The Letter on Marriages: Clarifications and Developments
On March 27, 2017, Cardinal Müller, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and President of the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei, signed on behalf of Pope Francis a Letter addressed to the bishops of the whole world concerning “faculties for the celebration of marriages of faithful who follow the pastoral activity of the Society” of St. Pius X.
The following lines offer some reflections on this Letter.
The Origin of the “Ordinary Form” of Marriage
Canon Raoul Naz writes in Traité de droit canonique (Letouzey et Ané, 1954), III, §417: “The Council of Trent intended to react against the abuse of clandestine marriages in demanding by its famous Decree Tametsi that matrimonial vows be given in the presence of the pastor or of the Ordinary of the parties, or of a priest delegated by them....The Decree Ne temere of the Congregation of the Council, dated August 2, 1907, required for the entire Latin Church from Easter Sunday 1908 on, that in order for a marriage to be valid, the presence of the Ordinary or the pastor of the place where it is contracted, or else of a priest delegated by them....With a few slight modifications or additions, the part of the Decree Ne temere concerning marriage is reproduced in its entirety [in the 1917 Code of Canon Law],” as it is also in the 1983 Code.
Therefore marriages, apart from well-defined exceptions, must be contracted “in the presence of the pastor or local Ordinary, or of a priest delegated by one of them” (canon 1094 of the Code of 1917), not by virtue of the 1983 Code, or even of the 1917 Code, but directly by virtue of the Council of Trent and of a subsequent act by St. Pius X.
This juridical provision, which affects validity, has absolutely nothing to do with any definition of marriage whatsoever (whether traditional or modernist), nor with the other conditions for validity and liceity, nor with the way in which canonical tribunals proceed in judging causes of nullity of marriage, much less with other considerations on the current situation of the Church: religious liberty, ecumenism, interreligious dialogue, the disastrous state of the liturgy, etc. It regulates exclusively and precisely the way in which the vows of the future spouses must be expressed, and it does this to assure the certainty that a real marriage has been contracted.
Delegation to Celebrate a Wedding
According to canon law, only a cleric who has jurisdiction over a territory is by nature a “canonical witness”: this means the Ordinary (in other words, the diocesan bishop throughout his diocese) or the pastor in his parish. All other priests, even the parochial vicar (assistant priest) in his own parish, need delegation in order to receive the vows of the future spouses.
Therefore, by law that is quite ordinary, quite universal, and quite certain, a priest who is not the local pastor and intends to celebrate a wedding is obliged to ask for delegation, either from the bishop of the diocese where the marriage is to take place, or from the pastor in whose parish this wedding will be celebrated. This is a perfectly normal situation in the Church: a requirement of canon law that applies to all priests who are not the local pastor.
This delegation does not give “jurisdiction” in the proper sense: this is why, as we will see, the bishop or the pastor can delegate even a priest who is affected by canonical penalties. It would be better to call it a “power” or a “faculty”. In fact, this delegation allows the delegated priest to substitute for the pastor or the bishop, to take his place as “canonical witness” for that particular marriage. As Canon Pierre Fourneret writes in Le mariage chrétien (Beauchesne, 1919), 145-146: “The pastor and the Ordinary always have the right to let a delegate take their place in this function, provided that he is a priest....The delegated priest is content with representing the pastor or the Ordinary.”
On the other hand, every priest who has received delegation is a “canonical witness” and can therefore celebrate a wedding in a way that is certainly valid. In this case, indeed, Canon Fourneret emphasizes: “The validity of the marriage cannot be attacked because of the priest’s lack of competence” (ibid., 147).
The “Extraordinary Form” and its Legitimacy
Does this mean, however, that this “ordinary juridical form”, as Naz calls it, when used by the Ordinary, by the local pastor, or by a priest who has received delegation, is absolutely the only possible juridical form for a valid marriage? No. Canon law explicitly provides an “extraordinary juridical form” in the case where “the pastor or Ordinary or delegated priest who assists at marriage...cannot be had or cannot be present without grave inconvenience” (canon 1098 of the 1917 Code).
The impossibility of having or finding a “canonical witness” may be either physical or moral (cf. F. X. Wernz and P. Vidal, Ius Canonicum [Rome, 1946], V, no. 544; D. Lazzarato, Iurisprudentia Pontificia [Rome: Typis Poliglottis Vaticanis, 1956], no. 926, §§5-6). Any serious spiritual or temporal inconvenience is sufficient (cf. B. H. Merkelbach, Summa Theologiae Moralis [Paris, 1942], III, no. 849). This serious inconvenience may affect the priest, one or both of the parties to the marriage, a third party, or the common good (cf. M. Conte a Coronata, Compendium Iuris Canonici [Marietti, 1950], III, no. 1048).
Naz emphasizes that “this idea of physical or moral impossibility of reaching the priest was understood more and more extensively....The jurisprudence developed along a line that increasingly favored the application of canon 1098” (Traité de droit canonique, III, §426).
Marriage by virtue of canon 1098, or marriage according to the “extraordinary form”, is therefore by no means a false marriage, an appearance of marriage, or a second-rate marriage. On the contrary, it is explicitly foreseen by canon law and protected by it. For example, in mission lands where the priest can visit only now and then, many marriages are celebrated according to the “extraordinary form”. Provided that the objective conditions for using the “extraordinary form” are satisfied, a marriage celebrated in this manner is undoubtedly valid.
Marriages in the Society of St. Pius X
Between 1970 and 1975, the priests of the Society of St. Pius X who had to celebrate a wedding ordinarily asked for and received the necessary delegation from the local pastor. From 1975 on, after the alleged “suppression” of the Society of St. Pius X, this delegation was usually denied the priests of the Society of St. Pius X (except by a few priest friends) under the false pretense that their status in the Church was irregular.
Meanwhile, the crisis in the Church was manifesting its lethal fruits and made it more and more difficult for the faithful who were devoted to Tradition to be able to marry in a fully Catholic manner. The proposed liturgy was the Protestantized liturgy resulting from Vatican II. The instruction of the fiancés was very often marred by serious moral errors, especially concerning marriage. In particular, following Vatican II, the two ends of marriage, one of which by its very nature is subordinate to the other, were said to be equivalent, or else (according to the spirit of the 1983 Code of Canon Law), quite simply reversed.
The natural right to marriage, as well as the supernatural right to preserve one’s Catholic faith, were therefore very widely trampled upon.
In these conditions, the Society of St. Pius X made a well-founded determination that in the Church today there is a real and serious “state of necessity”, especially in matters concerning marriage, a “state of necessity” that involves a moral impediment to recourse to the “canonical witness”, since he would propose an adulterated liturgy and a deviant morality. Because of this, it becomes legitimate to resort to the “extraordinary form” according to canon 1098, and therefore to marry with the traditional liturgy in the presence of a priest attached to Tradition, who nevertheless is neither the local Ordinary nor the pastor nor a priest delegated by one of them (cf. for example Fr. Grégoire Celier, Les mariages dans la Tradition sont-ils valides? [“Are Traditional marriages valid?”], a leaflet unconcerned with the present-day controversies, since it was published by Clovis in 1999).
In this case, the priest of the Society of St. Pius X is not, strictly speaking, the “canonical witness”, because he possesses neither proper jurisdiction (he is neither the Ordinary nor the local pastor) nor a delegation (since no one has delegated him). “The priest in no way claims a jurisdiction that he does not possess. Rather, according to the terms of canon 1098, he is present because ‘if another priest can be present, he shall be called and together with the witnesses must assist at marriage.’ He receives the vows, because this is what the liturgical rites calls for, but neither in this case nor in the case of the canonical form is the priest the minister (rather, the spouses themselves are the ministers): he is content with being the witness. He celebrates the Mass, because that is the legitimate desire of the couple and the Church’s wish. He fills out the registers, not as the canonical witness, but in order to keep an official record of a marriage celebrated according to canon 1098. All cases of marriages celebrated ‘in Tradition’ (that is, without the canonical form) were and will be in terms of canon 1098, thus before witnesses, the priest being a naturally reliable witness—but not the ‘canonical witness’ of the ‘canonical form’.” (Les mariages dans la Tradition sont-ils valides? [Clovis, 1999], 25-26.)
The “Extraordinary Form” Remains...Extraordinary
It is quite clear that the assertion of a “state of necessity” in matters concerning marriage, which justifies recourse to the “extraordinary form”, is and remains perfectly valid, inasmuch as the crisis in the Church is very far from being resolved; on the contrary, in fact, especially as far as Christian marriage is concerned, as the two Synods on the Family and the Apostolic Exhortation Amoris laetitia have just demonstrated. Therefore a marriage celebrated according to the “extraordinary form”, by reason of the state of necessity, is and remains valid in itself.
Nevertheless, as its name indicates, the “extraordinary form” is outside of the ordinary; it can not become ordinary. It can exist only in the case where the “ordinary form” is not possible. Canon 1094, which deals with the “ordinary form”, is an “absolute” canon, which begins quite clearly: “Only those marriages are valid....” Canon 1098, about the “extraordinary form”, is only a “conditional” canon, which starts: “If...cannot,” and includes still more restrictions, such as “provided it is prudently foreseen....” The absolute and unconditional norm of marriage is therefore the “ordinary form”, whereas the “extraordinary form” is only exceptional, relative, and occasional.
This does not mean that the future spouses attached to Tradition must, in all cases, first seek to obtain the “ordinary form” and then resort to the “extraordinary form” only when they despair of finding a suitable “canonical witness”. After all, the state of necessity is currently an actual, universal fact, which in itself authorizes recourse directly to the “extraordinary form”, especially because of the many previous unfortunate experiences.
On the other hand, if a serious possibility arises of celebrating in a certain number of cases marriages that are entirely in conformity with Tradition, but according to the “ordinary form”, it would certainly be contrary to prudence, to canon law, and to the spirit of the Church not to examine this possibility carefully and not to use it if it is acceptable.
From this perspective and in this spirit it is advisable to study the Letter from Cardinal Müller dated March 27, 2017, to determine whether the arrangements that it proposes would make it possible in a certain number of cases to celebrate marriages according to the “ordinary form” but perfectly in conformity with Tradition, or whether, on the contrary, these provisions would be a trap for Tradition.
The Provisions of the Letter
It must be noted, first of all, that this Letter is logically addressed to the bishops. In the case of confessions (Apostolic Letter Misericordia et Misera dated November 20, 2016, §12), the Pope, acting as Supreme Pastor, had conferred directly on the priests of the Society of St. Pius X the faculty to confess validly and licitly, without asking anything in return. Here, given the intrinsically “social” dimension of the Sacrament of Matrimony, and the public character that the Decree of the Council of Trent meant to assure for it, the Apostolic See addresses the Ordinaries, who are the source of the jurisdiction of the pastor and, at least indirectly, of the priest delegated by him to witness a marriage.
To these bishops, Cardinal Müller’s Letter concedes the authority “to grant faculties...”: indeed, several signs show rather clearly that the Pope’s intention is to encourage the bishops to give to the priests of the Society of St. Pius X authorization concerning marriages, as broadly as possible. It seems that every time, for example, a priest of the Society of St. Pius X requests permission for the celebration of a marriage in a parish church (requests that the priests of the Society of St. Pius X are led to make at least from time to time, either by themselves or through the future spouses), the Pope’s wish is that this permission be granted. In this spirit he said on the airplane on May 13, 2017: “Last year, I granted authorization to all [the priests of the Society of Saint Pius X] for confession, and also a form of jurisdiction for marriages.” The letter from the nuncio in Argentina to the bishops of that country, directly inspired by the former Archbishop of Buenos Aires, is clearly along these lines.
The Letter from Cardinal Müller in fact envisages four situations. The first situation is a marriage celebrated in a parish church, with the vows of the spouses received by an “official” priest (a priori, the pastor of the church in which the marriage takes place). The second situation is a marriage celebrated in a parish church with the vows of the spouses received by a priest of the Society of St. Pius X who has obtained delegation. The third situation is a marriage celebrated in a place of worship belonging to the Society of St. Pius X with the vows of the spouses received by a priest of the Society of St. Pius X who has obtained delegation. The fourth situation is a marriage celebrated in a place of worship belonging to the Society of St. Pius X with the vows of the spouses received by an “official” priest.
The first solution (vows received by the pastor in his church) is rather common when the marriage takes place in a parish church. The second solution (vows received by a priest of the Society of St. Pius X in a church) already exists in rare cases, when a courageous pastor gives delegation. Its expansion would be a great benefit for all marriages celebrated in a parish church. The third solution (vows received by a priest of the Society of St. Pius X in his chapel) would be the most consistent, the best, and the wisest: the general orientation of things, since the publication of Cardinal Müller’s Letter, seems clearly to lean toward it (three bishops in France, for example, have already decided along these lines). The fourth solution (vows received by an “official” priest in a chapel of the Society of St. Pius X) is, by far, the most problematic, and could possibly be acceptable only with very strict conditions so as to preserve the fully Catholic and traditional character of the marriage being celebrated.
It is necessary to note, however, that in all cases the intervention of an “official” priest is limited by the Letter itself to the exchange of vows, which must be done, obviously, in the traditional rite, unless we are to think that the Letter is totally incoherent. This Letter explicitly says that celebrating the Mass (and consequently the accompanying ceremonies: the sermon, the consecration to the Blessed Virgin, etc.) is the responsibility of the priest of the Society of St. Pius X and his alone. Note in passing, even though this is not our subject, that this is the first time that a Roman document envisages that a priest of the Society of St. Pius X can celebrate Mass in a parish church without any preliminary condition, canonical, theological, or otherwise.
After the celebration of the marriage, the registers of the ecclesiastical state that attest to it juridically must be signed. If an “official” priest received the vows in a parish church, this marriage will logically be recorded in the parish registers, according to ordinary law. If a priest of the Society of St. Pius X has received delegation and celebrates a marriage in a parish church, this one too will quite logically be recorded in the registers of that parish. Incidentally this is already the most common practice when a marriage is celebrated in a parish church.
If, as is desirable and is starting to happen in various places, a priest of the Society of St. Pius X has received delegation to celebrate the marriage in a place of worship belonging to the Society of St. Pius X, the marriage will be recorded in the registers of the Society of St. Pius X, and the priest will only be obliged to notify the diocesan bishop a posteriori [afterwards]. This transmission of information to the diocesan Curia will cause few practical difficulties since, in keeping with canon law, the priests of the Society of St. Pius X already have the habit of “notifying” all the marriages that they celebrate, so that they may be recorded in the registers of the ecclesiastical state of the parish where each of the spouses was baptized.
The new situation created by Cardinal Müller’s Letter involves practical details that it is advisable to examine.
The first is that it will be necessary to take a step to obtain either the intervention of the “official” priest or the delegation for the priest of the Society of St. Pius X. But the Letter’s explicit purpose is precisely to facilitate this step, as shown moreover by the arrangements made by the first bishops who have reacted to this Letter. Every priest of the Society of St. Pius X who has participated directly or remotely in organizing a marriage in a parish church knows how complex and uncertain the negotiations have been until now: the Letter will simplify matters. In a certain number of cases, the delegation will be given to the priests of the Society of St. Pius X automatically (cf. the recent decrees to this effect by Bishop Alain Planet, Bishop of Carcassonne and Narbonne, Bishop Dominique Rey, Bishop of Fréjus-Toulon, and by Archbishop Luc Ravel, Archbishop of Strasbourg); in the other cases, the priests of the Society of St. Pius X will follow the guidelines and the instructions of the District Superior, but a priori, a telephone call, an e-mail, or a letter should suffice to broach the question.
Moreover, as we already said, this need for a priest who is not the pastor to ask for delegation is normal in the Church: this is by no means an obligation that is added just because the priests who ask are attached to Tradition; on the contrary, it is a requirement that applies to all priests who are not the local pastor. The priests of the Society of St. Pius X are at the moment dispensed from it because of their recourse to the “extraordinary form”. That being the case, the priests of the Society of St. Pius X are bound to respect an obligation like this, by the very fact that they must submit the marriage dossier for review by the District before the wedding is celebrated.
Another point is that the future spouses will not necessarily and definitely be able to obtain permission that a priest of the Society of St. Pius X of their choice will receive their vows, as is often the case when there is a tie of kinship or friendship with said priest (“The vows of the spouses will be received by Father So-and-so, uncle of the bride”). It is possible that the bishop or the pastor might not give delegation to that priest who is acquainted with the spouses but rather, for example, to the prior of the local priory of the Society of St. Pius X. But this too is in keeping with canon law: the bishop or the pastor delegate if they want and to whom they want. A pastor has every right to celebrate, exclusively, all the marriages that take place in his parish, without ever giving delegation, even to his own vicar [assistant priest]. The future spouses do not have a “right” to have their consent received by a priest who happens to be their friend, whereas they do have a definitive right to be married in the traditional liturgy and with fully Catholic theological and moral instruction.
Nevertheless, the excess workload under which diocesan priests currently labor makes it unlikely, in most cases, that they would not let another priest celebrate a wedding in their place: especially after the Letter by Cardinal Müller and his encouragement to give delegation to the priests of the Society of St. Pius X. On the contrary, pastors will probably be glad to be relieved of an additional ministry, especially on a Saturday (the customary day for celebrating marriage), when there are even greater demands on their time. If not, the priest friend of the spouses will still be able to celebrate the wedding Mass, or to preach at the Mass celebrated by another priest of the Society of St. Pius X.
The Main Objections to the Letter
Nevertheless, some objections have been made against allowing the implementation of the arrangements of the Letter; it is advisable to examine now the main ones.
The first objection says that in consenting to make use of Cardinal Müller’s Letter, one would by that very fact accept the whole new erroneous doctrine on marriage that resulted from the Second Vatican Council. But it is not clear how this objection would be true. The need for the presence of a “canonical witness” very broadly goes back before the 1983 Code, the Second Vatican Council, the crisis in the Church, and even before the 1917 Code. This presence has no specific tie to any teaching whatsoever about Christian marriage, whether true or false. The sole purpose spelled out by the Council of Trent, which established this rule, is to combat clandestine marriages: it is simply a matter of knowing who is married and who is not. Therefore, striving to marry according to the “ordinary form”, as the Church wishes—provided that one can do so while keeping the Catholic Faith in its entirety, which is accomplished by the fact that marriage preparation and the wedding take place in a perfectly traditional setting—strictly speaking has no connection with the false teaching on marriage that resulted from Vatican II and was incorporated into the 1983 Code of Canon Law, which the Society of St. Pius X rightly criticizes.
The second objection claims that making use of Cardinal Müller’s Letter would signify that ipso facto one accepts the deviant practices regarding marriage in the “conciliar” Church, especially the declarations of nullity for false reasons. But, in truth, there is no connection between the fact of marrying according to the “ordinary form” and the scandalous declarations of nullity that are common nowadays. All the priests of the Society of St. Pius X accept as parishioners some Catholic faithful who were married before an “official” priest, often in the new liturgical rite, after suspicious marriage preparation, and with dubious preaching. These priests of the Society of St. Pius X do not conclude that in doing so they by that very fact accept the deviant practices regarding marriage and the false declarations of nullity. A fortiori, how could a marriage with preparation, preaching, the exchange of vows, and a Mass that are entirely and exclusively according to Tradition mean that one accepts ipso facto the deviant practices regarding marriage and the false declarations of nullity, simply because the priest who receives the consents possesses the delegation foreseen by the Council of Trent and St. Pius X?
The third objection states that agreeing to make use of Cardinal Müller’s letter would by that very fact signify recognition of the nullity of the marriages celebrated according to the “extraordinary form”, whether previously or from now on. But, in itself, the possibility offered, in some cases, by Cardinal Müller’s Letter, to marry according to the “ordinary form” involves strictly speaking no implication as to the validity of marriages celebrated in the past or in the future according to the “extraordinary form”. Since the objective conditions are satisfied, a marriage according to the “extraordinary form” is perfectly valid; now, the current “state of necessity” is an objective condition for resorting to the “extraordinary form”. The fact that, in some cases, it will be possible from now on to marry according to the “ordinary form” does not mean at all that, in some other cases, it will not still be necessary and valid to marry according to the “extraordinary form”.
Moreover, Cardinal Müller’s Letter itself carefully and certainly deliberately avoids declaring invalid the marriages celebrated until now (or ever from now on) in the framework of the “extraordinary form”. It simply talks about “allay[ing] any concerns on the part of the faithful”, and alleviating “any uneasiness of conscience” and “uncertainty regarding the validity of the sacrament of marriage”. The document therefore speaks only about doubts and qualms of conscience, and only for some of the faithful; it is not certain, all things considered, that this is specifically about the faithful of the Society of St. Pius X (who generally have no doubt about the validity of these marriages): it seems to suggest instead the non-traditional families of spouses who are faithful to Tradition, or other similar cases. Nevertheless, the most common doctrine of official tribunals (in some countries, and particularly in France) and even of the Roman Rota is that the marriages celebrated in the setting of the Society of Saint Pius X are invalid per se, for lack of canonical form. In the District of France, practically every other month a marriage is annulled for this reason alone. Now Cardinal Müller’s Letter does not correct this statement about the nullity of marriages in the Society of St. Pius X, and it refrains from broaching this question, even though some of those who prepared this Letter admit this doctrine. It is therefore false to say that accepting the provisions of Cardinal Müller’s Letter would amount to supporting these scandalous declarations of nullity, or to admitting ipso facto that the marriages celebrated in Tradition according to the “extraordinary form” would be invalid.
In reality, Cardinal Müller’s Letter does not deal at all with marriage according to the “extraordinary form”, but only proposes rules allowing the bishops to make marriage according to the “ordinary form” easier for the faithful of the Society of St. Pius X.
Likewise, Cardinal Müller’s Letter says nothing about the canonical authorities within the Society of St. Pius X (“Canonical Commission”), which are still meaningful and necessary by reason of the crisis in the Church, and especially the rather widespread corruption of the teaching of the official tribunals, as well as the errors in the 1983 Code of Canon Law.
The fourth objection insists that agreeing to make use of Cardinal Müller’s Letter would ipso facto be tantamount to putting marriages according to the traditional rite into the hands of the bishops and of the Roman Curia (fierce enemies of Tradition), since these marriages would henceforth depend on the permission that they would grant...or not. This objection would be pertinent only if the Society of St. Pius X absolutely and definitively renounced the usage of the “extraordinary form”. But there are no plans whatsoever to do that. The grave state of necessity created by the crisis in the Church remains more valid than ever, and without any possible doubt it authorizes recourse, if necessary, to the “extraordinary form”. What Cardinal Müller’s letter accomplishes therefore is not a restriction of the possibilities, but rather the addition of the possibility of the “ordinary form”. And since in some cases the use of this “ordinary form” will prove to be difficult or impossible, recourse to the “extraordinary form” will remain perfectly justified. The bishops therefore will not be able to “blackmail” the Society of St. Pius X with regard to its marriages, inasmuch as an unjustified refusal of a delegation, in addition to other objective circumstances, would altogether authorize the use of the “extraordinary form”, as has been so until now.
A variant of this objection stresses that if a priest of the Society of St. Pius X asks a bishop for a delegation to celebrate a marriage according to the “ordinary form” but finds that the latter refuses to grant it, it would then be very difficult for him to celebrate the marriage according to the “extraordinary form” inasmuch as the Ordinary or the pastor has, by virtue of canon law, the freedom to grant or not to grant a delegation. The mere fact of not obtaining delegation could no longer be a sufficient reason for resorting to the “extraordinary form”. This objection is false inasmuch as it supposes that the possibility of celebrating a marriage according to the “extraordinary form” resulted from the refusal of the delegation. But that is not the case: this possibility results from the grave and objective state of necessity in which those who want to be married in a perfectly Catholic way find themselves because of the crisis in the Church. These persons have an objective right to be married according to the “ordinary form”, and if this right is denied them for the sole reason that they want to remain faithful to Tradition, then they can validly and licitly resort to the “extraordinary form”. Therefore if the bishop refuses the delegation because he does not want to give it to priests (celebrants) and/or for the faithful (future spouses) affiliated with the Society of St. Pius X, this refusal cannot and must not be considered well-founded: the right to marriage according to the “extraordinary form” will be then fully supported. Only in the extremely improbable case where an “official” bishop could prove, in terms of traditional canon law, that this plan for marriage is unacceptable in the Church because of an objective impediment, would his refusal to grant delegation possibly have to result in a reexamination by the authorities of the Society of St. Pius X of this disputed marriage file: but, once again, in the present situation, such a hypothesis is rather fanciful.
The fifth objection emphasizes that this Letter from Cardinal Müller is in fact a step in the process designed to “bring the Society of St. Pius X into full communion”, in other words, is part of a plan to win it over to the errors resulting from the Second Vatican Council, which is utterly unacceptable. The response to this objection is rather simple: There is no doubt whatsoever that this Letter is viewed in part, by the Roman authorities, as a step toward “full institutional regularization”, since Cardinal Müller says so explicitly, with the expressions just cited. But this Letter has, first of all, the specific purpose of settling a precise point: easier access to the “ordinary form” for spouses wishing to be married in the traditional rite and according to truly Catholic doctrine. This point exists and has its own reality, whatever the intentions and aims of the Roman authorities may be.
Next, since the Society of St. Pius X stays in contact with the Roman authorities, it necessarily enters into relations with persons who are more or less imbued with the errors of Vatican II and who are persuaded that the choices made during that Council were the right ones. But it is clear that the purpose of the authorities of the Society of St. Pius X, during these contacts, is to convince their Roman interlocutors of the harmful character of these conciliar errors and of the necessity of renouncing them. In other words, exchanges between Rome and the Society of St. Pius X necessarily imply that each of the protagonists wants to lead the other to his own positions: the only way to avoid that would be to refuse all relations, which would be neither reasonable nor Catholic. As Archbishop Lefebvre proclaimed in 1975: “If a bishop breaks with Rome, it will not be me!”
This Letter from Cardinal Müller is not in itself an element of an eventual Personal Prelature, nor a step in a process of “winning over” the Society of St. Pius X; it merely offers the possibility of some improvement in an unjust situation, by facilitated access to the “ordinary form”, without anything demanded in return of the Society of St. Pius X, and with the possibility of resorting, whenever necessary, to the “extraordinary form”, which is perfectly justified by the state of necessity.
The “official” priests, the “official” bishops, the “Ecclesia Dei” priests, the sixth objection says, are persons who fight against Tradition every day, despise it, slander it, work to marginalize it, and to make it disappear. It would therefore be improper, inconsistent, and scandalous to ask for anything at all from these enemies of the Faith, especially delegation to marry. As for allowing a conciliar priest into a chapel of the Society of St. Pius X in order to receive marriage vows, that would be downright intolerable for the future spouses, for the priests of the Society of St. Pius X and generally for the parish community of that place. Moreover, in this crisis in the Church, the faithful of the Society of St. Pius X have the right to get married in the presence of a priest whom they know, whom they respect, and in whom they have confidence on the doctrinal and pastoral level.
This objection seems to be the strongest one: it touches the depths of the soul; it is related to deep, essential commitments to faith and Tradition; it refers to difficult battles for the survival of the Church in view of a skillfully managed “self-destruction”. This is why it is advisable to examine it without getting carried away by emotions, but using reason enlightened by faith.
First of all, for the priests of the Society of St. Pius X, asking certain things of the “official” Church is altogether commonplace even now. When a priest of the Society of St. Pius X prepares a marriage dossier, he already enters into contact with parishes and diocesan chanceries to request baptismal and confirmation certificates, and then to notify the marriage. When future spouses who are devoted to Tradition wish to marry in a parish church, the priest of the Society of St. Pius X gets in touch with the pastor of the parish, and possibly with the diocesan bishop, in order to sort out the situation as well as possible. When a priest of the Society of St. Pius X organizes a pilgrimage to a shrine, he gets in contact with the rector of the shrine to obtain from him authorization to make use of the premises, etc. In this respect Cardinal Müller’s Letter entails no particular innovation: the priest of the Society of St. Pius X designated for this purpose by the District Superior will get in contact with the local bishop so as to obtain (possibly) the delegation to marry according to the “ordinary form”.
Obviously, receiving in a chapel of the Society of St. Pius X an “official” priest for the marriage vows is much more problematic. Note, however, two things to start with: this is not the solution that the Society of St. Pius X asks for and desires; it is not the solution adopted by the first episcopal decrees on this subject. The best solution, the solution that is starting to be adopted, is to give delegation directly to the priests of the Society of St. Pius X themselves. The implementation of this best solution is what the Society of St. Pius X will strive for in the months to come. Besides, the very terms used in Cardinal Müller’s Letter, “insofar as possible...”, “where the above is not possible...”, do seem to anticipate the difficulty or even impossibility of implementing this option of an “official” priest coming to a place of worship belonging to the Society of St. Pius X. Further, the invincible reluctance of the future spouses to exchange their vows in the presence of a priest who is not purely traditional will without any doubt be one of these impossibilities envisaged by the Letter.
The Society of St. Pius X should therefore set aside this solution, except for derogation that would logically be granted only by the District Superior. Therefore, if in some rare cases the Society of St. Pius X foresaw the possibility that an “official” priest might come to receive the vows, this could occur only if drastic conditions were fulfilled concerning this priest, his personality, his individual career, so that his coming would be in no way a source of uneasiness or confusion for the future spouses, for the priests of the Society of St. Pius X, or for the parish community. A priori, only some priests who are particularly friendly toward the Society of St. Pius X, or at least who have always remained perfectly fair and respectful towards it, could perhaps be admitted.
Nevertheless, it must be repeated: this is by no means the solution sought by the Society of St. Pius X, which desires that, in simple justice, its priests should purely and simply be able to receive delegation for the marriages of their faithful. All the more so since a priori this seems to correspond to the desire of the Pope himself, and to what is being sketched out through the first decrees issued by some diocesan bishops.
In all cases, however, we must remember that the presence of the “canonical witness” who receives the vows is an essentially juridical institution, not a theological or a moral one. It is necessary that this “canonical witness” be present and receive the vows; it is not at all necessary for him to be a “good priest”. As Naz recalls, the Decree of the Council of Trent admitted the “passivity” of this “canonical witness”, the only necessary point being that the exchange of vows be made in the presence of this canonical witness. And until the 1907 Decree, “this passivity was even imposed in some regions, in the case of mixed marriage concluded with dispensation; it was obligatory in the case of mixed marriage concluded without dispensation, wherever the presence of the priest was tolerated” (Traité de droit canonique, III, §417, note 3). Moreover, Naz again emphasizes, a priest affected by canonical penalties can validly be delegated for a marriage (ibid., §423), which again shows that the “canonical witness” is not present because of his spiritual and moral qualities, but solely for juridical reasons. The fact that an “official” priest is present for the exchange of consents (performed in the traditional rite), and exclusively for that purpose, according to a rule of the Church established by the Council of Trent, then by St. Pius X, would therefore not mar the perfectly traditional character of the marriage being celebrated. In the same vein, if there were no general crisis in the Church (and therefore no state of necessity), and if the pastor of the future spouses was, for example, notoriously cohabiting, these future spouses would even so be compelled to turn to him for their exchange of vows, since canon law makes his presence as “canonical witness” obligatory: this nevertheless would not mar the holiness of their marriage, since the pastor was there for a purely juridical reason, and not because of his moral qualities.
The seventh objection assumes that agreeing to marry according to the “ordinary form” while requesting delegation would be a failure to profess the Faith publicly and to criticize the errors of Vatican II. In effect, the state of separation, contradiction, and conflict between Tradition and the “conciliar” Church, manifested by the canonical sanctions and the refusal of the official authorities of the Church to grant to the Society of St. Pius X what would be just and normal (for example jurisdiction, delegation for marriages, etc.), is like a “catechism in pictures” of the crisis in the Church. Upright souls who are seeking the truth, upon observing that the Society of St. Pius X is persecuted while adhering to what the Catholic Church has always taught and done, are led to think correctly that the official authorities of the Church are in error. By marrying according to the “ordinary form” thanks to a delegation received from an “official” bishop, the Society of St. Pius X would weaken in its battle against the errors of Vatican II.
This objection confuses the reality of the radical opposition between the Catholic Faith and the errors of conciliar liberalism with certain concrete situations that may accidentally manifest it. In the 1970’s, Tradition had taken refuge in makeshift shelters; then, in most localities, they bought or built a church: is anyone going to say that the battle for the Faith grew lukewarm as a result? When a priest of the Society of St. Pius X requests the use of a shrine for a pilgrimage, is anyone going to say that the battle for the Faith is diminished if he obtains permission, as compared with a refusal to grant it? When Pope Benedict XVI acknowledges that the old rite was never abolished, is anyone going to say that the defense of the traditional liturgy by the Society of St. Pius X and the heroic resistance of Archbishop Lefebvre to preserve it are discredited as a result? And so on.
The opposition between the traditional Mass and the new Mass of Paul VI is absolutely clear, whether it is celebrated in a makeshift shelter or in a beautiful traditional church. The opposition between the doctrine of Christ the King and the alleged “values resulting from the French Revolution but having their origins in the Gospel” is total, whether the Society of St. Pius X is recognized canonically (before 1975) or not. The opposition between the traditional Catholic doctrine of marriage and the new doctrine resulting from Vatican II is unambiguous, even if, in order to conform to the Council of Trent and insofar as no concession is made, a perfectly traditional marriage is celebrated according to the “ordinary form” by virtue of a delegation foreseen by the 1917 Code of Canon Law.
Even if, in some cases, traditional marriages may from now on be celebrated according to the “ordinary form”, being truly Catholic marriages, they will nonetheless remain an effective protest against the moral laxism and the errors in the matrimonial doctrine of the “official” Church. In a similar way, the celebration of the traditional Mass in the “official” shrine on a pilgrimage is an effective sermon against the new rite of the Mass.
An eighth objection says that recording a marriage in the “official” registers and not in the registers of the Society of St. Pius X would help open a Pandora’s box, inasmuch as such marriages would then be subject to the 1983 Code of Canon Law and not to the fully traditional canon law alone, as are marriages recorded in the registers of the Society of St. Pius X.
This objection does not take reality into account at all. When a Catholic presents a marriage case to diocesan tribunals, they examine (in keeping with the 1983 Code) both the marriages recorded in the registers of official parishes and those recorded in the registers of the Society of St. Pius X. When a matter is presented by one of the faithful to the Canonical Commission of the Society of Saint Pius X, it examines (in keeping with traditional canon law) both the marriages recorded in the registers of the Society of St. Pius X and those that are recorded in the registers of the official parishes.
The registers of the ecclesiastical state, indeed, are only the juridical proof of the celebration of a liturgical act (a baptism, a confirmation, a marriage, a funeral, etc.). They in no way prejudge its validity, which must be examined by an ecclesiastical tribunal if there is a well-founded doubt. Nor do they prejudge the law that will be followed during that examination. For example, if persons who married in the 1960’s, when the 1917 Code was still in force, were to introduce annulment proceedings in a diocesan tribunal today, they would be judged according to the 1983 Code: however the register of the ecclesiastical state underwent no modification since the time of their marriage.
The place where the juridical record of an ecclesiastical act (for example a marriage) is preserved has, in truth, no theological or moral importance. When a priest prepares a marriage, he often observes that the future spouses were baptized in one context (in the “official” Church or in the Society of St. Pius X), were confirmed in an entirely different context, etc. The important thing is to gain access to proof of these ecclesiastical acts, and experience shows that this access is reasonably easy to obtain effectively.
Moreover, the priests of the Society of St. Pius X regularly “notify” the sacraments (confirmations, marriages, ordinations, etc.) to the dioceses, for inscription in the registers of the ecclesiastical state of the parish where the person was baptized: will anyone say that in doing so they by that very fact expose the faithful to the errors of conciliar canon law?
The Advantages of the Situation Created by the Letter
Finally, it is appropriate to conclude by considering the advantages made possible in the new situation created by Cardinal Müller’s Letter: they are not negligible.
The first and chief advantage would be to “secure” at least some of the marriages celebrated within the framework of the Society of St. Pius X, as far as the form of celebration is concerned. Everyone should know, as was mentioned, that the almost universal doctrine of official tribunals is that these marriages are invalid in themselves because of a lack of form, since they recognize neither the grave state of necessity nor the crisis in the Church. In other words, it is enough for one of the spouses married according to the “extraordinary form” within the framework of the Society of St. Pius X to file a request for nullity of marriage, and automatically, certainly, and without any other reason, his marriage will be declared null and he will be able to remarry in the Church. Now, unfortunately, this occurs regularly: for example, a ruling of nullity for this reason is handed down in France roughly every other month. And this involves, in some cases, persons who at the time of their marriage were serious, well-instructed faithful of the Society of St. Pius X. But the difficulties of married life, the temptation of the easy way out, and an alteration of their moral sense led them to lose sight of the seriousness of their commitment, so that they resorted to this convenient (albeit unjust) method of freeing themselves from their matrimonial obligations.
On the contrary, every time it is morally possible, by virtue of Cardinal Müller’s Letter, to resort to the “ordinary form”, this will rule out the possibility of a request for an annulment for lack of canonical form. Even if this does not prevent a request for an annulment for other (possibly bad) reasons, it will at least do away with the scandal of these baseless declarations of nullity solely on account of a lack of canonical form, and it will also prevent the bigamy of the petitioner and the injustice done to the innocent spouse.
Inasmuch as this “securing” of marriages could exist without in any way altering the truly Catholic and traditional character of the marriage (in other words, when people could obtain delegation to marry according to the “ordinary form” without imperiling any good), it would seem imprudent and even contrary to the common good to reject it: indeed, every priest not only must make sure of the validity of the marriages that he celebrates (and there is no doubt about this point in the case of the marriages celebrated by the Society of St. Pius X), but also, as far as he is able, must acknowledge this validity publicly, because of the good of the spouses, the children, and of society that is involved in every marriage.
The second advantage would be to help to act with special charity toward the spouse or toward the families who were not (entirely) the faithful of the Society of St. Pius X. We must not forget that a marriage is not only a personal act of two future spouses, but is also a far-reaching familial and social reality. Every marriage necessarily involves the spouses, but also their families and their whole circle of relations. The reality of the crisis in the Church obliges the priests and the faithful of the Society of St. Pius X to not always observe some precepts of canon law. Unfortunately, the families of the future spouses as well as their friends do not necessarily agree with the analysis of the Society of St. Pius X about the situation in the Church. Consequently, marriage according to the “extraordinary form”, which in itself is perfectly valid, may seem to them marred by canonical irregularity. This leads in many cases to familiar tensions, to divisions between friends, or even to a refusal to attend the wedding. In some instances this proves to be tragic. Of course, it is not a question of taking into account whether this might dissuade the future spouses from contracting marriage according to the traditional rite and the true Catholic doctrine. But if it is possible for a marriage that is fully in conformity with Tradition to benefit from the “ordinary form”, without making any harmful concessions, it is without any doubt an act of charity to reassure thereby the fearful consciences of the parents or friends of the future spouses.
The third advantage would be to subject the marriages celebrated by the priests of the Society of Saint Pius X, whenever possible, to the letter of the Church’s law, as it has been expressed in turn by the Council of Trent, St. Pius X, and the 1917 Code of Canon Law. In itself, a marriage should be celebrated according to the “ordinary form”, since recourse to the “extraordinary form” is by its nature exceptional (even though, in the case of the Society of St. Pius X, and for well-founded reasons, it is currently a recurrent need). By reducing the frequency of recourse to the “extraordinary form”, whenever possible without making harmful concessions, we certainly come closer to what the Church wants.
The fourth advantage, finally, would be the ability to celebrate marriages more widely in the traditional rite, thus removing an obstacle for more timid Catholics. Some future spouses who know that the theological and moral doctrine of the priests of the Society of St. Pius X is rigorously orthodox, that the rite that they use is the most dignified and the most sanctifying, are unfortunately dissuaded from relying on their ministry, for fear that there might be canonical doubts about the validity of their marriage. The fact that the basis for this fear is false (marriages celebrated by the priests of the Society of St. Pius X according to the “extraordinary form” are valid in themselves) does not prevent this fear from existing, because of all that people say, because of the statements by the ecclesiastical authorities, because of the ignorance of the faithful and because of what they consider to be the “subtleties” of canon law, etc. Now, if these Catholics, through the use of the “ordinary form” without making any harmful concessions, could benefit from marriage perfectly in conformity with Tradition, celebrated by a priest of the Society of St. Pius X, it certainly would be a great good for themselves, for their new home, for their families and friends, and for the whole Church.