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I can confirm that attendance at an SSPX Mass does satisfy the Sunday obligation and is not necessarily sinful, unless one specifically attends Mass there for a bad reason — such as to express a breach from full communion with Pope Benedict. Fr. Zuhlsdorf, a Wanderer columnist, received a piece from a frequent reader, Brian M., to his blog. The reader gave Father permission to post it, if he thought it would be useful.

Hi, Lucille —

I can confirm that attendance at an SSPX Mass does satisfy the Sunday obligation and is not necessarily sinful, unless one specifically attends Mass there for a bad reason — such as to express a breach from full communion with Pope Benedict.

Fr. Zuhlsdorf, a Wanderer columnist, received a piece from a frequent reader, Brian M., to his blog. The reader gave Father permission to post it, if he thought it would be useful.

The significant portion of this page is found in Brian's letter below sent to the President of the (PCED) Pontifical Commission Ecclesia. Brian has posted in-line replies from the PCED's to his questions. [Darío Cardinal Castrillón Hoyos's replies are in green.]

His Eminence
Darío Cardinal Castrillón Hoyos
President, Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei (PCED)
Palazzo del Sant'Uffizio

Monday of Holy Week
Anno Domini 2008

Your Eminence,

I have compiled as reference numerous public interviews, both print and television, where you were quoted as stating that the case of the Society of St. Pius X “is not a formal schism” and other words to that effect.

Q: Is this your mere private opinion or the official teaching of the Catholic Church in your official capacity as head of the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei?

PCED: Statements made by Cardinal Castrillón need to be understood in a technical, canonical sense. Stating that the Society of St. Pius X “is not in formal schism” is to say that there has been no official declaration on the part of the Holy See that the Society of St. Pius X is in schism. Up to now, the Church has sought to show the maximum charity, courtesy, and consideration to all those involved with the hope that such a declaration will not eventually be necessary.

Would you please clarify the following for me in this private correspondence so that I can ensure that my family and I are following the current teaching of the Church on this specific matter?

Q: Does the Catholic Church currently hold that the priests and bishops of the Society of St. Pius X are in formal schism with the Catholic Church?

PCED: The bishops of the Society of St. Pius X are excommunicated according to the prescription of canon 1382 of the Code of Canon Law which states that

“A bishop who consecrates someone a bishop without pontifical mandate and the person who receives the consecration from him incur a latae sententiae excommunication reserved to the Apostolic See.”

Archbishop Lefebvre was duly reminded of this before his conferral of Episcopal ordination on 30 June 1988 and the Holy Father confirmed that this penalty had been incurred in his Apostolic Letter Ecclesia Dei, #3 [cf. AAS 80 (1988) 1495-1498; English translation in L'Osservatore Romano English edition of 11 July 1988, p. 1].

The priests of the Society of St. Pius X are validly ordained, but suspended, that is prohibited from exercising their priestly functions because they are not properly incardinated in a diocese of religious institute in full communion with the Holy See (cf. Code of Canon Law, canon 265) and also because those ordained after the schismatic Episcopal ordinations were ordained by an excommunicated bishop.

Concretely, this means that the Masses offered by the priests of the Society of St. Pius X are valid, but illicit, i.e., contrary to Canon Law. The Sacraments of Penance and Matrimony, however, require that the priest enjoys the faculties of the diocese or has proper delegation. Since that is not the case with these priests, these sacraments are invalid. It remains true, however, that, if the faithful are genuinely ignorant that the priests of the Society of St. Pius X do not have proper faculty to absolve, the Church supplies these faculties so that the sacrament is valid (cf. Code of Canon Law, canon 144)

While it is true that participation in the Mass at chapels of the Society of St. Pius X does not of itself constitute “formal adherence to the schism” (cf. Ecclesia Dei 5, c), such adherence can come about over a period of time as one slowly imbibes a schismatic mentality which separates itself from the teaching of the Supreme Pontiff and the entire Catholic Church. While we hope and pray for a reconciliation with the Society of St. Pius X, the Pontifical Commission “Ecclesia Dei” cannot recommend that members of the faithful frequent their chapels for the reasons which we have outlined above.

Father Zuhlsdorf's comment on this last statement: Because, to one degree or another, you are weakening your bond with the local bishop and the Roman Pontiff.

We deeply regret this situation and pray that soon a reconciliation of the Society of St. Pius X with the Church may come about, but until such time the explanations which we have given remain in force.

Father Zuhlsdorf commented on this response from the PCED:

What we get into here involves a person's culpability for ignorance. If a guy genuinely doesn't know that the SSPX priests don't have the faculties from the Church so that marriages and confessions can be valid, then the person himself is simply ignorant and, well, God takes care of him through the Church.

If he has never had the news or information about this at all, or if he has had it inadequately explained so that he doesn't get it, it doesn't stick, then he is not at fault for his ignorance – unless ... unless he either:

  1. figured out there was something really important to this he didn't understand and, either because he was lazy or afraid of learning the truth he therefore purposely avoided more information, or

  2. is in a position of authority or responsibility which by its very nature require him to be adequately well-informed about all those things he must deal with.

In the case of a person who could learn, but doesn't for whatever reason, we are talking about ignorance that could be overcome. That person is in a state of vincible ignorance. That ignorance can then either be innocent or culpable, depending on his own degree of guilt or responsibility for his own ignorance. Then there are those who, for whatever reason, perhaps they are very stupid or perhaps they have some genuine psychological block, just can't figure out or learn they truth, this is invincible ignorance, which can't be overcome. They have far less culpability, or none, for their state.

Q: Does the Catholic Church currently hold that the situation of the Society of St. Pius X is not one for ecumenical dialogue because the Society of St. Pius X is an internal matter within the Catholic Church?

PCED: Up to now the Catholic Church has acted as if the situation of the Society of St. Pius X is an internal matter within the Catholic Church and not a matter of ecumenical dialogue.

Q: Do lay Catholics who frequent Society of St. Pius X chapels, either more less frequently, incur any sin or canonical delict by doing so, if done solely out of devotion to the Church's Latin liturgical tradition and not to separate one's self from communion with one's diocesan Ordinary or local pastor?

PCED: Catholics who frequent the chapels of the Society of St. Pius X do not incur any sin or canonical delict by doing so. However, we further refer you to what we have already stated in #4 above.

Q: What level of authority do your answers to this private correspondence hold?

PCED: As we already stated to you in our letter of 4 July 2007: “This Pontifical Commission does its best to transmit responses which are in full accord with the magisterium and the present canonical practices of the Catholic Church. One should accept them with docility and can act upon them with moral certainty.” We would further add that no dicastery of the Holy See will give other responses than those which we have given here.

Please know that you and your staff and the Holy Father are in my family's constant prayers as we prepare to celebrate the Holy Week and the season of Easter.

Pax Christi in Regno Christi,

Brian M.

About the Sunday obligation, the Catechism of the Catholic Church states the basics in these words:

"The Sunday Eucharist is the foundation and confirmation of all Christian practice. For this reason the faithful are obliged to participate in the Eucharist on days of obligation, unless excused for a serious reason (for example, illness, the care of infants) or dispensed by their own pastor. Those who deliberately fail in this obligation commit a grave sin."

(CCC 2181)

A further explanation of the Sunday obligation, its specification in canon law, and the serious reasons that can excuse a person from the Sunday obligation are discussed in an article on the EWTN web site:

As a personal note, I often research where to attend Mass when traveling, using one of these options:

  • you can find a Traditional Latin Mass through:
  • you can find a Novus Ordo Mass in Latin through:
  • if there is one in the city, attend a Mass at the diocesan cathedral or a large shrine church
  • if one is available, attend an Eastern-rite Catholic Divine Liturgy
  • if I am aware of a parish with a particular good priest or particularly sound musicians,
    I may attend there.

Of course, in some places, none of these are possible. In that case, I simply attend whatever Mass is available. God still makes the Holy Sacrifice present, despite:

  • the imperfections of the priest's way of celebrating Mass
  • the imperfections in the appearance of the parish church
  • the failings in the music, and
  • not to mention the failings and sins I bring to any Mass.

God bless!

— Richard Chonak
Stoneham, MA



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