ROME, JUNE 21, 2011 (ZENIT)
Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.
Q: I am going to be visiting some dear friends this summer. They recently began attending the Society of Pius X after a great deal of prayer and study, including consultations with a canon lawyer. I am still struggling with the answer to it all. Would you please help me to discern where the Church stands on this issue so that I can make the right decision about where I should attend Mass while I am visiting? — A.Z., Regina, Saskatchewan
A: I believe it is necessary to distinguish between attending a Mass celebrated according to the norms of the 1962 Roman Missal (the extraordinary form) and attending a Mass celebrated according to this form by priests associated with the Society of St. Pius X. In the wake of Benedict XVI's apostolic letter "Summorum Pontificum," any Catholic can freely attend, and most priests may celebrate, Mass according to the 1962 missal. Thus it should become increasingly easier to find such a Mass.
Attending a Mass of the Society of St. Pius X is a different case. This society was founded in 1970 by French archbishop Marcel Lefebvre. For doctrinal rather than disciplinary reasons, the society has no canonical status in the Catholic Church. As the Holy Father said in his letter of March 10, 2009, concerning his remission of the excommunication of the four bishops of the Society of St. Pius X: "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."
With respect to the status of the members of this society, the Pontifical Commission Ecclesiae Dei has issued several private replies to individuals which have later been published on the Internet. One of the most recent, from 2008, reflects earlier replies. Regarding the status of adherents to the society, it states:
"The priests of the Society of St. Pius X are validly ordained, but suspended, that is prohibited from exercising their priestly functions because they are not properly incardinated in a diocese or religious institute in full communion with the Holy See (cf. Code of Canon Law, canon 265) and also because those ordained after the schismatic Episcopal ordinations were ordained by an excommunicated bishop.
"Concretely, this means that the Masses offered by the priests of the Society of St. Pius X are valid, but illicit, i.e., contrary to Canon Law. The Sacraments of Penance and Matrimony, however, require that the priest enjoys the faculties of the diocese or has proper delegation. Since that is not the case with these priests, these sacraments are invalid. It remains true, however, that, if the faithful are genuinely ignorant that the priests of the Society of St. Pius X do not have proper faculty to absolve, the Church supplies these faculties so that the sacrament is valid (cf. Code of Canon Law, canon 144).
"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. We deeply regret this situation and pray that soon a reconciliation of the Society of St. Pius X with the Church may come about, but until such time the explanations which we have given remain in force."
Thus I think it is fairly clear. The mere fact of assisting at a Mass of this society is not a sin. It would only become so if a person attended this Mass with the deliberate intention of separating himself from communion with the Roman Pontiff and those in communion with him.
I would say, therefore, that a conscientious Catholic should not knowingly attend a Mass celebrated by a priest not in good standing with the Church. Doing so deprives participation at Mass of that fullness of communion with Christ and his Church which the Mass, by its very nature and in all its forms, is called to express.
Therefore, the first thing to do would be to investigate the availability of Mass (in the ordinary or extraordinary form) in another locale during your visit. If it is not available, then you could attend any Eastern Catholic celebration.
Only if there is objectively no alternative should one attend the Mass celebrated by a priest from the Society of St. Pius X. If one has to do so, then I would say that one may go in good conscience.
At the same time, it is our ardent prayer and desire, as it should be for all Catholics, that the doctrinal issues with the Society of St. Pius X will be resolved as soon as possible so that these priests may return to full communion and canonical good standing within the Church.
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Follow-up: Mass With the Society of St. Pius X [7-5-2011]
In the wake of our commentaries on the present status of the Society of St. Pius X (see June 21), a New York reader asked about another group.
"You have recently answered a question regarding Society of St. Pius X. Could you give as detailed an answer regarding the Society of St. Pius V. The group is splintered off from SSPX. Quite rigid in that if you go to Mass there, in order to receive [Communion] you must first go to confession to their priest. This turned me off, knowing nothing else of them."
While I am no expert on splinter groups, it would appear that the Society of St. Pius V (Societas Sacerdotalis Sancti Pii Quinti, or SSPV) operates only in North America. Its principal base is Oyster Bay, New York.
It was formed when a group of nine priests split from the Society of St. Pius X in 1983. Some of these priests were later illicitly ordained bishops, including the current leader of the group.
It would appear that the initial differences referred to the acceptance of the missal issued under Pope John XXIII, although later events showed that the liturgical aspects masked much deeper theological discrepancies.
The Society of St. Pius X, founded by Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, while questioning some aspects of the teaching of the Second Vatican Council and the liturgical reform, recognizes the validity of the sacraments celebrated according to the new rites and the legitimacy of the Holy Father.
The Society of St. Pius V (which later splintered further) maintains that many Catholic bishops no longer adhere to the Catholic faith but instead profess a new modernist religion. They also claim that the possibility that the See of Peter has been vacant since the death of Pius XII is an open question.
This belief that they are the last bastion of the true Catholic Church, and their doubt regarding the validity of ordinations performed under the new rites, probably explain why our reader was told that she would have to first confess with one of their priests before receiving Communion.
On one of their websites the rules regarding reception of Communion are expressed as follows:
"One must accept and profess all the teachings of the Catholic Church. One must believe and abide by the traditional Catholic moral teaching, especially in regard to purity and marriage.
Therefore, if someone has received an annulment since 1968, it is first necessary to talk to the priest outside the confessional before receiving Holy Communion.
"One must, of course, be in the state of sanctifying grace to receive Holy Communion, having made a good confession to a Catholic priest ordained in the traditional rite, which rite was used before 1968.
"Young people must be trained in the traditional Catechism, such as the Baltimore Catechism, and they must be tested in the traditional Catechism by a traditional priest. They must also have made a good confession to a traditional priest.
"One must be fasting from solid foods and alcoholic beverages for three hours and from liquids for one hour. Water does not break the fast and may be taken at any time.
"If one, being in the state of grace, has resolved to attend the traditional Latin Mass regularly and exclusively, he is welcome to receive Holy Communion here."
It should also be noted that since they do not use the missal promulgated by Blessed John XXIII but that of the 1954 edition, their Mass does not fall under the norms issued by Pope Benedict XVI in Summorum Pontificum.
For this and other obvious reasons a faithful Catholic should not participate in any of their activities or celebrations.