Apologia pro Marcel Lefebvre
Volume 3, Chapter XI

Letter of Mgr. Elchinger to Mgr. Lefebvre

7 January 1980

My Lord and Brother,

We have known one another for a long time, since we studied together in Rome. We have often met since, especially during the Council years. Often we discussed the urgency and the gravity of our task of proclaiming the Gospel.

In Alsace, a land of faith and missions, we are faced, as elsewhere, with the crisis of spirit and conscience that inevitable cultural changes have brought about. In the same way as you, I think, aware of our feebleness and sinfulness we strive, as you know, to live and to defend the values of the Gospel in such a context.

Why, then, do you come to Alsace believing it necessary to form or encourage groups of Christians who you practically render dissidents with regard to the diocesan authorities? You have been the pastor of many dioceses and ought to realize the gravity of what you are doing in opposing the Ordinary of the place.

You confirmed children at Thal in a break with the bishop of the diocese. On 18 November 1979 you inaugurated a place of worship at Colmar, celebrating Mass a few hundred yards from the church where I myself was on a pastoral visit.

Now, no place of worship dependent upon the Roman Catholic Church may be opened in administrative districts subject to the "Concordat" without the consent of the diocesan bishop and the permission of the authorities. By failing to obey this legislation – well known to your lawyers – do you really want to put yourself forward as no longer belonging to the Roman Catholic Church and, by virtue of this fact, to form with your faithful a group legally equivalent to a mere sect?

What a contradiction, Brother mine, with the steps that you have taken in Rome since the accession of His Holiness Pope John Paul II!

I would like you not to put the pastor of the Church in Alsace under the unhappy obligation of openly opposing you. Why do you, who were an ardent missionary in Africa and whom so many Alsatians know, wish now to introduce new divisions amongst the Christians of Alsace?

In the name of the bonds of friendship and trust that have bound us for many years I beg you, My Lord, to desist from leading astray the faithful for whom the Apostolic See has entrusted me with pastoral responsibility. There are other wars to wage so that the Gospel may be heard by the men of today. To do this we must begin by humbly bearing witness to the will of Christ: "May they all be one."

I hope that you will listen to the appeal of one who remains your brother, and that you will be able to take the necessary decisions without delay.

I await your reply.

In communion of prayer and struggle for Church unity,

XLéon Arthur Elchinger

Bishop of Strasbourg

* * * *

This very courteous letter contains two points which require some comment. Church/State relations in France are regulated by a Concordat. Mgr. Elchinger refers in his letter to a clause in the Concordat requiring the permission of the diocesan bishop for any building to be opened as a place of Catholic worship. Protestant denominations require no such permission before opening their chapels. Mgr. Elchinger claims that, because he has not authorized the centers established by Archbishop Lefebvre, the Society of St. Pius X is in the same legal position as any Protestant sect. His use of the phrase "sect" is very interesting, because, as will be shown below, Mgr. Elchinger is an extremely ecumenical prelate. It would be hard to imagine him ever informing his beloved Protestant brethren, when engaged in an earnest ecumenical dialogue, that they constitute a "mere sect."

The second point concerns Mgr. Elchinger's admonition of Mgr. Lefebvre for entering the diocese of another bishop in which he has no jurisdiction: "You have been the pastor of many dioceses and ought to realize the gravity of what you are doing in opposing the Ordinary1 of the place." This is one of the most frequent criticisms made of Mgr. Lefebvre. It is one  which appears in a number of the complaints made against him which are cited in this book. It is therefore worth examining it in some detail now.

Under normal circumstances the argument put forward by the Bishop of Strasbourg is perfectly correct. The intrusion of one bishop into the diocese of another has been considered an outrage throughout the history of the Church. But all forms of law must be understood within the context of the purpose they are intended to serve. Jurisdiction is the power to govern the faithful for the supernatural end for which the Church was established by Christ. This supernatural end is the salvation of souls. This is the basis for an axiom which is fundamental to all Catholic theology and to Canon Law: Salus animarum suprema lex– "The salvation of souls is the supreme law." When, in any particular case, a law is manifestly impeding the salvation of souls it can and sometimes must be disregarded. St. Thomas Aquinas repudiated the idea of unqualified obedience to any human law, and quotes Acts 5:29 in this respect: Obedire oportet Deo magis quam hominibus– "We ought to obey God rather than men."

A detailed account of a prelate who chose to obey God rather than men is given in Appendix II to Apologia, Volume I. It examines the case of Robert Grosseteste, the thirteenth-century Bishop of Lincoln who is probably the greatest Catholic in the history of the English Church. Pope Innocent IV had developed the practice of appointing his relatives to ecclesiastical offices throughout the Church simply as a means of providing them with an income. These men had not the slightest intention of ever visiting the flocks entrusted to their pastoral care. Their only objective was to extract every penny from them that they possibly could. Robert Grosseteste was the only bishop in the entire Church who refused to accept a papal nominee to a benefice within his diocese. The Pope had every legal right to make such an appointment, but the Bishop pointed out that visitation of the flock was a particular duty of the pastoral office. The Pope, he claimed, had no right to use his authority in a manner that would militate against the salvation of souls. This, he stated, was an abuse of his supreme power. Salus animarum suprema lex.

The same principle can certainly be applied to the question of jurisdiction. If a bishop is failing to meet the spiritual needs of his flock, or, even worse, is governing them in a manner which is spiritually harmful, then any other bishop has the right and duty to come to their aid. Once again there is a precedent for this principle, particularly in the case of St. Athanasius which is explained in Appendix I to the first volume of the Apologia. When writing that Appendix I, overlooked an important passage in Newman's The Development of Christian Doctrine, in which he deals specifically with the question of interference by one bishop in the diocese of another.2

In The Development of Christian Doctrine, Cardinal Newman refutes the opinion that interference by one bishop in the diocese of another necessarily constitutes schism. Faithful Catholics have a duty to divide themselves from schismatic or heretical bishops, and where division is a duty, it is not a sin. An orthodox bishop does not sin by interferring in the diocese where the bishop is guilty of division from the Faith through schism.

"If interference is a sin," wrote the Cardinal, " division which is the cause of it is a greater; but where division is a duty, there can be no sin of interference." St. Athanasius did not cause division when he entered the dioceses of Arian bishops. He was interferring in order to uphold Tradition and sustain the faith of true Catholics as a legitimate response to the division caused by the schism of these bishops. The first loyalty of every bishop must be to the Church as a whole. During a period of schism and heresy, their duty to defend the integrity of Tradition extends beyond any single diocese. Cardinal Newman illustrates this by pointing out that St. Athanasius and St. Eusebius, Bishop of Samasota, a fierce opponent of Arianism, both ordained priests outside their own dioceses. “St. Athanasius," wrote Cardinal Newman, "driven from his church, makes all Christendom his home, from Treves to Ethiopia."

There can be no doubt at all that since the Second Vatican Council, a good number of Catholic dioceses are in a state of de facto schism. The Homiletic and Pastoral Review is among the leading English-language journals for priests in the world. It is not connected in any way with the traditionalist movement. In its January 1983 issue, Father Kenneth Baker, S.J., noted that in the United States we are witnessing the rejection of the hierarchical Church founded by Jesus Christ, to be replaced by a by Protestant American Church, separated from Rome. Could interference in the dioceses of bishops who are establishing this Protestant American Church be called schism?

The life of St. Athanasius provides us with a valuable antidote when we are tempted to succumb to one of the most popular of contemporary heresies, i.e., that truth must necessarily lie in the opinion espoused by the greatest number. St. Athanasius is not alone among great saints who, at times, have seemed to be in a minority of one. St. John Fisher, alone among the English hierarchy, had the courage to repudiate the claim of Henry VIII that the Bishop of Rome had no jurisdiction in the realm of England. Those who defend the truth against the prevailing consensus must often face the prospect of appearing stubborn, proud, intransigent, or even ignorant. They must be willing to face persecution, as St. Athanasius did; or even to sacrifice life itself rather than compromise, which was the price paid by St. John Fisher. Christianity is not a religion which can compromise and survive. Its Founder died a lonely death upon the Cross. Thousands of its members were expected to die a cruel death in the Roman arenas rather than burn a small bowl of incense before a statue of the emperor.


The Case of Mgr. Elchinger

It is not my intention here to claim that Mgr. Elchinger should be considered as a formally schismatic or heretical bishop. It is more than probable that, if questioned closely, he would profess the same faith as Mgr. Lefebvre. His fault, like that of almost every bishop in the advanced Western countries today, would consist principally in failing to provide for the spiritual needs of his flock by ensuring the celebration of Masses in which God can be worshipped with reverence and dignity ,by providing sound religious education in Catholic schools and parish classes, by ensuring that sound Catholic moral teaching is preached throughout his diocese, and by taking particular care to ensure that seminarians from his diocese are formed in accordance with the Vatican II Decree on the Training of Priests, Optatam totius, 28 October, 1965.3 This decree is observed more faithfully in the seminaries of the Society of St. Pius X than in any other seminaries throughout the West. It also forms the basis of the formation given at the new seminary opened at Rolduc in Holland in 1974 by the two most conservative Dutch bishops, Gijsen and Simonis, after every other seminary in Holland had closed.

All the French bishops have mandated for use in their dioceses a course of religious instruction entitled Pierres vivantes– "Living Stones." Every other course of instruction is forbidden, just as the Baltimore Cathechism is forbidden in certain dioceses in the U.S.A. The most moderate assessment of Pierres vivantes is that it is a travesty of the Catholic Faith. To give just one example, the Mass is nowhere presented as a Sacrifice, simply as a fraternal meal. This, of course, is also the case in most of the contemporary episcopally-approved catechetical series used throughout the English-speaking world. The French bishops, to their great chagrin, failed to obtain Vatican approval for Pierres vivantes. They even went to the extent of lying to the faithful, and told them that it had been approved by Rome, but their lie was exposed by the  publication of a 1979 letter from Cardinal Oddi revealing that no such approval had ever been given.4

A primary task of every bishop, as a successor of the Apostles, is, as St. Paul admonished Timothy, to keep that which is committed to his trust (1 Tim. 6:20). "0 Timothee, despositum custodi!" "Blessed be God!" wrote Cardinal Newman, commenting upon this text, "we have not to find the Truth, but it is put into our hands; we have but to commit it to our hearts, to preserve it inviolate, and to deliver it over to posterity. This is the meaning of Saint Paul's injunction in the text, given at the time when Truth was first published. 'Keep that which is committed to thy trust,' or rather, 'Keep the deposit'."5

It is not simply arguable but objectively demonstrable that Mgr. Elchinger, and the overwhelming majority of his fellow bishops throughout the West, are not preserving the Deposit of Faith inviolable and delivering it over to posterity. This alone would justify Mgr. Lefebvre coming into their dioceses at the request of their abandoned flocks. It is also objectively demonstrable that throughout the dioceses of France, and most dioceses in Western countries, liturgical abuses proliferate which in many cases make it a moral impossibility for a layman to have a true sensus catholicus, a sense of being Catholic, to worship in his parish church. This again would more than justify Mgr. Lefebvre for coming into such dioceses to make it possible for faithful Catholics to offer their Creator reverent and fitting worship in accordance with the Church's age old tradition. Ample documentation is available to prove the defective nature of episcopally imposed religious instruction in France, and the widespread extent of liturgical abuses.6Where liturgical abuses are concerned, an example from Mgr. Elchinger's own diocese will help to put his letter in its proper perspective.

On Saturday, 13 December 1975 an ecumenical " concelebration" took place in a Strasbourg church. A congregation of about sixty to eighty Protestants and Catholics sat in a semi-circle around a table without a cross on it. There was singing, praying, and reading aloud.

Two men sitting in the first row get up and stand behind the table facing the people. They are in civil costume. One is a Protestant minister and the other a Catholic priest.

Each one has before him a plate with altar breads upon it and a cup filled with wine.

“Let us give praise to God!"

“Hosanna! You alone are holy."

There is singing.

The Catholic priest takes his plate and holds it before the people. “This is the memorial, the sign, the bread broken for the scattered community which we eat in order to receive His spirit."

In his turn the Protestant minister raises his cup and holds it before the people – the wine “which will become the wine of eternal happiness."

Everyone recites the Our Father. Those present gather round the table. Each of the two celebrants communicates from his plate and cup. The plates are then passed to those present, each being invited to give his neighbor Communion in the hand. The two cups are then passed around the assembly.

“Go in peace."

The blessing and dismissal are given by the two concelebrants. The assembly then recites a mini-credo. The ceremony is over. Those present get up, chat with each other and leave.7

With all due respect to Mgr. Elchinger, a bishop who can tolerate such an outrageous profanation of the Sacrament of the Eucharist8can hardly be taken seriously when he reprimands a truly Catholic bishop for making possible for the faithful to participate in the Immemorial Mass of the Roman Rite.

It will be noted that in this reply Archbishop Lefebvre stresses the fact that if only Mgr. Elchinger would make it possible for faithful Catholics to worship in accordance with tradition in the diocese of Strasbourg then there would be no need of intervention from priests of the Society of St. Pius X.


Mgr. Lefebvre's Reply to Mgr. Elchinger

10 January 1980

My Lord,

Believe me when I say that I am deeply devoted to you and that what I have done in your diocese was certainly not meant to harm your authority or your apostolate.

You could very easily resolve in a happy and helpful way s situation for which neither you nor I are to blame: many of the faithful, and not the least fervent amongst them, remain attached, with good reason, to what the Church, you yourself, and good and holy priests, have taught them with care and zeal for many years. They were put on their guard against novelties after the manner of St. Paul and of all the popes. They are then right to ask to retain the liturgy, the catechism and the Bible of former times. In every sphere the facts prove them right.

The time has come for the diocesan bishops to be objective and to produce a fair solution to this wretched problem, in the hope that such a solution would also resolve many other lacunæ that presently afflict dioceses.

The Pope, Mgr. Bugnini himself, and more of the Cardinals than is commonly thought – the Archbishops of Westminster and Munich for instance – are very favorable to a free choice liturgies old and new and to regulation of time and place by the local bishop.

The bishop who implemented such a solution in his diocese would do the Church and the Pope an enormous service, and would be thanked and encouraged by the Pope. Many bishops would follow his lead and the problem of Ecône and the traditionalists would be solved by such an act. Why should you not be this bishop? You are under a “concordat," and hence freer, in the heart of Europe. Open churches at Strasbourg, Sélestat, Colmar and Mulhouse for those of the faithful who wish to retain the pre-conciliar rites (perhaps I ought to say "conciliar rites," for changes only came about after the Council). These Masses will draw crowds of fervent, generous people, a seedbed of true vocations, which will give you holy priests, provided that the seminary also conforms to the principles of all time. Your diocese would experience true renewal.

After that we would be a problem no more. We would no longer have any reason to come to your diocese, the traditionalists being satisfied. When the problem of Ecône is solved, if you ask us we will come to help you, as the sons of St. Vincent de Paul or of St. Louis Marie Grignon de Montfort once did.

In doing this, by the grace of God, you would deliver many bishops from vexation, and the Pope would hardly know how to thank you. You would have brought about in practice the solution that he desires, at any cost, in theory. Cardinal Seper keeps on telling me so.

I pray to Our Lord Jesus Christ very sincerely and very fraternally for this intention. I  too so wish both for the Church’s sake and for the salvation of souls that a happy solution should be found to the problem of this ever growing mass of the faithful who hunger and thirst after grace and aspire to receive it by the means that the Church has always used, and which they knew in their youth.

A little while ago Mgr. Bugnini wrote to Cardinal Oddi, saying that it had never been the intention of the Commission on the Liturgy to suppress the so-called "Mass of St. Pius V."

May the Virgin Mary, our tertela domus, come to your aid.

My Lord, please accept my respectful and fraternal best wishes in Christo Jesu et Maria.

XMarcel Lefebvre


1. Ordinary, a term used frequently to describe a diocesan bishop. It refers to his power of “ordinary jurisdiction" in the external forum. Jurisdiction is ordinary or delegated. Ordinary jurisdiction is attached to a particular office, and the holder of that office exercises his power of jurisdiction permanently and irremovably as long as he occupies the office. A delegated power of jurisdiction is given to a person by his superior.

2. An expanded version of that appendix is now available in pamphlet form from The Angelus Press. It is entitled “St. Athanasius, Defender of the Faith."

3. The full text is available in Flannery, Vol. I (see bibliography).

4. See Approaches, No. 81, p. 13.

5. Sermon, “Keep the Deposit, a Trust Committed to Us," included in Newman Against the Liberals.

6. Extensive documentation on the catechetical situation in France is available from l'Action familiale et scolaire, 31, rue Rennequin, 75017, Paris, France. This organization is not connected in any way with the Society of 5t. Pius X. Its publications are available only in French. Documentation on the liturgical anarchy prevailing in France is provided in the book l.es Fumées de Satan (The Smoke of Satan) by Andre Mignot and Michel de Saint Pierre {Paris, 1976). Some examples from this book are cited in Pope Paul's New Mass.

7. See Pope Paul’s New Mass, p. 217.

8. If the Catholic priest used the form of consecration quoted here then no consecration would have taken place and, strictly speaking, no profanation would have taken place. Even if he had used the correct consecration formula for the bread, but had not consecrated the chalice, leaving this to the Protestant minister, then, once again, no consecration would have taken place as the celebrant must have at least the intention of consecrating the chalice for the consecration of the bread to be valid. If a priest who had consecrated the bread dropped dead before consecrating the chalice, then transubstantiation of the bread would have taken place, but another priest would be required to consecrate the chalice and receive Holy Communion.


Chapter 10

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