Rorate Caeli

Archbishop Lefebvre and relations with Rome

A guest-post by 
Côme de Prévigny

Following the consecrations conferred in Écône, Switzerland, on June 30, 1988, the founder of the Society of Saint Pius X, Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, did not maintain further discussions with the Holy See while he lived. The grave decision to move forward with this ceremony doubtless had consequences for the relations between the Holy See and the Archbishop. The tension had reached strong levels, and the excommunication decree of July 2 proved it. Is it possible, without much imagination, to explain things otherwise?

An act of survival

We could carelessly think that the Archbishop had finally reached the conclusion that pursuing discussions with a  world of hardened neo-Modernist ideas would prove nefarious for the progression of his foundation, which only could prosper far away from this darkened world. However, it seems that this impression is nothing more than an unfortunate ommission.

Let us recall the context: up to the eve of the consecrations, Abp. Lefebvre tried to reach an agreement with the Holy See by all possible means. He did not cease to write to and communicate with some Cardinals and prelates whom he knew, in the heart of the Curia, during the 1970s-1980s, and he repeatedly affirmed that the solution would come from Rome. He went so far as to sign a protocol in May 1988. Concluding that he would have changed his mind diametrically within a single month would show him to be an ill-tempered and impulsive man - which was not the case. On the contrary, the affair of the consecrations came along as the fruit of long reflection, which did not prevent him from simultaneously pursuing discussions with the Apostolic See, as much as his strength allowed him to do. Only the approach of death constrained him to move on with "Operation Survival".
The May 5 Protocol is signed

In order to understand the mind of Abp. Lefebvre, it is necessary to note that he truly acted in articulo mortis. He says it himself in the consecration sermon. His death would come soon: "This will happen soon." And the ceremony of the consecrations would probably not have taken place if its author had not justified the state of necessity with the fact that he was out of recourses, and that soon he would be gone. To go back to negotiations following the consecrations would have inevitably meant going back on the act he had just accomplished. His action is explained solely by the fact that he felt he was at the eve of his death, and that it was a last resort, after which there would not be any humanly possible exchanges while he lived.

The talks after 1988

Beyond the 'in extremis' position in which he found himself, Abp. Lefebvre envisaged, in any even, a very quick resumption of the discussions with Rome. He wished that his successors would relaunch the process. In the press conference granted on June 15, 1988, to journalists assembled in Écône, in which he announced his firm decision to move forward with the consecrations and suspend relations with Rome, he reckoned that the interruption of this exchange would last, considering the gravity of the consecrations, for approximately two or three years.

"These events that we will live in these days will certainly be talked about, and there will be unexpected crowds at the June 30 ceremony for the consecration of these four young bishops who will be at the service of the Society. This was foreseen as such by Rome. The bishops consecrated for the Society will be at the service of the Society. And, well, these four bishops will be at the service of the Society, that is it. The one who will therefore have responsibility, as a matter of principle, for relations with Rome when I am gone will be the Superior General of the Society, Father Schmidberger, who still has six years of leadership before him. He is the one who will, eventually, maintain contacts with Rome from now on, in order to continue the discussions, if these discussions go on, or if contact is kept, which is unlikely for some time, because in L'Osservatore Romano a large headline will say, 'Schism of Abp. Lefebvre,' 'Excommunication'... Therefore, for x years, perhaps two years, three years, I don't know, there will be separation."
 It can be noticed there the great optimism of Abp. Lefebvre. He realized that there would be a temporary separation for a certain lapse of time. He himself outlived the consecrations by two and a half years. The absence of relations seemed natural to him, not due to a radical change, but due to the jolt provoked by the act of the episcopal consecrations. From 1988 onwards, Father Schmidberger became the designated responsible for relations with Rome, as the founder had desired. He did not resume relations after two or three years, or at the moment of the death of Abp. Lefebvre, as the latter might have imagined. Twelve years passed by, after six years of leadership of Father Schmidberger, plus six years of leadership of Bp. Fellay, for the "talks to continue". As it happens, the Society could be reproached more for their extreme prudence than by their rashness. But the sole judge for this chronology was, in any event, the man mandated to appraise this delay, that is, the Superior General of the SSPX. Thus wished the founder.

[Note: as always, guest-posts reflect the view of the author, and do not necessarily reflect an editorial position of the blog.]