Are the Sacraments of Marriage and Confession Valid in the SSPX?

The Society of Pope Saint Pius X is an heretical and schismatic group, which broke away from the Catholic Church in reaction to the doctrines and disciplines of the Second Vatican Council. They are in a state of formal heresy and formal schism. They are automatically excommunicated (latae sententiae) under the eternal moral law as well as Canon Law. A juridical excommunication (ferendae sententiae) of the SSPX, was issued by Pope Saint John Paul II and removed by Pope Benedict XVI. But the SSPX remains in a state of automatic excommunication. [Fr. Z. is harming souls by refusing to admit that the SSPX is in a state of heresy, schism, and automatic excommunication.]

Bishop Robert C. Morlino, of Madison, Wisconsin, published a column titled: A word of caution about the Society of Saint Pius X. He asserts that “the SSPX’s marriages and absolutions are invalid because their priests lack the necessary faculties.” They don’t have those faculties essentially because their Bishops and priests, though validly ordained, lack the formal permission required by Canon Law to administer the sacraments of marriage and of confession.

I disagree with his position. Here’s why:

Some requirements for the validity of any Sacrament are absolutely essential, and the Church lacks the authority to dispense from this type of requirement. For example, valid matter for the Eucharist is wheat bread and grape wine. The Church cannot change that requirement. Baptism must be performed with water; the Church cannot dispense from this requirement. But the Church also has the authority to add requirements for the validity of a Sacrament. The Church requires that a couple who are related by blood as second cousins obtain a dispensation to marry. If they have the dispensation, the marriage is valid; if they do not, then it is not.

Faculties are not essential to the nature of any of the seven Sacraments. The Church can require or dispense from the requirement that a priest have faculties to administer any Sacrament. Thus, Catholic priests need faculties to validly absolve sins in Confession, and to marry a man and woman in their parish.

So far, it seems as if Bishop Morlino is right. SSPX priests definitely lack faculties, as they are formal schismatics. But if he is right, then all priests and ministers outside of the Catholic Church also lack faculties, and all their marriages and absolutions are invalid. Is that the case? No, it is not. The Catholic Church holds that the Orthodox Churches, which are in a state of formal heresy and formal schism like the SSPX, have all Seven Sacraments.

Second Vatican Council: “Eastern Christians who are in fact separated in good faith from the Catholic Church, if they ask of their own accord and have the right dispositions, may be admitted to the sacraments of Penance, the Eucharist and the Anointing of the Sick. Further, Catholics may ask for these same sacraments from those non-Catholic ministers whose churches possess valid sacraments, as often as necessity or a genuine spiritual benefit recommends such a course and access to a Catholic priest is physically or morally impossible.” [OE 27]

Catholics may receive the Sacrament of Confession (Penance) from non-Catholic ministers in the Eastern Orthodox Churches, despite their lack of faculties. The Council treats these non-Catholic Eastern Churches as having valid Sacraments, and permission is granted for Catholics to receive these Sacraments (depending on the circumstances).

Therefore, lack of faculties does not necessarily make a Sacrament invalid. And the reason is that faculties are not essential to any Sacrament. The Council of Trent taught that Baptism is valid even when given by heretics [On Baptism, Canon 4]. Canon Law permits any priest to hear confessions, validly and licitly, regardless of his lack of faculties, even if other priests are available, when a penitent is in danger of death. But I’m not arguing that SSPX priests only validly absolve sins in danger of death. Rather, my point is that faculties are not essential to any Sacrament. The Church has the authority to require faculties of Her ministers. But that authority is limited, because faculties are non-essential. The salvation of souls supersedes the authority of the Church to limit those most holy instruments of salvation, the seven sacraments, just as Christ himself taught:

{9:37} John responded to him by saying, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name; he does not follow us, and so we prohibited him.”
{9:38} But Jesus said: “Do not prohibit him. For there is no one who can act with virtue in my name and soon speak evil about me.
{9:39} For whoever is not against you is for you.

If the Church decided to amend Canon Law so that only persons with faculties could validly baptize, such a Canon would be always null and void. If the Church decided to amend Canon Law to require priests from the Orthodox Churches to obtain faculties from a Roman Catholic Bishop before administering the Sacraments of Marriage or Confession, such a Canon would be always null and void. The salvation of souls requires all seven Sacraments, as the Council of Trent infallibly taught [On the Sacraments in General, Canon 4]. The Church does not possess unlimited authority.

Now the Protestant Churches are in a somewhat different situation. The essential elements of any Sacrament are necessary for validity, always, regardless of circumstances. The Protestant Churches lack the Sacrament of Holy Orders, since they do not believe in any Sacraments except marriage and baptism. They lack validly ordained Bishops (even in the Anglican Church) and validly ordained priests. So they cannot have a valid absolution in Confession. The only Sacraments that can be valid in a Protestant denomination are baptism and marriage (which even in the Catholic Church do not absolutely require an ordained person).

Are Protestant marriages valid? According to Pope Pius XI, “there can be no true marriage between baptized persons ‘without it being by that very fact a sacrament.’ ” [Casti Connubii 39]. And the Church does not permit remarriage after divorce, even if the first marriage were in a Protestant denomination. An annulment might be obtained in such a case, but not by the mere fact that the first marriage was performed by a Protestant minister, who lacks holy orders as well as faculties. And if a marriage is valid outside the Church when both orders and faculties are lacking, it may well be a valid marriage if the minister is validly ordained, but lacks faculties.

So here is the problem with Bishop Morlino’s assertion that SSPX marriages and absolutions (confessions) are not valid: if so, then Protestant marriages as well as both marriages and absolutions in separated Eastern Churches are also invalid. A implies B. If A is true then B must be true. But B is not true, so A must be false. Therefore, I must conclude that SSPX marriages and absolutions are valid, despite the lack of faculties.

The requirement of faculties for validity extends only to those persons under Canon Law; it extends to Catholics, but not to the Orthodox or Protestants or schismatic former Catholics. This point on the limits of Canon Law regarding the requirements for validity is clear when we compare Canon Law for the Latin Rite to Canon Law for Eastern Catholics. The Latin Rite requirements are limited to persons under the Latin Rite, as long as what is required or forbidden is not essential to the nature of the Sacrament, nor a direct expression of faith or morals.

In the Eastern Catholic Churches, a priest can administer the Sacrament of Confirmation, and in the Latin Rite (generally) he cannot. The Eastern Catholic Churches require a priest or Bishop (ordinarily) to marry a couple; in the Latin Rite, the deacon is also an ordinary minister for this Sacrament. Limitations on the validity of a Sacrament, when these are not essential to the nature of the Sacrament, and are imposed solely by Canon Law, not Divine Precept, do not extend beyond that group of persons under Canon Law.

Therefore, the seven Sacraments administered by SSPX bishops and priests, though usually administered illicitly, are valid, as long as the essential requirements for validity are met. [This is a change from my previously stated position.]

However, please allow me to emphasize that the SSPX is in a state of formal heresy and formal schism. They are not the remnant of the true Church. They are not a small group of faithful Catholic Christians, who preserved the faith unsullied when the successive Popes and the body of Bishops worldwide all inexplicably went astray. Their departure from communion with the successive Popes and the Bishops under his authority is an objectively grave sin. Whosoever formally joins the SSPX commits the sins of heresy and schism, and suffers the penalty of automatic excommunication.

The Catholic faithful endanger their souls by receiving any Sacraments from the SSPX. Their sacraments are valid (all seven). But their departure from the one true Church has harmed many souls.

EDITED TO ADD: On 1 Sept 2015, Pope Francis declared that during the Year of Mercy (8 Dec 2015 to 20 Nov 2016.), the priests of the SSPX are granted faculties to forgive sins: “I trust that in the near future solutions may be found to recover full communion with the priests and superiors of the Fraternity. In the meantime, motivated by the need to respond to the good of these faithful, through my own disposition, I establish that those who during the Holy Year of Mercy approach these priests of the Fraternity of St Pius X to celebrate the Sacrament of Reconciliation shall validly and licitly receive the absolution of their sins.”

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and
translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

Please support my work by purchasing one of my books or booklets. Thanks.

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2 Responses to Are the Sacraments of Marriage and Confession Valid in the SSPX?

  1. Dot says:

    Your thorough treatment of this topic is appreciated. A few weeks ago, a friend presented his child for baptism in the Roman Church, and a deacon was assigned to preside. The deacon invited this lay person to “baptize the child,” pouring the water, and I believe the father also spoke the words. What do you make of this?

    • Ron Conte says:

      The deacon erred gravely, and this should be reported to his bishop. The baptism was valid, but illicit. I wonder what other mistakes this deacon is making.

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