SSPX Confessions

by Jimmy Akin

in Liturgy

Down yonder, a reader writes:

I was listening to the program, and I have a further question in
response to your answer to this question "Can priests in the Society of
St. Pius X validly celebrate the sacrament of penance? How about those
in the Charismatic Episcopal Church?"

Considering, as you said, the fact that the SSPX priests would not
have faculties to absolve sins from the Bishop, wouldn’t "Ecclisia
Supplet" (spelling?) kick in, so long as they were unaware of the
sacramental defect?

The limits of the principle of ecclesia supplet ("the Church supplies") are spelled out in the Code of Canon Law as follows:


Can. 144

§1. In factual or legal common error and in positive and probable doubt of law or of fact, the Church supplies executive power of governance for both the external and internal forum.

§2. The same norm is applied to the faculties mentioned in cann. 882, 883, 966, and 1111, §1.

The immediately relevant part of this canon to the situation of confessions is  §2, which applies the principles of §1 to the faculties for hearing confessions mentioned in Canon 966. In order for those faculties to be supplied, the conditions mentioned in §1 must be satisfied (mutatis mutandis for the fact we are talking about sacramental faculties rather than the power of governance).

Per §1 (via §2), one of two situations must exist for the Church to supply the missing faculties in a particular case. Either:

  1. There is a factual or legal common error regarding whether the faculties exist, or
  2. There is a positive and probable doubt of law or of fact regarding whether the faculties exist.

In the case of whether an SSPX priest has faculties, there is no question of law but only a question of fact: Does the priest have faculties from the competent authority to hear the confessions of the faithful in the local area?

The only authority comptent to grant the faculty of hearing the confessions of the faithful in the local area is a local ordinary:

Can. 969
§1. The local ordinary alone is competent to confer
upon any presbyters whatsoever the faculty to hear the confessions of
any of the faithful.

The diocesan bishop is one such ordinary, though a given diocese may have additional ordinaries capable of granting faculties.

This focuses the question as follows: Is there (a) a common error or (b) a positive and probable doubt as to whether a local ordinary of the diocese has granted an SSPX priest the faculty of hearing the confessions of the faithful?

A common error is a term of art referring to an error affecting a certain community whereby a reasonable and prudent person would give his assent to the error (see the green CLSA commentary on Can. 144 for further elaboration on this point). Even though the people attending an SSPX chapel form a community capable of having a common error, it does not appear that a common error exists on this point since it is implausible on its face that a local ordinary in communion with the pope would grant faculties to an SSPX priest. This means that a reasonable and prudent person would not give his assent to the idea that the local ordinary has done so, and thus there does not appear to be a common error.

Is there a positive and probably doubt as to this question? It does not appear so. A doubt is a situation in which a person cannot make a decision between contradictory conclusions. In this case the doubt would involve a person being unable to make a decision about whether the local ordinary has granted the priest faculties. For the faculties to be supplied via ecclesia supplet, the doubt would have to be positive and probable.

A positive doubt is one in which there are arguments both for and againt the idea in question. It does not appear, apart from very bizarre circumstances, that there would be any arguments supporting the idea that the local ordinary has supplied faculties to an SSPX priest, meaning that any such doubt on the part of the faithful would not be positive.

Given the massive improbability of the local ordinary doing so, it does not appear that it would be a probable doubt, either.

Thus in the absence of a doubt that is both positive and probable, and in the absence of a common error, the principle of ecclesia supplet would not be engaged and the Church would not supply the faculties to an SSPX priest.

There is also a further problem with the idea that the Church might supply faculties: namely, that the Church supplies missing faculties to its own ministers and not to priests in a state of schism. Thus it does not supply faculties to Eastern Orthodox priests. Those priests, never having been baptized or received into the Latin Church, are not subject to the Latin Church’s canon law (Can. 11) and thus not required to have faculties per Can. 966. SSPX priests, however, typically have been baptized or received into the Latin Church and thus are required to have faculties per Can. 966.

They ain’t got ‘em.

Thus it is going to be hard to build a case for ecclesia supplet validating the confessions heard by SSPX priests.

The reader also asks:

Futher, if it did kick in, they would be absolved because the
"Church provides the grace", but it would not be considered a valid
sacrament anyway right? even though it had the sacramental effect?

If (contrary to what we have said above) ecclesia supplet did kick in, the people would be validly absolved–not because the Church supplies grace directly but because it supplies faculties for the celebration of a sacrament–and the sacrament would be valid. What it would not be is licit (lawful). In cases where ecclesia supplet allows a (non-schismatic) priest who does not have faculties from the local ordinary to hear confessions, it is a valid but illicit (unlawful) celebration of the sacrament.

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{ 19 comments }

Jared Olar February 4, 2005 at 5:16 am

You didn’t say anything about the CEC, but the same reasoning applies to them. Like the SSPX, they are a group that has broken off their full and visible communion with the (Latin Rite of the) Church, but maintain valid apostolic succession.

Polish Prince February 4, 2005 at 5:18 am

But Jimmy, doesn’t the SSPX have a valid episcopate who are capable of granting faculties? Or is the granting of faculties not a power of the OFFICE of bishop but a power stemming from their COMMUNION with the universal Church?
Unless I’m missing something, I don’t see why a schismatic Church which had valid orders and could validly celebrate the sacraments, could not also grant faculties.
On a side note, let me give you a scenario. An Eastern Orthodox Church (lets say Ukrainian) is most likely in a similar situation as the SSPX. For instance, a Ukrainian Orthodox parish in Connecticut would be within the boundaries of the Ukrainian Catholic Diocese of Stamford. Would not they be in the same sitiation as the SSPX in that the Ukrainian Catholi bishop would not have granted them faculties to hear confessions thus invalidating the attempted sacrament?

Jason February 4, 2005 at 5:28 am

Thanks Jimmy, I appreciate you taking the time to answer that for me!

dcs February 4, 2005 at 6:22 am

But Jimmy, doesn’t the SSPX have a valid episcopate who are capable of granting faculties?
No, because they have no jurisdiction. Jurisdiction is necessary for the granting of faculties.
I think one could build a case for the validity of SSPX confessions based on Can. 1335.
If a censure prohibits the celebration of the sacraments or sacramentals or the exercise of a power of governance, the prohibition is suspended whenever this is necessary to provide for the faithful who are in danger of death. If a latae sententiae censure has not been declared, the prohibition is also suspended whenever one of the faithful requests a sacrament or sacramental or an act of the power of governance; for any just reason it is lawful to make such a request.
SSPX priests are suspended latae sententiae when they are ordained; in most if not all cases, however, the suspension has not been declared. In addition, as Jimmy pointed out to me before, “just reason” is a pretty low standard. So I would think that if someone were getting bad advice from diocesan priests that he might have a “just reason” to request the Sacrament of Penance from an SSPX priest, which would then be a valid confession. But please don’t take this as advice to start going to SSPX priests for confession.
It also isn’t clear that the priests of the SSPX are in “a state of schism.”

dcs February 4, 2005 at 6:27 am

Btw, I should add that I don’t really buy the “ecclesia supplet” excuse either. The only time I would think that it would apply would be in cases of common error, in which the faithful don’t realize that SSPX priests do not have faculties to hear confessions. I especially don’t buy the “ecclesia supplet” argument with respect to the SSPX marriage tribunal (yes, they do have one). Surely there is no case of “necessity” here, eh?
Overall I think the SSPX would be more convincing if they appealed to epikeia rather than making convoluted Canon Law arguments.

Curious February 4, 2005 at 7:31 am

Jimmy Could you perhaps expain more fully what ecclesia supplet really means in general? Without the SSPX example… for instance how many people have to be in the ‘common error’ –can it mean just a few who honestly think the priest has jurisdiction (including the priest)? But later finds out the person was not in there jusidiction when the act was done?

Eric Giunta February 4, 2005 at 8:42 am

Here’s what I don’t get.
For several years, the Society of Saint John Vianney in Brzail was a radical traditionalist sect.
A few years ago they entered into full communion with the Catholic Church.
It is my understanding that couples married by these priests during the schism do not have to be remarried. It’s as if their schismatic marriages were valid.
What gives? Probably all of the people married by the Lefebvrist Brazilians were baptized and raised as true Catholics, only to later get married by Lefebvrist priests. So wouldn’t their marriages have been invalid?
Or can the Church retroactively validate a sacrament?

kerygma February 4, 2005 at 9:24 am

To supplet, or not to supplet, that is the question

While listening to a Catholic radio Q

dcs February 4, 2005 at 9:46 am

It is my understanding that couples married by these priests during the schism do not have to be remarried. It’s as if their schismatic marriages were valid.
The PCED has the authority to regularize such marriages. But I think the issue of confession is different.

dcs February 4, 2005 at 9:49 am

Without the SSPX example… for instance how many people have to be in the ‘common error’ –can it mean just a few who honestly think the priest has jurisdiction (including the priest)?
The person receiving the Sacrament would have to believe that the SSPX priest had faculties, or be unaware of the requirement for faculties. So if you went to an SSPX priest for confession before finding out that SSPX confessions aren’t objectively valid, your confession was valid. “Ignorance is bliss.”

Eric Giunta February 4, 2005 at 9:53 am

“The PCED has the authority to regularize such marriages. But I think the issue of confession is different.”
How does one “regularize” a marriage that’s already been performed, without actually remarrying a couple, since this is a question of not only liceity but validity itself.

Jimmy Akin February 4, 2005 at 10:07 am

Don’t mean to interrupt the discussion here, but we’re getting enough canonical concepts on the table that I’m going to do a reader roundup in the next day or two to address them.

Jason February 4, 2005 at 10:50 am

Jimmy, perhaps this would make a good “Brass Tacks” article :)

dcs February 4, 2005 at 12:47 pm

How does one “regularize” a marriage that’s already been performed, without actually remarrying a couple, since this is a question of not only liceity but validity itself.
It’s called a sanatio in radice (radical sanation).

Eric Giunta February 4, 2005 at 1:08 pm

“It’s called a ‘sanatio in radice’ (radical sanation).”
I’ve heard this phraseology before, but the spiritual mechanics of it have never been explained to me; nor can I find one online.

dcs February 4, 2005 at 1:17 pm

I believe it means that the marriage is regularized without the consent or one or both parties. It is not retroactively regularized. I’m sure Jimmy will have more information on this.

PhilipofJMJ July 3, 2006 at 6:13 pm

please go to http://www.JohnTheBaptist.us and repent, convert and abjure. philipofJMJ

Stephen March 27, 2007 at 11:19 am

How do you then respond to Bishop Fellay’s arguments below? The parts under “Rome Approves” seem particularly persuasive.
God Bless,
Steve
…You find in the 1983 Code of Canon Law an interesting canon: the last and highest law is the salvation of souls. By this is meant that this law commands all the other laws. It happens in human laws that the lawmaker cannot foresee all possible circumstances in which the law will be applied, and so it happens that due to certain circumstances, a certain law, will, if applied, do exactly the contrary of what it is supposed to do! Laws in the Church and also in the State are theoretically there to help the faithful, the citizens, to their perfection. For the Church, its laws are meant to aid the souls under her charge to go to heaven. If due to certain circumstances a law in the Church is preventing a soul from going to heaven, something is wrong. What does the Church say in these cases? —In such a case as this, such a law, for the time of these circumstances, is suspended.
I will give you an example. Someone is hit by a car and is dying in the street. The law of the Church says that an excommunicated priest cannot give the sacraments; he does not have the power to hear confessions; he cannot give the last rites. That is the general law of the Church. But, precisely, in the case of danger of death, the Church wipes out all these prohibitions and limitations, and says, even an excommunicated priest can hear confession and give the last rites, because the highest law is the salvation of souls. When you have somebody who is about to come before the Supreme Judge to give answer for his life and for whom this last absolution will be absolutely decisive for eternity, the Catholic Church says forget about any kind of excommunication. If you find only an Orthodox priest, you can ask him to hear this confession; remember that! You see how strong the law is! Any valid priest, even an Orthodox priest, has the power at the time of danger of death to wipe out all the sins on the soul, validly and lawfully.
In the name of this principle, we priests who do not have an ordinary jurisdiction administer to you, validly and lawfully, the sacrament of penance and the other sacraments. The circumstances of the crisis have put you in danger of spiritual death. To whom are you going to go? —To the priest who has just offended you by his perverse behavior? …whom you cannot trust? No, you will not go to him, but you can find the priests of the Society of Saint Pius X and receive from them the sacraments lawfully. The Society has given these arguments to Rome, and Rome has had nothing to argue.
ROME APPROVES
On this point, let me tell you about the bishops from Gabon (Africa) going to Rome to ask about the validity and lawfulness of the sacraments administered by our mission priests there and whether they should record them in the sacramental registers of that country’s local churches. Rome answered that the sacraments of the Society must be recorded in the local registers. “Also the marriages?” the bishops asked. “Yes,” said Rome. That was the statement from Rome. With these words —despite all the things you may have heard! —Rome says our sacraments are to be considered valid. This is the policy in official Rome about sacraments administered by priests of the Society of Saint Pius X.
If you examine the decree of Rome’s acknowledgment of the official existence of the Priestly Union of St. John Baptist Mary Vianney [Campos, Brazil], there is no mention regarding the years of marriages officiated by the Latin Mass priests of Bishop Antonio de Castro Mayer. This means Rome considers these marriages valid. If they aren’t valid, Rome would have to say so and do something about it. The priests of the Society of Saint Pius X officiate at the sacrament of Matrimony no differently than did Bishop de Castro Mayer’s priests so this shows what official Rome thinks of our work. This is interesting, because it settles the confusion around this important question. So many opinions; even in Rome, you get different answers….

Mark March 22, 2009 at 4:05 am

In danger of death aren’t faculties granted to even the Orthodox eastern,russian , ukranian etc. so wouldn’t faculties also then be granted to the sspx priests? Danger of death cannot be determined ever correct?

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