The Integrity of Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre
In this article, Fr. Paul Robinson considers whether Abp. Lefebvre changed his policy on relations with Rome after the consecrations of 1988.
Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre was well-known, throughout his life, to be a man of great integrity. He was unwavering in his principles, honest in all of his dealings, and charitable to a fault. Among the foundational ideas that guided him were the Catholic notions of authority and obedience, which directed the heroic prudence of the Archbishop in the many difficult decisions he had to make in his relations with Rome.
Certain figures, however, seem to deny that the Archbishop was a man of principled integrity in his ideas about the Church and in his relations with Roman authorities. Some accuse him of having held contradictory principles, while others accuse him of having changed his principles after the episcopal consecrations.
This article will attempt to defend his good name by considering the Archbishop’s position and showing that he never changed it. We will first consider the Archbishop’s notion of authority and how this notion influenced his attitude towards the Roman authorities. Then, secondly, we will show that the consecrations did not cause the Archbishop to change either his principles or his application of them.
The Archbishop’s principles on authority
The most helpful way to consider the Archbishop’s principles on authority is to compare three different positions that have been taken with regard to the authority of the post-Conciliar hierarchy, wherein a majority of churchmen have been infected with Modernism to a greater or lesser degree. These three positions are the following:
- A Modernist hierarchy has no authority
- A Modernist hierarchy has unlimited authority
- A Modernist hierarchy legitimately exercises authority when it commands according to the faith but does not legitimately exercise authority when it commands against the faith
The first position judges authority on the basis of persons. If the person uses his authority badly or is wayward in theology, then he loses his office. He no longer possesses any authority. This is a Protestant model for judging authority, and the sedevacantist camp leans towards this notion of authority.
The second position judges authority purely on the basis of office. If a person holds a certain office, then one must do everything he says. The neo-conservative Catholics lean in this direction, for they hold that the Pope must be followed blindly, unless he commands something obviously sinful, such as the commission of murder.
The third position corresponds to the Catholic notion of authority and was the one held by Abp Lefebvre. He judged authority according to both office and persons. Those who hold an office receive their authority from God and continue to hold that office legitimately, even when they abuse their authority. A distinction must be made, however, in the way in which authorities use their position. If the one commanding demands something that is morally licit, then he is to be obeyed; if he commands something that is against God, however, then he is acting outside of his authority and is to be disobeyed. This is the Catholic position on obedience that holds for all situations.
The conformity or disconformity of a command to God’s laws, then, is what dictates the duty to obey or disobey the authority commanding. When subordinates are confronted with a clear case wherein those in authority are commanding what is offensive to God, they are to disobey; otherwise, they are to obey.
References to the principle
The Archbishop consistently applied the Catholic notion of obedience throughout his life. This was especially true in regard to the authority of the Church. We will take one example of him obeying authority when it was not being abused and one example of him disobeying authority when it was being abused.
In the first example, he was addressing a crisis in the United States District. Some of his priests, including Seminary rector Fr Donald Sanborn, were refusing to use the 1962 missal. After all, they said, it was promulgated by a Modernist Pope, John XXIII. This was a classic case of considering the person exercising authority (Pope John XXIII), without considering whether he was using his authority well or ill.
No, said Archbishop Lefebvre. There is nothing in the 1962 missal that poses a danger to the faith. As such, the SSPX has no justification for refusing it. As he explained to the American seminarians at the time, he was, in this decision, only applying the principle of the Church:
The principle of the Church is the principle of St. Thomas Aquinas… So, what does St. Thomas Aquinas say about authority in the Church? When can we refuse something from the authority of the Church? Only when the faith is in question. Only in this case. Not in other cases. Only when the faith is in question.
The second example concerns disobeying an authority that is being abused. The Archbishop expressed the principle on this question in 1978:
Obedience presupposes an authority which gives an order or issues a law. Human authorities, even those instituted by God, have no authority other than to attain the end apportioned them by God and not to turn away from it. When an authority uses power in opposition to the law for which this power was given it, such an authority has no right to be obeyed and one must disobey it.
Ten years later, the Archbishop cited the same principle in order to explain the basis for moving ahead with the consecration of four bishops against the will of the Roman authorities.  Rome would not allow the SSPX to continue as it was. But it was necessary for it to continue as it was in order to keep the faith. Thus, the consecration of four bishops was an “Operation Survival”, a drastic step needed in order to maintain the faith. As such, it was justified, even though it was contrary to the will of the Roman authorities.
Application to the Crisis
Let us return to the three positions on authority laid out above to see how they are applied to the prudential decision of whether or not one should be under the authority of a Modernist hierarchy:
- Sedevacantists: Modernists do not have authority → one must not put oneself under the authorities in Rome in any way whatsoever until they return to Tradition.
- Neo-conservatives: Modernists have all authority → one must put oneself under whomever has authority, no matter what those authorities command.
- Abp Lefebvre: Modernists legitimately exercise authority when they command in accordance with the faith → one should submit to the authority of Rome when one may be assured that he will be able to keep his Catholic Faith. The basis for this assurance, in the case of the SSPX, would be exemption from modernist influence, by the granting of a separate entity such as a personal prelature. If the SSPX were granted a canonical recognition ‘as is’, then it would be left as it is, while being under Roman authority, and so be able to keep the faith.
It should be clear that the position of the Archbishop was completely consistent with the Catholic notion of authority. It should also be clear that his prudential decisions in relation to the SSPX’s regularization under a Modernist hierarchy were simply an application of that notion. Thus, he was a man of integrity in his principles and their application.
Let us now turn to the objections against this position. First is the objection that the Archbishop’s principles were incoherent and second is the objection that he changed them after the consecrations.
The inconsistent principles objection
In 1994, eleven years after he had been expelled from the Society of St. Pius X, sedevacantist Bishop Donald Sanborn wrote an article entitled “The Mountains of Gelboe”. He maintains there that the Archbishop was not a man of fixed principles. If his argument were put into a syllogism, it would run as follows:
Major: There are only two possible positions for a man of fixed principles to hold in this crisis:
- the hard-liner: reject the authority of the post-Vatican II Church and maintain the faith
- the soft-liner: accept the authority of the post-Vatican II Church and compromise the faith
Minor: But Archbishop Lefebvre wanted to accept and be under the authority of the post-Vatican II Church (soft-liner), and he wanted to maintain the traditional faith (hard-liner).
Conclusion: Therefore, he was not a man of fixed principles. “It is evident … that there were two opposing sides to Archbishop Lefebvre, capable of dictating their own distinct and contradictory theory and course of action.” As a man of faith, the Archbishop was a hard-liner; as a man of the Church, as a diplomat, he was a soft-liner. As a man of principles, he was neither. As such, he was not a man of principles at all.
What the SSPX should do, then, at its General Chapter of 1994, is the following:
- recognise that their founder was wishy-washy on principles, but that he was, at heart, a sedevacantist
- reject the Archbishop’s false ecclesiology that recognizes the authority of the Pope and accept the true, hard-liner ecclesiology
- denounce the Conciliar hierarchy as heretics
- abandon all attempts at regularisation
Bp Sanborn seems to struggle to comprehend the higher principles by which Abp Lefebvre operated and so proposes a false dilemma. For him, one must either accept authority wholly or reject it wholly if one is to have consistent principles. He does not see that there is a third scenario under which it is possible to be consistent: accepting authority in one respect and rejecting it in another.
It is true that it is contradictory to hold that authority is to be both obeyed and disobeyed in the same respect. But Archbishop Lefebvre held that the post-Conciliar authorities were to be obeyed in one respect—in what does not pose an immediate danger to the Faith—and disobeyed in another, in that which does pose an immediate danger to the Faith. No contradiction exists in such an obedience, but it is rather the very definition of virtuous Catholic obedience.
Once we realise that the Archbishop obeyed the Pope as Pope but did not obey him as God, the false dilemma of hard-liner and soft-liner, which tries to split the single vision of the Archbishop into two competing personalities, evaporates of itself.
Somewhat tangential to the subject of this article, and yet important to note, is the fact that Bp Sanborn’s conclusions about the Archbishop do follow from his premises. If we were to accept his premise that the Archbishop had a contradictory ecclesiology, then it would only be logical for us to have nothing to do with Archbishop Lefebvre. Traditional Catholicism, if it is anything, is a question of holding firm to the unchanging truths of the faith, to that which has been believed always, everywhere, and by everyone. But if the Archbishop was not firm in his principles on the Church and its authority—if he held that the authority of the Church should be both accepted and rejected, in the same respect—then he was surely, in that area at least, closer to Modernism than traditionalism.
Moreover, it is common knowledge that Romanitas was one of the key characteristics of the Archbishop. He was formed at the French Seminary in Rome, he served faithfully and zealously the direct authority of Rome as Apostolic Delegate in Africa, he was constantly professing to the members of his priestly society his attachment to Rome and the Church. Thus, when Bp Sanborn attacks the stance of the Archbishop towards the Conciliar hierarchy, he is attacking an aspect of the Archbishop that was close to his very priestly identity. If the Archbishop was wrong in such a matter, in something that was so important to him, we could only conclude that his entire spirit, his entire manner of looking at the crisis of the Church, was also wrong.
The strategy of Bp Sanborn, then, is coherent:
- Establish that the Archbishop was a man of wavering principles in ecclesiology.
- Argue that, on this account, the Archbishop should not be followed in those principles and, really, in anything else of principle.
- Conclude that the stance of the Archbishop should be rejected in favour of the so-called hard-liner position, which logically leads to sedevacantism.
The one who accepts the first point should logically accept the ones that follow. We have shown above that the first point is false. For that reason, there is no need for us to refute the second and the third points.
There is, however, a class of people who accept the first point without accepting the second or the third. They are those who put forward the second objection against the Archbishop’s integrity by claiming that he changed his principles in 1988. They are the members of a loose conglomeration of hard-liners that work under the name of “The Resistance”.
The changing principles objection
The members of the Resistance split the Archbishop Lefebvre into two entities, the pre-consecrations Archbishop and the post-consecrations Archbishop, without seeming to realise that, by doing so, they destroy the Archbishop’s integrity.
The pre-consecrations Archbishop wanted autonomy for the SSPX under the authority of Rome, the right to try the ‘experiment of Tradition’, a canonical recognition ‘as is’. This first Archbishop is the same as the one identified by Bp Sanborn, the part soft-liner and part hard-liner who wants recognition from a hierarchy that he opposes in many respects.
According to the Resistance, the second Archbishop Lefebvre realised, at the time of the consecrations, that the first Archbishop Lefebvre was wrong—not just in the question of a prudential discernment, but in the very principles which directed his negotiations with Modernist Rome. Recognising his mistake, the Archbishop then rejected the false principles under which he had operated during his entire ecclesiastical career and embraced the hard-liner ecclesiology: you cannot place yourself under the authority of Modernists, and so no canonical recognition should be accepted until Rome returns to Tradition. This second Archbishop, according to the Resistance narrative, staunchly upheld his new ecclesiology for the remaining two and a half years of his life, and wanted his priestly society to follow that ecclesiology in all future dealings with Rome.
The Resistance, then, agrees with Bp Sanborn’s first point above: the Archbishop was a man of wavering principles in ecclesiology. From there, however, they part company with Bp Sanborn and so also with logic. What they do not seem to realise is that if their Archbishop is the real one, then:
- He is not a reliable reference point for traditional Catholics or even his own SSPX.
- They should, at least in principle, embrace sedevacantism, for the hard-liner ecclesiology is identical with a sedevacantist ecclesiology. Both ecclesiologies make canonical recognition under a Modernist hierarchy a question of principle rather than one of prudence and so both ecclesiologies hold, explicitly or implicitly, that a Modernist hierarchy does not possess true authority.
In short, the Resistance destroys the credibility of the Archbishop by portraying him as fundamentally changing his perspective on the Church, and then asks everyone to respect and follow their caricature of that great churchman. By their acceptance of the hard-liner ecclesiology, they undermine the principle of all authority, because they undermine its very basis. From being an office granted by God that is maintained regardless of how it is used, authority becomes a personal quality that is lost when subordinates judge that the person no longer has the quality. By casting this subjective notion of authority onto the Archbishop post mortem, they undermine all fixed points for the traditional Catholics who follow him. The fruit of this strategy is all too evident: utter chaos.
Bp Sanborn, at least, recognised that the consecrations did not cause Archbishop Lefebvre to change his canonical recognition ‘as is’ ecclesiology:
Shortly after the consecrations of 1988, Archbishop Lefebvre said that the negotiations would continue, and that perhaps in five years, all would be resolved.
In fact, the Archbishop did not change his position; the two-person Archbishop of the Resistance is a myth. Throughout his entire ecclesiastical career, Archbishop Lefebvre maintained the Catholic notion of authority in general and the Catholic notion of the Church’s authority in particular. Likewise, from 1975 until his death, he always held to the same prudential criterion for canonical recognition, that the SSPX be accepted ‘as is’. He was a man of principles, in both his speculative and practical judgement. As such, he was and is a reliable reference point for traditional Catholics and the priestly society he founded.
Why, then, does the Resistance claim that he changed?
The primary strategy the Resistance uses to convince others of their two-person Archbishop Lefebvre is that of quote mining. This is the practice of considering the words or writings of a person in complete isolation from the context of the words and the person using them, in order to project one’s own position onto that person.
We can take an example of this practice from the Feeneyite movement. It seeks to prove that the Church teaches that only baptism of water can get one to heaven, that the baptisms of blood and desire are not salvific. But the Church does not teach that. There are no statements of the Magisterium saying something like, “Whoever believes that baptism of blood is efficacious unto eternal salvation, let him be anathema”.
As such, the Feeneyites cobble together an impressive series of quotations from the Fathers and the Councils which, when taken out of context, seem to favour their position. For instance, they cite the following from Pope Eugene IV:
No one, no matter what alms he may have given, not even if he were to shed his blood for Christ's sake, can be saved unless he abide in the bosom and unity of the Catholic Church.
The Feeneyites read this to mean that one cannot be saved by baptism of blood. In fact, it means that one who dies for Christ does not receive baptism of blood if he dies in opposition to the Church.
The words of the Archbishop
Now, the Resistance puts forward, as the primary defence for its position, numerous quotations from Archbishop Lefebvre. None of these quotations say “In principle, we must refuse the authority of Conciliar Rome until the day that Rome returns to Tradition” or “I used to believe that we should accept canonical recognition if it kept us as we are, but now I realise that I was mistaken” or “It would be against the faith for us to accept canonical recognition under any conditions before Rome returns to Tradition”. Thus, the Resistance has to settle for quotations which might seem to support its position, when taken out of context.
Here, for instance, is a favourite Resistance post-consecrations citation, taken from the Archbishop’s Spiritual Journey:
It is a strict duty for every priest wanting to remain Catholic to separate himself from this Conciliar Church for as long as it does not rediscover the Tradition of the Church and of the Catholic Faith.
The whole question here is what the Archbishop means by ‘this Conciliar Church’. The immediate context refers to a decision of the Secretariat for the Unity of Christians to integrate non-Catholics into the Church as they are. The Archbishop here seems to identify ‘this’ Conciliar Church with actions of Rome that are against the perennial magisterium. Thus, he seems to be saying that priests who want to remain Catholic must not compromise their faith by associating themselves with such activities.
But the question of whether the Archbishop holds that there is no authority in Rome until it returns to Tradition is not addressed by this quotation. It is entirely possible to reconcile this quotation with a canonical recognition that enables priests to operate in autonomy from Roman congregations promoting false ecumenism.
Perhaps the very first words of the Spiritual Journey can clarify the Archbishop’s non-Resistance-filtered position:
The pages which follow are addressed especially to you, priests and seminarians of the Priestly Society of St Pius X, to you who, on this day, will renew your promises in this Catholic and Roman society, officially approved by the Ordinary, and by the Roman authorities.
If we desire to hold that the Archbishop is, in any way, a man of integrity and consistency, we must reconcile this quotation, which recognises the authority of the post-Vatican II Church hierarchy, with his quotation that calls for us to separate ourselves from ‘this Conciliar Church’. The logical means to reconcile them is by having recourse to his clear and constant position on Church authority: it is to be followed when in accordance with the faith, and to be resisted when against the faith. Instead of doing this, the Resistance chooses to tear the Archbishop into two pieces, to destroy his constancy and integrity, and so to undermine his entire moral authority.
The charity of defending integrity
Perhaps more boldly, the Resistance does the same thing with living people. It claims that Bishop Fellay and his General Council held the hard-liner ecclesiology in 2006, but then changed to the canonical recognition ‘as is’ ecclesiology in 2012, despite all protestations to the contrary by the very people whose true positions the Resistance claims to understand. Thus, the Resistance creates a second Archbishop Lefebvre and a second Bishop Fellay, and then proceeds to persecute the second Bishop Fellay for not following the first Bishop Fellay and the second Archbishop Lefebvre. It does not seem to occur to the resistors that both Archbishop Lefebvre and Bishop Fellay are men of integrity, holding to unchanging Catholic principles on the nature of authority.
It would seem to be a duty of charity for us to seek ways not to judge that our neighbour has fallen into contradictions, whenever possible. This is all the more true concerning persons in authority. The Church has a long history of practicing this charity when interpreting the texts of its great personages. The Fathers, for instance, always found ways to show that the Gospels never contradict one another when they relate the same episode from the life of Our Lord, but in different ways. St Thomas Aquinas is a past master at finding ways of interpreting dubious quotations of the Fathers that find their way into objections in such a way that the Fathers do not fall into error.
Modernist exegetes, on the other hand, practice an anti-charity by finding contradiction everywhere. For them, the books of Scripture are constantly contradicting one another, the individual books themselves are so inconsistent that they must have multiple authors, and each chapter and even verse is so hopelessly diverse that it must have undergone many changes throughout the ages. In the end, the Modernists do not seem to believe that anything fixed and constant can exist.
But let them just look at the life of Archbishop Lefebvre and they will find there a living refutation of their position. The consecrations in no way caused him to change his principles. If the Archbishop withdrew his signature from the protocol of May, 1988, the protocol that would have led to canonical recognition, it was not because he stopped recognising the authority of the prelates with whom he was dealing. Rather, it was because he lost trust in them, in that they continually refused to set a date for the consecration of a bishop. This setting of a date became the Archbishop’s criterion for trusting Rome. The day of August 15 was finally set, but it was joined with the request of submitting new candidates for consecration. The Archbishop saw that restarting the process for reviewing candidates would cause the August 15 date to be missed and so the consecrations delayed once more. As such, he went ahead with the consecrations on June 30, 1988. He did so only after making clear that there was no moral problem with signing the protocol. As if addressing himself to those who would accuse him of acting on bad principles, he told his seminarians on June 9, 1988:
Yes, it is true that I signed the protocol on the 5th of May—a bit hesitantly, I must add, but I did sign it… In itself, it was fine. Otherwise, I would certainly not have signed it.
Bp Sanborn’s Archbishop Lefebvre, the one who holds a contradictory and illogical ecclesiology, is mythological. Far from it being contradictory to hold that authority is to be obeyed or disobeyed on the basis of its commands’ conformity to faith and morals, such a position is utterly Catholic.
The Resistance’s Archbishop Lefebvre, the one who changed his notion of authority and its application to the crisis after the consecrations, is also mythological. The Archbishop recognised the authority of the Conciliar hierarchy to his dying day. He was always, in principle, willing to accept a canonical recognition ‘as is’. Only when the malicious motives of the Romans willing to recognise the SSPX became clear did he prudentially withdraw, not his principles, but his signature.
The real Archbishop Lefebvre—the man of the Church, the champion of orthodoxy, the beacon of doctrinal purity and missionary charity—was a man of unflinching integrity, one who had the supernatural strength to apply the principles of the Catholic Faith to even the most difficult concrete situations, even to the point of heroism. As such, he is an eminently trustworthy reference point for Catholics in general and for the members of the priestly society that he founded in particular.
 Conference of 24 April 1983.
 Circular letter of 29 March 1988.
 It bears repeating that the Archbishop, because of his Catholic notion of authority, believed himself duty bound to seek permission, from Modernists holding office, for his episcopal consecrations.
 The article may be found here. It appeared in Sacerdotium, issue 12.
 Bp Sanborn makes the following reminiscence about seminary life at Ecône in the early 1970s: “In the classroom, the hard-line would do battle against professors of modernist tendency, a certain now well-known British bishop leading the hard-line pack. The soft-liners would defend the professors, and attack the hard-liners.” See Ibid., p. 4.
 Ibid., p. 7.
 “The reason why the Society pursues the path of negotiation with the modernists, with the ultimate goal of being absorbed by them, is that they regard Wojtyla as having papal authority” (Ibid. Recall that Wojtyla, Pope John Paul II, was still Pope in 1994).
 For the Archbishop’s justification of his dealings with Rome and his view of the actions of Sanborn and the other priests he expelled in 1983, see his conference of 5 November 1983.
 Ibid., p. 9.
 Denzinger-Hünermann 1351 or Denzinger 714.
 p. 13.
 The term ‘Conciliar Church’ is not one coined by the Archbishop. It is rather a neologism that appeared in a letter sent to the Archbishop by Cardinal Benelli on 25 June 1976.
 Bernard Tissier de Mallerais, Marcel Lefebvre (Angelus Press, 2004), p. 555.
 « Oui, c’est vrai, j’ai signé le protocole le 5 mai, un peu du bout des doigts, il faut bien le dire, mais quand même… Bon, en soi, c’est acceptable, sans quoi je ne l’aurais même pas signé, bien sûr… » (Conference delivered on June 9, 1988).