Introduction to the Lefebvrist schism

by James Akin

On May 5, 1988, Msgr. Marcel Lefebvre, head of the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX), signed a protocol of agreement with the Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, acting as the Vatican’s representative in the matter. Msgr. Lefebvre, a Frenchman, was the Archbishop-Bishop Emeritus of Tulle and had founded the SSPX eighteen years earlier.

The purpose of the agreement was to bring the SSPX out of the disobedient state it had been in for some time with respect to the Church. The protocol was also to lay the groundwork for the appointment of a new bishop to govern the SSPX after Lefebvre’s death (an event which did not occur for several years).

In laying the groundwork for a new bishop, Lefebvre and Ratzinger noted that having a bishop as the head of such a society was neither necessary for its survival nor a normal occurrence:

“At the doctrinal level (ecclesiological), the guarantee of stability and maintenance of the life and activity of the society is assured by its erection as a society of apostolic life of pontifical right and approval of its statutes by the Holy Father. … [A] bishop is not normally superior general of the society” (Ratzinger & Lefebvre, Protocol of Agreement 5:1-2).

The Vatican was going out of its way to make a special condescension to the SSPX here, which Lefebvre and Ratzinger noted was in large measure for psychological reasons:

“But, for practical and psychological reasons, the consecration of a bishop member of the society appears useful” (Ratzinger & Lefebvre, Protocol of Agreement 5:2).

At the time of this agreement, the Vatican promised Lefebvre that he would be able to ordain a new bishop to replace him in thirteen weeks time, on August 15, 1988, the delay being needed to review the credentials of different candidates proposed for the office.

Unfortunately, on May 6, the day after he signed the protocol, Lefebvre welched on the agreement and backed out of the deal, choosing to remain in a state of direct disobedience and to further compound the disobedience by consecrating not one but four bishops (where one had always been more than sufficient before), against direct papal orders not to do so, and he announced he would do it in six weeks time, on June 30, 1988.

On July 17, Cardinal Gantin, head of the College of Bishops, sent Lefebvre a formal canonical warning that if he went ahead with the planned episcopal consecrations, against the specific instructions of the pope, he would incur the grave penalty of excommunication under canon law (CIC 1364:1, 1382). In addition to the formal canonical warning, repeated informal appeals were made to Lefebvre to go with the original agreement, right up until the end.

But when the appointed day came, Lefebvre made good on his threat and, with Msgr. Antonio de Castro Mayer, Bishop emeritus of Campos, Brazil, he consecreated four priests of the SSPX as bishops.

The next day, July 1, 1988, Cardinal Gantin issued a formal decree of excommunication announcing that Lefebvre, Castro Mayer, and the four priests had performed a schismatic act and excommunicated themselves in accordance with the provisions of the Code of Canon Law, which stipulates automatic excommunication for both schism and unauthorized episcopal consecration.

Cardinal Gantin also warned that:

“The priests and faithful are warned not to support the schism of Monsignor Lefebvre, otherwise they shall incur ipso facto the very grave penalty of excommunication” (Gantin, Decree of Excommunication).

The following day, July 2, Pope John Paul II issued an apostolic letter in which he solemnly confirmed the excommunications and the existence of the schism.

Schism is defined in the Code of Canon Law in the following manner:

“[S]chism is the refusal of submission to the Roman Pontiff or of communion with the members of the Church subject to him” (CIC 751)

In his apostolic letter, the pope explained that the consecrations had been schismatic, not simply because they were unauthorized (i.e., without permission), but because they were directly disobedient (i.e., against an order) in a very grave matter to the Roman Pontiff:

“In itself this act was one of disobedience to the Roman Pontiff in a very grave matter and of supreme importance for the unity of the church, such as is the ordination of bishops whereby the apostolic succession is sacramentally perpetuated. Hence such disobedience–which implies in practice the rejection of the Roman primacy–constitutes a schismatic act” (John Paul II, Ecclesia Dei 3).

As a result,

In performing such an act, notwithstanding the formal canonical warning sent to them by the cardinal prefect of the Congregation for Bishops last June 17, Archbishop Lefebvre and the priests Bernard Fellay, Bernard Tissier de Mallerais, Richard Williamson and Alfonso de Galarreta have incurred the grave penalty of excommunication envisaged by ecclesiastical law” (ibid.).

The Holy Father explained that the schismatic act of the Lefebvrists was based on a radical misunderstanding of the essence of Sacred Tradition:

“The root of this schismatic act can be discerned in an incomplete and contradictory notion of tradition. Incomplete, because it does not take sufficiently into account the living character of tradition … But especially contradictory is a notion of tradition which opposes the universal magisterium of the church possessed by the bishop of Rome and the body of bishops. It is impossible to remain faithful to the tradition while breaking the ecclesial bond with him to whom, in the person of the apostle Peter, Christ himself entrusted the ministry of unity in his church” (John Paul II, Ecclesia Dei 4).

Because of the danger the new schism posed to souls, the Pope issued a direct and solemn appeal to the faithful to stop any and all support for the SSPX:

“In the present circumstances I wish especially to make an appeal both solemn and heartfelt, paternal and fraternal, to all those who until now have been linked in various ways to the movement of Archbishop Lefebvre, that they may fulfill the … duty … of ceasing their support in any way for that movement” (John Paul II, Ecclesia Dei 5:c).

He also specifically warned against formally adhering to the Lefebvrist schism:

“Everyone should be aware that formal adherence to the schism is a grave offense against God and carries the penalty of excommunication decreed by the Church’s law” (ibid.).

This is the Church’s definitive statement on the subject of the status of Lefebvre and his organization. As the promulgator and authentic interpreter of the 1983 Code of Canon Law, under which Lefebvre committed his crimes, the Code means what exactly the pope says it means.

This is especially so since “Laws are authentically interpreted by the legislator and by the one to whom the legislator has granted the power to interpret them authentically” (CIC 16:1). John Paul II was the legislator at the time of the 1983 Code of Canon Law, meaning he is the most qualified to interpret it, not only because of his role as pope (which of itself gives him the right to determine its meaning), but also because it was by his authority it was originally promulgated. His interpretation of his Code is guaranteed to be accurate.

But more fundamentally, the pope has the right to determine the meaning of the Code by virtue of his office as pope, and his rulings on canon law are decisive and unappealable. As the Code states, “There is neither appeal nor recourse against a decision or decree of the Roman Pontiff” (CIC 333:3). For all faithful, non-dissident Catholics, the pope’s ruling definitively settles the matter.

Regrettably, Lefebvre died a number of years later in a state of canonical schism, and his organization continues to exist in a state of schism.

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