The Consecrations of 1988: Necessary for the Church's Survival
Three motorists are traveling down a two-lane highway on a moonless night. Suddenly, a white-tailed deer bounds onto the road. The first driver veers into the left lane and passes safely, the second swerves off the road into a ditch on the right, while the third slams into the animal at high speed. According to the law, all three should have stayed in their lane. Driver 3 died by following the law, Driver 2 died by deviating too far from the law, while Driver 1 saved his life by breaking the law while keeping its spirit. From this example we can draw an important principle: in a state of necessity, both those who follow the law and those who deviate from its spirit perish. Only those who break the law for the sake of the law can survive in such situations. To adapt a time-honored saying, necessity knows no law’s letter, but it must know law’s spirit. This is the perfect balance that we find in the episcopal consecrations of 1988.
Rejection of the Reform: A Necessity of Faith
Fifty years after Vatican II and 25 years after the consecrations, it is hard to argue that the salvation of souls has not been placed in dire peril by the innovations of the Council. By and large, Catholics have either abandoned the Faith by leaving the Church or not practiced it while remaining within its confines. No objective statistician would dare say that Catholics who have followed Conciliar law have held their soul’s salvation in security. The path of obedience has been the path of spiritual destruction. Truly, in the last 50 years, it has been necessary to disobey commands to attend a protestantized Mass, to receive Communion in the hand, and to accept other religions as valid paths to God, in order to keep faith sound.1
Some, however, were not content in straying from Conciliar law in order to stay faithful to God’s law. Seeing the confusion created by an ecumenical council of the Church, they rejected not only the laws of churchmen, but the laws of the Church’s constitution. For these, the Sedevacantists, all law had been destroyed, since the Church no longer possessed her attributes of visibility, authority, and indefectibility. They drove off the Conciliar highway to slam into the ditch of Protestant ecclesiology.
For the Archbishop, it was clear that he could reject certain errors contained in the documents of a Council of the Church without rejecting the very attributes of that Church. He was not going to throw the Pope out along with the Conciliar back waters. He would not travel on the Conciliar highway, but he would stay on the Catholic one. He would not swerve away from Protestantism in order to fall into it. The clarity of the Archbishop’s faith dictated as much.
For the consecrations, however, a keen supernatural prudence was needed in addition to limpid faith.2 It is one thing to reject Church “reforms” that disable one’s Catholicism; it is quite another to consecrate bishops when the Pope is forbidding it.
The Consecrations: A Necessity of Prudence
Of the many great qualities for which Archbishop Lefebvre is justly revered by posterity, the one which no doubt stands above the rest is his heroic prudence. There were many at the time of the Council whose sense of the Catholic Faith told them that something was drastically wrong, but none of them was able to translate this conviction into concrete, effective action as did the Archbishop. It was his faith that directed him to reject the revolutionary spirit of the Council and its offspring, but it was his supernatural prudence that led him to start a society of priests formed by Thomistic principles and consecrate four bishops to ensure the continuance of that work. To understand this latter decision properly, it is necessary to investigate both the principles by which the Archbishop acted and the historical context of his action.
On July 8, 1987, the Archbishop included the following words in a letter to Cardinal Ratzinger: “a) The permanent will to annihilate Tradition is a suicidal will, b) which justifies, by its very existence, true and faithful Catholics c) when they make the decisions necessary for the survival of the Church and the salvation of souls”3 (letters added).
This one sentence contains the three necessary conditions that had to be in place for the consecrations to be a good decision:
a) Clear signs on the part of Rome that it was committed to the path of destroying Tradition, and was not going to turn back;
b) A recognition of these signs by the Archbishop through a process of prayerful discernment;
c) The taking of steps necessary for the survival of the Church and the salvation of souls upon this recognition.
The Archbishop saw that the Society of St. Pius X was the only organization in the Catholic world that was forming Traditional priests according to a non-Modernist faith, that the Catholic Faith and Catholic souls cannot survive without such priests, and that this work would die with him if he did not consecrate bishops.
But was Rome really committed to the insane path of reconciling the Church with the Revolution? If so, the SSPX would continue to be the only venue for a true priestly formation in the foreseeable future. This was the first prudential question to be asked, and the Archbishop explains its resolution in his 1987 ordination sermon:
“I have had the occasion to say that I was waiting for signs from Providence to carry out the acts that seemed to me necessary for the continuation of the Catholic Church. I must acknowledge now that I am convinced that these signs have come.
“What are they? There are two: Assisi, and the response that has been made to us from Rome to the objections that we had formulated with regard to religious liberty.
“Assisi took place last October 27th, and the answer from Rome to our objections on the errors of Vatican II relating to religious liberty reached us at the beginning of March.”4
No, Rome was definitely not changing its Modernist program in the foreseeable future, and Providence confirmed this by a concrete event—the ecumenical gathering that we today call Assisi I of III, showing how the Modernist program has not changed—and an ideological response from the Vatican affirming its commitment to the false religious liberty of Dignitatis Humanae and hence to the dethroning of Christ the King.
Through the two signs, the Archbishop was able to take a fairly clear look into the future and he saw the following: the unabated pursuit of the Church’s self-destruction by the Church hierarchy; his own death and the refusal of the bishops of the world to ordain SSPX priests; the eventual dying out of the SSPX by a natural death; the eventual dying out of the Church itself by a violent death.
And, while looking at the future’s dire prospects, based on the objective facts of the present, the Archbishop understood that he had just as much a responsibility to act on behalf of the Church at the end of his life as he had for his entire priestly career. If he had been given the grace of receiving episcopal consecration, of maintaining his faith whole throughout the crisis, of founding the only society of priests formed on the faith of ages, AND now he realized that his days were drawing to a close without any real answer to the crisis beyond that group of priests, COULD he go to his grave without providing for its survival? No, for by doing so, he himself would be giving consent to the destruction of the Church, and in fact aiding it. As he said so eloquently on the very day of “Operation Survival”:
“It seems to me, my dear brethren, that I am hearing the voices of all these Popes—since Gregory XVI, Pius IX, Leo XIII, St. Pius X, Benedict XV, Pius XI, Pius XII—telling us: ‘Please, we beseech you, what are you going to do with our teachings, with our preaching, with the Catholic Faith? Are you going to abandon it? Are you going to let it disappear from this earth? Please, please, continue to keep this treasure which we have given you. Do not abandon the faithful, do not abandon the Church! Continue the Church!…All the errors which we have condemned are now professed, adopted and supported by the authorities of the Church....Unless you do something to continue this Tradition of the Church which we have given to you, all of it shall disappear. Souls shall be lost.’ Thus, we find ourselves in a case of necessity.”5
Quite simply, the Consecrations were an obligation imposed on the faithful Archbishop by the Providence of God. But before he would work outside the law, he had to make sure that he could not work inside the law. After the Assisi event and the Roman religious liberty answer, Archbishop Lefebvre traveled to Rome and begged papal permission to continue Church-saving Tradition through this act of consecration. It was a practical request that obtained a practical response: he would have to sign a doctrinal preamble and agree to the canonical structure laid down by Rome. The Archbishop was willing, and even signed a protocol, but after a sleepless and prayerful night, it became clear to him that the one thing he wanted was not being given to him: the survival of Tradition. Rome wanted to put him off, not fulfill his request. They would neither give him the name nor the consecration date of the bishop he desired. Without such guarantees and with his health declining under the stress of the negotiations, the Archbishop could not wait any longer: On June 30, 1988, he provided the Church with four traditional bishops. It was an act of consummate prudence.
Today’s vantage point of the silver anniversary of the consecrations shows clearly how very necessary they were. Remove them from the annals of history and the ecclesial picture in 2013 turns much darker: the SSPX stunted in growth and without a voice in Rome or Church-wide influence; no Ecclesia Dei Commission or establishment of the “legal” yet shackled traditionalist groups; no Summorum Pontificum or worldwide traditionalist grass roots movement. In short, a Tradition with dizzy vision and wobbly legs, headed for the tomb. Instead, both the writer and readers of this article can look with great confidence into the decades ahead and see unabated growth in the already healthy body of Traditional Catholicism. The Archbishop went to his reward having accomplished his mission. Tradition, and hence the Church herself, will survive.6
1 Cf. Abp. Lefebvre’s 1974 declaration: “This reform, since it has issued from Liberalism and from Modernism, is entirely corrupt. It comes from heresy and results in heresy, even if all its acts are not formally heretical. It is thus impossible for any faithful Catholic who is aware of these things to adopt this reform, or to submit to it in any way at all. To ensure our salvation, the only attitude of fidelity to the Church and to Catholic doctrine, is a categorical refusal to accept the reform.”
2 Faith concerns what we believe; prudence, how we act on those beliefs.
3 Fr. François Laisney, Archbishop Lefebvre and the Vatican, 2nd ed. (Kansas City: Angelus Press, 1999), p. 22 (letters added).
4 Ibid., p. 16.
5 Ibid., p. 118.
6 It is one thing to say that the SSPX is the Church and another to say that it is necessary for the Church’s survival. The position of the Archbishop, and that of this article, is the latter, not the former. The Church is indefectible, but God wills that she be so through human instruments. God willed to need St. Athanasius for the Church to survive the Arian crisis, and similarly He willed to need the Archbishop and his work for the Church to survive its current crisis. This latter reality alone justifies the act of the 1988 Consecrations, and it is the difficulty of discerning and acting on that reality that makes for the Archbishop’s heroism.