Pope Francis and the SSPX


Will Pope Francis be the pope to grant the SSPX full Canonical recognition?

For those who might have missed it, Pope Francis in a truly pastoral decision has just granted the priests of the Society of Saint Pius X (SSPX) the authority and jurisdiction of giving Confession and absolution, validly and licitly, during the Jubilee of the year of Mercy. Pope Francis wrote in the last paragraph of his letter touching upon the Jubilee year:

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.1

The SSPX themselves responded with profound gratitude:

The Society of St. Pius X learned, through the press, of the provisions taken by Pope Francis on the occasion of the upcoming Holy Year. In the last paragraph of his letter addressed September 1, 2015, to Archbishop Rino Fisichella, president of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization

The Society of St. Pius X expresses its gratitude to the Sovereign Pontiff for this fatherly gesture… During this year of conversion, the priests of the Society of St. Pius X will have at heart to exercise with renewed generosity their ministry in the confessional, following the example of tireless dedication which the holy Cure of Ars gave to all priests.2

As you read the last paragraph of Pope Francis’ letter you can see that he not only granted the SSPX full faculties of hearing Confessions both validly and licitly for the Jubilee of Mercy, but he also talks about his hopes of solutions to be discussed in regards to recovering full communion to the priests of the fraternity in the near future.

I highly think that this papal action by Pope Francis does in fact leave room to believe that we might (God willing) see the SSPX be fully reconciled and given regular canonical recognition before the end of his papacy or at least in the not too distant future.

This is truly remarkable because it seems that much negotiations have been done in order to bring back the SSPX under Pope Francis than has ever been done even under Pope Benedict XVI. Benedict himself did a lot in passing Summorum Pontificum, as well as in his papal action to uplift the excommunications of several SSPX priests who were invalidly ordained, and lastly in his admiration of the Traditional Latin Mass.

However Pope Francis has shown that he cares about bringing the SSPX towards full canonical recognition. This recent gesture of Pope Francis in regards to granting the Society Priests the authority of Confessing validly and licitly during the Jubilee year can point to several other actions towards the Society Priests that have occurred either during Pope Francis’ pontificate or at least connected to the person of Francis explicitly or implicitly. Pope Francis has taken about three specific actions that seem to show this trend.

  1.  The first action can be seen in the fact that the SSPX received official State recognition as Catholic in Argentina, which was a process that begun when Pope Francis was still then Cardinal Bergolio of Buenos Aires and which was completed this year.
  2.  Similarly this can be seen in the fact that Pope Francis empowered the SSPX Superior General Bishop Bernard Fellay to preside over a canonical trial involving an SSPX priest.
  3.  The last and perhaps the biggest papal action towards unity with the SSPX is based on dispatching and assigning Auxiliary Bishop Athanasius Schneider of Astana, Kazakstan as Pope Francis’ personal representative to the SSPX seminaries and formation houses. Bishop Athanasius Schneider who has been appointed to this mission has stated the following:

When the SSPX believes, worship and conducts a moral [life] as it was demanded and recognized by the Supreme Magisterium and was observed universally in the Church during a centuries long period and when the SSPX recognizes the legitimacy of the Pope and the diocesan bishops and prays for them publicly and recognizes also the validity of the sacraments according to the editio typica of the new liturgical books, this should suffice for a canonical recognition of the SSPX on behalf of the Holy See. Otherwise the often repeated pastoral and ecumenical openness in the Church of our days will manifestly lose its credibility and the history will one day reproach to the ecclesiastical authorities of our days that they have “laid on the brothers greater burden than required” (cf. Acts 15:28), which is contrary to the pastoral method of the Apostles.3

He goes on to say regarding the situation with the SSPX

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. This was indeed Archbishop Lefebvre’s petition to the Holy See: “Accept us as we are”. 

I think the issue of Vatican II should not be taken as the “conditio sine qua non”, since it was an assembly with primarily pastoral aims and characteristics. A part of the conciliar statements reflects only its time and possesses a temporary value, as disciplinary and pastoral documents do. When we look in a two millennia old perspective of the Church, we can state, that there is on both sides (Holy See and the SSPX) an over-evaluation and over-estimation of a pastoral reality in the Church, which is Vatican II.4

It seems a bit strange that of all popes it would be Pope Francis in whose papacy the most work for bringing the SSPX towards full canonical recognition would be accomplished. In all reality and I say this in a most respectful way, that Pope Francis has not been the most doctrinally savvy pope. he has been criticized by various Traditional and Conservative leaning Catholics, many times for good reasons, for Pope Francis being pastorally imprudent at times in what he says and in some actions he has taken.

I would however say and agree with my friend Boniface in his article Restoration of SSPX Faculties that it is specifically Francis’ pastoral approach and concern for unity in Faith in the Catholic Church that has moved Pope Francis to work with the SSPX and their canonical situation. Boniface states:

It is ironic that Francis, in his obvious lack of any care for the specifics of doctrine, is better poised to reconcile the SSPX than Benedict, for whom every doctrinal issue had to be settled first. Francis’ approach to the SSPX has only been generous thus far; it is not perfect. He no doubt sees the SSPX and traditionalism as one of many “ways” of “expressing” the infinite “creativity” of the Holy Spirit’s movement within Catholicism. Trads are one member of the group under the big tent – a stodgy, ill-manner, sour-faced, funereal, rosary counting member, but a member none the less. And there is room under the tent for us, just like there is for charismatics, Novus Ordo Catholics, and every other little group within the Church (whatever he means by that word). 

I am fairly certain this is Francis’ ecclesiology. And from the point of view of the SSPX’s situation, it is good, because it means that Francis values getting them in the tent rather than making sure they agree on everything before they can come in.5

This being said while I can’t always agree with Pope Francis’ pastoral approach in regards to certain situations, it does show that bringing back the SSPX to fullness in the flock by granting them full canonical recognition is a chief concern and priority for Francis and rightly so. As the last paragraph indicates in Boniface’s post, I think we can see this trend of granting the SSPX full canonical recognition within Francis’ papacy or at least in the near future.


1)Pope FrancisArchbishop Rino Fisichella President of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization
2)Communiqué of the General House of the Society of St. Pius X on the letter of Pope Francis at the approach of the Holy Year (September 1, 2015)
3)Bishop Athanasius Schneider: “there are no weighty reasons in order to deny the clergy and faithful of the SSPX the official canonical recognition”
5)Restoration of SSPX Faculties

photo credit: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:SSPX_Mass.jpg

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