Marcel Lefebvre

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Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre (November 29, 1905March 25, 1991) was a leading Catholic who opposed the reforms of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), especially in matters of ecumenism, collegiality, the revision of the then existing Roman Missal, and the authorization to use the vernacular in place of Latin. Founder of the Society of St. Pius X, he was declared excommunicated by the Church authorities for consecrating four bishops in 1988 despite a papal prohibition.



Marcel Lefebvre was born in Tourcoing, France. By the early 1960s, he had risen to high office in the Roman Catholic Church, including Archbishop, Assistant to the Papal Throne and allegedly, though this would be a strange title to give an ecclesiastic, Roman Count (a strange title for an ecclesiastic, for though Cardinal are metaphorically called Princes of the Church, being likened to a sovereign's family, from which the next soverign will come, they are not given the title of prince). He was Superior General of the Holy Ghost Fathers, when in 1962 he was appointed by Pope John XXIII to the Preparatory Commission for the Second Vatican Council (1962-65).

Society of Saint Pius X

During and after the Second Vatican Council, he became increasingly opposed to the direction the Church was taking; and was progressively removed from his positions of authority within the Church. In 1970 he opened with the approval of the local ordinary a small seminary in Fribourg, Switzerland, concerned that the existing Catholic seminaries were falling into heresy. There he established the "Priestly Fraternity of Saint Pius X" with at first canonical legitimacy, which became known also as the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX).

In 1971 Lefebvre announced to his seminarians his rejection of Pope Paul VI’s [1] 1970 revision of the Roman Missal (cf. Novus Ordo Missae and, though he won support only from a very few members of the Church hierarchy, he stated in 1974 that "not even the highest in the hierarchy, can force us to abandon or diminish our Catholic faith, so clearly expressed and professed by the Church's Magisterium for nineteen centuries." [2]

SSPX opened seminaries, and Lefebvre was invited by Catholic laymen to open chapels around the globe. He justified the step of setting up chapels without the permission of the local bishop by what he saw as a crisis in Church leadership and life following the Second Vatican Council.

Discussions with Rome

Archbishop Lefebvre and the Holy See engaged in dialogue, with Lefebvre meeting with Pope Paul VI and later with Pope John Paul II. Lefebvre’s view of the dispute is outlined in the SSPX document, Apologia pro Marcel Lefebvre.[3]

In 5 May 1988 Archbishop Lefebvre signed, together with Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI), a draft document meant to end the dispute. The full original French text is published in, among other sources, appendix X of the book Marcel Lefebvre, une vie, written by Bernard Tissier de Mallerais, one of the bishops that Lefebvre consecrated on 30 June 1988.

The document is in two parts. In the first part, which is of doctrinal character, Archbishop Lefebvre, in his own name and on behalf of the Priestly Fraternity of St Pius X:

  • promised fidelity to the Catholic Church and the Roman Pontiff, Head of the Episcopal Body
  • accepted the doctrine contained in section 25 of the Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution Lumen Gentium on the Church’s magisterium and the adherence due to it
  • pledged a completely non-polemical attitude of study and communication with the Apostolic See on the points of doctrine of the Second Vatican Council and the later reforms that he and the Fraternity considered difficult to reconcile with Tradition
  • recognized the validity of the Mass and the sacraments celebrated with the required intention in accordance with the rites in the typical editions promulgated by Paul VI and John Paul II
  • promised to respect the common discipline of the Church and the ecclesiastical laws, in particular those contained in the 1983 Code of Canon Law, making allowance for special discipline granted by particular law to the Fraternity.

The second (juridical) part of the document envisaged, apart from the canonical reconciliation of the persons concerned, that:

  • the Fraternity would become a society of apostolic life with special exemption regarding public worship, care of souls and apostolic activity, in line with canons 679-683
  • the Fraternity would be granted the faculty to employ the liturgical books in use before the concilliar reform
  • a special commission, including two members of the Fraternity, would be set up to facilitate contacts and resolve problems and conflicts
  • it was proposed to the Holy Father that a member of the Fraternity be appointed a bishop.

This document was to be submitted to the Pope for his approval. However, the next day, Archbishop Lefebvre declared he was obliged in conscience to proceed, with or without papal approval, to ordain on 30 June a bishop to succeed him.

On 24 May, Archbishop Lefebvre was promised that, on condition that he requested reconciliation on the basis of the protocol he had signed, the Pope would in fact appoint a bishop from among the members of the Fraternity, chosen according to the normal procedures, and that the consecration would then take place on 15 August, at the close of the Marian Year. Archbishop Lefebvre, on his part, presented at the same meeting of 24 May three written demands:

  • the consecration must take place on 30 June
  • not one, but three bishops, must be consecrated (something he had already been asking for)
  • the majority of the members of the special commission must be from the Fraternity

On instructions from Pope John Paul II, Cardinal Ratzinger replied to Archbishop Lefebvre on 30 May, indicating that the Holy See found these demands unacceptable and declaring that, if Lefebvre persisted in his intention to carry out unauthorized consecrations on 30 June, the promised authorization for the ordination of a bishop could not be granted.

Consecration of four bishops

On 3 June, Lefebvre wrote from Ecône to say he would still go ahead with the 30 June consecrations. On 9 June 1988, Pope John Paul II replied to him with a personal letter, recalling the agreement the archbishop had signed on 5 May and appealing to him not to proceed with a design that “would be seen as nothing other than a schismatic act, the theological and canonical consequences of which are known to you.” When no reply came from Lefebvre, this letter was made public on 16 June.

On 30 June 1988, Archbishop Lefebvre then proceeded to consecrate as bishops, not three, but four SSPX priests: the above-mentioned Bernard Tissier de Mallerais, Richard Williamson, Alfonso de Galarreta and Bernard Fellay.

Controversy over the consecration

In response to the consecration, the Congregation for Bishops issued a decree declaring Lefebvre automatically excommunicated.[4] On the following day, Pope John Paul II confirmed this declaration with his apostolic letter Ecclesia Dei. Like the declaration of excommunication, the Pope’s letter stated that Lefebvre’s "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", and that, accordingly, since schism is defined as "withdrawal of submission to the Supreme Pontiff or from communion with the members of the Church subject to him"(Code of Canon Law [5], canon 751) it "constitute[d] a schismatic act", entailing, in view of canon 1382 [6]of the Code of Canon Law (the Code of laws of the Latin Church), automatic excommunication of all the bishops involved.

Lefebvre declared that he did not withdraw submission to the Pope and that he believed that canons 1323 and 1324 of the Code of Canon Law absolved him of culpability because of the crisis in the Church. The second of these canons declares that, when someone erroneously - even if culpably, provided the act was not intrinsically evil or tending to the harm of souls - thought there was a state of necessity compelling them to perform an ordinarily excommunicable act, the canonical penalty is to be reduced or replaced (canon 1324, 8°), and automatic penalties do not apply (canon 1324 §3). The Holy See sees this argument as irrelevant to the Lefebvre case, in view of the clear canonical warnings he had been given and because of the rule in canon 1325: "Ignorance which is crass or supine or affected can never be taken into account when applying the provisions of canons 1323 and 1224." The claim that SSPX doesn't plead "ignorance," but merely alleged necessity ignores Lefebvre's appeal to canons 1323 and 1324.

The Society of St. Pius X quotes some canonists as distancing themselves from the declaration of the Holy See on the ground also that, as Lefebvre had consecrated only auxiliary bishops, he had not in fact attempted to establish a parallel Church. Example statements include:

  • Cardinal Castrillon Hoyos, President of "Ecclesia Dei", said in November, 2005 that there was no "formal schism" of the S.S.P.X. from Rome
  • Count Neri Capponi, D.Cn.L., Ll.D, Professor of Canon Law: "This act [of episcopal consecration on 30 June 1988] was not, per se, schismatic."
  • Fr. Gerard E. Murray, J.C.D., of the Catholic University of America: "Canonically speaking, [Archbishop Lefebvre] is not guilty of a schismatic act punishable by canon law"
  • Fr. Patrick Valdini, J.C.D., Dean of the Faculty of Canon Law at the Catholic Institute in Paris: "It is not the consecration of a bishop which creates the schism. What makes the schism is to give the bishop an apostolic mission"
  • Professor Geringer, J.C.D.: "With the Episcopal consecrations, Archbishop Lefebvre was by no means creating a schism"
  • Fr. Rudolf Kaschewski, Canon Lawyer at University of Munich: "The widely spread opinion that the consecration of one or several bishops without papal mandate would cause an automatic excommunication and would lead to a schism is false."

Some, at least, of these quotations have been taken out of context or falsified. Professor Geringer has declared: "I would like to say that at the time in an interview with the radio [from which the above quotation was taken], I explicitly declared that through the consecration of the four bishops by Lefebvre the schism had become definitive and that Lefebvre and his adherents had lost all their rights within the church… there can be no doubt that Lefebvre and his adherents are de facto schismatics" (Letter to John Beaumont 17 August 1993). And Father Gerald Murray: "In this publication you make use of modified quotations from my interview in the Fall 1995 issue of the Latin Mass. You have intentionally misquoted me and even put words into my mouth" (Letter to Fr Scott 14 June 1996).

In line with the general view of canonists,[7]the Holy See has declared that Archbishop Lefebvre committed a schismatic act, but does not hold that he created a schismatic Church. It considers that the Society he founded has not yet reached the stage of constituting a separate Church, which would bring it under the Directory for the Application of Principles and Norms on Ecumenism, as Cardinal Edward Cassidy remarked when presenting a revised edition of the Directory. He said: "The situation of the members of this Society is an internal matter of the Catholic Church. The Society is not another Church or Ecclesial Community in the meaning used in the Directory." By saying this, he was, of course, not distancing himself from Pope John Paul II’s statement that Lefebvre had committed a schismatic act; nor was he saying that no SSPX members are personally schismatic.

In fact, the Holy See judges that the expressions used by many members of the Society, in spite of their protestations of loyalty, indicate a personal outlook of "withdrawal from submission to the Supreme Pontiff or from communion with the members of the Church subject to him", which, as already mentioned, is the definition of schism in canon 751 of the Code of Canon Law.

The SSPX, for its part, hopes that the Church will not continue to deny that any priest has a right, without requesting any permission, to say Mass in the form codified by Pope Pius V and later modified by many of his successors earlier than Pope Paul VI. SSPX also continues to question facets of Church teaching and activity, as in the areas of ecumenism and liturgical reform.

The Society claims that Catholics may attend its chapels "without worrying that they may be in schism by doing so" [8] [9]. However, the judgement of the Holy See, expressed on several occasions, is that such attendance is in normal circumstances "morally illicit" for Catholics, because the priests of the Society, being illicitly ordained, are by canon law automatically suspended from priestly functions, and because of the danger of imbibing schismatic ideas from them.[10] [11] [12]

The repeated declarations by the Holy See that Catholics who find the traditional rites more fulfilling are to be respected demonstrate that the difficulty lies not in attending the "Tridentine Mass" but in participating in celebrations by priests who are suspended by law and who display schismatic attitudes. No such problem exists for attendance at a "Tridentine Mass" celebrated by priests – such as the members of the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter (FSSP)[13] – who, in full communion with the Pope and their local bishops, have requested and obtained an indult to celebrate Mass in its earlier liturgical form. For its part, the Society of St Pius X disapproves of attendance at Mass celebrated by such priests, who declare their acceptance of the decrees of the Second Vatican Council and of the Pope of today – which is precisely what SSPX members cannot do.


Archbishop Lefebvre died in 1991 at the age of 85 from cancer in Martigny, Switzerland and is buried at the society's international seminary in Ecône, Switzerland.

Episcopal Succession

Episcopal Lineage
Consecrated by: Achille Cardinal Lienart
Date of consecration: September 18, 1947
Consecrator of
Bishop Date of consecration
Emile-Elie Verhille December 21, 1951
Gordon Anthony Pantin March 19, 1968
Bernard Tissier de Mallerais June 30, 1988
Richard Williamson June 30, 1988
Alfonso de Galarreta June 30, 1988
Bernard Fellay June 30, 1988

Excommunicated 30 June 1988

See also

External links

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