March 2012 Print

From a Modernist Priest: Praise for Archbishop Lefebvre

Cristina Siccardi

A very interesting, enlightening book has shown up in bookstores in the last few months, a work by Fr. Philippe Béguerie entitled Vers Ecône: Mgr Lefebvre et les Pères du Saint-Esprit, Chronique des événements 1960-1968.1 The originality of the book is owing, not so much to the events narrated, which are already well enough known, but to the fact that in the author’s attempt to make a polemical, critical analysis of Marcel Lefebvre’s thought he has inadvertently written a thorough study of the coherence of the French prelate’s thinking and action as well as evoking the effervescent climate that existed in numerous circles and Catholic religious institutes even before the convocation of the Second Vatican Council. Its pages respire the whistling wind of rebellion against methods considered outmoded, outdated, and boring, and in need of being replaced by rules, norms, and mores in synch with modernity. These aspirations had already surfaced in numerous religious entities, including the Congregation of the Holy Spirit.

The former system, which had till then assured the order of thought and praxis, seemed to be ill-adapted to the so-called modern mentality of more innovative souls, even within the Church. The Church seemed to find itself on the brink of the triumph, even within the Sacred Palaces, of the modernity against which popes and saints had been arrayed for more than a century and a half, and which now infected minds with liberalism, positivism, and modernism, the risky and pernicious attempt to marry the Church and the world. In view of these revolts and subversions, Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre (1905-1991) reacted at once, first in Africa as Archbishop of Dakar, then during his candidacy for leadership of the Holy Ghost Fathers, and finally as the Superior General of that missionary congregation.

In this way, Archbishop Lefebvre, heedless of any risks or adverse consequences to his ecclesiastical career, stepped forward from the outset of the change in Church policy under the pontificate of John XXIII (1958-1963; Angelo Roncalli, 1881-1963), who personally pointed out to him the risks he was taking. The Bishop intervened forcefully and decisively in speeches, letters, and articles. His strong interventions proved bothersome. The “Lefebvre method” (p. 53), that is to say an “unpolitically correct” method, an “unfashionable method,” unyielding to any and all compromise, was, in short, found to be punishable and sanctioned for “excess of faith,” as Cardinal Oddi (1910-2001) said.


The Modern Menaces

At the time when the secular and even Catholic intellectuals of the Western world were beginning to flirt with the Communist enemy in the name of a presumed community of human values and service to mankind, Archbishop Lefebvre stood firm, backed by the Spouse of Christ’s constant condemnation of atheistic materialism and communism in all its forms. That condemnation was reiterated in the decree of excommunication of the disciples of this perverse doctrine issued by the Holy Office on July 1, 1949, at the instigation of Pius XII (1939-1958; Eugenio Pacelli, 1876-1958). In the pastoral letter he wrote on February 8, 1950, he explained that the decree was not civil or political in nature, but religious, and he underlined that communism “is based on a materialist, anti-Christian doctrine” (p. 66).

Archbishop Lefebvre perceived the dangers of subjectivism and relativism in every domain, including the religious domain, especially when liberal-democratic principles are transferred from politics to metaphysics: “It is time that it was understood that this Age stands in need of a strong authority to defend true freedom and to thwart agents of disorder. Authority and true freedom are complementary, not contradictory.” Moreover, “the communism of the young [African] governments” hides demagogy and anarchy under the aegis of democracy, he said in an article published in Le Devoir magazine of December 18, 1959, entitled “Will the Christian states surrender Black Africa to the Communist star?”

These years were crucial due to the cultural upheaval of Western civilization, eager to divest itself of values and principles considered to be left over from a forgettable or even regrettable past, as well as to events directly affecting the Church, which, according to John XXIII, was ready to open its doors to the modern world with the euphoria and enthusiasm characteristic of the sixties. All the aspirations of the contemporary world converged around the twenty-first Ecumenical Council (1962-1965), which was problematic both in its conduct and in its implementation. It was outfitted in a philosophy and a theology that had effected a caesura with Tradition in the intention of offering to the world, in more optimistic and sometimes even illusory terms, a new “make-up” for the Church, made more attractive according to the criteria and tastes of the culture of that period. The Second Vatican Council, finally, was supposed to be a new Pentecost.2 The difficulty inherent in the Assisi pastoral approach still has not been resolved, as shown by countless studies, books, doctoral theses, round tables, and conferences.

“Unlike previous Councils, Vatican II poses a new problem for historians. Councils exercise a solemn magisterium, beneath and with the Pope, in matters of faith and morals, and they set themselves up as supreme legislators and judges regarding Church law. The Second Vatican Council did not promulgate any laws, nor did it definitively deliberate on matters of faith and morals. The absence of dogmatic definitions has inevitably opened up discussion over the nature of its documents and the manner of their implementation in the ‘post-conciliar’ period. The problem of the relationship between the Council and the ‘post council’ consequently is at the heart of the ongoing debate over hermeneutics.”3


Superior of the Spiritans

Father Béguerie’s book sheds light on a still little-studied period of the life of Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre when the bishop was the superior of the missionary Congregation of the Holy Ghost from 1962 to 1968. At that time the author prepared a file on the prelate highly criticized for his fidelity to the Church of all time, ergo for his “intransigence,” in order to thwart his election as Superior General of the Spiritans. To clarify, Béguerie is a priest who was formerly a member of the Congregation of the Holy Spirit, but left it in 1963 because he was strongly opposed to the direction taken by its Superior, Archbishop Lefebvre. He was incardinated in the Archdiocese of Paris as a secular priest, teaching theology of a definitely progressivist bent. The ex-Spiritan was able to dig up in the archives of the congregation important documents from which emerges the thinking of Archbishop Lefebvre before the grand adventure of Ecône.

It is strikingly evident from Fr. Béguerie’s studies that Archbishop Lefebvre never waivered in his convictions in the time before, during, and after the Council. This is particularly significant because, among other things, this analysis comes from an author who is frankly hostile to the French prelate, and they give the lie to the image of a bishop whose positions grew progressively radical over time. This veritable caricature of Archbishop Lefebvre tended to imply that his final positions might have been dictated by mental debility and weakness of character due to old age and pressure from his entourage.

Fr. Béguerie’s study would not have been useful, obviously, had this calumny not taken on the dimensions of a canon ball, or, in the circumstances, an artillery salvo. But there it is: Divine providence makes use of the most unexpected means to make truth triumph over falsehood and, as the old saying has it, “time is a gentleman,” even if sometimes one must exercise a lot of patience with him. The text is divided into five parts, each accompanied by unpublished documents collected by Archbishop Lefebvre himself: 53 acts in total.

In 1961, the Congregation of the Holy Ghost counted 3,381 regular priests, with 46 bishops convoked to Vatican Council II. In Fr. Béguerie’s work, it comes across clearly that before the Council, Archbishop Lefebvre was considered a model to imitate both as a priest as well as a member of the Congregation of the Holy Ghost, and finally as a bishop; so much so that he became one of the churchmen most highly esteemed by Pius XII, who appointed him not only Archbishop of Dakar in Senegal, but also as Apostolic Delegate for all of French-speaking Africa.


The Importance of the Cassock

A very significant letter is the one written by Archbishop Lefebvre on February 11, 1963, the Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes, addressed to his “dear Brethren” on the subject of the wearing of the cassock. This letter enables us to grasp the full meaning of the uniform worn by one who has chosen the path of God:

“The measures taken by certain bishops in various countries in the matter of ecclesiastical dress are deserving of thought, since they may have consequences which are by no means unimportant to us. In itself, the wearing of the cassock or clerical dress has meaning only in so far as this dress marks a distinction from that of the laity. The matter is not primarily one of propriety. At most, the high-buttoned waistcoat of the clergy marks a certain austerity and decorum; this the cassock does even more.”4 The habit is the visible sign of detachment from worldly vanities, and the superior emphasizes this aspect because it is the chief quality that distinguishes the priest or the religious, “as do the uniforms of the soldier, the police or transport workers. This idea is manifested in all religions. The religious chief is easily recognizable by his garments, often by their accompaniments. The faithful attach great importance to these distinctive marks….Until the present day clerical dress seemed designed to distinguish a person consecrated to God, but with the least possible outward sign, especially in those countries where the suit is exactly like that worn by the laity….The priest’s cassock achieves both these ends clearly and unequivocally ” (p. 215).

The clerical coat does not lend itself to this purpose when it resembles the attire worn by Protestant pastors and even by laymen. Here Archbishop Lefebvre fully displays his cultural and intellectual openness, and the indifference the Catholic should foster toward material means, provided they be good and effective. He does not contest the possibility of change in the priest’s uniform, provided that then new habit have the same efficacy as the previous one in distinguishing priest from layman, so as to preserve and defend the priest from the snares of the world and to facilitate his ministry by the constant reminder of his state to the faithful. The problem of the clerical suit lies in the finality of the change: the desire to liken the priest to the Protestant pastor and thus favor his secularization. It is clear then that his opposition to the wearing of the clerical suit is not a matter of esthetics, nor a question of decorum, but an important doctrinal issue, to wit, the upholding of the sacred character impressed upon the priest by the sacrament of Holy Orders.


The Exile at Tulle

Esteem and admiration for Archbishop Lefebvre underwent a sudden reversal when John XXIII mounted the pontifical throne. On May 7, 1961, during an audience that lasted slightly more than an hour, the Pope gave him a firm word of warning: “You see, when I was professor of Holy Scripture at Bergame, I defended the theories of Fr. Lagrange and I was labeled a ‘modernist.’ That has dogged me throughout my life. I’ve seen my files: they read ‘modernist tendencies.’ I’m not a modernist! That is why I was never given an appointment in Rome. I was always kept at a distance from the Roman Curia because I was—so it was said—a modernist. So, you be careful not to declare yourself such an out and out conservative.”5

Rumors spread: Archbishop Lefebvre had a “bad” reputation among the French bishops, who feared and detested him; his seriousness, his correction, his doctrinal rigor scared them… The backlash was not long in coming: On January 23, 1962, though an archbishop, he was relegated to a bishop’s post in the little diocese of Tulle. It was a decidedly serious matter, not only because he went from having authority over an immense diocese to a tiny territory, but also because it happened before the creation of episcopal conferences; consequently, since the government of the Church of France was exercised by the assembly of French cardinals and archbishops, he was categorically excluded from that assembly even though he possessed the titles that justified his participation.

From Béguerie’s work what emerges, thanks to the original documents presented, is the figure of a priest and superior who courageously and modestly remained faithful to the Church’s unchanging teaching, and the figure of a bishop who was attacked even before the opening of Vatican II precisely for his merely Catholic ideas.

So, the Lefebvre file was opened at the death of Pius XII. He was exiled to Tulle to reduce him to silence; it was inadmissible to allow this obstinately Catholic bishop to speak and to act. He was not forgiven his opposition to theological, liturgical, pastoral, and social progressivism. Moreover, while he was still in Senegal, he had not been forgiven for his open opposition to the Islamization of Africa, which had been feared even in the 19th century by other leading figures of the Church like the missionary and cardinal Guglielmo Massaja (1809-89).

In the article already quoted of November 2, 1959, published in the Canadian daily Le Devoir entitled “Will the Christian states surrender Black Africa to the Communist star?” Archbishop Lefebvre wrote: “The countries in which there is a Muslim majority are separating themselves as quickly as possible from the West, and using Communist methods.” Islam was a threat for Catholic countries; in 1959 he declared that Communist methods are like those of Islam: “fanaticism, collectivism, and slavery of the weak are the tradition of Islam.”6

Leopold Sedar Senghor (1906-2001), a practicing Catholic, in 1959 became president of the Mali Federation (Senegal and the French Sudan) and advocated his theory of “the path of African socialism,” an Africanized socialism. In 1961, Archbishop Lefebvre publicly intervened in a pastoral letter “On the duty of living according to truth and avoiding ambiguity.” The African socialism of Senghor was for the Archbishop of Dakar a contradiction in terms: “Religious socialism, Christian socialism, are contradictory terms; no one can be at the same time a good Catholic and a true socialist,” said Pius XI in the encyclical Quadragesimo Anno (May 15, 1931). In his pastoral letter, the prelate declared that it is not enough to confess God; it is also necessary to acknowledge that the foundation of law is God and not the state. Senghor was annoyed and summoned the Archbishop, who told him that he had done nothing but repeat what the Popes had said about socialism. Anticipating the Vatican’s position, he wrote to Rome to request an African coadjutor, but received no response. Clearly, the only thing expected of the Archbishop was his resignation.

Another “diplomatic incident” was caused when Archbishop Lefebvre came to the defense of the Cité Catholique, the counter-revolutionary Catholic association led by Jean Ousset (1914-94) and relentlessly combated by progressive French bishops. Archbishop Lefebvre wrote a touching letter dated March 4, 1962, to the director of the Cité Catholique to express his support for Ousset against the media campaign that was being waged against him, and his joy at the admirable courage shown in the profession of the spirit of faith in the columns of Ousset’s monthly. The letter concluded: “Let us pray, dear friends, for it is prayer that will give you the graces needed to carry on your magnificent task in a spirit of profound attachment and submission to our holy Mother and Mistress, the Roman Catholic Church. May these lines bring you the witness and comfort of my respectful and deep sympathy. Marcel Lefebvre, Archbishop-Bishop of Tulle” (p. 113).


Staying Steadfast in Tradition

Letters requesting exclaustration from certain elements refractory to the directives of Archbishop Lefebvre are also of great interest, for they convey a sentiment of intolerance for order and obedience: “Given the evolution of the contemporary world, the Church in its Council invites us to take a much broader missionary attitude,” stated, for example, Bernard Foy on February 24, 1964, in a letter addressed to his superior (p. 207).

For a return to authentic sacerdotal and religious formation, the Superior of the Holy Ghost Fathers considered as basic “the practice of the fundamental virtues of obedience, humility, simplicity, and modesty, which develop under the influence of the theological virtues” (p. 241). But all of that was diabolically undermined. He considered as essential in priests “a profound piety, a life of union with God, esteem for the sacraments of penance and the Holy Eucharist, and devotion to the Virgin Mary” (ibid.). He also wished to firmly maintain “the usage of the Latin language in ceremonies,” and that “the day should end with the prayer of Compline and not with watching television, which should be limited to the daily news” (ibid.) Moreover, the comings and goings of the religious should be limited. But these rules were already very badly digested by a significant group of capricious, pretentious Spiritans who clamored for a relaxed discipline.

Archbishop Lefebvre then expressed his considerations on the liturgy in a letter published in the March-April 1963 Bulletin of the Holy Ghost Fathers, with specific reference to the first session of the Council. He spoke of the human and divine character of the liturgy that is expressed in the universal language of the Catholic Church, Latin. In the holy sacrifice of the Mass, the lex orandi is the reflection of the lex credendi. “A single language guards the expression of faith from the linguistic adaptations of the centuries, and thus the faith itself.” The last end of the liturgy is union between God and the soul in a prayer that quenches its thirst at the spring of life. Consequently, to sustain this union and thus the sacredness of the rite whose end is precisely to help each soul find itself before its Creator and Savior, the atmosphere and context of the celebration are of paramount importance: “The simple, untutored but truly Christian soul will attain to union with God, sometimes through the general atmosphere of liturgical action, holiness and quiet of the place, its architectural beauty, the fervor of the Christian community, the nobility and devotion of the celebrant, the symbolic decoration, the fragrance of incense, etc….It would thus be contrary to the very end of liturgical action to concentrate so closely on the understanding of the texts as to set up an obstacle to union with God” (pp. 291-2).

Towards Ecône concludes with an afterword by Florian Michel, who states: “The testimony of Fr. Béguerie is not neutral” (p. 471). Indeed, the author dedicated his book to Fr. Louis Ledit, and takes pleasure in attributing to him the merit of having undermined the authority of Archbishop Lefebvre, and thus remotely to have prevented the Congregation of the Holy Spirit’s becoming “an army of reconquest” (p. 9). His name, therefore, ranks “among the great names of theology, like Lubac, S.J., Chenu, O.P., Congar, O.P., and Lyonnet, S.J.” (p. 27) whose doctrines were explicitly condemned in Pius XII’s encyclical Humani Generis of August 22, 1950. The tomes of new theology were removed from the Chevilly Seminary library at Archbishop Lefebvre’s behest, and very many Spiritans complained about this decision and rebelled against it.

Archbishop Lefebvre is reproached for having been against the “worker priests,” considered “good” because they were open to dialogue, the seductions of the contemporary world, and ready to listen to the explanations of “those afar off.” It is a fact that the intention of Philippe de Béguerie to discredit the figure of Archbishop Lefebvre with supporting documentation comes to naught. On the contrary, it gives new master cards to the defenders of the upright and sincere figure of a pastor who gave his whole life to the Church, for the protection and defense of its plenitude and integrity.


Translated from Courrier de Rome, June 2011, pp. 6-8.


1 [Towards Ecône: Monsignor Lefebvre and the Holy Ghost Fathers, a Chronicle of Events 1960-1968] (Paris: Desclée de Brouwer, 2010). Page references in the text are to this work.

2 Cf. Roberto de Mattei, The Second Vatican Council: A History Never Written [Italian] (Turin: Lindau, 2010), p. 11; cf. also Joseph Ratzinger, Principles of Catholic Theology [German] (Paris: Téqui, 1985), p. 410.

3 De Mattei, The Second Vatican Council, p. 6.

4 Quoted in Béguerie, Vers Ecône, p. 215 [English version: A Bishop Speaks, 2nd ed. (Angelus Press, 2007), p. 1].

5 Fr. J.-J. Marziac, Mgr Lefebvre, soleil levant ou couchant? (NEL, 1979), I, 5 [English version: Bernard Tissier de Mallerais, Marcel Lefebvre (Kansas City: Angelus Press, 2004), pp. 258-9].

6 Béguerie, Vers Ecône, p. 71-72 [English version: Tissier de Mallerais, op. cit., p. 240].