Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and sacramental theology and director of the Sacerdos Institute at the Regina Apostolorum university.
Q: What is the status of Catholics attending the Mass of the Society of Saint Pius X? Years ago I thought we weren’t supposed to attend but could if out of necessity. But since then, overtures have been made from recent popes, and I think the rules have been relaxed. Are we now allowed to attend this Mass, and if so, are we allowed to receive Communion if we attend? – T.B., Courtenay, British Columbia
A: I dealt with a similar question on June 21, 2011. In that response I wrote in part:
“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 Pope Benedict XVI 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 these, 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.”
Thus far the 2011 response. There has been continuous contact between the Holy See and the Society of St. Pius X with a view toward reconciliation which unfortunately have not yet borne fruit. The canonical status of priests of the society remains practically unvaried.
Pope Francis, however, has granted two concessions regarding the sacraments of reconciliation and marriage. These concessions are above all for the benefit of the faithful who habitually attend the pastoral activities of the Society so as to guarantee the validity of confessions and marriages. I know that priests of the society would argue that they do not need these concessions, but this is not the place to enter into a canonical discussion. What is clear is that the Holy Father does consider that they need them and has granted them for the benefit of the faithful.
The point was officially explained in a missive issued on April 4, 2017: “Letter of the Pontifical Commission ‘Ecclesia Dei’ to the Ordinaries of the Episcopal Conferences concerned on the faculties for the celebration of marriages of the faithful of the Society Saint Pius X.”:
“Your Eminence, Your Excellency,
“As you are aware, for some time various meetings and other initiatives have been ongoing in order to bring the Society of St. Pius X into full communion. Recently, the Holy Father decided, for example, to grant all priests of said Society the faculty to validly administer the Sacrament of Penance to the faithful (Letter Misericordia et misera, n.12), such as to ensure the validity and liceity of the Sacrament and allay any concerns on the part of the faithful.
“Following the same pastoral outlook which seeks to reassure the conscience of the faithful, despite the objective persistence of the canonical irregularity in which for the time being the Society of St. Pius X finds itself, the Holy Father, following a proposal by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei, has decided to authorize Local Ordinaries the possibility to grant faculties for the celebration of marriages of faithful who follow the pastoral activity of the Society, according to the following provisions.
“Insofar as possible, the Local Ordinary is to grant the delegation to assist at the marriage to a priest of the Diocese (or in any event, to a fully regular priest), such that the priest may receive the consent of the parties during the marriage rite, followed, in keeping with the liturgy of the Vetus ordo, by the celebration of Mass, which may be celebrated by a priest of the Society.
“Where the above is not possible, or if there are no priests in the Diocese able to receive the consent of the parties, the Ordinary may grant the necessary faculties to the priest of the Society who is also to celebrate the Holy Mass, reminding him of the duty to forward the relevant documents to the Diocesan Curia as soon as possible.
“To the Ordinaries of the Episcopal Conferences concerned
“Certain that in this way 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 may be alleviated, and at the same time that the process towards full institutional regularization may be facilitated, this Dicastery relies on Your cooperation.
“The Sovereign Pontiff Francis, at the Audience granted to the undersigned Cardinal President of the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei on 24 March 2017, confirmed his approval of the present letter and ordered its publication.
“Rome, from the Offices of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, 27 March 2017. Gerhard Card. L. Müller, President. + Guido Pozzo, Secretary, Titular Archbishop of Bagnoregio”
Therefore, although some progress might have been made, and the Holy See desires a reconciliation, I believe that what I wrote above in 2011 regarding attending Masses of the society is still sound.
A Catholic who desires to attend a Mass in the extraordinary form should seek the nearest one available. First of all, he should check with the diocese which often publishes this information. There are also many private initiatives with similar notifications. If there is none available, then he or she should attend an ordinary form Mass or even any Eastern Catholic celebration so as to remain in full Catholic communion.
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 and receive Communion at such a Mass. It would also fulfill the Sunday obligation.
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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