A question of principles: SSPX vs. FSSP

Source: District of Australia and New Zealand

At the close of the year 2013, we offer this excellent summary by Fr. Francois Laisney, in which he outlines the crucial difference between the Society of St. Pius X and the Fraternity of St. Peter.

The FSSP and the SSPX: a question of principles

1988: a double anniversary

This year 2013 marks the 25th anniversary of the episcopal consecrations by Archbishop Lefebvre and Bishop de Castro Mayer. It also marks the 25th anniversary of the founding of the Fraternity of St. Peter, by 12 priests of the SSPX (and a group of seminarians) who felt they could no longer in good conscience follow Archbishop Lefebvre. They received papal approval, and tried to do what the SSPX was doing.

This double anniversary is an occasion to look back at the reasons and results of their separation.

False reason: papal approval

Some think the only difference is that they have papal approval and the SSPX does not. If that were true, then these priests should have left the SSPX many years earlier, nay since 1975 or 1976 at the latest. Indeed already at that time Archbishop Lefebvre had had to choose an appearance of disobedience in order to continue to transmit that which he had received, the Catholic Faith and Catholic Liturgy of all times in spite of an unprecedented attack against the Faith. Remember the Ordination sermon of 1976. Indeed Fr. Bisig had lived and served the Church well in the SSPX for 12 years, i.e., for all his priesthood and even more, before leaving. So he certainly agreed with all the principles of the supplied jurisdiction in such case of necessity.

The true reason: the crisis of Faith heightened by Assisi—hence the need of bishops

If one reads the message of Pope Francis to the FSSP on their jubilee, it seems that in 1988 the only “great trial for the Church” was a separation, for which the FSSP received a “mission of reconciliation”. Was it truly?

Rather, the “great trial for the Church” at that time was—and still is—the crisis of the Faith, made more acute by the ecumenical meeting of Assisi in October 1986. This meeting was indubitably a major reason for the June 1988 Consecrations of bishops. Faced with a scandal of such magnitude, there was need of a strong remedy! When the pope himself gives such a bad example[1]—which has been followed by many bishops afterwards—there is need of protecting the faithful in their fidelity to the Faith of all times by providing them uncompromising bishops.

The Fraternity of St. Peter falsely claims that they enjoyed the same “protocol” that had been agreed by Archbishop Lefebvre. This is evidently not true, in the simple fact that perhaps the most important point of that protocol was the granting of a bishop for the SSPX. Archbishop Lefebvre himself said in the sermon of the Consecrations that the consecration of a bishop had been approved in principle by the pope—only the practical application had been made impossible by the unending delays imposed by the Vatican bureaucracy. But the Fraternity of St. Peter never got a bishop.

However without good bishops, a seminary could not form good priests—at the time of the ordination, the ordaining bishop could easily say: unless you accept this or that, you won’t be ordained.

The battle for the Faith—how can one be silent on the errors of Vatican II?

That the Fraternity of St. Peter has not been exempt from this danger is evident in the very letter of the pope for their jubilee: they are required to follow the orientations of the Conciliar Constitution on the Liturgy, and the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which includes the new doctrines of Vatican II; they are required to work for a better comprehension and application of Vatican II.

As if there was nothing wrong in Vatican II and in the Novus Ordo.

Vatican II logically leads to Assisi… and to the silent apostasy which John Paul II himself could not but acknowledge later on. The major errors of Vatican II—religious freedom, collegiality and ecumenism—have been denounced by Archbishop Lefebvre from the beginning and are continuing to destroy the faith of many—silently but most efficaciously. Not counting the moral problems in the clergy (not only paedophilia, homosexuality, but also concubinage and dereliction of duty such as the duty to hear confessions), which moral problems are consequences of the loss of spiritual life often due to the worldly orientations given by the Council, the major problem of the church today is the loss of Faith both in the faithful and the clergy, perhaps even more in the clergy.[2]

The inability of the Church to effectively resist these growing evils of the world is rooted in these errors of Vatican II. But that, you are very unlikely to ever hear from the FSSP.

The Catholic Faith is not optional

Why? Because Faith—the true Faith, the Catholic Faith—is not an opinion, but a certitude, based on the testimony of God (I Jn. 5:10): the Catholic Faith is not optional, but obligatory. This obligation is very clearly affirmed by Our Lord Himself: “He that believeth and is baptized, shall be saved: but he that believeth not shall be condemned” (Mk. 16:16). Any subjective faith is not sufficient: there is need of the objectively true Faith, the Catholic Faith. And error in matter of Faith is not something of no importance, it is a very grave evil that can lead to eternal damnation. And ignorance does not save, it is the true Faith that is the beginning of salvation: “What do you ask of the Church of God? Faith. What does Faith offer you? Eternal life. If you wish to enter life, keep the commandments…” This is the very beginning of the (traditional) rite of Baptism, made optional in the new rite.

You ask the true Faith from the true Church, and this true Faith leads you to eternal life—and there is no other way to eternal life! Because “God our Savior… will have all men to be saved, and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (I Tim. 2:2-3). Our Lord Jesus Christ is the Savior; He came to save all men; no man can say: “I don’t need Jesus Christ Savior.” No man may say: “I don’t want Jesus Christ Savior.” God gave us our freedom, not to reject His Law but to obey out of love, not to reject His Son our Savior but to receive Him with love! Our Lord Jesus Christ is not optional!

Religious freedom and ecumenism undermine this Catholic principle, and thus undermines the faith of millions; the first victims are among the clergy, precisely because teaching error makes them the first casualties of these errors.

When teachers do not teach

Now the Catholic Faith is taught by the Catholic Church—that means, by the bishops and the pope who are the teaching Church, and by the priests who are their helpers, and also by parents to their children, etc. The crisis of Faith, which the Church is passing through now, comes from the very fact that those whose mission is to teach the Faith often fail to do so.[3] Thus already in the 1960s, parents were appalled to see the catechism changing and their children no longer learning the Faith properly. Among Jean Madiran’s[4] requests to the pope was: “give us back the Catechism!

How then do the faithful distinguish, among the teaching of members of the teaching Church that which is Church’s teaching, and that which is their own opinion (often erroneous and sometimes even heretical)?

Second difference: a true or exaggerated notion of papal infallibility

Here we come to a second principle that is at the root of the separation of the FSSP from the SSPX. It is an exaggerated notion of the infallibility of the pope. The First Vatican Council defined that the pope was guaranteed not to err whenever he defined ex cathedra, and properly gave four criteria to recognise when such definition happened—and Canon Law wisely says that no doctrine ought to be considered as “defined” unless it is manifestly so, i.e., unless these four criteria are clearly fulfilled. But outside of these cases, is the pope guaranteed not to err whenever he uses his authority, or are there some conditions for a proper use of authority, even for the pope, and what are these conditions?

The 1988 dilemma: Pope or Tradition

In 1988, every priest of the SSPX had to make a choice between two important principles, represented by two persons, Pope John Paul II and Archbishop Lefebvre, because the first threatened (and did try) to excommunicate the second. Pope John Paul II personified the need to be attached to the successor of Peter,[5] and Archbishop Lefebvre personified the need to be faithful to the Tradition of the Church. It seems evident to me that all the SSPX priests at the time, including Fr. Bisig and his co-founders of the FSSP, held both principles and wanted to keep both principles; neither of them wanted to approve Assisi nor to be excommunicated. Yet practically they had to choose on which side to remain.

Pascal Wager

For some faithful, the matter seemed very clear—almost by the Gift of Counsel. But I humbly acknowledge that it was not so clear to me. I solved the dilemma in this concrete way: I considered that at the end of the world, at the General Judgement, there were only four possibilities: either John Paul II and Archbishop Lefebvre would be both on the left, or both on the right, or the first on the right and the second on the left, or the second on the right and the first on the left! Very simple—almost mathematical. I then excluded the first option, saying that, if both are damned, I really did not know where to turn myself! In the second case, I said that there was no danger in following either of them, and it was better to follow the “faithful bishop” than the pope of Assisi.

As for the last two cases, I said that if one will be on the left and the other on the right, it will be Archbishop Lefebvre on the right and John Paul II on the left, because it is impossible that the one who has been faithful all his life and whose only “fault” would be to continue and transmit that which he had received from the Church would be condemned while the pope who had done so much novelties in ecumenism, doing things that would have evidently been condemned had they been done by a bishop any time before Vatican II, would be right in his condemnation of the former just because he happened to be the pope! Authority does not change good into evil and evil into good! Kissing the Koran, as Pope John Paul II did later, remains evil even if done by a pope; keeping the Faith of all times and insuring its transmission to the next generations remains good even if forbidden by the pope.

The facts: why did the Archbishop make his decision?

Later, gathering the documents for the book Archbishop Lefebvre and the Vatican, the reasons for Archbishop Lefebvre became more documented and clear. On one hand, there was a man concerned for the purity of the Faith and its faithful transmission, on the other were men who—though they did not have arguments to refute him—used their position of power to put delays and delays… until he would die.

Indeed, in the May 5th protocol they granted him the right to consecrate a bishop, but when on May 6th he asked that this good decision be fulfilled by concretely giving both a date without further delays and a definite candidate, 24 days later he was given indeed a date for the Consecration (August 15th, which was already six weeks after the deadline of June 30th he had mentioned) but in that answer he was requested to propose new candidates: now given the time for him to prepare another “terna” (list of three candidates) and the time for Rome to process it, there was just not enough time for the proposed date of August 15, 1988; thus that meant: “we give you a date, but we know very well that it is an impossible date, and it will have to be further postponed!

Now that was really not honest, because if they had objections to the names he had already given, they had had many months to tell him before the Protocol! He had already postponed the date of the consecrations many times (June 30th was the fourth date), and he would simply not play that game any longer. Their desire just to postpone it… until he died was too clear, and not honest.

But what about the pope?

It almost seems that some among the FSSP would make of the motu proprio, Ecclesia Dei Adflicta the definition of a dogma, an infallible sentence! Now, that does not make sense, for many reasons.

First because there is not special point of faith or morals that is defined by this motu proprio: nowhere does it say, “if anyone says such and such, let him be anathemaand because Archbishop Lefebvre said so, he is anathema.”

Secondly, if one says that what is “defined” is that Archbishop Lefebvre is excommunicated, then there is no sanction on those who do not agree with that, and therefore it does not impose to agree with such judgement, and fails the fourth condition defined by Vatican I.

Thirdly because it completely ignores the case of necessity which was explicitly invoked by Archbishop Lefebvre: now no proper judgement of a judge can ignore the defence; it is simply against justice. Fourthly, if it had been such a “definition”, no Roman University should have even allowed Fr. Murray to present a case arguing against. And one would easily present more reasons.

Authentic Magisterium?

But is not the pope also sometimes infallible in the exercise of his ordinary magisterium?

Sometimes, yes, but when? What is the criterion of infallibility of the ordinary magisterium? In answering this question one must be quite careful. Indeed here exactly we find the modern exaggeration of the infallibility of the pope, common among many conservatives, and somehow at the root of the “hermeneutic of continuity” of Pope Benedict.

Here is how they achieved this exaggeration: they introduce a new notion, speaking about “authentic magisterium”, which would be below the extraordinary definitions in the sense of Vatican I, and yet which they do not allow to put in question at all. And they put the whole Vatican II Council in that category, and many other documents of the modern magisterium also.

Now one could accept a notion of “authentic” magisterium, in the sense that among the acts of bishops—and popes—there are some very ordinary ones (letters to individuals, sermons…) and other more formal occasions (e.g., encyclicals to all the bishops of the world, pastoral letters of a bishop for his whole diocese, synods of bishops, councils), which are indubitably more important, and thus could be called “authentic”. In that sense, one could say that Vatican II is part of the “authentic” magisterium. Such magisterium would still be a subset of the “ordinary magisterium” and subject to the same essential criteria.

But to claim that all this authentic magisterium is infallible is not traditional teaching.

Magisterium versus judgment

The Church used to distinguish between extraordinary and ordinary magisterium. However the exact terms of Vatican I are that we “should hold as of Faith that which is proposed by the Church either through a solemn judgement or ordinary and universal magisterium as to be believed as divinely revealed” (Denzinger [Dz.] 1792). By opposition to the “ordinary” magisterium, the solemn judgements are often designed as “extraordinary” magisterium. But note that the Council (Vatican I) does not speak of “magisterium”, but rather of “judgement”.

Indeed there is an essential difference between a judgement (the act of a judge) and magisterium (the act of a teacher/magister). A judge carefully weighs each word of a sentence, which he wants as concise and clear as possible, pronounces his sentence once, and does not repeat himself. On the contrary, a teacher who would not repeat himself would not be a good teacher! A teacher explains, exposes, develops, explicates in many ways the same truth, looking at it from every side, giving examples, etc. What gets through into the mind of the students is that which is common in all these words of their teacher: thus repetition is (almost) of the essence of teaching (at least for humans after the fall, with the wound of ignorance.)

Solemn judgements

Now the judgement of a lower court can be appealed to the higher court, but the judgement of the Supreme Court cannot be appealed. In the Church, our Lord Jesus Christ, who is the Supreme Judge, has granted the privilege of infallibility to his vicar on earth, when he “binds and looses”, i.e., when he judges in a final way. It seems important to see clearly that infallibility as defined by Vatican I applies to such judgements, i.e., final judgements as Supreme Judge on earth (vicar of the Supreme Judge in Heaven).

Not every judgement of a judge is a final judgement; the same judge can render ordinary judgements, or solemn judgements—only the final ones are infallible. Infallibility applies to the solemn sentences of the supreme judge on earth, not to every word and consideration he makes before rendering his sentence. Now a Council is a typical case of solemnity, but if there is no sentence in such Council, then there is no infallibility. Thus by the very fact that Vatican II did not want to condemn anyone, it did not render any sentence, and thus was not infallible.

Also, the very fact of lowering the standards[6] makes it clear that one does not intend to pronounce a supreme sentence, which would bind the Church until the end of times—indeed judgements are acts of prudence, and one cannot have low standards of prudence for a supreme judgement. Infallible sentences are unreformable “ex sese” says Vatican I (Dz. 1839), that on their own, independently from other pronouncements.

Ordinary Magisterium

Pronouncements of the ordinary magisterium, on the contrary, are not infallible ex sese: precisely because it belongs to the nature of teaching (magisterium) to include repetition. It is thus the consensus of the teaching—quod ab omnibus, quod ubique, quod semper—what was taught by all, everywhere and always—that is the criteria of truth for the ordinary magisterium. The most essential aspect there is the “always”: indeed the teaching of the Church is the truth in as much as it is the continuation of the teaching of our Lord Jesus Christ, of the Apostles and their successors: if it comes from Christ, then it is true; if it does not come from Christ, then it does not belong to the teaching of the Church! Novelty has always been the sign of heresy. Now that does not mean that everything has to be explicitly in the Gospel; there is indeed a legitimate development of doctrine, but it is from the implicit to the explicit, exposing the richness contained in the deposit of Faith—not changing it.

The right faith is “to hold that which was held since the Church of Christ was established, that which has been received from the Fathers, that which has been transmitted to their successors.”[8] St. Paul sums this up beautifully in one word: “Let a man so account of us as of the ministers of Christ, and the dispensers of the mysteries of God. Here now it is required among the dispensers, that a man be found faithful” (I Cor. 4:1-2).

So fidelity is the one quality that he requires in the ministers of Christ, i.e., the priests, bishops and above all of them, the popes; that fidelity can be summed up in these other words of St. Paul: “I delivered unto you first of all, which I also received—tradidi quod et accepi” (I Cor. 15:3). When the pope does that, when the bishops do that, then they are part of that ordinary and universal magisterium which teaches the Faith infallibly—not that their individual pronouncement alone (ex sese) is infallible, but that their common agreement with that which has always been taught in the Church is the sign of its divine origin, and thus of infallibility.

Fidelity is the criteria

Thus one can say that fidelity is the criteria of the ordinary and universal magisterium: one recognizes that what a pope says, what a bishop says belongs to that ordinary and universal magisterium when one can see that he is faithfully transmitting that which he has received. On the contrary, when it is clear that what is taught by a prelate is a novelty, then it is thereby clear that he does not “fit in” the universal (in time as in space) magisterium; he speaks of his own, not of what he has received from Christ.

To introduce an “authentic magisterium” that would no longer need to be “faithful”, no longer need to be in continuity with past magisterium in order to require full assent of the faithful, is itself a novelty. To pretend that this magisterium is necessarily in continuity, no matter what it says, is the error of the “hermeneutic of continuity”, as if continuity were an automatic consequence of, and not a pre-condition required for its authenticity.

SSPX versus FSSP: true versus false notion of the magisterium

It seems to me that this exaggeration of the infallibility of the pope is at the root of the difference between the FSSP and the SSPX. For the FSSP, the pope could not be wrong in excommunicating Archbishop Lefebvre. For the SSPX, Archbishop Lefebvre was right in “transmitting what he had received”, including his very episcopate, to assure the faithful transmission of the Catholic Faith, “without which Faith no one can be justified”.[9]

Fidelity is the principle of the SSPX

That great principle of fidelity is the very principle of the Society of St. Pius X, fidelity to the faith of all times, fidelity to the liturgy of all times, fidelity to the faith of the saints, fidelity to the Mass of the saints, fidelity to the morals of the saints, fidelity to the Church! It was the very principle of Archbishop Lefebvre’s whole life: “tradidi quod et accepi—I have transmitted that which I have received.” We are founded to hope that he will receive the reward promised to the “faithful servant: enter into the joy of thy master!” (Mt. 25:21,23)

May the Virgin most faithful help all of us to remain “faithful until death”, so as to receive the crown of life (Apoc. 2:10)!


1 Even Fr. Bisig in 1986 did not agree with Assisi. Anyone must acknowledge that if a bishop had done such a meeting 50 years earlier, he would have most certainly been condemned (Mortalium Animos is just 58 years earlier). Does evil become good when done by a pope? The pope does not make good and evil; his mission is to teach what is good, to judge it, but not to change it! How could any Catholic justify Buddha worship on Catholic altars? Yet at Assisi, Buddhists were given by the pope a Catholic church to perform their worship! This is the consequence of putting the Vicar of Christ on the same level as representatives of all kinds of false religions. This is a most grave sin against the First Commandment.

But one would hardly find in the Fraternity of St. Peter a criticism of the 1986 meeting of Assisi, nor of the very dangerous official statements that are so common from today’s Church hierarchs, even from popes, such as “we have the same God as the Muslims; the Old Testament is still a valid mean of salvation for Jews”, etc.

2 Scott Hahn himself—who cannot be accused of being a traditional Catholic—mentions “Catholics who had abandoned their Faith but who would not relinquish their positions of power.” Rome, Sweet Home, p.119-120.

3 They are more concerned with “youth unemployment and the loneliness of the old” which is for them “the most serious of the evils that afflict the world these days.” See the interview of Pope Francis in La Repubblica, 10-1-2013.

4 Mr. Jean Madiran was a worker of the first hour, founder of the magazine Itineraires, which fought the good fight from the late 50s, defending the Faith against the progressivists! It was in his magazine that the Declaration of Archbishop Lefebvre of November 21, 1974 was published for the first time.

5 Note that even during and after the Consecrations, Archbishop Lefebvre and the Society of St. Pius X have continued to hold that principle, and have continued to reject sedevacantism in all its forms; but we also hold with St. Thomas that one can recognise the possession of authority and yet resist an abuse of that authority: indeed St. Thomas teaches that it is the same moral virtue of obedience that avoids and the default of disobedience (not to execute legitimate orders) and the excess of servility (to execute illegitimate orders) (See Ia IIae q.64 a.1, IIa IIae q.104 a.5). To those who thought, “Let Archbishop Lefebvre die and the SSPX will die with him”, he just would not let the SSPX and Tradition die, he provided for its faithful transmission.

6 E.g., in the case of the new canonisations, where the requirements for miracles were dispensed, etc.

7 St. Vincent of Lerins, Commonitorium, 2, 6.

8 See St Augustine, de peccatorum meritis et remissione, III 6.12.

9 Council of Trent.