30 Years Ago Operation Survival: The Story of the Episcopal Consecrations (5)

Source: FSSPX News

June 30, 1988

Archbishop Lefebvre held a press conference in Econe on June 15, and the Holy See answered the next day with an Information Notice and on the 17th with a canonical warning from Cardinal Berardin Gantin, then Prefect of the Congregation for Bishops.

The prelate related many details from the oral discussions in Rome to the journalists. The church of St. Nicolas du Chardonnet in Paris was mentioned, for example. Cardinal Ratzinger explained to the astonished archbishop that from then on, a New Mass would have to be celebrated there every Sunday.

Archbishop Lefebvre distributed to the journalists a short presentation of each of the priests he had chosen to ensure the permanence of Tradition, especially by conferring the sacraments of Confirmation and Holy Orders. They were Frs. Bernard Tissier de Mallerais, a Frenchman ordained in 1975, Richard Williamson, an Englishman ordained in 1976, Alfonso de Galarreta, a Spaniard ordained in 1980, and Bernard Fellay, a Swiss priest ordained six years earlier.

The Reasons for the Failure

On June 19, a statement from the French prelate presented the reasons for the failure of the negotiations. He explained that he had had “a certain hope that as the auto-demolition of the Church accelerated, they would end up taking a benevolent attitude towards us.” Cardinal Ratzinger’s letter from July 28, 1987, seemed to open “some new horizons”. Because of Archbishop Lefebvre’s announcement that he was going to consecrate successors, it suddenly seemed that “finally Rome looked at us more favorably.” 

Indeed, in the initial Roman proposal, there was no longer “any question of a doctrinal document to be signed, or asking for pardon, but an Apostolic Visitor was finally announced, the Society could be recognized, the Liturgy would be that of before the Council, the seminarians would retain the same spirit!... Thus, we agreed to enter into this new dialogue, but on the condition that our identity would be well protected against liberal influences by bishops taken from within Tradition, and by a majority of members in the Roman Commission for Tradition. Now, after the visit of Cardinal Gagnon, of which we still know nothing, the disappointments piled up.”

The disappointment came from the doctrinal text that he was suddenly asked to sign, from the small number of representatives in the organization that would be in charge of Tradition in Rome, from the lack of a date for the episcopal consecration of a Society priest, that was only granted in extremis. Above all, Cardinal Ratzinger continued to insist upon the need to belong to the only Church, the Church of Vatican II, thus suggesting that the present reconciliation was only a preliminary step to accepting the entire Council, its reforms, its spirit, its novelties… In spite of all, Archbishop Lefebvre signed the May 5 Protocol, still willing to trust them, given the substantial headway that had been made (the liturgy, the canonical status, the formation and ordination of priestly candidates, a successor in the episcopate). With the date of the episcopal consecration creating such difficulties, as we have seen, the new demands from Rome – the draft for a final letter that Cardinal Ratzinger practically dictated to him on May 17 – made everything clear to him.

Although with his insistence and obstinacy he had obtained a date for the consecration (August 15), he had to admit that “the atmosphere is no longer one of fraternal collaboration and pure and simple recognition of the Society—not at all. For Rome the goal of the talks is reconciliation, as Cardinal Gagnon says in an interview granted to the Italian journal L’Avvenire, meaning the return of the lost sheep to the flock. This is what I express in the letter to the Pope on June 2: ‘The goal of the talks has not been the same for you as for us’.”

The 80-year-old prelate concluded his statement with: “The present conciliar and Modernist Rome can never tolerate the existence of a vigorous branch of the Catholic Church which condemns it by its very vitality. No doubt we shall have to wait yet another few years, therefore, for Rome to recover her Tradition of two thousand years. As for us, we continue to prove, with the grace of God, that this Tradition is the only source of sanctification and salvation of souls, and the only possibility of renewal for the Church.”

A Parallel Church?

Obviously, the mass media cried “Schism” and relayed Rome’s objurgations to get Archbishop Lefebvre to abandon his idea of consecrating bishops. He was filled with serenity and with the certainty that he was doing the will of God as clearly shown to him. The support of the faithful and clergy confirmed his manly conviction.

It is necessary, however, to answer the objections and accusations that have been spread. Regarding the Protocol of Agreement, Archbishop Lefebvre never regretted or rejected the contents of the doctrinal text he had signed. During the press conference on June 15, he declared that article 3 “satisfied us”. While claiming that it is “difficult to reconcile” certain aspects “taught by Vatican Council II or concerning the liturgical and legal reforms that followed” with Tradition, “in a way, they satisfied us on those aspects. We were allowed to question aspects of the Council, the liturgy, and Canon Law. That is what made it possible for us to sign the doctrinal protocol; otherwise we would not have signed it.”

As for the accusation of founding a parallel Church, that was repeated several times by Cardinal Ratzinger in an attempt to make the archbishop submit, his answer was to nip this objection in the bud: “"Your Eminence, it is not us who are forming a parallel Church, as we are continuing the Church of all times, it is you who are forming the parallel church for having invented the ‘Church of the Council’, which Cardinal Benelli called the ‘Conciliar Church’; it is you all who have invented a new church, not us, it is you who have made the new catechisms, new Sacraments, a new Mass, a new liturgy, not us. We continue to do what was done before. We are not the ones who are forming a new church." 

Apart from the extraordinary circumstances and the state of necessity the Church was in, the legitimacy of the consecrations resides above all in the fact that Archbishop Lefebvre made a clear distinction between the power of Orders and the power of jurisdiction. He gave the Church bishops to continue the priesthood and the administration of the sacraments with a perfectly sure doctrine and complete orthodoxy, but these bishops have no power of government, no jurisdiction properly speaking. He did not found a parallel hierarchy or substitute his jurisdiction for the ordinary jurisdiction or attribute territories of apostolate to the four bishops he consecrated on June 30, 1988. He simply gave Tradition the means to continue, to survive.

But this Tradition is not built in the clouds. It is anchored in realities that have a visible existence in the visible Church, the Church on earth. Beginning with this Society that was legitimately founded and unjustly suppressed, the Priestly Society of St. Pius X.

Auxiliary Bishops, Not Mavericks

The bishops consecrated by Archbishop Lefebvre are Catholic because they are auxiliaries of the Society. Otherwise they would be no more than vagabonds, like the bishops of the Sedevacantist circles, consecrated with no real necessity, scattered about and forming a sterile clan.

In order to make it clear that the bishops he was going to consecrate would have no power of government, Archbishop Lefebvre insisted upon the role of the Superior General of the Society to whom they remain subject. At the end of the press conference he held in Econe on June 15, he explained that “in principle, therefore, it will be the Superior General of the Society, Fr. Schmidberger, who still has six more years as superior general, who will be in charge of relations with Rome when I disappear. It is he who will be in contact with Rome to continue the conversations, if they continue, or if there is still contact – which is not very likely for some time, since L’Osservatore Romano will probably publish the title ‘Schism of Archbishop Lefebvre, Excommunication…’ For a certain number of years, perhaps two, three years, I have no idea, there is going to be a separation.” A separation without rupture, in order to organize Tradition after his death two years later on March 25, 1991.

The founder of the Society foresaw a pause in the contact and conversations with Rome, but a very short pause. He seems to have been a bit optimistic since it took a dozen years for Rome to turn to the Society again. Cardinal Darío Castrillón Hoyos, who became president of the pontifical Ecclesia Dei commission in 2000, saw that the episcopal consecrations, far from causing the ruin of Archbishop Lefebvre’s work as predicted, had providentially allowed it to develop while being preserved from the modern errors and practices.

In a word, the consecrations helped to build the Church, unlike “those who demolish it” by spreading ideas condemned by the constant magisterium of the Roman pontiffs: “That is the essential of the events we are going to live through..., and there will be an enormous crowd at the ceremony on June 30 for the consecration of these four young bishops who will be at the service of the Society.”

At the Service of the Society

On July 4, 1988, Archbishop spoke again of the role and position of the bishops. In Econe, he told the superiors of the districts and seminaries: “The statutes of the Society remain the rule of our providential mission. The episcopal consecrations do not overturn the structure of the Society. It has been made clear, and the bishops understand very well, that they are only auxiliaries of the Society, that they cannot overturn the hierarchy of the Society, that they have no jurisdiction properly speaking as bishops. Even if there can sometimes be bishops who are superior generals, it is not the norm. The bishops are consecrated to the service of the Society and the groups united to it, according to the criterion Rome accepted, that is to say, for confirmations and ordinations. The Superior General will be the one responsible for deciding to ordain candidates from outside of the Society, from constituted societies, insofar as their Constitutions would normally be worthy of approval by the Church. The superiors of districts and autonomous houses will organize Confirmations. Jurisdiction is given to the bishops by reason of the state of necessity in which the faithful find themselves.”

We add that this jurisdiction is none other than the jurisdiction supplied by the Church in the absence of ordinary or delegated jurisdiction, in order to ensure the validity of the sacraments in extraordinary circumstances. It is in no way a claim to proper jurisdiction.

On the same day, Archbishop Lefebvre spoke of the organization he intended to leave behind him: “It is the Superior General who will continue the relations with Rome and, in a word, be responsible for Tradition, for it is the structure of the Society that exists in the eyes of the Church. We have never sought to organize Tradition or to preside over such an association; but it is a fact that the Society is the backbone of Tradition, its providential instrument, on which all the initiatives of Tradition must depend. The bishops have no territorial jurisdiction, but for practical reasons, they will most often exercise their ministry in French, English, German and Spanish-speaking countries respectively.” The idea was to respond to the needs of the apostolate, as the former missionary was no longer able to do so himself.

No Schism and No Rupture with Catholic Rome

The consecrations of 1988 were well thought-out. They were a response to an extraordinary situation. They were not the result of a sedition, but an act accomplished to ensure order as anarchy spread. The archbishop explained this very clearly in his press conference. The spirit of Assisi, “the modern and modernist ideas that came in with the Council” and that corrupt the Faith justify such an act, despite the apparent sanctions. Archbishop Lefebvre never fell into schism with the successor of Peter. But with the modernist pope, that is, “with the ideas that he is spreading everywhere, the ideas of the Revolution, modern ideas, yes.” And he insisted, “Personally, we have no intention of breaking from Rome. We wish to be united to the Rome of all times and we are convinced that we are united to the Rome of all times because in our seminaries, in our sermons, in our entire lives and the lives of the Christians who follow us, we continue the traditional life as it was before Vatican Council II and as it was lived for twenty centuries. So I do not see why we would be in rupture with Rome since we are doing what Rome herself advised us to do for twenty centuries. It is not possible.”

Besides, an infraction against an ecclesiastical law on discipline cannot be a schism, that is, a sin against the unity of the Church. It is not a “little Church” that refuses to recognize the Petrine foundation of the institution founded by Our Lord Jesus Christ and formally separates itself from this institution. The laws of the Church cannot serve to destroy her when errors are corrupting Faith and morals everywhere. In the face of such important stakes, the telegram from Cardinal Ratzinger on June 29, ordering the prelate of Econe “to leave today for Rome without proceeding to the episcopal consecrations,” seems quite futile. 

The Mandate of the Church

During the historic ceremony on June 30, Archbishop Lefebvre read a mandate in which he explained that the modernism of the Church’s authorities annulled the penalties and punishments that he could incur. It was the Roman Church herself, “always faithful to the Holy Tradition, which She has received from the Holy Apostles” who “orders us to faithfully transmit these holy traditions – that is to say, the deposit of the Faith – to all men for the salvation of their souls.” 

The archbishop considered the salvation of souls as the intention of the legislator, who cannot wish for ecclesiastical laws to be used to the detriment of the Faith. It was an act of epikie, a form of the virtue of prudence in exceptional cases when only the highest wisdom is capable of revealing the spirit of the law so as not to stop at the letter. This spirit is that in the Church, the supreme Law is the salvation of souls (salus animarum suprema lex).

The Church’s commands – the Church that Archbishop Lefebvre often called “of all time”, meaning the Roman Church faithful to her traditions, unlike the conciliar Church imbued with novelties that destroy the Faith – obliged the archbishop in conscience: “It is for me therefore, out of pity for this crowd, a grave obligation to transmit the grace of my episcopacy to these dear priests here present, in order that in turn they may confer the grace of the priesthood on other numerous and holy clerics, instructed in the Holy Traditions of the Catholic Church.”

In the end, on that June 30, Archbishop Lefebvre accomplished an act of heroism in the purest continuity with what he had written on July 4, 1984, when he summed up his spirit in a few lines: “This is why I persist, and if you wish to know the real reason for my persistence, it is this: At the hour of my death, when Our Lord asks me, ‘What have you done with your episcopate, what have you done with your episcopal and priestly grace?’ I do not want to hear from His lips the terrible words, ‘You have helped to destroy the Church along with the rest of them’.”

Archbishop Lefebvre did not shy away from his grave duty of the present moment.

Fr. Christian Thouvenot