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Abp. Marcel Lefebvre and the Society of St. Pius X

By Michael Davies,


The Church has been compared to a house, the House of the Living God, and that house is built upon a rock, the rock of Peter. If we are to be Catholics we must be in communion with the successor of Peter. It makes no difference what we think of the Pope,e. St. Thomas, commenting upon this verse, remarks:

Paul who was Peter's subject, rebuked him in public on account of the imminent danger of scandal concerning the faith, and , as the gloss of St. Augustine says: "Peter gave an example to superiors that if at any time they should happen to stray from the straight path they should not disdain to be rebuked by their subjects."

Where obedience to any superior is concerned, St. Thomas Aquinas gives us these principles as a rule of thumb. If our superior commands us to do something that is wrong, we have a duty to disobey. If a superior makes an unjust command we have a right to disobey. We are not obliged to disobey, but could submit humbly to the unjust command. Every ruler including the Pope is bound to rule his subjects justly. The Pope has supreme authority, but he does not have absolute or arbitrary authority. During the debate which took place at the First Vatican Council prior to the promulgation of the dogma of infallibility, objections were made that this would endow the Pope with arbitrary power and he would be able to rule the Church in a tyrannical manner. The relator to the Council, the bishop charged with explaining the meaning of the proposed dogma, stated that the Pope's power was not arbitrary, and that the principal restriction upon it is that he must use his position only to build up the Mystical Body, and must do nothing that could undermine it. The Pope is bound to ensure that al1 his teaching and all his legislation build up the Mystical Body, and that he rule his subjects justly.

Among the rights of the faithful which the Pope is bound to respect according to the 1983 Code of Canon Law are the right to make known their spiritual needs to the pastors of the Church; the right and even the duty to manifest their opinion on matters that pertain to the good of the Church; the right to receive help from the sacred pastors out of the spiritual goods of the Church, especially the Word of God and the Sacraments; the right to worship God according to the prescriptions of their own rite; the right to a Catholic education; and the right not to have their reputation damaged or their privacy violated.

As has been explained the Pope has an absolute obligation to rule justly. St. Thomas and the consensus of Catholic theologians and canonists teach that legislation, and this would include liturgical legislation, is unjust if it is not conducive to the public good or is too burdensome for those subject to it, which means that it must not only not be impossible to carry out but not too difficult or distressing. The liturgical reform that followed the Second Vatican Council was unjust. lt was not conducive to the public good, and was too difficult and distressing to be accepted by countless faithful Catholics as it robbed them of their greatest spiritual heritage, the traditional Mass of the Roman Rite. After the Council these faithful made their spiritual need for the traditional Mass known to the sacred pastors. They asked above all to be allowed to have recourse to the traditional Mass of the Roman Rite that goes back in all essentials to the pontificate of Pope Gregory the Great at the end of the sixth century. The faithful asked for bread and were given stones.

Of all the bishops in the world, only Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre and Bishop de Castro Mayer, of Campos in Brazil, refused to compromise in any way with the revolution masquerading under the guise of reform and which was manifestly destroying the Church. Archbishop Lefebvre established a seminary, with the approval and encouragement of the Holy See, in which priests could be trained to celebrate the Tridentine Mass. lts immediate success evoked the fury of liberal bishops who pressured the Holy See into ordering the Archbishop to close his seminary in a manner that not only ignored the requirements of Canon Law, but those of natural justice. The Archbishop refused to comply unless he was accorded the canonical hearing which is the right of every Catholic, a request which was ignored. This gave rise to the painfully ironic situation of a respected prelate being condemned without a trial for an offense that had not been specified, and then having his amply justified refusal to comply cited as an offense to justify his condemnation!

Archbishop Lefebvre has been compared rightly to St.Athanasius. He is the Athanasius of our times. Like St.Athanasius and like St. Eusebius of Samosata, he went into the dioceses of bishops who were not acting as good shepherds, to give the people the instruction, the sacramental grace, and the pastors that they needed. For one bishop to intrude into the diocese of another is a very serious matter. It can only be justified if there is a state of necessity. A state of emergency, urgency, or necessity occurs in the Church when its continuation, order, or activity are threatened or harmed in an important way, and the emergency cannot be overcome by observing the normal positive laws. The emergency would relate principally to teaching, the liturgy, and ecclesiastical discipline. An interesting reference to such a situation occurs in a study of the Church's divine constitution by Dom Adrien Grea, OSB, in his examination of the extraordinary powers of the episcopate:

"In the fourth century St. Eusebius of Samosata traveled thorough Eastern dioceses devastated by the Arians and ordained orthodox pastors for them, without having particular jurisdiction over them. These are evidently extraordinary actions, as were the Circumstances that gave rise to them."

In The Development of Catholic Doctrine, Cardinal Newman refutes the opinion that interference by one bishop in the diocese of another necessarily constitutes schism. Faithful Catholics have a duty to divide themselves from schismatic or heretical bishops, and where division is a duty it is not a sin. An orthodox bishop does not sin by interfering in a diocese where the bishop is guilty of separation from the Faith by heresy or even de facto schism. St. Athanasius did not cause division when he entered the dioceses of Arian bishops. He was interfering in order to uphold tradition and sustain the faith of true Catholics as a legitimate response to the division caused by the Arian bishops. The first loyalty of every bishop must be the Church as a whole. During a period of schism and heresy, their duty to defend the integrity of tradition extends beyond any single diocese. Cardinal Newman illustrates this by pointing out that "St. Athanasius, driven from his Church, makes all Christendom his home, from Treves(Trier)to Ethiopia." This was undoubtedly a legitimate response to a state of emergency or necessity within the Church.


St. Thomas Aquinas explains that schism pertains to the moral order and that "the essential is that which is intended... "


This brings us to the subject of schism. Schism is defined in Canon 751 as the obstinate post-baptismal refusal of submission to the Roman Pontiff and of communion with the members of the Church subject to him. A Catholic who breaks the strict letter of Canon Law in order to uphold the Faith cannot be accused of Schism. It is explained in the article on schism in the Dictionnaire de Theologie Catholique, the greatest Catholic reference work ever published, that schism and disobedience are often confused. Every act of schism involves disobedience, but not every act of disobedience is schismatic. The true meaning of schism, as expounded within the context of Catholic theology by such theologians as Aquinas and Cajetan, is that the act of schism is found primarily in the intention of the accused person. The guilt of schism, properly so-called, is incurred only when a baptized Catholic intends to sever himself from the unity of the Church by rejecting the existence of the papal office itself, that is by denying that the Pope has the right to Command, or by refusing communion with those Catholics subject to him, that is, by refusing to recognize them as fellow Catholics. The refusal, even the pertinacious refusal, to obey the Pope in a particular instance does not constitute schism. St. Thomas Aquinas explains that the sin of schism pertains to the moral order, and that in the moral order "the essentialrdinal Gantin stating that he would incur excommunication if he consecrated the four bishops:

"Since on 15 June 1988 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 excommunication latae sententiae reserved to the Apostolic See in accordance with Canon 1382. I therefore entreat and beseech you in the name of Jesus Christ to weigh carefully what you are about to undertake against the laws of sacred discipline, and the very grave consequences resulting therefrom for the communion of the Catholic Church, of which you are a bishop."

This admonition provides useful and irrefutable proof of the fact that until the consecration Archbishop Lefebvre was definitely not considered to be schismatic, but to be a bishop of the Catholic Church. I find it quite astonishing that if the proposed consecration were to be considered a schismatic act no mention was made of this in the canonical warning.

Even if it is accepted that Archbishop Lefebvre could not be considered schismatic for consecrating the four bishops, it can still be argued that he incurred excommunication in any case because this offense carries an automatic penalty of excommunication. But any laws in the Code which establish a penalty are subject to what is called a strict interpretation. Where any doubt exists these laws must be interpreted in favor of the accused. That is to say, if there is any doubt about whether a penalty has been incurred it has not been incurred, and there is most certainly doubt about whether Archbishop Lefebvre incurred the penalty of excommunication. He stated that his reason for the consecration is that a state of necessity existed in the sense that has just been explained. That this is indeed true can be shown objectively to be the case. The principal aspect of a state of necessity is that the continuity of the Church is in danger and anyone who believes that the continuity of the Church in the United States, Great Britain, Canada, Holland and France is not in danger has been living in blinkers since the Second Vatican Council.

Canon 1323 states that if one violates a law in the code because a state of necessity or emergency exists that person does not incur a penalty. If, therefore, a state of emergency does exist in the Church Archbishop Lefebvre was not even excommunicated. But let us argue that there is not a state of emergency in the Church. Let us argue that everything is marvelous and that Mass attendance is rising rather than declining each year, that the religious orders are holier than they have ever been, and that children m Catholic schools are learning more and sounder Catholic doctrine than ever before. Would this mean that the penalty was incurred and the excommunication was valid? By no means. Canon 1323, which has just been cited, also states that a penalty has not been incurred if the person accused believes that a state of emergency exists. There can be no doubt at all about the fact that Archbishop Lefebvre believed a state of emergency existed, which means that he did not incur the penalty of excommunication.

A very strange thing happened when the decree claiming that the Archbishop had incurred ipso facto excommunication was published on 1 July 1988. Something was added to the warning contained in the admonition. The decree cited not simply Canon 1382, the Usurpation of an Ecclesiastical Office, but Canon 1364, schism. This is rather as if someone who had been arrested for robbing a bank was then brought into court and charged with robbing a bank and first-degree murder. The consecration of a bishop without a papal mandate is not an intrinsically schismatic offense. It was not designated a schismatic offense in the previous Code where it was not even punished by excommunication but only by suspension. If the offense is intrinsically schismatic it would be in the section of the Code dealing with schism, but it is not. Adding the accusation of schism, even with the approval of the Pope, cannot change an offense that is not schismatic into one that is schismatic.

It has been claimed that the Pope is above Canon Law and can do whatever he likes. It was explained earlier that during the debate on infallibility at the First Vatican Council, the relator explained that the Pope's power is not arbitrary. It would be incredibly arbitrary if the Pope could change Canon Law at his whim and excommunicate people just because he felt like doing so. The Pope, like any legislator, can change the law, but he is bound by the existing law until he changes it, and a judge must judge according to the law. If the Pope wished, he could step out on his balcony today and say that in future consecrating a bishop without a papal mandate will constitute a schismatic offense, and it would be a schismatic offense from that moment onwards. The Pope himself has promulgated the Code of Canon Law, he has ruled that it is the Code of Canon Law for the Church, and he cannot suddenly decide to start changing the rules at his whim without first changing the law itself.


The decision of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith means that any Catholic can assist at chapels of the Society of St. Pius X without the least qualm of conscience.


In a letter dated 26 May 1993 Cardinal Lara, who is head of the Commission for the Correct Interpretation of Canon Law, answers the question as to whether consecrating a bishop without a papal mandate constitutes schism. He explains that:

"The act of consecrating a bishop without a papal mandate is not in itself a schismatic act. In fact, in the Code where offenses are treated, these two are treated in two distinct headings. There are delicts against religion and the unity of the Church. And these are apostasy (i.e., renouncing the faith), schism, and heresy. Consecrating a bishop without a pontifical mandate is, on the other hand, an offense against the proper exercise of one's ministry. For example, there was an excommun be considered a schismatic act unless there is an intention to break with the Church, and that Archbishop Lefebvre had no intention of breaking with the Church is made clear by his subsequent correspondence with the Holy See.

It is sometimes claimed that simply to assist at a chapel of the Society of St. Pius X constitutes schism, and so for this reason the hundreds of thousands of Catholics who assist at Mass in churches and chapels of the Society may be very grateful to Bishop Ferrario of Honolulu who excommunicated five Catholics for having priests of the Society of St. Pius X come to say Mass for them, and for having Bishop Williamson come to confirm their children. Here is the precise charge made against these Catholics in the formal canonical warning of 18 January I99l,and we are indebted to the bishop for being so specific:

"Whereas on (sic) May 1987 you performed a schismatic act not only by procuring the services of an excommunicated Lefebvre bishop, Richard Williamson, who performed conta iure, illicit confirmation in your chapel, but also by that very association with the aforementioned bishop incurred ipso facto the grave censure of excommunication as forewarned by the Office of the Congregation of Bishops at the Vatican to all the faithful (July 1, 1988)."

The faithful who had been excommunicated appealed to the Holy See, and when one appeals to a legal court it has to uphold the law. The following judgment was delivered to Mrs. Patricia Morley, one of the Honolulu five in a letter dated 28 June 1993 from the Apostolic Pro-Nuncio in Washington:

"Upon the instruction of His Eminence, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, I perform the duty to communicate the following reply which I just received from him regarding the recourse submitted first by you and then by four other persons against the Decree of declaration of schism given on May 1, 1991 by His Excellency the Most Reverend Joseph A. Ferrario, Bishop Of Honolulu."

From the examination of the case, conducted upon the basis of the Law of the Church, it did not result that the facts referred to in the above mentioned decree are formal schismatic acts in the strict sense, as they do not constitute the offense of schism; and therefore the Congregation holds that the decree of May 1, 1991 lacks foundation and hence validity.

The decision of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith means that any Catholic can assist at chapels of the Society of St Pius X without the least qualm of conscience.

History has an extraordinary habit of repeating itself. What is happening today has happened before. lt happened in the fourth century during the Arian heresy under Pope Liberius who was subjected to great pressure, and, unfortunately, proved to be weak. He excommunicated St. Athanasius, joining all the Arian bishops in doing this, and he signed a doctrinal formula of very dubious orthodoxy. And what happened? He was the first Pope not to be included in the Roman martyrology and St. Athanasius is a saint. Future generations of Catholics will regard Archbishop Lefebvre as a saint because he preserved for us some of the most precious traditions of our fathers and made it possible for countless Catholics to continue to live a truly Catholic life during the greatest heresy that the Church has undergone since the fourth century. God has surely blessed him for it.

In summary, disobedience to the Pope in a particular instance need not constitute schism providing that his authority itself is not called into question, and the person concerned does not intend to sever himself from the unity of the Church (read the case of Bishop Grossest of Lincoln in my Apologia Pro Marcel Lefebvre, Vol, l, Appendix 11). This is particularly true where the disobedience is a response to a state of necessity in the Church. Consecrating a bishop without a papal mandate is not an intrinsically schismatic act, and a prelate who does so to counter a state of necessity does not even incur the penalty of latae sententiae excommunication, nor does he incur it even if there is no true state of necessity providing he believes sincerely that it exists. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has confirmed officially that assisting at Masses celebrated by Society priests or being confirmed by Society bishops does not constitute schism. The bishops, priests, and faithful of the Society who recognize Pope John Paul II as Sovereign Pontiff; and accept those in communion with the Pope outside the Society as their (fellow Catholics, cannot possibly be said to be in schism. As they accept the entire deposit of Catholic doctrine on faith and morals, the Society clergy and faithful are almost certainly the least schismatic group in the Catholic Church today.

NOTE: It should be noted that in his letter Cardinal Lara also made the ridiculous claim that although consecrating a bishop without a papal mandate is not in itself a schismatic act, the Archbishop was already in a state of schism, and the offense of consecrating bishops simply concretized and made this explicit. Thc claim can be described as ridiculous because, as has been noted, in the admonition from Cardinal Gantin dated 17 June 1988, it was stated that Archbishop Lefebvre was a bishop of the Catholic Church. I have written to Cardinal Lara and the Prefects of four other Roman Congregations asking precisely what offense the Archbishop committed in the two weeks between the admonition and the Decree of Excommunication dated 17 July 1988 which placed him in a state of schism. The only reply that I received was from the Ecclesia Dei Commission which advised me to address my enquiry to Cardinal Lara!

Michael Davies, the distinguished and well-known author of numerous books, is also now the president of Una Voce International.



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