In this article published with permission of the SSPX's General House in Menzingen, Fr Paul Robinson addresses the question of whether a Pope must have the faith of a traditionalist for it to be right for the SSPX to receive canonical recognition from him.
In the debate as to whether the SSPX should accept a personal prelature from a Pope Francis pontificate, some have opined that the SSPX should not be considering whether canonical recognition is opportune or prudent. Rather, the real question to be asked is whether the SSPX and Pope Francis share the same goal and have the same faith. If not, then it is wrong in principle even to consider accepting canonical recognition. If so, then and only then could it be right in principle, allowing one to move to discern whether it is also prudent.
The implied position of those who express this opinion is that Pope Francis does not have the same faith or the same goal as the SSPX, and so it would be in principle wrong to accept canonical recognition under a Pope Francis pontificate. Not only that, it would be illogical, for “to establish legal unity without real unity would … be contradictory.”
This article will seek to show that it is not, in principle, wrong to accept canonical recognition from a Modernist Pope, and also attempt to determine a criterion by which one can determine the degree to which collaboration with a Modernist Pope is acceptable. This article will not consider whether it is prudent, in the current circumstances, for the SSPX to accept a personal prelature from Pope Francis.
The first fact to be noted about the position above is that it runs contrary to the spirit informing the entire history of the SSPX. Let us take a brief review of that history to see that such is the case.
It would not seem too difficult to establish that Pope Paul VI had strong Modernist tendencies. Yet the SSPX was canonically erected under the pontificate of Paul VI and was recognized as a pious union from 1970-75. Thus, at least in the mind of the Archbishop, it cannot be wrong, under all circumstances, to collaborate with a Modernist Pope to the extent of having a canonical structure under him.
The events leading up to 1988 are perhaps even more instructive on this score. When one understands that Archbishop Lefebvre was waiting for signs that he should consecrate bishops and that after receiving two such signs, in the form of Modernist scandals on the part of Rome, he then went to Rome seeking canonical recognition, one should draw the general principle: Modernist scandals, of themselves, are not an obstacle to receiving canonical recognition at the hands of those who have perpetrated those scandals.
At the same time, the Archbishop withdrew his signature to the protocol that was to provide a canonical structure, because he lost trust in those with whom he was negotiating. After the trying ordeal was over, he acknowledged that a greater traditionalism on the part of the Romans—in their doctrine—would provide solid grounds for trust. Thus, for him, evaluating the faith of the Pope was grounds for evaluating the acceptance of canonical recognition—not as to whether it is possible, but rather whether it is prudent. If the Pope can be trusted to allow the SSPX to remain “as is” and exercise its ministry—the “experiment of Tradition”—with sufficient autonomy, then canonical recognition is a good for the Church and should be accepted.
This same line has been followed by the SSPX in its 21st century dealings with the Roman hierarchy. The SSPX has never gone to Rome, asking that the Pope and the hierarchy convert to traditionalism before the possibility of canonical recognition even be considered. It has never demanded a profession of faith by the Pope, a recantation of heresy, a syllabus of errors, or any such. To do so would imply that the SSPX was the superior and the Pope the inferior, that it was a question of the Pope receiving legal recognition from the SSPX rather than the other way around. In short, it would imply a schismatic spirit.
The SSPX has rather only made demands that correspond to its proper position, especially the demand to be left “as is”. It attempted to lay down in the General Chapter of 2012 six conditions—none of which concerned the Pope’s faith—to make sure that it would remain intact and sufficiently autonomous under a hypothetical canonical recognition.
This is not to say that members of the SSPX, even very high up, have not been at times tempted to hold that the true spirit of the Archbishop and so of the SSPX demands that the Pope profess doctrinal traditionalism before there can be any practical recognition. That is, after all, the stance of that loose conglomeration of ex-SSPX priests that goes under the name of “The Resistance” and which has a former SSPX bishop as one of its members.
What is being affirmed here is that the “strict unity of faith before canonical recognition” position has never, at any time, been the official position of the SSPX, neither in the time of the Archbishop nor since his death.
In principle, then, it must be possible to collaborate in some way with a Modernist Pope. Let us just zoom out a bit from the SSPX-Rome talks, so as to understand a fact that is absolutely fundamental for this discussion: the SSPX has always collaborated to some degree with the post-Conciliar Popes. Three principles will help clarify that such is specifically the case with Pope Francis.
The first principle is that the SSPX accepts Pope Francis as being Pope. Archbishop Lefebvre, while showing a certain tolerance for individual sedevacantists, always refused sedevacantism at the level of his priestly fraternity. To this day, candidates to major orders in the SSPX must affirm before the Blessed Sacrament the night before their ordination that the Pope is the Pope.
The second principle is that Pope Francis is Pope of the Catholic Church. What this means is that he holds the highest office in an institution established by Our Lord Jesus Christ. As such, he has not decided and cannot decide the finality of that institution. The Church is the Church regardless of his personal feeling about it. This is perhaps a rare instance when it would be proper for him to say, “Who am I to judge?”
This is to be kept in mind when we consider certain directions in which Pope Francis has apparently tried to steer the Church. He seems, for instance, to want the Church to be an agent of ecological ideology, in its modern anti-human form, as embodied by such persons as Jeffrey Sachs and Paul Ehrlich. Needless to say, it is not part of the Church’s mission to foster ‘sustainability goals’, especially when they involve drastic reductions of the world’s population. This is true regardless of whether Pope Francis believes or wants it to be part of the Church’s mission.
Thirdly and finally, the members of the SSPX as well as its faithful are already members of the real society of the Catholic Church over which Pope Francis is the visible head. In other words, they have a real unity with Pope Francis—not with Pope Francis in his ‘personal magisterium’, but with Pope Francis as Pope. They acknowledge him to be the governing head of the Church, they put his picture in their chapels, they mention him by name at Mass and Benediction. These acts are neither hypocritical posturings nor vain symbols; they indicate the real unity that exists between the SSPX and the Pope. They indicate that the SSPX is collaborating, at least to some degree, with Pope Francis for the interests of Holy Mother Church.
Canonical Recognition not a Joining
The fact of SSPX’s already existing real unity with Pope Francis brings home a second key fact often missed by personal prelature refusalists: canonical recognition of the SSPX by Pope Francis is not about the SSPX joining something. It is rather about the SSPX being given legal standing in a body to which it is already really united.
Too often, refusalists frame the discussion of SSPX-Rome relations as if there is question of the SSPX getting membership in the ‘Church of Francis’, when in fact there is nothing for the SSPX to join to which it does not already belong. The SSPX would be joining an organization only if:
the SSPX were currently schismatic and so outside the Church—something we vehemently deny
the Roman authorities constituted a non-Catholic church in the strict organizational sense of the term—something we also deny.
Many of us in the SSPX have had conversations with Novus Ordo relatives or friends in which they, judging by superficial appearances, have accused us of being ‘outside the Church’ because our parishes are not approved by the diocese. And we have, no doubt, explained to them that the separation is only apparent since we fully accept the authority of the Pope and bishops. But just as the ‘separation’ from Church authorities caused by the lack of a canonical structure is only apparent, so too the ‘joining’ of something by accepting a canonical structure is only apparent. If the Pope gave the SSPX a personal prelature, it would appear to some that thereby the SSPX would enter into communion with the Church (‘full communion’ in their terminology!). In reality, nothing would have changed in the SSPX’s communion with the Church. That communion would have existed integrally both before and after the conferral of a canonical structure.
This point is an important one in light of those who hold that canonical recognition is wrong in any situation where the Pope does not have the same faith in the Catholic Church as traditionalists do, because traditionalists would then be seeking to unite their efforts with someone who does not share the same goal. The fact is that traditionalists must necessarily unite their efforts to some degree with Pope Francis, simply by acknowledging him as Pope and trying to promote the interests of the institution of which he is the visible head. Pope Francis’s Modernist faith cannot, then, be a complete obstacle to collaboration.
If we agree that a total unity of faith with the Sovereign Pontiff is not, of itself, necessary for collaboration, the question then becomes: is canonical recognition of the SSPX one of those areas wherein collaboration with a Modernist Pope is possible? Or does Modernism positively exclude such a possibility, since the collaboration is at the level of a canonical structure?
Levels of collaboration
If we were to attempt to lay down a general principle as to the circumstances when collaboration with a legitimate Pope of doubtful faith is good and when it is not, it would be this: collaboration with such a Pope is good when it is morally certain that he is working for the good of the Church and bad when it is morally certain that he is not.
This seems to be the principle under which the Archbishop was operating. In his anti-sedevacantist 1982 ordination sermon, he stated,
In spite of the wounds in the Church, in spite of the difficulties, the persecution we are enduring, even from those in authority in the Church, let us not abandon the Church, let us love the Holy Church our mother, let us serve her always—in spite of the authorities, if necessary … we want to support the Holy Roman Catholic Church.
Apologia pro Marcel Lefebvre, vol. III, pp. 415-416
When he says “in spite of the authorities, if necessary”, he is implicitly saying “with the authorities, if possible”. Whatever comes, the SSPX must serve the Church, not churchmen as such. When churchmen act against the Church—and clearly so—the SSPX must not cooperate. In the case of the consecrations of 1988, the SSPX must even go so far as to act in opposition to Church authority in order to serve the Church. When churchmen act for the good of the Church, on the other hand, then of course the SSPX must cooperate. To do the contrary would be to work against the Church. This is true whether or not the churchmen acting for the good of the Church are Modernists or not, whether their faith aligns exactly with that of Traditional Catholics or not.
In regard to a personal prelature, Pope Francis’s personal magisterium, of itself, is not necessarily an obstacle to the SSPX using such a prelature for the good of the Church. The Pope does not have to be a staunch proponent of Pascendi for his hypothetical recognition of the SSPX to bear fruit. All he has to do is adhere to the terms of the prelature.
Example to illustrate
To see why it would not be wrong to collaborate with a Modernist Pope if he was performing an act on behalf of the Church’s true interests, consider the following example. Suppose there was an organization called ‘The Society of Savers’ in France, under the former socialist regime of François Hollande. It is a group of women who try to save expectant mothers and their unborn children from abortion. The Society is already working in France doing positive things for the common good of the people. However, they would do even more good if they were registered as a corporation by the government, that is, if they had legal status in the country. Now, assuming that Hollande’s government is legitimate, Hollande has received his authority from God and has received it for the purpose of fostering the common good. If Hollande himself hears of the request of The Society of Savers, knows what they are about, and chooses to incorporate as a legal body the society of those excellent women, he will be fostering the common good in deed and, in this instance at least, the women will be collaborating with the government for the good of the country.
Should the women scruple at receiving such a legal recognition from such a government, saying to themselves, “Hollande does not have the same idea of the common good that we have, and so we cannot work with him for the common good?” Clearly not, because Hollande, in this instance, is objectively working for the common good. Moreover, Hollande holds an authority that does not end with him, but rather ultimately rests in God. And God has determined the purpose of all societies and has conferred power on heads of state for the furtherance of that purpose. When, then, the Society of Savers is collaborating with Hollande for the common good of France, it is ultimately collaborating with God.
Of course, it would be important for the women to assure themselves that Hollande is not providing them with legal status as a trap by which he will later destroy them. But this question is one of prudence—a question outside of the discussion of this article—not one of principle. In principle, there is no problem with The Society of Savers, in this situation, accepting legal status from a socialist government.
This example is not meant to imply that the Church is equivalent to a civil government in every respect; it is rather only analogically similar. One major difference between the two, for instance, is that the Church can never fail as an institution. Our Lord has promised to be with it until the end of days, something He has not promised to any secular government. Thus, there could never be a situation when a Catholic would be justified in rejecting the governing authority of the Church, as such.
On the other hand, Catholics have been entitled to reject the governing authority of civil governments in some cases. Pope St. Pius V, for instance, advised English Catholics not to recognize the authority of Queen Elizabeth I during her nefarious reign.
Such a scenario is not possible for the Church, given that She, in her visible structure and the carrying out of her end, cannot fail. Thus, there cannot be any expectation on the part of Catholics—at least those who believe in her indefectibility—that they need to discern when and where to write off the governing body of the Church.
We mentioned above that the Pope has no power to change the purpose of the Church; his office is not something of his own creation, but comes from Our Lord Jesus Christ. The office was designed by Him for the furtherance of the Church’s goal, which is the salvation of souls, the reason for which Jesus Christ founded her. As such, the Pope, by his very office, is an instrument of Jesus Christ and works for the end of Jesus Christ, whenever he is not abusing his office. In fact, the Pope’s juridical acts have authority and force only insofar as they serve the interests of Jesus Christ.
Thus, when Pope Francis performs acts that serve the interests of the Church, the SSPX also serves the Church by collaborating with those acts. Surely, that is what is taking place when the SSPX gratefully accepts from the hands of Pope Francis ordinary jurisdiction for the performance of confessions and marriages.
The same general principle applies to the question of canonical recognition: if it serves the interests of the Church, the SSPX should collaborate; if it does not, the SSPX should not collaborate. For the Archbishop, the answer to this question was the same as the answer to the following: Will the SSPX be able to remain as it is and continue its work in freedom? Or will it be destroyed by a canonical recognition?
Those who see that question as being solely “What is the faith of the Pope?” seem to mistake the Pope for the Church, falling into a certain species of papalotry. They would seem to think that the good of the Church can only be identified with the good of the Pope’s personal magisterium. When that magisterium is correct, then canonical recognition fosters the good of the Church. When that magisterium is false in some respects, then the good of the Church cannot be fostered by a canonical recognition. Either the Pope lines up perfectly with his office or God-fearing Catholics cannot collaborate with him.
On the contrary, one can imagine many situations in which a canonical recognition of the SSPX would indeed foster the good of the Church, regardless of the personal faith of the Pope, and so should be accepted, if one truly wants to serve the Church. Whether such is the situation right now is not in the power of this article to judge. But that such a situation could exist should be evident to all. By the fact that it could exist, the position that the acceptance of a canonical recognition should be judged only on the basis of one’s unity with the Pope’s faith is found to be false.
Collaboration only when there is complete unity of faith with the Pope has never been the position of SSPX leadership, neither in the time of the Archbishop nor afterwards. As such, there has always been, to some degree, collaboration between the SSPX and the Pope, and some measure of collaboration exists at this moment. Generally speaking, collaboration must be refused when it is contrary to the Church’s interests and accepted when it is for the Church’s interests. Specifically, then, canonical recognition should be accepted if it is good for the Church and rejected if it is not, regardless of the Pope’s faith.