Apologia pro Marcel Lefebvre
Volume 2, Chapter I

Lefebvre: Rebel or Restorer of the Roman Church?

January 1977

The Dispute between Pope and Archbishop in Ecumenical Perspective
by Mgr. Klaus Gamber, in Katholilcher Digest


MUCH IS BEING WRITTEN about the Lefebvre case, but little by theologians-and then only from the "Roman" side. He is regarded as the rebel against Vatican II and against Paul VI. The Lefebvre case is certainly not-as it might appear-a personal quarrel of a headstrong, spiritually inflexible old man against a Head of the Roman Catholic Church who is open-minded to modern times. Neither may the case be reduced to a mere dispute about liturgical rites. The positions held by the Church leaders and by Mgr. Lefebvre seem to be unbridgeable. They concern matters that constitute the inmost being of the Church: in the last analysis, what is at stake is the Faith that has been transmitted to the Church.

The gist of the conflict is the spirit of Liberalism which is spreading more and more in Catholic Church since the Council. It is a pluralism which tolerates all opinions and endeavours which are not directly contrary to the Christian Weltanschauung (the Christian outlook and attitude to life)-except those that aim at the restoration of the Church to its former state.

The same Church authorities that persistently show leniency towards heretics, even those who deny fundamental dogmas such as the Divinity or Resurrection of Christ and the existence of the devil-show a severity, which hardly differs from that meted out to dissidents in past ages of intolerance, towards the orthodox (unbeirrbaren-unable to be led into error) defenders of the Council of Trent, and the liturgical books promulgated in obedience to it.

It must be clear to everyone who knows the mutual connection between Faith in God and Worship of God as expressed in the axiom lex orandi, lex credendi, that the Liturgical Reform which doubtlessly contains some positive elements, must play an important role in that struggle. The official Church is silent about almost all, even the most daring experiments in the liturgical field, but forbids-and this with great severity-the Rite that has been celebrated in the Western Church for 1,500 years until recently, and had been codified by the order of the Council of Trent. The Catholic people do not understand this schizophrenic attitude of the ecclesiastical authorities.

The Reformers appeal to the right of the Pope to revise the totality of the (liturgical) rites-a right that, in my opinion, has by no means been proved, and which, moreover, no single pope has ever claimed for himself nor exercised in a complete reform of the Liturgy. Until Pope Paul, the popes have made only minor adaptations of the traditional rites to the needs of the times. Even the Tridentine Missal of Pope Pius V does not constitute an innovation. It was merely an improved edition of the Missal then in use in Italy and in Rome. According to the will of Pius V it was in no way to replace the various local Missals provided they had been in use for at least 200 years.

However, as I said before, it is not primarily the Liturgy that is at stake today, but the traditional Faith of the Church.

Had you asked a Catholic ten years ago what he regarded as the essential points of his Faith, he might probably have mentioned the doctrine of the Blessed Trinity or belief in eternal life. Are these articles of the Faith and other dogmas defended with the same emphasis as before? Certainly not! There has, however, been no lack of protestations of obedience to Paul VI when he meted out high ecclesiastical censured to his disobedient son Lefebvre. No word of understanding for the real issues that most deeply move that man! Without intending it, the Archbishop has now become the opponent of the Pope.

The number of his supporters, especially the secret ones, increases from day to day.

Lefebvre is not a rebel. In his sermon at the Ordination of priests, 29 June 1976, at Ecône, he said:

We regret infinitely, it is an immense, immense pain for us, to think that we are in difficulty with Rome because of our faith ! How is this possible? It is something that exceeds the imagination, that we should never have been able to imagine, that we should never have been able to believe, especially in our childhood-then when all was uniform, when the whole Church believed in Her general unity, and held the same Faith, the same Sacraments, the same Sacrifice of the Mass, the same Catechism. And behold, suddenly, all is in division, in chaos.

An individual believer does not have the right to judge the Pope, who is certainly motivated by the best intentions to solve the problems of the Church today. But a glance back into history clearly shows that not all popes have always acted prudently in all decisions. Even saintly popes have made serious errors of judgment, e.g., St. Pius V when, in 1570, he excommunicated Elizabeth I and released her subjects from their oath of allegiance to her, which caused a most bloody persecution of Catholics in England. That was a clear misuse of papal power-to the detriment of the Church.1

That and the case of Lefebvre, opens up the question, whether the fulness of power, which the popes have had since the Middle Ages, and which is in no way founded on Holy Scripture nor on the early Tradition of the Church, does not constitute a danger for the Church? History teaches us, as we all know, that not only pious and wise popes have ascended the Chair of Peter; she knows of many false decisions made by supreme shepherds of the Church.

Not everybody is competent to judge the Pope: but there must be bishops who have the courage to climb the barricades in case of need as St. Paul did in a decisive case at Antioch when he “withstood Peter to the face” (Gal. 2: 11). Archbishop Lefebvre is of the opinion that decisions of the Pope concerning vital problems of the Church do not bind in conscience if they are contrary to the centuries-old Tradition of the Church, when, for instance, the Pope forbids something which had until then been the universal and unopposed usage of the Church; or when he orders something that constitutes a radical change of direction in the attitude of the Church and a clear turning away from Tradition. It is precisely this that Paul VI is reproached for doing-notwithstanding his repeated professions of the traditional Catholic Faith.

Far more important than the Pope's profession of faith, however, is what is actually done in the Church without the intervention of the Magisterium: heretical teaching on the part of several heretical professors going on unchecked; the doubt wherewith the faithful are being poisoned from numerous pulpits; the disastrous new books of religion which carry the spirit of religious indifference among the young generation now growing up. Church authorities do nothing or next to stem this creeping decomposition of the very substance of the Faith.

Such a situation necessarily calls for a courageous man such as Lefebvre, for a defender of the traditional Faith of our fathers and the long-established forms of worship. Perhaps, at times, he and his community of Ecône overstate the emphasis on ancient forms of piety in their fight against the changes in the Church: but any damage done thereby is certainly not as great as that caused by the continual experimentation which the faithful have to endure today.

It is also true that the salvation of the Church does not lie in rigid adherence to partially outdated forms, but in faithfulness to Tradition as such. This faithfulness does not exclude an organic development such as has taken place in the Church in the past. In this, a constant, meditative glance back to the origins is important. What we are experiencing today, however, is not organic development, but a landslide.

The real problem seems to lie deeper. It has its cause in the unhappy Schism between East and West, in the breaking away of the great patriarchates from Rome: the Patriarchates of Byzantium, Antioch, and Alexandria. That division of Ancient Christendom into two halves was formally completed by 1054 when legates of Pope Leo IX placed the Bull of Excommunication on the High Altar of Santa Sophia Basilica in Constantinople. The actual estrangement had already begun centuries before.

Contact with Orthodoxy was also lacking in the years that followed. Both the Eastern and Western Churches have suffered from this in their later development. A rigidity of forms soon developed in the East; a further division occurred in the West through the Reformers, a division that was much deeper that the break with the East. Later came the time of the Enlightenment in the West with all its revolutionary ideas.

These could indeed be pushed into the background during the Restoration, but they continued to thrive underground and came to the surface again after the Council (Vatican II). In addition to that, we have today a one-sided ecumenism which primarily consists in adapting the Catholic Church to the concepts of the Protestant world while the latter has not made one single essential step nearer Catholicism.

A simple Restoration, as in the 19th century, and as Lefebvre seems to want, is not enough. This might be his tragedy. He may perhaps eventually fail on account of his immobility. On the other side is the exterior submissiveness of the bishops towards the Pope while in practice they still do as they please. This we can see today again and again.

The Roman Catholic Church will overcome modern errors and gain new vitality only when she succeeds in being united again- to the supporting powers of the Eastern Church, to its mystical theology based upon the Great Fathers of the Church and to the piety pervading its culture (Kulturfrom-migkeit ). This cannot be achieved simply by an embrace of the Greek Patriarch by the Pope.

One thing seems certain: the church's future does not lie in a rapprochement with Protestantism, but in a rapprochement with the Eastern Church-the bearer of the unabridged Christian Tradition. In a Church-thus re-united-the Protestant Christians will-as we hope-one day also find their home, bringing with them all the positive values they undoubtedly possess.

Can Lefebvre renew the Catholic Church? He can be the impetus for a renewal. Or will there be a new schism? Nobody knows. A schism would certainly be a disaster. The Church of Christ needs unity, the all-embracing unity in Faith and in Charity.


Two Weights and Two Measures

In the article which has just been cited, Mgr. Gamber contrasted the leniency shown by Church authorities towards heretics with their severity where traditional Catholics are concerned. When considering the treatment accorded to Archbishop Lefebvre during the pontificate of Pope Paul VI it is important never to lose sight of the historical context. This context, it must be stated with sadness, was of a Church a state of de facto anarchy. There were rare instances of sanctions being applied to a particularly outrageous Liberal, e. g., the Marxist Abbot Franzoni, but, in general, anyone was free to undermine the Church in any way he pleased without fear of sanctions, providing he was not a traditionalist. The most scandalous and evident example was the retention in positions as official teachers of the Church of priests who had publicly rejected the Encyclical Humanae Vitae, among the most notorious of these is the Professor of Moral Theology at the Catholic University of American, Father Charles Curran. He still retained this post in August 1983.

The following report from the 17 December 1976 issue of Universe is particularly valuable in setting the case of the Archbishop in its proper perspective. What was his crime? He believed and taught all that was believed and taught by the Church prior to Vatican II. Could this be a cause of scandal? He offered Mass and administered the sacraments in the liturgical forms utilized before Vatican II, in most cases forms based firmly upon traditions dating back a thousand years or more. Could this be a cause of scandal? Meanwhile, in Holland, priests by the hundred were violating their solemn vow of celibacy. Was this a cause of scandal? One would hope so. These included professors in Catholic colleges of theology. Incredible as it may seem, many of these continued to occupy their posts after their marriages, and, what is more, were teaching not Catholicism but theological Modernism. The Vatican acted. How could it not do so? It commanded that these married priests be dismissed, otherwise, the institutions which employed them would no longer receive Vatican recognition for the degrees they conferred. To cut a long story short, these institutes in Holland replied: “To hell with Pope.” Now, please bear in mind the inflexible and censorious attitude adopted by Pope Paul VI to Archbishop Lefebvre before reading the relevant report which follows, a report of abject capitulation on the part of the Vatican which constitutes a “scandal" in the fullest theological sense of the word. Because the institutions would not dismiss the married priests the Vatican agreed that they could remain, "so as not to disrupt syllabuses," but requested that no more such priests should be employed. Here is the text of the Universe report:


Thirty priests who have been laicised and have since married are still teaching at five of the Church’s colleges of theology- four in Holland and one in Canada.

They have been allowed to continue so as not to disrupt syllabuses. But the Vatican is said to insist that no more such priests be employed.

The facts were disclosed during the second International Congress of Catholic Universities and Faculties of Ecclesiastical Studies in Rome.


1.FOOTNOTE BY MICHAEL DAVIES. Some readers who not familiar with the background to the Bull Regnans in exelsis may be rather surprised at the severity with which Mgr. Gamber criticizes St. Pius V. It is certainly true that the vast majority of historians regarded the Pope's action as ill-judged. A standard history of the Popes, published in England, comments: "The Pope, ill advised on the situation of the English Catholics, encouraged Philip II of Spain to invade England and depose Elizabeth. He issued a famous Bull, Regnans in excelsis, 1570, intended to help the Catholic claimant, Mary Queen of Scot, then an English prisoner, which deposed Elizabeth and released her English subjects from their allegiance to her. The English saw in this an attempt to promote Spanish political advantage. Had Mary become queen, her rule would have been supervised by Spain at least. In the event all the Bull did was to secure the execution of Mary and provide the English government with an excuse for increasing the severity of its persecution of Catholics, on political as well as religious grounds" (E. John, The Popes, London, 1964, pp. 349-350). The case of St. Pius V and the Bull, Regnans in excelsis, is certainly pertinent to the case of Pope Paul VI, the reform of the Missal, and Archbishop Lefebvre. In both cases the popes did not exceed their legal authority, but in both cases it is legitimate to ask whether they acted prudently and in the best interests of the Church. In the case of St. Pius V, I am inclined to believe that a better case can be made out for Regnans in excelsis than is generally done.


Author's Introduction

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