Waiting for Rome to Return to Tradition
From Econe, Archbishop Lefebvre prepared a letter for the pope. He observed that “a grave difficulty now arises with respect to the episcopacy granted to the Society, to succeed me in my episcopal function.” He understood that for the Holy See, the question of the episcopacy was “a source of apprehensions and concern”, provoking “delays and evasive responses (…) for over a year.” Everything was ready for June 30, the final date: “The accords have been signed, the names of the candidates have been proposed. If Cardinal Ratzinger is overworked and does not have time to prepare the mandates, perhaps Cardinal Gagnon could be entrusted with it. Most Holy Father, deign to put an end to this sorrowful problem…”
Once again, the prelate explained how there would be a renewal if the pope gave the Church “bishops who are free to revive Christian Faith and virtue by the means Our Lord entrusted to the Church for the sanctification of priests and the faithful. Only an atmosphere entirely detached from modern errors and modern ways will permit this renewal.” All the pope had to do was to develop this atmosphere of renewal with his decisions. It would procure for the Church, with the grace of God, “a new youthfulness” that would “transform pagan society into Christian society.”
Return to the Palace of the Holy Office
On May 24, Archbishop Lefebvre met with Cardinal Ratzinger and his secretaries in Rome. He gave him his letter for the pope and another letter written that very day and addressed to the cardinal. In this letter dated May 24, he repeated what he had written on May 6, the day after signing the doctrinal declaration. “Upon reflection, it appears clear that the goal of these dialogues is to reabsorb us within the Conciliar Church, the only Church to which you make allusion during these meetings.” There had been a misunderstanding; “we hoped that you would give us the means to continue and develop the works of Tradition, especially by giving us some coadjutors, at least three, and by giving a majority to Tradition in the Roman Commission.” For it remained important to maintain his works “outside of all progressivist and conciliar influence.” Archbishop Lefebvre never varied on this point. From the very beginning of the negotiations a year earlier, he believed he would be able to work officially if recognized as he was without adopting the novelties of Vatican II.
In the end, Archbishop Lefebvre took the reins back into his own hands: “Therefore, with much regret we feel obliged to ask that, before the date of June 1, you indicate clearly to us what the intentions of the Holy See are on these two points: the consecration of three bishops asked for June 30, and a majority of members from Tradition in the Roman Commission. Without an answer to this request, I shall proceed with the publication of the names of the candidates to the episcopacy whom I will consecrate on June 30 with the collaboration of His Excellency Bishop de Castro Mayer. My health and the apostolic necessities for the growth of our work, do not allow for any further delay.”
During the meeting, the cardinal mentioned the date of August 15, without answering the other unresolved problems. A week later, Archbishop Lefebvre was at Le Pointet, near Vichy (France), where he informed the heads of the different communities on the long and short of what Rome called a “reconciliation”. He spoke of consecrating four bishops and of Bishop de Castro Mayer’s promise to come to Econe to assist him in this important act.
On the same day, May 30, Cardinal Ratzinger wrote to Archbishop Lefebvre to communicate John Paul II’s response to his May 20 letter and his own answer to his May 24 letter. Regarding the Roman Commission, the answer was that the terms – however vague – of the protocol were to be respected and that the Holy Father would nominate the persons he saw fit. As for the episcopal consecration, the answer was that the pope was willing to nominate a member of the Society as bishop and “to accelerate the usual process of nomination, so that the consecration could take place on the closing of the Marian Year, this coming August 15.” Cardinal Ratzinger ended his letter by asking Archbishop Lefebvre not to ordain three bishops on June 30, even though he had publicly announced that he would do so. This was the first time Rome proposed a precise date, after explaining that August 15 was in the middle of vacation and therefore impossible. But it was too late. Archbishop Lefebvre was tired of all these delays and dissatisfied with obtaining so little after so many efforts. His trust had been broken weeks earlier.
The Rupture of the Reconciliation Process
Archbishop Lefebvre immediately drew his conclusions from Cardinal Ratzinger’s letter. On June 2, he wrote a letter to the Holy Father declaring he was convinced, after these conversations that always “took place in an atmosphere of courtesy and charity”, that “the moment for a frank and efficacious collaboration between us has not yet arrived.”
He recalled the legitimacy of his work, that clearly was not understood by the Roman authorities: “If the ordinary Christian is authorized to ask the competent Church authorities to preserve for him the Faith of his Baptism, how much more true is that for priests, religious and nuns? It is to keep the Faith of our Baptism intact that we have had to resist the spirit of Vatican II and the reforms inspired by it. The false ecumenism which is at the origin of all the Council’s innovations in the liturgy, in the new relationship between the Church and the world, in the conception of the Church itself, is leading the Church to its ruin and Catholics to apostasy.”
“Being radically opposed to this destruction of our Faith,” explained Archbishop Lefebvre, “and determined to remain with the traditional doctrine and discipline of the Church, especially as far as the formation of priests and the religious life is concerned, we find ourselves in the absolute necessity of having ecclesiastical authorities who embrace our concerns and will help us to protect ourselves against the spirit of Vatican II and the spirit of Assisi.
“That is why we are asking for several bishops chosen from within Catholic Tradition, and for a majority of the members on the projected Roman Commission for Tradition, in order to protect ourselves against all compromise. Given the refusal to consider our requests, and it being evident that the purpose of this reconciliation is not at all the same in the eyes of the Holy See as it is in our eyes, we believe it preferable to wait for times more propitious for the return of Rome to Tradition.
“That is why we shall give ourselves the means to carry on the work which Providence has entrusted to us, being assured by His Eminence Cardinal Ratzinger’s letter of May 30, that the episcopal consecration is not contrary to the will of the Holy See, since it was granted for August 15. We shall continue to pray for modern Rome, infested with Modernism, to become once more Catholic Rome and to rediscover its 2,000-year-old tradition. Then the problem of our reconciliation will have no further reason to exist and the Church will experience a new youth.”
Pope John Paul II Intervenes
The Roman reaction was similar to that of 1975-1976, when Pope Paul VI decided to take up the pen himself. On June 9, John Paul II sent Archbishop Lefebvre a solemn letter. He referred to the solutions offered by the May 5 agreement: “They permitted the Saint Pius X Society to exist and work in the Church in full communion with the Sovereign Pontiff, the guardian of unity in the Truth. For its part, the Apostolic See pursued only one end in these conversations with you: to promote and safeguard this unity in obedience to divine Revelation, translated and interpreted by the Church’s magisterium, notably in the 21 Ecumenical Councils from Nicæa to Vatican II.”
The doctrinal problem of Vatican II, that was an atypical council because of its pastoral nature, was evacuated. If the Holy Father intended to bring the French prelate to obey Vatican II, he was most mistaken. Henceforth, the archbishop’s requests for episcopal ordinations “cannot but appear as a schismatical act whose inevitable theological and canonical consequences are known to you. I earnestly invite you to return, in humility, to full obedience to Christ’s Vicar.”
These was a complete lack of understanding and the tensions came back full force, complete with media coverage to make them more dramatic as the consecrations of June 30, 1988 drew closer.