On Saturday, I made an update to my post about Bishop Joseph Strickland’s public rejection of Pope Francis’s “program of undermining the Deposit of Faith,” noting that he subsequently tweeted, “In these troubling times with so much confusion even from Rome it is critical to remain IN THE CHURCH. Schismatic movements like SSPX or Sedevacantists however well-intended are an injury to the body of Christ. We must fight for total unity, not just aspects of Catholicism.”

Just a few hours later, however, Strickland tweeted again, partially retracting his earlier statement:

In this tweet, Strickland cites the claim of Bishop Athanasius Schneider that the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX) “is not in schism.” As I mentioned in my previous article, the SSPX is a society of traditionalist priests who were established in the 1970s by French Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre in opposition to many of the teachings of the Second Vatican Council and of the reforms in the liturgy. They only celebrate Mass in Latin according to the pre-Vatican II rite of 1962, they are not recognized by the institutional Church and the ministries of their priests and bishops are considered illegitimate.

It seems a bit fickle that Bishop Strickland resisted Pope Francis and his teachings for years (prior to finally making his opposition to the pope “Twitter official” last week), yet he flipped his position on the SSPX in just a few hours based on the word of the auxiliary bishop of Astana in Kazakhstan. It reeks of what Pope St. Paul VI once described as Archbishop Lefebvre’s “concrete ways of expressing an ecclesiology that is warped in essential points.”

Perhaps providentially, Dominic de Souza and I discussed the SSPX on our most recent episode of The Debrief. We had noticed an unusual increase in favorable coverage of the SSPX, some of it having to do with their new $42 million Church in Kansas, as well as two bishops in the mainstream Church, Schneider and retired Swiss bishop Vitus Huonder, embarking on something of a publicity tour for the Society. Huondor led the Swiss diocese of Chur until his retirement in 2019,  after which he took up residence in a house in Switzerland that is owned by the SSPX.

Bishop Schneider has been an outspoken defender of the SSPX and its positions, and lately he has been open about endorsing its doctrinal views. Back in March, speaking to John-Henry Westen of LifeSiteNews, Schneider said the SSPX “is not able currently, temporarily, to be fully under the control and submission of the Holy See is justified and is in no way schismatic.” He said that view them in this way is “putting the letter of the Canon Law above the importance, the primary importance of the fullness of the Catholic faith and of the traditional liturgy.”

In a recent interview, Bishop Huonder defended the position of the SSPX and the decision of Lefebvre to disobey Church authority, saying, “His attitude was factually justified and entirely in line with the Faith of the Church.” He also claimed that in a private conversation, Pope Francis told him that the SSPX was not in a state of schism. Despite this allegedly positive exchange, Huonder’s other statements about the pope were decidedly negative, with a whiff of conspiracy theory. For example, he said Francis’s papacy is a “pontificate of rupture” and “a break with tradition.” He also called the pope an “outspoken supporter of the so-called World Religion.”

Pope Francis’s alleged private comments about the status of the SSPX contradict his multiple public statements that the Lefebvrist movement is schismatic. For example, in his 2021 letter to bishops accompanying Traditionis Custodes he said that Pope St. John Paul II’s intention behind his 1988 letter Ecclesia Dei “was above all motivated by the desire to foster the healing of the schism with the movement of Mons. Lefebvre” (emphasis added). In 2019, during an in-flight press conference, Francis addressed the question of a possible US schism. He said that the Church has had many schisms, with some occurring in the years after the Second Vatican Council. He added, “Perhaps the most well-known post-conciliar split is that of Lefebvre. In the Church there is always the option for schism, always. But it is an option that the Lord leaves to human freedom.” The pope then went on to explain,  “Ideologies enter into doctrine and when doctrine slips into ideology, that’s where there’s the possibility of a schism. There’s the ideology of the primacy of a sterile morality regarding the morality of the people of God.”

The position of Pope Francis apparently does not carry much weight with Bishop Strickland. Obviously his numerous interventions on political candidates and parties, as well as his open support for partisan priests outside his diocese, reflects a thoroughly ideological worldview, and one that is far from the obedience and fidelity one should expect from a Catholic bishop.

Regarding Strickland and his controversial statements, Brian Fraga has written a comprehensive story on the subject, which also covers the controversial “Hope Is Fuel” gathering hosted by sedevacantist podcaster Patrick Coffin.

If you would like to learn more about the SSPX and its status with the Church, and if you are interested in learning the stories of those who have left radical traditionalism, I hope to post an SSPX information and resource page either tonight or tomorrow.

Image: . Bishop Athanasius Schneider preaching. Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

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Mike Lewis is the founding managing editor of Where Peter Is. He and Jeannie Gaffigan co-host Field Hospital, a U.S. Catholic podcast.

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