The Integrity of Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre

by Fr. Paul Robinson, SSPX

Part I


Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre was well-known, throughout his life, to be a man of great integrity. He was unwavering in his principles, honest in all of his dealings, and charitable to a fault. Among the foundational ideas that guided him were the Catholic notions of authority and obedience, which directed the heroic prudence of the Archbishop in the many difficult decisions he had to make in his relations with Rome.

Certain figures, however, seem to deny that the Archbishop was a man of principled integrity in his ideas about the Church and in his relations with Roman authorities. Some accuse him of having held contradictory principles, while others accuse him of having changed his principles after the episcopal consecrations.

This article will attempt to defend his good name by considering the Archbishop’s position and showing that he never changed it. We will first consider the Archbishop’s notion of authority and how this notion influenced his attitude towards the Roman authorities. Then, secondly, we will show that the consecrations did not cause the Archbishop to change either his principles or his application of them.

The Archbishop’s Principles on Authority

The most helpful way to consider the Archbishop’s principles on authority is to compare three different positions that have been taken with regard to the authority of the post-Conciliar hierarchy, wherein a majority of churchmen have been infected with Modernism to a greater or lesser degree. These three positions are the following:

  1. A Modernist hierarchy has no authority
  2. A Modernist hierarchy has unlimited authority
  3. A Modernist hierarchy legitimately exercises authority when it commands according to the faith but does not legitimately exercise authority when it commands against the faith

The first position judges authority on the basis of persons. If the person uses his authority badly or is wayward in theology, then he loses his office. He no longer possesses any authority. This is a Protestant model for judging authority, and the sedevacantist camp leans towards this notion of authority.

The second position judges authority purely on the basis of office. If a person holds a certain office, then one must do everything he says. The neo-conservative Catholics lean in this direction, for they hold that the Pope must be followed blindly, unless he commands something obviously sinful, such as the commission of murder.

The third position corresponds to the Catholic notion of authority and was the one held by Archbishop Lefebvre. He judged authority according to both office and persons. Those who hold an office receive their authority from God and continue to hold that office legitimately, even when they abuse their authority. A distinction must be made, however, in the way in which authorities use their position. If the one commanding demands something that is morally licit, then he is to be obeyed; if he commands something that is against God, however, then he is acting outside of his authority and is to be disobeyed. This is the Catholic position on obedience that holds for all situations.

The conformity or disconformity of a command to God’s laws, then, is what dictates the duty to obey or disobey the authority commanding. When subordinates are confronted with a clear case wherein those in authority are commanding what is offensive to God, they are to disobey; otherwise, they are to obey.

References to the Principle

The Archbishop consistently applied the Catholic notion of obedience throughout his life. This was especially true in regard to the authority of the Church. We will take one example of him obeying authority when it was not being abused and one example of him disobeying authority when it was being abused.

In the first example, he was addressing a crisis in the United States District. Some of his priests, including Seminary rector Fr. Donald Sanborn, were refusing to use the 1962 missal. After all, they said, it was promulgated by a Modernist Pope, John XXIII. This was a classic case of considering the person exercising authority (Pope John XXIII), without considering whether he was using his authority well or ill.

No, said Archbishop Lefebvre. There is nothing in the 1962 missal that poses a danger to the faith. As such, the SSPX has no justification for refusing it. As he explained to the American seminarians at the time, he was, in this decision, only applying the principle of the Church:

“The principle of the Church is the principle of St. Thomas Aquinas….So, what does St. Thomas Aquinas say about authority in the Church? When can we refuse something from the authority of the Church? Only when the faith is in question. Only in this case. Not in other cases. Only when the faith is in question.”

The second example concerns disobeying an authority that is being abused. The Archbishop expressed the principle on this question in 1978:

“Obedience presupposes an authority which gives an order or issues a law. Human authorities, even those instituted by God, have no authority other than to attain the end apportioned them by God and not to turn away from it. When an authority uses power in opposition to the law for which this power was given it, such an authority has no right to be obeyed and one must disobey it.”

Ten years later, the Archbishop cited the same principle in order to explain the basis for moving ahead with the consecration of four bishops against the will of the Roman authorities. Rome would not allow the SSPX to continue as it was. But it was necessary for it to continue as it was in order to keep the faith. Thus, the consecration of four bishops was an “Operation Survival,” a drastic step needed in order to maintain the Faith. As such, it was justified, even though it was contrary to the will of the Roman authorities.

Application to the Crisis

Let us return to the three positions on authority laid out above to see how they are applied to the prudential decision of whether or not one should be under the authority of a Modernist hierarchy:

  1. Sedevacantists: Modernists do not have authority one must not put oneself under the authorities in Rome in any way whatsoever until they return to Tradition.
  2. Neo-conservatives: Modernists have all authority one must put oneself under whomever has authority, no matter what those authorities command.
  3. Archbishop Lefebvre: Modernists legitimately exercise authority when they command in accordance with the faith one should submit to the authority of Rome when one may be assured that he will be able to keep his Catholic Faith. The basis for this assurance, in the case of the SSPX, would be exemption from modernist influence, by the granting of a separate entity such as a personal prelature. If the SSPX were granted a canonical recognition “as is,” then it would be left as it is, while being under Roman authority, and so be able to keep the faith.

It should be clear that the position of the Archbishop was completely consistent with the Catholic notion of authority. It should also be clear that his prudential decisions in relation to the SSPX’s regularization under a Modernist hierarchy were simply an application of that notion. Thus, he was a man of integrity in his principles and their application.

Let us now turn to the objections against this position. First is the objection that the Archbishop’s principles were incoherent and second is the objection that he changed them after the consecrations.

The Inconsistent Principles Objection

In 1994, eleven years after he had been expelled from the Society of St. Pius X, sedevacantist Bishop Donald Sanborn wrote an article entitled “The Mountains of Gelboe.” He maintains there that the Archbishop was not a man of fixed principles. If his argument were put into a syllogism, it would run as follows:

Major: There are only two possible positions for a man of fixed principles to hold in this crisis:

Minor: But Archbishop Lefebvre wanted to accept and be under the authority of the post-Vatican II Church (soft-liner), and he wanted to maintain the traditional faith (hard-liner).

Conclusion: Therefore, he was not a man of fixed principles. “It is evident…that there were two opposing sides to Archbishop Lefebvre, capable of dictating their own distinct and contradictory theory and course of action.” As a man of faith, the Archbishop was a hard-liner; as a man of the Church, as a diplomat, he was a soft-liner. As a man of principles, he 
was neither. As such, he was not a man of principles at all.



Refutation of the Argument

Sanborn seems to struggle to comprehend the higher principles by which Lefebvre operated and so proposes a false dilemma. For him, one must either accept authority wholly or reject it wholly if one is to have consistent principles. He does not see that there is a third scenario under which it is possible to be consistent: accepting authority in one respect and rejecting it in another.

It is true that it is contradictory to hold that authority is to be both obeyed and disobeyed in the same respect. But Archbishop Lefebvre held that the post-Conciliar authorities were to be obeyed in one respect—in what does not pose an immediate danger to the Faith—and disobeyed in another, in that which does pose an immediate danger to the Faith. No contradiction exists in such an obedience, but it is rather 
the very definition of virtuous Catholic obedience.

Once we realize that the Archbishop obeyed the Pope as Pope but did not obey him as God, the false dilemma of hard-liner and soft-liner, which tries to split the single vision of the Archbishop into two competing personalities, evaporates of itself.

Logical Strategy

Somewhat tangential to the subject of this article, and yet important to note, is the fact that Sanborn’s conclusions about the Archbishop do follow from his premises. If we were to accept his premise that the Archbishop had a contradictory ecclesiology, then it would only be logical for us to have nothing to do with Archbishop Lefebvre. Traditional Catholicism, if it is anything, is a question of holding firm to the unchanging truths of the faith, to that which has been believed always, everywhere, and by everyone. But if the Archbishop was not firm in his principles on the Church and its authority—if he held that the authority of the Church should be both accepted and rejected, in the same respect—then he was surely, in that area at least, closer to Modernism than traditionalism.

Moreover, it is common knowledge that Romanitas was one of the key characteristics of the Archbishop. He was formed at the French Seminary in Rome, he served faithfully and zealously the direct authority of Rome as Apostolic Delegate in Africa, he was constantly professing to the members of his priestly society his attachment to Rome and the Church. Thus, when Sanborn attacks the stance of the Archbishop towards the conciliar hierarchy, he is attacking an aspect of the Archbishop that was close to his very priestly identity. If the Archbishop was wrong in such a matter, in something that was so important to him, we could only conclude that his entire spirit, his entire manner of looking at the crisis of the Church, was also wrong.

The strategy of Sanborn, then, is coherent:

  1. Establish that the Archbishop was a man of wavering principles in ecclesiology.
  2. Argue that, on this account, the Archbishop should not be followed in those principles and, really, in anything else of principle.
  3. Conclude that the stance of the Archbishop should be rejected in favour of the so-called hard-liner position, which logically leads to sedevacantism.

The one who accepts the first point should logically accept the ones that follow. We have shown above that the first point is false. For that reason, there is no need for us to refute the second and the third points.

There is, however, a class of people who accept the first point without accepting the second or the third. They are those who put forward the second objection against the Archbishop’s integrity by claiming that he changed his principles in 1988. They are the members of a loose conglomeration of hard-liners that work under the name of “The Resistance.”