Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre’s attitude towards the bishops and episcopates varied depending on the circumstances and time period. What follows is an account of the various shifts and nuances in his attitude and relationships with them.
As a student at the French Seminary in Rome, Marcel Lefebvre was close to and even friendly with several future bishops. He enjoyed reminiscing about Pierre Lebrun, his predecessor as head Master of Ceremonies at Santa Chiara, and the future bishop of Autun. He never spoke of Louis Ferrand, although they had been very close friends: together they used to recite by heart the theses of their doctorates in theology in the little streets of Rome! The difference in his attitude between the two was due to one fact: Pierre Lebrun died shortly after Vatican II, whereas Louis Ferrand, Archbishop of Tours, complained about Archbishop Lefebvre coming into his diocese to confirm children without asking his permission.
In fact, several of his former Roman classmates went over to liberalism with the Second Vatican Council. Archbishop Lefebvre used to lament that “several fellow seminarians, who had been enthusiastic disciples of Fr. Henri Le Floch (the director of Santa Chiara), often even more so than myself, completely abandoned the fighting spirit during the Council”: “For me,” he added, “this was my greatest cause for sorrow during the Council!”
He found it unbelievable, “unthinkable” (as he liked to say), that after having been imbued with the love of principles and having lived these principles during their early years as clerics, these priests who had become bishops had not remained faithful to that “first love” that he, Marcel, had profoundly lived and strongly sustained: this “living fully on principles.” This first love remained for him, as it did for his friend—who remained a priest—Joseph Tailhades, superior of the great seminary of Perpignan. The memory of Father Taihades was his most dear of all of his venerated masters in Santa Chiara.
Marcel Lefebvre was away from the seminary on military service in France when the “dear and venerable Fr. Le Floch” resigned on Pope Pius XI’s own orders. But he was certainly full of gratitude towards the young Bishop Le Hunsec, Superior General of the Spiritans, who dared to stand up to the pope and defend the rector of Santa Chiara. That was in 1927. From this time on, the condemnation of the Action Française became a cause of division in the French episcopate and even among the Romans; there were the “traditionalists,” the “ultras,” and the “liberals”: the latter were those who, under the cover of obedience and submission to Rome, had abandoned the fight for Christ the King, whom the above-mentioned condemnation seemed to exclude and deny in the public episcopal opinion!
Independence was a trait of Marcel Lefebvre’s character that his brother Michel Lefebvre loved to recall: “We Lefebvre’s were not like all those posh employers in the Northern French industry; we were independent-minded!”
In Santa Chiara, his young fellow seminarians already noticed in Marcel a certain anti-conformism that made him despise certain fashionable theological theories and adhere doggedly to the philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas in spite of all opposition.
“During the discussions there were usually diverse opinions. In those cases Marcel would only accept what St. Thomas had taught. Sometimes it would be to such an extent that the other theology students called him the ‘petrified dogmatician.’ He kept the name and rather enjoyed it! He always stayed very faithful to St. Thomas, durch und durch!” (Fr. Jerome Criqui, Letter of February 25, 1997).
Behind this attitude was the mischievous twinkle of a superior and playful mind, as well as a personality trait that several of his fellow seminarians would speak of later:
“He seemed a bit stubborn already in seminary,” said one of them. And another (a “future bishop,” Bishop Jean de Cambourg, Santa Chiara 1926-1934, bishop of Valence in France) declared:
“Admirable and formidable–that’s how the figure of Marcel Lefebvre appears to us after so many years. We admired his care for the truth such as it appeared to him, according to St. Thomas Aquinas. But he was formidable: he took no account of the opinions of those who did not agree with him! His faith put to flight those who loved theological distinctions. It was not in his nature to be ‘conciliatory.’ That’s how the Lord made him!” (Bishop Jean de Cambourg, Letter of December 3, 1996).
A hard-necked, stubborn Marcel Lefebvre is a classic legend among the liberals. Men like Criqui and Cambourg saw only the surface, what appeared to be an obtuse and close-minded temperament. But Marcel Lefebvre was and would prove to be the very opposite: firm in his principles, ready to defend them “tooth and nail,” but gentle and even conciliatory on the practical level, full of a sagacity that tempered what could have been imprudent in an absolute application of the principles.
His future disagreements with many bishops were the fruit of Fr. Le Floch’s warnings to his seminarians against liberal tolerance that quickly forgets the principles and banishes them to the domain of cloudy abstractions, thus becoming nothing more than purely liberal pragmatism. That was not Marcel Lefebvre!
Later, but already in Africa where he was Pius XII’s Apostolic Delegate from 1947 to 1958, whenever there were “squabbles” among bishops, he was immediately on his guard: but let us quote Archbishop Lefebvre:
“I was always very suspicious later on, especially when I was a bishop, of all those people who wanted to compromise the Church with modern errors. It taught me to be very vigilant and to keep my eyes open when priests visited me or when I visited dioceses and heard reports of this or that; straight away I thought: Aha! They may be opposed to one another because there are some liberals.”
Apostolic Delegate Lefebvre very quickly noticed just such an opposition in Cameroon between Archbishop Graffin, Archbishop of Yaoundé and Bishop Bonneau, bishop of Douala.
Sometimes Catholic Action was a special bone of contention between the bishops according to their traditional or liberal mentality. In these clashes Archbishop Lefebvre could clearly see a battle between two attitudes of mind. Those with strong personalities had more influence in the discussions and tended to “direct the manoeuvres.” Fortunately,” said Archbishop Lefebvre, “some non-liberal archbishops such as Bishop Strebler of LomeÌ