Vatican City, Apr 4, 2017 / 05:53 am (CNA/EWTN News).- On Tuesday Pope Francis approved a way for priests of the Society of St. Pius X to witness marriages validly, which had not been the case previously because they lacked the faculties to do so. Through a letter dated March 27 and published April 4, the Pope has given diocesan bishops or other local ordinaries the authorization to grant priests of the SSPX the ability to celebrate licitly and validly the marriages of the faithful who follow the Society's pastoral activity.

The letter, signed by Cardinal Gerhard Müller, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith  and president of the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei, indicates that "insofar as possible" a diocesan or other fully regular priest is to "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."

But where that "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." In that case, the priest of the SSPX is "to forward the relevant documents to the Diocesan Curia as soon as possible."

Francis approved this authorization out of a “pastoral outlook”, following a proposal by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei. It was done “to reassure the conscience of the faithful, despite the objective persistence of the canonical irregularity in which for the time being the Society of St. Pius X finds itself.”

The decision is placed in the context of the Church’s ongoing initiatives “to bring the Society of St. Pius X into full communion.” The most recent of these initiatives was the September 2015 announcement by Pope Francis that the faithful would be able to validly and licitly receive absolution from priests of the SSPX during the Jubilee Year of Mercy. This ability was later extended indefinitely by Francis in his apostolic letter Misericordia et misera, published Nov. 20, 2016.

The letter, which is addressed to ordinaries, concludes by reminding them that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith "relies on Your cooperation" in the process, which will alleviate "any uneasiness of conscience on the part of the faithful who adhere to the Society of St. Pius X as well as any uncertainty regarding the validity of the sacrament of marriage may be alleviated" as well as facilitate "the process towards full institutional regularization" of the Society.

The SSPX was founded by Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre in 1970 to form priests, as a response to what he described as errors that had crept into the Church after the Second Vatican Council. Its relations with the Holy See became particularly strained in 1988 when Archbishop Lefebvre and Bishop Antonio de Castro Mayer consecrated four bishops without the permission of St. John Paul II. The illicit consecrations resulted in the excommunication of the bishops involved. The excommunications of the surviving bishops were lifted in 2009 by Benedict XVI, and since then negotiations “to rediscover full communion with the Church” have continued between the Society and the Vatican.

The biggest obstacles for the Society's reconciliation have been the statements on religious liberty in Vatican II's declaration Dignitatis humanae as well as the declaration Nostra aetate, which it claims contradict previous Catholic teaching.