The Archbishop Speaks: An Interview with Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre Given on 3 May 1982
An Interview with Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre
Given on 3 May 1982
at Houston, Texas, to
Mr. Louis Moore, Religion Editor
The Houston Chronicle
Prior to the Second Vatican Council, His Grace Archbishop Lefebvre had been one of the most important bishops in the world: Apostolic Delegate to the whole of French-speaking Africa and the Superior General of the Holy Ghost Fathers. He had been a diocesan bishop in France and a member of the Central Preparatory Commission for the Council. On May 3, 1982, Father Hector L. Bolduc, members of the Angelus Press staff, and Michael Davies were present when Louis Moore, Religion Editor of The Houston Chronicle,interviewed Archbishop Lefebvre. We all felt that this was one of the most important interviews the Archbishop has given. We much appreciated the courteous manner in which Mr. Moore put his very perceptive questions, and we are grateful to him for allowing us to use the interview. Those who wish to know the Archbishop's opinion on most of the important issues confronting the Church and the traditionalist movement will find it here. We were particularly pleased that Mr. Moore asked His Grace about the theory that the Holy See is vacant, thus giving the Archbishop the opportunity to repudiate this error yet again before the attempt on the Pope's life. We count it a great privilege to be able to carry this interview in our anniversary issue.
Q. Were you surprised, when in 1959, Pope John XXIII decided to convoke a general council?
A. I admit that I was a little surprised that a decision was made to call a Council, but I was not surprised that Pope John XXIII did it, because Pope John XXIII did not draw back from any enterprise, however extraordinary. He feared no obstacles, no difficulties, so I wasn't surprised that he did it. But the problems were already such at that moment that it was difficult to envisage his decision concluding in a manner that would benefit the Church.
Q. Pope John appointed you to the Central Preparatory Commission for the Council. You took part in all the preliminary preparations. Did you feel at all anxious about the outcome of the Council during this preparation?
A. Yes, it is correct that I was part of the Central Preparatory Commission during the two years before the Council, and I must admit that I was very disappointed by the attitude that I noticed among the Cardinals—for there were 70 Cardinals included in the Preparatory Commission. I soon noticed a profound division between the Cardinals from the Rhineland countries, between the foreign Cardinals at Rome, and, in general, the Roman Cardinals, and the Cardinals from the Latin-language countries.
Q. Would you please explain what happened when the Council opened in 1962?
A. When the Council opened, there was a question of naming the members of the different commissions, replacing members of the Preparatory Commission. Cardinal Ottaviani passed around lists of members of the Preparatory Commissions, to clarify matters for us a little, because we did not know the bishops on these commissions. Cardinal Lienart interpreted this initiative of Cardinal Ottaviani as pressure to obtain the votes of the Council Fathers. He demanded that this vote should be postponed, and that the vote should be taken the next day. Unfortunately, this was accepted in such a way that the progressives themselves were able to put their lists into the hands of all the Council Fathers, lists containing a mixture of names of bishops from all over the world, who were equally unknown to us, but were all progressives. And this is the truth about what happened. It was very serious for the Council. It was the first defeat for the conservatives and the first triumph for the liberals.
Q. Cardinal Heenan of England, who was at the Council, has said that Pope John XXIII had no notion at all of what would take place at the Council. He wrote in his book, A Crown of Thorns, that God was merciful to the old Pope in allowing him to die before seeing the effects of the Council. I quote: "Pope John was spared the agony of seeing the Catholic Church in decline. At the time of John's death there was no hint of impending disintegration. The neo-modernists and the Catholic anarchists who changed his successor into a man of sorrows were yet to appear. Jesus wept over Jerusalem and John would have wept over Rome if he had foreseen what would be done in the name of his Council." This is very strong language, Your Grace, I don't think you have ever described the result of the Council in stronger terms. Do you know if any other cardinals or bishops also accept that the effects of the Council have been so disastrous?
A. It is true that these words are extraordinary, and one has not often heard anything comparable, but I think there were many cardinals and bishops who thought the same in their hearts but who didn't want to say so, because they didn't want to think and accept that the work they did at the Council could have such results. But, in fact, I believe that if one could question many cardinals and bishops in private they would also tell us that they are astounded and astonished at the destruction of the Church, which is taking place, as, moreover, Pope Paul VI himself told us when he said that he was watching the self-destruction of the Church.
Q. I would also like to quote a few figures concerning what has happened in the United States since the Council. Mass attendance has declined by 50,000; the seminary enrollment has declined by 64%; 10,000 priests have been laicized. This decline has been repeated in many countries. Would you agree that the state of the Church has never been worse since the Arian heresy?
A. I believe, in fact, that the Church has never undergone a crisis such as that which it is undergoing at the present moment. I would say that it is even more grave than the heresy of Arius, because then it was a question of a point of doctrine, very precise, very clear, while here we have a kind of diffused heresy inside the Church—Modernism, a very difficult doctrine to define, and thus a poison that will be very difficult to eradicate from inside the Church, and we are in danger of seeing a situation even worse than what followed the heresy of Arius.
Q. How would you explain this collapse? Surely, it cannot be the Council alone that was responsible?
A. No. certainly the Council was not solely responsible for all that happened after it. but I think that, if the situation was already serious before the Council, we can surely say that the Council was a great misfortune for the Church, at least in the way in which it happened. It provided the opportunity to generalize, to extend the sickness which already existed in the Church, and to extend it in an official manner, to the extent that one can almost say now that error spreads in the Church through obedience, which is something unheard of in the Church; that we are obliged by obedience to accept doctrine which is no longer truly orthodox, and sacraments which are doubtful. These are things which have never happened in the Church before.
Q. It is frequently alleged that you reject the Second Vatican Council. The Angelus Press has just published your book, I Accuse the Council. What do you accuse the Council of, and what is your attitude towards it? Is it true that you would accept all the documents if they are interpreted in the light of tradition? I believe you have, in any case, signed fourteen of the sixteen official documents.
A. It is true that there are two documents which I did not sign, the document on Religious Liberty and the document on the Church in the Modern World, because to me they appeared truly unacceptable. I believe that if the Council were taking place now it is evident that there are other texts that I would not sign, because conclusions have been drawn from these texts which were unforeseeable. And I am very happy that it is possible to publish this book, I Accuse the Council, in English, so that English-speaking people can also realize what took place at the time of the Council, and of the efforts that were made to prevent error from spreading. I am ready, it is true, to accept the Council; I do not refuse the Council. I am ready to accept it according to the norms of tradition, according to the norms of theology, in the manner demanded by the Secretary of the Council, Msgr. Felici, when he replied to a question from the Fathers of the Council who asked him: "What is the theological status of the Conciliar documents?"
Q. I know that after the Council you decided to retire and did not make a conscious decision to oppose its implementation. Yet almost in spite of yourself you now find yourself Superior of probably the fastest growing religious order in the Church. Would you please explain briefly what you consider the work of the Society to be?
A. It is true that I resigned from the Congregation of the Fathers of the Holy Ghost. I was Superior General at that time, during the Council. In 1968 we made an adaptation of our constitution in the light of the Council, and the situation within the Congregation was such that I preferred to hand in my resignation—which was accepted at once! After the Council, and therefore after these other events, circumstances dictated that I should found this Society (of St. Pius X) at Fribourg, with the approval, moreover, of the Bishop of Fribourg, Msgr. Charriere, and I hope that the Society will continue to grow and develop as it is doing now.
Q. Some of those who oppose the work of your Society of St. Pius X claim that you established it without approval from the proper Church authorities. Is this correct?
A. Oh, that is totally untrue. Because I had the authorization of the Bishop of Fribourg, Msgr. Charriere, and I even had a letter, full of praise, from Cardinal Wright, an official letter approving our statutes completely and wishing us great success. I think that, if it had not been for the opposition of the French bishops, it is very probable that the Society would have been recognized as a congregation of "pontifical right," and therefore publicly recognized by Rome.
Q. Could you please tell us something about the progress of the Society today—the number of seminaries, seminarians, sisters and churches?
A. I must confess that our progress has been such that I can't keep up with it myself—because, the number of priests, certainly, it is easy for me to say that there are a hundred priests in the Society; the number of seminarians is 250 at the moment in our five seminaries; the number of sisters formally attached to the Society is about 50 young nuns and about 30 oblates. As for the churches—well, there I can tell you that we have about 50 residences, where priests of the Society live. As for the churches that are served by our priests, I simply can't tell you. I think it would be necessary to multiply the number of our priests by three, which means that there are about three hundred places served by our priests each Sunday.
Q. The figures you have given me are truly astonishing. Such progress in so short a time must be almost unique in the history of new religious orders. I know that you receive much criticism from different people. The progress of the Society must be a great consolation to you.
A. Yes, that is true. It is a very great consolation for me. I have always been engaged in seminary work, all my life I have been engaged in forming seminarians, and I admit sincerely that the dispositions that I find among seminarians today are at least as good as they were in my day; they are perhaps even a little more mature, more aware that there is a great crisis in the Church, and that in consequence they must be well-formed, and for me this is truly a very great joy.
Q. As you travel throughout the world how do you find that the lay people react to the work of the Society?
A. Well, it is clear that after founding this seminary and having conferred ordination on these young priests it was necessary to give them apostolic work. It happened that very many lay people, everywhere in the world, learning that we had young priests who might eventually be at their disposition to continue tradition, asked us to send them these young priests—and it was truly at the request of lay people that we decided to send these priests to give them the sacraments that they desired, according to the ancient rite, in order to be completely sure of the validity of all these sacraments. At the present moment it is truly wonderful to see the number of those who attend our Masses, and who receive graces in our churches.
Q. The Society here has a beautiful church, an excellent choir, a printing press, a journal, and the capacity to print full length books which are sold in thousands of numbers throughout the world. In St. Marys, Kansas, the Society has a college and high school. Do you think that eventually the Vatican will recognize the positive aspect of your apostolate, and the negative nature of the conciliar reforms? Is there hope for a return to Tradition in this century?
A. I am edified by the beauty of the church here, and also by the choral singing, the printing press, the publishing house—this is all truly a fine thing. I am surprised myself that in so few years all these fine initiatives have succeeded. In Kansas, at St. Mary's, there is likewise a college, and the beginning of a university such as we have in Paris. I think that the Vatican recognizes the merit of our works, and is convinced that the training we give to young people, to the young people in our schools, equally with our young seminarians, is excellent. That is why in no way do they wish to close either our seminaries or our schools. But they have great difficulty in recognizing that this good comes from Tradition, and that we wish to maintain Tradition. Will they accept it soon? I cannot say; that depends upon God and it depends upon Providence, but there is certainly a rapid evolution in thinking taking place now.
Q. The situation in the Church here in the United States of America, and countries such as France and Holland, is such that some Catholics deny that what we would call the "official Church" is really the Church at all. Some groups now deny that there has been a true Pope since Pius XII. There is even such a group here in Houston. Some of the priests with these opinions have been having themselves consecrated as bishops by an elderly Vietnamese prelate. There is a possibility that these illicitly consecrated bishops will meet together to elect their own pope. What is your reaction to this tendency?
A. There are inside the Church some dioceses, some churches, some bishops, some priests, who are no longer Catholic; this is very certain. That there is in the Church as a whole, subversion and Modernism that are more or less everywhere, we appreciate this; but that doesn't mean that the Roman Church, that the Church which we have always known, to which we have always been attached, no longer exists. Because even if there is a majority of men who are in error, or who are more or less infected by the poison of error, that is not a reason for saying that the Church no longer exists, and I have always been against this opinion. I have never been willing to accept those who claimed I was forming a Church, that I was founding a new Church; all that is false. The Church has always existed, and, for me, we are simply continuing the work which we did before the Council, which is the work of the Church, and consequently, for us, there is no problem concerning the Roman Church. As for the question of the Pope, I have always equally refused to say that there is no Pope, and that since Pope Pius XII the Church has had no Pope. I have even asked some of my priests to leave us rather than profess that opinion. For I do not wish the Fraternity, our Society, to lead the faithful into an impasse, which, besides, is what is happening at this moment to those people who claim that there is no longer a Pope. They will soon be disposed to choose a pope from among themselves, which demonstrates that logically this position leads to schism, which is basically what I have already written in a letter which I sent to them.
Q. What is your opinion of the present Pope, John Paul II, and how would you compare him with Pope Paul VI?
A. In some respects he is different from Pope Paul VI. On the subject of morality, for example, of religious congregations, of priests, he is rather firm; but I must say, on the subject of ecumenism, for example, or religious liberty—well, he is at least as advanced in his ideas as Pope Paul VI. Is he also influenced by his entourage to the extent that Pope Paul VI was? I certainly think so, because I have the impression that as long as he has around him a number of cardinals who are very liberal, the Pope will not dare to take the decision to conform truly to Tradition and to be anti-Liberal.
Q. Your Grace, Pope John Paul II has recently apologized to the faithful for all the scandals which have occurred during the liturgical reform. No Pope has ever made such an apology during the history of the Church before. It proves how serious the situation is today. Many Catholics are so scandalized by what happens in the churches today that they sometimes find it hard to believe that Mass is really taking place at all. This may be the case in many celebrations—but you have always maintained that, at least in the form approved by the Pope, it is valid. Is this true?
A. It is true that Pope John Paul II has apologized for all the affliction perpetrated in the Church relating to the liturgy, and, as you say, this is an absolutely extraordinary event in the Church. It is very certain that many Catholics are totally disillusioned with what is happening in the churches today, and that, in many cases, there is no longer a Mass. They are probably right. In many cases, Masses by their translation, by the intention (of the celebrant), for many reasons are probably no longer valid. But, nevertheless, personally, I have always said, in fact, that if the Mass was said according to the rite approved by Pope Paul VI, in Latin, and with the intention of doing what the Church does, and, obviously, with the (valid) matter also, by a priest who is a real Catholic priest, I think that the Mass is in effect valid, although it does not necessarily follow that because it is valid we must inevitably attend it.
Q. Most bishops say that the traditional Mass is now forbidden—but eminent Canon Lawyers, such as Professor Neri Capponi, maintain that it is not. What is your view?
A. I follow the opinion of those Canonists, in particular Father Dulac, who is a Doctor of Canon Law, who has always said that there is no (binding) law (i.e. mandating the New Mass), and others who have said that even if there is a law, a law that is not for the common good is not a (binding) law, given that the purpose of a law must be for the common good of the society for which it is made, for which it is expressed. Therefore I believe, in fact, that there is no (binding) law in the case of this liturgical reform.
Q. Obviously, if you are correct in saying that the Tridentine Mass has not been prohibited the faithful have a right to assist at it. But many Catholics today still do not have the opportunity. Often they feel unable, in conscience, to assist at the New Mass. The bishops consider that they are committing a mortal sin by refusing to go. Would you please comment?
A. It is true that many Catholics cannot attend the Tridentine Mass, especially in certain countries such as Spain, for example, or Portugal, or even Italy, and many other countries, particularly South America also I think. Consequently, being unable to assist at that Mass there are, it is true, those who believe themselves unable in conscience to assist at this (New) Mass. Certain bishops may, in fact, consider it a mortal sin. My judgment is, given that this Mass, as I had occasion to remark when interrogated by the Holy Office, is that this Mass is a Mass which has been poisoned, and one cannot oblige a person in conscience to receive poison. Consequently, if these people do not wish to go to Mass on Sunday, for example, because they are aware that it is a poison for their souls, they are certainly not committing a mortal sin. Quite the contrary. But that is not to say that those who assist at these Masses because they are not aware of the danger they encounter at them, or of the poison that they find there, commit a mortal sin in going.
Q. On the other hand, some traditional priests say that it is a mortal sin to assist at the New Mass. This seems to be exaggerated. It is obvious that assisting at the New Mass in the way it is so often celebrated could eventually lead to a loss of faith in the Mass as a sacrifice. Even in its official Latin form there are alarming parallels with the Protestant communion services of Luther in Germany or Thomas Cranmer in England. But on the other hand, not assisting at Mass at all could also lead to a loss of faith, particularly with young people. Is this not a real dilemma of Catholics today, especially for parents?
A. Yes, I would like to reply first to your first question—that that position is exaggerated which claims that those attending the New Mass are committing a mortal sin. Here we find ourselves in a pastoral situation. This is not the only time people have been faced with a danger to their souls. There are numerous cases: there is television, they have the cinema, they have bad companions, bad places of entertainment, bad books. Many things are dangerous to our souls. It is difficult to give an absolute general rule; but we must consider the circumstances, the individuals, and it may be more serious in the case of one person than of another. What we can say, objectively, as a general rule, is that it is a danger to the faith to attend such Masses. Subjectively, we must take into consideration the individual, and consequently we must know how to judge as a (good) pastor and not only purely in an objective manner, as if we had nothing to do with human beings who find themselves by consequences in diverse circumstances. This is why I will keep myself from saying that those who go to the New Mass all commit mortal sin.
Q. In a country such as Poland where most of the priests are still orthodox, I am sure that Your Grace would not recommend the entire population to cease assisting at Mass. Is this true?
A. Obviously, the orthodoxy of the priest does not change the quality or the situation of the New Mass. (Even if a priest is well intentioned, a doubtful Mass will remain doubtful.) This is what they tell me in Rome: "You say that the Mass of the Pope is not good; you say that the Mass of certain cardinals is not good." I must reply "yes," because this concerns an objective question, that this Mass was made with the help of Protestants, finalized in a spirit of ecumenical protestantism, and that the essential elements of the Mass are tainted more or less. Consequently, the faith is no longer expressed as it should be expressed, in such a way that the people finish by having an ecumenical spirit and a Protestant spirit, which is excessively dangerous.
Q. Finally, Your Grace, would you like to address a message to the many Catholics who are tempted to despair and lose hope at the state of the Church today?
A. I think that here we must profit from the lessons of history, and because Mr. Michael Davies is present here, he who has written all those books precisely to show that the present situation is not a definitive one, a new situation in the Church, that there have been other situations more or less similar to this one, very serious also, such as Arianism, Protestantism, Anglicanism, well, we must go back to these times, and try to follow the examples of those who upheld their Catholic Faith, and, accordingly, should it be necessary, be willing to suffer martyrdom as did so many bishops and priests in the times of religious persecutions, and we must have confidence in God who, ultimately, is all-powerful and can draw us out of this evil age. We must pray, make sacrifices, and retain our confidence in Providence.