|Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre|
Our anti-hero, Marcel Lefebvre, was born November 29, 1905 in Tourcoing on the Belgian border. The Lefebvres were well to do factory owners who were ardent monarchists with ties to Action Francaise, the arch-conservative anti-Semitic Catholic political movement. Marcel was the third of eight children. During the German occupation of France in World War II, Marcel’s father, Rene’s, French nationalism trumped his anti-Semitism and he was active in the Resistance and a British spy. He had also spied for the British and against the Germans during World War I. Arrested by the Nazi’s in 1942, Rene was sent to Berlin where he was tried and condemned to death. Sent to Sonnenberg Concentration Camp in East Prussia, he died in 1944.
Meanwhile, his son, Marcel had, at the insistence of his father, gone to Rome to study for the priesthood at the French College. The Lefebvre’s were an old family and had over the eighteenth and nineteenth century given several bishops and a cardinal to the Church. Marcel’s father wanted his sons—Marcel’s brother, René, was also packed off to the French College—to have every advantage in attaining a prelacy. Lefebvre was required by French Law to interrupt his studies for military service from 1926-27. Rigidly methodical and disciplined, he was a natural in the military, but when his year of compulsory service was finished, he returned to the seminary and was ordained priest for the Archdiocese of Lille in 1929.
While studying in Rome, Lefebvre fell under the influence of Henri LeFloch. LeFloch was rector of the French College but was also a member of the Holy Ghost Fathers, today known as the Spiritans. LeFebvre wanted to transfer from the Archdiocese to the Holy Ghost Fathers but his Archbishop, the famous Cardinal Cardinal Liénart, insisted he do parish work for a year before releasing him. In 1931 LeFebvre entered the novitiate of the Holy Ghost Fathers and a year later made temporary profession. Even before he took his final vows in the Holy Ghost Fathers he was made rector of their seminary in Gabon in West Africa. Called back to France at the end of World War II he was made rector of the Holy Ghost Seminary at Mortain, but two years later Pius XII named him Vicar Apostolic in Senegal and he was consecrated a bishop in September 1947. The following year he was named an Archbishop and Apostolic Delegate to all the French speaking countries of Africa. In 1955 he became the first Archbishop of Dakar. He was consulted by Pius XII when Pius, shortly before his death, wrote the missionary encyclical, Fidei Donum. In 1960 John XXIII appointed Lefebvre to the preparatory commission for the Second Vatican Council and in 1962 translated Lefebvre to the Diocese of Tulle in France, a bishopric but retaining the dignity and title of Archbishop as a personal honor.
In 1962 Archbishop LeFebvre was elected Superior General of the Holy Ghost Fathers and resigned his diocese. His election was not an affirmation but rather the result of a struggle within the Congregation between a conservative faction, represented by Lefebvre, and a progressive wing that wanted change. His six years as General Superior were marked by intense infighting and factions within the Congregation. At the 1968 Chapter, the Capitulars’ first act was to elect several moderators to preside over the Chapter rather than permit Lefebvre as General Superior, control the Chapter. This, by the way, is not an unusual procedure. To the contrary, the General Superior and his Council all cease in office when a Chapter opens so that the election of the Superior and Council cannot be controlled by the incumbents. Lefebvre however saw the handwriting on the wall that he was not to be returned to office and submitted his resignation to Paul VI. He seems to have shown some resentment that his fellow Spiritans “no longer wished to listen” to him.
Pope Paul was a deeply empathetic man and while he undoubtedly felt sorry for the hurt that LeFebvre was suffering at the hands of his fellow Spiritans, he was probably more in sympathy with the Congregation than with the former superior. LeFebvre had shown his colors boldly during the Council when he teamed up with Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani in an attempt to stop the decree on Religious Liberty. Ottaviani, LeFebvre, and several other prelates were appalled at the reversal of Church policy represented in the Conciliar Decree, Dignitatis Humanae, which said—contrary to previous Church teaching—that all human persons should have the freedom to worship God according to their conscience and consequently, the civil law should guarantee a freedom of religion.
We take freedom of religion for granted as it has long been part of our American Tradition, but it had even longer been condemned by Rome as heretical. Indeed as late as the 1950’s American Jesuit John Courtney Murray had been silenced by Rome and forbidden to teach or publish on the subject of religious freedom for upholding the American principle. The Conciliar reversal on this matter is the chief difficulty that Archbishop Lefebvre and his followers had (and have) to the Second Vatican Council. It is also one of the chief “heresies” identified by the sedevacantists for their rejection of the post-conciliar papacy.
Despite his objections to Dignitatis Humanae, Lefebvre did sign the document when it was promulgated. He later recanted his signature.
In the liturgical reforms after Vatican II a number of traditions in the Roman Rite were eliminated, among them the conferral of tonsure on candidates for major orders, the major order of subdeacon, the minor orders of porter and exorcist. Moreover the minor orders of acolyte and lector were renamed “ministries.” Several conservative seminarians from the French College in Rome approached Archbishop Lefebvre requesting to be tonsured. Lefebvre agreed but also realized that such tradition minded seminarians would not last long in the established French seminaries. He decided to open his own seminary at Fribourg in French-speaking Switzerland. This seminary moved to Écone in 1971. With permission of the Bishop of Fribourg, Lefebvre established the Society of Saint Pius X as a pious union of the faithful. The bishop withdrew his permission, however, in 1975 and despite a mandate from the Vatican, Lefebvre did not dissolve the society; In fact, the following year he ordained the first priests for the society without permission of the local bishop.
Just as it is forbidden to consecrate a bishop without a mandate from the Pope, so too is it forbidden a bishop or ordain a man a priest without the permission of the local bishop. Indeed, the entire French Episcopal Conference had informed Archbishop Lefebvre that they would not accept into their dioceses any priest who had been educated at Écone. As Archbishop Lefebvre was no longer an ordinary (the head of a diocese) he had no authority to ordain priests. In ordaining them, he was ordaining men to the priesthood without a Church in which they could be priests. (A secular priest is ordained for a particular local Church, i.e. a diocese.) Priests are not meant to be free agents, but rather to assist a Bishop in the ministry of his diocese. Archbishop Lefebvre had been warned by a letter from the Holy See not to ordain any priests. When he ignored this letter, he was suspended from his functions as a bishop. He then decided to pour gasoline on the fire and stated that the Second Vatican Council had been an alliance between the highest offices of the Church and international Freemasonry. This attack on the Council had him suspended from all priestly functions, including the saying of Mass. He met with both Pope Paul VI and John Paul II, but his French temper only resulted in an ever-deepening schism. In 1988 the schism became complete when Archbishop Lefebvre consecrated four bishops without papal mandate. Lefebvre, the two co-consecrators, and the four new bishops were all excommunicate for this act.
We will revisit Archbishop Lefebvre and his Society of Saint Pius X again in their turn and look more in detail at the schism he caused and which continues today, but we want next to look at several members who left his society and became sedevacantists. Lefebvre, for all his opposition to both the Council and Popes Paul VI and John Paul II, was not a sedevacantist, but to understand his disciples that fell into that aberration, we had first to look at what Archbishop Lefebvre did and represented.