It has been 26 years since Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre died on March 25, 1991. To this day the founder of the Society of Saint Pius X (SSPX) is still a figure of great controversy within the Church. That Archbishop Lefebvre was a man of great influence in the twentieth century cannot be disputed:
- Ordained to the priesthood in France in 1929.
- Missionary priest of the Holy Ghost Fathers in Gabon, Africa.
- Consecrated in 1947 and appointed bishop in Dakar, Senegal by Pope Pius XII.
- One year later he was named as the Holy See’s Apostolic Delegate for French-speaking Africa.
- In 1962 he was elected Superior General of the 5,000-member Holy Ghost Fathers.
- Pope John XXIII made him an Assistant to the Papal Throne and a member of the Preparatory Commission for the Second Vatican Council.
- In 1970, he founded the Society of Saint Pius X (SSPX) as a small community of seminarians in the village of Écône, Switzerland, with the permission of Bishop François Charrière of Fribourg.
- In May 1975 the Society was officially suppressed by Bishop Mamie of Sion with the authorization of the Holy See.
- In 1988 Archbishop Lefebvre consecrated four bishops to continue his work with the SSPX. Pope John Paul II declared that he and the other bishops who had participated in the ceremony immediately incurred automatic excommunication under Canon Law.
- In 2009, 18 years after Lefebvre’s death, Pope Benedict XVI lifted the excommunication of the four surviving bishops.
Due to the archbishop’s excommunication, as well as the Society’s current status with Rome (one that is as complicated as it is controversial), many Catholics bristle at the mere mention of Marcel Lefebvre’s name. By simply quoting him in a recent blog post I was labeled a heretic by one of my readers.
However, I believe the time has come for Catholics to revisit Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre and to acquaint themselves with his writings.
No longer should all of his words be dismissed outright due to his excommunication or because of the canonical questions surrounding the Society today. I say this as someone who has never been inside a Society chapel. While I attend the Traditional Mass weekly, I do so at a diocesan parish which offers both forms of the Roman Rite.
In 1986 Archbishop Lefebvre penned a brief but compelling treatise on the post-conciliar crisis in the Church, Open Letter to Confused Catholics. This particular work (published two years before the illicit consecrations) had been recommended to me in the past, both by diocesan Catholics as well as those attending Society chapels, but I have only just recently read it.
For years many of the faithful have been asking the simple question:
“What has happened to the Church-to the Catholic faith itself-in the years since Vatican 2?”
It is my contention that we can not attempt to answer this question honestly without at least including the late archbishop’s voice in the conversation.
Doing so in no way diminishes the seriousness of the 1988 consecrations; nor does it dismiss the complicated nature of the current negotiations between Rome and the Society. It also doesn’t require us to “take sides”. By simply listening to Lefebvre all we are doing is expanding the discussion as we fearlessly seek answers.
Please note that I do not ask if the time has come to agree with Archbishop Lefebvre. Nor do I ask if the time has come to respond to the crisis exactly as he did. But we should listen to what he had to say.
Of course Catholics can always choose to ignore Marcel Lefebvre, or to label him in ways that Rome itself has refused to do (heretic, schismatic, etc.), but that is intellectually lazy and it is calumny. It often represents a kind of virtue-signaling (based on loyalty and obedience it is claimed) which is blind to the complicated reality of the post-conciliar landscape.
The following quotes, all taken from Archbishop Lefebvre’s Open Letter to Confused Catholics, illustrate why his insight should at least be one part of this ongoing conversation.
On the Eucharist
“Is it fitting that when we go to receive Christ, before whom, says St. Paul, every knee shall bow, in heaven, on earth and under the earth, we should do so without the least sign of respect or allegiance? Many priests no longer genuflect before the Holy Eucharist; the new rite of Mass encourages this. I can see only two possible reasons: either an immense pride which makes us treat God as if we were His equals, or else the certitude that He is not really present in the Eucharist.”
On the Traditional Mass
“I owe it to truth to say and affirm without fear of error that the Mass codified by St. Pius V—and not invented by him, as some often say—expresses clearly these three realities: sacrifice, Real Presence, and the priesthood of the clergy. It takes into account also, as the Council of Trent has pointed out, the nature of mankind, which needs outside help to raise itself to meditation upon divine things. The established customs have not been made at random, they cannot be overthrown or abruptly abolished with impunity.”
On the Visible Presence of the Priest
“The great boast of the new Church is dialogue. But how can this begin if we hide from the eyes of our prospective dialogue partners? In Communist countries the first act of the dictators is to forbid the cassock; this is part of a program to stamp out religion. And we must believe the reverse to be true too. The priest who declares his identity by his exterior appearance is a living sermon. The absence of recognizable priests in a large city is a serious step backward in the preaching of the Gospel…”
On the Error of Religious Indifferentism
“This Anti-Modernist Oath is no longer required before becoming a priest or a bishop. If it were, there would be even fewer ordinations than there are. In effect, the concept of faith has been falsified and many people without any wrong intention let themselves be influenced by modernism. That is why they are ready to believe that all religions save. If each man’s faith is according to his conscience—if it is conscience that produces faith—then there is no reason to believe that one faith saves any better than another, so long as the conscience is directed towards God.”
On Tradition and Trent
“All the dogmatic councils have given us the exact expression of Tradition, the exact expression of what the Apostles taught. Tradition is irreformable. One can never change the decrees of the Council of Trent, because they are infallible, written and published by an official act of the Church, unlike those of Vatican II, which pronouncements are not infallible because the Popes did not wish to commit their infallibility. Therefore nobody can say to you, “You are clinging to the past, you have stayed with the Council of Trent.” For the Council of Trent is not the past. Tradition is clothed with a timeless character, adapted to all times and all places.”
On Timeless Truth
“The argument that is pressed upon the terrorized faithful is this: “You are clinging to the past, you are being nostalgic; live in your own time!” Some are abashed and do not know what to reply. Nevertheless, the answer is easy: In this there is no past or present or future. Truth belongs to all times, it is eternal.”
This Question Will have to be Answered
“For the fact is that a grave problem confronted the conscience and the faith of all Catholics during the pontificate of Paul VI. How could a Pope, true successor of Peter, assured of the assistance of the Holy Ghost, preside over the most vast and extensive destruction of the Church in her history within so short a space of time, something that no heresiarch has ever succeeded in doing? One day this question will have to be answered.”
Alone Among the Bishops
“My personal experience never ceases to amaze me. These bishops for the most part were fellow students with me in Rome, trained in the same manner. And then, all of a sudden, I found myself alone. But I have invented nothing new; I was (simply) carrying on.”