The Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) ushered in a time of fresh enthusiasm for our Catholic faith. The Council sought to bring a greater experience of unity to the Church: unity among Catholics, with other Christians and with all the peoples of the world. The Council aimed to approach this goal from a pastoral perspective by expressing our beliefs in new ways so to further spread the truth.
Amidst all the new ideas and energy surrounding the Council, there were also those who voiced their concerns. Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre and his Society of St. Pius X (SSPX) are the most famous of these. They became convinced that the teachings of the Council departed from the long-standing teachings of the Church. Fearing a theological split, the Holy See began discussions with Lefebvre to clarify any theological issues and prevent any potential disunity.
Due to many factors, the discussions between the Holy See and the SSPX did not bear fruit, and the SSPX continued to teach against Vatican II. The Holy See eventually suppressed their congregation, detaching it from any official relationship with the Church.
As an analogy, imagine that a sheriff sees one of his deputies in serious misbehavior. Then, if the sheriff takes the deputy’s badge, that deputy has lost all jurisdiction and authority to act as an officer. When the SSPX order was suspended, it, too, lost jurisdiction.
Among other things, this means members could not obtain permission to minister in dioceses. As a result, some of their sacraments would not be valid (particularly confession and marriage). But, unlike our sheriff analogy, no one could take the power of the sacrament of holy orders away from those who were validly ordained. As such, the priests of the SSPX continue to celebrate Mass, and their bishops ordain new priests (these two sacraments are valid, but are administered against the law of the Church).
Things became more complicated when Lefebvre began to consider ordaining more bishops for his society. Without the permission of the pope, and despite Pope John Paul II’s personal outreach, Lefebvre ordained four new bishops for the society in 1988. Ordaining bishops without the permission of the pope is an ecclesiastical crime, and the penalty was excommunication for Lefebvre as well as for the new bishops he ordained.
Nonetheless, Pope John Paul II tried to preserve unity. He responded by more generously allowing the rite of Mass in use prior to Vatican II. He also allowed other types of religious communities to be founded that had the same charism as the SSPX but which enjoyed full jurisdiction in the Church.
The largest of these communities is the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter.
Pope Benedict XVI continued these efforts through private meetings with Lefebvre’s successor. Pope Benedict lifted the excommunications in 2009.
Pope Francis has a heart for those on the fringes, and his efforts to reach out has also yielded progress with the SSPX. He granted them the jurisdiction to validly absolve sins in confession during the 2015 Year of Mercy. He also clarified that their faculty would continue even after the Year of Mercy ended.
Most recently, in 2017, Pope Francis allowed local bishops to create a policy so that SSPX priests may validly witness marriages.
This initiative led to discussions between the Archdiocese of New Orleans and the leadership of the SSPX. Recently, Archbishop Gregory Aymond approved a new policy for marriages witnessed by SSPX priests in our area. The technical details of the new policy can be found in the Archdiocesan Policy Manual online under the “marriage” section.
As a result, any Catholics invited to a wedding at an SSPX location in our archdiocese should feel comfortable attending.
The SSPX administers two locations here in our archdiocese. The first is Our Lady of Grace in Kenner, and the other is Our Lady of Fatima in Lacombe.
Our new policy does not encourage regular attendance at Masses celebrated by the SSPX since they are still unaffiliated with the Archdiocese of New Orleans. Nevertheless, they do have valid sacraments, even though much of their ministry is canonically irregular in the Church.
More progress needs to be made before the Holy See can fully recognize the SSPX. However, the bottom line is that the SSPX members believe the Catholic faith, they treasure the sacraments and they affirm that Pope Francis is the legitimate leader of the Roman Catholic Church.
Hopefully, this new marriage policy can be seen by all as a concrete step toward the perfect unity Jesus wants for his bride, the Church.
Any questions about this new policy can be directed to the archbishop’s delegate for SSPX marriages, Father Garrett O’Brien, JCL, firstname.lastname@example.org, (504) 861-6216. Father O’Brien is a parochial vicar at St. Catherine of Siena Church in Metairie.