The 1974 Declaration
On November 11, 1974, two apostolic visitors from Rome arrived at the Seminary of St. Pius X in Ecône. They spoke to the seminarians and professors, maintaining scandalous opinions. These comments acted as the catalyst for the famous declaration of November 21, 1974. In a moment of indignation, the old prelate, in one stroke of the pen and without a scratch, wrote this declaration of principle as a rebuttal to Modernism.
Go back in time: this was November 1974. The Society of St. Pius X was still an infant, hardly walking yet, but this infant was closely watched by Church officials from France and Rome. Why? This was because its founder, the retired Archbishop Lefebvre, had succeeded in filling his new seminary in the mid ’70s, at the peak of the spiritual desertion of the Church’s ranks. The old missionary had simply gone on with the regular business which had been his life’s story: building churches and seminaries, preaching the unchangeable faith, celebrating the Mass of all times.
On November 11, 1974, two apostolic visitors from Rome arrived at the International Seminary of St. Pius X in Ecône. During their brief stay, they spoke to the seminarians and professors, maintaining scandalous opinions: the ordination of married men is a hoped for option; truth changes with the times; the traditional conception of the Resurrection of our Lord is open to discussion. These comments acted as the catalyst for a public declaration, dated November 21, that has since become, with good reasons, famous within Tridentinist circles. In a moment of indignation, the old prelate, in one stroke of the pen and without a scratch, wrote this declaration of principle as a rebuttal to Modernism. When he presented it to the seminary staff and student body, everybody understood that the Archbishop had crossed the Rubicon and that the dice had been cast. Before long, it was going to be open war, and, at hearing this firm profession of faith, the seminarians were excited with glee while the staff, rather frightened by the turn of events, was suggesting a moderate re-writing of the declaration.
Rome quickly reacted and summoned the founder to appear before a commission of Cardinals which turned out to be a trial ready to convict him because of the Declaration. The “dialogue” between Cardinal Garrone and Archbishop Lefebvre sounded frank and French: what is written is a “manifesto,” an “open opposition to the Pope and the Council,” a “mad act.”
Yet, to the Roman authorities, as to his seminary staff, the Archbishop opposed a relentless rebuttal. “I am not advocating for the free examination like the Protestants because our judgment must be formed by the constant Magisterium of the Church. Of course the present or living Magisterium is a rule of faith, but only in as much as it is ruled by the past Magisterium.” An unruly living Magisterium cannot be the rule of faith. The test of veracity is tradition.
Understandably enough, if we look at it from the side of Roman diplomacy, the man who pronounced such utterances had to be crushed. He was condemning no less than 15 years of the “conciliar church” which had aligned the Papal Rome with the Lutheran Reformation, throwing away the old clothes of hierarchy, sacredness and the divine rights of Christ. His was the only voice speaking out loud of the betrayals of the Roman authorities when all others were in a dumb state of servility in the face of illegitimate acts of the authorities. By this declaration condemning the doubly modernist Vatican II Council and Rome, the missionary’s cry sounded like the troublesome voice of the child in the fable: “The emperor has no clothes!” Understandably enough, the whole body of the Roman authorities saw the greatest threat in this man who was upsetting its strategy, and used all its weight to silence such a dissonant cry of alarm.
What is revealing also of the character of the man is that, like another Athanasius and with a clear vision of the stakes, the Archbishop held his ground, alone against the world. He had no qualms about affirming: “We should rather be right with the truth than wrong with the Pope,”that it is “neither I nor the Pope who makes the truth,” and “we turn a deaf ear to the novelties destroying the Church.” He was a stonewall and would not budge, regardless of the pressure exercised by the Secretary of State, the three Cardinals who were his judges, the Pope himself with the punishments of suspension and excommunication, his local bishop and most of the seminary staff. He did not change then, and would not change one iota in the next decades he remained at the helm of the Society. Behold the strong man! Behold the lover of the truth! To paraphrase Aristotle, who had befriended Plato, he could truly say: “I love the Pope, but I love more the truth.”
And indeed, this Declaration was to be the Society’s Magna Charta. Everything is there and we can say that the Society of St. Pius X, born in the midst of the Church’s debacle in wartime, would simply have to draw from this position of principles to pursue its course. The Declaration is to the present-day Society of St. Pius X what the acorn is to the tree, what the fetus is to the full-grown adult. This is our DNA, our barcode and our ID number. Although it does strike as a declaration of war, it is also based on the perennial principles which are the rock foundation of Peter’s Church, and that is what makes his stand so forceful:
We hold fast, with all our heart and with all our soul, to Catholic Rome, Guardian of the Catholic faith and of the traditions necessary to preserve this faith….We pursue our work of forming priests, with the timeless Magisterium as our guide….We hold fast to all that has been believed and practiced in the faith, morals, liturgy, teaching of the catechism, formation of the priest and institution of the Church, by the Church of all time…assured of remaining faithful to the Roman Catholic Church and to all successors of the Pope....
Only after he has elaborated on the building up of the Church does he clearly deal a war till death to its enemies, i.e. those foreign bodies which, like a cancer, can only disrupt and deform the spouse of Christ:
We refuse to follow the Rome of neo-Modernist and neo-Protestant tendencies which were clearly evident in the Second Vatican Council and the reforms which issued from it.…To the Novus Ordo Missae correspond a new catechism, a new priesthood, new seminaries, a charismatic Pentecostal Church.
And although it sounds very much like hot and cold, the Declaration concludes with a serene disclosure of a peace plan which consists simply in doing what the Church has always done, hoping for better times when Rome will have regained its composure.
The Archbishop, with the sure instinct of the Pastor of souls guided by the Spirit of Wisdom, knew that he was tapping on the only solid grounds, which we are presently discussing with Rome around the vague expressions of “present Magisterium and living tradition.” He takes again the theme which brought Cardinal Newman to conversion when he discovered that the Catholic Church of his time was the same as the Church of the Fathers. No doubt, this plea for genuine tradition will be heard some day in Rome and it is to be hoped that Benedict XVI, who is about to beatify Newman, will heed the voice of another giant of the faith close to home.