Rorate Caeli

Latin Mass Society of England and Wales: Canon Law Briefing on Status of Faithful who receive Sacraments from SSPX Priests

[See also: Una Voce International Federation condemns SSPX faithful "excommunications" as illegal.]

COMMENT: letters from the Bishop Semeraro of Albano, Italy, and then from Bishop Sarlinga of Zárate-Campana in Argentina, have declared that the lay faithful who receive the sacraments from priests and bishops of the Society of St Pius X (SSPX) are automatically excommunicated, and would need to go through a process authorised by the bishop to be readmitted to communion with the Church (i.e., not simply confession). The Latin Mass Society holds no brief to defend the position of the SSPX, which is canonically irregular, but feels it necessary to point out that these letters are not just ill-considered but have potentially very serious pastoral consequences. They imply that anyone who has ever been to Mass said by a priest of the SSPX is not welcome in the churches of these dioceses. This conflicts not only with the ‘opening of hearts’ requested by Pope Benedict XVI as a prelude to a healing of these divisions ‘in the heart of the Church’, but equally with the emphasis on mercy of Pope Francis.


In light of canonical advice from our National Chaplain and Canonical Adviser, Mgr Gordon Read, the Latin Mass Society would like to clarify some canonical principles in relation to the recent statements of Bishop Semeraro of Albano, Italy, and Bishop Sarlinga of Zárate-Campana in Argentina, lest misunderstandings spread to dioceses around the world.

1. Basing a canonical argument on the assumption that the Society of Pius X (SSPX) has no canonical status in the Church and that its priests are suspended following ordination without dimissorial letters, it does not follow that to seek the sacraments at their hands is an act of formal schism on the part of the lay faithful.
a. Such a conclusion conflicts with the lifting of the excommunication of the bishops of the SSPX by Pope Benedict XVI in 2009: it would be incongruous for the legislator to lift the excommunication of the bishops while imposing or maintaining it on the lay faithful to whom they minister.
b. It also conflicts with the provision in canon law for the effects of suspension or excommunication of a priest to be lifted when someone approaches the priest subject to the penalty in order to receive a sacrament (canon 1335).

2. Excommunication by adherence to a schism can only be incurred where there is both a schismatic intention and an external act (canon 1321).
a. It is clear therefore that excommunication is not incurred by those seeking the sacraments at the hands of priests of the SSPX without a schismatic intention. 
b. Were a member of the lay faithful to incur excommunication by a schismatic intention, this would be a matter of the private forum (the confessional), and not the public forum. 
c. Those under the age of sixteen cannot in any case incur a penalty (canon 1323.1); this would apply to those under this age who received baptism or confirmation.

3. The attitude of the Holy See has always been that lay faithful who receive the sacraments from priests of the SSPX are not excommunicated. Examples are as follows.
a. In 1991 Bishop Joseph Ferrario of Honolulu declared six lay Catholics excommunicated on grounds of schism for having procured the services of an SSPX bishop to administer confirmation. These appealed to the Holy See which, through Cardinal Ratzinger as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, declared the decree invalid because their action, though considered blameworthy, did not constitute schism. 
b. On 5th September 2005, the Holy See, through the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei, affirmed that ‘the faithful who attend the Masses of the aforesaid Fraternity are not excommunicates, and the priests who celebrate them are not, either—the latter are, in fact, suspended.’ (Protocol n.55/2005, signed by the then Secretary of the PCED, Mgr Camille Perl) 
c. On 27th September 2002, quoted and reaffirmed on 18th January 2003, the Holy See, through the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei, stated that ‘In the strict sense you may fulfil your Sunday obligation by attending a Mass celebrated by a priest of the Society of St. Pius X.’ (Letters signed by Mgr Camille Perl).


Bishop Marcello Semeraro of Albano, Italy, in a letter to his diocese dated 14th October 2014, declared:

The Catholic faithful cannot participate at Mass, neither request and/or receive Sacraments from or in the Society. Acting otherwise would mean to break communion with the Catholic Church. 
Therefore, any Catholic faithful who requests and receives Sacraments in the Society of Saint Pius X, will place himself de facto in the condition of no longer being in communion with the Catholic Church. A readmission to the Catholic Church must be preceded by an adequate personal path of reconciliation, according to the ecclesiastical discipline established by the Bishop.

Bishop Semeraro is coincidentally the Secretary to the Council of Cardinals set up to advise the Pope. Albano is the location of the Italian headquarters of the SSPX.

Bishop Óscar Sarlinga of Zárate-Campana in Argentina, in a letter to his diocese dated 3rd November 2014, declared:

-It is not licit for the Catholic faithful to take part in the celebration of Mass in these conditions, neither to request nor to receive sacraments from the priests of the aforementioned "Society of Saint Pius X", including in private places turned into places of worship, without excluding, in case of obstinacy, also the ferendae sententiae penalties that may apply, according to the ecclesial spirit and that of protection of the faithful 
- In the case of the rupture of ecclesiastical communion by the above-mentioned founded motives, in order to be later readmitted to the Catholic Church, a personal path of reconciliation (and eventually of removal of the canonical censure) will be required, according to the discipline advised by the Holy See and the [diocese's] own, established by the diocesan bishop.

The Latin Mass Society, founded in 1965, promotes and supports the celebration of the Traditional Mass and sacraments (Extraordinary Form, Vetus Ordo) within the official structures of the Church and with the permission and cooperation of the bishops and the Holy See.