Analysis: the canonical meaning of that Vatican letter on ‘SSPX weddings’

Priests and supporters of the SSPX at a procession near Fulda, Germany in 2009 (Getty)

Almost any announcement relating to the SSPX produces fevered discussion and a certain amount of confusion. So it was with Cardinal Müller’s letter earlier this week, which opens up new possibilities for SSPX priests to participate in Catholic weddings.

The letter is about the marriages of those “faithful who follow the pastoral activity of the Society”. Local Ordinaries (diocesan bishops for all intents and purposes) may now delegate a diocesan priest to receive the consent of the parties during the rite of marriage. An SSPX priest will then celebrate a nuptial Mass in the traditional rite.

Where this provision is impossible, for example because of a lack of suitable diocesan priests, the bishop may also grant the faculty to receive the consent of the parties to the priest of the Society, who would then preside over the entire rite.

From a dispassionate perspective, this is not a monumental change. But for those who “follow the pastoral activity of the Society”, it may touch a raw nerve because of what they assume to be its implications. Is this a sideways declaration that their marriages are currently invalid? Are they being effectively told to seek a convalidation – a second, canonically valid, wedding with a new act of the will which recognises the first wedding as illegitimate?

The answer to both questions is “Not really” – but to show why, we need to clear up a couple of common errors.

It is a frequent misconception that, until recently, all of the members of the SSPX were excommunicated. This is not true. When the Society’s founder, Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, consecrated four bishops without a mandate from the Holy See in 1988, he and they – and only the five of them – incurred the automatic penalty of excommunication for the crime of schism (breaching communion with Rome). This excommunication was not incurred by, or imposed upon, any of the Catholics who subsequently “followed the pastoral activity of the Society”. Those individuals are and remain Catholics in the juridic sense, though they have been seeking their pastoral care outside of the structures of the Church.

The Society itself is, in the mind of the Church and canon law, not recognized as a legitimate structure. But in his 2009 letter, Pope Benedict underscored a crucial distinction between the individuals of the society, who are Catholics, and the Society itself, which is not. While the ministers of the Society are validly ordained priests and bishops, this does not make their ministry, ipso facto, valid.

As I tried to explain in a previous post on the ability of priests to hear confessions and lift canonical penalties, there is a distinction to be drawn between what a priest has the power to do because of his ordination and when is able to legitimately exercise that power. In the case of SSPX priests, they have no faculties for the legitimate exercise of their priestly ministry because they are not incarnated into a legitimate Church structure, be it a diocese or a canonically recognised society. As such, as Pope Benedict made clear in his letter, “the Society has no canonical status in the Church, and its ministers – even though they have been freed of the ecclesiastical penalty – do not legitimately exercise any ministry in the Church.”

So what has this meant for Catholics who have married in SSPX churches and in front of SSPX priests? Canon 1059 prescribes that marriages in which at least one of the parties is Catholic are governed not only by divine law, but also by canon law. If Catholics exchange their consent in marriage outside the canonically-established form, without a dispensation from their bishop, the marriage is invalid. Canon 1108 §1 states that “Only those marriages [of Catholics] are valid which are contracted before the local ordinary [the diocesan bishop], a pastor [parish priest], or a priest or deacon delegated by either of them”.

For the validity of the marriage of a Catholic, then, they must exchange their consent before a priest or deacon who has the legal faculty to assist at their wedding and, until the recent letter from Cardinal Müller, no priest of the Society had this faculty.

Now, for a Catholic couple who, for let us presume the best of intentions and motivated by sincere if misguided conscience, habitually attended SSPX services and chose to exchange their matrimonial consent before a priest of the Society, there would be a clear violation of canonical form, and one which would touch validity.

But we shouldn’t jump to conclusions.Canon law distinguishes between a “defect” of canonical form and a total absence of form. Couples who had what we might call “SSPX weddings” were making a real approximation of canonical form: the ceremony took place in front of a validity ordained priest and, presumably, in a church and in the context of a nuptial Mass.

In such cases, the defect is the lack of authorisation of the priest to receive the consent of the parties. Marriages contracted with a defect of form can be granted what is canonically called a radical sanation (canons 1161-1165), in which the defect of form is dispensed retroactively and the marriage is “healed at the roots”: which means, crucially, that there is no new wedding, no new exchange of consent, and the original marriage is made valid.

But most importantly, every marriage – all marriages – enjoy the favour of the law (canon 1060). This means that every marriage is presumed to be valid until it is directly questioned before a tribunal and proven to be invalid in a judicial forum. If both parties to a marriage believe their marriage to be valid, the Church never takes the initiative to question this belief unless there is some specific public interest in that particular marriage.

Cardinal Müller’s letter provides for the closing of an important and emotive gap in the pastoral life of Catholics involved with the Society, and it should only be seen as a positive act. Neither its intention nor effect is to accuse any couple’s marriage of anything.