What is the canonical status of the SSPX?

A compilation of quotes, citations and reading suggestions concerning the Society of St. Pius X's canonical status. Includes a link to an article about the groundbreaking case of the "Hawaii Six"—resolved by Cardinal Ratzinger himself.

Various quotes about the SSPX’s canonical status

The citations below from various ecclesiastical persons and various authorities demonstrate the following:

  1. The political nature of the persecution of the SSPX as seen by ambiguous and contradicting statements emitted from various churchmen; that is, some exonerate the SSPX (albeit often half-heartily), while others outright condemn it.
  2. Thereby the effectiveness of liberal-motivated propaganda ploy of ostracizing the SSPX through false accusations and decrees of “excommunication”, “schism”, etc.
  3. The SSPX has been correct when claiming (based upon the principles of Canon Law and Catholic teaching) that no canonical censures against the SSPX have ever existed.

In addition to the following citations, we offer below some further reading recommendations available from Angelus Press or on website.

Abbreviations used


  • J.C.D. = Doctorate of Canon Law
  • N.C. = New 1983 Code of Canon Law

Attending Mass at a SSPX chapel

Cardinal Silvio Oddi
President for the Sacred Congregation for the Clergy
March 17, 1984

This reply was made to an inquiry made by a family about whether attending Mass at an SSPX chapel would serve to fulfill their Sunday Obligation:

According to the New Code of Canon Law, “The obligation of assisting at Mass is satisfied wherever Mass is celebrated in a Catholic rite....” I hope that settles your doubts."

NB: Ironically, because of the ambiguous canon in the New Code regarding the fulfillment of one’s Sunday obligation (i.e., “wherever Mass is celebrated in a Catholic rite”) many liberally-minded bishops and priests will apply this in the “spirit of ecumenism” to the divine services offered by the schismatic and heretical Orthodox, but not to the Masses celebrated by priests of the SSPX!

Msgr. Camille Perl
Secretary of the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei

In a May 28, 1996 letter and repeated in Protocol No. 236/98 of March 6, 1998:

In the strict sense you may fulfill your Sunday obligation by attending a Mass celebrated by a priest of the Society of Saint Pius X. ...If your intention is simply to participate in Mass according to the 1962 Missal for the sake of devotion, this would not be a sin. It would seem that a modest contribution to the collection at Mass could be justified.

And in a letter of September 27, 2002:

It is true that participation in the Mass and sacraments at the chapels of the Society of St. Pius X does not of itself constitute “formal adherence to the schism”.

Is the SSPX in schism, excommunicated?

The Episcopal Consecrations (aka, “Operation Survival”) were performed by Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre and Bishop Antonio de Castro Mayer (of Campos, Brazil) on June 29, 1988.

Fr. Yves Congar
In the Dictionnaire de Theologia Catholique:

Schism involves a refusal to accept the existence of legitimate authority in the Church.

Professor Geringer, J.C.D.
Canon lawyer at the University of Munich

During a radio interview on June 30, 1988:

With the episcopal consecrations, Archbishop Lefebvre was by no means creating a schism."

Cardinal Castillo Lara, J.C.D.
President of the Pontifical Commission for the Authentic Interpretation of Canon Law President of the Disciplinary Commission of the Roman Curia

In the Italian newspaper La Republica on July 8, 1988:

The act of consecrating a bishop [without a papal mandate] is not in itself a schismatic act."

Count Neri Capponi, D.Cn.L., Ll.D
D.CN.L.—Lateran (doctor of canon law)
LL.D.—Florence (doctor of laws)
Professor Emeritus of Canon Law at the University of Florence
Accredited Advocate of the Apostolic Signatura (the highest ecclesiastical appeals tribunal)
Accredited Advocate of the Holy Roman Rota (the highest ecclesiastical marriage tribunal)

The fact is that Archbishop Lefebvre simply said: 'I am creating bishops in order that my priestly order can continue. They do not take the place of other bishops. I am not creating a parallel church.' Therefore, this act was not, per se, schismatic."

Canon Thomas C. G. Glover, J.C.D.

Cf. his 1993 article in Is Tradition Excommunicated?

Dr. Rudolf Kaschewsky
Professor and lawyer of canon law, and Vice President of Una Voce Deutschland

Cf. his March-April 1988 article in Is Tradition Excommunicated?

Dr. Georg May
President of the Seminary of Canon Law at the University of Mainz

Excerpted from his work, Notwehr, Widerstand, Notsand (Legitimate Defense, Resistance, Necessity) printed in 1984 (and republished in Is Tradition Excommunicated?):

Law of Necessity

The Code recognizes necessity as a circumstance which exempts from all penalties in case of violation of the law (N.C. 1324, §4), provided that the action is not intrinsically bad or harmful to souls; in this latter case necessity would only mitigate the penalty. But no latae sententiae penalty can be incurred by anyone who has acted in this circumstance." (N.C. 1324, §3).

State of Necessity in the Church

In the Church, as in civil society, it is conceivable that there arrive a state of necessity or urgency which cannot be surmounted by the observance of positive law. Such a situation exists in the Church when the endurance, order or activity of the Church are threatened or harmed in a considerable manner. This threat can bear principally on ecclesiastical teaching, the liturgy and discipline."

Fr. Patrick Valdrini, J.C.D.
Dean of the Faculty of Canon Law at the Catholic Institute of Paris

During an interview with Valeurs Actuelles in Paris on July 4, 1988, and again in L'Homme Nouveau, also in Paris on July 17, 1988:

It is not the consecration of a bishop that creates the schism. What makes the schism is to give the bishop an apostolic mission [i.e., jurisdiction]."

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger
Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith

Hawaii Six Case; Protocol No. 14428; June 4, 1993

On May 1, 1991, Bishop Joseph Ferrario of Honolulu, Hawaii formally declared six laymen to be excommunicated, mainly for this reason contained in his January 18, 1991 canonical warning:

Whereas, on May 1987 you performed a schismatic act, not only by procuring the services of an excommunicated Lefebvre bishop, Richard Williamson, who performed contra jure illicit confirmation in your chapel, but also by that very association with the aforementioned bishop incurred ipso facto the grave censure of excommunication as forewarned by the Office of the Congregation of Bishops at the Vatican to all the faithful" (July 1, 1988).

The “Hawaii Six” appealed Bishop Ferrario’s decree of “excommunication” Rome and in response the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith responded:

This Congregation has examined carefully all the available documentation and has ascertained that the activities engaged in by the Petitioner ...are not sufficient to constitute the crime of schism. Since [the Petitioner] did not, in fact, commit the crime of schism and thus did not incur the latae sententiae penalty, it is clear that the Decree of the Bishop lacks the precondition on which it is founded. This Congregation, noting all of the above, is obliged to declare null and void the aforesaid Decree of the Ordinary of Honolulu."

Due to the intrigue of the Apostolic Pro-Nuncio to the United States, this response did not end the matter and Cardinal Ratzinger was required to intervene again; see this this webpage for further details.

Cardinal Edward Cassidy
President of the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity

Protocol number 2336/94; May 3, 1994

…Regarding your inquiry, I would point out at once that the Directory on Ecumenism is not concerned with the Society of St. Pius X. The situation of the members of this Society is an internal matter of the Catholic Church. The Society is not another Church or Ecclesial Community in the meaning used in the Directory.

Of course the Mass and Sacraments administered by priests of the Society are valid. The bishops are validly—but not lawfully—ordained. What is required is reconciliation with the Catholic Church, and this is something greatly desired by the Bishop of Rome. Unfortunately, there does not seem at this time any sign that this may happen at an early date…"

Fr. Gerald E. Murray, J.C.D.

Doctoral thesis

An excerpt from the doctoral thesis (Fr. Murray had his licentiate in Canon Law at this time) that was accepted and approved by the Pontifical Gregorian University, titled, “The Canonical Status of the Lay Faithful Associated with the Late Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre and the Society of St. Pius X: Are they Excommunicated as Schismatics?” which was subsequently printed in the Fall 1995 issue of The Latin Mass magazine:

They're not excommunicated as schismatics, because the Vatican has never said they are.... You can ... show that Lefebvre himself was not excommunicated and therefore no one else was.... I come to the conclusion that, canonically speaking, he's not guilty of a schismatic act punishable by canon law. In the case of the Society of St. Pius X, the Vatican never declared any priest or lay person to have become a schismatic."

NB: In the summer 1996 issue of the aforementioned magazine, after receiving considerable pressure from his superiors, Fr. Murray stated his changed position to the politically-correct one; i.e., the SSPX is schismatic.

Cardinal Dario Castrillon-Hoyos
President of the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei

Public interviews

30 Giorni [30 Days] with Gianni Cardinale in September 2005:

Unfortunately Archbishop Lefebvre went ahead with the consecration and hence the situation of separation came about, even if it was not a formal schism."

Italian TV Canal 5 on November 13, 2005

We are not dealing with a case of heresy. One cannot say in correct and exact terms that there is a schism. There is, in the act of ordaining bishops with out papal approval, a schismatic attitude. They are within the confines of the Church. The problem is just that there is a lack of a full, a more perfect—and as it was said during the meeting with Bishop Fellay—a more full communion, because communion exists."

Fr. Daniel Couture (SSPX)

Editorial from the December 2005 District of Asia’s Letter to Friends and Benefactors:

Another interesting point made to the Cardinal [Hoyos] by Bishop Fellay is that the excommunication incurred by a bishop who consecrates another bishop without papal mandate (CIC 1983, c. 1382), is not listed among the delicts of Title I: Delicts against Religion and the Unity of the Church, canons 1364-1369 (which is what the document Ecclesia Dei adflicta implies when it says that:

'3. In itself this act was one of disobedience to the Roman pontiff in a very grave matter and of supreme importance for the unity of the Church,… The root of this schismatic act…'), but rather it is listed among those of Title III: Usurpation of Ecclesiastical Functions and Delicts in Their Exercise, canons 1378-1389.

Therefore the whole argument of 'excommunication because it was a schismatic act' fails, since in these grave penal matters, one must be extremely precise and strict, according to the axiom, odiosa sunt restringenda."

Reading recommendations