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My Journey out of the Lefebvre Schism: All Tradition Leads to Rome
If you're a Catholic who's faithful to the Church's teaching Magisterium, you've probably met up with followers of Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre's 1988 schism, known as the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX).
They're filled with devotion to the Blessed Mother, extremely conservative with regard to most moral issues afflicting the Western world today, and quite reverent before the Blessed Sacrament during their old Latin liturgies. In short, on the surface, adherents to Archbishop Lefebvre's schism appear to be devout Catholics
It's easy to sympathize with these folks since most of them have joined the SSPX after being scandalized by contemporary abuses in doctrine and liturgy in some of our Catholic churches in North America. In fact, it was precisely because of such sympathies, as well as the beauty of the Tridentine Mass, that I found myself frequenting SSPX chapels about eight years ago. Like most SSPX adherents, at the time I thought that my separation from Rome was merely temporary.
I failed to realize, however, that at the root of every schism, as the present Code of Canon Law explains, "is the withdrawal of submission to the Supreme Pontiff or from communion with the members of the Church subject to him" (Can. 751). Such ruptures from communion with the Church, the Catechism of the Catholic Church points out, "wound the unity of Christ's Body" (CCC 817). For that reason, at the heart of my journey back to full communion with Rome lay many questions about the unity of the Church as an institution founded by Christ.
What follows is a practical reflection on questions concerning Catholic Tradition that troubled my conscience during my sojourn in the SSPX schism. The answers to these questions eventually led me to conclude that Sacred Tradition can only be fully actualized in communion with Rome. My conclusions draw upon eight years of personal experience within the Traditionalist Movement — the last five after being reconciled to Rome. In addition, during the last two years I've pursued a licentiate in canon law from the Church, studies that have culminated in the publication of a major research paper entitled "A Canonical History of Archbishop Lefebvre's Schism." Here's a brief account of what I learned that led to my reconciliation with Rome.
Who was Archbishop Lefebvre?
Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre was ordained a Spiritan Missionary and later became the first Archbishop of Dakar, Africa. In this capacity he founded many missionary dioceses in Africa, and in fact under Pope Pius XII he was appointed the papal legate to French-speaking Africa.
Before retiring in Rome just after the Second Vatican Council, he also served as Superior General of Spiritan Missionaries.
Certain problems, however, began to arise in the French seminaries during this time, and many young seminarians became disenchanted by the confusion that had arisen within their program of formation. Thus they approached Archbishop Lefebvre in 1970 and coaxed him out of retirement in Rome. Concerned with the lack of discipline that had overtaken many French seminaries and the many doctrinal weaknesses in the formation program of seminarians, in 1969 Lefebvre founded a House of Studies, which soon evolved into both a seminary and his Priestly Society of St. Pius X (SSPX).
Both these institutions received canonical approval on an experimental basis near Econe, Switzerland. However, Lefebvre's continued use of the Tridentine Mass eventually became an issue with the Vatican. By 1974 the controversy had become so heated that Lefebvre made a famous declaration within Traditionalist circles calling into question the validity and orthodoxy of the Second Vatican Council.
Finding this declaration problematical, Pope Paul VI canonically suppressed the SSPX and its seminary in 1975. Yet Lefebvre ignored the canonical suppression and began illicitly ordaining his seminarians to holy orders, an action which led to the suspension of his faculties later on in the same year. Over the next thirteen years, Lefebvre continued to operate illicitly and expand the SSPX, while negotiations continued on and off again with Rome.
Relations between Rome and the SSPX remained rather static until May 5, 1988. On this day, agreement was finally reached between the SSPX and Rome, reconciling the SSPX to the Church. The protocol agreement was signed by both Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger and Archbishop Lefebvre. Neverthless, a few days afterwards, Archbishop Lefebvre retracted his signature and announced his intention to consecrate bishops without Rome's permission.
On June 30, 1988, Archbishop Lefebvre proceeded with this intention in violation of canon law, incurring an automatic excommunication under the law. The following day, Cardinal Bernadin Gantin of the Congregation of Bishops declared Lefebvre's excommunication. In a papal motu proprio on July 2, 1988, the Holy Father John Paul II also confirmed Lefebvre's excommunication for schism and for having consecrated bishops despite the Holy See's warnings not to do so.
Sadly, Lefebvre passed away in Econe in March of 1991, without having formally reconciled with the Church. Today, the SSPX includes approximately four hundred priests in over twenty-seven countries representing all five continents. Most estimates place the number of adherents to Archbishop Lefebvre's schism at the one million mark.
Pope St. Pius V and Quo Primum Tempore
The first argument I ever encountered by an SSPX apologist, in fact the very argument that led me into their schism, was a citation of Pope St. Pius V's sixteenth-century papal bull Quo Primum Tempore. In a nutshell, the SSPX proponent claimed that St. Pius V promulgated the Tridentine Mass in perpetuity, meaning for all time. The SSPX claimed — and I found the claim convincing at the time — that every priest has the right to use the Roman Missal codified by St. Pius V in Quo Primum Tempore, and that this right cannot be taken away from him.
As I later discovered, however, the problem with the Quo Primum Tempore argument is a failure to take into account canonical Tradition. First, this argument does not distinguish between the doctrine and the discipline of the Catholic Church. Yet that distinction is critical.
Briefly put, a dogma is a doctrine the Church declares with certitude to be infallible. Take, for example, the dogma of the Blessed Mother's assumption into heaven. Pope Pius XII didn't suddenly declare it as a new truth in 1950 that Mary was assumed into heaven; this truth, after all, had come into existence nearly two millennia before when Mary was assumed. Rather, the pope declared this dogma because the Church had come to know for certain Mary that was assumed into heaven.
At the root of every schism, as the present Code of Canon Law explains, "is the withdrawal of submission to the Supreme Pontiff or from communion with the members of the Church subject to him" (Can. 751). Such ruptures from communion with the Church, the Catechism of the Catholic Church points out, "wound the unity of Christ's Body."
At that point, our Lady's assumption was thus no longer a matter of theological speculation for Catholics. Once declared, a dogma must be believed by the Catholic faithful, and cannot be reneged upon — although the Church may always clarify her understanding of a dogma.
A mere discipline of the Faith, on the other hand, is a law, a custom or practice originating from the Church as a means of safeguarding the good order of the Church. To establish ecclesiastical discipline, the Church must ask herself: What is the most practical way of protecting the doctrine of the Church here and now?
Consequently, discipline is subject to change depending upon the present needs of the Church. Furthermore, mere disciplines of the Faith need not be applied in the same manner throughout the entire Church, and they may always be dispensed from, since the pastoral needs of one particular grouping of the faithful may differ from the pastoral needs of another. For example, the discipline of celibacy is imposed upon Catholic priests in the Latin Church, whereas this discipline is optional for Catholic priests in the Eastern Catholic churches.
Through this insight I first came to see the weakness of the SSPX's claims. If Quo Primum Tempore had indeed been promulgated as a dogmatic declaration, then the SSPX would be correct in stating that every priest and bishop has a right in perpetuity to use the Tridentine Missal codified by St. Pius V. Nevertheless, within the very text of Quo Primum Tempore stood a clause by St. Pius V granting an exception to the declaration: All priests and bishops who said Mass using liturgical missals more than two hundred years old were not obliged to use this codified version of the Roman Missal. So even from the beginning of its promulgation, Quo Primum Tempore never applied to every Catholic priest.
From this fact alone I was able to draw the conclusion that Quo Primum Tempore was merely disciplinary rather than dogmatic in nature. For a dogmatic definition, by its very nature, binds the entire Church, while Quo Primum Tempore contains exceptions among the Catholic faithful in its application. Thus I was forced to conclude that the document could be legally changed or revoked by a future Roman Pontiff such as Pope Paul VI.
Yet even if this were not the case, and future Roman Pontiffs were forbidden from reforming the Missal codified by St. Pius V, I couldn't deny that this papal bull merely granted the right to celebrate Mass according to the Tridentine Missal. Quo Primum Tempore did not extend the right to bishops — upon their own authority and against the expressed wishes of the Roman Pontiff — to ordain priests and consecrate bishops as Archbishop Lefebvre had done. In other words, using a certain liturgical Missal to offer the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is not the same action as consecrating bishops without permission of the Roman Pontiff; even if one consecrates bishops in order to provide a source of ordination for priests who will say the Tridentine liturgy.
A state of necessity?
The second point raised by the SSPX in defense of their schism that initially convinced me of their position was based upon canons 1323:4° and 1324 §1:5° of the present Code of Canon Law — the canons pertaining to state of necessity. According to these canons, in an emergency situation, certain laws of the Church that normally apply cease to do so. Under such conditions, a penalty that can be attached to the transgression of the law will either be lessened or cease to apply completely.
For example, normally a priest must be in good standing with the Church and have permission from his bishop before hearing confessions. However, if an excommunicated priest came across a car accident on the side of the road, and found a seriously injured Catholic party, the Catholic Church would automatically provide the excommunicated priest with the power of hearing the injured person's confession, as long as a serious danger of death existed. In other words, the Church does not punish, because of the crime of a priest, an injured person in desperate need of absolution; for it's more important that the Church absolve the penitent's sin in danger of death than it is to enforce the priest's punishment. Therefore, under the state of necessity canons mentioned above, the Church allows exceptions to many of her laws in certain unforeseen circumstances.
Archbishop Lefebvre insisted that his irregular consecration of bishops without Rome's permission was carried out in a state of necessity. However, the Holy See foresaw the situation in which the archbishop found himself before he consecrated the bishops, yet still denied him permission to proceed with such an action. As Cardinal Gantin, on behalf of the Holy See, wrote in a letter to Lefebvre dated June 17, 1988: "Since . . . you stated that you intended to ordain four priests to the episcopate without having obtained the mandate of the Supreme Pontiff as required by canon 1013 of the Code of Canon Law, I myself convey to you this public canonical warning, confirming that if you should carry out your intention as stated above, you yourself and also the bishops ordained by you shall incur ipso facto [by that very fact] excommunication latae sententiae [imposed automatically] reserved to the Apostolic See in accordance with canon 1382."
A mere discipline of the Faith, is a law, a custom or practice originating from the Church as a means of safeguarding the good order of the Church. To establish ecclesiastical discipline, the Church must ask herself: What is the most practical way of protecting the doctrine of the Church here and now?
In essence, the Holy See did not agree with Lefebvre's analysis of the situation in the Catholic Church, namely that a sufficient emergency existed to warrant the consecration of bishops without Rome's approval. This is an important point in resolving the dispute between Archbishop Lefebvre and Pope John Paul II, for where there exists a difference in interpreting the application of canon law, canon 16 states clearly: "Laws are authentically interpreted by the legislator and by that person to whom the legislator entrusts the power of authentic interpretation."
In Lefebvre's situation, he knew in advance that his interpretation of canon law in this case was not acceptable to the Roman Pontiff, who is the highest legislator. So even though Lefebvre disagreed with the Roman Pontiff's interpretation of canon law, it nevertheless remained up to Pope John Paul II to interpret that law authoritatively. Therefore, because the idea of a state of necessity in Lefebvre's circumstances was rejected by Pope John Paul II, I came to realize that I could not legitimately invoke the state of necessity canons in defense of Lefebvre's consecration of bishops without Rome's permission.
The novus ordo missae: Intrinsically evil?
A common argument now put forward by the SSPX is that the revised liturgy of Pope Paul VI is intrinsically evil, or at the least poses a proximate danger to the Catholic faith. This would mean that the post-Vatican II liturgy is in and of itself contrary to the law of God. How individual Lefebvrites approach this issue will often vary, but they typically insist that the new Mass contains heresy, blasphemy or ambiguity. In resolving this question, I came to the personal conclusion that Christ has a sense of humor, since the same text from Catholic Tradition the SSPX quotes in defense of this claim is the very text that refutes it.
A preliminary observation is in order. The Mass has not changed since Christ instituted this sacrament on the night before His crucifixion. In essence, there is neither an "old" Mass nor a "new" Mass, but only the Mass. In fact what changed after the Second Vatican Council was not the Mass, but the liturgy.
This means that while the "accidents" (to use a classical theological term) differ somewhat between the pre-Vatican II liturgy and the reformed liturgy of Pope Paul VI, their essence remains the same: the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ transubstantiated into the Eucharist. This central mystery of the Mass takes place regardless of whether the priest celebrates according to the liturgical books in use before the Second Vatican Council or according to the liturgical books revised by Pope Paul VI. In fact, both sets of liturgical books are usages of the same Roman liturgical rite.
When I was associated with the SSPX, to defend the claim that the reformed liturgy is intrinsically evil I used to quote the seventh canon on the Sacrifice of the Mass from the Council of Trent. This canon states: "If anyone says that the ceremonies, vestments and outward signs which the Catholic Church makes use of in the celebration of Masses are incentives to impiety, rather than offices of piety; let him be anathema."
Let's look at this more closely. Since the definition of intrinsic evil is "something which in and of itself is evil," we see from the Council of Trent that an approved liturgy of the Church cannot be such. For something that is intrinsically evil is naturally an incentive to impiety, while the Council of Trent declares dogmatically that the approved liturgical ceremonies of the Catholic Church cannot be incentives to impiety.
But wait a second: Wasn't the revised liturgy of Pope Paul VI an approved liturgy of the Church? Of course! So according to the Tradition of the Church as dogmatically defined at the Ecumenical Council of Trent, I could only conclude that the reformed liturgy of Pope Paul VI cannot be an incentive to impiety. It necessarily follows, then, that neither could it be intrinsically evil. Thus in my defense of the schismatic position I stood refuted by the very Catholic Tradition from the Council of Trent that I was seeking to preserve through adherence to the SSPX schism.
Illicit consecration of bishops: An act of schism?
One argument commonly presented within SSPX circles is that the act of consecrating bishops without papal permission is an act of disobedience, but not an act of schism. Although I didn't give much thought to this argument, either before or after my involvement in the SSPX, nevertheless it should be addressed because it's frequently made among schismatic ranks. The SSPX folks generally claim that they have not withdrawn subjection to the Roman Pontiff. Rather, they refuse obedience in some matters.
We should reiterate here that canon 752 defines schism as "the withdrawal of submission to the Supreme Pontiff or from communion with the members of the Church subject to him." Notice that the canon does not distinguish between degrees of withdrawal of submission to the Roman Pontiff. In other words, a person need not completely withdraw submission to the Roman Pontiff to enter into a state of schism. Rather, partial withdrawal of obedience in certain matters — and consecrating bishops without papal mandate is a serious matter — remains an act through which a person withdraws submission to the Roman Pontiff. In short, the Holy Father told Archbishop Lefebvre not to consecrate bishops without Rome's permission, and Archbishop Lefebvre refused to submit.
I never paid this argument much attention during my time in the SSPX chapels. But afterward I realized that the SSPX claim — that they haven't withdrawn submission to the Roman Pontiff, but rather have merely temporarily suspended their obedience to him in certain matters — could not be sustained by Catholic Tradition. For such an act of disobedience in a serious matter remains at least a temporary withdrawal of submission to the Roman Pontiff. Therefore, with sufficient moral certitude I could only conclude that Archbishop Lefebvre's act of consecrating bishops against Pope John Paul II's stated wishes was an act of schism according to canon law.
A person need not completely withdraw submission to the Roman Pontiff to enter into a state of schism. Rather, partial withdrawal of obedience in certain matters — and consecrating bishops without papal mandate is a serious matter — remains an act through which a person withdraws submission to the Roman Pontiff. In short, the Holy Father told Archbishop Lefebvre not to consecrate bishops without Rome's permission, and Archbishop Lefebvre refused to submit.
Probably the most common claim I came across within SSPX circles was the claim that Pope Liberius (reigned A.D. 352-366) was a heretic, sympathetic to Arianism, who falsely excommunicated St. Athanasius. For this reason, the SSPX claims, Pope Liberius became the first pope in the history of the Church not be recognized as a saint. Of course, by analogy the SSPX considers Archbishop Lefebvre a modern St. Athanasius and Pope John Paul II a modern Pope Liberius.
Their argument is that if it happened once, it can happen again. And yet, as our Lord showed me in a rather amusing fashion, such claims have little basis in Catholic Tradition.
Convinced the SSPX claims pertaining to this situation were true, I was reading my copy of Henri Denzinger's Sources of Catholic Dogma one day when I noticed that Denzinger listed Pope Liberius as "St. Liberius." To say I was surprised would be an understatement — ironically enough, the SSPX had sold me the particular edition of Denzinger I was reading, since they held all subsequent editions as suspect. Yet this portion of Denzinger clearly did not accord with what was being preached from our local SSPX pulpit. So I simply dismissed this listing as a probable typesetting error and continued reading.
A mere ten pages later, I came across a papal epistle authored by Pope St. Anastasius subtitled "The Orthodoxy of Pope Liberius." In it, Pope St. Anastasius clearly states: "The heretical African faction [of the Arian heresy] was not able by any deception to introduce its baseness because, as we believe, our God provided that that holy and untarnished faith be not contaminated through any vicious blasphemy of slanderous men — that faith which had been discussed and defended at the meeting of the synod of Nicea by the holy men and bishops now placed in the resting place of the saints" (see art. 93 of the thirtieth edition).
So far, so good; God had clearly preserved the Church from Arianism through the actions and prayer of holy men. But who were these holy men, and how does this relate to Pope Liberius? I wondered. To my surprise, Pope St. Anastasius answered the question in the subsequent paragraph this way: "For this faith those who were then esteemed as holy bishops gladly endured exile, that is . . . Liberius, bishop of the Roman Church."
I was stunned by this pope's answer, for clearly there was a contradiction here: Was I to believe Archbishop Lefebvre and his followers as the authentic teaching from Catholic Tradition? Or was I to believe the teaching of Anastasius in his papal epistle Dat mihi plurimum — the claim of one who was a saint, a pope, and a writer much closer to the time the Arian heresy took place? When my local SSPX priest failed to provide an adequate solution for this quandary, I could only accept the claim of Pope St. Anastasius as the authentic voice of Catholic Tradition.
Traditional Rome vs. modernist Rome
The question of Rome eventually weighed in on my conscience, as it should for anyone who leaves the Church. Given what Catholic Tradition consistently teaches concerning faithfulness to Rome, how could I justify my separation from the Roman Pontiff? In fact, even five years after reconciling myself to Rome, the question of communion with Rome and the local Bishop remains the catalyst for much of my theological and canonical exploration.
While I was with the SSPX, however, I accepted their solution to this problem. The SSPX claimed that the questionable behavior of the post-Vatican II popes had divided the faithful into two camps. One camp, the institutional Church, was faithful to contemporary Rome, which the SSPX claims has been infiltrated by modernists and liberals. In the other camp rests the SSPX, who naturally are faithful to Traditional Rome.
Nevertheless, I was unable to deceive my conscience. So I kept wondering whether Catholic Tradition actually sustained the argument that a Catholic could be faithful to Traditional Rome, without remaining faithful to temporal Rome.
"Our hearts are restless, O Lord, until they rest in You," remarks St. Augustine at the opening of his Confessions. My heart was spiritually restless because it didn't rest in full communion with Christ's Mystical Body, the Church. Yet Christ also promises us in the Gospels that if we seek the truth, we will find it (see Matt. 7:7).
In my case, the truth lay in the back room of my parents' basement. There I found an abandoned box full of old papal encyclicals left over from my father's college days. At the bottom of this box was Pope Pius XII's masterful papal encyclical Mystici Corporis.
Curious as to the content, I immediately opened this work to the following passage: "We think, how grievously they err who arbitrarily claim that the Church is something hidden and invisible, as they also do who look upon her as a mere human institution possessing a certain disciplinary code and external ritual, but lacking power to communicate supernatural life" (par. 64). This theological discovery from Catholic Tradition as expressed by the pre-Vatican II popes astounded me even more than my previous St. Anastasius discovery in Denzinger.
Here, from the Church's Tradition, was the teaching that we cannot separate the Church into a mere spiritual communion as opposed to a mere human institution. In short, the Rome of Tradition and the Rome of Today were the same Rome. Everything suddenly made sense to me about Catholic ecclesiology. Just as at the Incarnation Christ was fully human and fully divine, without sacrificing either nature, so too must the Church, as Christ's Mystical Body, be a perfect union of the visible and the invisible.
I remembered that St. Paul had asked somewhere in his epistles the question "Is Christ divided?" (see 1 Cor. 1:13). Of course, the answer was no. Therefore, why in the name of Catholic Tradition was I dividing Christ's Mystical Body into a spiritual communion and a human communion?
Furthermore, in frequenting the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass outside the visible communion of the Church, why was I dividing Christ's Sacramental Body (Body, Soul and Divinity) in the Eucharist from Christ's Mystical Body, the Church? For didn't expressions such as "Body of Christ" and "Communion" carry this double meaning: the first sacramental, meaning the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist, and the second ecclesiological, meaning the sacred unity of the Church?
Captivated by these questions forming in my conscience, I kept reading Mystici Corporis and came across the following section:
Of course, I said to myself; the Roman Pontiff and Jesus Christ form but one head of the Catholic Church. The word "tradition," which I recalled from so many homilies in SSPX chapels, comes from the Latin verb tradere, which means "to hand down." Ultimately, I reasoned, there must be a source from which Tradition was first passed down, and that source is Jesus Christ. In the end I realized that Tradition is a Person — the Second Person of the Holy Trinity who incarnated Himself in the womb of an immaculately conceived Virgin.
As Christ and His vicar constitute but one Head of the Church, then the voice of Tradition must speak through St. Peter and his lawful successors in the Roman Primacy. Therefore, I had to make a choice to follow Catholic Tradition and embrace the Rock upon whom Christ founded His Mystical Body here and now.
Like the prodigal son, I realized my error in following Archbishop Lefebvre into schism, and I was now making my way home to Holy Mother Church. Through his generous papal indult in Ecclesia Dei Adflicta, John Paul II was exactly like the father in Christ's parable: He was living up to his title "Pope," which means "Father," by welcoming into the Church his Traditionalist sons and daughters who in 1988 had followed Archbishop Lefebvre out of the vineyard of authentic Catholic Tradition.
WAS ARCHBISHOP LEFEBVRE EXCOMMUNICATED? The last argument I consistently came across within SSPX circles is more of a technical one that never affected my decision to reconcile with the Church. In fact, I myself never thought about researching an answer to this question, but rather stumbled across the answer accidentally while researching my thesis. Even so, the argument is made often enough to deserve mention. It's the claim that the Church never actually excommunicated Archbishop Lefebvre, but rather informed him that he was automatically excommunicated by virtue of canon law itself.
The Church can excommunicate an individual in two ways. The first is by means of latae sententiae excommunication. This means that the offender is automatically excommunicated by virtue of the law itself, and thus the sentence need not be imposed by a judge within the Church. However, in order for such an excommunication to be enforced by canon law, a legitimate Church authority must still declare that the excommunication has taken place.
The second method of imposing an excommunication is by ferendae sententiae. This refers to the decision of a judge in a Church tribunal.
Archbishop Lefebvre was excommunicated by virtue of the law, and not by any penalty imposed by a judge. However, Lefebvre's apologists fail to note in making this argument that his excommunication was subsequently declared by the Church. Cardinal Gantin, in a decree from the Congregation for Bishops dated July 1, 1988, declared on behalf of the Church the excommunication of Archbishop Lefebvre as follows:
Without getting into all the canonical particulars, we can nevertheless clearly establish in this statement that the Church has excommunicated Archbishop Lefebvre. Rome has clearly spoken as the voice of Catholic Tradition, and thus the case is now closed.
The substance of Catholic Tradition
In my journey back to the Church, through the grace of God I've been led from the mere "accidents" of Catholic Tradition to the substance of Catholic Tradition. Although I enjoy the reformed liturgy of Pope Paul VI, which I now recognize as the normative liturgy of the Latin Church, I'm as firmly committed to preservation of the 1962 liturgical missal today as I was during my time in the Lefebvre movement. However, I realize that our liturgical tradition as Catholics cannot be preserved apart from John Paul II and all the other legitimate successors of St. Peter. For his voice is the voice of Catholic Tradition in the Church today — a Tradition that has been passed down to him by Christ and the Apostles.
Click here to View Envoy's "Canon Law 101" for explanations of some of the terms in this article.
Vere, JCL/M, Pete "My Journey out of the Lefebvre Schism: All Tradition Leads to Rome." Envoy Magazine vol. 4.6 (March, 2001).
Reprinted with permission of Envoy magazine.
Copyright © 2001 Envoy