A New Schism
By Awake! correspondent in France
JUNE 30, 1988, will be a marked date in the annals of the Roman Catholic Church. On that day, French archbishop Marcel Lefebvre defied the Vatican. He consecrated four bishops at his traditionalist Catholic seminary in Switzerland. This action brought about the excommunication of Lefebvre and the four new bishops. It created the first schism in the Catholic Church since 1870. That year the so-called Old Catholics broke away from the mother church over the question of papal infallibility.
The Roots of the Split
The rift between the Vatican and Archbishop Lefebvre’s right-wing conservative Catholic movement had been widening for some time. The roots of the schism go back to the Second Vatican Council, held from 1962 to 1965. Pope John XXIII, who convened the council, set two objectives for the gathering. One was called aggiornamento (updating), and the other was the reuniting of all the so-called Christian churches.
Although Archbishop Lefebvre, as a Catholic prelate, took part in Vatican II, he was not in agreement with either of these objectives. As a dyed-in-the-wool traditionalist, it is his opinion that the Catholic Church does not need to be brought up-to-date. Subscribing wholeheartedly to the traditional Catholic view that “outside the Church there is no salvation,” Lefebvre is convinced that the only way “Christians” could possibly become reunited would be for all non-Catholics to adhere to the Roman Catholic faith.
Against Religious Freedom
A year after his excommunication, Archbishop Lefebvre, speaking on behalf of conservative Catholics who support his movement, declared: “We are categorically against the idea of religious liberty and its consequences, especially ecumenism, which I find personally unacceptable.”
He was not innovating. He was faithfully following Catholic tradition. On August 15, 1832, Pope Gregory XVI published the encyclical Mirari vos, in which he condemned freedom of conscience as a “mistaken view, or rather madness.” Thirty-two years later, Pope Pius IX published his Syllabus of Errors, in which he condemned the idea that “every man is free to embrace and to profess the religion which, by the light of reason, he believes to be true.”
By rejecting ecumenism, Archbishop Lefebvre was merely showing his attachment to what Catholic dogma calls the “unicity of the Church,” that is, that there is but “One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic” church.
Incensed by “Protestant” Mass
The reforms in the traditional Catholic liturgy brought about by Vatican II are a particularly sore subject to Archbishop Lefebvre and his followers. The rebel prelate considers such reforms to have “Protestantized” the Mass. It is not just the question of using modern languages instead of Latin; Lefebvre feels that too much has been modified with a view to attracting the Protestants and that even in Latin the liturgy approved by Pope Paul VI is “heretical.”
To ensure the continuity of the traditional Latin Mass, Archbishop Lefebvre set up a seminary at Ecône, Switzerland, in 1970. It was administered by the Priestly Fraternity of Saint Pius X, which Lefebvre founded the same year. As his movement gathered momentum, he established other conservative Catholic seminaries in Europe and the Americas. There hundreds of young men receive ultraconservative training for the priesthood.
The rebel prelate has ordained well over 200 traditionalist priests, although forbidden to do so by Pope Paul VI in 1976. These celebrate Latin Mass in priories and illegally occupied Catholic churches.* The Vatican admits that Lefebvre has about a hundred thousand militant traditionalist followers throughout the world, but other church officials concede that the number is closer to half a million. Lefebvre himself claims that millions of Catholics share his views.
The Need for a Successor
In the Catholic Church, a bishop can ordain priests. However, only the pope can approve the ordination of a bishop. For want of a bishop to ordain new priests, the elderly Lefebvre realized that his Priestly Fraternity risked dying out after his death. Apparently hoping that this would happen, the Vatican entered into protracted negotiations with him, eventually issuing an ultimatum. Either he would accept the ordination of a Vatican-approved bishop or if he proceeded to ordain a bishop himself, he would be excommunicated.
On June 30, 1988, at a ceremony attended by thousands of his followers, the rebel prelate consecrated four traditionalist bishops. The Paris daily International Herald Tribune reported: “Archbishop Lefebvre’s consecration of the four bishops cast a shadow over a Vatican consistory in which the pope elevated 24 bishops to the College of Cardinals. The Vatican canceled a special concert in order to register its ‘deep pain’ over Archbishop Lefebvre’s action. ‘It is a day of mourning,’ [French] Cardinal Decourtray said.”
Not only has this schism within the Catholic Church caused pain in the Vatican but it has left millions of sincere Catholics throughout the world perplexed and confused.
See the article “The Rebel Archbishop,” published in the December 22, 1987, issue of Awake!