It is exactly 30 years since a gaunt French archbishop stood in front of thousands of worshippers and – in a speech punctuated by bursts of applause – explained why he was about to take a step that would lead to his excommunication.
You can find it on you YouTube. On June 30, 1988, followers of Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre gathered in a huge white tent pitched outside his seminary at Écône in Switzerland. They were there to watch him consecrate four new bishops in defiance of Pope John Paul II, who had been desperately seeking to reconcile Lefebvre’s Society of St Pius X (SSPX) with Rome.
The 82-year-old prelate – formerly the Archbishop of Dakar, Senegal – had brushed aside the Pope’s overtures. As he told the congregation, reintegration on John Paul’s terms would have been “Operation Suicide”. His society was being offered the freedom to continue celebrating the Tridentine Mass. But the price – quiet acceptance of Vatican II, with its (as he saw it) repulsive gestures to non-Christians, and the “Protestant” Order of Mass it created – was spiritual death.
The archbishop surveyed the bowed heads of his seminarians. “When God calls me, no doubt before long, from whom would these seminarians receive the sacrament of Holy Orders? I cannot, in good conscience leave them orphaned.”
And so Lefebvre, his gold chasuble illuminated by the white panels of the tent, entered the sanctuary to raise four men to the episcopacy: Fathers Bernard Fellay, Bernard Tissier de Mallerais, Richard Williamson and Alfonso de Galarreta.
This was a step that Lefebvre had once insisted he would never take. It would turn him into Martin Luther, he reportedly said in 1974, “and I would lose the Holy Ghost”.
But that was before an intensely bitter meeting with Blessed Paul VI, in which the saintly but thin-skinned pontiff accused him of acting like an “antipope” and refused Lefebvre’s request that bishops provide chapels where traditionalists could “pray like before the council”.
After that encounter, whose details were published only this year, Archbishop Lefebvre’s attitude to Rome darkened. (Was he aware that Paul VI’s outlook was also slowly darkening? That the pontiff who gave his name to the Missal of Paul VI was appalled by the inadequacies of its prayers when he came to celebrate it for the first time?)
Lefebvre’s anger did not subside when Blessed Paul was succeeded by the more conservative St John Paul II. He could see no good in Rome and even disparaged Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who was doing everything in his power to avert a rupture. He now believed that only the SSPX was untainted by apostasy. He referred to the Écône consecrations as “Operation Survival”.
To critics, it seemed obvious that Lefebvre’s Operation Survival was actually Operation Suicide. John Paul had thrown him a lifeline; the old man was too arrogant to seize it and, as a result, was excommunicated along with his new bishops.
For some SSPX priests, the consecrations were a step too far. They were already dismayed by the way Lefebvre’s criticism of the Vatican had turned into vituperative caricature. Some of them joined the Priestly Fraternity of St Peter (FSSP), founded by Rome immediately after the ceremony at Écône. This was modelled closely on the SSPX. Many Lefebvre loyalists regarded its members as traitors.
Yet, for these departing priests, losing the archbishop was agony. They regarded him – still regard him – as a saint, albeit one whose judgment was clouded, for which they blame Paul VI. “He was a heroic, tragic figure,” says one. “His face radiated holiness, and after meeting him I understood why artists portrayed saints with a halo.”
But this priest still left. After 1988, the whiff of schism hung over the SSPX, even though the society – which has always recognised the reigning pontiff – wasn’t technically schismatic.
The SSPX had become a splinter group, formally separated from Rome, and the thing about such bodies is that no sooner have they broken away than they start breaking away from each other.
Before Lefebvre’s death in 1991, American hardliners (including Mel Gibson’s father) had founded the Society of St Pius V, which refused to recognise John Paul II as Pope. Now it joined the demi-monde of quasi-Catholics led by bishops with dubious credentials. As it did so, it also split. Such are the dynamics of sectarianism.
More recently, the SSPX has suffered an internal rupture. Richard Williamson, one of the Écône bishops, was expelled from the society in 2012 after he was exposed as a Holocaust denier. Williamson, educated at Winchester and Cambridge, employs polished sarcasm to spread anti-Jewish conspiracy theories.
Yet he is canny enough not to found his own church. Instead, he leads the “SSPX Resistance”, self-anointed guardians of the pure teachings of the founder. He has wealthy supporters in America and – depressingly – a foothold in the England.
The nature of these chaotic misadventures could have been predicted 30 years ago. But let us consider a few developments that no one predicted – and which suggest that the illicit consecrations did contribute to the survival, as opposed to the suicide, of the SSPX.
In the intervening years, Rome has lifted the excommunication of the four bishops (though Williamson is now re-excommunicated). That was a decision of Pope Benedict XVI, and could be dismissed as a one-off misjudgment, given that it led nowhere and earned him terrible headlines.
Bizarrely, however, it is the current “liberal” Pope who has done most to regularise the situation of the SSPX. In 2016 and 2017 Francis recognised the lawfulness of confessions heard by the society’s priests, and the weddings they conduct. As a result, Lefebvrist clergy now exercise canonical jurisdiction within the Catholic Church.
It is an extraordinary paradox. By seeking to rehabilitate divorced-and-remarried Catholics, and by allowing radical bishops to propose offering the Eucharist to Protestants, Pope Francis seems to be fulfilling the gloomy prophecies of Archbishop Lefebvre. Yet he has done more to help the SSPX than any of his predecessors.
And what has he received in return from the society’s superior general, Bishop Bernard Fellay? Nothing. On the contrary, Fellay put his name to the “filial correction” of prominent Catholics reproving Francis for his alleged heterodoxy. In the words of one well-connected SSPX member, “we’re more than happy to receive a lovely gift from a mortal enemy”.
That enemy is himself a member of a priestly society, however, and Jesuits are not known for their pointless generosity. One theory is that the Pope is boosting the Lefebvrists in order to outmanoeuvre his own traditionalist opponents. “That’s possible,” says the SSPX member. “But he may genuinely prefer us to the likes of Cardinal Burke [an American champion of the Old Rite sacked by Francis from a senior curial position]. He may see in us a greater seriousness of purpose than he finds in conventional traditionalists, whom he thinks are too fond of dressing up.”
At which point, the average well-informed Catholic could be forgiven for thinking that both the Pope and the SSPX should get out more. There are 600-odd Lefebvrist priests in the world, of whom an unknown number are attracted by Williamson’s sinister “Resistance”. The SSPX has grown since 1988, but not so fast as the presence of younger Catholic priests who take advantage of Benedict XVI’s Summorum Pontificum to celebrate in the Old Rite.
When Lefebvre asked Paul VI to set up Tridentine chapels in 1976, he was told: “We cannot permit autonomy in behaviour in different places.” St John Paul II reluctantly decided that he could do so; Benedict XVI enthusiastically enshrined such autonomy in Church law.
Would the liberation of the traditional Mass have been possible if Lefebvre had not carried out his threat to ordain bishops? The answer is almost certainly no, which leaves us with another paradox.
On that summer’s day three decades ago, the most stubborn of pre-conciliar French prelates was preparing the ground for a new flexibility in the Church: one that allows Catholics unsatisfied by what they regard as the glib spirituality of Vatican II (though not rejecting its teachings) to “pray like before the council”.
The least they can do, surely, is to remember Marcel Lefebvre in their prayers.
Damian Thompson is editor-in-chief of the Catholic Herald and associate editor of The Spectator
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