Pope Validates SSPX Confessions in the Jubilee Year for Mercy

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In a papal letter released today to the President of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization — the topic being the start of the Jubilee Year of Mercy — Pope Francis included a paragraph that reads as follows:

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.

The SSPX, for their part, have responded with the following statement:

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 Holy Father writes:

«I establish that those who during the Holy Year of Mercy approach these priests of the Society of St Pius X to celebrate the Sacrament of Reconciliation shall validly and licitly receive the absolution of their sins.»

The Society of St. Pius X expresses its gratitude to the Sovereign Pontiff for this fatherly gesture. In the ministry of the sacrament of penance, we have always relied, with all certainty, on the extrdaordinary jurisdiction conferred by the Normae generales of the Code of Canon Law. On the occasion of this Holy Year, Pope Francis wants all the faithful who wish to confess to the priests of the Society of St. Pius X to be able to do so without being worried.

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 Curé of Ars gave to all priests.

Menzingen,
September 1, 2015

To be honest, I don’t know what to say about this. I’ve been mulling it over all morning and I still am not sure. Sometimes it’s good to be first with a news story, more often it’s better to be right with your analysis of one, but I think that today I’m coming up empty on both fronts.

Some loose, off the top of my head thoughts on this:

Pope Francis is both unpredictable and autocratic. Mercy — the definition of which is up for grabs — is certainly a key theme of his pontificate. In what has become a famous anecdote, Pope Benedict XVI is alleged to have told Bishop Fellay, when pressed on his ability as pope to end the crisis in the Church, “My authority ends at that door.” Pope Francis seems not to feel so constrained. In fact, a “senior bishop” told Damian Thompson last summer that “Benedict allowed the Roman Curia, and specifically the Italians in it, to kill his pontificate. Francis will not permit that to happen.” According to Thompson, Francis “will strike first.”

It certainly seems that he has continuously defied expectations, making decisions independently of the Vatican political apparatus that keep everyone guessing.

While very few people think of Pope Francis — who is alleged to have described those who love the Traditional Mass as “addicted to a certain fashion” — as the possible reconciler of the SSPX, an anecdote shared with me some months ago by someone familiar with the Society indicated that in Argentina, then-Cardinal Bergoglio and the SSPX co-existed peacefully. I was told that the SSPX was engaged in the right sort of social work in Buenos Aires — caring for the poor, and so on — and so while there was no liturgical or theological connection, they were seen as compatible with his personal agenda and left alone.

With that in mind, there are two additional anecdotes in the above-cited column from Damian Thompson that appear germane. First this:

Jorge Bergoglio has little in common with Joseph Ratzinger apart from an intense, orthodox Catholic faith and a love of classical music. Like many Jesuits, Francis isn’t interested in liturgy. This is actually good news for traditionalists, because it means he won’t clamp down on the Latin Mass (with one baffling exception: the Franciscan Friars of the Immaculate, a new order whose use of the Old Missal has been brutally restricted).

And this:

Last year Francis described his ‘court’ as ‘the leprosy of the papacy’. By ‘court’ he may have been referring to monarchical trappings — but employees of the Curia suspected that he was talking about them. For those good priests who found themselves trapped in a sclerotic bureaucracy it came across as a needless insult. ‘Morale is tremendously low,’ says a Vatican source. ‘And matters aren’t helped by Latin American clergy swanning around Rome telling us how they’re bringing us simplicity. There’s a new ultramontanism of the left. You can disagree with anything the church teaches so long as you think Francis is fabulous.’

To me, this paints a picture of what we’re seeing unfold. Maybe Pope Francis really does have some fond memories of the SSPX from Argentina. Maybe his emphasis on Mercy makes this move make sense. Perhaps Bishop Schneider’s public statements as an official visitor to the SSPX — indicating that there are “no weighty reasons” that the Society should not be given canonical status “as they are” — was the push that led to this development, essentially breaking the decades-long timeout that the Society has suffered.

At the same time, I can’t help but be confused, for several reasons:

  • How can the SSPX be granted jurisdiction for confessions, but only for a year?
  • What does this say about their status vis-a-vis the spurious accusations that they are in schism?
  • How should this reflect on participation in their chapels in other respects? Should this reflect on their Masses, which some have claimed are an “attack on the Blessed Sacrament”? If they have the power to licitly absolve sins, can the priests of the SSPX absolve each other for offering something “worse than a Black Mass“? Or would that be a violation of Canon 977? (I’m being somewhat faecetious here, but you can see how this does open up a can of worms as regards typical arguments against participating in SSPX Masses.)
  • Why is the Society, and only the Society, singled out in this letter as being granted some particular favor under the auspices that the “Jubilee Year of Mercy” which “excludes no one”? Since no other groups, schismatic or otherwise, received similar mention, are we to conclude that the SSPX situation is entirely unique, and perhaps urgent?
  • What is in place to solidify the Holy Father’s statement, “I trust that in the near future solutions may be found to recover full communion with the priests and superiors of the Fraternity”?
  • Doesn’t this action confirm that the power to grant canonical status to the SSPX “as they are” exists at the will and pleasure of the pope, extending further the questions of “Why not full reconciliation? Why has this not happened before now? Why are there time limits on this if it is good for souls and a true expression of God’s mercy?”

There are oddities about the letter as a whole, not least of which is the fact that abortion is no longer considered a sin reserved to the Holy See according to the 1983 Code of Canon Law (Canons 13981356), so special faculties should not need to be granted to forgive these sins. That this is being overlooked with the SSPX bombshell should be noted, but it can be revisited at another time.

On the whole, this appears to be a good thing, and a positive step towards a full reconciliation between the Society and Rome. But I don’t feel like I’m seeing the whole picture yet. Do you?

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