Freedom of Conscience, Ecumenism, and The Validity of Sacraments

Some years ago, a debate took place about the sacraments of penance and marriage administered by priests in the filiation of the late Archbishop Lefebvre. As it was stated in a magazine[1] and a blog[2]dedicated to Catholic apologetics, both sacraments are valid when received from an Eastern Orthodox (E.O.) priest,[3] but not from a priest of the Saint Pius X Society (SSPX), because although the latter possesses the sacramental authority coming from his ordination, he does not possess the juridical authority coming from the bishop as the chief judge of the diocese. Even a priest incardinated in a territorial diocese under the Vatican cannot confer these sacraments in another diocese without a special permit from the local bishop. In layman’s terms, this is equivalent to the license needed to practice a profession. The SSPX bishops are not diocesan bishops, the reasoning goes, “being thus an anomaly unheard of in Christian tradition,”[2]“By contrast, an Orthodox priest is in communion with a bishop who has a diocese. That bishop, while in schism, . . has jurisdiction [which] he can share . . with priests that are subject to him. They have both orders and jurisdiction. Therefore, their absolution is valid.”[2]

A rebuttal of the thesis of the above authors was presented by the SSPX bishops.[4] The discussion here presents the perspective of the educated layman.

First, it is worthwhile to examine the argument that the bishops of the Saint Pius Society (or societies) are “bishops without no (sic) diocese.”[2] That situation is not unprecedented. Thus, in 1948 when the Byzantine-rite Catholic (B.r.C.) church was outlawed in Romania and its bishops were sent to various prisons, Bishop Frenţiu (beatified on June 2, 2019) secretly consecrated as bishops a few of the younger priests imprisoned with him. None of them was assigned to a diocese; all were consecrated at-large.[5]Some survived, were released, and functioned underground. Outside prison, the priests served secretly the faithful wherever they could, that is, also at-large. To have their faculty to hear confessions recorded in the books of a diocese was not necessary for the salvation of souls.

To take another example of a priest at-large, in 1939 the American priest Walter J. Ciszek was in Eastern Poland at the Soviet invasion. He spent 24 years in prison camps and in supervised residence in Siberian cities. In those places he created parishes, mostly among people forcibly moved there from Lithuania, Poland, or Ukraine, for whom he offered the Mass regularly. He celebrated marriages and baptisms, gave absolutions and extreme unctions, until the KGB got wind of it, closed the parish and carted him to another place, where, undaunted, he did the same thing. In camps, he heard confessions regularly. Where a women’s camp was adjacent to his, he went to walk for hours on his side of the barbed wire fence, in the dread of Siberian winter, while the penitents, one by one, walked on the other side and confessed.[6] He had no “permit” to give absolution in those places, as he was for years believed dead, nor was there a bishop who could grant it.

One might argue that those bishops and priests lived in times of crisis. If someone says, however, that today Catholicism is not in crisis, he must be coming from another planet.

The recent case of the Chinese Catholic Bishops replaced by the Vatican with appointees of the Communist government,[7]needs clarification. Have they lost their “licensing” powers and have the sacraments administered by their priests become invalid?

Anyway, the territorial dioceses did not originate with the apostles, but were created after Christianity became legal in the Roman Empire; the term “diocese” was taken from the imperial administrative units. St. Paul had no diocese.

The validity of sacraments conferred by non-Catholic churches follows from the concept of ecumenism defined at the Vatican II Council.[8] Such churches are called not in full communion[9] with the Catholic Church and sharing of sacraments with them is limited.[10] The E.O. church, already mentioned, is an example. In most respects, the attitude of the Vatican toward the E.O. church(es) is remarkable. At the time of his visit to Romania, John Paul II accepted that the place of highest honor in the procession should be accorded to the E.O. patriarch. (The fact that the latter had been an agent of the communist party and security police, particularly of Ceauşescu, bestowed a sad irony on the situation.) Even worse, John Paul II refused to have an official meeting with the Byzantine-rite (B-r) catholic bishops, in order to placate his E.O. hosts. The E.O. hierarchy had worked hand-in-glove with the communists to outlaw the Byzantine-rite Catholic Church (B-rCC) in 1948 and even today denies the right of the latter to exist. After 1990, the Vatican never requested the return to the B-rCC of places of worship and other properties which the communists transferred to the Romanian E.O. church.

Likewise, overtures were made toward the Russian E.O., which has always been and is today pretty much controlled by the government, at a time of increased persecution of B-r Catholics in Crimea and occupied Eastern Ukraine. Many Ukrainian B-r Catholics, including their Patriarch, expressed dismay that “the Holy Father was apparently more interested in placating Moscow than defending the rights of their church.”[11]

It is worth noting, however, that the Eastern Orthodox do not reciprocate. They proclaim that “being united with the pope means to be separated from Jesus Christ;”[12] also that “in the history of human race, there were three falls: that of Adam, that of Judas, and that of the pope.”[12](b) The E.O. churches have even dropped the word catholic from the Nicene Creed, and use the formula: “in one, holy, conciliar, and apostolic church.”

Another case is that of the Polish National Catholic Church (PNCC). An agreement was reached, recognizing the validity of the sacraments of the Polish National Catholic Church (PNCC) and allowing members of the Latin Church and Eastern Catholic Churches to receive in exceptional circumstances the sacraments of Reconciliation, Eucharist, and Anointing of the Sick from PNCC ministers.[13](a).Yet, PNCC rejects the doctrine of original sin and proclaims universal salvation with no special requirements.[13](b)(c) The joint communiqué, states, however, that there is “agreement on the seven sacraments . . . in spite of some differences in practice that do not touch upon our basic common faith.” What agreement can exist on absolution with a church proclaiming that everybody is saved, anyway?

Lately, the Vatican signaled that Luther’s heresy might also become acceptable. At its anniversary of 500 years, Pope Bergoglio participated in a meeting with Lutherans in Sweden and issued a joint communiqué stating, among other things, that “Lutherans and Catholics have wounded the visible unity of the Church.”[14](a) (italics mine). The statement must mean that there was an invisible unity, never touched. On the day itself, the Vatican and the Lutheran World Federation issued a joint statement, giving thanks for the spiritual and theological gifts received through the Reformation (!).[14](b) The Vatican post office also issued a special stamp in honor of the event.[14](c)

The original debate was apparently mooted by the 2017 decision of the Vatican to recognize the two sacraments administered by SSPX priests.[15] One wonders, however, what is the situation of those who received the sacraments before the decision? What is the disposition of a man married by an SSPX priest in 2013, who had a fatal car accident in 2014? Is a reassignment after death possible? It seems more logical to accept that all sacraments administered by a priest ordained validly by a validly consecrated bishop have been valid all along.

It is highly significant that the reversal of position on the sacraments from SSPX priests came about without any change in the status of their bishops, as non-diocesan bishops, “an anomaly unheard of in Christian tradition;” no mention of that status was even made. This indicates to me that the arguments[1,2] for the interdiction were constructed ad hoc.

Anyway, the SSPX bishops responded with statements expressing “gratitude to the Holy Father for his pastoral solicitude.”[16] This suggests an error in judgment: it seems to validate the thesis that they were given something which they did not have before. Better if they had offered terse thanks for the good intention, pointing out that the sacraments offered by the priests of the Society had been valid all along. Best if they had ignored the Vatican pronouncement.

There was, however, another argument presented[1] for the original interdiction: The SSPX recognized (as it continues to recognize) the annulments granted by the tribunals of the “mainstream” church. This recognition was explained by SSPX as an act of charity,[17] but is puzzling, in light of the open scandal which the granting of annulments has been, particularly in the US.[18] Thus, it was reasoned, the SSPX implicitly recognize Vatican’s right to determine the validity of a marriage, and the interdiction becomes a matter of discipline. On the other hand, the Eastern Orthodox do not recognize Vatican’s authority on any matter, therefore marriages performed by their priests are valid![1] It then follows that sacraments must also be valid if conferred by sedevacantist traditional Catholic priests. Admittedly, they reject only Vatican II, whereas the E.O. and PNC churches reject all the councils for the last one thousand years. The latter two also virulently reject papacy,[12] whereas the sedevacantist Catholics accept and revere the papacy; they just maintain that Jorge Bergoglio is not there. (There is even an archbishop accepting Vat II, who considers Bishop Bergoglio an “usurper and heretic.”[19])

The broad acceptance of sacramental validity for non-Catholic churches stems from the thesis promulgated at Vatican II that any honest man can obtain the knowledge of religious truth by searching freely.[20] We take note of this thesis here and we’ll discuss more about it later.
The matter of sacraments can be approached, however, only considering the meaning of religion. Religion is not about good fellowship and brotherhood, or building a better world to live in. It is about immortality and salvation of one’s soul. A man needs the church to provide him a path to eternal salvation; any other function is to be considered only inasmuch it furthers the basic purpose. This axiomatic truth is repeatedly emphasized in the Mass, from the prayer at the foot of the altar, when the congregation (through the acolyte or server) tells the priest: ”Misereatur tui omnipotens Deus et dimissis peccatis tuis perducat te ad vitam eternam,” to the moment when the priest tells each communicant: “Corpus Domini nostri Jesu Christi custodiat animam tuam in vitam eternam. Amen.” (Both these have been excised from the Novus Ordo.)

The path to salvation and eternal life is assured by the sacraments received from the church. The sacraments were instituted by Christ and implemented by the apostles [21](a-f) Any church which offers valid sacraments secures a path to Heaven. Parsing full communion, half-communion,quarter communion, is hogwash.

Among churches which common sense dictates cannot offer valid sacraments, we must count San Rocco, in Turin, Italy. Fredo Olivero, pastor (or rector) of that church announced during the midnight Mass for Christmas that he would not recite the Creed, because he does not believe it, so he sang a song from a movie.[22] In this way, he proclaimed himself an apostate, as faith comes before baptism and is a prerequisite for it.[21](g) (The Creed has to be professed at baptism.) Instead of throwing him out on his ear, his archbishop just admonished him to say the Creed. He promised to do so, but did not keep the promise. He did not sing songs from movies, but recited a text written by himself, having nothing to do with the Catholic (or Eastern Orthodox, or Protestant) Creed.[22](b) He has continued to operate, undisturbed. In view of the press coverage of the event, the archbishop’s superiors at Vatican knew for sure what was going on, but did not intervene, being thus accomplices to the apostasy, fraud, and defilement of the church and sacraments. As it was reported, there are in the same province other priests and bishops like Fred Olivero.[22](b)

In his earnest search for a path to Heaven, a man in our time has only two possible logical alternatives: (A) the Vatican II Council (Vat II) is right and (B) Vat II is wrong.[8]

(A) If we accept the conclusions of Vat II, we must agree with the council fathers that any honest man can obtain the knowledge of religious truth by searching freely. From what the Vatican teaches today, the search can carry us to options deviating as much from the Catholic doctrine and discipline as the churches which it accepts as giving valid sacraments (valid paths to salvation), like E.O.C. and PNCC. By all indications, it seems that it is now acceptable that someone’s free search may lead even to the Lutheran denomination.[14] On the other hand, even Vat II did not contest that the One Catholic Church as it existed until 1962, when that council opened, offered a path to salvation; a full calendar of saints attests to this. An option which rigorously adheres to the doctrine and discipline of that time is a valid conclusion of the free search for religious truth.

It is also notable that the Vatican and USCCB have allowed the faithful to receive the sacraments from priests not under their jurisdiction under the provisions of Canon 844 of the (post Vat II) canon law,[13](a) which states that one can do so when it is “morally impossible to approach a Catholic minister.”[10] The moral impossibility, logically, has to be determined individually, by the faithful.

(B) That Vat II could be wrong, may have occurred even to Joseph Ratzinger in later years,[23] although he never said it plainly. That point is unimportant for the present analysis, which just finds that it as the only logical alternative to (A). If that is the case, one must join a church holding to the doctrine and practices of the Catholic Church before 1962. I found a perfect option at a traditionalist Catholic chapel, which had in its Sunday bulletin the note:

“We believe that as Catholics we have a right and a solemn duty to hold fast to the traditions as we have received them from the Church.

The rules for the reception of Holy Communion are as follows:

One must accept all the teachings of the Catholic Church. One must believe and abide by the traditional Catholic moral teaching, especially in regard to purity and marriage.”[24]

[1].The Catholic Response.
[2].(a) ASK FATHER: Valid absolution from Orthodox priest, but not from SSPX priest? Posted on 3 February 2014; see also:
[3].Eastern Orthodox churches are the multiple autocephalous, mostly national, churches resulting from the breakup of the Byzantine Patriarchate as it existed after the separation from Rome in 1054 AD.
[4].Bp Tissier de Mallerais, Supplied jurisdiction & traditional priests
[5].Fr A. Ratiu & Fr W. Virtue, Stolen Church. Martyrdom in Communist Romania, Our Sunday Visitor, Huntington, IN, 1979, p.30.
[6].Walter J. Ciszek, SJ, With God in Russia, Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 1964.
[7]. F. X. Rocca and E. Dou,. Pope Francis to Bow to China With Concession on Bishops, WSJ, Feb 2, 2018,
[8]. References to Vatican II presented in text are found in Vatican Council II. The Conciliar and Post-Conciliar Documents, A.Flannery, Editor, Costello Publ Co, Northport, 1980
[9].For a schematic presentation, see:
[10].Code of Canon Law, 1983, Canon 844, §2.
[11].(a) Alec Luhn,‘Finally!’pope and Russian patriarch meet for first time in 1,000 years, The Guardian, 13 Feb 2016, ; (b) SSPX, news & events: A Commentary on Eastern Orthodoxy, July 5, 2016,
[12].(a) Fabian Seiche, Greco-catolicii. uniţi cu papa dar desbinaţi cu Hristos, Agaton, Braşov, 2010. The book was sanctioned by the patriarch of the Romanian orthodox church. (b) Motto of the same book, cited there from someone recently canonized by the Romanian orthodox church.
[13]. (a) USCCB, Declaration of Unity, y.cfm ; (b) Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J, The Polish National Catholic Church, Homiletic and Pastoral Rev, 1956, 56 (7), 552-60, ; (c)
[14].(a) Austin Ivereigh, Catholic and Lutheran Churches pledge to work for shared Eucharist, Crux, Oct 31, 2016, ;
(b) Vatican Radio: Catholics and Lutherans mark 500th anniversary of Reformation,,_lutherans_mark_500th_anniversary_of_reformation/1346149
(c) Roberto de Mattei, Pope Francis and his “Lutheran turning point,” Nov 8, 2017,
[15].(a) Letter of His Holiness Pope Francis According to which an Indulgence is Granted to the Faithful etc., ubileo-misericordia.html ; (b) Apostolic Letter Misericordia et misera of the Holy Father Francis, at the etc. dia-et-misera.html ; (c) Letter from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, 27 March 2017,
[16].For example, SSPX Statement about Holy See Letter Concerning Marriages, April 04, 2017,
[17]. Telephone call to the office of the US district superior
[18].Sheila Rauch Kennedy, Shattered Faith: A Woman’s Struggle to Stop the Catholic Church from Annuling Her Marriage, Pantheon, 1997.
[19].Michael W. Chapman, Archbishop Jan Lenga: Pope Francis is ‘Usurper and Heretic,’ ‘Leading the World Astray’, Feb 28, 2020 , ld-astray
[20].As stated, the current text presents the observations and conclusions of an educated layman. The theological problems and the consequences of Vat II have been exposed in: Archbp Marcel Lefebvre, (a) Religious Liberty Questioned (1987), Angelus Perss, Kansas City, MO, 2002; (b) An Open Letter to Confused Catholics, Angelus Press, Dickinson, TX, 1987.
[21].(a) Baptism: Matt 28, 19, Mark 16, 16; (b) Eucharist: Matt 26, 26-28, John 6, 48-58, 66-69, esp: 53-54; (c) Absolution: John 20, 22,23; (d) Holy Orders: Acts 1, 21-26, Acts 6, 6; (e)Anointing of the sick: Mark 6, 13, James 14, 15; (f) Confirmation, Acts, 8, 14-17; (g) Mark 16, 16;
[22].(a) ; (b)
[23].Massimo Faggioli, Benedict’s Estrangement from Ratzinger. Theological Drift, Commonweal, Jan 23, 2020,
[24].Weekly Bulletin of the St. Pius V Chapel, Oyster Bay, NY;