The SSPX and Religious Liberty

As I understand it, today is when the leaders of the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX) meet with the Vatican in order, hopefully, to bring to a happy end the process of reconciliation started by Pope Benedict XVI. Negotiations with the society have been in play for many months now as the Vatican and the SSPX have attempted to hammer out their differences. Oddly, the details of these differences, discussed in a “doctrinal preamble,” have been kept secret from the rest of the Church.

Despite the secrecy, those familiar with the SSPX are most likely also familiar with the substance of the differences, one of which ought to be of particular significance to us in America. You see, the tension between Rome and the SSPX involves not the arcane particularities of liturgical preference. In truth the SSPX split with the Church under Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre over doctrines, and one of them of special note: the Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on Religious Liberty.

Yes, the SSPX are not exactly fans of religious liberty. In fact, the U.S. District of the SSPX posted an article critical of the U.S. Bishops for their recent document “Our First, Most Cherished Liberty: A Statement on Religious Liberty.” The SSPX spokesmen wrote that it’s all well and good for the bishops to defend the Church’s right to save souls and perform works of mercy,…

“However, this is a much different thing than defending religious liberty, a false notion that originated with the Protestants and condemned as an error under the generic title of ‘Liberalism.’”

Yes, that’s right, the notion of religious liberty is Protestant. Someone call up Cardinal Dolan.

In this, the American SSPX is simply living up to the example left them by Archbishop Lefebvre. The late founder of the society loathed the Second Vatican Council and was convinced that it taught out and out heresy. This is what he had to say about religious liberty in his book, They Have Uncrowned Him

In this respect, to uphold, as Vatican II does, a naturally direct orientation of all men towards God, is totally unrealistic and a pure naturalistic heresy! May God deliver us from subjectivistic and naturalistic errors!  They are the unmistakable mark of the Liberalism which inspired the religious liberty of Vatican II.  But they can lead only to social chaos, to the Babel of religions!

Thus, to defend religious liberty is to be a liberal. To defend the teaching of the Council’s texts – not the “spirit” but the texts – is to engage in heresy. You might begin to see the problem here.

Bishop Bernard Fellay is trying to gather his flock to reconcile with Rome.

According to the Society, religious liberty cannot exist because authentic liberty can only be connected with the pursuit of the good; and since the Catholic faith is the good religion, there cannot be any real liberty to pursue anything but Catholicism. Error, the SSPX likes to say, has no rights. So, private worship of this or that heresy might be tolerated. But the notion of a right to objectively erroneous public worship is nonsense.

And so it would be, if human beings were automatons and error produced a brightly colored mark upon the human face, or, like a shoe in our gears, error caused us to break down. But we’re not machines, and error is not so obvious.

Error may not have rights, but people do. You know, human beings. And sincere consciences have, so the Council teaches, the right to be free from coercion from the state, so “that no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs, whether privately or publicly, whether alone or in association with others, within due limits.”

This definition of religious liberty by the Council is a far cry from the freedoms demanded by the liberals of revolutionary France, the kind of liberties condemned by the nineteenth-century popes. But I don’t want to argue the issue here.

What disturbs me is that as the U.S. Bishops try to rally the Catholic faithful behind the banner of religious freedom, the SSPX have been criticizing the very notion of religious liberty. While seeking reconciliation with the Church on other shores, here at home the Society is undermining the work of the bishops.

I certainly do hope that the SSPX does not split up and that they accept what, by many accounts, is a very generous offer by the Holy Father to be reconciled with the Church. Still, I cannot help feeling a bit anxious about welcoming in Catholics who would so openly deny what the Council teaches and what our bishops are leaning on right now to defend the work of our Catholic hospitals, schools, and charities.

Whatever happens, I pray that in the coming Year of Faith, the teachings of the Second Vatican Council will be made more accessible to all. In that way, perhaps even the SSPX will come to agree with the great Dietrich von Hildebrand who wrote that religious liberty is “the most elementary of human rights.”



  • Janet Baker

    I am so glad you addressed this! You can see the contradiction–that goes to the heart of our particular society, founded as it was on secularism. I can see you following down the thread until you get to the part where–we never were right!

    We never were right. No post-Christian society that is founded on any principle but Christ the King is right. I can’t discuss it, I was just ‘checking my email’ and saw your post, just while I’m getting ready for a post-mother’s day dinner for those who couldn’t come on Sunday, but would you just do one thing, just read Quas Primas. It’s on the Vatican website.

    No matter how things change, Catholicism doesn’t. Even it seems a complete impossibility that the world will never believe or love Christ again, he deserves to be our King, for one thing because He is God–the hypostatic union makes him King. And then, he died for us. Even if the Restoration seems impossible, we base our long-term strategy on that–and it in turn keeps us safe.

    At the very least, it would give us an independent political posture regarding the defense of our Faith. We would no longer be divided and submerged in parties which simply play us.

    Dear heart, religious liberty is impossible. All things are not equal. Even two operating systems are not equal. To make them equal is to make them irrelevant and totally subjective. (Sigrid Undset has the funniest essay on the task in Norway, as they were trying to justify witch doctors.) Tolerance–what SSPX wishes to see restored, and me too!–is quite different. They overthrew tolerance at Vatican II.

    Best wishes. Keep going.

  • tz1

    There are no small number of people who hold to a Religious belief that same sex couples can be married. Somehow the first and most cherished freedom must not apply to that – even to the point of getting the government completely out of the marriage business (except enforcing the contract, e.g. the Catholic Church can demand a “no divorce” clause, and recognizing it as a custom in something like probate where a spouse dies – but the Judge would then not judge the religious validity of the union, only if the couple were married in the sense of common law).

    The Bishops want a big-government, intrusive, micromanaging state to take positive action to write the mostly PROTESTANT definition of marriage into the various constitutions, but then wonder where something like the HHS mandate comes from. They fed or at least failed to do anything to starve the leviathan dragon, which has not turned upon them.

    Beyond that, the Bishop’s statement really sounds like (to non-Catholics) “Your liberty – be it Habeas Corpus, not being porn scanned or raped in airports, gun ownership, warrantless wiretaps and national security letters, (much less life in abortion and euthanasia) etc. all are irrelevant and don’t really matter very much, only OUR most cherished liberty (threatened by a round off error in a health-insurance check) is something we will defend”. This is not a fight for freedom or liberty, it is a fight for a carve out and the rest of the liberties and freedoms can be left to rot.

    Someone recently said the USCCB is diluting the message by policy memos on things like Farm subsidies, but the message is actually diluted by insufficient attention to the rest of the bill of rights – which has been eroded over the last two decades.

    Does anyone remember that Bob Jones University lost its tax-exempt status in a supreme court ruling that said that public policy was more important than religious freedom? That happened in 1983 if I recall. But they were “nasty” so it didn’t matter. Now the general populace think the Catholic Church (at least the orthodox) is “nasty”.

  • EmilyS

    What is confusing is that the declaration on religious liberty in Vatican II appears to contradict the past teaching of several popes such as Pope Gregory XVI, Pope Pius IX, Pope Leo XIII, and Pope Pius XII are in . (For citations, see I haven’t read the article, but it has a good list of past teachings.)
    What is very unclear is how past statements and the statements made in Vatican II are in harmony. This is an issue that needs to be resolved by Rome, but so far there has been no explanation or clarification. Some think that since Vatican II was a pastoral council, it does not have the same level of authority as past Magisterial statements. A good discussion about this by a diocesan priest in good standing can be found here:

    It is good to remember that the SSPX believes the vast majority of the Second Vatican Council. In this regard they are much more faithful than most Catholics who are in regular communion, who dissent from statements in it that are clearly doctrinal and in harmony with 2000 years of Catholic thought.

    • Omar Gutierrez

      Emily, Bishop Fellay suggests how we can reach harmony between the past teaching and the Council. He says that religious liberty as defined by the Council was “very limited.” As I said in the post, the liberty at the Council is a far cry from the unbridled liberty demanded by the French Revolutionaries. As Cardinal Newman once wrote to the Duke of Norfolk, when reading ecclesial condemnations, you have to understand that what is condemned is the idea as it is understood at the time… not just anything that bears the name “religious liberty.”

      And while I agree with you and others that the SSPX and I have far more in common than I might with some of the more progressive-leaning Catholics in the Church, this doesn’t mean that the SSPX is above criticism or reproach for deliberately attacking the U.S. Bishops along these lines.

  • Jay

    Just a few clarifications. You write, “As I understand it, today is when the leaders of the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX) meet with the Vatican…”

    Today the Vatican sent out a release that said, “an Ordinary Session of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith met to discuss the question of the Society of St. Pius X.” From everything I read, the meeting was only for CDF leaders, not the SSPX. Italian media reports did say that Bishop Fellay was at the Vatican over the weekend to discuss the issue.

    You also raise the issue of why the doctrinal preamble has remained secret. There are many reasons. Bishop Fellay said in a November interview posted on

    “This discretion is normal for any important proceeding; it ensures the seriousness of it. It so happens that the Doctrinal Preamble that was delivered to us is a document which can be clarified and modified, as the accompanying note points out. It is not a definitive text. In a little while we will draw up a response to this document, noting frankly the doctrinal positions that we regard as indispensable. Our constant concern since the start of our talks with the Holy See—as our interlocutors know very well—has been to present the traditional position with complete loyalty.

    Discretion is required on Rome’s part also, because this document—even in its present state which needs many clarifications—runs a great risk of arousing opposition from the progressives, who do not accept the very idea of a discussion about the Council, because they consider that this pastoral council is indisputable or “non-negotiable”, as though it were a dogmatic council.”

    I hope that clarifies a few points.

    • Omar Gutierrez

      Thanks Jay, your explanations are helpful, but I don’t know that they “clarify” anything for me. I mean, I still think it odd that the preamble should be secretive. I’m not saying that the discussions need to be made public. Discretion there would be normative. But if there is a document to which the SSPX has been asked to assent, a document that makes clear what the teaching of the Council is, then wouldn’t this be just the sort of teaching moment by which to help the whole Church – progressive, conservative, traditionalist – understand the meaning of the Council? Bishop Fellay’s explanation sounds good, but I don’t know that I buy it entirely. What’s more, since when does “pastoral” mean it cannot be “doctrinal.” Sure, John XXIII and Paul VI said they didn’t want a “dogmatic council” that produced definitive statements and anathemas. Okay. But that doesn’t mean that the Council has no teaching in it, that it is totally bereft of doctrinal substance to which a Catholic must provide religious submission. No, it is odd.

  • Joannie

    I saw the interview the Bishop gave on CNS yesterday and it seemed to show he felt himself about certain issues. (including religious liberty). The problem is that the texts of Vatican II which I have a copy of and have read have many confusing statements in the texts. The views on religious liberty have sometimes been mixed up with indifference and equality. That was why the missionary impulse to evangelize evaporated. I believe several high ranking Vatican Cardinals and Prelates including Bishop Schneider have asked the Pope to personal issue a “Clarification” on the potential errors that have happened since the Council. It is not just the SSPX that brings these issues up. Also I think the proper term is the Society of the Society of St. Pius X. It is like calling the Muslims “Mohammadans”

  • Andrew Basham

    Your characterization of Abp. Lefebvre is at least a bit off, seeing as he actually signed the documents of Vatican II, but won’t go too far to contest that point.

    I would suggest, however, that you watch (if you have not already done so) the recent interview Bp. Fellay gave to CNS. He mentions religious liberty and even does so within the context of the US. He mentions that some of the “actions” which we think of as following from the principle of “religious liberty” may actually make more sense when seen as flowing from the principle of “toleration.”!

    I post this not to endorse his views, but to allow him to speak for himself in this debate.

    Because human consciences are always and everywhere free to believe whatever they wan’t to believe, religious liberty, as in the human mind being free to believe whatever it wants, necessarily exists. The argument here is to what extent the state ought to legally and institutionally protect the exercise of those thoughts and beliefs.

    Fellay points out something that I think is broadly true… in a perfect imaginary country, where the population was 100% Catholic, the Church would like to see its beliefs and statutes enforced. But in a society like the US (which certainly is and always has been a “Babel of religions”) he hints that tolerance and prudence might demand we not take that route.

    • Omar Gutierrez

      Hi Andrews, perhaps “loathed” the Council is a bit strong… but you might not be aware that Abp. Lefebvre denied ever signing the Declaration on Religious Liberty. Much ink has been spilled on whether he did or not, with some pretty authoritative voices saying he did, but this just goes to prove my point. Lefebvre disliked the Council so much (a Council he compared to the Robber Council of Ephesus in 449) that he loudly denied signing a document which he obviously did.

      As for what “the argument here is,” I think the U.S. Bishops have been clear about what the argument is. Catholics have a right to be free from coercion from the State, a State that is forcing us to perform acts contrary to our beliefs. To this, the U.S. SSPX cries foul. Bishop Fellay, in the video you point to, is very diplomatic to say that in defending the U.S. Church we would use a different principle that is “more accurate.” But this does nothing to remove the fact that the U.S. SSPX, and I suspect the larger SSPX community, sees religious liberty as expressed by the Council and by the Bishops to be heresy.

      Look, for decades now the SSPX has justified Lefebvre’s blatant disobedience in ordaining four bishops by pointing to the Declaration on Religious Liberty as a clear sign of a Church in apostasy. Unfortunately, I’m not convinced that they will suddenly jettison this foundational reason for their split just because of an agreement between Fellay and the Vatican. I think that’s sad, but I think it is also the truth.

      • Chris

        Remember when you read what Lefebvre said, he was usually speaking in French. (I am not defending him here.)

        But what I will say is that the way religious liberty has been interpreted since the Council oftentimes comes close to what might be considered heresy. At the very least, it shows dissent from the authentic Magisterium of both the Council and the enclical teachings of the previous pontiffs.

        The former teachings can actually be aligned with the Council, but one needs to understand how subsistit in should be interpreted. About 2 or three years ago, we had a front page article on subsistit in L’Osservatore with the three astericks.

        At least 60% of the American Church (read Bishops)would dissent from that understanding of subsistit in.



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