The Archbishop’s knowledge of Giovanni Montini from before the Council, and his experiences dealing with him as Paul VI during Vatican II, produced a completely certain judgement in his mind that Paul VI was a liberal, but still a Catholic. However, the incredible scandals of Paul VI’s reign gave weight to the possibility, already being discussed openly around the world at the time of the foundation of the Society, that Paul VI was in fact not truly the pope.
The Archbishop’s knowledge of Giovanni Montini from before the Council, and his
experiences dealing with him as Paul VI during Vatican II, produced a completely certain
judgement in his mind that Paul VI was a liberal, but still a Catholic. However, the incredible
scandals of Paul VI’s reign gave weight to the possibility, already being discussed openly
around the world at the time of the foundation of the Society, that Paul VI was in fact not truly
the pope. As the situation developed this possibility gained credence in the eyes of the
Archbishop, and he tolerated openly sedevacantist seminarians and priests within the
Society. His policy was expressed as I do not say that the pope is not the pope, but I do not
say either that one cannot say that the pope is not the pope.
Already in 1970 Brazilian Professor of Philosophy Arnaldo Vidigal Xavier da Silveira7, close
collaborator of Bishop de Castro Mayer, had begun publishing his celebrated study of the
New Mass, the Catholic doctrine that the Church is incapable of promulgating harmful
liturgical rites, and the explosive question of whether a pope can disappear into heresy, and
if he did what effect this would have on his claim to the papal office. Bishop de Castro
Mayer sent this document directly to Paul VI. Archbishop Lefebvre would later praise it as
“the very objective study of Xavier da Silveira on this subject [i.e. the heretic pope
7 Arnaldo Vidigal Xavier da Silveira was born in São Paolo, Brazil, in 1929. Educated t hrough high school by the
Jesuits, he graduated in 1956 in Law and Social Sciences from the Catholic Pontifical University of São Paulo.
Later, he studied philosophy at the Grand Seminary of the Immaculate Conception Centre, and from 1956 to
1963, he taught Philosophy at the Catholic Pontifical University of São Paulo. He was one of the main
collaborators of the monthly journal Catolicismo, published under the auspices of Bishop Antonio de Castro
Mayer, Bishop of the Diocese of Campos, Brazil.
Da Silveira’s major work is entitled Theological and Moral Implications of the New Ordo Missae. On page 3 of
the English edition is the following information: "The matter contained in this volume was originally published in
Portuguese in three independent studies: " Consideracoes sobre o Ordo Missae de Paulo VI , São Paulo, Brazil,
June, 1970, XX-169 pp., Modificacoes Introduzida no Ordo de 1969, São Paulo, Brazil, August, 1970, 20 pp.;
and A Infallibidade das Leis Eclesiasticas, Sao Paulo, Brazil, January, 1971, XI-34 pp." In its French translation
the work was entitled, La nouvelle messe de Paul VI: Qu'en penser? and was published in 1975. An anonymous
translator published the English edition in the USA in the mid-1970s. Subsequently, the section of this edition
treating of the “pope heretic” question was re- published by Catholic Research Institute, Spokane, Washington,
1998, as Can the Pope Go Bad? It seems that the author, a layman, under pressure from the Brazilian
episcopate to avoid making unnecessary disturbances and disunity in the Church, agreed not to publish the book
and only circulated a limited number of private copies, hoping that those with responsibility in the Church would
consider his work respectfully and act against the New Mass. Instead, t he result was that the book was
effectively buried for many years.
8 Public Statement, The New Mass and the Pope, 8 November 1979, reprinted in Michael Davies’ Apologia Pro
Marcel Lefebvre, Volume 2, Chapter XL, The Angelus Press, Dickinson, Texas, 1983, p. 371.
Da Silveira’s work is extraordinarily comprehensive (he surveyed the works of no fewer than
136 theologians on the pope heretic question alone), highly refined and subtle, and written
dispassionately and with deep insight. He provides no final solution to the problems then
facing Catholics, that of Paul VI, the Acts of Vatican II and the promulgation of the Novus
Ordo Missae, nor to the theoretical question of whether a pope who became a heretic would
certainly lose office, but satisfies himself with some tentative suggestions, leaving it to “those
who are learned in the matter” to solve the problems ventilated in his work.
At first sight, the answer to this question is, in theory, very simple: since God cannot
permit that the whole Church err about who is her chief, the Pope peacefully
accepted by the whole Church is the true Pope. It would be the duty of the
theologians, on the basis of this clear theoretical principle, to resolve the concrete
question which would then be put: either proving that in reality the Pope had not
been a formal and notorious heretic at the moment of election; or showing that
afterwards he had been converted; or verifying that the acceptation by the Church
had not been pacific and universal; or presenting any other plausible explanation.
on purely theoretical grounds, an important difficulty arises, which would consist in
determining precisely what is the concept of pacific and universal acceptation by the
Church. For such acceptation to have been pacific and universal would it be enough
that no Cardinal had contested the election? Would it be enough that in a Council,
for example, almost the totality of the Bishops had signed the acts, recognizing in this
way, at least implicitly, that the Pope be the true one? Would it be enough that no
voice, or practically no voice had publicly given the cry of alert? Or, on the contrary,
would a certain very generalized, though not always well defined, distrust be
sufficient to destroy the apparently pacific and universal character of the acceptance
of the Pope? And if this distrust became a suspicion in numerous spirits, a positive
doubt in many, a certainty in some, would the aforementioned pacific and universal
acceptance subsist? And if such distrusts, suspicions, doubts and certainties
cropped out with some frequency in conversations or private papers, or now and
again in published writings, could one still classify as pacific and universal the
acceptance of a Pope who was already a heretic on the occasion of his election by
the Sacred College?
It is not in the nature of the present work to try to respond to questions such as these.
We only wish to formulate them here, asking those who are learned in the matter to
clear them up.9
On the one side we desire to submit to you entirely, to follow you in everything, to
have no reserves about your person, and on the other side we are aware that the
lines taken by the Holy See since the Council, and the whole new orientation, turn us
away from your predecessors. What then are we to do? We find ourselves obliged
either to attach ourselves to your predecessors or to attach ourselves to your person
and separate ourselves from your predecessors. For Catholics to be torn like that is
These passages reveal that by 1970 doubts about Paul VI’s papacy were already
widespread. Da Silveira alludes clearly to distrust which had become a suspicion in
numerous spirits, a positive doubt in many, a certainty in some, and that this distrust,
suspicion, doubt and certainty were cropping out with some frequency in conversations,
private papers, even now and again in published writings. The Archbishop’s familiarity with
these passages quoted from da Silveira might explain why he did not invoke the “universal,
pacific acceptance” of a Roman Pontiff as proof that the Modernist claimant was pope until
the extraordinarily late date of 1979. Da Silveira’s reasoning might also explain why the
Archbishop later changed his mind on this point, and openly speculated that both Paul VI
and John Paul II might not have been true popes after all.
Da Silveira closes his work with a prayer presumably composed by himself which is worthy
of wider distribution.
We beseech the Most Holy Virgin that She assist her children in the midst of the
tremendous storms which, in our days, are causing incalculable harm to souls. And
we solemnly appeal to Her that She hasten the day in which her Immaculate Heart
will triumph. In that day, the Holy Church will appear more radiant than ever, and the
Roman Pontificate, the unshakable rock of the Truth will illuminate all the nations of
the Earth with a new brilliance.
In his interview with Paul VI in 1976, Archbishop Lefebvre formulated the essential conflict
which was tearing at the hearts of millions of the faithful around the world. It was
courageous and direct.
9 Da Silveria, op. cit.
made by me, it is a feeling that comes from the hearts of the faithful, millions of the
faithful whom I do not know. I have no idea how many there are. They are all over the
world, everywhere. Everybody is uneasy about this upset that has happened in the
Church in the last ten years, about the ruins accumulating in the Church.10
If it happened that the pope was no longer the servant of the truth, he would no
longer be pope.
Archbishop Lefebvre continued to maintain his public position and that of the Society that
Paul VI was truly pope, yet he also harboured at least a theoretical doubt, which occasionally
he expressed. In the sermon delivered during the famous Mass at Lille, he introduced this
radical idea to 12,000 people, stating:
While we are certain that the faith the Church has taught for 20 centuries cannot
contain error, we are much further from absolute certitude that the pope is truly
And earlier the same month, August 1976, he referred to the same possibility in clear,
theological terms in the newspaper Le Figaro.
...a grave problem confronts the conscience and the faith of all Catholics since the
beginning of Paul VI’s pontificate: how can a pope who is truly successor of Peter, to
whom the assistance of the Holy Ghost has been promised, preside over the most
radical and far-reaching destruction of the Church ever known, in so short a time,
beyond what any heresiarch has ever achieved? This question must one day be
To whatever extent the pope departed from...tradition he would become schismatic,
he would breach with the Church. Theologians such as Saint Bellarmine, Cajetan,
Cardinal Journet and many others have studied this possibility. So it is not
Heresy, schism, ipso facto excommunication, invalidity of election are so many
reasons why a pope might in fact never have been pope or might no longer be one.
In this, obviously very exceptional case, the Church would be in a situation similar to
that which prevails after the death of a Pontiff.
The question is therefore definitive: is Paul VI, has Paul VI ever been, the successor
of Peter? If the reply is negative: Paul VI has never been, or no longer is, pope, our
attitude will be that of sede vacante periods, which would simplify the problem.
Some theologians say that this is the case, relying on the statements of theologians
of the past, approved by the Church, who have studied the problem of the heretical
pope, the schismatic pope or the pope who in practice abandons his charge of
The next year in a prepared text intended to clarify things for the clergy and faithful, the
Archbishop stated that one day the Church may judge that Paul VI had not in fact been
10 Quoted by Michael Davies, Apologia Pro Marcel Lefebvre, The Angelus Press, 1979, vol. I, p. 278.
11 August 29, 1976.
12 Le Figaro, August 4, 1976
by the Church.13
He said more than once about these popes – about Paul VI from 1976, and about
John Paul II, after the prayer meeting of religions at Assisi in 1986 – that he did not
exclude the possibility that these popes were not popes, that one day the Church will
have to examine their situation, that a future pope and his cardinals might have to
pronounce the finding that these men had not been popes. But for himself, he
preferred to consider them as popes.
One very clear conclusion forces itself upon the mind as these various statements are
reviewed in chronological order, and it is a startling conclusion. The continued growth of
sedevacantism amongst traditional Catholics, including and especially the seminarians and
priests of the Society, was at least partly the responsibility of Archbishop Lefebvre himself.
This is another fact, besides purely theoretical considerations, which explains the
Archbishop’s generally very benign view of this highly controversial thesis.
In 1998, as part of his reflections on the tenth anniversary of the episcopal consecrations,
Bishop Tissier de Mallerais summarised the Archbishop’s thinking as follows:
The first concerned a Bishop's breaking with Rome - which you deemed to be
desirable. Undoubtedly, no explicit allusion was made. However, in the next few lines
you mentioned my name in connection with the Credo Pilgrimage (to Rome), and
uninformed readers automatically linked the person named with the preceding lines.
This kind of thing is odious. I would have you know that if a Bishop breaks with Rome
it will not be me. My Declaration (of 21 November) stated this explicitly and
An important factor in the thinking and actions of the Archbishop in relation to the authority of
Rome was his concern to avoid compounding the difficulties he, the Society itself, and the
clergy and faithful generally were suffering as a consequence of resisting the Modernism of
the New Church. Any rash or unnecessary statement or decision could have disastrous
consequences. In reaction to the activities of the Abbé de Nantes in publishing suggestions
that “a bishop” must “break with Rome”, Archbisho