If an American diocese granted permission for the Society of St Pius X (SSPX) to celebrate nuptial Masses within their territory, you might assume a reasonably well-informed layman would hear something about it. Yet, unless you read the Archdiocese of New Orleans’s newspaper, it probably slipped your notice. On March 9, the Clarion Herald published an article by Fr Garrett O’Brien announcing that “Archbishop Gregory Aymond approved a new policy for marriages witnessed by SSPX priests in our area.”
According to the archdiocese’s newly updated policy manual, SSPX priests “are able to receive the faculty to witness marriages within the jurisdiction of the Archdiocese of New Orleans”. These are contingent on requirements that are common for priests who visit a diocese to celebrate a nuptial Mass: a letter of good standing from his superior, proof that they’re authorised to legally witness a marriage, and the like.
Many readers may also be surprised to hear of a diocese granting legitimacy to a group that is still considered “canonically irregular” by the Holy See. (I was, anyway.) In fact, Archbishop Aymond acted in accordance with certain provisions set down by of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 2017. These provisions “authorise local Ordinaries the possibility to grant faculties for the celebration of marriages of faithful who follow the pastoral activity of the Society”.
The diocesan spokeswoman explains that Fr Jurgen Wegner, district superior of the SSPX’s United States of America District, reached out to New Orleans last autumn. The archbishop appointed Fr O’Brien, a canon lawyer, to lead the deliberations at their end. The spokeswoman says: “We felt it was important to notify all the faithful in our archdiocese of this new policy. This is due to the fact that some of the faithful might be invited to attend a wedding at an SSPX location”, of which there are two in Archbishop Aymond’s jurisdiction. She adds: “The request for these faculties was made by Fr Wegner in a spirit of cooperation, mutual respect, care for souls and transparency”.
An SSPX spokesman said that the Society has “visited or contacted some 45 dioceses so far” seeking similar permissions from local bishops. According to the New Orleans’s communications director, Fr Wegner “reported to us that roughly 30 dioceses have created similar policies”.
The SSPX spokesman puts the number at 40 delegations. If true, this is a revelation in itself. Thirty dioceses out of 200 might not sound like much, but while most Catholics still look on the Society as a fringe group, it has already made significant inroads with US bishops.
But that still isn’t the end of the story. Their spokesman reports that “several US bishops have visited our priories, chapels, and schools”. They have met SSPX priests, “and even attended our priest retreats and meetings. Most of them are impressed looking at the fidelity and youth of our faithful and priests. If there is any trend,” he adds, “it is one of openness and even warmth towards the SSPX.”
When I interviewed former SSPX superior general Bishop Bernard Fellay last October, he spoke of an equally promising reception in Rome. Quoting the Holy Father, he told me: “Some people in the Church aren’t happy when I do good to you. I tell them, ‘Listen, I do good to Protestants. I do good to Anglicans. Why shouldn’t I do good to these Catholics?’ He has read the biography of Archbishop Lefebvre, and after that he said to one of our priests, ‘You know, they have treated them badly’.”
No doubt the warmth is often mutual. One suspects that, as the Society begins to engage more with the broader Church, caricatures inevitably fall away. For instance, I had dinner with a few members of the SSPX last autumn. Bishop Fellay and Fr Wegner presided at one end of the table, and I was seated next to a young priest of Persian extraction. As the evening went on, I noticed this priest hadn’t taken any wine and didn’t touch his dessert. I asked him why. He explained that he was perpetually fasting – offering his abstinence for the conversion of his family back in Iran. I balked. “You never have any dessert?” I asked, trying (and failing) to imagine a life without carrot cake or strawberry rhubarb pie. He shrugged. “Well, there are exceptions.” At just that moment, Fr Wegner kindly pointed to his plate: “Eat, Father,” he ordered. The young priest took a bite of his dessert and grinned. “Obedience,” he said cheerily.
The SSPX are sometimes unfairly described as “rigid” or merely nostalgic, but in general I have not found this portrait accurate. And whatever one thinks of their particular stands, especially their resistance to some documents of the Second Vatican Council, the Society’s image is changing at the highest levels of the Church.
The Vatican-SSPX rift has always principally been theological. Full reconciliation would depend on both parties agreeing to a doctrinal statement, which seems unlikely in the immediate future. But when archdioceses praise the Society’s “spirit of cooperation” and the Pope himself admits that “they have been treated badly”, many will no doubt find it difficult to take seriously their status as “irregular”.
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