Is It Time to Reconsider Archbishop Lefebvre?

Given what we know now, and given the fact that the promised New Springtime turned out to be more like a nuclear winter, maybe we can humble ourselves and be willing to rethink the person of Marcel Lefebvre.

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In the almost 35 years that have passed since the 1988 episcopal consecrations performed by Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre and Bishop Antônio de Castro Mayer in Écône, Switzerland, the debate surrounding the Society of Saint Pius X (SSPX) has raged on.

In this, the 2023rd year of Our Lord, the debate seems to have reached a fever pitch as various Catholic internet personalities have come out swinging in favor of or vehemently against the SSPX. Leaving aside all the bad blood or mixed emotions that many have about the Society and Lefebvre, I believe we ought to have a sober and grown-up conversation about the topic.

It is not my intention here to give an airtight apologetic on behalf of the SSPX in these short 1200 words, as this would not be possible. That being said, perhaps we can approach the topic with decades of perspective, given the time that has passed and the crisis we generally find ourselves in.

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In the 1970s and ’80s, Archbishop Lefebvre would have sounded like a renegade or malcontent to many faithful Catholics and churchmen. After all, Catholics were told they were living in the New Springtime and were promised that the New Mass would bring Catholics into a deeper connection with Christ, one that simply wasn’t possible before the Council. During those years, Lefebvre seemed like an outlier, and his words were received as sharp and divisive and in stark contrast to what we were supposed to believe about the time Catholics were living through.

A combination of ultramontanism and incomplete catechesis had primed Catholics to simultaneously accept—at least tacitly—the doctrinal and liturgical innovations while at the same time believing that any criticism of Rome or the papacy for promulgating such changes amounted to the proverbial sin against the Holy Ghost. But times have changed, and even conservative nontraditional Catholics can often get behind bishops like Athanasius Schneider, Carlo Maria Vigano, Gerhard Müller, Joseph Strickland, and Raymond Burke, who all publicly say things that in the aftermath of the Council would have garnered them labels as “schismatics” or “disobedient.”

In 1970, when the Vatican suppressed the Old Mass and gave way for us to sing along with Peter, Paul, and Mary—no, not the biblical ones—Catholics were shell-shocked and mostly told themselves to sing “Gather Us In” and get with the times. Well, some Catholics did that, but a large number actually left the Church. At that time, Paul VI even said that adherence to the Old Mass was tantamount to a rebellion against the Second Vatican Council (I cite this in my book on the subject). Perhaps the New Mass really is the Mass of Vatican II… 

In addition to Paul VI’s opinion that the Mass literally celebrated by the Council Fathers was somehow against the Council itself, he also said that Vatican II may have been more important than the Nicaean Council that defined the Divinity of Christ! Imagine the confusion given the fact that we were clearly told that Vatican II defined no new dogmas and that there were no anathemas to be found.

Compare and contrast the 1970s to our time, when the Old Mass is being suppressed again after a brief respite. Today, resisting the changes, getting creative about where to celebrate Mass, and even speaking out against the pope’s decision are all seen as virtuous and honorable by faithful Catholics of all stripes. But decades ago, this sort of behavior would have been anathema.

What has changed? Is there any qualitative difference between the Catholic bishop today who speaks against the Spirit of Vatican II made manifest in the papacy of Pope Francis and Archbishop Lefebvre who called foul on the same spirit years prior? If Lefebvre was a schismatic for resisting Pope Paul VI and John Paul II, then what should we say about Bishop Vitus Huonder, who has recently come out swinging in favor of Lefebvre and the SSPX after living with Society priests for the past three years? Huonder has even said publicly that Pope Francis told him personally that Pope Francis does not believe the SSPX to be schismatic. It should be noted that Huonder retired to a life of study and prayer with the SSPX with explicit approval from Rome. Is there any qualitative difference between the Catholic bishop today who speaks against the Spirit of Vatican II made manifest in the papacy of Pope Francis and Archbishop Lefebvre who called foul on the same spirit years prior?Tweet This

In addition, Huonder even called on Rome to apologize to the SSPX and posthumously to Archbishop Lefebvre for what he and many others have come to see as unjust and even illegal actions against the SSPX over the years. If the SSPX is schismatic, then Huonder’s statements are not only scandalous but he himself is, at least seemingly, on the side of schismatics, as is Bishop Strickland.

A major sticking point in the SSPX conversation is the person of Pope John Paul II. The Polish pope was and is for many a great hero of the faith, and the SSPX saga for many of his devotees boils down to a binary conclusion that John Paul II was the hero and Lefebvre was the enemy. While I understand that many Catholics still revere John Paul II with great affection, and it is not my intention to comment on him substantially here, I believe that we are in a position to view his papacy with some sobriety.

Pope John Paul II’s decisions and statements about the SSPX were not dogmatic statements about faith and morals but, instead, prudential decisions based on ecclesiological and legal opinions. Can we really say that the pope of the interfaith Assisi event demonstrated impeccability with his prudential decisions? This is the same pope under whom Fr. Marcial flourished, yet Bishop Marcel was castigated. This is to say nothing of McCarrick and his ilk who were exalted to the highest levels of the Church while Lefebvre and his faithful priests were cast into the exterior darkness.

None of what I have said is likely to convince the ultra-skeptical critic of the SSPX to change his mind, but if we are of goodwill and open to an honest assessment, perhaps we can take a second look.

Ultimately, we are living through perhaps the greatest crisis in Church history, and the times have been confusing and horrifying for Catholics across the board. Given what we know now, and given the fact that the promised New Springtime turned out to be more like a nuclear winter, maybe we can humble ourselves and be willing to rethink the person of Marcel Lefebvre and his army of faithful priests.

Bishop Schneider, in his book The Springtime That Never Came, called Lefebvre “prophetic,” which would be a striking claim if Lefebvre was truly a schismatic.

If Lefebvre really was prophetic, then perhaps some words of Scripture might give us insight into the situation: “Amen I say to you, that no prophet is accepted in his own country” (Luke 4:24).

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