The Society of St. Pius X

October 2001
By an undisclosed author


This report was written by a nationally published Catholic writer who prefers to remain anonymous, as some of that person's family members are involved in the Society of St. Pius X. The description of the Society was drawn from its own materials and the writer's many personal experiences with the Society.

Historical Overview

The Society of St. Pius X is a schismatic offshoot of the Roman Catholic Church. It was founded by Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre (1905-1991), a former bishop of Tulle, France, in 1969. Originally established as a religious order within the Catholic Church, the Society, under the Archbishop's leadership, became increasingly strident in its opposition to various reforms of the Second Vatican Council and even to the very teachings of the Council itself.

By 1987, the Society had so distanced itself from the mainstream Catholic Church that Lefebvre announced he would ordain bishops for his movement, a move historically seen by the church as formal schism. Lefebvre's stated reason for ordaining bishops was to preserve the priesthood, which he believed was in danger of dying out in mainstream Catholicism due to changes in the ordination ritual-changes secretly designed to prevent the actual ordination of priests, although to onlookers it would appear that such ordination had taken place. In 1988, the Vatican officially warned the Archbishop that he and the bishops consecrated by him would be excommunicated should he proceed with the episcopal ordinations. In defiance of the Vatican warning, Lefebvre ordained four bishops in Econe, Switzerland (his international headquarters) on June 30, 1998. The next day, he and his followers were excommunicated by the Vatican, an act that was re-affirmed by Pope John Paul II the day after that. The Society's reaction to these developments was simply to deny that the excommunications had taken place, and it continues to teach its supporters that the excommunication story is a fiction spread by their enemies.

Since then, the Society has established bases in 18 countries and has operations in about 100 locations in the United States. No information is available concerning the number of its followers. Lefebvre died in 1991 and is revered as a saint by the Society, which built a shrine to him in Econe.


The Society of St. Pius X rejects the teachings of the Catholic Church expressed in the documents of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965)--an international gathering of all the bishops of the Catholic Church called by Blessed John XXIII to reform the Church--and all subsequent developments after the Council. The Society holds that the council propagated heresy under the influence of the devil, and that all popes since then have been heretics. Chief among their objections are the reform of the Mass, a general orientation toward inclusion in the Church and the adoption of less stringent regulations concerning everyday life of Catholics. The Society presents all its teachings as "teachings of the Catholic Church," of which they believe they are the true remnant, the rest of the world's Catholics having been led astray. Followers of the Society generally refer to themselves as "Traditional Catholics."

The Mass: Old vs. New

The society holds that the new rite of the Mass--which they refer to as the "Novus Ordo," or "New Order" in Latin--revised and promulgated by Pope Paul VI, is evil and heretical: "The dissimulation of Catholic elements and the pandering to Protestants which are evident in the Novus Ordo Missae render it a danger to our faith, and, as such, evil, given that it lacks the good which the sacred rite of Mass ought to have." (Society Web site). Furthermore, they hold that the Mass celebrated according to the new rite is "invalid," that is, that the bread and wine do not become the body and blood of Christ, due to some minor changes in wording. The Society ascribes a virtually magical property to various words and actions, which must be precisely carried out or they will not "work." Among the other faults they find with the new rite of the Mass is that it is usually celebrated in the community's native language rather than Latin, that the priest does not face the wall, that gold plating is no longer required for the vessels, that anyone is permitted to touch the chalice, and other such ritualistic details. Those attached to the Society (technically, only their priests are members) are forbidden under pain of eternal damnation from attending a mainstream Catholic service, although permission is given in the case of family occasions, when the Society devotee is commanded not to participate in the service in any way. Participation in their own ceremonies by anyone not a Society priest is prohibited, and women are permitted to sing in church only if no men are available.

Inclusion vs. Exclusion

The Society is opposed to the inclusive nature of Catholicism since the Council. They teach that one must be a member of the Catholic Church and believe as the Society teaches in order to be saved: "The Catholic Church firmly believes, professes, and proclaims that those not living within Her, not only pagans, but also Jews, heretics, and schismatics, cannot become participants in eternal life but will depart "into everlasting fire which was prepared for the devil and his angels" (Mt. 25:41), unless before the end of life the same have been added to the flock." (Society Web site). Similarly, the Society believes that infants who die without being baptized are "punished with the punishment of the condemned, exclusive of the punishment of fire." (Society Web site). The Society condemns any and all dialogue, prayer or other interaction by their adherents with Protestants or members of any other religion. Such activities are deemed by the Society to be grounds for eternal damnation. The Society will not permit any Catholics to receive communion in their churches unless that Catholic first confess to a Society priest and profess Society beliefs. The Society denies the inherent value of every human being unless they are "true believers" and is opposed to the concept of religious liberty. Women are required to be subject to men, considered prone to vanity and in need of a strict and detailed code of attire, which includes veiling of their heads for prayer.

Everyday Life

The Society enjoins strict requirements on its adherents, including demands that they not have a television in their home, requiring specific types of attire (women are forbidden from wearing pants, for example), forbidding the reading of certain types of books (such as the Harry Potter books), including Catholic books written after the Council, and strict regulations regarding marriage. Adherents are strongly urged not to date or marry anyone outside the confines of the Society, although repercussions for doing so appear to vary from place to place. Because the Society teaches that marriage is for procreation only, and that affection or love are not necessary components of a marriage, the priest will often choose a spouse for an adherent from among their ranks. To further reinforce this practice, the Society teaches that the Roman Catholic concept of marriage, which states as a necessary part of marriage mutual affection and support, is heretical. The Society Web site contains many prescriptions for everyday life, covering such issues as whether an adherent may play folk guitar (Yes, so long as "the style remains that of folk music, refusing the deformations of Jazz and Rock"), permissible athletic attire for men and what type of school one may send one's children to. Although the Society decries the granting of marriage annulments by the Catholic Church as evidence of its moral deterioration, in 1987 it established procedures to provide its own annulments to its adherents-a process reserved by the Catholic Church to diocesan bishops. The Society consistently justifies such actions by claiming that the current "modernist" crisis exempts them, the true remnant, from any church law or teaching they find inconvenient.

Attraction of New Adherents

The Society attracts new recruits by playing on dissatisfaction with an individual's parish church or a sense of nostalgia for "the good old days." It also attracts younger people by presenting an idealized image of a past the recruit did not personally experience. Often this attraction is based on the Society's presentation of "the old Mass" as comforting, aesthetically pleasing and mysterious.

Once the Society attracts a potential recruit with its elaborate ceremonies, it begins to introduce the newcomer to the concept that only the Society can offer him or her the "true Mass" and sacraments of the Catholic Church. By playing on the newcomer's often incomplete knowledge of Catholic teaching ("a little knowledge is a dangerous thing"), they gradually make the recruit dependent upon the Society for his or her very salvation, since they cause the recruit not only to believe that he or she cannot be saved within mainstream Catholicism-or only with great difficulty and danger--but that to have any contact with the mainstream church is to risk eternal damnation. Those recruited to the Society's beliefs are often people who desperately desire certitude and an answer for everything, which the Society is only to happy to provide, using old, often obscure church documents and citing them in creative and circuitous ways to support their views. Adherents frequently move to locations served by the Society in order to be able to avail themselves of these "true" services.

The Society counters the discomfort of current or potential members vis a vis the Society's status with the pope by proclaiming devotion and respect to him, including him in their prayers and prominently placing portraits of him-always alongside portraits Lefebvre-on their buildings and Web sites. They stress that they were founded with papal permission (which is true, but that was long before they were excommunicated). Despite their formal pronouncements of loyalty, the Society finds fault with virtually every document and statement by the pope, identifying "modernist heresies" within them. Society adherents pray for the conversion of the pope to the true Catholic faith.


Following the excommunication of Archbishop Lefebvre and his followers, a number of priests from the Society defected and reconciled themselves to the Catholic Church. In return, the Vatican granted them permission to use the old rituals, providing they accepted the Council and subsequent church teachings. This group, known as the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter, is viewed by the Society as traitors and enemies of the most dangerous type (largely because the Vatican's permission to use the old rituals calls into question the very reason for being of the Society). Society publications frequently deal in exhaustive detail with the imagined heresies and deceit of the Priestly Fraternity of St. peter; I t remains a constant thorn in their side as Society priests are always leaving to join this order and thus reconcile themselves with the Catholic Church. Each defection is accompanied by Society instructions to adherents to cut off all contact with that priest.

As a further step toward reconciliation with disaffected conservative Catholics, Pope John Paul authorized diocesan bishops to permit-in limited situations-celebration of the Mass according to the old rituals in a specific church in their local area. These are known by the church as "indult" Masses. The Society condemns indult Masses because they hold that any priest in good standing with his bishop is a heretic. Adherents of the Society are forbidden under pain of hell to attend either an indult Mass or a Mass celebrated by any member of the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter.


The Society does not publish any reports of its finances or sources of its income. It is readily apparent, however, that the Society has at its disposal large amounts of money, which it uses to purchase and build churches, schools and seminaries around the world. Many of these churches are large, very grand old historic monuments, and many of its seminaries were former campuses with large estates purchased outright by the Society. The Society is involved in the process of building several very large and magnificent churches in old styles (Gothic, Romanesque, etc.). One is frequently struck by how large and well appointed these churches can be, with so few parishioners. The author is not aware of how such works are financed, or what sort of pressure may be applied to adherents to finance such projects.

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