Apologia pro Marcel Lefebvre
Volume 3, Chapter XXII

A Meeting with Cardinal Seper

7 April 1980

On the evening of Easter Monday, 1980, I had a discussion lasting over two hours with Cardinal Seper in his private apartment in Rome. He had expressed a wish to meet me after reading some of my books given to him by Archbishop Lefebvre. I was accompanied by my wife who, like the Cardinal, is Croatian, and was, where necessary, able to translate for us. One of my sons was also present.

The impression of Cardinal Seper derived from the manner in which he conducted the discussions with Mgr. Lefebvre is not a very sympathetic one. This is because he is seen only in his role as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, acting in his official capacity. In private, he was relaxed and good humored. During our discussion, the Croatian nun who takes care of him, brought us coffee and cake from time to time. On each occasion my wife launched into a protracted discussion with her concerning the recipes, and wrote a number of them down. The Cardinal found this very amusing and asked my son whether he thought his mother would actually use any of the recipes. “No,” he replied. The Cardinal roared with laughter and said that this was precisely what he had suspected. He was, of course, totally correct and the recipes have still not been tried.

We discussed a number of topics as well as the case of Archbishop Lefebvre. The Cardinal's Congregation was assessing the Agreed Statements of the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC), which covered such topics as the Eucharist and the Ministry. By using ambiguous terminology, formulated with the greatest care by theologians from both sides, agreements were produced purporting to prove that Catholics and Anglicans hold precisely the same beliefs on doctrines where the teaching of the two communions is radically incompatible. Thus, the Agreement on the Ministry nowhere states that only an ordained priest can celebrate a valid Eucharist. The Catholic side claims that as the document does not deny this fundamental teaching it must be considered to affirm it. The Anglican side claims that as it does not affirm the doctrine it must be considered to deny it. The principal Anglican theologian on the Commission, Dr. Julian Charley, stated specifically that the agreement accepts that a layman can celebrate the Eucharist in the absence of an ordained minister. I was able to give the Cardinal a number of commentaries on the Agreed Statements written by Dr. Charley showing the extent to which they can be interpreted in a manner that is incompatible with Catholic teaching. Cardinal Seper assured me that the ARCIC documents would never be approved by his Congregation. This gave me great satisfaction as when I had pointed out the deficiencies of these documents to Cardinal Hume, he had expressed the opinion that one day they would become the official teaching of the Church.

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, under Cardinal Ratzinger, Cardinal Seper's successor, eventually published a devastating critique of the ARCIC documents, showing clearly that they are totally unacceptable as the basis for a doctrinal agreement between Catholics and Anglicans. I was pleased to see that all the points I had put to Cardinal Seper were included in the Congregation’s critique.

Cardinal Seper was very amused when I informed him that The Tablet had demanded the suppression of his Congregation following the action it had taken against Hans Küng. “Isn’t that the paper that used to be Catholic?” he asked. (The Tablet had, at one time, been the outstanding Catholic journal in Great Britain. It now does little more than purvey fashionable progressive platitudes.)

The Cardinal asked for my opinion as to the worst Modernists among the English bishops, and I raised the questions as to why the Vatican did not take action against American bishops who were defying the Holy See on such important questions as valid Eucharistic matter. He admitted quite openly that the Vatican no longer exercises effective control over the American bishops. He asked whether I thought it feasible for the Holy See to suspend the entire hierarchy of the United States. I agreed that this was hardly a practical proposition but when I recounted the conversation to an American priest1 a few days later, he remarked that it would not be necessary to suspend the entire hierarchy to bring the American bishops into line, simply half a dozen of the more blatant Modernists.

Where dogma was concerned, it was evident that not only was the Cardinal totally orthodox and traditional, but that he was an outstanding theologian. However, when we came to discuss the liturgy in the context of the case of Archbishop Lefebvre, I found that he was unable to understand the issues that were troubling traditional Catholics. He saw the imposition of the New Mass simply as a disciplinary matter. It had been promulgated validly in accordance with Canon Law, and it was therefore the duty of every Catholic to accept it without question and not to deviate from the rubrics. He recognized that there was a liturgical problem, but believed that it could be solved simply by faithful adherence to the missal of Pope Paul VI. This was the Mass he used. He was totally orthodox, and as it did not trouble him, he could not see any reason why it should trouble anyone, providing that it was celebrated reverently and without abuses. He told me with great satisfaction how a group of German tourists had attempted to receive Communion in the hand when assisting at his Mass in St. Peter's Basilica a few days before. He had made them all kneel down and receive Communion on the tongue.

Cardinal Seper remarked that Mgr. Lefebvre made too much fuss about unimportant issues. Why object to Mass facing the people when this was the practice of the early Church? As the celebration of Mass facing the people had never been the practice of the Church in East or West at any time in her history prior to Vatican II this was not the best example the Cardinal could have chosen.2 His lack of concern where the New Mass is concerned is probably the result of being brought up in a country where there was no large Protestant minority. The same may be true of Pope John Paul II. Slavonic Catholics come into contact with members of the Orthodox Church far more frequently than they do with Protestants. The Eucharistic teaching of the Orthodox Church is very close to that of the Catholic Church. There has never been the saying: “It is the Mass that matters," among Slavonic Catholics. Thus, the changes made in the Mass following the Second Vatican Council do not have the same significance for them as they do in some countries such as England where similar changes were made by the Protestant Reformers. In Slavonic countries Marian rather than Eucharistic devotions tend to form the focus of Catholic piety. It is also true of both Cardinal Seper and Pope John Paul II that their people live under Communist governments, and maintaining the unity of the Catholic people is their greatest priority. Cardinal Seper was, therefore, far more disturbed by reluctance in accepting without question a disciplinary change imposed by the Pope than by the fact that the liturgical expression of Catholic Eucharistic teaching had been considerably weakened in the Novus Ordo Missæ.

There is not the least doubt that Cardinal Seper was a devout and totally orthodox Catholic. He was a dedicated servant of the Church and did his duty courageously and dispassionately, condemning error whenever he saw it and witnessing to the Truth. It is unfortunate that he was unable to appreciate the fact that the stand taken by Mgr. Lefebvre had the object of upholding Tradition, and could not be compared to the rebellion of such priests as Hans Küng or Charles Curran whose teaching served to undermine orthodoxy.

When the history of the post-conciliar debacle comes to be written, Cardinal Seper will be one of the few prelates to emerge with credit. His Congregation issued a series of totally orthodox documents upholding the traditional teaching on faith and morals. These documents have been largely ignored by the bishops, and appear to be unknown to most traditional Catholics. Those who believe that authentic Catholic teaching no longer comes to us from Rome should study some of the documents issued by this Congregation – such as The Declaration on Euthanasia, Instruction on Infant Baptism, Sexual Ethics, Mysterium Ecclesiæ Women in the Priesthood, or the Declaration on Professor Hans Küng.

The Cardinal had complained to Father Milan Mikulich, a Croatian priest in Portland, Oregon, that diocesan bishops failed to implement the instructions emanating from Rome. This was perfectly true, but in reality, the Cardinal’s greatest problem was not the bishops, but Pope Paul VI. Pope Paul invariably ratified the documents issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and then allowed them to be ignored with impunity. Weakness at the top permeates through any organization, the Church included.

Cardinal Seper was to die on 29 December 1981, at the age of seventy-six. He remained Prefect of the
Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith until he retired, the month before he died. May he rest in peace.

1. Father Carl Pulvermacher, O.F.M.

2. See Pope Paul’s New Mass, Chapter XIX.


Chapter 21

Courtesy of the Angelus Press, Regina Coeli House
2918 Tracy Avenue, Kansas City, MO 64109