May 2018 Print

The Integrity of Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, part 2

by Fr. Paul Robinson, SSPX, Part 2

Editor’s Note: Part 1 of this theological study can be found in the March-April edition of The Angelus.

The Changing Principles Objection

The members of the Resistance split Archbishop Lefebvre into two entities: the pre-consecrations Archbishop and the post-consecrations Archbishop, without seeming to realize that, by doing so, they destroy the Archbishop’s integrity.

The pre-consecrations Archbishop wanted autonomy for the SSPX under the authority of Rome, the right to try the experiment of Tradition, a canonical recognition “as is.” This first Archbishop is the same as the one identified by Sanborn, the part soft-liner and part hard-liner who wants recognition from a hierarchy that he opposes in many respects.

According to the Resistance, the second Archbishop Lefebvre realized, at the time of the consecrations, that the first Archbishop Lefebvre was wrong—not just in the question of a prudential discernment, but in the very principles which directed his negotiations with Modernist Rome. Recognizing his mistake, the Archbishop then rejected the false principles under which he had operated during his entire ecclesiastical career and embraced the hard-liner ecclesiology: you cannot place yourself under the authority of Modernists, and so no canonical recognition should be accepted until Rome returns to Tradition. This second Archbishop, according to the Resistance narrative, staunchly upheld his new ecclesiology for the remaining two and a half years of his life, and wanted his priestly society to follow that ecclesiology in all future dealings with Rome.

The Resistance, then, agrees with Sanborn’s first point above: the Archbishop was a man of wavering principles in ecclesiology. From there, however, they part company with Sanborn and, so also, with logic. What they do not seem to realize is that if their Archbishop is the real one, then:

  1. He is not a reliable reference point for traditional Catholics or even his own SSPX.
  2. They should, at least in principle, embrace sedevacantism, for the hard-liner ecclesiology is identical with a sedevacantist ecclesiology. Both ecclesiologies make canonical recognition under a Modernist hierarchy a question of principle rather than one of prudence and so both ecclesiologies hold, explicitly or implicitly, that a Modernist hierarchy does not possess true authority.

In short, the Resistance destroys the credibility of the Archbishop by portraying him as fundamentally changing his perspective on the Church, and then asks everyone to respect and follow their caricature of that great churchman. By their acceptance of the hard-liner ecclesiology, they undermine the principle of all authority, because they undermine its very basis. From being an office granted by God that is maintained regardless of how it is used, authority becomes a personal quality that is lost when subordinates judge that the person no longer has the quality. By casting this subjective notion of authority onto the Archbishop post mortem, they undermine all fixed points for the traditional Catholics who follow him. The fruit of this strategy is all too evident: utter chaos.

Sanborn, at least, recognized that the consecrations did not cause Archbishop Lefebvre to change his canonical recognition “as is” ecclesiology: “Shortly after the consecrations of 1988, Archbishop Lefebvre said that the negotiations would continue, and that perhaps in five years, all would be resolved.”

In fact, the Archbishop did not change his position; the two-person Archbishop of the Resistance is a myth. Throughout his entire ecclesiastical career, Archbishop Lefebvre maintained the Catholic notion of authority in general and the Catholic notion of the Church’s authority in particular. Likewise, from 1975 until his death, he always held to the same prudential criterion for canonical recognition, that the SSPX be accepted “as is.” He was a man of principles, in both his speculative and practical judgement. As such, he was and is a reliable reference point for traditional Catholics and the priestly society he founded.

Why, then, does the Resistance claim that he changed?

Quote Mining

The primary strategy the Resistance uses to convince others of their two-person Archbishop Lefebvre is that of quote mining. This is the practice of considering the words or writings of a person in complete isolation from the context of the words and the person using them, in order to project one’s own position onto that person.

We can take an example of this practice from the Feeneyite movement. It seeks to prove that the Church teaches that only baptism of water can get one to heaven, that the baptisms of blood and desire are not salvific. But the Church does not teach that. There are no statements of the Magisterium saying something like, “Whoever believes that baptism of blood is efficacious unto eternal salvation, let him be anathema.”

As such, the Feeneyites cobble together an impressive series of quotations from the Fathers and the Councils which, when taken out of context, seem to favor their position. For instance, they cite the following from Pope Eugene IV:

“No one, no matter what alms he may have given, not even if he were to shed his blood for Christ’s sake, can be saved unless he abide in the bosom and unity of the Catholic Church.”

The Feeneyites read this to mean that one cannot be saved by baptism of blood. In fact, it means that one who dies for Christ does not receive baptism of blood if he dies in opposition to the Church.

The Words of the Archbishop

Now, the Resistance puts forward, as the primary defence for its position, numerous quotations from Archbishop Lefebvre. None of these quotations say, “In principle, we must refuse the authority of Conciliar Rome until the day that Rome returns to Tradition” or “I used to believe that we should accept canonical recognition if it kept us as we are, but now I realize that I was mistaken” or “It would be against the Faith for us to accept canonical recognition under any conditions before Rome returns to Tradition.” Thus, the Resistance has to settle for quotations which might seem to support its position, when taken out of context.

Here, for instance, is a favorite Resistance post-consecrations citation, taken from the Archbishop’s Spiritual Journey:

“It is a strict duty for every priest wanting to remain Catholic to separate himself from this Conciliar Church for as long as it does not rediscover the Tradition of the Church and of the Catholic Faith.”

The whole question here is what the Archbishop means by “this Conciliar Church.” The immediate context refers to a decision of the Secretariat for the Unity of Christians to integrate non-Catholics into the Church as they are. The Archbishop here seems to identify “this” Conciliar Church with actions of Rome that are against the perennial magisterium. Thus, he seems to be saying that priests who want to remain Catholic must not compromise their faith by associating themselves with such activities.

But the question of whether the Archbishop holds that there is no authority in Rome until it returns to Tradition is not addressed by this quotation. It is entirely possible to reconcile this quotation with a canonical recognition that enables priests to operate in autonomy from Roman congregations promoting false ecumenism.

Perhaps the very first words of the Spiritual Journey can clarify the Archbishop’s non-Resistance-filtered position:

“The pages which follow are addressed especially to you, priests and seminarians of the Priestly Society of St. Pius X, to you who, on this day, will renew your promises in this Catholic and Roman society, officially approved by the Ordinary, and by the Roman authorities.”

If we desire to hold that the Archbishop is, in any way, a man of integrity and consistency, we must reconcile this quotation, which recognizes the authority of the post-Vatican II Church hierarchy, with his quotation that calls for us to separate ourselves from “this Conciliar Church.” The logical means to reconcile them is by having recourse to his clear and constant position on Church authority: it is to be followed when in accordance with the Faith, and to be resisted when against the Faith. Instead of doing this, the Resistance chooses to tear the Archbishop into two pieces, to destroy his constancy and integrity, and so to undermine his entire moral authority.

The Charity of Defending Integrity

Perhaps more boldly, the Resistance does the same thing with living people. It claims that Bishop Fellay and his General Council held the hard-liner ecclesiology in 2006, but then changed to the canonical recognition “as is” ecclesiology in 2012, despite all protestations to the contrary by the very people whose true positions the Resistance claims to understand. Thus, the Resistance creates a second Archbishop Lefebvre and a second Bishop Fellay, and then proceeds to persecute the second Bishop Fellay for not following the first Bishop Fellay and the second Archbishop Lefebvre. It does not seem to occur to the resistors that both Archbishop Lefebvre and Bishop Fellay are men of integrity, holding to unchanging Catholic principles on the nature of authority.

It would seem to be a duty of charity for us to seek ways not to judge that our neighbor has fallen into contradictions, whenever possible. This is all the more true concerning persons in authority. The Church has a long history of practicing this charity when interpreting the texts of its great personages. The Fathers, for instance, always found ways to show that the Gospels never contradict one another when they relate the same episode from the life of Our Lord, but in different ways. St. Thomas Aquinas is a past master at finding ways of interpreting dubious quotations of the Fathers that find their way into objections in such a way that the Fathers do not fall into error.

Modernist exegetes, on the other hand, practice an anti-charity by finding contradiction everywhere. For them, the books of Scripture are constantly contradicting one another, the individual books themselves are so inconsistent that they must have multiple authors, and each chapter and even verse is so hopelessly diverse that it must have undergone many changes throughout the ages. In the end, the Modernists do not seem to believe that anything fixed and constant can exist.

But let them just look at the life of Archbishop Lefebvre and they will find there a living refutation of their position. The consecrations in no way caused him to change his principles. If the Archbishop withdrew his signature from the protocol of May, 1988, the protocol that would have led to canonical recognition, it was not because he stopped recognizing the authority of the prelates with whom he was dealing. Rather, it was because he lost trust in them, in that they continually refused to set a date for the consecration of a bishop. This setting of a date became the Archbishop’s criterion for trusting Rome.

The date of August 15 was finally set, but it was joined with the request of submitting new candidates for consecration. The Archbishop saw that restarting the process for reviewing candidates would cause the August 15 date to be missed and so the consecrations delayed once more. As such, he went ahead with the consecrations on June 30, 1988. He did so only after making clear that there was no moral problem with signing the protocol. As if addressing himself to those who would accuse him of acting on bad principles, he told his seminarians on June 9, 1988: “Yes, it is true that I signed the protocol on the 5th of May—a bit hesitantly, I must add, but I did sign it… In itself, it was fine. Otherwise, I would certainly not have signed it.”


Sanborn’s Archbishop Lefebvre, the one who holds a contradictory and illogical ecclesiology, is mythological. Far from it being contradictory to hold that authority is to be obeyed or disobeyed on the basis of its commands’ conformity to faith and morals, such a position is utterly Catholic.

The Resistance’s Archbishop Lefebvre, the one who changed his notion of authority and its application to the crisis after the consecrations, is also mythological. The Archbishop recognized the authority of the Conciliar hierarchy to his dying day. He was always, in principle, willing to accept a canonical recognition “as is.” Only when the malicious motives of the Romans willing to recognise the SSPX became clear did he prudentially withdraw, not his principles, but his signature.

The real Archbishop Lefebvre—the man of the Church, the champion of orthodoxy, the beacon of doctrinal purity and missionary charity—was a man of unflinching integrity, one who had the supernatural strength to apply the principles of the Catholic Faith to even the most difficult concrete situations, even to the point of heroism. As such, he is an eminently trustworthy reference point for Catholics in general and for the members of the priestly society that he founded in particular.