The Society of St. Pius X
Question from Dave Manning on 11-04-2005:

I know a lady who presently is attending Mass at a church affiliated with The Society of St. Pius X. She claims that her participation in the Rite of Reconciliation, the Eucharist, and all other sacraments is valid in the eyes of the Roman Catholic Church. In reply, I told her I didn't believe this was true, and passed on data given to me by a member of the Priestly Order of St. Peter: the Church would tolerate her attendance at a Society of St. Pius X Mass, but she would view her participation in the sacraments, especially tthe Rite of Reconciliation and the Eucharist, as invalid. Surprisingly to me, at least the lady told me that this was opinion only, and not fact. So, who is correct, the lady or me? Finally, I've experienced considerable difficulty getting any of the Church authorities near me to answer this question definitively. They either threaten this poor lady's soul with fire and brimstone, while offering little or no supporting evidence, or they refuse to answer at all. What is it about The Society of St. Pius X that could elicit this sort of unreasonable reaction?

Answer by Colin B. Donovan, STL on 11-28-2005:

The SSPX has valid orders, therefore, according to the nature of each sacrament, their sacraments are valid. However, validity of orders is not all that is required for some sacraments. The following is my summary of the situation, and assumes the proper minister, intention, matter and form.

Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist, Holy Orders, Sacrament of the Sick (Extreme Unction) - valid, but illicit, since they represent themselves not the Catholic Church, and do not adhere to current liturgical norms, or have the authority to use the former rites, as does the Priestly Society of St. Peter.

Penance - in addition to valid orders, Penance requires jurisdiction or faculties, from someone capable of granting them. This was true under the 1917 Code of Canon Law, as it is under the current one (1983).

Canon 966
1. For the valid absolution of sins it is required that, besides the power received through sacred ordination, the minister possess the faculty to exercise that power over the faithful to whom he imparts absolution.
2. A priest can be given this faculty either by the law itself or by a concession granted by competent authority in accord with the norm of can. 969.

How do you get faculties, or jurisdiction, to absolve?

Canon 967
1. Besides the Roman Pontiff, cardinals by the law itself possess the faculty to hear the confessions of the Christian faithful anywhere in the world; likewise, bishops possess this faculty and licitly use it anywhere unless the diocesan bishop denies it in a particular case.
2. Those who enjoy the faculty of hearing confessions habitually whether in virtue of office or by grant from the ordinary of the place of incardination or the place in which they have a domicile can exercise the same faculty everywhere unless the local ordinary denies it in a particular case, with due regard for the prescriptions of can. 974, parts 2 and 3.
3. Those who have been granted the faculty to hear confessions in virtue of an office or by a grant from the competent superior in accord with the norms of cann. 968, part 2 and 969, part 2 can by the law itself use the faculty anywhere in respect to members and others who stay day and night in a house of the institute or society; such persons also exercise this faculty licitly unless some major superior has denied it concerning his own subjects in a particular case.

Canon 969
1. The local ordinary alone is competent to confer upon any presbyters whatsoever the faculty to hear the confessions of any of the faithful; however, presbyters who are members of religious institutes should not use such a faculty without at least the presumed permission of their superior.
2. The superior of a religious institute or of a society of apostolic life of pontifical right mentioned in can. 968, part 2, is competent to confer on any presbyter whatsoever the faculty to hear the confessions of his subjects and others staying day and night in the house.

So, in summary, Cardinals absolve anywhere by the law itself, bishops absolve anywhere by the law itself, unless a particular diocesan bishop prohibits it in his diocese, diocesan priests receive faculties from their bishop and absolve anywhere, unless a particular bishop prohibits it with respect to his subjects, and religious order priests receive faculties from their competent superior and exercise them toward the members of their community, those in residence in their houses, and everywhere in their institute, unless a particular superior prohibits it with respect to his subjects. They can exercise them habitually toward the faithful only with the faculty of the local bishop. Assigned to parish work they would receive such faculties.

As you can see it would be almost impossible to make a case that SSPX priests ordinarily have such jurisdiction and that their absolutions are valid. Even their 4 bishops, who if they were Catholic bishops would absolve everywhere unless a particular local ordinary impeded them, cannot be said to absolve, since they were the subjects of both automatic and declared excommunications at the time of their ordination to the episcopal order.

I can only thing of two situations when SSPX absolutions would be valid. First at the time of someone's danger of death, when the law grants to any valid priest, even excommunicated or suspended ones, the faculty to hear the confession of that person(canon 976). The second case is when a member of the faithful mistakenly believes that the absolution of a SSPX priest is valid and goes to him for confession. In such case, the Church is said to "supply" jurisdiction, to protect the "innocent" faithful. This presumes that the ignorance is not crass or supine, in other words, a true ignorance. Perhaps, this secures the validly absolution of many Catholics who go to the SSPX, but not those who know the law on jurisdiction.

Marriage - Holy Matrimony, like Penance, has a jurisdictional element. For validity a Catholic must be married according to the Catholic Form, that is, before official witnesses. This is secured by requiring that couples approach the proper pastor of one or the other (if both are Catholic) or of the Catholic party (if only one is), and either be married by him or his delegate (e.g. the associate pastor), or receive a dispensation to be married somewhere else and/or by someone else (even if the place is a Catholic parish and the minister a Catholic priest).

Canon 1108
1. Only those marriages are valid which are contracted in the presence of the local ordinary or the pastor, or a priest or deacon delegated by either of them, who assist, and in the presence of two witnesses, according to the rules expressed in the following canons, with due regard for the exceptions mentioned in cann. 144, 1112, part 1, 1116 and 1127, parts 2 and 3.
2. The one assisting at a marriage is understood to be only that person who, present at the ceremony, asks for the contractants' manifestation of consent and receives it in the name of the Church.

Canon 1109
Unless through a sentence or decree they have been excommunicated, interdicted or suspended from office or declared such, in virtue of their office the local ordinary and the pastor validly assist within the confines of their territory at the marriages of their subjects as well as of non-subjects provided one of the contractants is of the Latin rite.

Canon 1110
In virtue of their office and within the limits of their jurisdiction an ordinary and a personal pastor validly assist only at marriages involving at least one of their subjects.

Canon 1111
1. As long as they validly hold office, the local ordinary and the pastor (parochus) can delegate to priests and deacons the faculty, even a general one, to assist at marriages within the limits of their territory.
2. To be valid the delegation of the faculty to assist at marriages must be given expressly to specified persons; if it is a question of a special delegation, it is to be granted for a specific marriage; however, if it is a question of a general delegation, it is to be granted in writing.

These canons represent a high hurdle for the SSPX to get over. The one exception granted by the Church is to recognize the validity, but not the licitness, of marriages entered into by Catholics before an Orthodox priest without the "dispensation from the Catholic Form." Interestingly, if a person leaves the Catholic Church by a formal act, the law lapses with respect to them and a marriage before others is now valid. Yet, the SSPX insists that they are still Catholics, so unless the Pope has granted the validity of their confessions and marriages secretly, or some local bishop grants that within his diocese, I can't see how either absolution (except as noted) or Matrimony is valid.