Apologia pro Marcel Lefebvre
Volume 3, Chapter XL

Letter of Cardinal Seper to Mgr. Lefebvre

20 October 1980

Your Excellency,

In the last few months of 1976 Pope Paul VI entrusted the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith with the task of examining your stance with respect to the teaching and the discipline of the Apostolic See.

In the execution of this mandate, the Congregation studied your position according to the norms of its Ratio agendi of 15 January 1971; following the standard examination of the dossier by canon lawyers and cardinals, you were sent two letters – on 28 January 1978 and 16 March 1978 respectively – asking for explanations of points which raised difficulties. On receiving your replies, still in conformity with the Ratio agendi, a meeting was agreed, which events delayed and which could be held on 11/12 January 1979.1 On leaving this meeting you saw fit to take exception to the pursuit of the normal procedures and to appeal directly to His Holiness Pope John Paul II, whom you had met some weeks earlier.2 It was then that the Sovereign Pontiff personally mandated me to pursue the dialogue with you which took place in a series of private meetings on five occasions between 8 May 1979 and 27 March of this year (i.e., 1980). Several questions were broached at various points. I must now attempt an appraisal with a view to reaching a concrete solution if possible.

Thanks to your explanations, I believe I can say that certain aspects of your situation, intentions, and actions are now more clear than they were in your previous writings or sermons, and this has not been without some positive elements. Unfortunately the gap between your position and that of the Holy See has not been reduced for all that, for difficulties still exist in certain statements made by you during the meeting or in the course of our private discussions.

Furthermore, you have continued to do and to say things in public which present obstacles to the desired solution. For the sake of clarity I must mention them here.

  1. Despite what you said at the end of the meeting in January 1979, and the promise that you gave me during our conversation on 23 June 1979, you have again administered Confirmation in certain dioceses, without good reason and in defiance of the prohibition legitimately imposed by the Ordinaries of the dioceses;3 worst of all, you have continued to confer the Sacrament of Orders, at Ecône and at other places, in June and October 1979 and in March, May and June 1980. Yet you know what representations have been made to you on this matter!
  2. During the aforementioned meeting, you recognized the validity of the Novus Ordo Mass, something that you reaffirmed in writing to the Holy Father on 8 March 1980: "As for the Novus Ordo Mass, despite the reservations which must be shown in its respect, I have never affirmed that it is in itself invalid or heretical." Yet, on November 8 1979, in a pamphlet entitled "Mgr. Lefebvre's Position on the New Mass and the Pope" you state the following:4“It must be understood immediately that we do not hold to the absurd idea that if the New Mass is valid, we are then free to assist at it. The Church has always forbidden the faithful to assist at the Masses of heretics or schismatics, even when they are valid. It is clear that no one can assist at sacrilegious Masses or at Masses which endanger our faith. Now, it is easy to show that the New Mass…manifests an inexplicable rapprochement with the theology and liturgy of the Protestant.” Further on you add: "One can fairly say without exaggeration that most of these Masses are sacrilegious acts which pervert the Faith by diminishing it." You affirm that they cannot satisfy Sunday obligation, and you cast suspicion on all those – priests and bishops – who celebrate them. Such clear and pointed statements do not allow me to accept the explanation that you gave me in our conversation of 27 March 1979, that is, that you had merely “failed to make yourself clear.”
  3. Finally, it is not possible to pass over in silence the introduction which you signed for the publication in the periodical Itinéraires (May 1979) of  “des actes de la procédure” (“Tradition face to face with Liberal Ecumenism: Ecône and the former Holy Office”); and still less what you have said on your travels, constant remarks – and, allow me to say so, with hasty generalizations which are as many grave injustices – concerning some of the Acts of the Second Vatican Council, the reforms issuing from it, the Roman Curia, and the entire Catholic hierarchy. Let me remind you only of the lectures that you gave in Brussels on 30 November 1979 and in Madrid on 19 April1980, as well as your sermon in Venice on 7 April last5, and also the one that you gave on 27 June at Ecône.6

Despite all this, as I believe that I reminded you at each of our private meetings, the Holy Father has always shown that he wishes to find a solution in your case. While awaiting a clear expression of regret on your part for the unjust attacks that you have made upon the Council, the bishops, and even the Apostolic See, as well as for the difficulties, indeed the disquiet that your activities have caused the faithful, Pope John Paul II maintains feelings of fraternal charity for you. I now present you with our final proposals, dictated by him in person.

  1. As far as the teaching of Vatican II is concerned: that you declare yourself ready to accept it in the sense suggested by Pope John Paul II, that is to say, "the Council must be understand in the light of the whole of holy Tradition, and on the basis of the unvarying Magisterium of Holy Mother Church." (Allocution to the Sacred College, 5 November 1979, d. A.A.S. LXXI [1979-11], p. 1452: “quatenus intelligitur sub sanctæ Traditionis lumine et quatenus ad constans Ecclesiæ ipsius magisterium refertur").

    The Holy Father also expects from you what is demanded of all in the Church, that is religiosum voluntatis et intellect us obsequium owed to the true Magisterium of the Roman Pontiff, even when he is not speaking ex cathedra, and to the teaching on Faith and Morals given in Christ’s name by the bishops in communion with the Roman Pontiff (cf. the Constitution Lumen Gentium, No.25).

    Of course, such adherence must take account of the theological qualification that the Council itself wished to give to its teachings, and which figures in its Acts as a Note made during the 125th Congregation, on 16 November 1964. I do not feel it inappropriate to call to mind the essentials of this here: “In view of conciliar practice and the pastoral purpose of the present Council, this sacred Synod defines matters of faith and morals as binding on the Church only when the Synod itself openly declares so. Other matters which the sacred Synod proposes as the doctrine of the supreme teaching authority of the Church, each and every member of the faithful is obliged to accept and embrace according to the mind of the sacred Synod itself, which becomes known either from the subject matter or from the language employed, according to the norms of theological interpretation."
  2. 2. As far as the Liturgy is concerned, the Holy Father expects you to accept without qualifications the legitimacy of the reforms demanded by the Second Vatican, both in principle and in practice, in conformity with Missal and the other liturgical books promulgated by the Holy See. He also expect you to desist from casting doubt upon the orthodoxy of the Ordo Missæ promulgated by Pope Paul VI.

    You are to understand that this is a preliminary and indispensable condition. If it is fulfilled, the Holy Father could envisage authorizing the celebration of Holy Mass according to the rites of the Roman Missal before the reform of 1969.
  3. 3. As far as the pastoral ministry and its tasks are concerned, the Holy Father expects you to accept and to conform to the norms of Canon Law, especially in so far as Ordinations, Confirmations, pontifical ceremonies, the foundation of religious institutes, the training of the clergy and apostolic activity in the dioceses are concerned.

To this end, the Holy Father would be ready to designate a delegate directly responsible to himself, who would be entrusted with the task of studying, jointly with you, the means of regularizing your position as well as that of members of the Society of St. Pius X, by the drawing up of a statute appropriate for solving a question that is indeed complex.

In this respect may I remind you that you yourself said during the colloquium of January 1979 that you might accept such a nomination of a pontifical delegate in due course.

Once you have accepted the aforementioned points – and this must be in a declaration that can be published – the Sovereign Pontiff would be prepared to lift the canonical censure upon the irregularities, these censures having been incurred both by you yourself and by the priests you have ordained in breach of Canon Law since 1976 (as far as the latter are concerned, provided of course that they abide by your actions).

Such, Your Excellency, are the proposals that Pope John Paul II has asked me to put to you.

I entrust them to your attention and consideration in the sight of Our Lord and His holy Mother, asking you to remember that they demand a reply from you befitting the serious nature of the decisions that must now be taken.

Please accept, Excellency, the expression of my devoted and fraternal sentiments.

Fran. Card. Seper.

1. See Apologia II, pp. 277-295.
2. See Apologia II, pp. 302-304.
3. Ordinary, I.e., diocesan bishop.
4. See Apologia II, p. 368-373
5. See pages 134-140.
6. See pages 204-212.

Chapter 39

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