Archbishop LEFEBVRE and the VATICAN

July 2, 1988

Apostolic Letter of Pope John Paul II
Ecclesia Dei

With great affliction the Church has learned of the unlawful episcopal ordination conferred on June 30 last by Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, which has frustrated all the efforts made during the previous years to ensure the full communion with the Church of the Priestly Society of Saint Pius X founded by the same Archbishop Lefebvre. These efforts, especially intense during recent months, in which the Apostolic See has shown comprehension to the limits of the possible, were all to no avail.79

This affliction was particularly felt by the Successor of Peter to whom in the first place pertains the guardianship of the unity of the Church, even though the number of persons directly involved in these events might be few, since every person is loved by God on his own account and has been redeemed by the blood of Christ shed on the Cross for the salvation of all.

The particular circumstances, both objective and subjective in which Archbishop Lefebvre acted, provide everyone with an occasion for profound reflection and for a renewed pledge of fidelity to Christ and to His Church.

In itself, this act was one of disobedience to the Roman Pontiff in a very grave matter and of supreme importance for the unity of the Church, such as is the ordination of bishops whereby the apostolic succession is sacramentally perpetuated. Hence such disobedience—which implies in practice the rejection of the Roman primacy—constitutes a schismatic act. In performing such an act, notwithstanding the formal canonical warning sent to them by the Cardinal Prefect of the Congregation for Bishops on June 17 last, Archbishop Lefebvre and the priests Bernard Fellay, Bernard Tissier de Mallerais, Richard Williamson and Alfonso de Galarreta, have incurred the grave penalty of excommunication envisaged by ecclesiastical law.

The root of this schismatic act can be discerned in an incomplete and contradictory notion of Tradition. Incomplete, because it does not take sufficiently into the account the living character of Tradition, which, as the Second Vatican Council clearly taught, “comes from the apostles and progresses in the Church with the help of the Holy Spirit. There is a growth in insight into the realities and words that are being passed on. This comes about in various ways. It comes through the contemplation and study of believers who ponder these things in their hearts. It comes from the intimate sense of spiritual realities which they experience. And it comes from the preaching of those who have received, along with their right of succession in the episcopate, the sure charisma of truth.”

But especially contradictory is a notion of Tradition which opposes the universal magisterium of the Church possessed by the Bishop of Rome and the body of bishops. It is impossible to remain faithful to the Tradition while breaking the ecclesial bond with him to whom, in the person of the Apostle Peter, Christ himself entrusted the ministry of unity in His Church.80

Faced with the situation that has arisen I deem it my duty to inform all the Catholic faithful of some aspects which this sad event has highlighted.

a)    The outcome of the movement promoted by Archbishop Lefebvre can and must be, for all the Catholic faithful, a motive for sincere reflection concerning their own fidelity to the Church’s Tradition, authentically interpreted by the ecclesiastical magisterium, ordinary and extraordinary, especially in the ecumenical councils from Nicća to Vatican II. >From this reflection all should draw a renewed and efficacious conviction of the necessity of strengthening still more their fidelity by rejecting erroneous interpretations and arbitrary and unauthorized applications in matters of doctrine, liturgy and discipline.

       To the bishops especially it pertains, by reason of their pastoral mission, to exercise the important duty of a clear-sighted vigilance full of charity and firmness, so that this fidelity may be everywhere safeguarded.

       However, it is necessary that all the pastors and the other faithful have a new awareness, not only of the lawfulness but also of the richness of the Church of a diversity of charisma, traditions of spirituality and apostolate, which also constitutes the beauty of unity in variety: of that blended “harmony” which the earthly Church raises up to Heaven under the impulse of the Holy Spirit.

b)    Moreover, I should like to remind theologians and other experts in the ecclesiastical sciences that they should feel called upon to answer in the present circumstances. Indeed, the extent and depth of the teaching of the Second Vatican Council call for a renewed commitment to deeper study in order to reveal clearly the Council’s continuity with Tradition, especially in points of doctrine which, perhaps because they are new, have not yet been well understood by some sections of the Church.81

c)    In the present circumstances I wish especially to make an appeal both solemn and heartfelt, paternal and fraternal, to all those who until now have been linked in various ways to the movement of Archbishop Lefebvre, that they may fulfil the grave duty of remaining united to the Vicar of Christ in the unity of the Catholic Church, and of ceasing their support in any way for that movement. Everyone should be aware that formal adherence to the schism is a grave offence against God and carries the penalty of excommunication decreed by the Church’s law.

To all those Catholic faithful who feel attached to some previous liturgical and disciplinary forms of the Latin tradition I wish to manifest my will to facilitate their ecclesial communion by means of the necessary measures to guarantee respect for their rightful aspirations. In this matter I ask for the support of the bishops and of all those engaged in the pastoral ministry in the Church.

Taking account of the importance and complexity of the problems referred to in this document, by virtue of my Apostolic Authority, I decree the following:

a)    A Commission is instituted whose task it will be to collaborate with the bishops, with the departments of the Roman Curia and with the circles concerned, for the purpose of facilitating full ecclesial communion of priests, seminarians, religious communities or individuals until now linked in various ways to the Society founded by Archbishop Lefebvre, who may wish to remain united to the Successor of Peter in the Catholic Church, while preserving their spiritual and liturgical traditions, in the light of the Protocol signed on May 5 last by Cardinal Ratzinger and Archbishop Lefebvre;

b)   this Commission is composed of a Cardinal President and other members of the Roman Curia, in a number that will be deemed opportune according to the circumstances;

c)    moreover, respect must everywhere be shown for the feelings of all those who are attached to the Latin liturgical tradition, by a wide and generous application of the directives already issued some time ago by the Apostolic See, for the use of the Roman Missal according to the typical edition of 1962.

As this year specially dedicated to the Blessed Virgin is now drawing to a close, I wish to exhort all to join in unceasing prayer which the Vicar of Christ, through the intercession of the Mother of the Church, addresses to the Father in the very words of the Son: “That they all may be one!”

Joannes Paulus II
Given at Rome, at St. Peter’s, July 2, 1988,
in the tenth year of the pontificate.

In this letter the Pope makes three objections against Archbishop Lefebvre: disobedience, an incomplete, and a contradictory notion of Tradition.

Disobedience? No!

Firstly, he accuses him of disobedience. However, obedience is the response in the subject to the proper use of authority in a superior. The Pope received his authority “unto edification and not unto destruction” (II Cor. 13:10). The Pope received his power to eradicate evil and promote the good of the Church. Archbishop Lefebvre asked from him nothing other than the means necessary to promote the good of the Church and, thus, deserved his support, not his opposition.

We have included in Part II a sermon delivered by Archbishop Lefebvre on September 3, 1977, on the subject of obedience which explains very well real and apparent disobedience.

But one would say: “Archbishop Lefebvre could keep Tradition without consecrating a bishop.” The duty of the faithful is different from the duty of a bishop; the faithful must keep the Faith for themselves and pass it on to their children; a bishop has not only the duty to keep the Faith for himself, but also to assure its transmission to future generations. The Pope received his power “to feed the Lord’s sheep,” not to let them starve. At a time when so many bishops not only let the good faithful starve but are poisoning them by their bad doctrine and example, it is a strict duty of charity to provide the faithful with the spiritual food, with the doctrine, with the Sacraments, and with the priests to administer these Sacraments. St. Thomas teaches that obedience cannot forbid us to fulfil a necessary duty.[82]

The true life of Tradition

The second objection is that of an incomplete notion of Tradition. As if Archbishop Lefebvre’s notion of Tradition did “not take sufficiently into account the living character of Tradition.” The fallacy of this objection comes from an ambiguity on “life”: what is the true life of Tradition?

In his book, The Reshaping of Catholicism83 (p.78), Fr. Avery Dulles makes a similar criticism of Archbishop Lefebvre’s notion of Tradition: “It is evident that the conflicting evaluations of Vatican II turn upon different concepts of Tradition. For Imbelli, Tradition is not so much content as process—a process that is, in his own words, living, creative and community based. What Lefebvre dismisses as ‘Modernist influence’ can therefore be defended by Imbelli as a rediscovery of an ancient and precious heritage—The objectivist authoritarian concept still dominant in contemporary traditionalism is widely criticized in our days.” Thus, there are two conflicting notions of Tradition: on the one hand, you have a living, creative and community based process; but what process? A transmission of a changing personal religious experience empty of content? Unrelated to the objective truth? On the other hand, you have the authentic notion of Tradition as the faithful transmission of the Deposit of Faith by the popes and bishops. The first concept is living of a human life; the second concept is living of the Divine Life! The life of Tradition is the life of the Church, which is the life of Christ, the Divine Life communicated to men.

Tradition is, first of all, related to an Object: the Immutable, Divine Truth. To lose sight of this is certainly an incomplete notion of Tradition. In my editorial in The Angelus, July 1988, I wrote:

“What is the life of Tradition? It is not a life of change. It is not a life such as that of a plant or an animal, which changes constantly. No! It is a sharing in the Life of God, Who is Immutable. For minds accustomed to the modern, materialistic atmosphere, it is hard to understand a life without any change. Yet it is clear that what is proper to life is not movement alone: when one pushes with one’s foot the body of a dead animal, one gives it movement…but not life. What is proper to life is rather the immanence of the movement; when Our Lord said: “Lazarus, come out!” the dead came out without anyone pushing him. His movement was from within: he had come back to life.

“As for the life of the Church, one must first of all distinguish the life of each one of the faithful, and the life of the Church as a whole. Each one of the faithful passes from the ignorance of the Faith (before he became faithful) to the knowledge of it, and must always deepen his Faith. But the object of this Faith is One, Immutable; it is the Eternal Truth: Jesus Christ, the Word of God made flesh.

“Each faithful passes from the state of sin (before he became faithful) to the state of grace. He must constantly fight against temptation and the residue of sin; he must purify his soul more and more in the Blood of the Lamb; he must become closer and closer to God in Our Lord Jesus Christ, “walking in charity”: this is spiritual progress. Thus it is clear that there is movement in the life of the faithful. But this is a spiritual movement: the deepening of the knowledge of the Truth and the strengthening of virtues. It is not the abandonment of what he believed and strove to practice yesterday!

“Now for the Church there is even less movement. Christ has given to His Church the complete Deposit of Faith. Each individual may deepen his knowledge of this Deposit, but the Church had it all since its beginning. The Church may teach it, explain it and defend it more and more explicitly against the negators and the heresies,84 but neither adds to it, nor loses any parcel of this Eternal Truth.

“Concerning the life of virtue, the Church possesses from her Divine Founder the Seven Sacraments—seven fountains of the life of holiness. The Church cannot add a new one (as some Pentecostals would like to do), nor subtract another (some would like to take away Confession, or Confirmation). The Church possesses, from the beginning, the Perfect Example of Virtue: the Life of Our Lord Jesus Christ. All the saints have imitated Him; we have to follow in their footsteps. The way to heaven is not to be invented; there is one, and only one; it is Our Lord Jesus Christ: ‘I am the Way, the Truth and the Life. No one comes to the Father but by Me.’

“Therefore there can be no change in the Church’s morals, which are all summed up in these words of Our Lord: ‘Be ye perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect’ (Mt. 5:48). The Divine Perfection is eternal and immutable. In heaven the saints ‘rest’ in God, thus without changes, sharing divine eternity.85 On the contrary, in hell the damned will be tormented by unrest: But the wicked are like the troubled sea, when it cannot rest, whose waters cast up mire and dirt. There is no peace for the ungodly, saith the Lord God;86 by the unceasing succession and changes of torments, one worse than the other. Folly of those who love change for the sake of change! They might have an eternity of changes—in hell!

“If there is some change in the Church as such, it is her wonderful capability of putting into practice her eternal principles to meet the needs of each era.87 This is particularly manifested in the many religious orders which have sprung up throughout the whole history of the Church. All of them follow the same Model: Jesus Christ, and the same principles of Faith and morals, but adapt them to their particular circumstances. In this regard, one can see Tradition living in the work of Archbishop Lefebvre and all the other traditional foundations. They have all come to the Eternal Principles to receive Eternal Life from them.

“In one word, the life of Tradition is a life of contemplation of the Eternal Truth and love of the Eternal Good—not constant change!”

We might add that this life is manifested in its fruitfulness: in the many vocations, and also in the large families resolutely Catholic which abound among the faithful attached to Tradition.

One can also see the fruits of death in the departure from Tradition: seminaries and novitiates closed, almost no more religious teachers in schools, or nurses in hospitals, churches closed for lack of priest, thousands of priests and nuns who abandoned their holy vocation, millions of faithful who abandoned the Faith, such as in South America.

In the Liturgy too, one can see the difference of concepts of “life.” The modernist concept leads to constant changes in the Liturgy, as the last 30 years have witnessed. The core of the Liturgical reform has been to remove from the Liturgy [almost] all the profession of Faith on the points which displeased the modern world, and the Protestants in particular. Thus many genuflections, mention of sin, penance, punishments, sacrifice, detachment from the things of this world, the Devil, etc...have been greatly removed. Now one of the important purposes of the Liturgy is to feed the Faith by professing it; the new Liturgy makes the faithful starve, when it does not poison them by some personal innovation of the celebrant. This is not to foster the true spiritual life of the faithful! On the contrary, the Traditional Liturgy, living the truth, loving the Truth, professes it and thus feeds the soul of the faithful with the food of true spiritual life.

In the light of the above considerations, does Archbishop Lefebvre “not take sufficiently into account the living character of Tradition”? Or does he rather defend the true life of Tradition by keeping its most solemn expression which is the Traditional Liturgy?

Contradictory notion of Tradition?

The third objection to Archbishop Lefebvre was that of a “contradictory notion of Tradition, which opposes the universal magisterium of the Church possessed by the Bishop of Rome and the body of bishops.” Here, again, one must not forget that the magisterium of the Church is essentially related to the Deposit of Faith. Pope Pius IX and the Fathers of the First Vatican Council said: “For the Holy Ghost was not promised to the Successors of Peter that by His revelation they might disclose new doctrine, but that by His help they might guard sacredly the revelation transmitted through the Apostles and the Deposit of Faith, and might faithfully set it forth.88

Archbishop Lefebvre received this Deposit of Faith from the Popes. Fr. Le Floch89 explained the Popes’ encyclicals to all his students, a practice which Archbishop Lefebvre has introduced in his seminaries. He even taught the course on the “Acts of the Magisterium” by himself when there was a lack of teachers for two years at Ecône.

Archbishop Lefebvre’s fidelity to the constant teaching of the previous Popes, far from undermining the authority of the Pope, is its best guarantee. Remember that Fr. Avery Dulles linked the “objectivist” notion of Tradition with the “authoritarian” notion, and rejected both as “traditional” notion. Without the pejorative endings, it is true that the traditional notion of Tradition insists on its object, the Deposit of Faith, to be religiously handed down by those who have received authority from Our Lord for this end: to insist on the unchangeable object of Tradition is to defend the “authoritarian” notion of Tradition, thus the authority of the Pope. He holds the place of authority to keep the Tradition, which notion of authority is rejected by the modernist, not by Archbishop Lefebvre! If authority is only there to approve any new modern “study of believer,” then it destroys itself, it is exactly what St. Pius X describes in Pascendi,90 as the modernist notion of authority. If, on the contrary, authority is to keep the Deposit of Faith, which is “complete with the Apostles,”91 and unchangeable, then this notion of authority in Tradition is fully accepted by Archbishop Lefebvre.

St. Pius X asked every priest and bishop to swear the following: “I accept sincerely the doctrine of faith transmitted from the Apostles through the orthodox fathers, always in the same sense and interpretation, even to us; and so I reject the heretical invention of the evolution of dogmas, passing from one meaning to another, different from that which the Church first had…”92

If there is any opposition between Archbishop Lefebvre and today’s teaching of “the Bishop of Rome and the body of Bishops,” it is because they are no longer teaching what their predecessors have taught, they are no longer teaching the Syllabus, the Anti-modernist Oath, the social Kingship of Our Lord Jesus Christ, etc....They are trying to teach a NEW doctrine (otherwise there would be no such opposition) and to impose it with an authority that is made “not to teach a new Revelation, but to keep entirely and expose faithfully the Deposit of Faith.”

The present crisis of the Church comes from a crisis of authority: those who have the authority foster a new doctrine.93]

Every novelty introduced or approved by the Pope tends to undermine his authority. Indeed if yesterday altar girls were forbidden and today they are permitted, today women priests are forbidden but why not tomorrow permitted? Once one accepts the principle of changes in doctrine94 there is no limit to it, and no doctrinal authority can stand it.

Thus it appears that these three criticisms of Archbishop Lefebvre are not justified. If the reasons for a censure are false or undeserved, then the censure is void.

The Pope’s letter finishes with beautiful promises which have been received with joy and extensively quoted by many conservatives. I wish these promises were reliable, but how can we trust them when they come with the refusal to grant to the best representative of Tradition the means he deemed necessary for its continuation? Without bishops dedicated to Tradition, how can the faithful trust such promises? Shall the sheep expect good food from the wolves?

The two most important points of the Protocol were the granting of a bishop and of two members in the Commission. These two points so necessary for the defense of Tradition have never been granted.

[79]  This paragraph would give the impression that the Vatican has been as generous and sincere in their “efforts” as possible. This impression was not at all shared by Archbishop Lefebvre, who said in an interview with 30 Days: “It was necessary to threaten continually in order to obtain something. No collaboration was any longer possible” (30 Days, July 1988, pp.13-14).

[80]  Unity in the Church is first of all a unity of Faith: One Faith, one Lord, one Baptism. Peter has the ministry of unity first of all because he has the duty to safeguard this One Faith intact, undefiled. Keeping the Tradition certainly does not oppose this unity of the Church; on the contrary, introducing novelties undermines the unity of the Church.

[81] Note the acknowledgment that these doctrines are “new.”

[82]Summa Theologica, IIa IIć Q.104, A.3, ad.3.

[83]Dulles, Avery, The Reshaping of Catholicism: Current Challenges in the Theology of Church (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1988).

[84]  In this way some truths may be put in greater light, and more explicitly and precisely defined, such as the Immaculate Conception, but these are not “new” truths. Moreover, in order to show the conciliation of some points of doctrine that may appear to conflict, the Church may develop the doctrine: thus the notion of sacramental character was developed as a solution in the conflict between on the one hand St. Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage, holding the Dogma Outside the Church no salvation and thus rebaptizing those baptized outside the church, and on the other hand St. Stephen, Pope, holding that nothing should be innovated except that which is in conformity with Tradition and thus refusing to rebaptize because it was a novelty. This is called the homogenous evolution of the dogma, which is not a change but rather a drawing of conclusion from unchangeable principles of Faith.

85. This is life everlasting.

86. Is. 57:20-21.

87. Pope Pius XII gave a great example in applying the eternal principles to the new challenges of our times in his teaching. This is true “progress.”

88. Vat. I, Sess. IV, chap. 4.

89. Rector of the French Seminary in Rome where Archbishop Lefebvre received his priestly training.

90. Pascendi Gregis. (See, Denzinger, The Sources of Catholic Dogma, 2093.)

91. Lamentabili, July 3, 1907, §21.

92. The Oath Against Modernism, Sept. 1, 1910, which was sworn by Karol Wojtyla before he received the priesthood and, later, the episcopacy in 1958.

93. See The Ratzinger Report in Part II, pp.211-217.

94. The practice of employing        “altar girls” is connected with doctrine since the service at the altar is the proper act of the Acolyte, one of the Minor Orders,  which is soley reserved to males since it is a step culminating in ordination to the priesthood.

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