Last week’s “bombshell” announcement by Pope Francis that the clergy of the Society of St. Pius (SSPX) would have the validity of their confessional absolutions recognized officially during the upcoming Year of Mercy ignited all of the usual silliness that attends any positive mention of the Society’s name. On the negative side came a horde of conservative-to-liberal Catholics who simply cannot let go of the common narrative that the SSPX is, in a strong sense, “schismatic” and “dangerous.” On the positive side came a smaller band of traditional Catholics who now seem to believe that the Society represents a great gift to the Catholic Church and should be praised despite the fact that many of these same traditionalists have, in the past, gone out of the way to broadcast that they have nothing to do with the SSPX. “Oh, they’re great and all, but I go to a diocesan parish for my Latin Mass…,” etc.
Maybe that’s understandable. The traditional Catholic movement has never been particularly strong and many of the gains made over the past decade have come at the price of keeping a lid on anything that smells of doctrinal dissent. (Liberal Catholics, as we all know, suffer not from such strictures.) The SSPX, according to some, always seemed to go a little “too far” with its criticisms, and besides, don’t Society priests hold all kinds of socio-political views that are toxic to good American traditionalists, the sort that loves their Latin and the Tea Party, too? Now things have started to change, mostly because the troubles of the Church have been amplified, not resolved, over the past few years while, ironically enough, the Society has started to win more “mainstream acceptance” around various segments of Catholicism. Though its canonical deal with Rome fell apart in 2012, mainline Catholic news outlets demonstrated a willingness at the time to provide a fairly sympathetic account of the Society’s history and mission. Sure, some of these same outlets turned on the SSPX the second Bishop Bernard Fellay rejected the so-called Doctrinal Preamble presented to him by the Vatican, but no one could deny the onset of a thaw concerning general Catholic attitudes toward the Society. The thaw is slow, but it seems to be continuing.
For traditional Catholics, the SSPX is now the front-line defender of tradition and its founder, Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, a veritable saint. Perhaps this is how it always should have been, but let no one pretend that it was. Traditionalists can praise the Society now, but where were they just a few years ago when Pope-emeritus Benedict XVI was getting raked over the coals for lifting the (arguably wrongful and illegal) excommunications of the four Society bishops? And where were traditionalists as a whole when self-styled liturgical gurus and ostensibly orthodox priests were reminding every Tom, Dick, and Harry that SSPX absolutions and marriages are 100% invalid—no questions asked? Some did step forward to defend the Society, but for the most part traditionalists didn’t want to worry themselves with these “messy matters.” The Society did good work, some opined, but its positions and posture is just “too extreme.”
Now that’s no longer looking like the case. Many of the dire predictions issued by Lefebvre and his fraternity have come true. While there have been a few openings in the Church for the restoration of tradition, most of Roman Catholicism remains mired in poor catechesis, awful liturgy, and doctrinal confusion. As such, the SSPX looks a little less “crazy,” a bit less “extreme,” and certainly, judging by its vocational fruits, better positioned to carry on the priesthood of Jesus Christ than most dioceses around the world. Deo gratias.