The four traditionalist bishops: were they ever validly excommunicated?

I have been reading comments from all kinds of people about the Congregation for Bishops’ announcement yesterday that the decree of July 1 1988 that had recorded the excommunication, latæ sententiæ, of the four bishops of the Society of Saint Pius X (SSPX) consecrated by Mgr Marcel Lefebvre three days earlier had been remitted. People’s reactions, not surprisingly, reflect their own deep-seated opinions and prejudices about a range of issues, some connected with that of the excommunication, some not. I don’t believe this blog is the appropriate place to express my opinions about the subject. But I am struck by the woolly-mindedness of many commenters, including some with sound knowledge of the subject. So I'm going to engage in a few reminders about context.

The provisions under which the traditionalist bishops were declared excommunicate had only been in force since 1951, pursuant to measures inserted into canon law to deal with the Chinese Patriotic Church set up after the Communist takeover

The four bishops, along with their consecrator, were excommunicated latæ sententiæ [i] pursuant to a provision in canon law (Code of Canon Law - 1382) worded as follows:

A bishop who consecrates someone a bishop and the person who receives such a consecration from a bishop without a pontifical mandate incur an automatic latæ sententiæ excommunication reserved to the Apostolic See.

What is generally overlooked is that the penalty that resulted in such controversy in 1988 had actually been instituted to deal with a very different set of circumstances, and also that it had not in force for very long. Before 1951, consecration of a bishop without a papal mandate incurred not excommunication, but only suspension a divinis. On April 9, 1951, the Pope, in direct response to the Chinese communist government’s decision to set up a separate, “national” church in that country with its own self-appointed episcopacy [ii], decided the institution of ipso facto excommunication for all bishops, whatever their rite or nationality, who had not been appointed or confirmed by the Apostolic See, as well as for any bishop involved in their consecration [iii].

The measure was reaffirmed by Pius XII in 1958, again in connection with the specific circumstances of the Chinese crisis:

No one may legitimately confer episcopal consecration unless in advance the particular papal authorization is in [the consecrating bishop’s] possession. Through this criminal act there is carried out a most serious attack on the unity of the Church Itself. Therefore, for such a consecration performed against divine and human law, there is established the penalty of excommunication [iv].

The argument that the 1988 consecrations were carried out because of a state of necessity is often quoted—and is ultimately a matter of opinion; less well known is the fact that the 1951 decree deemed to form the legal basis for the excommunications does not appear to have been intended to cover bishops not destined to be promoted to a vacant diocese

The four bishops, Mgr Lefebvre and their supporters have moreover always held that they acted out of necessity [v]. And this argument has been pretty systematically quoted in connection with the issue, so I don't need to cover it in depth. Of course the existence of a state of necessity is inevitably a matter of opinion, but opinion in the Church has moved overwhelmingly, in recent years, in favour of the Traditionalists. Benedict XVI has proved noticeably more desirous to end the scandal of division within the Catholic Church than his much more modernist predecessor, who didn't really seem that bothered about the situation that arose in 1988. The extravagant idea that any Catholic who agreed with the reasoning that the 1988 consecrations were justified by necessity was himself ipso facto excommunicate, which circulated widely at the time, is in particular never heard nowadays.

What is less often discussed is that, despite the institution of the 1951 measure specifically to deal with that organisation, the Vatican has, to the best of my knowledge, pronounced no official sentence of “schism” or “excommunication” on the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association. More puzzlingly, though, from the purpose intended by the Holy Office, the 1951 decree appears to cover only those who are consecrated as residential bishops, for this is the actual case which the Holy See intends to condemn [vi]. For that reason, among others, I have always doubted that the 1988 “excommunications” were even valid in the first place.

From a legal point of view, the Pope unquestionably holds the power to remit what his predecessor decided on the basis of a canonical provision that had only been instituted for circumstantial reasons and had not been explicitly applied in the vast number of cases where it would have been applicable. This is what he chose to do.

Issues that are either irrelevant (the nauseating views of Mgr Williamson) or inaccurate (the idea that the SSPX is schismatic or not Catholic) are best left out of the debate

I don’t intend to comment extensively on the particular case of Mgr Williamson, about which my friend Andrew Sullivan says this:

This vile anti-Semite and Holocaust-denier has just been allowed back into the Catholic Church … I am truly, deeply ashamed of my church for this action and hope this provokes such an outcry it is reversed.

I don’t think any regular reader of this blog can accuse its author of complicity with antisemitism. Of course Andrew, who claims to be a Catholic, is right to call Williamson vile. Yet someone of his intelligence ought to see that of the four SSPX bishops, Williamson is the only one who desperately wants to avoid reconciliation with the Holy See, and is prepared to go to any lengths, however vile, to that end. Because he has been doing this deliberately, all we are seeing here with his nauseating negationist comments is collusion between two extremes, Williamson’s followers and the progressists, who, albeit for opposing reasons, both don’t want the SSPX's status within the Church regularized. It’s obvious that the controversy was deliberately stirred up by both those parties in a sickening attempt to prevent the remitting of the 1988 decree. But Williamson wasn’t excommunicated for being a thoroughly nasty man. And the Holy See was right to ignore those who tried to pretend otherwise.

Of course, as Father Z. pointed out, the remitting of the excommunications changes very little outside of the personal canonical situation of the four prelates involved [vii]. They are still suspended. The SSPX still operates irrregularly, at least if the Church's applicable norms are considered prima facie. But now, with Summorum Pontificum in 2007 and now this, an impulse has been given to move further and it is essential that the momentum is maintained.

A final word on the issue of schism. The SSPX bishops, their clergy and those laity who frequent them are Catholics. Damian Thompson, carried away by moralistic anger, states that:

I do not wish to belong to the same Church as Williamson.

A Catholic who, for some grave reason, on a matter not involving faith or morals, feels bound in conscience to disobey the Pope in a particular instance without wishing to sever himself from the Church or deny the authority of the Pope, cannot be said to be in schism. Even if Damian doesn't like it, the SSPX bishops, clergy and laity are, and always have been, Catholics. What now needs to be done urgently is to give the SSPX a proper canonical status so that the Fraternity can continue its work as a fully integrated part of the Universal Church.

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  1. In other words, the excommunication was automatically incurred as an immediate and direct consequence of the act in which they engaged, the decree merely serving to record the fact ex post. []
  2. The Chinese Patriotic Association set up by the Chinese government has illegally consecrated over a hundred bishops without a papal mandate. []
  3. The 9 April 1951 Decree establishing the automatic penalty of excommunication for the consecration of a bishop reads as follows: “Decree concerning the Consecration of a Bishop without Canonical Appointment. The Supreme Sacred Congregation of the Holy Office, in virtue of a special faculty established for it by the Supreme Pontiff, publishes the following Decree: A Bishop, of whatever rite or dignity, who consecrates as a Bishop someone who is neither nominated by the Holy See nor expressly confirmed by that same See, and he who receives consecration, even if coerced by grave fear (c.229, §3, 3), incur ipso facto excommunication most especially reserved to the Apostolic See. This Decree takes effect from the date of its promulgation.” []
  4. Pius XII, Apostolorum Principis (1958). []
  5. Canon law recognizes necessity as a circumstance, which exempts from all penalties in case of violation of the law (New Code of 1983. Canon 1323, sec.4), provided that the action is not intrinsically evil or harmful to souls; in this latter case necessity would only mitigate the penalty. But no latæ sententiæ penalty can be incurred by anyone who has acted in this circumstance (CCL 1983 Canon 1324, para.3). []
  6. Fr. Eduardo Regatillo, Institutiones Juris Canonici (Santander: Sal Terrae 1956), 2:600: “Anyone who is to be promoted to the episcopacy needs the canonical appointment by which he is constituted Bishop of a such a vacant diocese. In practice, it may be doubted whether only those who are to be consecrated residential Bishops are affected - that is, those who are consecrated for a diocese now in existence - or also titular bishops (who are created for an extinct see or diocese), or bishops who are consecrated for no diocese. From the purpose intended by the Holy Office, the decree appears to cover only those who are consecrated as residential bishops, for this is the actual case which the Holy See intends to condemn. This new type [of offense] differs from the one mentioned in canon 2370, where the canon refers to consecrations performed without apostolic mandate (described in canon 953). The new decree, on the other hand, punishes consecrations performed without pontifical appointment. An appointment designates the person and bestows the title [to an office]. A mandate grants the permission to confer the consecration.”  Regatillo's interpretation is confirmed by a reading of Pius XII's encyclical Ad apostolorum principis, especially paragraphs 47-48: “47. From what We have said, it follows that no authority whatsoever, save that which is proper to the Supreme Pastor, can render void the canonical appointment granted to any bishop; that no person or group, whether of priests or of laymen, can claim the right of nominating bishops; that no one can lawfully confer episcopal consecration unless he has received the mandate of the Apostolic See.[18] 48. Consequently, if consecration of this kind is being done contrary to all right and law, and by this crime the unity of the Church is being seriously attacked, an excommunication reserved specialissimo modo to the Apostolic See has been established which is automatically incurred by the consecrator and by anyone who has received consecration irresponsibly conferred.[19].” (Pope Pius XII, Encyclical on Communism and the Church in China, June 29, 1958). []
  7. The retroactive situation of Mgr Lefebvre, who died excommunicate and unrepentant, does not appear to have been clearly considered. []