Today, the Vatican has released a letter from Gerhard Ludwig Cardinal Müller, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and president of the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei, to the heads of the several episcopal conferences regarding marriages contracted by faithful who adhere to the Society of St. Pius X. (It is worth noting that the SSPX is a priestly society, and Bishop Bernard Fellay views priestly formation as the mission of the Society.) The letter outlines a procedure by which diocesan bishops may confer faculties to witnesses marriages upon priests of the SSPX. Under canon law, only those marriages are valid that are witnessed by the ordinary, a pastor, or a priest delegated by either of them, along with two witnesses (can. 1108 § 1). This is the so-called canonical form, which is, as Ed Peters points out, a fairly recent (i.e., Council of Trent) requirement and fairly controversial. Despite the Society’s arguments about the state of necessity and the doctrine of Ecclesia supplet (cf. cann. 144 § 2, 1111 § 1), there has been some question about marriages witnessed by SSPX priests.
It appears that the question has been resolved:
Insofar as possible, the Local Ordinary is to grant the delegation to assist at the marriage to a priest of the Diocese (or in any event, to a fully regular priest), such that the priest may receive the consent of the parties during the marriage rite, followed, in keeping with the liturgy of the Vetus ordo, by the celebration of Mass, which may be celebrated by a priest of the Society.
Where the above is not possible, or if there are no priests in the Diocese able to receive the consent of the parties, the Ordinary may grant the necessary faculties to the priest of the Society who is also to celebrate the Holy Mass, reminding him of the duty to forward the relevant documents to the Diocesan Curia as soon as possible.
In other words, ordinarily, the diocesan bishop should delegate a non-Society priest to witness the parties’ marriage. The SSPX priest may then celebrate Mass. However, where this is not possible, the bishop may simply grant the SSPX priest faculties to witness the marriage. One imagines that many bishops will find it easier to grant the priests of the Society the faculty to witness the marriage rather than delegate a priest to run over to the SSPX chapel for the sole purpose of receiving the parties’ consent. Given the strong orientation of traditionalist Catholics toward marriage and family, he’d undoubtedly be running over there all the time—a problem he likely won’t have at his aging Novus Ordo parish.
As Cardinal Müller reminds us in his letter, the Holy Father granted priests of the Society the faculty to validly hear confessions by his Apostolic Letter Misericordia et misera. In other words, SSPX priests now have, essentially by decree of the Holy Father, valid and licit faculties for confessions and marriages. (We have not forgotten the Society’s arguments about necessity and supplied jurisdiction, but we will set them to one side for the moment.) One may say that the Society is canonically irregular and that its priests do not have a clear status in the Church—it is clear that one may not say, however, that they are “schismatic”—but it is less and less clear what that means. To the laity, there is now little difference between a Society priest and their territorial pastor. This is, therefore, excellent news, though we imagine that there will be much grumbling about it among the prelates hostile to tradition.
We are reminded (on Twitter, of all places) of a February 9 piece by Damian Thompson at the Catholic Herald on the strange relationship between the Holy Father and the Society of St. Pius X. People who have followed the developments in this situation will not find much new, but it is a good summary of the situation. It is apparent that Francis is determined to resolve the SSPX situation in a way that John Paul and Benedict were not. And today’s news will be seen in the context of the rumors, reported by Thompson and many others, of an imminent deal between the SSPX and the Holy See, which is supposed to result in a personal prelature for the Society. (Both Archbishop Pozzo, secretary of the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei and the Holy See’s point man on the SSPX negotiations, and Bishop Fellay report that this is the offer, by the way.) However, neither Pozzo nor Fellay report a done deal. Both prelates have been very transparent in this process, and until Pozzo and Fellay say that the deal is done, we see no sense in speculating about a potential personal prelature.