The SSPX and the Conversion of Rome to Tradition

Source: Holy Cross Priory

In this article, Fr Paul Robinson considers whether a canonical recognition of the SSPX 'as is' would favour or hinder the restoration of Tradition.


At the conclusion of the General Chapter of the SSPX in 2006, the chapter members issued a declaration, as is customary. Among other things, the declaration stated the following,

The contacts made from time to time with the authorities in Rome have no other purpose than to help them embrace once again that Tradition which the Church cannot repudiate without losing her identity. The purpose is not just to benefit the Society, nor to arrive at some merely practical impossible agreement.

This statement clearly indicates a twofold purpose in the SSPX’s dealings with Rome: the restoration of Tradition and the benefit of the SSPX. It also indicates that the remote or ultimate purpose of the restoration of Tradition takes precedence over the proximate purpose of benefitting the SSPX.

Since 2006, however, there has been much debate about the proper means by which the SSPX is to assist the restoration of Tradition in Rome. The main focus of the discussion has been whether the restoration is to take place firstly at the practical level or firstly at the doctrinal level. Specifically, is it better for the SSPX to accept a canonical recognition ‘as is’, or is it better to refuse such a recognition as a means to pressure Rome into taking up traditional doctrine? Would a canonical recognition ‘as is’ favor or hinder the restoration of Tradition that the SSPX seeks?

This article proposes to consider two different positions on this question, one which is against canonical recognition ‘as is’ and another which is for canonical recognition ‘as is’. The purpose of the article, as with the “Unity of Faith with Pope Francis” article, is not to settle when and under what circumstances it is prudent for the Superior General of the SSPX to accept a canonical recognition ‘as is’; rather, its purpose is to defend the General House’s public position that being accepted ‘as is’ is the essential criterion for accepting a canonical recognition. As such, this article understands an ‘as is’ recognition in the same sense as the General House, and especially as a phrase that include freedom for the SSPX to profess openly its doctrinal stances, to maintain its liturgical practices, and to retain its properties and places of worship.

Two preliminary notes

Before delving into the details, two preliminary notes must be made. The first is that the SSPX has been attempting, since its contacts with Rome were established again in 2000, for a restoration of Tradition at both the practical and doctrinal levels. Bishop Fellay asked for doctrinal discussions with Rome and also requested that two practical pre-conditions be fulfilled before the discussions would commence. The conditions were freedom for the traditional Mass and the rescinding of the decree of excommunication of the SSPX’s bishops. The Declaration cited above mentioned how the fulfillment of those conditions “would greatly benefit the Church by re-establishing, at least in part, her rights to her own Tradition.”

The pre-conditions were more or less fulfilled and the doctrinal discussions took place. The success at the practical level, however, was not matched by a parallel success at the doctrinal level. The Roman hierarchs involved in the discussions did not agree with the position expressed by the SSPX—the position that Vatican II is, in three aspects (religious liberty, ecumenism, and collegiality), a break with the constant teaching of the Church. Despite this lack of agreement, Rome wanted to move ahead on the practical side, putting forward the plan of a personal prelature for the SSPX, a plan that was first proposed back in 2011.

Since then, other practical steps have been taken towards the restoration of Tradition. The priests of the SSPX have been granted ordinary jurisdiction for the hearing of confessions and a framework for obtaining authorization to perform marriages with due canonical form.

It would be well to recall, for those who refuse to admit that anything is different in today’s SSPX-Rome relations from what they were in the past, that Rome did not concede anything to the SSPX during the long period spanning from 1975 to 2007. Since then, however, Rome has budged from the line that it was holding and started moving towards the line that the SSPX maintained, the “canonical recognition ‘as is’” line. The fact that Rome’s concessions have been almost exclusively on the practical level is what started the doctrinal vs. practical debate. Let not that debate, then, obscure the obvious reality that those concessions introduce a new situation. The question is no longer “What should we do when Rome opposes us?” but “What should we do when Rome favors us?”. Only in such a context can our primary question be posed, namely, should the SSPX move ahead with a restoration at the practical level or hold out for a restoration at the doctrinal level?

This brings us to the second point, which is that the practical steps for the restoration of Tradition cannot be wholly separated from the doctrinal steps, and vice-versa. Every practical step leading to the regularization and spread of Tradition will necessarily be a step leading to the restoration of traditional doctrine; every doctrinal step taken for the correction of the errors of Vatican II will necessarily cause the spread of Tradition in practice. The only difference is that some steps will be directly practical and indirectly doctrinal, while others will be directly doctrinal and indirectly practical. In the end, it is impossible to isolate traditional belief from traditional praxis; they are a complete package. Thus, when one part of the package is favored, the other part is also necessarily favored.

Consider, for example, the possibility of the SSPX receiving a personal prelature that would leave it ‘as is’. On the day of canonical recognition, there would exist, within the canonical structures of the Church, a worldwide organization of traditional priests and religious whose official position is that the Second Vatican Council contains errors against defined dogmas of the faith. By the fact that Rome would be approving such an organization and allowing it to continue its well-known opposition to aspects of the Council, the Council would suffer a terrible blow.

This is why the noted Catholic writer George Weigel looks upon a possible recognition of the SSPX ‘as is’ with horror. For him, it would enshrine, for Catholics around the world, a ‘right to dissent’:

To restore SSPX clergy to full communion with Rome while letting them cross their fingers behind their backs on religious freedom (and ecumenism) when they make the profession of faith and take the oath of fidelity would, by a bizarre ultra-traditionalist route, enshrine a “right to dissent” within the Church.1

While we do not agree with him that it would enshrine a right to dissent from all Catholic teaching, we do agree that it would enshrine a right to dissent from Vatican II. As such, it is impossible that an ‘as is’ recognition of the SSPX would not be a step closer to the condemnation of the errors of Vatican II, though, in itself, it is not a doctrinal step towards the restoration of Tradition but a practical one. If the SSPX were recognized ‘as is’, its position, or its profession of faith, if you will, would also have to be recognized as Catholic.

With these two points established, we can now return to our main question: should the SSPX move ahead with the directly practical and indirectly doctrinal step for the restoration of Tradition, which is canonical recognition? Or should the SSPX make its immediate focus the achievement of a directly doctrinal and indirectly practical step toward its restoration?

The wait for Rome to convert position

It has been argued by some that a canonical recognition, while providing advantages in some respects, would yet ultimately be disadvantageous for the restoration of Tradition. The argument contends that the SSPX should hold out for Rome to make a doctrinal declaration condemning the errors of Vatican II and I will refer to it as the ‘doctrinal declaration’ argument. It may be summarized as follows:

  • “the end being pursued [by the SSPX] is that all of the rights of Tradition be restored in Rome.”2
  • The restoration of those rights would consist “in the Holy See making a serious correction of the doctrinal errors which are the source of the unprecedented crisis which is still raging throughout the Church”.
  • Therefore, “such a correction is the end that is sought after, the per se end, the final cause, the principle of all subsequent activity in the context of relations with Rome.”
  • But a canonical recognition would endanger that final end in two ways:3

  1. It would make the doctrinal position of the SSPX just one among many opinions within the Conciliar Church and so would relativize that doctrinal position.
  2. It would introduce the danger of the SSPX weakening its doctrinal stance.

  • Thus, all things considered, canonical recognition of the SSPX more hinders than helps the restoration of Tradition, and so should not be accepted until Rome signs a doctrinal statement condemning the errors of Vatican II.

The main thing to be noted about this position is that it proposes an entirely different discernment for SSPX canonical recognition than the ‘as is’ criterion of Archbishop Lefebvre. There are three reasons why this position rejects the ‘as is’ condition as being acceptable:

  1. It does not see canonical recognition as favoring the restoration of traditional doctrine, but rather as hindering it.
  2. It does not believe that the SSPX would be sufficiently safeguarded in the faith by an ‘as is’ recognition.
  3. It does not believe that the SSPX would have any moral obligation to accept an ‘as is’ recognition.

Let us look more deeply into these three reasons.

1. Canonical recognition ‘as is’ hindering traditional doctrine

It has been argued above that a canonical recognition of the SSPX would deal a severe blow to the doctrinal status of Vatican II. The doctrinal declaration argument, however, holds that a canonically regularized SSPX would only be seen as just holding one opinion on Vatican II among many others. From this view, it is better for the SSPX to appear to be outside the Church, for then it is able to stand out more clearly and attract more attention to its viewpoint.

In addition to failing to recognize that the SSPX’s stance is already seen to be just another opinion—and is most often seen as being a false opinion—this position seems to ignore the normal progression of the restoration of the Church in times of crisis. Normally, there are three stages: persecution, then tolerance, then privilege. For instance, Catholicism was persecuted by the Roman Empire, then moved to being tolerated under Constantine, then moved to being the privileged religion of the state under later, Christian emperors. For Catholics who were being put to death and who could not meet publicly to practice their religion, a state of religious tolerance was something to be desired. It was not an absolute good, but a relative good, and a stepping stone to the best situation, one in which the Catholic faith would be the privileged religion of the State, as is its right.

Catholics are permitted to demand protection, under the law, from a pluralistic, religious liberty style government. They do not have to insist on being persecuted until the State converts to the Catholic Faith and establishes Catholicism as the state religion.

Another example is the Arian crisis, and this example is more apt than the first, because it concerns a situation where much of the persecution was coming from within the Church. For a certain period, Catholic bishops professing the Catholic Faith instead of the Arian Faith were exiled by the Arian emperor and Arian bishops. Then, Julian the Apostate came to power and brought all of the Catholic bishops back from exile in an attempt to introduce more chaos into the Church. This strategy failed, because it created an environment of tolerance for the doctrine of Our Lord’s Divinity, which was then later restored to its rightful privileged position of being recognized by the Catholic world as Catholic teaching.

The doctrinal declaration position wants Tradition to transition directly from being persecuted to being privileged. It wants Rome to move from persecuting Tradition to privileging it, without passing through the intermediate stage of tolerating it. Moreover, it sees the toleration stage as injurious to Tradition rather than helpful for it. In short, the best here is the enemy of the good. Because the best outcome (privilege) shines so brightly, the goodness of the lesser outcome (tolerance) can no longer be recognized.

It might also be mentioned in passing that, while the marginalization of the SSPX for the past 40 years has protected it to some degree, it seems quite difficult to argue that it has been beneficial for spreading the position of the SSPX. On the contrary, the SSPX has to a large degree been ghettoized by its enemies so that its position might not spread, and that strategy has been quite successful.

2. Canonical recognition ‘as is’ endangering the faith of the SSPX

A second stance of the doctrinal declaration position is that the SSPX, when incorporated into a Conciliar Church that favors heresy, would find it difficult to hold on to its opposition to the errors of Vatican II. A troubling aspect of the way this stance is taken is that it is supported by a quotation of the Archbishop4 , wherein he says,

What concerns us above all else is to hold on to the Catholic Faith. That is our combat. The purely external canonical question, having public status in the Church, is secondary. What is important is to remain in the Church… in the Church, that is to say, in the perennial Catholic Faith, with the true priesthood, the true Mass, the true sacraments, the catechism of the ages, the Bible of the ages.5

The reason that this citation is troubling is that the Archbishop was clearly in favor of an ‘as is’ recognition. Consider, for instance, the words from his 40th episcopal anniversary sermon in October, 1987:

If Rome really wants to give us true autonomy, the one that we have now, but with submission, we would want this, we have always desired to be subject to the Holy Father.6

Out of justice to the Archbishop, the first quotation must be reconciled with the second. If he is saying, in the first quote, that the faith is more important than a canonical recognition, he is surely referring to a situation wherein the SSPX would have to accept the New Mass or religious liberty or some such in order to receive canonical recognition. He is not saying that, if the SSPX were granted recognition ‘as is’, then it would be in danger of losing traditional doctrine, and so it would be preferable to remain in a state of secure marginalization rather than accept a canonical recognition wherein the SSPX would be able to hold onto all of its doctrinal positions.

In the first quote, the Archbishop is saying that the SSPX must maintain the Catholic Faith first over a canonical recognition, if it has to choose between the two. In the second quote, he is saying that IF it can maintain the faith, the true priesthood, the true Mass, the true sacraments, the true catechism, and so on, AS WELL AS have canonical status, then it should take both.

Another problem with doctrinal declaration stance is it does not seem to recognize the dangers of faith that the SSPX runs from being decades without canonical recognition. If one could divide the priests who have left the SSPX into two camps, with those on one side running to the Resistance and sedevacantism and those on the other running to the Novus Ordo, the former priests would vastly outnumber the latter. The disproportionate number of ex-SSPX priests who have lost faith in the visibility and authority of the Church should be a clear indication that the SSPX’s abnormal situation, of itself, poses a danger of loss of faith in the Church. The supposed security for the faith in canonical irregularity, then, would seem to be, on the contrary, quite insecure.

For a particular instance of this, let us turn to the third point.

3. Canonical recognition ‘as is’ morally indifferent

The doctrinal declaration stance sees a canonical recognition ‘as is’ as morally indifferent.7 What this means is that the SSPX has no particular moral duties in relation to the acceptance or rejection of a canonical recognition, taken in itself. Thus, the Society is free to reject it on accidental grounds, grounds that do not concern the actual canonical recognition, but the circumstances surrounding it. It is also free to set any price for its canonical recognition, such as the price of a condemnation of the errors of Vatican II.

An image—one that surely limps in many respects—might be made for illustration. Say a child has a drunken father and that father habitually commands the child to do things that are wrong. Then, one fine day, the father commands the child to do something that puts some order into the house. It would be incorrect, on such an occasion, for the child to say, “Because of your habitual drunkenness, the command you have given me is morally indifferent. As long as you do not correct your bad habit, it is more advantageous for me not to accept your acts of authority—even good ones that rectify things in this house—because I am better able to bear witness to the goodness of sobriety and to pressure you to become sober if I am in a state of non-acceptance.”

On the contrary, the father still has a right to command obedience in all that is good. Canonical recognition of the SSPX is not something indifferent, but is something good, in that it rectifies an unjust abnormality in the Church. Bishop Fellay stated as much in the April 2014 Cor Unum, “In itself, canonical recognition is a very great good.” The fact that it is a moral good puts the SSPX under a moral obligation to accept it, when it poses no danger to the faith. The duty to keep the faith is a higher duty, but the duty to have proper relations with the successor of Peter is not optional.

This is implicit in the following words from the Archbishop:

The fundamental principle of the thought and action of the Society in the painful crisis that the Church is going through is the principle taught by St. Thomas Aquinas in the Summa Theologica: not to oppose the authority of the Church, except in case of immediate danger for the Faith.8

In short, the doctrinal declaration position errs when it shifts the canonical recognition criterion from ‘the SSPX being able to keep the traditional faith’ to ‘Rome professing the traditional faith’. The reasons it puts forward to show that canonical recognition ‘as is’ would hinder the restoration of Tradition fall to the ground when scrutinized and, by that fact, the argument loses its force.

The position of the Archbishop

It remains for us to consider the fact of the Archbishop’s stance in favor of a canonical recognition ‘as is’. What must be avoided in this consideration is isolating a few quotations from the Archbishop and then building a case on the basis of those quotations. Much better is to discover the principles which motivated the Archbishop and how he followed through with those principles in the course of his entire life.

Specifically, we must look at the Archbishop’s vision for the role of the SSPX and how that vision informed the negotiations that he had with Rome concerning the status of the SSPX within the Church.

Restoration of the Church by means of priests

It is important to understand that the Archbishop’s vision for the SSPX dates to before the eruption of the crisis in the Church. Already, in the 1950s, he was dreaming of working for the restoration of the Church. The great means for this restoration and even the sole means, in his mind, was the priesthood. The priesthood, conferred by the sacrament of Holy Orders, is the ultimate source of order in the Church, and is essentially bound to the supreme act of the re-ordering of the fallen world, the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. It was this vision that was behind the Archbishop’s famous dream in the cathedral of Dakar in the 1950s:

The dream was to transmit, before the progressive degradation of the priestly ideal, in all of its doctrinal purity and in all of its missionary charity, the Catholic Priesthood of Our Lord Jesus Christ … How should I carry out that which appeared then to me as the sole solution to revive the Church and Christianity? It was still a dream, but there appeared to me already the need, not only to confer the authentic priesthood, to teach not only the sana doctrina approved by the Church, but also to transmit the profound and unchanging spirit of the Catholic priesthood essentially bound to the great prayer of Our Lord which His Sacrifice on the Cross expresses eternally.9

It was because of this vision that, when the Archbishop founded the SSPX, he made its purpose firstly and primarily to be “the priesthood and all that pertains to it and nothing but what concerns it”.10 “We are a priestly society. The essential character of our Society is its priestly nature. That is its end.”11

It was important, in the mind of the Archbishop, that the SSPX was not founded on a negative basis, but on a positive one. The SSPX was not founded to contest Rome and the Council. For the Archbishop, this would have been rather abnormal. Rather it was founded to perform a positive work, the formation of good priests:

[The Society of St. Pius X] was not born from an idea of contestation, an idea of opposition. Not at all! It was born in the way that I believe works of the Church may well be born, that is, from a need which has arisen: the need to ensure the good formation of priests.12

The Archbishop did not found the SSPX to fix the crisis in the Church. He wanted the SSPX to contribute towards the restoration of the Church, of course, but in the character of a priestly society. The Church did not entrust the SSPX with the work of fixing the Church in approving its statutes; the SSPX does not have the means to fix the Church because that is up to Rome; and its founder did not establish it for the immediate purpose of fixing the Church. As such, contributing towards the restoration of the Church is only the remote end of the SSPX, while the formation of good priests is its proximate end.

This distinction is important. If the immediate purpose of the SSPX was the restoration of the Church, then it should choose any and all means for the accomplishment of that end, without focusing on the formation of good priests. But since its immediate purpose is the formation of good priests, then the means for contributing to the restoration of the Church is set in stone and cannot change, at least if the SSPX is to be faithful to its identity.

How a priestly society restores the Church

How, concretely, we may ask, does a priestly society work for the restoration of the Church? We have so far considered the Archbishop’s vision in general: form priests with doctrinal purity and missionary charity. But how do such priests overcome a crisis in the Church greater than the world has ever known?

The Archbishop’s clearest statements on this question are found in the first conference he delivered at an Easter retreat just before the consecrations. We might ask if this conference of April, 1988, might not be considered to be the second half of the dream in Dakar? Because of its importance, a long quotation from it follows this article.

In the second part of the dream, the founder of the SSPX envisions how his priestly society would be placed in a position to effectively drive forward the restoration of Tradition. It would all begin with canonical recognition ‘as is’. Then, because of that recognition, the SSPX would later be granted an office in Rome. After this would come, at some point, an SSPX church in Rome, chosen from among the many Roman churches not in use. Then, an SSPX Roman seminary, which would attract many vocations from around the world. And since the majority of the bishops of the world are taken from priests trained at Roman seminaries, many of the ordinands of the SSPX Roman seminary would become bishops and would occupy dioceses around the world.

And the restoration of Tradition? At some point, because of the spreading of the influence of Tradition by means of the SSPX Roman presence, the SSPX Roman seminary, the SSPX Roman priests and bishops, Rome would take up once again its own Tradition.

“It is a beautiful dream”, says the Archbishop. “But who knows?” It is a dream that falls perfectly in line with the Archbishop’s conception of the priestly society he founded: form good priests who profess the integrity of the faith and, by that fact, you will help restore the Church.


Archbishop Lefebvre believed in the power of well-formed priests to restore the Church. Because of this, he founded a priestly society that seeks to form priests who are known for their doctrinal purity and missionary charity. The Church herself, by approving the statues of the SSPX, assigned that mission of forming good priests to the SSPX, and the SSPX has all of the means necessary to perform that work. But, since the illegal suppression of the SSPX in 1975, the SSPX has been put in an irregular situation, has been opposed by Church authorities, and has been prevented from spreading as much as it is capable of doing so. Because the Archbishop founded the SSPX for the formation of good priests and canonical recognition ‘as is’ would enable the SSPX to extend its work of forming good priests, the Archbishop favored a canonical recognition ‘as is’.

Those of the doctrinal declaration position, on the other hand, see the immediate purpose of the SSPX as the restoration of the Church and so do not consider a canonical recognition ‘as is’ to be favorable for that restoration. They would like to use the SSPX’s state of canonical suppression as a means to put pressure on Rome so that Rome will condemn the errors of Vatican II. By taking this position, they have a vision that is different from that of the Archbishop, a vision in which the SSPX does not seek to contribute to the restoration of the Church primarily by the formation of priests who profess the faith, but rather primarily by pressuring Rome to profess the faith.

(To read the extended quotation of Abp Lefebvre, click on this link.)

  • 1…
  • 2This and the succeeding two quotations are cited from Courrier de Rome, Mai 2017, « Pour une entente doctrinale ? », §2.
  • 3See Ibid., §§28-29.
  • 4Cited in Ibid., §29.
  • 5Spiritual conference at Ecône, 21 December 1984.
  • 6Angelus magazine, November 1987, p. 8.
  • 7See Courrier de Rome, Mai 2017, « Pour une entente doctrinale ? », §28.
  • 8Letter to American friends and benefactors, April 28, 1983.
  • 9Spiritual Journey, p. iii, emphasis added.
  • 10Rule of the SSPX.
  • 11Priestly Holiness, p. 444; pages 437-481 are essential reading for this discussion.
  • 12Priestly Holiness, p. 439.