The SSPX is schismatic. The press usually frames it as with respect to the Latin Mass (and ad orientum) but it is deeper than that. The SSPX has its origins in the discontent by some on the French Catholic right with the secularization of the French Republic. The impetus was opposition to Vatican II reforms to be sure, but the real genesis was a desire to return to the "throne and altar" Catholicism of the Old Regime. So the SSPX is as much a political organization as it is a religious one.
The excommunications took place in 1988 and were automatic as the result of Lefebvre consecrating four bishops (one of whom was Williamson). An Archbishop has the power to consecrate another bishop, but the consecration must be approved by the Vatican (which had told Lefebvre NOT to consecrate the four). So while the consecrations are valid in some respects, the Vatican does not permit the four to act as bishops. Lefebvre did it to ensure the SSPX would continue after his death. The Vatican bent over backward to keep SSPX inside the church. Pope John Paul II offered Lefebvre one new bishop of his choosing. In addition, the SSPX would have become a personal prelature of the church in a similar situation as Opus Dei. The organization would therefore have been permitted to continue its work but under the direct authority of the Pope. Considering the then strong and continuing opposition of many bishops to traditionalist Catholicism, it would have allowed SSPX to operate in dioceses were the hierarchy was hostile or indifferent.
Lefebvre refused and consecrated the bishops. By doing so, he engaged in a schismatic act for which the penalty was excommunication to him and all participants. This in turn led to the effective casting out of the SSPX from the Church.
Since the act, some other things have happened. One is that the SSPX in turn has fell into schism. Second, the Church has taken steps to help traditionalist Catholics stay within the church. These include:
- The founding of the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter by a group of former SSPX priests
- The issuance of Ecclesia Dei in 1988 (issued in reaction to the consecrations) which directed bishops to allow the traditional Mass.
- The issuance of Summorum Pontificum in 2007, which essentially took the decision out of the hands of the bishops and into the hands of the parishes.
I was and remain quite happy that the Latin Mass is making something of a comeback, even though it will never replace the vernacular. But even this has not been enough for SSPX. For one thing, they still complain about the Missal – traditionalist Catholics in communion with the Church use the official 1962 Roman Missal. The SSPX demands use of the 1950 Missal (and offshoot of the SSPX uses an even older Missal). To a large extent the problem is political – the Catholic Church has moved away from a throne and altar philosophy while SSPX wants to go back there.
One good thing has been the fact that the church has been able to get ordinary traditionalist Catholics back into the church. Most of those who attended SSPX masses were not there because they had an interest in the philosophy of Joseph de Maistre but rather because they liked the devotions of the “old” Church. They now have a place to go. The hard core of the SSPX though will never be happy. The church continues to bend over backward to keep the SSPX in communion and all we get for it is biting. If you ever get into a conversation with a true believing SSPX member, every sentence contains the words “Satan”, “Jews”, or “Freemasons”. Despite the action, the SSPX still remains outside the Church.
Which brings us to Williamson. The guy is a loon. It is not just the Holocaust; he is also a 9/11 Truther, JFK conspiracist and God knows what else he really believes. But he has not been "reinstated" as bishop, he cannot celebrate Mass in a Catholic church, he has only had his excommunication revoked. While I understand the concerns raised by some in and outside the church, his loony beliefs have nothing to do with the cancelation of his excommunication. One irony is that the father of Archbishop Lefebvre died in a Nazi concentration camp during World War Two.George Weigel in a Newsweek article discusses the Lefebvrist puzzle here.