Since the time of the Second Vatican Council and the changes it brought, a considerable number of disaffected traditional Catholics have joined schismatic sects such as the Society of St. Pius X (founded by the late Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre) and the sedevacantists (who believe, for dubious reasons explained later, that the Chair of Peter is currently vacant).
Overview of the SSPX
The Society of St. Pius X (SSPX) was founded in 1970 by the late Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre under the jurisdiction of Msgr. Charriere in the Diocese of Fribourg, Switzerland. Its first seminary was established in Econe, Switzerland. In 1975, after an investigation by Rome, Lefebvre was forbidden to ordain any additional priests and was told to close the seminary and disband the Society. The Archbishop refused, claiming that he had been made victim of an irregular canonical procedure. After illicitly ordaining some priests in June of 1976, he was suspended a divinis (from all priestly functions) by Pope Paul VI. From this point on he and his priests acted without faculties (contrary to what the Lefebvrites say). What followed was nearly twelve years of struggle and diplomacy with Rome, all to no avail.7
On July 1, 1988 the Vatican Congregation for Bishops issued a decree that declared the excommunication of Archbishop Lefebvre for consecrating four bishops without papal permission. A day later, on July 2, 1988, Pope John Paul II issued his apostolic letter Ecclesia Dei on the matter. The following are excerpts:8
In itself, this act [that is, the unlawful consecration of four bishops by Msgr. Lefebvre] was one of disobedience to the Roman Pontiff in a very grave matter and of supreme importance for the unity of the Church, such as is the ordination of bishops whereby the apostolic succession is sacramentally perpetuated. Hence such disobedience—which implies in practice the rejection of the Roman primacy—constitutes a schismatic act. In performing such an act, notwithstanding the formal canonical warning sent to them by the Cardinal Prefect of the Congregation for Bishops on June 17, Msgr. Lefebvre and the priests Bernard Fellay, Bernard Tissier de Mallerais, Richard Williamson, and Alfonso de Galarreta, have incurred the grave penalty of excommunication envisaged by ecclesiastical law. . . .
In the present circumstances, I wish especially to make an appeal both solemn and heartfelt, paternal and fraternal, to all those who until now have been linked in various ways to the movement of Archbishop Lefebvre, that they may fulfill the grave duty of remaining united to the Vicar of Christ in the unity of the Catholic Church, and of ceasing their support in any way for that movement. Everyone should be aware that formal adherence to the schism is a grave offense against God and carries the penalty of excommunication decreed by the Church’s law (original emphasis).
The Society claims to be in communion with the Pope and the Church, but its actions say otherwise: establishing seminaries, churches, chapels, and priories without any reference to the local ordinaries (contrary to Canons 234, 237, 1215, 1223-1228); ordaining priests without the dimissorial letters required by Canon Law (Canons 1015, 1018-1023); hearing confessions and celebrating marriages without jurisdiction (Canons 966-976, 1108-1123).9
Former members of the SSPX attest to some rather bizarre incidents, rules, and practices within the sect especially since Lefebvre’s death such as: women not being allowed to wear pants (only long, “modest” dresses are allowed): in a sermon, people were told not to vote in elections and that it was wrong for women to drive cars; the Society condemns Natural Family Planning, which the Church has approved; at one of the Society schools, girls were told that it was a mortal sin to have any lace on their underwear; the Society, at least since 1993, has been issuing Decrees of Nullity annulments in violation of Canon Law; Society priests have called the indult Tridentine Mass “satanic.”10
Pointing the Angry Finger
While there are certain peripheral differences between these traditionalist sects, they share the same common denominator: the exclusive use of the Tridentine Mass and the rejection of Vatican II.
The angry traditionalist fringe blames Vatican II for causing the current crisis in the Church. They claim that the changes decreed by the Council are heretical; hence, it was a false council and “true” Catholics should not assent to its teachings. But there is an obvious problem with this argument: It has been the traditional teaching of the Church that an ecumenical council is guided by the Holy Spirit and thus protected from error. In the words of Pope Pius IX, in a letter to the Abbott of Solesmes: “. . . the Ecumenical Council is governed by the Holy Spirit. . .”; “. . . it is solely by the impulse of this Divine Spirit that the Council defines and proposes what must be believed. . . .”1
Therefore, the faithful are obliged to assent to all of the decisions and decrees of Vatican II as interpreted by the continuous living authority of the Church.2 The main arguments used by schismatic traditionalists to illustrate the “invalidity” of the Novus Ordo Missae (New Order of Mass) are: mysterium fidei (mystery of faith) has been deleted from the words of the consecration and “for all” has been substituted for pro multis (for many). They believe these changes are tantamount to heresy. But, once again, there is not much weight to these arguments.
The words “mystery of faith” are not found in any of the scriptural accounts of Our Lord’s institution of the Eucharist; they are not found in other formulas of consecration recognized as valid by the Church; and hence, they are not required for a valid consecration.3 Also, nothing heretical is being asserted by the use of the words “for all men” in the consecration formula, for Christ died “for all” (2 Cor. 5:15). Traditional Catholic theology has always distinguished between the “objective redemption” of all men by Christ and the “subjective redemption,” whereby the grace merited by Christ on the Cross actually proves fruitful only in the case of those who cooperate with his grace and achieve salvation.4
The inclusion of the words “for all men” in the consecration formula no more implies heresy that all men will necessarily be saved than the previous formula “for you and for many” necessarily implied the opposite heresy (Jansenism) that Christ did not give himself for the redemption of all. The consecratory formula of the Mass is not, in the nature of the case, the place where the Church’s full doctrine is, or could possibly be, expressed.5 Since the phrase “for all” is proven not to be heretical, it therefore in no way invalidates the Novus Ordo Mass.
Of course, the aforementioned explanations should not be necessary since the only words needed to make the consecration valid are “This is My Body” and “This is My Blood.” And the only other requirements for the Mass itself to be valid are valid matter (bread and wine) and a validly ordained priest (with the intention of confecting the Sacrament) to celebrate the Mass.
The Declaration entitled Instauratio Liturgica, dated January 25, 1974, and issued by the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, should have clarified (though it did not with the traditionalist fringe) any confusion over many of the renderings in the vernacular version of the Mass:6
The liturgical reform which has been carried out in accordance with the Constitution of the Second Vatican Council has made certain changes in the essential formulae of the sacramental rites. These new expressions, like the other ones, have had to be translated into modern languages in such a way that the original sense finds expression in the idiom proper to each language. This has given rise to certain difficulties, which have come to light now that the translations have been sent by episcopal conferences to the Holy See for approval. in these circumstances, the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith again calls attention to the necessity that the essential formulae of the sacramental rites render faithfully the original sense of the Latin “typical text.” With that in mind it declares:
When a vernacular translation of a sacramental formula is submitted to the Holy See for approval, it examines it carefully. When it is satisfied that it expresses the meaning intended by the Church, it approves and confirms it, stipulating, however, that it must be understood in accordance with the mind of the Church as expressed in the original Latin text.
Overview of the Sedevacantists
There really is only a minor distinction between the sedevacantists and the Lefebvrites: the sedevacantists believe outright that John Paul II and his three predecessors were, in effect, antipopes because they followed the “heretical” reforms of Vatican II; the Lefebvrites, on the other hand, are schizophrenic about this. Lefebvrites purport to accept that John Paul II is Pope, but they vociferously ridicule him and do not submit to his authority.
The sedevacantists have many of the same bizarre, quasi-Jansenistic practices as the SSPX (I can attest to this—a close relative of mine is a member of a sedevacantist faction).
In 1983, nine sedevacantist priests were expelled from the SSPX after clashing with Archbishop Lefebvre over the Society’s relationship with the “Conciliar” Church.11
Subsequently, those nine priests formed their own religious congregation, calling it the Society of St. Pius V (SSPV). The Rev. Clarence Kelly was chosen to be their leader. Within a short time there were disputes about property ownership, which resulted in yet another schism. Kelly continues to lead the SSPV (headquartered in New York), and the Rev. Daniel Dolan leads the off-shoot faction (headquartered in Ohio).  Additional sedevacantist groups are located in Spokane, Washington (Mount St. Michael), Michigan, and Colorado.
Ultimately, schismatic traditionalists encounter the same problem as do the Protestants: because they have separated themselves from the one, true Church founded by Jesus Christ on Peter and his successors, they will always find themselves in a state of spiritual chaos.
(For an in-depth analysis of answers to the questions the “traditionalists” are asking, I highly recommend reading The Pope, the Council, and the Mass by James Likoudis and Kenneth D. Whitehead available from Catholics United for the Faith: 1-800-MY-FAITH.)
1. The Pope, the Council, and the Mass, by James Likoudis and Kenneth D. Whitehead. Catholics United for the Faith, 1981, p. 38.
2. Ibid. p. 40.
3. Ibid. p. 114.
4. Ibid. p. 98.
5. Ibid. p. 99.
6. Ibid. pp. 103-104.
7. “The Society of St. Pius X Gets Sick,” Thomas W. Case, Fidelity magazine, October 1992.
8 Faith Fact: “Archbishop Lefebvre and the Society of St. Pius X,” p. 1, from Catholics United for the Faith.
9 “Schism, Obedience and the Society of St. Pius X,” John Beaumont and John Walsh. Fidelity magazine, vol. 12, no. 10, p. 36. October 1993.
10 From the newsletter of a former member of the SSPX: William P. Grossklas, “An Overview —What is the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX)?”
11 “Habemus papam?”, Karl Keating. This Rock magazine, July/August 1995, p. 14.
12 Ibid. p. 14. Both Dolan and Kelly are now “bishops.” Dolan’s uncanonical consecration is ultimately derived from the retired and possibly senile Archbishop of Hue, Ngo Dinh Thuc. Kelly was secretly consecrated by the late Alfred F. Mendez, who was a retired bishop of Puerto Rico.
Matt C. Abbott is the former executive director of the Illinois Right to Life Committee and the former director of public affairs for the Chicago-based Pro-life Action League, respectively. He is also a contributor to “The Wanderer” Catholic newspaper
This article originally appeared in Homiletic & Pastoral Review, and is reprinted electronically with the permission of the author.