Archbishop Lefebvre and the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith
On 21 May 1975, Archbishop Lefebvre wrote a letter to Cardinal Staffa claiming that the procedure by those who had condemned him and ordered the suppression of his Society was uncanonical (Apologia, Vol. I, pp. 73-74). In that letter he made the following demand: “I demand to be judged by the only tribunal competent in these matters, the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.” He made this demand because the Commission of Cardinals had condemned him on a matter of faith, his Declaration of 21 November 1974 (Apologia, Vol. I, pp. 38-40). Despite all the rumors of his impending excommunication which were circulated in 1977, no such sanction was imposed. Instead, the Archbishop was given what he had demanded, the opportunity to have his case examined by the appropriate congregation according to accepted canonical norms.
It will be noted that during the course of the examination conducted by the Sacred Congregation, the Archbishop was treated with great courtesy, that all the criticisms made of him were expressed clearly in writing, and that he was given the opportunity to answer them fully in writing. The members of the Sacred Congregation are theologians of the highest competence, and their examination of the Archbishop is very searching and, in places, rather technical-as are some of his replies. Readers who are not familiar with the controversy concerning religious liberty might find the discussion on this point somewhat hard to follow.
I have added no comments to the original documents which are cited here. References are made to the Archbishop's books from time to time, but this is always to a French edition. Where an English text is available I have added the relevant page numbers in square brackets. Occasionally, this has not been possible. There have been two editions of the book Un Evêque Parle, the second contains material which is not included in A Bishop Speaks, the English edition.1 Where Yves Congar's book, La crise dans l'Eglise et Mgr. Lefebvre is cited, I have replaced references to the French edition by references to the English version, Challenge to the Church (London, 1977). All the abbreviations used can be found in the list on page xvii.
28 January 1978
Letter of Cardinal Seper to Mgr. Lefebvre
Sacra Congregatio pro Doctrina Fidei00193 Romae,
Piazza del S. Ulffizio, 11
Prot. N. 1144/69
His Holiness Pope Paul VI has entrusted the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith with the examination of your situation in the Church in the light of the doctrinal positions you have taken up in your statements and writings, and also in your undertakings.
The searching examination required by the Holy Father has been conducted in conformity with the Ratio agendi of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (AAS, 63 1971, 234-236), and with a real concern for objectivity. Unfortunately errors and dangerous opinions have been found in your spoken and written declarations, and they show themselves also in your behavior.
The Ratio agendi of the Congregation prescribes: "13. Propositions which have been made and have been judged erroneous or dangerous are to be pointed out to their author, so that, within the prescribed month, he may send in his written answer. If there should be need also of discussion, the author will be invited to meet men appointed by the Sacred Congregation and to confer with them."
I beg you, therefore, Excellency, to take cognizance of the official notification which the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith sends you. You will find it, together with appropriate explanations, in the enclosed Annex. It contains serious criticisms, which are not, however, judgments without appeal. This Congregation requires you, within the time stated by the Ratio agendi in the article quoted above, to reply to those criticisms. Your answer can take various forms -a justification, or the clearing up of a misunderstanding, or a firm avowal of error that you are ready to correct, or of a deviation from doctrine that you are willing to put straight. Those answers will be studied with benevolent interest; for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has an ardent desire that, with God's help, you will be able to find the way to a true reconciliation with the Vicar of Our Lord Jesus Christ and His Church.
Accept, Excellency, the assurance of my prayers and the expression of my devotedness in Our Lord.
Franc, Card., Seper
Fr. Jérôme Hammer,
This Annex, Monseigneur, will take up asserti0ns which are found in your speeches and writings and which the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith considers dangerous or erroneous. Certain of them will be linked with your enterprises and your behavior, where those seem to throw light on their bearing, The Annex is in two parts, each with its subdivisions. The first part deals with particular assertions on 1) religious liberty according to Vatican II; 2) the Ordo Missae promulgated by Pope Paul VI; 3) the rite of Confirmation also promulgated by him; 4) the sacrament of Penance. The object of the second part is more general assertions 1) on the authority of the Second Vatican Council; 2) on the authority of Pope Paul VI.
I – Particular Assertions
1. Religious liberty according to the Second Vatican Council
You have expressed yourself many times, Monseigneur, on this subject - for example in the following text: "That term (religious liberty) has never been understood in the sense admitted by the Council. All earlier documents of the Church which speak of religious liberty are referring to the liberty of (true)religion, not to the liberty of the religions. Always, when the Church has spoken of that liberty, she has spoken of the liberty of the (true) religion and of tolerance for other religions. We tolerate error. To give it liberty is to give it a right - and it has no rights. Truth alone has rights. To admit the liberty of religions is to give error the same right as truth, which is impossible. The Church can never say such a thing. In my opinion it is blasphemy to dare to say that...If we have the faith we have no right to admit that: it is the error in common law which was condemned by Pius IX and all the popes.” (M. Lefebvre, Un évêque parle, Jarzé, 1976, pp. 135-136].)
That declaration calls for the following remarks:
10 – The Declaration on Religious Liberty should be read in the context of the other conciliar documents, in particular the dogmatic Constitution Lumen Gentium. It says clearly that “the one true religion subsists in the Catholic and Apostolic Church, to which the Lord Jesus entrusted the task of spreading it among all men" (DH, 1).
20 – The Council in no way teaches the religious indifferentism condemned by the popes. On the contrary it affirms that men have the moral obligation of seeking the truth, of recognizing it and of ordering their whole life according to its demands (DH, 2). It recalls to the faithful the duty of the missionary apostolate and that of forming the conscience by the “sacred and certain " doctrine of the Catholic Church, "by the will of Christ, the teacher of truth" (cf. DH, 14).
30 – The Council recognizes the human person's right to religious liberty, that is, the right to be, with regard to all human power, exempt from coercion (coercitio) in seeking, choosing, and professing (even publicly) a religion (DH, 2). It bases that right not on an alleged "right" which is equally of truth or error, but on the transcendence of the person and of his ultimate choices with regard to civil society, on man's innate manner of tending to the truth and of recognizing it according to the judgment of his conscience, and on the liberty of the act of faith (DH, 2,3, 10).
40 – The affirmation of this right of religious liberty is in line with earlier pontifical documents (cf. DH, 2 note 2) which, in face of étatisme 2 and modem totalitarianisms, affirmed the rights of the human person. In the conciliar Declaration that 'point of doctrine is clearly part of the teaching of the Magisterium, and, though it is not the object of a definition, it demands docility and assent (cf. Const. Dogm. Lumen Gentium, 25).
Faithful Catholics are therefore not permitted to reject it as erroneous, but must accept it in the exact sense and bearing given it by the Council, keeping in mind "the traditional Catholic teaching on the moral duty of individuals and societies towards the true religion and the one Church of Christ" (cf. DH, 1).
2. The Ordo Missae promulgated by Pope Paul VI
Your criticism of the Ordo Missae promulgated by Paul VI goes well beyond a liturgical preference: it has an essentially doctrinal character. You say rightly that there are three essential realities in the Sacrifice of the Mass: "The Priest... the real and substantial presence of the Victim who is Christ ...the sacrificial oblation realized by the priest in the Consecration" (Un évêque parle...p. 142 ). Unfortunately, you add that "the whole of the (liturgical) reform directly or indirectly impairs these three Truths which are essential for the Catholic faith," that "all that has been prescribed is redolent of a new conception nearer to the Protestant conception than to the Catholic conception" (loc. cit.). And you declare: “There is nothing left in this new conception of the Mass…That is why I do not see how one can make a seminary with this new Mass" (op. cit. p. 163 ). You refrain, however, from saying that the new Mass is heretical: "I will never say that,” you assure us (op. cit. p. 228 ). But, "the changes of the new rite" are calculated to make "young priests lose the intention of doing what the Church does and no longer say valid Masses" (op. cit. pp. 285-286 [200-201]); cf. p. 143, 199 [96, 137]). Unhappily you get to speaking in a much less moderate way: "How can one hesitate," you say, “between a Mass which is a true Sacrifice and a Mass which is positively Protestant worship, a meal, a eucharist, a supper as Luther already said?" (Speech: "Pour l'homme de L'Egglise,” p. 20). In that last expression can be seen an excess of language which is certainly to be condemned, but the rest is already sufficiently serious.
A Catholic, in fact, may not cast doubt on the conformity with the doctrine of faith of a sacramental rite promulgated by the Supreme Pastor, above all when the rite is that of the Mass which is at the heart of the Church's life.
Of course, the link between the priest and the accomplishment of the sacrifice of the Mass in the consecration (and transubstantiation) must be preserved. But the Ordo Missae of Paul VI does that by reserving to the priest alone the words of consecration and the whole of the canon, entirely as in the old rite.
The new eucharistic liturgy does not impair faith in the real and substantial presence of Christ under the appearances of bread and wine. The number of genuflexions has been cut down, but they are kept as a sign of adoration at the culminating points of the Mass: consecration and communion. Traditional faith in the Real Presence is still perfectly signified by the elevation and the final prayer of the canon; it is emphasized in the distribution of communion, and clearly affirmed in many prayers after communion.
Finally, the sacrificial and propitiatory character of the Mass, reaffirmed absolutely in conformity with the Council of Trent in Proemium no 2 of the lnstitutio generalis of the new Roman Missal, is clearly and expressly signified not only in many prayers after the offering of the oblata but also in the Canons.
Furthermore, you yourself admit the validity of the new Ordo Missae, and doubt only the worth of the intention of many who use it. But your declarations about it and your opposition to its use spread among the faithful mistrust, confusion, and even rebellion.
You have often tried to justify your opposition by the need of fighting the abuses and disorders which in many countries accompany the adoption of the liturgical reform. But it is not by throwing suspicion on the orthodoxy of an Ordo Missae promulgated by the Supreme Authority in the Church that you will obtain a positive result.
3. The Sacrament of Confirmation
You have stated: "(The ministers of the sacrament of Confirmation) should specify the particular grace of the sacrament by which the Holy Spirit is given. If these words are not said: 'I confirm thee in the name of the Father. ..' there is no sacrament" (Un évêque parle, p. 287  ). And you added: "Now there is a current formula, 'I sign thee with the Cross: receive the Holy Spirit'."
The new Ordo Confirmationis promulgated by Paul VI prescribes the following "form" of the sacrament: "Receive the mark of the Gift of the Holy Spirit" (1971); and the French Ritual published after this new Ordo translated it: "Receive the mark of the Holy Spirit who is given to thee." That translation is good.
In connection with what you think, Monseigneur, about the "form" of the sacrament of Confirmation, you have several times conferred Confirmation illicitly, and even performed “reconfirmations.” But are you aware that the "form" adopted by Paul VI is the form of the Byzantine rite of confirmation long before the Eastern Schism (it is known from as early as the fourth century)? And, inversely, that the formula “...Confirmo te," absent for many centuries, was taken up during the Middle Ages?
That affirmation of yours, quoted above, is therefore unjustifiable, and one could speak of an error objectively near to heresy. It amounts to saying that for centuries the Church did not have valid confirmation, and besides it disregards Catholic doctrine about the Church's power over sacramental rites provide the "substance" of the sacraments is safeguarded (cf. Conc. Trid. Sess. XXI, Doctrina de communione sub utraque specie et parvulorum, OS 1728; Pius XII, Const. Apost. Sacramentum Ordinis, 30.11.1947, OS 3857, 3858; Paul VI, Const. Apost. Divinae Consortium Naturae, 15.8. 1971, AAS LX111 (1971), p. 657-664).
4. The Sacrament of Penance
You stated, in an address on Good Friday, 1977: "General absolutions can arouse contrition but they are not sacramental” (Un évêque parle, p. 151 ). What you have in mind according to the context, is the Ordo for the reconciliation of many penitents with confession and general absolution. But for a long time the common opinion of theologians has been that in case of necessity a collective absolution without confession of all grave sins is valid and licit. The obligation remains of submitting directly to the power of the keys grave sins which could not be confessed. On 25 March 1944 the Sacred Penitentiary issued an Instruction declaring in what special cases those absolutions are licit. On 16 June 1972 the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith promulgated Pastoral norms for the giving of general absolution which were then inserted into the Praenotanda of the new Ordo paenitentiae (nn. 31-34). Those norms (which maintain the obligation of completing the absolution given collectively with the confession of grave sins) are entirely in line with the earlier Instruction. The abuses which have been noted in the practice of general absolution cannot justify your general assertion that those absolutions are not sacramental.
II – More General Assertions
1. Preliminary Remark
The more or less general declarations which you have made, Monseigneur, against the authority of the Second Vatican Council and against that of Pope Paul VI often treat of both those points at one and the same time. But we shall here deal first of all with your statements which concern only the authority of the Council or are concerned more directly with it, and then we shall deal with those concerning only the authority of Paul VI or concerning it principally.
Those declarations are the more serious in that they are joined with a praxis going in the same direction as they. Naturally the question arises: are we faced with a schismatic movement? That question must be examined objectively. We recall - for it can throw light on the examination-the definition of schismaticus given in Canon Law: "If (anyone) refuses to be subject to the Supreme Pontiff or refuses to be in communion with the members of the Church who are subject to him, he is a schismatic" (CIC, can. 1325, para. 2). There are then, two refusals (closely bound together) which make a Christian schismatic: the refusal (in practice) to remain a subject of the Sovereign Pontiff, and the refusal of communion with the members of the Church who remain subject to him.
2. The Authority of Vatican II
You are not content, Monseigneur, with opposing, as contrary to Tradition, the Declaration of Vatican II on religious liberty and certain isolated conciliar affirmations, you also condemn, in the Council's teaching, a spirit largely in opposition to the Christian message.
You write, in fact, in your book J'accuse le Concile (1976), p. 5 [vii], "Liberal and Modernist tendencies appeared (at the Council) and had a preponderating influence, thanks to a veritable conspiracy by the Cardinals from the banks of the Rhine supported, unfortunately, by Paul VI." Then, on pages 7-9 [10-12] of the same book: "We are justified in asserting…that the spirit which dominated the Council and inspired so many ambiguous and equivocal and even frankly erroneous texts was not the Holy Spirit but the spirit of the modern world, a Liberal, Teilhardian and Modernist spirit, opposed to the reign of Our Lord Jesus Christ. All the official reforms and orientations of Rome are demanded and imposed in the name of the Council. But those reforms and orientations are frankly Liberal and Protestant in tendency...The good texts have been used to gain acceptance for texts which are equivocal and sown with mines and pitfalls. We have only one solution: to abandon those dangerous witnesses and to cling to firmly to Tradition, the official Magisterium of the Church during twenty centuries." Your Declaration of 21 November 1974 had already sounded the same note (Un évêque parle, p. 270-272 [189-190]).3
That kind of global condemnation of the Council (in spite of “good texts”) because of "Liberal and Modernist tendencies” which had "a preponderating influence" and which justify the statement that "the spirit which dominated the Council was a Liberal, Teilhardian and Modernist spirit opposed to the reign of Our Lord Jesus Christ" so that "the only solution is to abandon those dangerous witnesses and cling firmly to Tradition"- we must say that that kind of global condemnation is remarkably serious.
For the voice of the Council was that of the whole episcopate in union with its head, the Successor of Peter, and it is the whole Roman episcopate subject to the Pope, with the faithful people, which accepts the Council and the conciliar reforms. If your words are taken in their full meaning, is there not justification for saying that you refuse, or are ready to refuse, communion with the members of the Church subject to the Pope?
Your praxis makes things no 'better. Indeed, you ordain priests against the express will of the Pope and without the "dimissorial letters" required by Canon Law; you send priests whom you have ordained to priories where they exercise their ministry without authorization from the Ordinary of the place; you deliver addresses designed to spread your ideas in dioceses where the bishop has refused his consent; with priests whom you have ordained, and who depend on you alone, you are beginning, whether you like it or not, to form an association ready to become a dissident ecclesial community.
In this connection we must refer to the astonishing declaration you made (Press Conference on 15 September 1976, in Itinéraires, Dec. 1976,pp. 126-127) on the subject of the administration of the Sacrament of Penance by the priests you ordained illicitly, and who have no faculties for hearing confessions. You judged that those priests possessed the jurisdiction provided by Canon Law in case of necessity: You said: "I think we are in extraordinary circumstances, not physical but moral, such that our young priests have the right to use those extraordinary faculties." Is not that to argue as though the legitimate hierarchy had ceased to exist in the regions where those priests happened to be?
True, in your more or less general declarations against the Council and the reforms demanded by it account must be taken of emotionalism, or, as you put it, "a feeling of indignation, no doubt excessive" (Un évêque parle, p. 292). It is also true that you have several times declared you will not consecrate a bishop, and that you have affirmed your conviction of "remaining faithful to the Catholic and Roman Church and to all the successors of Peter" (op. cit., p. 272). Yes. But is all that enough to rub out what goes before?
3. The Authority of Pope Paul VI
On the subject of the authority of Pope Paul VI and, more precisely, on that of the right attitude to take to his authority, you have made statements that differ from one another.
It comes to this, that you would seem, in texts taken in isolation, to challenge that authority in a very general way. So, in the sentence used as a motto for your book Un évêque parle...: "Satan's master-stroke is to have managed to throw (the whole of the Church) into disobedience to all tradition by obedience (to the Council and to the conciliar reform prescribed by the Holy See)." Similarly in this sentence from Fraternité sacerdotale S. Pie X, Lettre aux amis et bienfaiteurs, n0 9 (October 1975): "It is because we reckon that all our faith is endangered by the post-conciliar reforms and tendencies that we have the duty of 'disobeying' and of keeping the traditions. The greatest service we can render the Catholic Church, the successor of Peter, the salvation of souls and of our own soul, is to reject the reformed and Liberal Church, for we believe in Our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God made man, who is neither Liberal nor reformable." (Note. That text is reproduced in Un évêque parle, p. 323 , but in the first sentence the word "all" is omitted.)
On the other hand, you have texts which forcibly affirm your submission to the present successor of Peter, Pope Paul VI. You write: "Your Holiness knows perfectly what is the faith that I profess; it is that of your 'Credo'. You know also my profound submission to the Successor of Peter, which I renew into the keeping of Your Holiness" (Letter of 22 June 1976 [Apologia, pp. 196-7]). Also, you reply to the Abbé de Nantes who had suggested that the break "of a bishop with Rome” was "desirable": "Know that if a bishop breaks with Rome it will not be me" (Un eveque parle, p. 273. [Apologia, Vol. I, pp. 49-51)].
How are these different texts to be reconciled? You have often explained. You say, for example: "We are the most zealous defenders of his authority (that of the present Pope) as successor of Peter...We applaud the Pope when he echoes Tradition and is faithful to the transmission of the Deposit of Faith. We accept the novelties which conform intimately with Tradition and Faith. But we do not feel ourselves bound by obedience to novelties which run counter to Tradition and threaten our Faith” (Lettre aux amis bienfaiteurs, no 9, Oct. 1975; cf. Un évêque parle, p. 323 [Apologia, p. 152]). In short, you agree to obey the Pope insofar as he acts as the true successor of Peter, and you refuse to obey the Pope insofar as he acts in the opposite way. That applies (according to the texts quoted in this and in the preceding paragraph) to the whole of the post-conciliar reform of Paul VI.
That distinction is not an objective justification of your attitude. We have already said why your major objections to the Pope’s decisions in liturgical matters are not acceptable. It is appropriate here to recall, besides, that the Pope has “supreme power of jurisdiction” “not only in what concerns faith and morals but also in what belongs to the discipline and government of the Church throughout the world” (Conc. Vat. I, Const. Pastor Aeternus, DS 3064). The obedience due to him (ibid. DS 3064) is expressed notably in our time by the adhesion of all the bishops with the great majority of which Pope Paul Vi has put its provisions into effect. Should not that be enough to make you add a serious factor of doubt to what you and your friends proclaim so calmly, and to lead you finally to a liberating submission?
4. Conclusion of this Second Part
We remain ready to listen to your reply, but the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith considers that, by your declarations about submission to the Council and to the post-conciliar reforms of Paul VI – declarations with which your whole behaviour and especially you illicit ordinations of priests are in accord – you have fallen into grave disobedience, and that all these declarations and acts, by their own logic, lead to schism. The Congregations knows the good intentions you manifest, but thinks they do not justify your insubordination.
III – Final Remarks
This Annex, Monseigneur, is a “disputation”; its object, therefore, is limited. It says nothing of the merits you have accumulated in the course of a long missionary and episcopal career, and it does no more than allude to various kinds of attenuating circumstances as they affect your present situation. But the Congregation which is writing to you knows those things.
It ardently desires your full reconciliation with the Pope and with the Church. It thinks reconciliation possible, with a great grace of light which it begs God to grant you. It is sure that the Vicar of Christ wants only a genuine manifestation of submission on your part to welcome you as a father, and that he would desire everything of value in your work to be saved.
It believe that in choosing the way of submission you will bring a great benefit to the Church, you will grow in public esteem, and, what is supremely important, you will act as a true disciple of Christ who saved us with His humble obedience (Ph. 2:8).
Franc. Card. Seper
Fr. Jérôme Hamer, O.P.
1. A Bishop Speaks. Writings and Addresses of Mgr. Marcel Lefebvre (Edinburgh, 1976),230 pages. Available from The Angelus Press, Box 1387, Dickinson, Texas 77539.
2. The Totalitarian concepts in which the rights of the individual and the Church are totally subservient to the State.
3. See also, Apologia, Vol. I, pp. 38-40.