Concerning Archbishop Lefebvre, the Council, and Bishop Schneider

August 09, 2017
Saint Athanasius.

An article by Bishop Athanasius Schneider on “the interpretation of Vatican II and its connection with the current crisis of the Church” in Corrispondenza Romana has been circulating online for some time.

This is not the first time in recent years that the auxiliary bishop of Astana has spoken on this theme. But it is indeed the first time he has declared explicitly that the Second Vatican Council contains erroneous propositions (some of which were ambiguous, as he has repeatedly said) on important points of Catholic doctrine – ecumenism, collegiality, religious liberty, and relations with the modern world – and that he sees in these errors the cause of the present crisis. In this article, he even tried to give a general overview of his take on the Council. It is an event that could scarcely leave the world of Tradition indifferent. What should we think of it? A comparison with the words and attitude of the one who was without a doubt the main reference of the reaction to conciliar reforms, Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, will help us find an answer.

1 – A Parallel Drawn From History

In order to illustrate his judgment on the gravity of the present crisis in the Church, Bishop Schneider begins his article by drawing a parallel “with the general crisis in the 4th century, when the Arianism (sic) had contaminated the overwhelming majority of the episcopacy, taking a dominant position in the life of the Church”.

This is a particularly fortunate parallel if we recall the positions taken up by Catholics at the time of this crisis: a minority remained faithful to the Tradition of the Church (with two bishops to lead them: St. Athanasius and St. Hilary of Poitiers) stood against a minority of innovators (the Arians) who were perfectly aware they were a minority (and who occupied the main functions of authority in the Church for several decades). In between the two was the majority of people, who leaned, somewhat unconsciously, towards one side or the other (semi-Arians), and who were cleverly used by the minority in power to impose its ideas as a majority. In such a context, not standing up against the errors was more or less seriously to be complicit. Among the forces present at the Second Vatican Council (and today, with some slight numerical variations) we find exactly the same situation.

But another category very soon joined the other three. When certain Arians or semi-Arians were beginning to become aware of their error – though without all the clarity and vigor of those who had defended the true doctrine from the start – and to condemn it, when St. Athanasius was proving indulgent and ready to welcome them to an ever-growing adherence to the traditional doctrine, there then appeared a small minority of Christians called “Luciferians”, after the name of their leader, Lucifer of Cagliari. They did not tolerate such indulgence and insisted that so long as an Arian or semi-Arian had not entirely recanted his errors and fully approved the work of those who had hitherto resisted, he could not be counted among the true Catholics.

This latter category is also represented today. Indeed, in answer to Bishop Schneider’s article, some have accused him of being just another one “of the many conservative bishops...who maintain a position based on a positive recognition of Vatican II. They do not understand the dangerous nature of this Council, which was the beginning of a process that aims to destroy the Catholic Church and replace her with a new more or less Protestant church that has clearly broken off from two thousand years of history and teachings of the Catholic Church”.1

In the same way that the Luciferians, who refused to consider as possible any gradual solution to the crisis, the representatives of this way of thinking consider that “the only solution to the crisis shaking the Church consists in the annihilation of this disastrous Council, just as the Arian crisis of the 4th century, quoted by Bishop Schneider, was resolved by the annihilation of Arianism”2.

This last point is an historical mistake: Arianism was only definitively eradicated after several centuries, and the crisis was not overcome in a day. But the deeper error is the very idea conveyed by these words, the idea of those who, believing in this way to attack the diametrically opposed error (Modernism), are really only confirming once again that very often, opposites meet. Archbishop Lefebvre warned often against this error:

Our duty is to do everything possible to maintain respect for the hierarchy insofar as its members are still a part of it, and to be able to distinguish between the divine institution, to which we must be very attached, and the errors which certain bad shepherds can profess. We must do everything possible to enlighten them and convert them with our prayers and our example of gentleness and firmness”.  Gentleness and firmness: gentleness in the way we present the truth, suaviter in modo, and firmness in remaining faithful to it with no concessions, fortiter in re."3

2 – Suaviter in Modo

We come to the real point: in this article, is Bishop Schneider really just voicing the position of the “many conservative bishops”, or is he actually an example of those whom Bishop Bernard Fellay defined in a recent interview as “churchmen who protest, not as loudly as us, not as publicly as us, but as strongly as us on the level of ideas, they protest against the novelties”, and who are a “very important element in this battle”?4

It is true that Bishop Schneider begins with a profession of respect for the Council: “Vatican II was a legitimate assembly presided by the Popes and we must maintain towards this Council a respectful attitude.” But if these words make him a liberal, then the same must be said of Archbishop Lefebvre, who several times declared that when Vatican II promulgated acts they were “doubtless... important acts for the Church, but which must be considered according to their relation with all the truths revealed before the Council”5.

The point on which Bishop Schneider appears the most indulgent towards the Council is when he tries to point out the positive elements:

The original and valuable contribution of the Vatican II (sic) consists in the universal call to holiness of all members of the Church (chap. 5 of Lumen Gentium), in the doctrine about the central role of Our Lady in the life of the Church (chap. 8 of Lumen Gentium), in the importance of the lay faithful in maintaining, defending and promoting the Catholic faith and in their duty to evangelize and sanctify the temporal realities according to the perennial sense of the Church (chap. 4 of Lumen Gentium), in the primacy of the adoration of God in the life of the Church and in the celebration of the liturgy (Sacrosanctum Concilium, nn. 2; 5-10). The rest one can consider to a certain extent secondary, temporary and, in the future, probably forgettable....”

Admittedly, the importance the Council granted to the role of the lay faithful in evangelization is perhaps debatable, given the post-conciliar developments of this principle. But to say that in the Council there are also correct propositions, and even claiming somewhat provocatively that one day (when the authorities of the Church will have corrected the errors in these documents) it is precisely these exact propositions that will remain as the only true doctrinal contribution made by this Council enough to make him a liberal? In that case, Archbishop Lefebvre was a liberal, too, since in 1965, after the proclamation (in the conciliar document Lumen Gentium) of Mary as “Mother of the Church” (precisely one of the ones Bishop Schneider considers as a positive point in the Council), he called this an “extraordinary event that the press overlooked or only mentioned very briefly. We can never speak enough of this, for in the history of the Church, the Second Vatican Council will remain first and foremost the council that proclaimed Mary the Mother of the Church....Nothing was lacking in this event for it to be truly inspired by the Holy Ghost”.6

It should also be noted that Archbishop Lefebvre never retracted this. It is true that after the mid-70’s, he made fewer and fewer declarations of this sort; but the reason for his change of priority lies not in the fact that he had changed his mind but in the fact that he realized that, as   the conciliar texts were being applied, these positive points were completely overlooked, whereas the points that went against Tradition had become the main fruit of the Council. What is more, as a true pastor of souls, Archbishop Lefebvre understood that at a time when almost no members of the hierarchy were speaking of the disasters produced by the Council, the priority was to speak of just that; not to mention that using as arguments of authority passages taken from documents that also contain grave errors is unfitting, since it risks implicitly recognizing that these errors, too, have authority. This, however, does not mean that Archbishop Lefebvre changed his opinion on the few positive points in the Council.

Consequently, if mentioning these few positive points in the Council is not the most fitting attitude to adopt in the present context, it does not mean that Bishop Schneider’s remarks on these points are false. There is an enormous difference between what is temporarily inappropriate and what is fundamentally false. Above all, these few positive remarks on certain points in the conciliar texts do not negate the historic and extraordinarily positive value of his words of condemnation against the Council’s errors.

On a more general note, we cannot deny that the tone of the article is not an “I accuse”, but more of a poised and diplomatic tone. It is not, for example, the tone of Archbishop Lefebvre’s famous book I Accuse the Council (1976). But nor was the tone of Archbishop Lefebvre’s writings before 1976 identical to that of I Accuse the Council7, which is a sign that the founder of the Society of St. Pius X only gradually came to take harsher public stances, which does not mean he was fearful or liberal before that. Even in the years that followed, there was still a difference between the tone in his more apologetic writings (his many interviews with journalists, for example) and those meant for a broader public (like the famous Open Letter to Confused Catholics) or for the members of the official hierarchy (his letters to the Holy Father), which were  always calm and diplomatic, and the more incisive tone of his ad hoc sermons or stances in reaction to scandals against the Faith, like the inter-religious meeting in Assisi in 1986. Knowing how to be suaviter in modo when the circumstances require it is not a sign of weakness but of strength: in general, someone who always needs to shout doesn’t know how to find any other arguments to be persuasive.

  • 1. To quote an Italian website.
  • 2. Ibid.
  • 3. Archbishop M. Lefebvre, Le coup de maître de Satan. Ecône face à la persécution, Editions Saint-Gabriel, Martigny 1977, p. 47.
  • 4. See transcript of interview with Bp. Fellay (February 2017): Will the Society of St. Pius X be truly free to “try the experiment of Tradition”?
  • 5. Archbishop M. Lefebvre, spiritual conference given at Ecône on June 28, 1975, on Vatican II. L’autorité d’un concile en question, Institut Universitaire Saint-Pie X, Paris 2006, p.15.
  • 6. Archbishop M. Lefebvre, Marie, Mère de l’Eglise, in Lettres pastorales et écrits, Editions Fideliter, Escurolles 1989, pp. 212-213. In this very interesting text, Archbishop Lefebvre expresses exactly the same thesis as Bishop Schneider, namely that the few positive points in the conciliar texts could be the starting point for condemning the errors contained in the same texts. This shows once again the balance of the missionary archbishop, who, so long as he had no proof of the contrary, continued to hope that the pope would apply the Council documents in keeping with Tradition.
  • 7. See for example Archbishop M. Lefebvre, Lettres pastorals et écrits, op. cit., that includes the texts he published during the Council and up until 1968; in Un évêque parle, Dominique Martin Morin, Paris 1974, that goes up until 1974.
Mgr Athanasius Schneider.

3 – Fortiter in Re

Aa calm and balanced tone, however, is not an end in itself: it is a means to more effectively persuade people of the truth of one’s arguments and the truth to which we must always remain unshakably faithful. Let us examine – while we continue to compare it with Archbishop Lefebvre’s thoughts –  what Bishop Schneider actually says about the Council:

Vatican II must be seen and received as it is and as it was really: a primarily pastoral council. This council had not the intention to propose new doctrines or to propose them in a definitive form”.

So far, the two men’s thoughts are identical. For Archbishop Lefebvre, too,

this Council has a particular has a pastoral character and Pope John XXIII himself was careful to say that they did not wish to define any truths in this Council because they considered that so far, the truths we need for our faith have been sufficiently clear, and that he saw no need for the moment to make any new definitions”1.

Bishop Schneider then speaks of the attitude we should have towards the Council’s affirmations, and distinguishes three different types: those that are in conformity with the traditional teaching of the Church, those that are ambiguous, and those that are erroneous.

On the first, he claims that “in its statements the council confirmed largely the traditional and constant doctrine of the Church.”

To clarify ambiguous statements, he suggests the following criterion: “Those statements of Vatican II which are ambiguous must be read and interpreted according to the statements of the entire Tradition and of the constant Magisterium of the Church.”

And when the statements of the Council cannot be reconciled with preceding doctrine, and are truly erroneous,

the statements of the constant Magisterium (the previous councils and the documents of the Popes, whose content demonstrates being a sure and repeated tradition during centuries in the same sense) prevail over those objectively ambiguous or new statements... which difficultly concord with specific statements of the constant and previous Magisterium (e.g. the duty of the state to venerate publicly Christ, the King of all human societies, the true sense of the episcopal collegiality in relation to the Petrine primacy and the universal government of the Church, the noxiousness of all non-Catholic religions and their dangerousness for the eternal salvation of the souls).”

In addition to the examples given by Bishop Schneider, which are precisely the points that have always been criticized by the Society of St. Pius X (religious liberty, episcopal collegiality, and ecumenism), the approach he uses is very similar to that used by Archbishop Lefebvre, who so often repeated:

For me – for us, I think – saying that we see and judge the documents of the Council in the light of Tradition obviously means that we refuse those that go against Tradition, that we interpret those that are ambiguous in the light of Tradition, and that we accept those that are in keeping with Tradition”2.

The expression “hermeneutics of continuity” had not yet been formed, but the substance of this other way of “interpreting the Council in the light of Tradition” had already been proposed to Archbishop Lefebvre:

In the mind of the Holy Father and of Cardinal Ratzinger, if I have understood correctly, we should be able to incorporate the decrees of the Council into Tradition and figure out a way to include them at all costs. It is an impossible endeavor”3.

Bishop Schneider, too, distances himself from this sort of interpretation:

A blind application of the principle of the 'hermeneutics of continuity' does not help either, since thereby are created forced interpretations, which are not convincing and which are not helpful to arrive at a clearer understanding of the immutable truths of the Catholic faith and of its concrete application.”

Indeed, according to Archbishop Lefebvre, the basic problem with the churchmen who made and then applied the Council is that

they wanted it to be pastoral because of their instinctive horror for dogma, and to make it easier to officially introduce liberal ideas into a text of the Church. But once the operation is accomplished, they make a dogma of the Council, compare it to the Council of Nicaea, pretend it is like the other councils, if not superior to them”4.

Bishop Schneider says something along the same lines:

The problem of the current crisis of the Church consists partly in the fact that some statements of Vatican II – which are objectively ambiguous or those few statements, which are difficultly concordant with the constant magisterial tradition of the Church – have been infallibilisized. In this way, a healthy debate with a necessarily implicit or tacit correction was blocked...We must free ourselves from the chains of the absolutization and of the total infallibilization of Vatican II.”

4 – Mitis et Humilis Corde

So is everything perfect? That is not the point. The point is simply not to break the bruised reed or quench the smoking flax5. In short, to answer our initial question: even if his position is not perfect (but let he that is perfect cast the first stone), Bishop Schneider is without the shadow of a doubt – all the more so after this latest article which is of capital importance, since in it he explicitly condemns the principal errors of the Council and highlights their connection to the present crisis – one of the churchmen Bishop Fellay was talking about, “who protest, not as loudly as us, not as publicly as us, but as strongly as us on the level of ideas, they protest against the novelties”, and who are a “very important element in this battle”. It is also clear that his protests are also becoming more and more public.

The attitude that we Catholics faithful to Tradition – including those of the first hour, who (to their great merit) had the strength from the very start and without any hesitation to clearly stand up against today’s errors – the attitude that we must have towards these people who come back little by little, but more and more clearly to Tradition (all the more so when they are successors of the Apostles), must not be the attitude of the 4th century Luciferians, but that described extremely clearly by Bishop Alfonso de Galarreta in his sermon in Ecône for the priestly ordinations on June 29, 2017:

There is a good that did not use to exist, but that is starting to come. It is a good reaction from valuable laymen, priests, bishops, and cardinals…Yes, it is a minority, and sometimes the reactions are a little timid, or only go halfway. But still, they are real and healthy reactions, that go along the lines of the Faith, of Tradition, of the restoration of the Faith, the defense of the Church and of the priesthood of Our Lord. And at this, which is a sign of Our Lord’s assistance to His Church, we cannot but rejoice; we cannot but encourage it. The Society’s goal is the sanctification not only of its members, but the sanctification of priests in general. And this is an immense field for apostolate. So we have to take advantage – prudently of course, that is obvious – of these apostolic openings. And they should encourage us, too”.

In this way we will be truly faithful to the venerated founder of the Society of St. Pius X, Archbishop Lefebvre, who was always suaviter in modo and fortiter in re. And we will be faithful, too, to the patron saint of our seminaries, St. Thomas Aquinas: healthy Thomism has always known how to take the good no matter where it comes from (to build his philosophy, St. Thomas did not hesitate to use the pagan Aristotle – to the great scandal of the learned men of his times). But above all, we will be faithful to Our Lord Jesus Christ, “meek and humble of heart”6, who in His conversation with the scribe who still had a long way to go, but showed that he had grasped the essential and had a heart open to the Truth7, did not say to him: “See, you are one of the many conservative scribes who only know how to quote the precepts of the law by heart”, but rather, with a voice full of charity: “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”

  • 1. Archbishop M. Lefebvre, Spiritual conference given in Ecône on June 28, 1975, in Vatican II. L’autorité d’un concile en question, op. cit., p. 15.
  • 2. Conference given in Ecône on January 10, 1983.
  • 3. Ibid.
  • 4. Abp Marcel Lefebvre, I Accuse the Council, Angelus Press, pg. xiii.
  • 5. See Mt. 12:20.
  • 6. See Mt. 11:29.
  • 7. See Mk. 12:28-34.