Article from Ite Missa Est Mar-Apr 2023 by Rev. Fr. François Laisney SSPX
Until a few months ago, I was in New Zealand, far from the front line of ecclesiastical debate. But having now come to my new assignment in England, a confrere asked if I could help some faithful troubled by doubts about the Society’s canonical status and its relation to the Church. Therefore, I set down here a few reflections, which I hope – by the grace of God – may be of some help to the faithful.
Attitudes towards the Society of St. Pius X range from light disagreement over methods, to enmity resulting in calumny (accusing someone of something grievous but false) such as accusing Archbishop Lefebvre of nothing less than heresy! I will show how false such an accusation is and hopefully convince the reader of the Archbishop’s supernatural prudence in the troubled years following the Second Vatican Council.
1. A little bit of history: the Liturgical Revolution of the 1960s
For the faithful in the pew, the devout faithful, the 1960s were a time when everything started to change and confusion reigned, especially in the Liturgy: it was a true liturgical revolution. First, a little vernacular, then more here and more there, then the removal of this or that prayer (e.g. the last gospel), then communion standing, then altars turned around, then in some places communion in the hand, then… then… then… The faithful did not know what novelty to expect the next Sunday – missals had been replaced by weekly sheets for years A, B, C. Their old missals where are worthless. The more devout faithful bought new missals, but did not get very far with them because every parish was different… The new Mass was just one reform among so many others.
My own experience was that the faithful were much more shocked by communion in the hand – which was so repugnant to their faith and devotion – than by the new Mass itself when it was reverently offered (for they had no real way of studying it as had priests such as Rev. Fr. Calmel, O.P.: see his articles in Itinéraires).
One phenomenon, a painful one for all good faithful who love the Church, was that the disobedient priests, who were introducing all kinds of novelties, as grievous as communion in the hand, were supported “from above” and received no censure, while the faithful priests, who preached good doctrine, who did not allow communion in the hand in their parishes, who would not have guitars at their Masses but rather kept the Gregorian Chant, these faithful priests were removed from their positions, demoted and sometimes even sent into early retirement. The same thing still happens today: Bishop Rey of Toulon in France, for example, who had more vocations in his diocese (proportionally to its size) than any other diocese in France, was asked by Rome in June last year to postpone ordinations to the priesthood to an unknown date.
In my own parish, Our Lady of the Angels at Bihorel near Rouen, the parish priest was made 2nd assistant priest in another parish of the city, and the assistant was sent to the limits of the diocese: they were both good priests, whose preaching was orthodox, who had kept their cassocks, who would not have Communion in the hand, who kept their Gregorian choir at a time when there were no Novus Ordo Gregorian books – they used to sing the traditional texts despite these texts not matching the readings! From that local parish came five traditional vocations (4 were ordained by Archbishop Lefebvre).
Their replacement was a “priest of transition” who brought in all the novelties from which these two priests had protected the parish. Then started the exodus: my family left that parish and we looked for conservative priests, until we found the Traditional Mass again. My mother said at the time: all the changes in the previous years were like the slow descent of a cliff face, and when she found the Traditional Mass again, it was like finding oneself at the bottom of the cliff [there are high cliffs on the north bank of the river Seine near Rouen], looking up, and realising how far one had actually descended.
Some faithful found the traditional Mass early on: my family in 1975, others even earlier, some later. But for all of them, the finding of the Traditional Mass was an eye-opening experience: this is the treasure of which we had been deprived! Many today have the same reaction when they discover the Traditional Mass: even those born after 1970. It is often a turning point in their lives. The Traditional Mass is the heart of the Church, it is the greatest treasure of the Church, it is the Catholic Faith put in practice in all its solemnity and fruitfulness.
2. A little bit more history: the beginnings of the SSPX
It is important to note that the confusion was not merely in the domain of liturgy. More importantly, it was in matters of faith. For the clergy, the Council introduced an openness to the world that often diluted the faith with ambiguities and sometimes outright errors. It encouraged them to have a “sympathy for the religion of man who made himself God” (Paul VI, 7th Dec 1965) which then caused untold damage to souls.
At the level of the faithful, in the late 60s, catechisms started to appear that departed grievously from Catholic doctrine (e.g. the Dutch catechism) or simply failed to teach basic doctrine. How many “Catholic” youth today know their basic catechism? One ought not to be surprised that so many youth leave a faith which they had never been properly taught. I remember the priest in my year 8 in 1969 who took our catechism group in his office and simply said: "what do you want to talk about?" I stopped going… My father, who was teacher in a Catholic school, was part of a group of parents who had organised to teach catechism themselves, to make sure their children would know their basic catechism. He did not have “canonical mission” from his bishop, but he was exercising his duty as a Catholic father (God blessed him with three priests out of his five children).
At the same time, the situation in seminaries was appalling: the modernists had the wind in their sails and knew no limit. Those who wanted to uphold orthodoxy were put aside, and often left these seminaries, which, in any case, would soon close for want of vocations!
Meanwhile, when so many were destroying, Archbishop Lefebvre was edifying. In 1969, he opened a house of study at Fribourg under Bishop Charrière; in 1970 he opened Ecône as a “house of spirituality” with the approval of Bishop Adam of Sion, Wallis (Switzerland), and the next year he obtained the approval of the same bishop for Ecône to become a fully-fledged seminary. When he first asked Bishop Adam in 1970 for his approval, Bishop Adam answered: “we still have three seminaries in our diocese, so I do not approve Ecône as a seminary; but as we don’t have any ‘houses of spirituality’ which are a little different, I approve Ecône as a ‘house of spirituality’.”
But given the degradation of the situation in the Catholic university of Fribourg in 1970 (the New Mass had just been introduced), with a mixture of good and bad teachers, Archbishop Lefebvre decided to choose only the good ones and bring them to Ecône and thus again asked Bishop Adam to allow Ecône to become a fully-fledged seminary. Bishop Adam answered: “Last year, I didn’t give permission for a seminary because we still had three seminaries in the diocese. Two closed last year. So, this year I give my permission for Ecône to be a fully-fledged seminary.” I hold this fact from Canon Berthod, the rector of the seminary in the early 1970s, who knew all those concerned very well.
This little event was quite significant: the introduction of novelties led to decay; but fidelity to Tradition led to life and growth. One can see this pattern repeated time and time again in many places throughout the world over the past fifty years.
Was the SSPX good because it was approved, or was it rather approved because it was good? The proper Thomist answer is that the first and essential goodness of an act comes from its object; external approval adds a certain extrinsic goodness but does not constitute the first and essential goodness.
On the opposite side, the modernist teachings in many seminaries remain objectively evil (destroying the faith of many) even if the teachers are “approved” with a canonical mission from above! A canonical mission does not and cannot make Catholic a teaching which is opposed to the faith of all times.
It is important to note that the initiative did not come from Archbishop Lefebvre. Prominent Catholics (clergy and laymen) urged him to do something for the seminarians; later it was the seminarians who urged him to establish a bond among them to keep the good spirit he was giving them. Then he asked for the canonical approval – and at the beginning, obtained it – so that all things be done in order.
Archbishop Lefebvre, as a true man of the Church, always gave great importance to this official recognition of the Society of Saint Pius X by the Church, through Bishop Charrière. His expression was: “nous sommes d’Eglise – we are of the Church”, as sons of the Church, members of the Church, a living branch solidly grafted on the tree of the Church. It is because he always considered the suppression of the SSPX as invalid that he continued the work. He would not have continued if he had considered the suppression valid. It had an appearance of validity, but not in truth, not in the sight of God.
3. A few considerations of canon law on the approval of the SSPX
The Statutes of the SSPX say, in their very first article: “The Fraternity is a priestly society of common life without vows…” Some say that the SSPX was a mere pious union. Their objection comes from the letter of Bishop Charrière which contains this confusion, saying that the Society is erected in the diocese as a pious union. What is one to think?
In my opinion, the best treatment of the matter is by Rev. Fr. Thomas Glover (doctor in Canon Law). Here are his core arguments:
- by the nature of things, a pious union binds its members for a part of their activity, for some kind of particular good work (including prayers…); a society of common life without vows binds its members for their whole life to help them tend towards evangelical perfection, though with a bond lower than a vow.
- Canon Law deals with pious unions in the third part which concerns the laity while the canons concerning societies of common life without vows are in the second part which concerns the religious: two very different sections.
- Bishop Charrière approved the statutes which precisely state that the Society of Saint Pius X is a society of common life without vow, thus approving that status.
Now the reality of the society he was approving, known by Bishop Charrière, did not correspond to a mere pia unio but rather to what was properly defined in the Statutes, i.e. a society of common life without vows.
Moreover, if the Society had been a mere pious union, the act of suppression would not have demanded the intervention of the Apostolic See (except to hear an appeal). Moreover again, if the Ordinary had desired the advice of the Apostolic See for the sake of certitude, the Sacred Congregation for Religious would not have been competent, because a pious union is not subject to that department. By the very fact Mgr. Mamie consulted the Sacred Congregation for Religious, he implicitly admitted that the SSPX was a society of common life without vows.
Another very important principle of law: “favorabilia sunt amplianda odiosa restrigenda – favourable things should be interpreted broadly, unfavourable things should be interpreted in a strict manner.” Why minimise the intention of Bishop Charrière as if he intented to give as little approval as possible? On the contrary, the principles of Law oblige us to say that he wanted to support the good work as much as he could. Any other attitude shows an ill will towards Archbishop Lefebvre and his Society, rather than the charity which is the heart of the New Testament Law.
4. The illegal suppression of the Society of Saint Pius X : 1975
Archbishop Lefebvre started with 9 seminarians in 1969; five years later he had about 90. The bishops of France started to worry; they did not want priests trained in the traditional way; they started a campaign of calumnies, as if Ecône was a "wildcat seminary" (“séminaire sauvage”), and the Vatican ordered a visitation, which took place in autumn of 1974. The visitors said that they were happy with what they saw, but in their conversation with some seminarians they had expressed doubts about the dogma of the Resurrection of Our Lord and other scandalous opinions. Hence Archbishop Lefebvre published a beautiful Declaration on 21st Nov 1974.
In February 1975, he was convoked by a commission of three Cardinals (Tabera, Wright and Garonne) for a “chat” about the visitation, but the whole conversation turned around the Declaration.
Then came the letter of Mgr. Mamie dated of 6th May 1975 by which he, of his own authority, “withdraws the acts and concessions of [his] predecessor.” Canon Law says that he did not have that authority: a bishop does not have the power to suppress societies of common life without vows: he can approve one, but once approved only Rome can suppress it.
A letter from the three Cardinals dated on the very same day simply declared that Bishop Mamie had the right to do what he did which is objectively against the Canon Law.
Archbishop Lefebvre made an appeal against the procedure on 5th June. On the 10th June Cardinal Staffa rejected the appeal under the pretext that the Pope took the matter in his hands. On the 14th of June Archbishop Lefebvre made a second appeal, asking for the documents of the case. He never received an answer to that second appeal, Cardinal Villot having ordered Cardinal Staffa not to answer.
Ever since, that second appeal is pending – and according to Canon Law, such an appeal is “suspensive”, that is, the decision to suppress the SSPX is suspended until the appeal is answered. Thus in reality, there is no suppression; only the appearance of one.
But, given the appearance of suppression, he was faced everywhere with refusal of any support.
5. The dilemma of the Good Samaritan
Faced with such opposition, Archbishop Lefebvre could very well have given up the fight, sent back all the seminarians to their homes and closed the whole work. He would have kept the faith and the Mass for himself. Let the seminarians and the few priests who were already helping him take care of themselves! If there had been many other bishops forming the young men in their seminaries in fidelity to Tradition, he would have been happy to do so. But, in 1975, where could he send these young men?
The charity of Christ was pressing him. (2 Cor. 5:14): he was very much aware of the pressing need of many souls for good priests who would keep the traditional Doctrine and Liturgy. Like the Good Samaritan (Lk. 10:30-37), he saw these souls wounded by the crisis in the Church, left half-dead on the side of the road, the local priest and Levite passed by and did not care; he was a stranger: would he abandon them to take care of themselves, or would he provide the help they were begging for? He cared!
In order to understand Archbishop Lefebvre, it is essential to grasp the model of the Good Samaritan: the Fathers of the Church often said that our Lord Himself was like this Good Samaritan; His home is heaven, and He came on earth as a stranger. The Old Testament priests and Levites did not care for wounded mankind, but He did, and provided the wine (symbol of His Precious Blood) and the oil (symbol of the gifts of the Holy Ghost) and brought the wounded to the inn, symbol of the Church.
The continuation of the Society of St. Pius X from then on by Archbishop Lefebvre was essentially that answer of the charity of the Good Samaritan, who would provide for the wounded souls, who would pass on to others the gifts he had received, not only his priesthood but later even his episcopacy, and who would lead these souls not to a new sect, but to the one Catholic Church.
Some accuse him, saying that he did not have local jurisdiction? I will return to that question, but such objection is as if the priest and the Levite would turn back and blame the Good Samaritan, accusing him of being a stranger without any rights in Judea.
6. The problem of the Mass - 1976
At the time, the battle for the Mass was raging. Bugnini had issued his little “Notification on the obligatory nature of the Roman Missal of Paul VI” (28th Oct 1974) to all the episcopal conferences. It is in this notification (and in no other document) that one finds a clear prohibition to offer the Traditional Mass, except for priests above 75 years and then only in private with one server. That note was never published in the Acta Apostolicae Sedis. It has no canonical value. How could a simple secretary in one such little note overturn the Bulla Quo Primum of Pope St. Pius V who had exercised the whole weight of his supreme Apostolic authority to guarantee all priests “in perpetuity” the right to offer the Traditional Mass?
But many bishops used this little note to pursue priests who had kept the traditional Mass, expelling them from their parishes, etc. I remember Father Fox in Sydney, during the sermon of his 50th anniversary Mass, showing the front-page of the Sydney Morning Herald of that time with the headline “Latin Mass forbidden”, and adding: “I kept that Mass!” There were a good many priests who kept it: in my diocese there were five, in my grandfather’s diocese, they were four, etc. There were hundreds of such priests in France and in many countries, but proportionally they were only a remnant, yet they had the courage to provide that Mass for the faithful who were asking for it. Pope Benedict XVI in Summorum Pontificum clearly said that the Traditional Mass had never been forbidden, thus vindicating these courageous priests and faithful.
But at that time many souls felt terribly abandoned: the little ones have asked for bread, and there was none to break it unto them (Lam. 4:4). My eyes have failed with weeping, my bowels are troubled: my liver is poured out upon the earth, for the destruction of the daughter of my people, when the children, and the sucklings, fainted away in the streets of the city. They said to their mothers: Where is corn and wine? when they fainted away as the wounded in the streets of the city: when they breathed out their souls in the bosoms of their mothers (Lam 2:11-12).
Blessed are those priests who, like the Good Samaritan, provided for these wounded souls! For I was hungry, and you gave me to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave me to drink… sick, and you visited me… Amen I say to you, as long as you did it to one of these my least brethren, you did it to me (Mt 25: 35-40).
Archbishop Lefebvre told us at the seminary: “I did not want to hear Our Lord on Judgement Day telling me: ‘you destroyed my Church with the rest of them!’ If I had closed my seminary, I would have contributed to the destruction of the Church.” Not that the Church can be destroyed, but many souls have been lost by all these novelties.
So he continued, and in 1976 he had 13 priests to ordain. Then the pressure on him intensified, he was urged not to go through with the ordinations. Mgr. Benelli, substitute of the Card. Secretary of State, wrote to him on 25th June in the name of the Pope, requiring fidelity “to the conciliar church.” This expression takes it origin from that letter: Archbishop Lefebvre said: “What is that church? I know not a ‘conciliar church’, I am Catholic! What was the reality signified by this expression? Indubitably a new spirit, alien to the Catholic spirit, like a virus in the Mystical Body of Christ, that was trying to impose all the novelties of Vatican II on unsuspecting Catholic faithful.”
He explained in the sermon of the ordination ceremony on 29th June 1976:
"If in all objectivity we seek the true motive animating those who ask us not to perform these ordinations, … it is because we are ordaining these priests that they may say the Mass of all time… It is clear, it is evident that it is on the problem of the Mass that the whole drama between Ecône and Rome depends… in fact, the very insistence of those who were sent from Rome to ask us to change rite makes us wonder. And we have the precise conviction that this new rite of Mass expresses a new faith, a faith which is not ours, a faith which is not the Catholic Faith. This New Mass is a symbol, is an expression, is an image of a new faith, of a Modernist faith.
For if the most holy Church has wished to guard throughout the centuries this precious treasure which She has given us of the rite of Holy Mass which was canonised by St. Pius V, it has not been without purpose. It is because this Mass contains our whole faith, the whole Catholic Faith: faith in the Most Holy Trinity, faith in the Divinity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, faith in the Redemption of Our Lord Jesus Christ, faith in the Blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ which flowed for the redemption of our sins, faith in supernatural grace, which comes to us from the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, which comes to us from the Cross, which comes to us through all the Sacraments.
This is what we believe. This is what we believe in celebrating the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass of all time. It is a lesson of faith and at the same time a source of our faith, indispensable for us in this age when our faith is attacked from all sides. We have need of this true Mass, of this Mass of all time, of this Sacrifice of Our Lord Jesus Christ really to fill our souls with the Holy Ghost and with the strength of Our Lord Jesus Christ.
Now it is evident that the new rite, if I may say so, supposes another conception of the Catholic religion – another religion. It is no longer the priest who offers the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, it is the assembly. Now this is an entire program – an entire program. Henceforth it is the assembly also that replaces authority in the Church… Slowly but surely the Protestant notion of the Mass is being introduced into the Holy Church."
7. The first sanctions
The media at that time made much of the case of Archbishop Lefebvre. It seems that they pushed for his excommunication, but only a suspension came on 22nd July 1976. This itself refutes those who accuse Archbishop Lefebvre of being schismatic from that time: if it were true, the penalty given then would make no sense.
About that penalty, Archbishop Lefebvre said: “it deprives me of the right inherent to all priests and even more to all bishops to celebrate Holy Mass, to confer the sacraments and preach in consecrated places, that is, I am forbidden to celebrate the new mass, to confer the new sacraments, to preach the new doctrine!”
He did not abide by the penalty because it presupposed the suppression of the SSPX, which was invalid for defect of form (see the two appeals above). Moreover, he said, there was a lack of basic natural justice: there had been no tribunal, no precise accusations, no right of defence, it was hurting the good of third parties, etc. But fundamentally, at the supernatural level, the measures taken against the Society of St. Pius X were motivated by his attachment to the doctrinal and liturgical Tradition of the Church and the rejection of the novelties that oppose them: so, in their very foundation, these measures were vitiated and thus void.
All the media coverage of the ordinations of 1976 was providential: many faithful and priests around the world attached to the unchangeable Catholic Faith were greatly encouraged by his example. Before, the situation was very gloomy for them: the Traditional Mass was said by older priests who would die out and then what? But after, they knew there was a bishop training young priests who would keep the Mass for them! He gave them hope. I want to give here the testimony of Clovis Areui, chief of a tribe of Kanaks (les Gouaraoui) in the depth of New Caledonia: he heard of Archbishop Lefebvre in 1976 and his reaction was: “what is wrong with that bishop? He says the Traditional Mass; he must be a good bishop!” Later, after a scandal in the cathedral of Nouméa (around 1980) he wrote to Ecône asking for a Mass in reparation and ending his letter: “you train priests who will say the Traditional Mass, you are our hope!” By then, Archbishop Lefebvre was receiving vocations from all over the world. I entered Ecône in October 1976; there were 19 nationalities! The seminary was full.
Thus, the fundamental reason why Archbishop Lefebvre continued his work, even when he was supposedly condemned, was fidelity to the Catholic Faith: not only to keep Tradition for himself, but to help many souls in the Church keep the Faith! He wrote: “how could we, by a servile and blind obedience, play the game of those who want us to collaborate in their work of destruction of the church? … Therefore, we have taken the firm resolution to continue our work of restoring the Catholic priesthood no matter what, convinced that we cannot render a greater service to the Church, to the Pope, to the bishops and to the faithful.”
8. True and false obedience
The three great theological virtues, Faith, Hope and Charity, cannot have an excess: one cannot adhere too much to the revealed truth, nor trust too much in God’s help, nor love God too much. All the other virtues are moral virtues and they consist in the right measure between a defect and an excess: one can have an defect of fortitude (weakness) or an excess if it (violence and temerity). This is particularly true of the virtue of obedience: the true virtue consists in the right measure between the defect which is disobedience, not to execute a legitimate order, and the excess which is servility, to comply with an illegitimate order. Typical example of servility: the soldiers who killed the holy Innocents.
St. Thomas explicitly treats the matter: “Whether subjects are bound to obey their superiors in all things?” He answers very clearly: No! “It is written (Acts 5:29): We ought to obey God rather than men. Now sometimes the things commanded by a superior are against God. Therefore, superiors are not to be obeyed in all things.” Then he explains: “there are two reasons, for which a subject may not be bound to obey his superior in all things. First on account of the command of a higher power. Second, a subject is not bound to obey his superior if the latter command him to do something wherein he is not subject to him.”
Now in the Church all authority comes from Christ for a purpose: the power which the Lord hath given me unto edification, and not unto destruction (2 Cor 13:10), for the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ (Eph 4:12). It is a theme that comes sixteen times in St. Paul’s epistles. Now, how this edification is brought about is not up to the arbitrary whims of each Pope: it is an edification in faith (Eph 4:29) and in charity (Eph 4:16). The effort to thoroughly destroy the Traditional Latin Mass, as Bugnini was doing in his note and as Traditionis Custodes is now doing, is certainly not “unto edification”, but rather “unto destruction”; hence it is opposed to the very purpose of Church authority as given by Christ, no matter how high. It has therefore no binding force.
What we do in the Society of St. Pius X is what every good priest was not only permitted but required to do for centuries and centuries. In the very words of Pope Benedict XVI, “what earlier generations held as sacred, remains sacred and great for us too, and it cannot be all of a sudden entirely forbidden or even considered harmful. It behoves all of us to preserve the riches which have developed in the Church’s faith and prayer.” For a priest to do that is not disobedience, not even if his bishop forbids him because the bishop’s authority has been given to him “not unto destruction”. For a bishop to provide for the future of the Mass by forming priests and ordaining them is not disobedience, even if the Pope forbids him (when there is no other bishop doing it) because even Papal authority has a purpose from Christ, it is “not unto destruction but unto edification.”
Archbishop Lefebvre often said: “no one can command us to diminish our Catholic Faith!” That would be directly opposed to the very purpose of Church authority. And the Catholic Faith is not made up and modifiable at whim by the theologians of the latest council, but rather it comes from Christ and his Apostles and has been transmitted to us throughout the centuries: it is Catholic Tradition.
9. Possession / use of authority
It belongs to the same virtue to avoid the defect and to avoid the excess. Hence Archbishop Lefebvre’s resistance to the suppression of the SSPX is also a true act of the virtue of obedience.
Compliance to a particular order responds to the use of authority. If a command is bad, such a command is more an abuse of authority than a proper use of it; authority itself remains good. Hence resisting such command can very well co-exist with submission to authority itself, i.e. the readiness of the will to obey any legitimate order coming from that authority.
There is a huge difference between the one who follows his own will, even when complying with a command (because it pleases him), and the one who, out of obedience to the higher authority and ultimately to God, resists the abuse of authority, while keeping the readiness to obey any legitimate order. The first one is not really obedient though he complied; the second is really obedient, though he did not comply. The modernists complied with the changes, not out of obedience but because these changes were what they wanted: they were not really obedient. But Archbishop Lefebvre who resisted these changes was truly practicing the virtue of obedience which resists the abuse of authority out of obedience to the higher authority of God. As he said: “the masterstroke of Satan was to lead so many into disobedience to Tradition in the name of obedience.”
10. What about required communion with the Church?
All Catholic theologians admit that resisting a particular order of the Pope (even a legitimate order) does not break communion with the Church. St. Thomas gives the very precise definition of schism: “schismatics are those who refuse to submit to the Sovereign Pontiff, and to hold communion with those members of the Church who acknowledge his supremacy.” Refusal to submit means to refuse to acknowledge the right of the Pope to command; Archbishop Lefebvre has never refused that at all; he questioned practical commands (e.g. to close the seminary), but never the right of the Pope to command; he questioned the use of authority, not the possession of authority, keeping always that readiness of the will to obey any legitimate order. Not only under Pius XII, but even under Paul VI and John Paul II, his ideal was the “serve the Pope.” Thus, in his 1974 Declaration, he says:
"That is why, without any spirit of rebellion, bitterness or resentment, we pursue our work of forming priests, with the timeless Magisterium as our guide. We are persuaded that we can render no greater service to the Holy Catholic Church, to the Sovereign Pontiff and to posterity."
These are not words of a schismatic! What makes his situation special is that, in the crisis of the Church due to Vatican II and the post-conciliar reforms, there is a whole new direction pushed by the Roman Curia and the Pope himself, a direction opposed to Tradition, in theology, in liturgy, in relation with non-Catholic religions, in relations with the world (rejection of the social kingship of Christ: it was Pope Paul VI himself who had asked countries such as Columbia to take away the first article of their constitution affirming them as Catholic countries!). That new orientation is very clear in the discourse of Pope Paul VI at the end of the Council:
"Secular humanism, revealing itself in its horrible anti-clerical reality has, in a certain sense, defied the council. The religion of the God who became man has met the religion (for such it is) of man who makes himself God. And what happened? Was there a clash, a battle, a condemnation? There could have been, but there was none… A feeling of boundless sympathy has permeated the whole of it. The attention of our council has been absorbed by the discovery of human needs (and these needs grow in proportion to the greatness which the son of the earth claims for himself). But we call upon those who term themselves modern humanists, and who have renounced the transcendent value of the highest realities, to give the council credit at least for one quality and to recognise our own new type of humanism: we, too, in fact, we more than any others, have the worship of man.”
If Paul VI really had the spirit of the Good Samaritan, he would have cured, not worshipped modern man; he would have cured him by pouring the Blood of Christ (signified by the wine of the good Samaritan), the Blood of Christ’s Sacrifice on man’s wounds and led him to the Church by exhorting him to convert, but he did not. There is not a word about the Cross in that discourse.
Hence, working to continue the Traditional work of the Church led Archbishop Lefebvre to resist not only a few individual abusive commands, but this whole new direction. And he found himself in front of a wall: his objections were brushed away in the name of obedience – disregarding the novelties. At the request of Cardinal Ratzinger, he had presented Rome with a set of Dubia. He received the response in 1987, which was basically not a response at all: just one argument: obedience. Archbishop Lefebvre’s response was simple, recalling the dogmatic constitution of Vatican I about the power of the Pope: “For the Holy Ghost was promised to the successors of Peter not so that they might, by his revelation, make known some new doctrine, but that, by his assistance, they might religiously guard and faithfully expound the revelation or deposit of faith transmitted by the apostles.” This assistance of the Holy Ghost is not something “automatic”, which would guarantee that every single action of the Pope would be a faithful exposition of the deposit of faith; it requires cooperation from the Pope. So, when the Pope promotes novelties, it is not the work of the Holy Ghost! Even Pope John Paul II acknowledges that there are novelties in Vatican II!
Some simply do not see how new Vatican II and the post-conciliar reforms are; some claim that these novelties are “in continuity” and promote a “hermeneutic of continuity”. But the truth is that sometimes there is a direct contradiction, but most of the time it is a complete change of direction: a turn “towards Man”, everything has become centred on man, as Pope Paul VI himself said, and this is manifest in the new liturgy.
The rejection of these novelties, out of fidelity to Catholic Tradition, is certainly not a break from the communion of the Church! If there is a break, it is on the part of those who have changed direction, of those who have introduced novelties that do so much damage to souls in the Mystical Body of Christ; division is not the effect of fidelity, fidelity to the faith of all times, to the liturgy of all times, to the examples of the saints.
11. What is the Unity of the Church?
Some tend to reduce communion with the Church to obedience to the Pope. This is certainly far from Catholic doctrine.
St. Thomas speaks about the Church in a single question of his Summa, speaking of Christ as the Head of the Church (IIIa qu.8 see art. 3 ad 2m). He teaches that the unity of the Church is unity with Christ, the unity of the Mystical Body of Christ, and that is by sanctifying grace (faith, hope and charity here below, and glory in heaven). But another doctor of the Church, St. Robert Bellarmine, in his masterpiece on the Church, defines the Church thus:
"Our definition is: there is only one Church, not two, and this one and true Church is the congregation of men bound together by the profession of the same Christian faith, and the communion to the same sacraments, under the government of the legitimate shepherds, and chiefly of the one vicar of Christ on earth, the Roman Pontiff. There are thus three parts to this definition: the profession of the true faith, the sacramental communion and the submission to the legitimate shepherd, the Roman Pontiff."
Far from being opposed to one another, these two Saints and Doctors complete one another: there is an interior unity and an exterior unity, because man is composed of body and soul. It is not the body that unites the soul, but the soul that unites the body; so, of these two levels, the interior unity of the Church is undoubtedly the more important and the cause of the other. In this interior unity consists the very life of the souls, Christ dwelling by faith in your hearts; being rooted and founded in charity (Eph. 3:17), Christ liveth in me… I live in the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and delivered himself for me (Gal. 2:20). As the Charity for God overflows over our neighbour, so the bond of unity with Christ extends to all the members of His mystical body.
One easily sees how the interior virtue of faith leads to the profession of faith: having the same spirit of faith, as it is written: I believed, for which cause I have spoken; we also believe, for which cause we speak also: (2 Cor. 4:13).
The interior virtue of hope leads to prayer (hence worship) and the reception of the sacraments to obtain the help to go to heaven: hence sacramental communion.
The virtue of charity leads to obedience: If you love me, keep my commandments (Jn. 14:15). He that hath my commandments, and keepeth them; he it is that loveth me (Jn. 14:21). Obedience to Christ leads to obedience to those appointed by Christ to rule the people of God. But that obedience is always within the fidelity to Tradition, as St. John writes: this is charity, that we walk according to his commandments. For this is the commandment, that, as you have heard from the beginning, you should walk in the same: (2 Jn. 1:6). For you, let that which you have heard from the beginning, abide in you. If that abide in you, which you have heard from the beginning, you also shall abide in the Son, and in the Father (1 Jn. 2:24).
It is important to note the primacy of faith: it is the very first interior bond and the profession of the one true faith is the first of the exterior bonds. The importance of the Pope as centre of the unity of the Church comes precisely from the fact that our Lord Jesus Christ gave him the duty to confirm his brethren in the Faith. Faith cannot be put aside as secondary.
Thus the triple interior bond corresponds to the triple exterior bond, it is the source and the soul of it. Three interior plus three exterior, that makes six elements in the unity of the Church. Of these six elements, the most important, the one without which there is no salvation is charity. Though charity is impossible without faith, because the supernatural love of God follows the supernatural knowledge of God, faith without charity is dead and insufficient for salvation. External union without charity is also worth nothing (I Cor. 13:1-3). Charity is the bond of perfection (Col. 3:14)
Now what happens if some element is missing? It is a dogma of faith (against the Donatists) that there is a mixture of just and sinners within the Church (militant, not triumphant). Thus even charity can be missing without (completely) cutting the bond with the Church; the bond is certainly wounded and imperfect but it still remains. It is also the unanimous teaching of the Church that in the absence of the baptism of water one can be saved by the baptism of blood or desire, which, despite not being sacraments, nevertheless create a true bond with the Church (the martyr posses an act of supernatural charity and a profession of faith; the catechumen is also in charity, and posses an act of obedience to the Church in waiting for his baptism).
St. Robert Bellarmine himself gives an example where the third element, submission to the legitimate shepherd, is missing:
It may happen that an excommunicated man retains his baptism, the profession of faith and the subjection to the legitimate prelates, and thus be a friend of God, if his excommunication was unjust; it may also happen that a man justly excommunicated does penance, and has the above three [baptism, profession of faith, and obedience] before he receives the absolution, and thus he would be in the Church, even while remaining still excommunicated. I answer that such a man is in the Church by his soul, i.e. by desire, which is sufficient for him unto salvation, but he is not yet by his body, i.e. by external communion, which makes one properly speaking member of the visible Church on earth.
Indeed, one ought to consider two aspects of the “submission to the legitimate shepherd”: there is the recognition of the superior by the inferior and the recognition of the inferior by the superior. The first one is absolutely required; indeed the refusal to recognise the Pope as the highest superior is precisely the sin of schism as St. Thomas explains; but the second is sometimes missing by the fault of the superior rather than of the inferior: the typical example was the excommunication of St Joan of Arc by Bishop Cauchon! Visibly, she was out; but in reality she was very much united with the Church, Mystical Body of Christ!
St. Augustine, in his De vera religione 6.11, writes:
"Sometimes, too, divine providence will allow even good men to be expelled from the Christian community through some outbreak of turbulence and discord on the part of fleshly-minded folk. When they show inexhaustible patience in putting up with such an insult or injury for the sake of the peace of the Church and do not undertake any novelties in the way of schism or heresy, they will teach us all with what heartfelt loyalty and genuine charity we should serve God. The intention therefore of such men is certainly to find their way back once the tornado has subsided. But if this is not permitted them—because the same hurricane persists, or an even more savage one would start if they came back—they will continue willingly to consider the interests even of those to whose agitations and trouble-making they have given way, without ever setting up their own separate conventicles, and to defend and assist with their testimony the same faith that they know is being proclaimed in the Catholic Church. The Father who sees in secret (Mt 6:4) will in secret award these men their crown. This kind is rarely to be seen, but, all the same, instances of them are not lacking; indeed there are more of them than you could imagine. Thus it is that divine providence makes use of all kinds of men and women and their examples for healing souls and establishing a spiritual people."
If they are “crowned by the Father”, it is because they are in the Mystical Body of Christ (otherwise, one would deny extra Ecclesiam nulla salus): they have the inner bond, and the exterior bonds except half of the third: they are (unjustly) denied recognition by their superior.
As for the Society of St. Pius X, it is clear that we have at least the first five and the submission of the inferior to the superior; as for the recognition of the inferior by the superior, there has not been any clear declaration for the whole SSPX; the 1988 penalty, if it were valid, applies at most for the two consecrating and four consecrated bishops since odibilia sunt restringenda – unfavourable elements should be interpreted in a strict manner, not extended to everyone! I say, if it were valid, because Canon Law itself says that in case of necessity, at least subjective, there is no automatic penalty; since John Paul II did not inflict a special penalty but simply said that the Canon Law applies, then applying the Canon Law there is no penalty!
Conclusion: the Society of St. Pius X is within the Catholic Church. That which is missing for us is a regular canonical situation, but that lack is not our fault (we certainly never wanted the original apparent suppression of the SSPX): we want that situation to be corrected, but not at the expense of Faith. That lack of a regular canonical situation does not put us outside the Church, because it does not imply any refusal of recognition. Law sets order: and order is good. The mission of the Church ought to be orderly and thus it is governed by Canon Law. There is disorder today due to the tempest of modernism, but it does not break the bond of the SSPX with the Church.
11. Further objection: what about the required “canonical mission”?
We all acknowledge that at every level of the clergy there is need of a canonical mission, so that the work of the Church may be done in an orderly way. But there are different kinds of such mission.
There is a mission “ab homine – from the man”, given for example by the bishop to assistant priests for the hearing of confession and some particular priestly work.
There is a mission “ab officio – from the office”: for instance the appointment of a priest as parish priest includes all the duties of the parish priest and the powers required for them. This is the typical mission of a diocesan bishop: by nominating a bishop in a certain diocese, the Pope gives him the mission to care for the sheep of that diocese, with all the powers that go with it. Though the Pope has the right to restrict certain of these powers (e.g. reserved sins), the very nature of the office and duties of a diocesan bishop is not of the Pope’s making, but rather it is our Lord who has establish these duties (the responsibility to teach the Faith in its integrity, to provide the worship and Sacraments in fidelity to Tradition, etc.). The Pope does not have the right to change the constitution of the Church.
But there are also cases of what can be called a mission “a iure – by the Law”. Canon Law explicitly foresees certain cases in which a priest without normal jurisdiction/mission is faced with some necessity of the faithful, and Canon Law gives him a mission, since the salvation of souls is the supreme law. How can that be? Is it (i) that jurisdiction is not needed in these cases? Or is it (ii) that the Law itself gives jurisdiction, or is it (iii) that the Pope in approving the Canon Law gives jurisdiction, or is it (iv) that Christ bypasses all intermediaries and gives jurisdiction Himself? Canon Law itself does not settle the question as to how this happens, but undoubtedly does say that jurisdiction is given – which implies a certain canonical mission “ad casum – for that particular case.” It also clear that this jurisdiction/mission is given without a personal act of the Pope: which refutes the claim of those who say that the explicit will of the Pope is required by divine law for a canonical mission.
Of the explanation, it seems that the best is the third, viz. that by approving the Canon Law and by the very will to be Pope, and thus to fulfil the duties of such elevated state, the Pope does give that canonical mission and jurisdiction for such cases. He needs not know of each case; he may even not agree with a particular case, but since his duty to care for the good of the flock of Christ binds him to provide what is needed for the salvation of souls, it may be reckoned that he desires to grant that canonical mission. For instance, it has been documented that Cardinal Wojtyla ordained some Czech priests in spite of the agreement between Card. Casaroli and the communist Czech government: in such case, even if Pope Paul VI would have disapproved of these ordinations, he acted for the good of souls, with such canonical mission a iure. Though it is not in the letter of the law: it flows from the principles of the Law.
Indeed, St. Thomas Aquinas explains that the virtue of prudence includes eight “integral parts”; one of the is “intellectus – intelligence”, that is, the understanding of the proper principles that are necessary to guide properly the action. At the seminary, I remember Archbishop Lefebvre explaining these principles: from the letter of the Canon Law, he drew the principles guiding the law of the Church, and above all that salus animarum – the salvation of souls is the supreme law.
Some object: your situation is not in the letter of the law. But the current situation of the Church with all the novelties and novel orientation of the Council and post-conciliar reforms is also a new situation: one needs to consider the principles of the law in order to remain faithful to the spirit of the Church: the letter killeth, the spirit quickeneth. (2 Cor 3:6) The spirit of the Church is certainly the model of the Good Samaritan, for the life of the wounded souls.
Additional note: that there can exist a canonical mission / jurisdiction outside the normal letter of the Canon Law can easily be proven by the very fact that Pope Francis has given the Society jurisdiction for confession: in a manner that does not fit any regular canon!
12. What about the marriage tribunal?
The SSPX does not have an ecclesiastical tribunal (except when the Pope has delegated a case to be dealt with by us). A marriage tribunal is not exactly a normal tribunal: in a tribunal, the judge has the power to impose penalties and other duties on the parties; to have such right, there is need to have regular authority over the parties. But a marriage tribunal simply judges of a matter of objective truth, without imposing any penalty or new duties: it judges whether a particular ceremony of marriage was a valid marriage or not. Here, authority does not affect the truth of the judgement, but only who has the responsibility to give such judgement.
What occurred to bring about the SSPX marriage tribunal was the great increase in the number of annulments of marriages after the Council. It came to the point that some referred to the decrees of annulments as “catholic divorce”. How did this happen? Many of these annulments were granted “for lack of due discretion”.
Can. 1095, 2º of the Code of Canon Law states: “They are incapable of contracting marriage, who suffer from grave lack of discretion of judgment concerning essential matrimonial rights and duties which are to be mutually given and accepted.”
But a wide application of this vague “grave lack of discretion” meant that, where the marriage was imprudent, it was often judged as invalid. Some judges practically required a degree of maturity before the marriage that is scarcely achieved after years of marriage by normal couples! In consequence, many faithful became confused: some whose marriage ended up in a divorce were told: just get an annulment! But their conscience questioned this: they remembered that when they got married, they really did what was needed precisely because they wanted to get married. Some who found tradition after their marriages were annulled, wondered whether their second marriages were valid; their consciences were not so clear when they received their annulments.
Now, in order to make the sacrifices that difficult situations demand, such as when one has been abandoned by one’s legitimate spouse, there is need of solid certitude; doubts and hesitation tend to break the courage to make these sacrifices. Many faithful found they could not trust the local clergy on the matter of these annulments, and they came to us, asking us: was my marriage valid? Was my annulment valid? Is my second marriage valid?
Such questions are just questions of facts: a priest can give his own personal opinion on the matter, but such opinion does not carry much weight and would not be sufficient to establish the certitude required either to have true peace of conscience or to make the sacrifice required if one has to remain alone. Indeed, one could always search for a compliant priest… it is always possible to find one – but then the conscience would not be at peace.
In normal circumstances, this is the very purpose of the marriage tribunal: the diligence that the bishop ought to take to choose the judges and to make sure his tribunal follows the proper precautions of law provide the guarantee that the judgement is reliable. But, as explained before, the new attitude of many judges after the Council rendered such marriage courts no longer reliable.
To provide for the need of the faithful deeply affected by the unreliability of many marriage tribunals is not to claim any authority over them, but rather – like the Good Samaritan – to care for wounded souls. By providing them with the careful choice of good judges and the usual process traditionally required by the Church, we can offer them a reliable judgement with which they can find peace of conscience and sometimes the courage to live a life of sacrifice (e.g. when abandoned by their spouse).
13. Some accuse Archbishop Lefebvre of heresy
This accusation is so unbelievable that I left it to the end. The reasoning is that, by refusing the Profession of faith decreed in 1989, Archbishop Lefebvre and the SSPX make themselves heretics.
Those who make this accusation seem not to be aware that there is a deep crisis of faith, where every dogma is being reinterpreted and often thereby completely emptied of its meaning by great numbers of modern theologians. For instance, the dogma of original sin is a frequent target of their reinterpretation: indeed, since they believe in evolution, they do not believe that there was a first man Adam and a first woman Eve; by what circumvolution they reinterpret the original sin, I let you imagine. Needless to say, it has very little to do with what St. Paul taught and all Catholic Tradition after him: as by one man sin entered into this world, and by sin death; and so death passed upon all men, in whom all have sinned (Rom. 5:12).
Given this crisis of faith, which is partly due to the novelties found within Vatican II itself and the new orientation it has taken, the danger of the new profession of faith is in its last paragraph. We have evidently no problem with the Creed and with the first two subsequent paragraphs that deal with the definite teachings of the ex-cathedra magisterium and of the ordinary and universal magisterium. But this third paragraph puts together under “authentic” magisterium non-definitive doctrines of the universal ordinary magisterium which we accept and novelties of Vatican II and post-conciliar bishops which we cannot accept. It completely fails to put the criteria that should govern such teachings, viz. its conformity with Tradition.
Definitive magisterium of the Church requires absolute assent; non-definitive magisterium does not require absolute assent; the religious assent it requires being not absolute, it does not remove the possibility that, when the doctrine taught is new and in opposition with constant past doctrine, then consent must be withheld.
This new profession of faith basically disregards the fact of the novelties of Vatican II, and wants everyone to swallow them as if they were perfectly Catholic.
It is out of true fidelity to the unchangeable Catholic Faith that we reject the imprecision of this third paragraph.
14. One last point: are miracles required to justify Archbishop Lefebvre’s action?
The objection goes thus: “for a minister to prove he has an extraordinary mission, the Church has always required him to have miracles.” This is true for example for Lourdes or Fatima: Bernadette and the Three Children claimed to have a vision and a message; the Church authorities rightly asked for miracles, which did come in both cases, thus authenticating both the vision and the message.
But it is not a universal principle. For instance, when St. Joan of Arc, who certainly had an extraordinary mission, went to the dauphin to ask for an army for Orleans, he had her examined by the doctors in theology of the university of Poitiers, who found her sound in her faith and morals. When they asked: if God wants to give you a victory, He does not need soldiers, she simply answered: “the soldiers shall fight and God shall give the victory.” The victory of Orleans, which changed the course of history, was not a miracle, God did not bypass the usual secondary causes but rather moved them to the desired effect.
But the case of Archbishop Lefebvre is quite different: he had no extraordinary mission. At the seminary, he explained to us why he did not fall for visionaries who were contacting him either for or against. He explained: “our faith is based on the testimony of God, Our Lord Jesus Christ, and His teaching reaches us by being faithfully handled down through Catholic Tradition. It is a wrong conception of the faith to pretend that we need a direct link with God: this would bypass the Church and thus be opposed to what Our Lord has established. It is in the Church, through that faithful transmission through the centuries, that we receive the gifts of Our Lord Jesus Christ, doctrine and Sacraments.”
Thus, since his providential mission was precisely a mission of fidelity to Tradition, it was fitting that he did not bypass it by miracles (it would have been too easy for us…).