Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre
Your Excellency, your last public statement vehemently condemns the prayer meeting in Assisi.... Don’t you have the impression that this confuses the ecumenism of Pope Wojtyła with the distorted ideology of inter-religious dialogue—which has been so much in vogue in recent years—that denies the historical uniqueness of Christian salvation?
Archbishop Lefebvre: I see only one type of ecumenism: the kind promoted by the Council, which emphasizes respect for and collaboration with false religions, on the same footing. This is a new concept, in contradiction with Tradition, which has been imposed in this way. Instead of the “missionary” Church we see the new “ecumenical” Church. The meeting in Assisi consecrates that new Church, and that is unbelievably scandalous. On the other hand, this initiative has a significant precedent: almost a century ago, in 1894, a spectacular Congress of World Religions was held in Chicago, in which some American Catholic bishops took part.
If you compare their speeches then with the one that the pope gave to the cardinals last December about the “spirit of Assisi”, we find striking parallels. But a century ago, Pope Leo XIII unconditionally condemned the participation of the United States bishops in that Congress in Chicago. No, it is a scandal, a public blasphemy: think of the Catholic missionaries in African who saw on television representatives of the animist religions praying in Assisi at the pope’s invitation....
In what spirit will they be able to continue their arduous work of evangelization among the populations that follow those pagan rituals? If salvation is possible even without converting to Christ in the Church, and while continuing to adore one’s false gods, what sense is there in having missions now? All religions are therefore equal and good.... If this pope had lived in the times of the Roman persecutions of the early centuries, maybe Christianity would have found a respectable place in the Pantheon of religions.
You are caricaturing the ecumenism of the pope! John Paul II never said that every religion is an ordinary way of salvation. Even in Assisi, he proclaimed unequivocally the certainty that only Christ saves and brings the natural religious sense to a happy conclusion.
Archbishop Lefebvre: Certainly, the pope’s position is not that of mere liberalism, which says that all religions are the same. But it is possible to speak about liberal Catholicism, which gives priority to conscience and makes subjective the truth that it nevertheless professes. You do not agree, but if you examine carefully the protocol followed in Assisi, you see how the “philosophy” that inspired it was to put all the religions represented on a level of absolute equality. One might object that the pope was seated in the middle of those invited, but I am sure that when he travels to Tokyo, during the next edition of the prayer gathering, he will no longer occupy a special or preeminent place, since he will no longer be master of the house. He will be one among the others.
Nevertheless, when you left the audience that you had [with the pope] on November 18, 1978, the tone of your statements was quite different: “I am confident,” you said. “With John Paul II everything becomes possible.” To what do you attribute your change of attitude?
Archbishop Lefebvre: I had been struck by a passage from his address in which he affirmed that the Council had to be read in light of Tradition. “Finally,” I said to myself, “we can hope for a revision of Vatican II.” But my expectation was disappointed. Who knows, maybe it was the men in the Curia who prevented him from going down that path.... Everyone knows that in the Vatican an influential liberal-Masonic Mafia is active, without whose “placet” [approval] no change is possible. And so we have arrived at the present moment of the Church in which the triumph of Liberalism is being celebrated.
After that audience, haven’t you ever met the pope privately?
Archbishop Lefebvre: No, I had no “official” contacts except with Cardinal Ratzinger, Cardinal Oddi and Cardinal Gagnon. On more “unofficial” terms I also met with the Frenchman Jean Guitton [the author—Ed.], who appears to be extremely interested in my “case”.
We may suspect that during these conversations you discussed possible solutions for your “case”. Can you speak about them?
Archbishop Lefebvre: The Holy See would be willing to “regularize” the existence of our work, the “Society of St. Pius X”, from which the ecclesiastical approval granted on November 1, 1970, was withdrawn in 1975 by a decision that I consider invalid juridically. They said that the pope would be altogether willing to set up the Society as a Personal Prelature. Moreover we would have authorization, already partially provided by the 1984 Indult, to celebrate Mass according to the old rite of St. Pius V. All this, however, on the condition that we sign a declaration fully accepting the decrees and reforms of Vatican II. But that is not possible for us in conscience.
On January 29, 1979, you told a Swiss newspaper with satisfaction: “The pope himself told me that it would be enough for me to sign a declaration in which I said that I accepted the Council according to Tradition.” An agreement seemed possible, then, or are we mistaken?
Archbishop Lefebvre: Even Cardinal Ratzinger, when he was appointed Prefect of the Holy Office, thought that our case could be resolved in a few months. But you have to be honest. The expression that you quoted can be interpreted in various ways. What does it mean to “accept the Council according to Tradition”? We spoke about this several times, specifically with Cardinal Ratzinger; for him this means that the theses of Vatican II should be integrated into those of Tradition. But integrate is still a vague word. In my opinion it is appropriate to make a distinction.
There are some conciliar documents that are obviously in conformity with Tradition, which pose no problem: I am thinking of Lumen Gentium, but also of other documents, such as the one on priestly formation and the seminaries. Then there are some ambiguous texts, which nevertheless can somehow be “interpreted” correctly according to the previous Magisterium. But there are also some texts that are plainly in contradiction with Tradition and which can in no way be “integrated” [with it]: the Declaration on Religious Liberty, the decree on Ecumenism, the one on the Liturgy. Here, agreement becomes impossible....
As far as we know, you voted in favor of the decree on the Liturgy....
Archbishop Lefebvre: Yes, I must admit it... but I could not foresee how far the liturgical reform would go....
And for several years you celebrated Mass according to the new rite....
Archbishop Lefebvre: I celebrated Mass according to the new liturgical instructions of 1965, but never according to the final ones of 1968 which bear the signature of [then-] Msgr. Bugnini. Anyway, the Declaration on Religious Liberty is the real apple of discord, because other errors result from the introduction of this liberal principle in the Church. The break with Tradition in this case is obvious: 11 popes, from Pius VI to Pius XII, condemned Liberalism; the Council approved it. No one can convince me that there is no contradiction. During the audience that I had in Castel Gandolfo in September 1976, when I asked Paul VI that question, he replied: “We do not have the time now to talk about theology.” As though it was a purely academic question!
And what response did Cardinal Ratzinger give you?
Archbishop Lefebvre: The Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith had asked me to put into writing my opinions and my doubts on this topic. What I did was to send him in November 1985 a study that was 150 typewritten pages long. In January 1986, he replied that he had received those documents and that he had appreciated the philological care [that went into them]. We know that the Holy See asked all the episcopates to send to Rome a study on the topic of religious liberty and that the French episcopate has already sent its contribution. The Jesuit Father who composed it writes: “It is tragic that none of the popes of the 19th century understood the Christian truth that is found in the principles of the French Revolution.” You see, there is a break, and how!
Revising Vatican II
Given these preliminaries, it would seem that the only solution of the Lefebvre “case” that you could accept would be a public denial of Vatican II by the Supreme Pontiff. But do you see the pope, some Sunday morning, appearing on St. Peter’s Square and announcing to the faithful that, after more than 20 years, he noticed that the Council was wrong and that it is necessary to revoke at least two decrees voted on by the majority of the Council Fathers and approved by a pope?
Archbishop Lefebvre: Come on! In Rome they would certainly be able to find a more discreet way of doing it.... The pope could authoritatively declare that some Vatican II documents need to be interpreted better in light of Tradition, so that it becomes necessary to change a few phrases, so as to bring them into conformity with the Magisterium of the previous popes.
It would be necessary for them to say clearly that error can only be “tolerated” but cannot have “rights”; and that a State that is neutral on the religious level neither can nor should exist. But, of course, I have no illusions: even if the pope wanted to make those corrections, he could not do so. That “liberal-Masonic Mafia” to which I have already alluded cannot tolerate it.
You have a certain penchant for seeing “conspiracies” almost everywhere. Five days before you were suspended “a divinis”, in a letter to Paul VI, you denounced “a secret agreement between high-ranking ecclesiastical dignitaries and Freemasons that was made even before the Council”....
Archbishop Lefebvre: Yet all the American newspapers wrote that, before the Council, Cardinal Bea, the founder of the Vatican Secretariat for ecumenism, met the leaders of the most influential Jewish-Masonic lodge at the Hotel Astoria in New York and asked them what they expected of the Council. “A statement on religious liberty,” they told him.
Several times you have described individuals like Franco, Salazar and now Pinochet as defenders of “Christian order”. Are dictatorial regimes therefore the only possible historical realization of the “Catholic State”?
Archbishop Lefebvre: Let us take Pinochet. I am not saying that his regime is perfect, but at least we find Christian principles as a fundamental platform of his political orientation. He is a man of justice and order and he promotes the presence of the Catholic Church, even though the Chilean bishops—what a paradox!—are not grateful to him at all. It seems rather that the Chilean bishops want a new Allende for their country. Fortunately, the Catholic people do not follow them on this point. I went to Santiago a month ago, for the opening ceremonies of one of our churches. I think that great crowds of the faithful would follow us, if we had enough priests, they are so exasperated by the attitude of their hierarchy!
When Pinochet most recently escaped from an attempt on his life, demonstrations of solidarity and affection for him were held in the capital. Many of them had a spontaneous religious character. The people exclaimed: “Thank you, Most Blessed Virgin, for having protected the general’s life.”
Can you draw for us in broad strokes a map of the expansion of your Work throughout the world?
Archbishop Lefebvre: We are present in 28 nations and on all the continents, except Asia, although we plan to found a house in India. We run five seminaries, about 90 priories, several schools and a university-level institute in Paris. 250 sisters are currently members of our Society. But a much larger number of priests and sisters find their own beliefs reflected in our Work.
A merely apparent isolation
Doesn’t your increasing isolation in the Church cause you growing doubts?
Archbishop Lefebvre: Our isolation is more apparent than real. Many bishops and at least a dozen cardinals have told me privately that they share our positions. I could reveal their names. We know for example that a certain number of cardinals were not in agreement with the meeting in Assisi and expressed their misgivings to the pope. But also, and most importantly, we do not feel isolated in relation to the past, to Tradition. We draw our strength from the words and the Magisterium of the Church that preceded us.
Recently two instances of defections in your ranks caused something of a stir in public opinion: the six young seminarians in Econe and the monastery of Fr. Joly in Flavigny. How do you explain them?
Archbishop Lefebvre: The seminarians were influenced by priests from outside who raised the specter of excommunication. But in a seminary it is normal that once in a while there should be some who leave. It should be mentioned also, with regard to the defections motivated by our alleged “rigidity” toward Rome, that there have been others justified by our alleged “weakness” with respect to the pope.
It may be valid to talk about “external influences” as far as the young seminarians are concerned, but that does not hold true in the case of Fr. Joly.
Archbishop Lefebvre: He always was a rather closed-minded man. It was difficult to get into his monastery. One day, almost without warning, he decided to accept again the jurisdiction of the Bishop of Dijon. Strange. He was much more traditionalist than we are. I performed 24 priestly ordinations in his monastery. Now he will have to celebrate the Paul VI’s New Mass.
The Catholic Faith in danger
Let us suppose, hypothetically, that you are right. Don’t the history of the Church and the Tradition of her saints teach us specifically that the straight path of obedience is the only one that bears its fruits over time?
Archbishop Lefebvre: If this were simply about a “disciplinary” difficulty, I would have no hesitation. If Pius XII were alive today and asked me to close the seminary in Econe, my obedience would be immediate and unproblematic. But today the Faith itself is at stake. I sensed that the “conciliar” Church is changing and endangering the heart of the Catholic Faith. For this reason obedience is no longer possible. Even the pope has no power to change the Faith; he is only its servant. To accept religious liberty, ecumenism, the conciliar reforms, would mean for me to contribute to the work of the Church’s “self-destruction”. In conscience, I cannot do that. The pope’s liberalism is destroying the Catholic Faith from within.
Excuse me, but what is your definition of the Faith?
Archbishop Lefebvre: The Faith is the teaching of the Church over the course of the centuries, in conformity with the teaching of the Apostles.
But that seems to be a definition of Tradition, not of Faith....
Archbishop Lefebvre: Then I will give you another definition, the one contained in the anti-Modernist Oath of Pius X: the submission of the intellect and will to the Revelation of God, because God is the supreme authority and He cannot err.
And it really seems to you that Paul VI and John Paul II have substantially chanced this fundamental kernel of the Faith? You would go so far as to declare that?
Archbishop Lefebvre: I think that they are giving another definition of faith. For them faith is a religious sentiment, an interior, subjective act.
Subjective? [The encyclical] Redemptor Hominis says that “Christ is the center of the cosmos and of history”! That not mere subjectivity but something else entirely!
Archbishop Lefebvre: But then why do they put such great emphasis on conscience, on the duty to “respect” consciences? Conscience is made to obey Revelation, not for itself. The problem is that for the last few popes—to speak in a Christian way—the “subject” comes before the “object”. Whereas for the tradition of the Church exactly the opposite is true: the object precedes the subject.... Therefore there is a moral obligation to adhere to the Catholic Faith which the State, as the supreme organization of the public community, can and must recognize and favor.
Without denying, incidentally, a fundamental principle of Tradition, with St. Thomas in the lead: namely that if obedience to the facts of Revelation is not fully free and conscious, it is not genuine obedience.... In any case, we can discuss whether or not the “Catholic State” is historically valid in today’s world; what seems at the very least exaggerated is to make the necessity thereof an article of faith.
Archbishop Lefebvre: In my opinion, the questions are inseparably connected. Acceptance of the principle of “religious liberty” manifests a “subjective” view of the Faith. Pope Wojtyła can even say that Christ is the center of the cosmos and of history, but at the same time perceive that affirmation as the personal “opinion” of Catholics, thus denying the “exclusive” and “catholic”, in other words, universal character of the Faith. No, all that is unacceptable; it goes against Tradition, Faith, against the Magisterium of 11 popes, from Pius VI to Pius XII. I choose to follow those 11 popes and not the last two.
Have you secretly consecrated a bishop?
Your Excellency, several times you have threatened to consecrate a bishop who will continue your work. Some think that you have already performed an episcopal consecration secretly: can you in conscience deny those rumors?
Archbishop Lefebvre: Yes, most categorically. If I do that, I will do it publicly.
What would have to happen in order for you to take this extremely serious step that ipso facto incurs excommunication?
Archbishop Lefebvre: I am waiting for a sign from Providence. What sign, I do not know. I am not ready to do it right away... maybe a year from now. But I want to make one thing clear: the bishops that I will consecrate, if I consecrate any, will have no special authority in the Society. Their sole task would be to perform priestly ordinations and administer the sacrament of confirmation. They will not have a territory or a region; the jurisdiction of the Order [sic] belongs to the Superior General: he is the head of the Society, who assigns personnel and founds priories. Currently, the Superior General is Fr. Schmidberger, who was elected by the General Chapter in 1982 for a 12-year term of office, therefore until 1994. He is the one who succeeds me as the authority within the Society.
Unless we are mistaken, you used the plural in speaking about episcopal consecrations.
Archbishop Lefebvre: If in conscience I deem it necessary, for the good of the work that I founded, to take this step, I will proceed to consecrate not one, but as many as three, four or maybe five bishops. The work has houses throughout the world and I must take that into account in thinking of the future.
But specifically, what might prevent you from making this openly “schismatic” gesture?
Archbishop Lefebvre: If the ecclesial situation returned to normal, if they went back to Tradition, there would no longer be any problem.
God alone is master of the future
Your Excellency, how do you picture this “return” to tradition? Do you think that it could occur during the remaining years of your lifetime?
Archbishop Lefebvre: God knows. Who can say what events the near future holds for us? Maybe a nuclear war will break out and the situation will change radically.... For the change to come during this pontificate seems unlikely, almost miraculous. But who knows?
What do you feel about the mere thought of ending your life not reconciled with the Church?
Archbishop Lefebvre: The only ones who can be considered outside the Church are those who do not have the Faith, because the fundamental reason for unity, in the Catholic Church, is the Faith. The ones who are causing schism are those who change the Faith. I am certain that I belong to the Catholic Church of all time, the eternal Church....
From your perspective, therefore, the pope is schismatic?
Archbishop Lefebvre: Yes... perhaps... more or less. But the Assisi meeting is an extremely serious act. The pope’s job is to confirm the faith, and if he no longer fulfills his duty, what are we to do? The situation reaches its utmost degree of seriousness. I see no similar precedents in the history of the Church. In the 14th century, one pope, John XXII, was condemned and deposed by a special council because on one point he was found to be not in conformity with Catholic doctrine. Today, it is even worse: not just one article, but a whole context is no longer Catholic.
Does the threat of excommunication by the current Catholic hierarchy really leave you indifferent?
Archbishop Lefebvre: Absolutely indifferent. An excommunication decided by the current liberal government of the Church—what validity would it have? For more than a century, conservative popes have condemned and excommunicated men like Lamennais, Buonaiuti, and Loisy, because they were liberals and modernists. Now they are the ones in power in the Church and they want to excommunicate the traditionalists, in other words, the real Catholics.