On June 30, 1988 Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, founder of the Society of St. Pius X, and Bishop Antonio de Castro Mayer, bishop emeritus of Campos, Brazil, consecrated four bishops at the seminary of Econe, Switzerland, in the presence of 10,000 faithful and hundreds of priests and religious.
The four new bishops, Bernard Tissier de Mallerais (born 1945, France), Richard Williamson (born 1940, England), Alfonso de Galarreta (born 1957, Spain), and Bernard Fellay (born 1958, Switzerland), were chosen by Archbishop Lefebvre among the members of the Society of St. Pius X because “they seemed to us the most apt, whilst being in circumstances and in functions which permit them more easily to fulfill their episcopal ministry, to confirm your children, and to be able to confer ordinations in our various seminaries,” as he explained in the sermon of the ceremony of consecrations.
In the same sermon, Archbishop Lefebvre emphasized the extraordinary circumstances justifying his grave decision:
It is not for me to know when Tradition will regain its rights in Rome, but I think it is my duty to provide the means of doing that which I shall call “Operation Survival,” operation survival for Tradition. Today, this day, is “Operation Survival.
If I had made this deal with Rome, by continuing with the agreements we had signed, and by putting them into practice, it would have been “Operation Suicide.” There is no choice, we must survive. That is why today, by consecrating these bishops, I am convinced that I am keeping alive Tradition, that is to say, the Catholic Church.”
One year after the consecrations, in an interview published in the July-August 1989 issue of the SSPX’s magazine in France, Fideliter, the archbishop maintained that
we should have no hesitation or scruples with regard to these episcopal consecrations. We are neither schismatic nor excommunicated, and we are not against the pope. We are not against the Catholic Church. We are not creating a parallel Church. All that is absurd. We are what we have always been—Catholics carrying on. That is all.”
Their ministerial function being limited to the administration of the sacraments of holy orders and confirmation, our bishops neither received nor claimed any episcopal jurisdiction over priests or faithful.
In his 1989 interview by Fideliter, Archbishop Lefebvre stated that
the four bishops are there to give ordinations and confirmations, to replace me and to do what I did for several years. For the rest, it is clearly the district superiors who are given a territory which is theirs and who, as far as they can, go to the help of the souls calling for them. For these souls have the right to have the sacraments and the Truth, the right to be saved. And, so we go to help them, and it is the request of these souls which grants us the right, as foreseen by Canon Law, to minister to them.”
In his letter to the four candidates, August 29, 1987, Archbishop Lefebvre had already explained that
the main purpose of my passing on the episcopacy is that the grace of priestly orders be continued, for the true Sacrifice of the Mass to be continued, and that the grace of the sacrament of confirmation be bestowed upon children and upon the faithful who will ask you for it.”
I beseech you to remain attached to the See of Peter, to the Roman Church, Mother and Mistress of all Churches, keeping in its entirety the Catholic Faith as expressed in the various creeds of the Faith, in the Catechism of the Council of Trent, in conformity with what you were taught in your seminary. Remain faithful in the handing down of this Faith so that the Kingdom of Our Lord may come.
Finally, I beseech you to remain attached to the Priestly Society of St. Pius X, to remain profoundly united amongst yourselves, in submission to the Society's Superior General, in the Catholic Faith of all time, remembering the words of St. Paul to the Galatians (1:8-9): 'But even if we or an angel from heaven were to teach you a different gospel from the one we have taught you, let him be anathema.'
On July 1, 1988, Cardinal Bernardin Gantin, Prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, signed a decree of excommunication announcing that Archbishop Lefebvre, Bishop de Castro Mayer, and the four new bishops had performed a schismatic act and excommunicated themselves latae sententiae (automatically) in accordance with the provisions of canon 1382 of the Code of Canon Law:
A bishop who consecrates someone a bishop without a pontifical mandate and the person who receives the consecration from him incur a latae sententiae excommunication reserved to the Apostolic See.”
The following day, July 2, 1988, Pope John Paul II issued the apostolic letter motu proprio, Ecclesia Dei adflicta, confirming the excommunications and the existence of a schism.
The Society of St. Pius X has always contested the juridical validity of the censure. Besides other considerations, the excommunication was not incurred because a person who violates a law out of necessity is not subject to a penalty (canon 1323 §4), and even if there is no state of necessity, when one inculpably thought the opposite he would not incur the penalty (canon 1323 §7); and if one culpably thought there was such a state of necessity, he would still incur no automatic penalties (canon 1324 §3).
As for the accusation of schism, Archbishop Lefebvre always recognized the pope’s authority. Consecrating a bishop without pontifical mandate would be a schismatic act if one pretended to confer not just the fullness of the priesthood but also jurisdiction, a governing power over a particular flock. Only the pope, who has universal jurisdiction over the whole Church, can appoint a pastor to a flock and empower him to govern it. But Archbishop Lefebvre never presumed to confer anything but the full priestly powers of holy orders.
Cardinal Rosalio Castillo Lara, President of the Pontifical Commission for the Authentic Interpretation of Canon Law, in La Repubblica, October 7, 1988, stated that the consecrations performed by Archbishop Lefebvre and Bishop de Castro Mayer did not constitute an act of schism (“The mere fact of consecrating a bishop is not in itself a schismatic act”).
The Dean of the Faculty of Canon Law of the Catholic Institute of Paris, Fr. Patrick Valdrini, confirmed that “it is not the consecration of a bishop that creates a schism; what consummates the schism is to confer upon that bishop an apostolic mission” (Valeurs Actuelles, July 4, 1988).
And Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyos, President of the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei, has declared, on at least five separate occasions in public interviews (30 Giorni n. 9, 2005), that the Society of St. Pius X is not in a situation of formal schism. He has also affirmed that “the bishops, priests, and faithful of the Society of St. Pius X are not schismatics.” (Die Tagespost, February 8, 2007)
Finally, on January 21, 2009, a decree of the Congregation for Bishops, signed by its Prefect, Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, based on the faculties expressly granted by Pope Benedict XVI, declared the decree of July 1, 1988, to be deprived of any juridical effect.