The pope’s September 1 letter hit the worldwide news in a big way. The letter discussed some plans for the upcoming “Year of Mercy”, starting on the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception (12/8). He mentioned how all priests will have the ability to absolve anyone who has cooperated in the action of abortion. This confused a lot of Catholics in the United States (including myself) who assumed priests always had this ability. In fact, most priests in the United States have been given this ability already through their respective bishops–something not as common in other parts of the world. Of course, our media reported on this very poorly, adding to the confusion. You can read about it more here.
But there was another part of the letter that deals with the Society of Saint Pius X (SSPX). Pope Francis dropped this bombshell in the final paragraph of his letter:
A final consideration concerns those faithful who for various reasons choose to attend churches officiated by priests of the Fraternity of St Pius X. This Jubilee Year of Mercy excludes no one. From various quarters, several Brother Bishops have told me of their good faith and sacramental practice, combined however with an uneasy situation from the pastoral standpoint. I trust that in the near future solutions may be found to recover full communion with the priests and superiors of the Fraternity. In the meantime, motivated by the need to respond to the good of these faithful, through my own disposition, I establish that those who during the Holy Year of Mercy approach these priests of the Fraternity of St Pius X to celebrate the Sacrament of Reconciliation shall validly and licitly receive the absolution of their sins.
This is a huge deal. For anyone who doesn’t know who SSPX is, they are an organization that started in 1970 by Archbishop Lefebvre in response to the Second Vatican Counsel and the changes in the Liturgy that followed. Currently they are in over 60 countries, with 600 valid priests, hundreds of chapels, scores of schools (K-12), and nearly 10 seminaries with the main one in Switzerland. Since Pope Saint John Paul II excommunicated Lefebvre and his four new bishops for illicitly consecrating them in 1988, here are some milestones leading up to where we find ourselves at today:
- 2007 – Pope Benedict XVI issued Summorum Pontificum, liberating the Traditional Latin Mass (extraordinary form) for the first time since 1970
- 2009- Pope Benedict XVI lifted the 1988 excommunications placed by Pope Saint John Paul II
- 2009 – Conversations on bridging the gap between the Vatican and SSPX took place, ending in 2011 and resurfacing a couple times in 2012
- 2014 – Pope Francis allows SSPX priests to hold Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica (video below)
- 2015 – SSPX holds a large public demonstration and Mass in response to a “Black Mass” being held in Oklahoma City (video below documenting the event–worth watching)
- 2015 – Bishop Schneider (Kazakhstan) said in an interview: “To my knowledge there are no weighty reasons in order to deny the clergy and faithful of the SSPX the official canonical recognition, meanwhile they should be accepted as they are.”
So what of this letter? Well, it’s interesting that Pope Francis–seen by many as a progressive or “liberal” pope (a term I disagree with)–has been making some of the biggest strides to reconciling a group that is, conversely, seen by many as traditional and “conservative” (I will point out again that I disagree with these terms when it comes to Catholicism). Now he is using his authority to validate the absolution of their confessions in the upcoming ‘Year of Mercy’. Their Masses still remain valid yet illicit.
He also made a point to add “I trust that in the near future solutions may be found to recover full communion with the priests and superiors of the Fraternity”. This could very well come in the next year. Why would Francis give them the ability to validly absolve people through the sacrament of Confession and then remove that ability exactly a year after? That would be ridiculous.
It has already been pointed out that the Latin Mass has been flourishing under Francis; that, along with the recent events, means that Francis in indeed no obstacle to the Traditional Latin Mass–something that was feared by some early on. This entire situation is very interesting.
There is no doubt they are not a schismatic group because anyone involved in a schism is automatically excommunicated–they are not (and the now-lifted 1988 excommunications were for a different reason). They are simply not in full communion with the Roman Church due to their odd and “irregular” canonical status which many attribute simply to a situation that was blown out of proportion. However, I must caution that I do not know everything about SSPX history meaning I do not consider myself informed enough to form a solid opinion of the situation.