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Excommunication—Communication an Essay in Layered Analysis. Four Reactions - III

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  18 March 2013

Catherine E. Clifford
Saint Paul University


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Theological Roundtable
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1 The Society of St. Pius X lists 491 priests serving 750 “Mass Centers,” 215 seminarians, 281 religious men and women, and counts several hundred thousand of lay followers.

These figures are cited by Pope Benedict XVI in “Letter of His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI to the Bishops of the Catholic Church Concerning the Remission of the Excom munication of the Four Bishops Consecrated by Archbishop Lefebvre (10 March 2009),” (accessed 22 September 2009). Six seminaries provide priestly formation in Switzerland, France, Germany, Austria, Argentina, and the United States (Winona, Minnesota). Fully one quarter of SSPX clergy and one half of their followers reside in France. The website for the American district lists 67 priests and 80 seminarians who serve 100 “chapels.” A Canadian web site lists over 35 “Mass centers” but provides no other statistics.

2 See, for example, Michel, Florian, “L'Action française et l'intégrisme catholique: les paradoxes d'un antiromanisme ultraromain,” in Michel, Florian and Sesboüé, Bernard, De Mgr Lefebvre à Mgr Williamson: Anatomie d'un schisme (Paris: Desclée de Brouwer, 2009), 1176.Google Scholar

3 See Origins 18/10 (4 August 1988): 151. This language indicates that much more is at play than matters of discipline or a mere disregard for papal authority. The canonical definition of schism requires “the refusal of submission to the Supreme Pontiff or of communion with the members of the church subject to him” (CIC 751). In his commentary on this canon, James A. Coriden notes the use of the term detrectatio, to indicate “an adamant refusal and persistent rejection of communion” (New Commentary on the Code of Canon Law, ed. Beal, John P., Coriden, James A., Green, Thomas A. [New York: Paulist, 2000], 916Google Scholar).

4 Paul, John II, Apostolic Letter Ecclesia Dei (motu proprio) (2 July 1988), no. 4, Scholar (accessed 22 September 2009). In this section, the pope cites Dei Verbum on the dynamic nature of revelation and tradition.

5 (accessed 22 September 2009). Perhaps the most unambiguous assertion of Lefebvre's views can be found is his 1974 manifesto: “We refuse, however, and have always refused to follow the Rome of neomodernist and neoprotestant tendencies which manifested itself in the Second Vatican Council and in all the Reforms that took place following the council. Indeed, all these Reforms have contributed, and continue to contribute to the demolition of the Church, to the ruin of the Priesthood, to the annihilation of the sacrifice and of the sacraments, to the disappearance of religious life, to a naturalist and teilhardian teaching in the universities, in seminaries and in catechesis, to a teaching born of Liberalism and Protestantism many times condemned by the solemn Magisterium of the Church. No authority, not even the highest authority of the hierarchy, can compel us to abandon or diminish our catholic faith which has been clearly expressed and professed by the Magisterium of the Church for nineteen centuries…. One cannot modify the lex orandi without modifying the lex credendi. The new Mass coincides with a new catechism, new priesthood, new seminaries, new universities, a charismatic, Pentecostal Church—all things opposed to orthodoxy and to the Magisterium of all times. This Reform, born out of Liberalism and Modernism, is completely rotten. It is born in heresy and leads to heresy, even if none of these acts is formally heretical. It is therefore impossible for any conscientious and faithful Catholic to adopt this Reform or to submit to it in any way” [free translation]; French orig., in Montagne, Yves, “L'évêque en suspens.” Mgr Lefebvre (Rome: Catholic Laymens' League, 1977), 3536.Google Scholar

7 Professor Hünermann is speaks of the “heretical ground” of this schism. The 1983 Code of Canon Law differentiates between “heresy” and the related notion of “schism” (CIC 751): while both are considered “grave offenses against revealed truth and ecclesial communion” the first applies to articles of belief requiring the ascent of faith, and does not extend to the secondary object of infallibility, or to those truths which are closely related to, and necessary to preserve the deposit of faith. Both pertain to grave offenses against doctrine and communion. See Coriden, , New Commentary on the Code of Canon Law, 915–16.Google Scholar Further investigation into the Christological roots of the integrist ideology of the SSPX—much of it expressed in a theology of Christ the “king,” possibly tainted by a denial of God's universal plan of salvation—may well substantiate Hünermann's claim, though I have not yet encountered a careful study to this effect. This is certainly a question that merits closer attention.

8 The text of this declaration can be found in “Extra ET-Newsletter of the European Society for Catholic Theology” February 17, 2009 at (accessed 22 September 2009). See also Turner, Geoffrey, “Unleash the Theologians,” The Tablet, 28 February 2009, 89.Google Scholar A number of European faculties of theology issued declarations of concern in reaction to the announcement of the lifting of the excommunications. See, for example, the statement by the Faculty of Theology at Münster, “Erklärung zur Rücknahme des Exkommunicationsdekrets gegen die Bischöfe der ‘Priesterbruderschaft St. Puis X’ und zu den Ausserungen von Bischof Williamson,” (accessed 22 September 2009). A collection of these statements is forthcoming from Lit Verlag.

9 For a dossier which includes the statements by the French, German, and Swiss episcopal conferences, and several individual bishops, see “La levée de l'excommunication des évêques lefebvristes,” Documentation Catholique 2419 (1 mar 2009) 236–55. For the original German version of the German Bishops Conference, see (accessed 22 September 2009).

10 Congregation for Bishops, “Decree Remitting the Excommunication ‘Latae Sententiae’ of the Society of St Pius X,” (accessed 22 September 2009).Google Scholar Pope Benedict himself acknowledges this lack of clarity among the “mistakes” involved in the implementation of the decision to lift the excom munications: “Another mistake, which I deeply regret, is the fact that the extent and lim its of the provision of 21 January 2009 were not clearly and adequately explained at the moment of its publication” (“Letter to the Bishops Concerning the Remission of the Excommunication” [see n. 1]).

11 For a fuller account, see Sesboüé, Bernard, “Institut du Bon-Pasteur, un espoir ou un équivoque?” in De Mgr Lefebvre à Mgr Williamson, 77113, especially 101f.Google Scholar

12 Declaration of 2 February 2007, in Documentation Catholique 2375 (2007) 243; cited in Sesboüé, “Institut du Bon-Pasteur,” 108. These are the same terms that appeared in the agreement signed by Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre on 5 May 1988, through the mediation of then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.

13 Mickens, Robert, “Return to Tradition,” The Tablet, 25 April 2009, 1415.Google Scholar

14 Pope Benedict himself recognizes that “many Bishops felt perplexed by an event which came about unexpectedly and was difficult to view positively in the light of the issues and tasks facing the Church today” (“Letter to the Bishops Concerning the Remission of the Excommunication”).

15 Politi, Marco, “The Church's New Age of Dissent,” The Tablet, 21 March 2009, 5.Google Scholar

16 In canonical terms, “withdraw from contumacy” (CIC 1358, §1; CIC 1348, §2). As a general rule, such canons are “subject to strict interpretation” (CIC 18).

17 “I believe that I set forth clearly the priorities of my pontificate in the addresses which I gave at its beginning. Everything that I said then continues unchanged as my plan of action” (“Letter to the Bishops Concerning the Remission of the Excommunication”).