What should we think of Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre? Today is the 25th anniversary of his historic action at Econe, when he consecrated four bishops to continue his work after his death: in his own words, ‘to preserve tradition, while waiting for tradition to regain its rights in Rome’. By tradition he meant both divine tradition and the ecclesiastical traditions that are closely bound up with the former. With regard to divine tradition, it was not that he considered that the Roman Church had  defined things contrary to revelation, but rather that a modus agendi had been adopted by the Roman authorities, from the pope downwards, profoundly inimical to certain revealed truths. In particular, he considered that the new ecumenism and new inter-religious dialogue obscured the dogma ‘no salvation outside the Catholic Church'; that the post-conciliar way of addressing civil authorities obscured the right of Christ to reign over all human societies; that the new Mass, both in itself and in its implementation, obscured the Sacrifice; that the new canon law and the approach adopted by the holy see towards bishops’ conferences obscured the right of the pope to rule over the Church. As for ecclesiastical traditions, which are as it were the bark protecting the sap of divine tradition, I have mentioned elsewhere many of those that were imperilled and all but destroyed after Vatican II.

Archbishop Lefebvre’s response to this unprecedented situation was not to deny the authority of the pope or the diocesan bishops. The bishops whom he consecrated were expressly not given jurisdiction, since he asserted that he had no right to give them jurisdiction. His business was to pass on the power of order, so that there would be validly consecrated bishops committed to tradition in its fullness. Jean Madiran, the veteran French commentator on Catholic affairs, was not willing to take up a public position in favour of the archbishop, which caused a painful rupture between them. But that makes his words about the four bishops consecrated all the more significant:-

Ils n’ont pas la carrure de Mgr Lefebvre. Mais ils sont eveques. Ils ont de ce fait, dans l’Eglise, une presence qu’on ne peut meconnaitre. Leurs propos, leurs comportement, parfois ou souvent, peuvent etre juges plus ou moins regrettables. Mais leur presence maintient de facon militante un temoignage episcopal contre la disparition du catechisme romain et contre l’interdiction ou le mepris de la messe tridentine. Sans Mgr Lefebvre et sans ses successeurs, il y aurait quand meme des pretres, des laics, des institutions militants pour la messe et le catechisme traditionnels; il y en a eu, il y en a dehors de la FSSPX: sans eveques, ils seraient loin d’avoir le meme poids (“Histoire de la messe interdite”, fasc. 2, p. 62, 2009 – apologies for the lack of accents).

{They do not have the same stature as Archbishop Lefebvre, but at least they are bishops. From this simple fact, they have a presence within the Church which cannot be ignored. We may consider that their words or behaviour are sometimes unfortunate, or often unfortunate; and yet simply by existing, they ensure that a vigorous protest is kept alive among the world’s bishops against the disappearance of the Roman Catechism, and against the prohibition of the Tridentine Mass, or the tendency to despise it. Doubtless, even without Archbishop Lefebvre and his successors there would still be priests, lay-men and organisations fighting for the traditional Mass and the traditional catechism. There have been and still are such outside the SSPX. But without the bishops, all these would be far from having the weight that they do.}

We cannot say ‘the old rite {etc} would have died out without the archbishop’, since we do not know what God would have done had Marcel Lefebvre not acted as he did. Probably there is no such thing as ‘what God would have done’. But we can say that, as a matter of fact, it was he who preserved it. From his decision to ignore as invalid the suspensio a divinis in 1976, and from his later decision to ignore the papal command not to proceed with the consecrations, has flowed, as a matter of fact, the Fraternity of St Pius X, Le Barroux, Quattuor Abhinc Annos, Ecclesia Dei Afflicta, the Fraternity of St Peter, the Institute of Christ the King, Summorum Pontificum, the Latin Mass Society training weeks… I should think there can be few priests in the world today saying the traditional Roman rite who could not trace out a shorter or longer lineage leading to the archbishop. Gesta Dei per Francos?

Of course, there is that matter of disobedience to a papal command, and that disputed question of whether the excommunication was incurred or not. To the latter question, it seems to me that it was not incurred, since canon law recognises the subjective conviction of necessity, even when erroneous and culpable, as excusing from this penalty. Who can confidently deny that the archbishop, whether or not erroneously or even culpably, thought that his action was necessary for the good of the Church? As for the former, St Thomas lays down two cases when it is not necessary to obey the command of a superior. Either his command is contrary to that of a higher superior, or else he is commanding in an area where he has no authority. The latter does not apply here, since the consecration of bishops is certainly within the authority of the pope. What of the former? The archbishop would have said, I believe, that he had, as a bishop, a general duty from God to hand on the episcopal grace to men who would uphold divine and ecclesiastical tradition at a time when these were gravely imperilled, and when there seemed to be no one else (apart from his co-consecrator) willing to act as he did. In other words, he would have argued that the pope’s command was contrary to that of the the pope’s own superior.

I do not think one can say a priori that it is impossible that things should ever become so bad that such a course of action would be justified. Whether things have in given circumstances become that bad is a judgement that a bishop must make before God according to such light as he possesses. Obviously it is about the gravest possible judgement that any man can be called on to make. It is not, I think, for those who were not in Marcel Lefebvre’s unique position to pass judgement upon his action. Light would have been offered him to see his way; whether he took it or not is the secret of God. And yet, for my part, when I think of the man and his life’s work, I cannot but echo those words that Cardinal Oddi is said to have spoken at the archbishop’s tomb in Econe on the 18th September, 1991: “Merci, Monseigneur”.

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