Their bishops, who Lefebvre wished to function as auxiliaries, routinely substitute for the local bishop in signing the necessary paper to found monasteries and the like. For all practical purposes the FSSPX is an autocephalous body.

We cannot doubt Msgr. Lefebvre's intentions, but we can certainly doubt his wisdom. He rightly found the state of the Church in the 1970s appalling and, in his missionary instinct, sought to do something about it. Sadly he made many mistakes in decisions that required prudence and landed his pious brotherhood with its current debacle. They ignore the Pope, but do not deny him; hence one can call them disobedient, but they are not schismatic. They ignore a general council, but do not reject its legality; they are not heretical. They say that they were maltreated in 1976; but regardless of what was right then, they do not enjoy legal status. They are not outside the fold, nor are they exactly within it. Anyone interested in pre-1969 liturgy has them to thank, in part, for preserving older liturgical use. Cardinal Ratzinger among others have admitted that the FSSPX has forced Rome to re-evaluate the post-Conciliar period. And still does this warrant their current situation? Benedict XVI had "unfinished business" with the FSSPX after 1988 and still hoped to heal the wounds that opened after the Council which launched his ecclesiastical track. The Roman authorities circa 2009 saw the growth in the traditional seminaries and perhaps hoped to put all the traddy eggs in one basket. And bishop Fellay can remember, as a student, the days when the old Mass was the norm. With a new pope who has no demonstrable connection to the "Mass of the Ages" or the Second Vatican Council and a new generation of clergy with really no connection to him, bishop Fellay must ask himself "Quo vado?"


  1. Thank you for this post. I sympathize much with the SSPX, especially with their crack down on the influence of Modernism in today's Church. But I do think that I would agree with you that Lefebvre may have lacked prudence. Also I agree that the SSPX may be a little bit too accustomed to this abnormal state of things. I suspect that they might not be trying hard enough to look for reconciliation with Rome - although that might be somewhat impracticable now, with Pope Francis.

    It's a messy situation.

  2. By my understanding, the only thing preventing full reconciliation at the present time is the Society's requirement that they be granted “freedom to accuse and even to correct the promoters of the errors or the innovations of modernism, liberalism and Vatican II and its aftermath”. This Rome refuses to concede. On this point I'm glad the Society is holding the line ... the SSPX represent the only clerical voices in the Church who can speak freely about the crisis without fear of censure. Nevertheless I definitely share some of the concerns expressed here and pray the situation is resolved soon.

  3. They are have done an enormous amount of damage to the liturgy with their desire to market the $$PX 'brand' and exclude those who have not agreed with them over the years. The $$PX must be unique in having something like half the number of clergy that have been ordained over the years leave it - and the current situation is no different to day one. One suspects that Benedict called their bluff and offered them precisely what they claimed to want knowing full well this would lead to internal disintegration. A clever move.

  4. Having read a bit of Rubricarius' work and some other sources, I am entertaining the idea that the 1962 Missal is not as traditional as it is often assumed to be, and that the SSPX might not have the best judgment in liturgical areas. However, I still can't help but think that the 1962 is certainly much more traditional than Paul VI's liturgies, and a definite improvement over them, even if not ideal. I do think we have the SSPX to thank for preserving tradition in that extent at least. But I also think we ought to be working to restore a liturgy yet more in line with tradition.