Post Conciliar The Spirit and Practice of Marcel Lefebvre

The Second Vatican Council, the 21st Council of the Catholic Church, lasted from 1962 to 1965. It provoked an intellectual, theological and, perhaps above all, insofar as it affected tradition/Tradition, liturgical convulsion. The very brief survey of Dei Verbum above is important on two counts: firstly, it is an example of developing attitudes in traditional exegesis. Secondly, the gloss by Bishop Kallistos Ware which we have just cited indicates how the 'spirit' of Vatican II was to be invoked and interpreted by the progressives to the fury of the traditionalists. Prime among the latter was Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre (1905-91).165

In the fourth century ad, the Patriarch of Alexandria, Athanasius, had stood, sometimes virtually alone, against the assaults of the Arian heresy.166 Many modern traditionalists in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries held that Marcel Lefebvre was a new Athanasius.167 Athanasius 'in times of similar general "blindness in heresy" (Arianism) was excommunicated but subsequently exonerated and eventually canonized'.168 In 1988, Marcel Lefebvre provoked his own excommunication (and that of his clerical followers) after performing the unauthorised consecration of four traditionalist priests to the Roman Catholic episcopate on 30 June 1988.169

Marcel Lefebvre was born into a politically conservative family on 29 November 1905 in the north of France. After ordination on 21 September 1929, he joined the missionary order of the Holy Ghost Fathers, which he later headed, and served in French Equatorial Africa. In 1947, Pope Pius XII consecrated him a bishop, and in 1962 he received the rank and title of Archbishop of Synnada in Phrygia. He was involved in the preparations for the Second Vatican Council, where he emerged as an arch-conservative and champion of tradition.

After the Council, fearing that the Catholic Church had yielded to the infection of Modernism - that synthesis of all heresies, as Pius X had famously described it - he founded a traditionalist seminary in Écône in Valais, Switzerland, in 1970, and a traditionalist priestly society, the Fraternité Sacerdotale de Saint Pie X. Its traditionalism and its repudiation of the aggiornamento fostered by the Second Vatican Council, especially the reformed liturgy epitomised in the Novus Ordo Missae or

New Rite of Mass, incurred the wrath of the Vatican. The situation developed ineluctably through his public censure by Pope Paul VI (reg. 1963-78), his suspension a divinis (which deprived him canonically of his right to function as a priest) on 22 July 1976 to his final excommunication in 1988. Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre died on 25 March 1991 in Martigny, Switzerland, still excommunicated and still at odds with the Church whose antique traditions he so cherished and which had raised and fostered him.170

It is certainly a truism that, in the words of William D. Dinges, 'Catholic traditionalism does not present a completely uniform ideology, although it stands united as a worldview opposed to theological modernism'.171 It is equally true, however, that one of the aspects of the Conciliar aggiornamento most detested by the Archbishop and his traditionalist followers was the reform of the liturgy, especially the apparent abolition of the so-called Tridentine Rite of the Mass and the imposition of the vernacular Novus Ordo Missae in 1970.172 And, while it is true that 'Catholic traditionalism is not a campaign motivated by nostalgia for bygone ritualism', what I earlier characterised as 'the tired paradigms of public perception' did establish the Tridentine Mass as an arena of semiotics which signalled an adherence to all that was traditional and pre-Vatican II. Dinges himself admits this public, if incorrect, perception.173 In the common mind, pre-Vatican II liturgy was tradition, and tradition was pre-Vatican II liturgy.

Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, in the course of a long and often turbulent life, inveighed against many things which he regarded as abuses of doctrine or liturgy. For his first-year seminarians in the Econe Seminary, he devised a special syllabus on the Acts of the Magisterium:

His life's great sorrow was to see the Church, with Vatican II - which he referred to many times as the Third World War - infected with . errors, and its key posts occupied by enemies. He saw the Conciliar and post-Conciliar popes turn their backs on the teachings and warnings of their predecessors. It was also with great sorrow that he saw the priesthood in ruins, the religious life fall to pieces, and Catholic states laicized in the name of the Council's teaching on religious liberty.174

Lefebvre's purpose in giving this special course on The Acts of the Magisterium was not so much a systematic study of the errors [besetting the modern Church], but a guided tour of the encyclicals themselves, especially those in which the popes made an in-depth study of the truths denied by these errors, or gave a detailed analysis of the errors themselves.175

In his desire to defend, expound and sacralise his carefully chosen selection of encyclicals, which range from Pope Leo XII's (reg. 1823- 9) Encyclical Quo Graviora of 13 March 1826 (condemning secret societies, especially freemasonry)176 to the Encyclical of Pope Pius XI of 19 March 1937 on communism entitled Divini Redemp-toris,177 Marcel Lefebvre made the following powerful point, against the Second Vatican Council and in favour of the chosen encyclicals: 'If, then, there are things in the Council which disagree with or which contradict what previous popes have said, how can we accept them? There is no room for contradictions; the popes teach, and the matter is settled.'178 He goes on to accuse Popes Paul VI and John Paul II (reg. 1978-2005) of teaching error.179

In his desire to abide by tradition, 'to resist [errors] by relying on the constant teaching of the Church throughout the centuries',180 Lefebvre is prepared to accuse two modern popes of heresy and, although he himself does not say so in most cases, virtually endow chosen papal encyclicals from the past 300 years, which agree with his own position, with the charism of infallibility. He does, however, believe that one of the encyclicals which he cherishes, Pope Pius IX's (reg. 1846-78) Quanta Cura (8 December 1864), is an infallible document.181

Underlying the overt issue of whether most Roman Catholic theologians would agree with Lefebvre, or not, on this issue, are the much deeper issues of ultimate ecclesial authority, divine sanction - real or claimed - and the binding nature or otherwise of past authority as expressed in papal encyclicals.

If one were to make comparisons with the device of the isnad, the 'chain of authorities' in hadlth literature, one would note that, in Islam, for the chain to be valid or sound (sahih), certain quite rigorous conditions were to be met, including the direct knowledge of one transmitter of his predecessor and successor. The past is connected approvingly to the present.

Lefebvre, however, clearly felt it sufficient to cite a few 'encyclical authorities' from the past, who agree with him and each other, while ignoring 'Council authorities' (i.e. Vatican II) who might proclaim differently. Thus, in Quanta Cura, Pope Pius IX 'confirms the same condemnation [of Naturalism in politics] pronounced by Pope Gregory XVI [reg. 1831-46] [in the latter's Encyclical Mirari Vos of 15 August 1832]'.182 Lefebvre is thus happy to look backwards for his 'chain of authorities' (Gregory XVI , Pius IX), but he is generally far less happy with contemporary ecclesial authorities on many subjects (e.g. John XXIII).183

The Tradition of the Church is presented by Archbishop Lefebvre as unchanging, and the culture and history against which the chosen set of encyclicals is articulated and proclaimed are not perceived as factors for comment or debate. Tradition is all. Lefebvre himself observed:

The criterion of truth, and, moreover, of the infallibility of the Pope and of the Church, is its conformity to Tradition and to the deposit of faith ... To separate oneself from Tradition is to separate oneself from the Church. It is because it is in the nature of the Church to be a tradition that she has always instinctively had a horror of novelty, of change, of mutation, under any pretext whatsoever.184

So, while The Syllabus of Errors of Pope Pius IX (8 December 1864), which condemned, inter alia, absolute rationalism, is discussed approvingly in a lengthy chapter,185 that seminal document of Pope Pius XII, Divino Afflante Spiritu (1943), which, as we have seen, gave official approval to the historico-literary exegesis of scripture, is totally ignored.

The whole of Lefebvre's first-year seminary course, Acts of the Magisterium, may be characterised as anti-aggiornamento, anti-Council and anti-ecumenism.186 'Extra

Ecclesiam nulla salus ... must be preached', though the Archbishop does concede that salvation is possible for Protestants, Muslims, Buddhists, and others - but only 'by [= via] the Church'.187 Archbishop Lefebvre is presented by his publishers as a second Irenaeus (died ad 202), who fought against the gnostic heresies:

This work [the published seminary course Acts of the Magisterium, under the title Against the Heresies] is consequently of no less importance for the end of the 20th century than the Adversus Haereses of St Irenaeus was for the second century. The errors are different. The solution is the same. Catholic Tradition [my emphasis ]. The deposit of the Faith. The authority [my emphasis again] of the Holy See.188

The comparison between Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre and Irenaeus is interesting: Irenaeus was a powerful proponent of a living, oral, public apostolic tradition as well as a written one. And Scripture, for him, confirmed the Apostolic Tradition.189 In the Roman Catholic Church, the theological and liturgical movement seemed to have moved away - via the pendulum of aggiornamento - from the certainties of tradition and traditional articulation and then - in one sector at least - moved back again, clinging on to the lure of Lefebvrism and the return to the alleged certainties and rituals of the pre-Vatican II age.

In much of the debate, liturgy - traditional or modern, Tridentine or Novus Ordo - has played a key role. We noted earlier Archbishop George Patrick Dwyer's remark that the key to aggiornamento was liturgical reform. But, for the traditionalists, the traditional Tridentine liturgy, pre-Conciliar in form and content, became equated with that which was sacred. It is asserted, furthermore, that 'the liturgical implementation after the Second Vatican Council was not in continuity with the tradition' (my emphasis) and that 'there is today among the faithful a significant loss of belief in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist', resulting from 'the implementation of the liturgical documents after Vatican II'.190 In other words the sacred was disappearing or had, for many, already departed.

Liturgically and theologically, the sacred walks hand in hand with transcendence and mystery.191 Modern papal allocutions have urged the need to rediscover 'the sense of mystery' in the liturgy: 'The liturgy ... is a means of sanctification; it is a celebration of the Church's faith, and a means of transmitting the faith. Together with Sacred Scripture and the teachings of the Fathers of the Church, it is a living source of authentic and sound spirituality.'192

Attempts to seek a greater freedom for the celebration of the so-called 'Tridentine Rite' of Mass continue.193 It is as if there has been a dawning realisation of the 'loss of the sacred'194 as a direct consequence of the liturgical reforms of Vatican II. 'Many of the criticisms which have occurred reflected an anxiety about the loss of the transcendent and sacred in liturgy, in the light of its more deritualised anthropo-centric concerns.'195

In a striking passage, David Torevell suggests that the pre-Conciliar Roman rite 'embedded within its highly ritualised structure a reconfiguration of time and space in relation to the eschaton. Liturgical time occupied a distended period before this eschaton and the sacred spaces of ritual had assumed an analogical relationship to the heavenly realm.'196 The liturgical reform destroyed this traditional perception.197

David Torevell talks in terms of 'losing the sacred'. Others, anguished and outraged at the reforms of Vatican II - and especially their interpretation - have accused the Conciliar reformers of holding that everything that was done before Vatican II must be forgotten at all costs; the entire spiritual and sacred patrimony that was built up during the centuries that preceded the Council must be gotten rid of. The excess baggage includes sacred chant, liturgical vestments, altars, processions, incense and so on.

Thus, for example, does Dr Denis Crouan STD characterise the way in which some identified pre-Conciliar traditional liturgy with The Sacred.198

However, Crouan goes on to stress that there was never a 'liturgical rite' created by Pope Pius V (reg. 1566-72), although that pontiff did make certain revisions to the Roman missal.199 The real betrayal and crime, for Crouan, is that the necessary liturgical reforms espoused by the Council, and propagated in the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (Sacrosanctum Concilium) on 4 December 1963, have never been properly implemented.200 This position is, of course, as much at odds with that of the Lefebvrists and pre-Conciliar traditionists as it is with that of the enthusiastic partisans of the Novus Ordo Missae of Paul VI. Crouan believes that the traditionalists, by invoking a 'Tridentine rite', with all the defensive baggage which they hoped would accompany that 'rite' as a bulwark against doctrinal error and as emotional and theological security, were really invoking a chimera.201

It is a truism that ritual and ritualised liturgy are important in any religion because they articulate and adumbrate in a vital semiotic way, and sometimes a splendidly visual way, the inner truths of that faith. One thinks of the hajj for Islam and the sacrifice of the Mass for Roman Catholics. A ritual or liturgy, anthropologically speaking, can be the frame for the scripture and doctrine of the religion.202 Epistles and the Gospel are read during Mass, which presents, doctrinally and sacra-mentally, the sacrifice of Calvary itself. The Islamic hajj is a frame for both obeying and enacting the Qur'an: 'And complete the Hajj or 'umra in the service of God '.2°3 It is also a re-memorialisation of the actions of Ibrahim and the Farewell Pilgrimage of Muhammad.204 Because of this bond between ritual, liturgy, doctrine and scripture as well as tradition, it is vitally important that there be a correct and acceptable exegesis or tafsir of scripture.

However, traditionalists will hold to a traditionalist understanding and interpretation of scripture which, in the case of groups like the Lefebvrists, will castigate forms of exegesis deriving from the spirit of Vatican II.205 For example, it is vehemently denied by traditionalists that Pius XII taught anything new regarding scriptural exegesis in Divino Afflante Spiritu.206 And, in the traditionalist mindset, reformed liturgy is often linked to doctrinal error.

Thus we find Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre writing:

If one studies well the New Mass, one finds that it is imbued with modernist ideas. It was drafted under the influence of the modernist spirit execrated and condemned by Pope St Pius X in his encyclical Pascendi Dominici Gregis, in which he demonstrated the error and banefulness of Modernism, which he calls the synthesis of all heresies.207

If it is 'an essential function of the sacred to demonstrate the nature of a world that is in communion with God',208 and the articulation of that which is sacred is perceived by the traditionalists to be fatally flawed, then a sacral disjunction will result in their eyes where tradition is overthrown209 and innovation reigns supreme. Islamic fundamentalists had a similar concept with the idea of bid'a, literally 'innovation', the favoured word in the Islamic world for heretical novelty which might cause the unwary believer to diverge from the Straight Path, the Sirat al-Mustaqim, validated and sanctioned by antique Tradition.

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