LEFEBVRE and the
July 2, 1988
Letter of Pope John Paul II
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
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.
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.
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.”
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
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.
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
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
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.
of the importance and complexity of the problems referred to in
this document, by virtue of my Apostolic Authority, I decree the
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
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;
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!”
at Rome, at St. Peter’s, July 2, 1988,
tenth year of the pontificate.
In this letter the Pope makes three objections against Archbishop
Lefebvre: disobedience, an incomplete, and a contradictory notion
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.
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.
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
true life of Tradition
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
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:
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.
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.
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
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.’
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.
one word, the life of Tradition is a life of contemplation of the
Eternal Truth and love of the Eternal Good—not constant change!”
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.
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.
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.
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?
notion of Tradition?
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
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.
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
as the modernist notion of authority. If, on the contrary,
authority is to keep the Deposit of Faith, which is “complete with
and unchangeable, then this notion of authority in Tradition is
fully accepted by Archbishop Lefebvre.
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
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.”
present crisis of the Church comes from a crisis of authority: those
who have the authority foster a new doctrine.93]
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.
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.
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
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.
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