An exchange of letters between Cardinal Ottaviani and Archbishop Lefebvre in 1966

Source: FSSPX News

Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani.

On July 24, 1966 Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani, Pro-Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, sent to the presidents of the various episcopal conferences, and to superiors general of religious orders and congregations throughout the world, a letter concerning “certain abuses and erroneous opinions concerning the interpretation of the doctrines expressed in the Second Vatican Council.”

On December 20th of the same year Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, who was then Superior General of the Congregation of the Holy Ghost, sent the Cardinal a response.

Readers of FSSPX.News will find the complete texts of these two letters written only one year after the close of the Council, and which remain today, more than fifty years later, most relevant.



Circular Letter to the Presidents of Episcopal Conferences 

regarding some sentences and errors arising 

from the interpretation of the decrees of the Second Vatican Council

Since the recent successful conclusion of the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, many wise Documents have been promulgated, both in doctrinal and disciplinary matters, in order to efficaciously promote the life of the Church. All of the people of God are bound by the grave duty to strive with all diligence to put into effect all that has been solemnly proposed or decreed, under the influence of the Holy Spirit, by the universal assembly of the bishops presided over by the Supreme Pontiff. 

It is the right and duty of the Hierarchy to monitor, guide, and promote the movement of renewal begun by the Council, so that the conciliar Documents and Decrees are properly interpreted and implemented with the utmost fidelity to their merit and their spirit. This doctrine, in fact, must be defended by the bishops, since they, with Peter as their Head, have the duty to teach with authority. Many Pastors have admirably already begun to explain the relevance of the doctrine of the Council.

Nevertheless, it must be acknowledged with sorrow that unfortunate news has been reported from various areas about abuses regarding the interpretation of the conciliar doctrine that are taking hold, as well as some brazen opinions circulating here and there causing great disturbance among the faithful. The studies and efforts to investigate the truth more profoundly are praiseworthy, especially when distinguishing honestly between that which is central to the faith and that which is open to opinion. But some of the documents examined by this Sacred Congregation contain affirmations which easily go beyond the limits of hypothesis or simple opinion, appearing to raise certain questions regarding the dogmas and fundamentals of the faith. 

It is worthwhile to draw attention to some examples of these opinions and errors that have arisen both from the reports of competent persons and in published writings. 

1) First of all regarding Sacred Revelation itself: There are some, in fact, who appeal to Sacred Scripture while deliberately leaving aside Tradition. But they then restrict the role and the strength of biblical inspiration and its inerrancy, abandoning a just notion of the true value of the historical texts.

2) In regards to the doctrine of the faith, some affirm that dogmatic formulas are subject to historical evolution even to the point that their objective meaning is susceptible to change. 

3) The ordinary Magisterium of the Church, particularly that of the Roman Pontiff, is sometimes neglected and diminished, until it is relegated almost to the sphere of a mere opinion. 

4) Some almost refuse to acknowledge truth that is objective, absolute, stable, and immutable, submitting everything to a certain relativism, with the pretext that every truth necessarily follows an evolutionary rhythm according to conscience and history. 

5) The venerated Person of Our Lord Jesus Christ is called into question when, in the elaboration of the doctrines of Christology, certain concepts are used to describe his nature and his person though they are difficult to reconcile with that which has been dogmatically defined. A certain Christological humanism is twisted such that Christ is reduced to the condition of an ordinary man who, at a certain point, acquired a consciousness of his divinity as Son of God. The virginal birth, miracles, and the resurrection itself are admitted only as concepts, reduced to a purely natural order. 

6) Similarly in sacramental theology, some elements are either ignored or are not taken into account, especially with regard to the Eucharist. There are some who talk about the real presence of Christ under the species of bread and wine as a kind of exaggerated symbolism, as though, the power of transubstantiation does not change the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ, but simply invests them with a determined significance. There are those who, when considering the Mass, insist too much on the concept of agape love at the expense of the concept of Sacrifice. 

7) Some would explain the Sacrament of Penance as a means of reconciliation with the Church, not expressing sufficiently the concept of reconciliation with God who has been offended. They affirm simply that in the celebration of this Sacrament it is not necessary to accuse oneself of sin, striving to express only the social function of reconciliation with the Church. 

8) Some consider of little account the doctrine of the Council of Trent regarding original sin, or explain it in a way that at least obfuscates the original fault of Adam and the transmission of his sin. 

9) The errors in the field of moral theology are no less trivial. Some, in fact, dare to reject the objective criteria of morality, while others do not acknowledge the natural law, preferring instead to advocate for the legitimacy of so-called situational ethics. Deleterious opinions are spread about morality and responsibility in the areas of sexuality and marriage. 

10) In addition, it is necessary to comment about ecumenism. The Apostolic See praises, undoubtedly, those who promote initiatives, in the spirit of the conciliar Decree on Ecumenism, that foster charity toward our separated brothers and to draw them to unity in the Church. However, it is regrettable that some interpret the conciliar Decree in their own terms, proposing an ecumenical action that offends the truth about the unity of the faith and of the Church, fostering a pernicious irenicism [the error of creating a false unity among different Churches] and an indifferentism entirely alien to the mind of the Council. 

These pernicious errors, scattered variously throughout the world, are recounted in this letter only in summary form for the local Ordinaries so that each one, according to his function and office, can strive to eradicate or hinder them. 

This Sacred Dicastery fervently urges the same Ordinaries, gathered in their Episcopal Conferences, to take up this point of discussion and report back to the Holy See as appropriate, sending their own opinions before Christmas of this year. 

The Ordinaries as well as those others who they reasonably choose to consult regarding this letter, are to keep it strictly confidential, since obvious reasons of prudence discourage its publication.

Rome, July 24, 1966.

Cardinal A. Ottaviani


Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre.


Rome, December 20, 1966

Your Eminence,

Your letter of July 24, concerning the questioning of certain truths was communicated through the good offices of our secretariat to all our major superiors.

Few replies have reached us. Those which have come to us from Africa do not deny that there is great confusion of mind at the present time. Even if these truths do not appear to be called in question, we are witnessing in practice a diminution of fervor and of regularity in receiving the sacraments, above all the Sacrament of Penance. A greatly diminished respect for the Holy Eucharist is found, above all on the part of priests, and a scarcity of priestly vocations in French-speaking missions: vocations in the English and Portuguese-speaking missions are less affected by the new spirit, but already the magazines and newspapers are spreading the most advanced theories.

It would seem that the reason for the small number of replies received is due to the difficulty in grasping these errors which are diffused everywhere. The seat of the evil lies chiefly in a literature which sows confusion in the mind by descriptions which are ambiguous and equivocal, but under the cloak of which one discovers a new religion.

I believe it my duty to put before you fully and clearly what is evident from my conversations with numerous bishops, priests and laymen in Europe and in Africa and which emerges also from what I have read in English and French territories.

I would willingly follow the order of the truths listed in your letter, but I venture to say that the present evil appears to be much more serious than the denial or calling in question of some truth of our faith. In these times it shows itself in an extreme confusion of ideas, in the breaking up of the Church’s institutions, religious foundations, seminaries, Catholic schools — in short, of what has been the permanent support of the Church. It is nothing less than the logical continuation of the heresies and errors which have been undermining the Church in recent centuries, especially since the Liberalism of the last century which has striven at all costs to reconcile the Church with the ideas that led to the French Revolution.

To the measure in which the Church has opposed these ideas, which run counter to sound philosophy and theology, she has made progress. On the other hand, any compromise with these subversive ideas has brought about an alignment of the Church with civil law with the attendant danger of enslaving her to civil society.

Moreover, every time that groups of Catholics have allowed themselves to be attracted by these myths, the Popes have courageously called them to order, enlightening, and if necessary condemning them. Catholic Liberalism was condemned by Pope Pius IX, Modernism by Pope Leo XIII, the Sillon Movement by Pope St. Pius X, Communism by Pope Pius XI and Neo-Modernism by Pope Pius XII.

Thanks to this admirable vigilance, the Church grew firm and spread; conversions of pagans and Protestants were very numerous; heresy was completely routed; states accepted amore Catholic legislation.

Groups of religious imbued with these false ideas, however, succeeded in infiltrating them into Catholic Action and into the seminaries, thanks to a certain indulgence on the part of the bishops and the tolerance of certain Roman authorities. Soon it would be among such priests that the bishops would be chosen.

This was the point at which the Council found itself while preparing, by preliminary commissions, to proclaim the truth in the face of such errors in order to banish them from the midst of the Church for a long time to come. This would have been the end of Protestantism and the beginning of a new and fruitful era for the Church.

Now this preparation was odiously rejected in order to make way for the gravest tragedy the Church has ever suffered. We have lived to see the marriage of the Catholic Church with Liberal ideas. It would be to deny the evidence, to be willfully blind, not to state courageously that the Council has allowed those who profess the errors and tendencies condemned by the Popes named above, legitimately to believe that their doctrines were approved and sanctioned.

Whereas the Council was preparing itself to be a shining light in today’s world (if those pre-conciliar documents in which we find a solemn profession of safe doctrine with regard to today’s problems, had been accepted), we can and we must unfortunately state that:

In a more or less general way, when the Council has introduced innovations, it has unsettled the certainty of truths taught by the authentic Magisterium of the Church as unquestionably belonging to the treasure of Tradition.

The transmission of the jurisdiction of the bishops, the two sources of Revelation, the inspiration of Scripture, the necessity of grace for justification, the necessity of Catholic baptism, the life of grace among heretics, schismatics and pagans, the ends of marriage, religious liberty, the last ends, etc. On all these fundamental points the traditional doctrine was clear and unanimously taught in Catholic universities. Now, numerous texts of the Council on these truths will henceforward permit doubt to be cast upon them.

The consequences of this have rapidly been drawn and applied in the life of the Church:

Doubts about the necessity of the Church and the sacraments lead to the disappearance of priestly vocations;

Doubts on the necessity for and nature of the “conversion” of every soul involve the disappearance of religious vocations, the destruction of traditional spirituality in the novitiates, and the uselessness of the missions;

Doubts on the lawfulness of authority and the need for obedience, caused by the exaltation of human dignity, the autonomy of conscience and liberty, are unsettling all societies beginning with the Church—religious societies, dioceses, secular society, the family;

Pride has as its normal consequence the concupiscence of the eyes and the flesh. It is perhaps one of the most appalling signs of our age to see to what moral decadence the majority of Catholic publications have fallen. They speak without any restraint of sexuality, of birth control by every method, of the lawfulness of divorce, of mixed education, of flirtation, of dances as a necessary means of Christian upbringing, of the celibacy of the clergy, etc;

Doubts regarding the necessity of grace in order to be saved result in baptism to be held in low esteem, so that for the future it is to be put off until later, and occasion the neglect of the sacrament of Penance. This is particularly an attitude of the clergy and not of the faithful. It is the same with regard to the Real Presence: it is the clergy who act as though they no longer believe by hiding away the Blessed Sacrament, by suppressing all marks of respect towards the Sacred Species and all ceremonies in Its honor;

Doubts on the necessity of the Catholic Church as the only true religion, the sole source of salvation, emanating from the declarations on ecumenism and religious liberty, are destroying the authority of the Church’s Magisterium. In fact, Rome is no longer the unique and necessary “Magistra Veritatis”.

Thus, driven to this by the facts, we are forced to conclude that the Council has encouraged, in an inconceivable manner, the spreading of Liberal errors. Faith, morals and ecclesiastical discipline are shaken to their foundations, fulfilling the predictions of all the Popes.

The destruction of the Church is advancing at a rapid pace. By giving an exaggerated authority to the episcopal conferences, the Sovereign Pontiff has rendered himself powerless. What painful lessons in one single year! Yet the Successor of Peter and he alone can save the Church.

Let the Holy Father surround himself with strong defenders of the Faith: let him nominate them in the important dioceses. Let him by documents of outstanding importance proclaim the truth, search out error without fear of contradictions, without fear of schisms, without fear of calling in question the pastoral dispositions of the Council.

Let the Holy Father deign to encourage the individual bishops of their respective dioceses to correct faith and morals. It behooves every good pastor to uphold the courageous bishops, to urge them to reform their seminaries and to restore them to the study of St. Thomas; to encourage Superiors General to maintain in novitiates and communities the fundamental principles of all Christian asceticism, and above all, obedience; to encourage the development of Catholic schools, a press informed by sound doctrine, associations of Christian families; and finally, to rebuke the instigators of errors and reduce them to silence. The Wednesday allocutions of the pope cannot replace encyclicals, decrees and letters to the bishops.

Doubtless I am reckless in expressing myself in this manner! But it is with ardent love that I compose these lines, love of God’s glory, love of Jesus, love of Mary, of the Church, of the Successor of Peter, Bishop of Rome, Vicar of Jesus Christ.

May the Holy Ghost, to Whom our Congregation is dedicated, deign to come to the assistance of the Pastor of the Universal Church.

May Your Eminence deign to accept the assurance of my most respectful devotion in Our Lord.

+ Marcel Lefebvre,

Titular Archbishop of Synnada in Phrygia,

Superior General of the Congregation of the Holy Ghost


Scambio di corrispondenza tra il Cardinal Ottaviani e Monsignor Lefebvre (1966)

Intercambio de correspondencia entre el Cardenal Ottaviani y Mons. Lefebvre (1966)

Echange de correspondance entre le cardinal Ottaviani et Mgr Lefebvre (1966)

Briefwechsel zwischen Kardinal Ottaviani und Erzbischof Lefebvre (1966)