Archbishop LEFEBVRE and the VATICAN

August 15, 1984

Excerpts from The Ratzinger Report

In 1984, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Prefect of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, granted an interview to journalist Vittorio Messori on the state of the Catholic Church. The interview was published in English in 1985 as The Ratzinger Report. In it, Cardinal Ratzinger forcefully reaffirms his opinion of the immense and positive work of Vatican II, whose genuine fruits he provides a guideline for achieving. He speaks specifically of Archbishop Lefebvre. The following excerpt is taken from Chapter Two, “A Council to Be Rediscovered.”107

Two Counterposed Errors

In order to get to the heart of the matter we must, almost of necessity, begin with the extraordinary event of Vatican Council II, the 20th anniversary of whose close will be celebrated in 1985. Twenty years which by far have brought about more changes in the Catholic Church than were wrought over the span of two centuries.

Today no one who is and wishes to remain Catholic nourishes any doubts—nor can he nourish them—that the great documents of Vatican Council II are important, rich, opportune and indispensable. Least of all, naturally, the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. To remind him of this would not only be superfluous but ridiculous. Oddly enough, nevertheless, some commentators have obviously considered it necessary to advance doubts on this matter.

Yet, not only were the statements in which Cardinal Ratzinger defended Vatican II and its decisions eminently clear, but he repeatedly corroborated them at every opportunity.

Among countless examples, I shall cite an article he wrote in 1975 on the occasion of the tenth anniversary of the close of the Council. I reread the text of that article to him in Brixen, and he confirmed to me that he still wholly recognized himself therein.

Thus ten years before our conversation, he had already written: “Vatican II today stands in a twilight. For a long time it has been regarded by the so-called progressive wing as completely surpassed and, consequently, as a thing of the past, no longer relevant to the present. By the opposite side, the ‘conservative’ wing, it is, conversely, viewed as the cause of the present decadence of the Catholic Church and even judged as an apostasy from Vatican I and from the Council of Trent. Consequently demands have been made for its retraction or for a revision that would be tantamount to a retraction.”

Thereupon he continued: “Over against both tendencies, before all else, it must be stated that Vatican II is upheld by the same authority as Vatican I and the Council of Trent, namely, the Pope and the College of Bishops in communion with him, and also with regard to its contents, Vatican II is in the strictest continuity with both previous councils and incorporates their texts word for word in decisive points.”

From this Ratzinger drew two conclusions. First: “It is impossible (‘for a Catholic’) to take a position for or against Trent or Vatican I. Whoever accepts Vatican II, as it has clearly expressed and understood itself, at the same time accepts the whole binding tradition of the Catholic Church, particularly also the two previous councils. And that also applies to the so-called 'progressivism,’ at least in its extreme forms.” Second: “It is likewise impossible to decide in favor of Trent and Vatican I, but against Vatican II. Whoever denies Vatican II denies the authority that upholds the other two councils and thereby detaches them from their foundation. And this applies to the so-called ‘traditionalism,’ also in its extreme forms.” “Every partisan choice destroys the whole (the very history of the Church) which can exist only as an indivisible unity.”

Let Us Rediscover the True Vatican II

Hence it is not Vatican II and its documents (it is hardly necessary to recall this) that are problematic. At all events, many see the problem—and Joseph Ratzinger is among them, and not just since yesterday—to lie in the manifold interpretations of those documents which have led to many abuses in the post-conciliar period.

Ratzinger’s judgment on this period has been clearly formulated for a long time: “It is incontestable that the last ten years have been decidedly unfavorable for the Catholic Church.” “Developments since the Council seem to be in striking contrast to the expectations of all, beginning with those of John XXIII and Paul VI. Christians are once again a minority, more than they have ever been since the end of antiquity.”

He explains his stark remark (which he also repeated during the interview—but that should not cause any surprise, whatever judgment we might make of it, for he confirmed it many times) as follows: “What the Popes and the Council Fathers were expecting was a new Catholic unity, and instead one has encountered a dissension which—to use the words of Paul VI—seems to have passed over from self-criticism to self-destruction. There had been the expectation of a new enthusiasm, and instead too often it has ended in boredom and discouragement. There had been the expectation of a step forward, and instead one found oneself facing a progressive process of decadence that to a large measure has been unfolding under the sign of a summons to a presumed ‘spirit of the Council’ and by so doing has actually and increasingly discredited it.”

Thus, already ten years ago, he had arrived at the following conclusion: “It must be clearly stated that a real reform of the Church presupposes an unequivocal turning away from the erroneous paths whose catastrophic consequences are already incontestable.”

On one occasion he also wrote: “Cardinal Julius Döpfner once remarked that the Church of the post-conciliar period is a huge construction site. But a critical spirit later added that it was a construction site where the blueprint had been lost and everyone continues to build according to his taste. The result is evident.”

Nevertheless, the Cardinal constantly takes pains to repeat, with equal clarity, that “Vatican II in its official promulgations, in its authentic documents, cannot be held responsible for this development which, on the contrary, radically contradicts both the letter and the spirit of the Council Fathers.”

He says: “I am convinced that the damage that we have incurred in these twenty years is due, not to the ‘true’ Council, but to the unleashing within the Church of latent polemical and centrifugal forces; and outside the Church it is due to the confrontation with a cultural revolution in the West: the success of the upper middle class, the new tertiary bourgeoisie,’ with its liberal-radical ideology of individualistic, rationalistic and hedonistic stamp.”

Hence his message, his exhortation to all Catholics who wish to remain such, is certainly not to “turn back” but, rather, “to return to the authentic texts of the original Vatican II.”

For him, he repeats to me, “to defend the true tradition of the Church today means to defend the Council. It is also our fault if we have at times provided a pretext (to the ‘right’ and ‘left’ alike) to view Vatican II as a ‘break’ and an abandonment of the tradition. There is, instead, a continuity that allows neither a return to the past nor a flight forward, neither anachronistic longings nor unjustified impatience. We must remain faithful to the today of the Church, not the yesterday or tomorrow.And this today of the Church is the documents of Vatican II, without reservations that amputate them and without arbitrariness that distorts them.”

A Prescription Against Anachronism

Although critical of the “left,” Ratzinger also exhibits an unmistakable severity toward the “right,” toward that integralist traditionalism quintessentially symbolized by the old Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre. In a reference to it, he told me: “I see no future for a position that, out of principle, stubbornly renounces Vatican II. In fact in itself it is an illogical position. The point of departure for this tendency is, in fact, the strictest fidelity to the teaching particularly of Pius IX and Pius X and, still more fundamentally, of Vatican I and its definition of papal primacy. But why only the popes up to Pius XII and not beyond? Is perhaps obedience to the Holy See divisible according to years or according to the nearness of a teaching to one’s own already-established convictions?”

The fact remains, I observe, that if Rome has intervened with respect to the “left,” it has not yet intervened with respect to the “right” with the same vigor.

In reply, he states: “The followers of Archbishop Lefebvre assert the very opposite. They contend that whereas there was an immediate intervention in the case of the respected retired Archbishop with the harsh punishment of suspension, there is an incomprehensible toleration of every kind of deviation from the other side. I don’t wish to get involved in a polemic on the greater or lesser severity toward the one or the other side. Besides, both types of opposition present entirely different features. The deviation toward the ‘left’ no doubt represents a broad current of the contemporary thought and action of the Church, but hardly anywhere have they found a juridically definable common form. On the other hand, Archbishop Lefebvre’s movement is probably much less broad numerically, but it has a well-defined juridical organization, seminaries, religious houses, etc. Clearly everything possible must be done to prevent this movement from giving rise to a schism peculiar to it that would come into being whenever Archbishop Lefebvre should decide to consecrate a bishop, which, thank God, in the hope of a reconciliation he has not yet done. In the ecumenical sphere today one deplores that not enough was done in the past to prevent incipient divisions through a greater openness to reconciliation and to an understanding of the different groups. Well, that should apply as a behavioral maxim for us too in the present time. We must commit ourselves to reconciliation, so long and so far as it is possible, and we must utilize all the opportunities granted to us for this purpose.”

But Lefebvre, I object, has ordained priests and continues to do so.

“Canon law speaks of ordinations that are illicit but not invalid. We must also consider the human aspect of these young men who, in the eyes of the Church, are ‘true’ priests, albeit in an irregular situation. The point of departure and the orientation of individuals are certainly different. Some are strongly influenced by their family situations and have accepted the latter’s decision. In others, disillusionment with the present-day Church has driven them to bitterness and to negation. Others still would like to collaborate fully in the normal pastoral activity of the Church. Nevertheless they have let themselves be driven to their choice by the unsatisfactory situation that has arisen in the seminaries in some countries. So just as there are some who in some way have put up with the division, there are also many who hope for reconciliation and remain in Archbishop Lefebvre’s priestly community only in this hope.”

His prescription for cutting the ground from under the Lefebvre case and other anachronistic resistances seems to re-echo that of the last popes, from Paul VI to today: “Similar absurd situations have been able to endure up to now precisely by nourishing themselves on the arbitrariness and thoughtlessness of many post-conciliar interpretations. This places a further obligation upon us to show the true face of the Council: thus one will be able to cut the ground from under these false protests....”

In these passages Cardinal Ratzinger stresses his view of the importance of the Council, stating that it is upheld by the same authority as Vatican Council I and the Council of Trent. This is a false premise. The Cardinal fails to distinguish between persons and their actions. The persons possess the same authority, but they do not always engage their full authority in every one of their actions. By refusing to be a dogmatic council, the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council did not invest this Council with the same authority as all the previous ecumenical Councils.

It is highly doubtful that Cardinal Ratzinger sees those who uphold Tradition to be on “the erroneous path whose catastrophic consequences are already incontestable.” He blames havoc of this kind only on the so-called false interpretation of the Council. However, he is not able to show where the Council has been properly implemented. Can he cite one diocese in which a proper implementation has brought about good fruits?

Cardinal Ratzinger insinuates that Archbishop Lefebvre is dividing obedience to the Holy See “according to the nearness of the teaching to one’s own already established convictions.” The convictions of Archbishop Lefebvre are not his own. He recalls that he had to change some of his conceptions when he arrived at the Seminary in Rome, realizing that they were not in conformity with the teachings of the Popes. From that day on he has remained attached to these convictions which the constant teachings of the Pope had built in his soul.

The problem springs forth from the desire of the present authorities to give a place in the Church to values which are foreign to her. Cardinal Ratzinger admits:

“Vatican II was right in its desire for a revision of the relations between the Church and the world. There are in fact values, which, even though they originated outside the Church, can find their place—provided that they are clarified and corrected—in her perspective. This task has been accomplished in these years. But whoever thinks that these two realities can meet each other without conflict or even be identical would betray that he understands neither the Church nor the world.”108

To try to clarify and correct the false principles of the French Revolution is to try to convert the devil!

The fact that this new doctrine is incompatible with the past is manifested by the Cardinal himself when he refuses any return to the past, opposing it to the present. “We must remain faithful to the today of the Church, not to the yesterday or tomorrow. And this today of the Church is the documents of Vatican II, without reservations that amputate them and without arbitrariness that distorts them.”109

There should be no opposition between the today of the Church, its past or its future: “Jesus Christ yesterday, today and the same forever” (Heb. 13:8). This opposition which, according to Ratzinger, is in the documents of Vatican II, is, in itself, the strongest condemnation of these documents.


107. The Ratzinger Report (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1985), pp.27-33.

108. The Ratzinger Report, p.36.

109. ibid., p.31.

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

Home | Newsletters | Library | Vocations | History | Links | Search | Contact