The Archbishop, the Society, and Rome
Editor’s Note: The following recollections of Bishop Fellay were provided in response to a series of questions. As such, the impromptu character of his replies have been retained throughout.
If we look through the history of the relations between Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre and the Society of Saint Pius X on one hand, and the Vatican on the other, we will be struck by the fact that despite the various intensity of these relations during time, and the various aspects of it, Archbishop Lefebvre never changed his fundamental desire toward Rome.
Rome is the Heart of the Church
Rome is the heart of the Church; we are Roman Catholic, and so in the midst of the battle, Archbishop Lefebvre will repeat unceasingly that we are attached with our whole heart to eternal Rome. That unchanging Head of an unchanging Church, the very Church founded by Our Lord Jesus Christ Himself.
From this Church, we expect everything, because from her, we have received all the treasures of our Faith, and of sanctifying grace. From this Church, at the first step of baptism, we have said we desired Faith, because it gives eternal life. From this Church and only her, we know we can and must receive the words which save, the discipline, commandments and sacraments which bring us to Heaven. But when the established authorities in the Church start to depart from this path, we reject their pseudo-teaching, because it leads to damnation. This is not our judgment, but the infallible statement of Holy Mother Church throughout the centuries. “Nihil novi nisi quod traditum est.” Unless one keeps this Faith whole and undefiled, without doubt he shall perish. This attitude of the Society’s founder is very well explained and exposed in his declaration of November 24, 1974, right after the canonical visitation of the two visitors sent by Rome. So scandalous that they caused the writing of the famous declaration:
“We hold firmly with all our heart and with all our mind to Catholic Rome, guardian of the Catholic Faith and of the traditions necessary to the maintenance of this Faith, to eternal Rome, mistress of wisdom and truth. We refuse on the other hand, and have always refused, to follow the Rome of Neo-Modernist and Neo-Protestant tendencies, which became clearly manifest during the Second Vatican Council, and after the Council, in all the reforms which issued from it.”
The Stability of the Archbishop’s Position
It is very important to understand well that this distinction explains both the goal of the Archbishop in his relations with Rome and also the incredible stability of his position.
In fact, the double proposition of acceptance and rejection does correspond to the tragic reality we meet in the Church since Vatican II. And this distinction helped preserve Archbishop Lefebvre and the whole SSPX from two perils: either the danger of quitting the “modernized” Church or swallowing all its poison. The sedevacantists have gone the first path, rejecting all the popes from John XXIII to Francis.
The other position, that of the so-called “conservatives” who are troubled by the novelties that have appeared over the past 50 years, have preferred to deny the evidence and minimize the errors in the name of the infallibility of the Church or of the pope. They proceed in the wrongly applied spirit of St. Ignatius in his rule about sentire cum ecclesia: when the Church says “white,” even if it seems to them that it is black, they say “white.”
So the goal of Archbishop Lefebvre in maintaining relations with Rome was always the expectation that the authorities would one day come back to the unchanging teaching and discipline of the Church. It was never to obtain only canonical recognition, though he would always consider this important, too—but less than losing the Faith! “I do not want to contribute to the destruction of the Church.”
The term conversion is appropriate to qualify this expectation of Archbishop Lefebvre. The certitude that the gates of Hell shall not prevail moved him even contra spem in spem, because the real head of the Catholic Church is and will always remain Our Lord Jesus Christ. We possess certitude of the truth of Our Lord’s words. And so we have the certitude of a coming back to “normal” one day, of the traditional Christian life in the Church. This crisis will come to an end. We just do not know when.
Rome’s Initial Attitude
It is very interesting to follow the first steps of Archbishop Lefebvre which indicate also the attitude of the Roman authorities. On the side of Lefebvre, there is deference and respect. He will follow all the rules of establishing a new priestly fraternity.
On the side of Rome, especially, Cardinal John Wright, Prefect of the Clergy at the time, we see a lot of good consideration. This is also found among the bishops who granted the Archbishop permission to establish the first houses of the Society, in Fribourg. Écône, and Albano, which is close to Rome.
There is obviously still goodwill in the Church toward the newly founded Society. Things go so far that already in 1972, Rome starts the process to grant to the Society the “pontifical right,” that is make the SSPX no longer dependent on the local bishops, but directly on Rome. However, in 1974, probably due to the rapid development of the Society, and certainly due to unfounded accusations from certain French bishops, Rome will initiate a canonical visitation. The open controversy at the time was the Society’s refusal to celebrate Pope Paul VI’s new Mass. At least this is what the Archbishop was later told following the canonical visit; he never received the actual report.
This canonical visitation was the start of many hard years for Archbishop Lefebvre. In 1975 came the unjust suppression of the Society by Bishop Pierre Mamie of Fribourg. Then, like a chain reaction, came the Archbishop’s unjust suspension a divinis in 1976.
We may certainly qualify this period as “aggressive” on the side of Rome. Pope Paul VI expects the total destruction of the Society, along with the transmission of all its goods and properties to Rome—the dissolution of the whole work.
The audience in the autumn of 1976 with Paul VI will not bring peace back.
Evolution of Rome’s Attitude
We may divide in two the main phases of Rome’s attitude towards the Society. The first, which lasted until the year 2000, was aggressive. Rome rejected this work of divine Providence and wanted its destruction. Then after 2000, a new attitude, desiring to keep the Society alive, but expecting acceptance of the novelties of the Council and the New Mass.
The first phase, 1974-2000, is still beset by variations. The first moment is simply a will to destroy the Society’s opposition to the novelties of the post-Vatican II era. Then, just before the consecrations of 1988, there is a new approach which is ready to allow the existence of some aspects of Traditional life by allowing the SSPX to live its own charisma. After the consecrations, there is a desire to separate the Society from the Church, with the excommunication of the bishops, and, without an explicit declaration of schism, a similar attitude towards all the Society’s priests and the faithful who attended our chapels.
The election of Pope John Paul II does not bring much change, though some hope follows the audience with the Holy Father in 1978. But unfortunately, the pope left it to the Prefect of the Congregation for the Faith, Cardinal Seper, to deal with Archbishop Lefebvre. This will initiate a sort of process, where he is accused of attacking the Faith. It was the second time (after 1975) that a kind of tribunal had been established against Archbishop Lefebvre without his knowledge. This time, he escaped the trap by refusing to sign the document which would have started the process.
Following some years of relative calm, we see a new phase of discussions with Cardinal Ratzinger as the head of the Congregation for the Faith. But there will be no real conclusion either. Then comes the announcement of the meeting of all religions in Assisi in 1986, which weighed heavily on the Archbishop’s decision to perform the episcopal consecrations in 1988. On June 29, 1987, the Archbishop announced the consecrations publicly. After this, there was a back and forth movement between Rome and himself, which will result in an Apostolic Visitation by Cardinal Cagnon, accompanied by Monsignor Perl, in November 1987.
Once again, neither the Archbishop nor the Society had access to the report from the Visitation; we only know that it was mainly praise for the work the SSPX had accomplished. This will lead to a period of discussions in the spring of 1988 to establish the conditions of the recognition of the Society as a work of the Church, including the possibility of one bishop.
On May 5, 1988, a protocol agreement is even signed by Archbishop Lefebvre. But on the following day, because of the great distrust generated by the attitude of the Roman interlocutors, which did not show benevolence, the Archbishop requested something more: four bishops instead of one and with a fixed date of June 30, 1988 instead of leaving the matter “up in the air.”
During this period, we see that the main request from Rome remains the acceptance of the Second Vatican Council and of the New Mass. About Vatican II, there is some opening: on the disputed points related to the Council, “only” a positive attitude is requested. On the New Mass, “only” acceptance of its validity is demanded.
We may notice at this moment already some interesting points: Rome’s will to give a certain special status to the Society and even a bishop for the needs of the Society and its faithful, but at what price?
After the consecrations followed the excommunication of the bishops involved. And with this act by Rome, it again hardens its position toward the SSPX. For quite some years, official relations between the Society and Rome will be almost dead. Still a minimum connection was kept, with some visits to certain cardinals and also a desire for both sides to not cut ties entirely. So, Rome will never declare officially that the Society is in schism, for example.
The Second Phase of Rome’s Attitude
The second phase starts in the year 2000 and exists to this present day. We may say that things go better for Tradition, albeit rather slowly. That is to say, little by little, step by step, Tradition finds more and more a place in the Church, though it is still rejected by much of the hierarchy.
A serious opening in the relations between Rome and the Society would only come after the year 2000 Pilgrimage to Rome by the Society, preceded by a letter to the bishops of the Society by the newly-appointed Cardinal Castrillon Hoyos, then-head of the Ecclesia Dei Commission.
At the very end of 2000, Cardinal Castrillon Hoyos would tell me that Pope John Paul II wants to find a solution for the Society. But given the harsh way which the Vatican treats the Fraternity of St. Peter at the time, we said that we need some proof of goodwill before trusting the Roman authorities.
The situation sees some serious progress, particularly under Pope Benedict XVI, who explicitly says that finding a solution for the Society is a priority of his pontificate. And so we see him issue the motu proprio Summorum Pontificum in 2007 and then, in 2009, rescind the decree of excommunication from 1988. The Society desired these two steps to be taken, and they helped stabilize relations between the SSPX and Rome.
After this, a serious and official round of discussions on Vatican II and the following reforms started to take place between representatives of the SSPX and delegates of the Congregation of the Faith. This lasted from 2009 until 2011.
In 2011 came the first clear proposal of giving to the Society a canonical status of importance in the Church, preferably a Personal Prelature, with a bishop as its head. There is also a first opening on legitimate questioning of certain points of Vatican II. But fundamentally, the baseline of these discussions remained the protocol agreement given to the Archbishop in 1987.
In 2012 as well as in 2017, the requirements from Rome remained the basic acceptance of the Second Vatican Council and of the New Mass. The wording may vary from one document to the other, but it is essentially the same.
Still, at the same time there is also an opening for more discussions. There is also an acceptance of the good work done by the Society. Even Pope Francis said to me, “You are Catholics” and much more normal relations start to be established on the practical level. We find public declarations from Monsignor Pozzo who clearly removes the accusation of schism. But the terminology “not in full communion” shows that there is still work to do towards the full reestablishment of Tradition in the Church.
For more than a decade, also, due to the fragmentation of our Mother, the Church, we are facing contradicting statements about us from the highest levels in the Vatican. From some there is praise and from others condemnation. This makes any concrete progress very difficult. Because, who in Rome will have the last word? The pope?
A letter from the prefect of the Congregation of the Faith, Cardinal Mueller in May 2017, gives the answer: If very interesting progress has been accomplished on paper with regard to a canonical structure, the major obstacle to canonical recognition remains the request to accept Vatican II and the legitimacy of the New Mass. It is as if our objections to the novelties since the Council tragically illustrated in recent developments such as the Amazon Synod and the “synodal path” in Germany, both of which destroy the Church, have no importance. We are back at the start, just like 20 years ago. But does not precisely the strong opposition of Cardinal Mueller to those recent events support the Society’s attitude and position?
With this we understand more than ever that the real solution to the present crisis will not come through mere human and prudential efforts. The key remains in God’s hands and, keeping our eyes on Him, we reiterate our determined will to be faithful to the Faith of our Fathers, to all the treasures which have brought the glory of the Church, and which we have unworthily received.
We see our duty to transmit faithfully to the next generations what has made saints and brought salvation to the Church’s members during all the centuries. Our Lord Jesus Christ will save His Church, but He wants the cooperation of His instruments in His Mystical Body! He does not need us, but He wants us. As well said by St. Joan of Arc: “Men shall fight and God will give the victory.”