Rorate Caeli

"The Catholic Church in Crisis"
- a 1978 essay by Fr. Louis Bouyer

The Catholic Church in Crisis


Translation © COPYRIGHT 2015
 John M. Pepino

What has come to be called “the Lefebvre affair” deserves a close investigation. At first glance, one may think that it reveals only the somewhat strange mentality, a ghetto mentality, of Catholics who are incapable of coming out of their isolation, of their life within a closed community in a safeguarded dream.  In reality, once one examines it seriously, it reveals a deep malaise in French Catholicism and, therefore, in French society as a whole. And it would be a mistake to believe that this malaise is a recent one: it goes back a long way and its symptoms will never be healed so long as we refuse to go back to its sources. And still there would be more to say. It could never have developed, branched out, and lastly grown such monstrous and grotesque buds, had modern Catholicism’s most characteristic trait not come about, namely: a phenomenal, and not altogether healthy, development of the papacy. And here again what is at stake is the whole evolution of French society and, more generally, of that Western society which was long synonymous with “Christendom.” If such is the case, it won’t be a waste of time to push our analysis of the “Lefebvrist” phenomenon further than is usually done.


First of all, who is Archbishop Lefebvre, and what exactly has he done to provoke such reactions in and around the Church of France? Is he not himself a typical reactionary who blurs, as is only to be expected, clerical reaction with political and social reaction? One could doubtless find many of his own words to provide an apparently ample justification for this simplistic description. But the actual facts are far from being as simple as they seem. Let us first note that Archbishop Lefebvre belongs to one of the greatest French missionary families: the Congregation of the Holy Ghost Fathers, whose superior general he was for a time. In that capacity he was for a long period the Archbishop of Dakar, and manifestly enjoyed full confidence on the part of the Holy See, which had made him its Apostolic Delegate for that entire region of Black Africa. Note carefully that at the time we were right at the end of the so-called “colonial” period, when the Church—for once!—was ahead of an inevitable politico-social process, decolonization, as she Africanized mission territories like that entrusted to Archbishop Lefebvre as quickly and as widely as possible. Now it is a matter of fact that he behaved in such an open and generous manner that all the African bishops, many of whom he had appointed himself, have remained to the bitter end his firmest defenders before the Holy See.  The Holy See’s delay in taking its well-known action against his post-conciliar activity—which action the French episcopate had been awaiting with understandable impatience—is principally due to these African bishops’ indefectible loyalty. This is all the more remarkable that, quite frankly, the same bishops hardly exhibit any comparable warmth towards his colleagues in France as a whole, and this despite the latters’ principled liberalism or progressivism. This was bluntly revealed in a particularly awkward scene that poor Cardinal Marty had to endure in Rome at the end of a synod of bishops where the Africans had generally voted to get the French off the permanent synodal organs.[2]

        Actually Archbishop Lefebvre, by virtue of his family background, belongs to the Northern French sort of Catholicism that formed generations of sincerely and deeply “social” employers without whose support Catholic Action generally, and the Jeunesse ouvrière catholique specifically,[3] would never have developed as extraordinarily as they did in our country between the two wars. You may call this “social Catholicism” paternalistic, but you’ll have to admit that it is a peculiar sort of paternalism that can encourage, or even to a large degree finance, such initiatives. The popularity that Cardinal Liénart long enjoyed among the genuinely working class of the North (where, for his part, he had stayed) as well as that which Archbishop Lefebvre stills enjoys in so-called “liberated” Africa is proof enough that one cannot be satisfied with sticking people into ready-made pigeon holes. Pigeon hole for pigeon hole and at the risk of scandalizing some people, I would say that  Archbishop Lefebvre’s Catholicism is basically in the tradition of Péguy,[4] which may explain his surprising success among the most popular social classes of France just as well as, if not more than, among more or less well-off circles. By this I first mean a Catholicism characterized, or even perfectly expressed, by that veneration of Joan of Arc “the good Lorraine girl,” “the saint of the homeland,” that so strikingly typified 1930s French Catholicism. It was a veneration that seemed even to eclipse that rendered to the Virgin, though not perhaps that of “Lourdes” (“Be Queen amongst us!” and so forth). In this Catholicism, “the Good Lord” was more or less identical with the Sacred Heart stamped on the blue-white-and-red flags that fluttered about Joan’s statue in the rue des Pyramides. Action Française,[5] of course, handily took hold of it, but it also got along well with a certain “1848” kind of socialism;[6] it was deeply popular but for all that also authoritarian and regimented—it came close to the satirical spoof by Muller and Reboux’s famous Cahiers: “ . . .  A yearly subscription gets you military honors; a two-year subscription gets you eternal salvation!”

            You may laugh, but first let’s not forget that this Catholicism sent men off to get killed “for France and for the Republic!” without complaint and that it was then able to set off social and even political liberalities to which the beginnings of the Jeunesse ouvrière chrétienne (once again) and the halcyon days of Les Sept  (which were then not yet Temps Présents)[7] can testify: a love for the disenfranchised and the oppressed that didn’t yet have anything to do with Gulag-inspired giddiness! When people on the other side have done as much, then they can laugh at their ease. Until then, they’ll do well to keep up that somewhat pinched seriousness that usually typifies them better than humor does. That Catholicism, that Christianity was that  of chair-bottomers[8] and of the intellectuals they unknowingly converted to the people, as well as that of colonels—not all Ramollots,[9] to be sure—and of a whole host of good people who, while they loved to parade in lockstep to the beat of the Marseillaise in alternation with “Save Rome and France in the Name of the Sacred Heart!”, were nevertheless decent men and were just as ready to run off to the ends of the world to save the pagan babies in Africa or China as to try to clean out the Augean stables of nineteenth-century liberal[10] and Renan-inspired capitalism, and, again, to offer up their possessions and their lives at the Pope’s call or even at the call of the most incapable of Third-Republic governments. That Catholicism may elicit a smile, but it certainly deserves respect.

            In any case, and this has to be stated plainly, that was just about all that yesterday’s Catholicism had to offer in terms of a real religion, of a lived Christianity. Those who knew it, who have never known anything better because no one ever troubled to give them anything better, defend themselves like the dickens when they feel that others are trying to take it away from them and replace it with pseudo-liturgical tomfoolery, communistic sloganeering, faithlessness thinly veiled with clerical verbiage, and total moral laxism (baptized as “liberation”). You have to admit that this is not only understandable but actually thoroughly honorable. Archbishop Lefebvre wouldn’t have become a television star if he didn’t have all of that within him and behind him.

            Add to this that Archbishop Lefebvre not only is a man with a “good upbringing” as they say, and therefore will never raise his voice of his own accord, even when he comes to saying the stiffest truths, but is also a deeply meek and peace-loving man, as anyone who has ever seen and heard him can attest.  Now if after that he also has the stubbornness that is the great defense of the meek, and can simply walk into the thick of battle and fearlessly stay there as many peace-loving men do, this will come as a surprise only to those whose understanding of psychology is as shallow as their ideology.

            I’ll go further and say that he is a humble man. He’s no theologian, or even a thinker generally speaking; he knows this as well as anyone who has ever spoken to him for even five minutes. This explains why he relies, in this respect, on people whom the Holy See’s constant policy since the turn of the century and the unanimous policy of the entire French episcopate until these very last few years designated to him as being the only safe theologians. And he chose as guide from among them an unquestionably superior mind, a high-class mathematician on top of being a theologian, which may or may not help the matter but at any rate certainly guarantees that although thinking may not be Archbishop Lefebvre’s forte, he certainly does not disdain it, quite the contrary.[11]

            This can suffice for the time being as a portrait of the protagonist. Let us now take a look at the setting of his conciliar and postconciliar activity.

            At the Council Archbishop Lefebvre, perhaps because his African responsibilities had somewhat cut him off from France, seems to have been one of those bishops who had always believed literally what they had been asked to teach, and who at first were a little taken aback by certain turnarounds. After his compatriot Liénart, together with the Archbishop of Cologne, had successfully supported a relative (and in its principle quite traditional) liberalization of the Council’s rules and methods, and the mass media had turned this into the first victory of an as yet still entirely imaginary “progressivism,” he had the sad surprise, which could only be that of people with his outlook, of witnessing a whole series of prescient men from French Canada to Belgium make a 180 degree turn.[12]  Sniffing out the direction of the wind with the confidence of people for whom ladder climbing had always been the first principle (whatever principles they had hung their careerism on until then), some of the most unyielding promoters of Romanism, of conservatism, and of the strictest sort of authoritarianism ran to assist victory and at the first possible chance tried to lay hold of progressivism, democratism, neo-triumphalistic pauperism, and above all openness to the world (not to mention the good graces of the newspaper by the same name...)[13] to their own advantage. Though without an Ottaviani’s intelligence,[14] but with something like Ruffini’s beautiful manners as well as the same brave loyalty (although with less brilliance), he was seen defending against this unexpected one-upmanship positions whose traditionalism was far more moderate, at the end of the day, than the traditionalism of those who were so suddenly and so noisily leaving it behind. Yet, even though it may have been with a few pangs of conscience, or perhaps incompletely subdued regrets, Archbishop Lefebvre must have been among those who judged that the council, when all was said and done, did respect their most fundamental entreaties not to jettison “Tradition,” while at the same time exhibiting greater “openness” than in  the recent past. The proof is that he finally signed all the texts that the assembly had passed, once they were finalized (God knows after how many tiring deliberations!) and immediately confirmed by the Sovereign Pontiff.

            It was only once he and his confreres got back to the daily and local life of the Church, of whom he was among the most consciously and conscientiously responsible Pastors, that things took a bad turn. It must be acknowledged, and this is to be chalked up to a certain realism on his part, that he belonged to the small number of those who did not share the then predominant episcopal euphoria. He certainly had the not altogether unfounded feeling that the bishops had, with the principal purpose of freeing themselves from Rome, started up a machine that they would not be able to stop and which others would soon use for their own liberation from them.

            The first thing that seems to have caught his attention is the nearly instantaneous degradation of French seminaries as well as of clergy recruitment and formation. To realize what the situation was, one must remember that a French-born congregation, specialized in that sort of work, had until then always refused the slightest adaptation of its seventeenth-century customs.[15] Furthermore it would be an understatement to say that the competent Roman authority encouraged it in this. A few years before the Council one of my friends, an English priest who had devoted his life to this work, had had the misfortune of publishing some criticisms of this state of affairs in a French clerical journal. His criticisms were of the most even-handed and well-researched kind, based on verified facts and principles it would have been difficult to question. The superiors of this congregation denounced him and the wrath of Rome soon destroyed his career and besmirched his irreproachable character, ultimately confining him to a tiny suburban parish that he was never to leave.

            Yet as soon as the Council came to an end this Congregation’s seminaries, particularly in France but elsewhere too, believed that they had to give in at the first sign of revolution. The speed with which they did so is matched only by their former resistance to the slightest reform. “Encounters” replaced lectures, the most private of devotional lives gave way to political activism without the slightest transition, and the most conformist ritualism gave way to absurd improvisations. I’ll pass over more serious things yet, which were to lead even one of the most liberal prelates of the United States to withdraw his seminarians from this congregation after a detailed investigation with irrefutable findings. In keeping with this example, one must admit that there soon was an impression of a total free-for-all in all of our seminaries. After stifling authoritarianism and a sickening rose-water sort of piety, unbridled demagoguery and total chaos, if not cynical impiety, took over . . . . 

From that point French bishops were sent substantial complaints and respectful yet worried, if not justifiably indignant, observations. Then also there appeared, on the part of those whom they had put in charge in this field, two types of response which were to increase and multiply in all other fields: either “the situation is not as critical as you think” or “it will pass, and anyway nothing can be done about it.” In fact, under pretext of collegiality, the flight of responsibilities had begun and, under pretext of “setting up democratic structures” (sic), little soviets arose taking advantage of the authorities’ sudden fear of seeming authoritarian to tyrannize the general run of the clergy and faithful behind their back.

            This is the point when Archbishop Lefebvre, who like many others feared what the situation clearly portended a few years hence—i.e. no more priests with a minimum of formation, or even no more priests at all since it was already obvious that only boys incapable of ever amounting to anything would assent to stay until their ordination in institutions that had become even more formless than chaotic—decided to do something about it on his own. Since he no longer was a diocesan bishop, he couldn’t have a seminary of his own. But canon law offered the possibility of founding a “secular institute” and being its superior and, on that basis, of offering what he deemed to be the best formation to boys presenting themselves to him, and lastly of calling them to Holy Orders and of ordaining them himself.

            Such was the origin of the seminary that was to make him famous. It eventually settled in Ecône, Switzerland and was in principle international, although in fact it recruited young Frenchmen nearly exclusively.

            Naturally his episcopal colleagues could not be favorably inclined to such an endeavor. It got a lot worse when it turned out that their “modern,” “adapted” etc. seminaries were recruiting next to no one even as this “conservative” seminary, which had been proclaimed inherently incapable of satisfying “the rightful aspirations of young people,” was visibly filling up even despite the exile it involved and the more than uncertain future it guaranteed its recruits. . .  Hence, from this liberalized Church after the Council, especially in France, which seemed to be fast becoming a “permissive” Church, there came a wave of denunciations and threats, and from prelates who were so concerned with “collegiality” there came unexpected calls for one of those thunderous interventions from the Vatican that one would have thought to have been left to the past.

            What, besides its success as well as the obvious failure of the new episcopal seminaries, was so blameworthy in Archbishop Lefebvre’s seminary? Granted, the theology there, as well as spirituality and pastoral theology, were clearly conservative. . .  but certainly no more so than what the very bishops who denounced it had demanded until the bitter end from their own institutions of the same type . . . and certainly of a rather better intellectual, spiritual, and pastoral quality.

            Meanwhile, as months and years passed, it turned out that the “New Pentecost” so confidently hailed by John XXIII was turning into a new Babel, especially in France: after the seminaries, it was catechesis, Catholic Action, and especially the Church’s activity that is most obvious to the run-of-the-mill, that is to say Sunday worship. All of this was sliding into caprice and anarchy more even than into left-wing politicization, while simple negligence found itself pompously renamed “desacralization.”

            Naturally, in Archbishop Lefebvre, and surely even more so among his most fanatical partisans, all of this provoked not only the inevitable I-told-you-sos, but also already reflexes of exacerbated reaction. A whole set of circumstances, more even in Rome than in France, around the publication and promulgation of a revised Roman missal were to provide the unfortunate occasion for a fixation, and then an explosion, of all these resentments. In the first place there was the policy, which actually was more financial than “progressive,” of the Centre National de Pastorale Liturgique set up by the French bishops (or rather by those who arrogated to themselves the exclusive right of speaking and acting in their name). In order to insure the immediate and total application, but above all the sale of the French missals, that organism practiced a veritable blackmail on Catholic booksellers—or those assumed to be be so: they would be denied the sale of the so-called “French episcopate’s” official liturgical editions if they agreed to make available to the public the Latin books produced by Rome, which were supposed to provide something like a standard to regional editions that used the “vernacular” tongues in a language “adapted to modern man,” as these gentlemen would say. A single bookseller had the courage to refuse this ultimatum . . . and consequently did quite well, since there were far more priests than one might have expected who wished to know the renewed liturgy at its source. Yet for the public at large it was the CNPL’s Mass that gave the impression of what was soon to be called, with somewhat naive trust at Ecône as elsewhere, the “Missal of Paul VI.” From one edition of the liturgical books and booklets to the next, distortions, suppressions, “adaptations,” and pure and simple mistranslations were to sprout and grow, and they weren’t always involuntary or inadvertent, either. An article in Le Monde, which these “translators” and “adapters” published for their own glory with all the presumptuousness clerical fatuity alone could ever manage, made a much fuller and better statement on the topic than any criticism from the most foaming-at-the-mouth “integrists” ever could.

            But it must be admitted that Rome herself was not above criticism. In the first place, it is inconceivable that the authorities that the Pope had put in charge of checking and authorizing the translations had given their formal approval to such travesties of texts. Better not to spend too much time sorting out the motivations, or the motives, of such laxism if you don’t want to lose your last illusions—not, mind you, on the competence, but rather on the actual integrity of certain “laterales Pontificis. . . .”[16] Next, we need to face the fact that in the first edition of the Latin missal (so-called “of Paul VI”), a strange aberration (unless it was a particularly clever trick) provided all that was needed for narrow or quibbling minds to discredit the renewed liturgy . . . and for others to find in it the pretext for the most indefensible innovations.[17] On the pretense of giving a “pastoral” (?) resonance to the general rubrics introducing the new Roman missal, facile ecumenical expressions had multiplied. They covered over the Church’s traditional doctrine of the Eucharist with expressions that were more familiar to Protestants than to Catholics and therefore, with a little or even a lot of ingenuity, apt to encourage the suspicion, or even promote the introduction, of doubts regarding the Real Presence and Eucharistic Sacrifice. This (I can say this now without betraying the “Secret of the Holy Office” that was once supposed to cover all Roman dicastery discussions) had immediately been pointed out by a good number of the “experts” called to prepare this Missal.[18] They had been given the answer that this was the will of “la Santità di Nostro Signore”[19] . . .  while at the same time, it seems, the same “Santità,” when it independently expressed those very concerns, was appeased with the guarantee that the same “experts” had—unanimously!—found that these particularities in the text were necessary . . . “for modern man,” of course . . . .

            It is difficult, when you’ve provided the clubs yourself, to be surprised at finding them used against you  . . . .  That is what soon happened both in France and at Ecône, who had no trouble agreeing on that score. The simplest people would be convinced, for better and for worse, that the “Missal of Paul VI” was that weird farrago that the CNPL had secreted and marketed. And of course “progressive” and “integrist” pettifoggers (there’s never been a dearth of them in the French clergy, especially for the past century at least) went back to the original source and unfailingly lay hands on that extravagant preamble to claim that there was nothing in the river’s main stem that wasn’t present, at least in potentia, in that original source . . . .

            With all of that there was more than enough to make Ecône’s prickly fidelity turn into what increasingly looked like schism until the day when, as one may justifiably start fearing, an ever more suspicious and finicky orthodoxy slips into blatant heresy.

            After that a hastily published second edition of the Roman book could amend that specious, or rather ridiculous, introduction all it wanted. The harm was done. It wasn’t yet irreparable, but a mix of stubbornness and of simple frivolity on each side, skillfully exploited by all those who thought they had nothing to gain from an improvement in the situation, soon made it so, or something like it.

            Hence those extraordinary accusations, which were not born at Ecône but which, in its growing “state of siege,” soon found credence there and, very quickly, the loudest support too.  According to these, the “Missal of Paul VI” denatured, when it didn’t disown, the eternal Catholic faith! It was a typical product of the unfortunate “openness to the world” that the Council had imprudently disseminated; it had been proposed by so-called “experts” who were more clear-sighted than the Council Fathers, who themselves were incapable of realizing that their “pastoral council” had been manipulated into the unconscious and unwilling instrument of renunciations and abandonments they had never even suspected! . . . Once the story-making faculty has been unleashed like this, when it is kept alive by too obvious a chain of scandals that pass unseen, tolerated, or even encouraged by the very ones who increasingly dig their heels against those who, on their end of things, lose all sound judgment because they’re persuaded—not without some semblance of good reason—of being the only ones “defending the truth,” well then there is no extreme to which this now delirious faculty won’t go . . . .  Hence the deplorable or rather grotesque situation into which Archbishop Lefebvre has allowed himself and his followers to be cornered. It turns a champion of pontifical authority into a die-hard rebel and dyed-in-the-wool traditionalists into mere blind defenders of the routines that have in fact proven to be the inevitable ruin of all genuine tradition, since they harden it for themselves before giving their adversaries the best excuse for liquidating it . . . .
            Such are, in broad terms, the essential elements leading to the Lefebvre affair. The clearest among them is this: its responsibility is evenly shared between his followers and their opponents.

            Yet one may believe that if, in France and in Rome, cool thinking had been applied to the situation, the means were available if not to reduce it to naught at least easily to prevent it from taking on the proportions it has already reached, not to mention the proportions it threatens to reach in the near future. But this may be the appropriate moment to remember Bossuet’s statement: “Heaven mocks the prayers one says to avert evils whose causes one clings to . . . .” Let us therefore try to make a more detailed analysis of the reasons for the already visible acceleration and extension of a phenomenon that just yesterday could seem so localized and doomed to failure.


            It was probably inevitable that the Council’s decisions and, to a greater extent yet, its orientations should sooner or later make waves and elicit reactions among Catholics who were simply routine driven or decidedly conservative. One can, however, doubt whether they would have continued and spread more and more widely as we are now witnessing so many years after the Council unless what may be called the “After-Council” had had something to do with it. It has been said again and again that Lefebvre and his followers have taken their positions and cling to them simply because they are former adherents of the “Action française”, die-hards of French Algeria, etc., and that they mistake retrograde politics for the survival of authentic Christianity. There may be some truth to that, at least as far as concerns the movement’s leaders and a certain (but in truth quite circumscribed) proportion of their followers. But those who make this criticism are most often in no position to denounce such compromises and confusions in others. They themselves, when they’re not more or less totally confusing their Christianity with unreflective leftism or screwball “Maoism,” aren’t they awaiting the advent of the Kingdom of God, of heaven on earth, of the victory of Marxism-Leninism, regarding which every one but them soon will realize that it has never produced, nor ever will produce, anything besides Stalinist purges, concentration camps, and the fierce oppression of all freedom starting with that of the most impoverished “workers”?

            But clearly this is not where Archbishop Lefebvre himself or even the most mediocre of his henchmen see or place their core demands, even if they are not entirely free from that sort of hang-up. The great majority of those who listen to them, who respond to their fund drives, and who are evidently more and more numerous to place their hope for the faith and the Church in them, are all the more inclined to go to them because they believe that this is the way, and the only way, to preserve for themselves and for their children the Christian faith pure and simple, the Gospel’s moral and religious ideals, and sacraments that have not been voided of their content. . . .

            Also keep in mind that besides a small handful of fanatics, it isn’t just simpletons bereft of critical judgment who come to this. And even if it were so, that would be, or should be, a matter of concern for those who keep repeating that the Church must give herself to the poorest of the poor in all aspects. What is getting to be worrisome, especially over the last year, is seeing unquestionably “adult,” “well-formed,” “responsible” (to use fashionable clerical language) Christians, whom just yesterday no one would have suspected of being able to fall into such aberrations or what must be termed puerile illogic, get to the point—albeit moaning and groaning—of saying what I heard someone say to one of the greatest French scholars, to one of the highest magistrates in our country, to famous professors of our great universities, not to mention members of the Academy Française (not all of whom deserve to appear in L’Habit Vert)[20]: “Besides Lefebvre, what bishop in our country still dares to stick out his neck for the Catholic faith?” . . . .

            Let’s say it plainly: a great many French Christians, including some of the best, still expected the bishops’ meeting in Lourdes in autumn of 1976 finally to put a halt to all those things which, especially in our country, make it too easy for Archbishop Lefebvre to present himself as the only “defender of the faith.” Instead of that, what came out of it? What one of the more lucid and courageous of our bishops, and certainly not one of the most conservative ones, described to me as “a motion that is neither fish nor fowl, worthy of the good old Radical Socialist congresses!” . . . .

            There are grounds to fear that this failure may have brought us beyond the point of no return. What seems to confirm this is that it is clearer every day that for those bishops who most compromised themselves with those who all too easily provide justifications to the “Lefebvrists” (and these are bishops who are not all blind, far from it), the matter seems suddenly to have become so to speak obvious. Perhaps the incidents at Saint-Nicolas-du-Chardonnet caused this revelation.[21] One might perhaps wonder whether they weren’t one of its first effects. It seems as though these prelates have suddenly felt the ground give way under their feet. And so, once again, what one would like to be more than sheer natural survival instinct seems to have convinced them that just as they had compromised themselves on a side where the shipwreck is now obvious, they had to hasten to make another quick and easy about-face.

            It was perhaps no chance accident that the very bishop who had the most thoroughly endorsed the least defensible theses on the marriage of priests, on temporary priesthood, on the possibility for all Christians to celebrate the Eucharist without being ordained, etc., etc. . .,  had also been the first bishop to entrust a pastoral post to a priest from Ecône. . . . It is even less of an accident in the case of another bishop who, less than a year ago, was composing for the prelate whose auxiliary he is a fanciful Eucharistic prayer for priestly ordinations, and had a sheet distributed to the faithful in attendance that invited “all”, with no further precision, to join the newly ordained priests in reciting with them and those ordaining them the words of Eucharistic consecration. The same man, today, with pomp and maximum publicity, fitted out with miter and crook and above all with the indispensable violet skullcap, celebrates Mass “all in Latin” with deacon and sub-deacon  . . . and the whole shebang! I’d feel bad multiplying this kind of example, it would be too easy, and there are more surprising ones yet! But should we be surprised? A cardinal, a few years before his tragic death, the exact circumstances of which will probably not be known for a long time to come (but regarding which you can be sure, even if you do not feel any particular sympathy for him, that it is not his reputation they will stain)[22] had an idea that was perhaps more generous than realistic. He invited for supper, along with one of his most eminent confreres in the French episcopate,[23] some of our country’s theologians as well as one from a neighboring country, at the time all members of the International Theological Commission that the synod of bishops had asked the Pope to create.[24] What was the reason for this meeting? To have a calm discussion, without any public brouhaha, on the doctrinal issues raised by the French episcopate’s “pastoral” policies. One of the two “princes of the Church,” who still “subsists”—you have to give him that—did not for a single moment attempt to beat about the bush before this learned assembly. I can’t assure you that I am quoting his words verbatim after the time that has elapsed, since no one was taking notes, but I can guarantee the meaning (and the style!): “True,” he substantially said, “after the Council we bishops did bank on the ‘progressives.’ Perhaps we were wrong after all! Well then, in that case we’ll fall back on the ‘integrists’! . . . ”

            The most impressive, by his age and venerable personality, of the sages to whom these words had been addressed felt obliged to answer:[25] “But, Your Eminence, isn’t the issue a matter of going back to the purest sources of authentic Christianity, in order to express it, and in practice to translate it, in such a way that it can be fully meaningful to our contemporaries?” “Oh!” the Eminence answered simply, “those are intellectuals’ views! . . .”

            You’ll have no trouble believing me when I add that after that the rest of the evening was devoted to the weather, and then everyone bid each other a fond farewel but without much desire on either side, it would seem, ever to renew this experience . . . .

            “Now look,” some of my readers will say who do not belong to the clerical (or ecclesial, if you prefer) world, “why is it that, as soon at the tourniquet that used to keep them from speaking out is the tiniest bit loosed, there is such a rage among so many members of the clergy to liquidate everything that seemed essential to the faith and the life they used to profess? And why is there among those who apparently were their leaders this apparent total inability to believe that there is any other realistic policy besides pure and simple, though precarious, opportunism as soon as they are no longer remote-controlled from “Rome,” whatever you put behind that prestigious name?”

            Although my sympathies for the passably ambiguous character Alfred Loisy are no more than quite measured, one may reckon that he hit the nail on head on this last point: the habitual practice of the modern Catholic episcopate, particularly in France, has never been to educate, but to simply apply the brakes as much as possible. And, I would add, when the brakes seem to have given out, what else could one possibly do besides letting go of what one hadn’t been able to prevent, and which of course one feels unable to put a stop to anymore?

            One of the theologians who had participated in the meeting I just mentioned recently said to one of the best bishops in France for his culture, for the solidity of his faith, for his clear-sightedness and for his kindness: “Now why don’t you react otherwise than in private conversations like what we are having right now against a situation that is obviously getting worse every day?” The bishop answered: “What can I say? I wasn’t chosen because they thought they might find a prophet in me, but just an administrator . . . .’
            This compels us to acknowledge that the French bishops’ strange atony (or catatonia, as psychiatrists would say!) these days, in the face of a situation which alone explains how such an aberration as “Lefebvrism” could be born and develop, itself stems from a set of circumstances of which they are the front-line victims rather than being those responsible for them . . . Not that this absolves them of all blame, to be sure, for they weren’t put their positions against their will, were they? . . .
            What we have here is the ultimate result (or penultimate, since we neither know nor fully measure yet where further about-faces, as predictable as they are, may soon lead us) of a deliberate policy that was pursued with a perseverance matched only by the blindness that had inspired it. Alas! “Rome,” if I may take up that term, is primarily responsible for this policy, although it received only too much encouragement in our own country. Indeed, although Joseph de Maistre was from Savoie at a time when it was not yet in France, such men as Bonald and Lammenais were beyond doubt Frenchmen of France, and how![26]

            This is what remains to be clarified if we really wish to exorcise the damage done and, therefore, go back to its root cause.


            This excellent Archbishop Lefebvre gave the name of “Saint Pius X” to his seminary and to the pious association on which it depends. Confronted by such innocence one finds oneself repeating the famous words “O Sancta simplicitas!”[27] I used to be good friends with one of the most distinguished (though under a yokel’s exterior) Church historians—I even succeeded to him in his chair—and who used to say, inter pocula of course:[28] “Pius X took advantage of the unhoped-for opportunity provided by the separation of Church and State[29] to reduce the French clergy to a state of impoverishment, and of the opportunity provided by Modernism to condemn it to ignorance, and of both to have imbeciles govern it! All of this because he feared, with what verged on obsession, that Gallicanism might return! Some day, which is perhaps not far off, we’ll see how much this will cost us, and then Rome will be the first to kick itself for it!” . . . This of course was only a quip. But a French bishop to whom no one would apply that quip’s last and harshest part, and who knew it first-hand just as I did, recently told me: “That old fox was sharper than he looked, and he put his big fat finger right on the sore spot! . . .”[30]

            It is well known that Gallicanism, which had been traditional in France until the end of the Ancien Régime, condemned itself to death when it produced the Civil Constitution of the Clergy as a kind of swansong . . . .[31] Mind you, it didn’t only contain abominations, whatever the nineteenth century Ultramontanist historians may have said. For instance, if the prescription that the bishop should also be the cathedral’s pastor and effectively fulfill that function had ever been implemented, it might have kept us from reaching the point where we are today! Whatever the case may be in this instance as in a few others, the reaction was inevitable, and there arose an overcompensating exaltation of pontifical sovereignty. Once again, the French were its principle artisans—although the most “intransigent” of them all, Lamennais, was not long getting hit by its first and hardest aftershocks.[32] One may think, along with Newman, that under such conditions it was a signal proof of Providence guiding the Church that the 1870 definition of Papal infallibility was nevertheless set in such relatively prudent and moderate terms. But after that a wave of unthinking enthusiasm, which was nowhere as swollen as it was in France, lifted up to the heavens the Popes’ authority with such overdone toadyism that even such solid heads as those of Leo XIII or Pius XI, to mention only them, had some excuse for appearing a little intoxicated by it. As the great liberal historian Lord Acton used to say: “All power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” After all that, the Holy Ghost must truly have “assisted”, as we say, the Popes in a very special way for them not to have completely yielded to the vertigo that had turned the divinized Caesars into such pitiful idols. But, in France especially, we have only ourselves to blame if an all too human prudence led the popes to such perhaps exaggerated precautions for such a fickle people, which had raised them to the Capitol after thinking that it had permanently dethroned them, not to run the risk at its next turnabout of flinging them off the Tarpeian rock . . .[33]  In any event, the results are there for all to see.

            At the end of the day, our bishops, who endlessly whine about Archbishop Lefebvre and his “Lefebvrists,” do just what is needed to insure his recruitment and prestige . . . simply by doing nothing at all of what the good People of God expects of its bishops. And they do nothing of the sort because they were formed (?) and chosen for precisely that purpose . . . .

            Rome took fright of ‘freedom from’ with a fear sharpened and panicked by the authors of An Essay on Indifference and other productions of the same cloth, as well as by the palinodes that followed them.[34] But in exact opposition to what they had, in such a French way, been the first to rouse it against, and of which they were the first to suffer the backlash, it isn’t by using the stick and the candlesnuffer that one contains outbursts of ‘freedom from’—it is by encouraging ‘freedom for.’

            But for that one mustn’t be afraid of the truth, especially of the truth whose guardian one is supposed to be. No one ever “possesses” the truth, above all the truth of the Gospel, if any. On the contrary, one has to allow himself to be possessed by it. Which demands hard, unceasing work. Rather than discouraging it, one has to create favorable circumstances for it. But at Rome, to the applause of nitwits in France and elsewhere, they started preferring to apply the brakes rather than to educate (it’s so much easier! . . . but safer? Alas!). When the brakes are all that still works in an organism that one has more or less managed to reduce to a mere machine, life stops. When one realizes that he wishes to start it up again, it’s no surprise if the brakes go out. But once all the guideposts have been replaced with fences, how can one be surprised that the rush of restored life is no more that an ebb and flow of sterile contradictions?


[1] Original: Louis Bouyer, “L’Église catholique en crise,” Commentaire 1 (Spring 1978) :  17-26. This copyrighted translation is published by arrangement with the review Commentaire.
[2] Cardinal François Marty (1904-1994) was Archbishop of Paris 1968-1981, made cardinal in 1969, and president of the Conference of French Bishops 1969-1975.
[3] The Jeunesse ouvrière catholique (or chrétienne), in English “Young Christian Workers,” was founded by Belgian Fr. Joseph Cardijn in the years after World War I to reach out to working class youth within the framework of the labor encyclicals of Leo XIII (Rerum Novarum, 1891) and Pius XI (Quadragesimo anno, 1931).
[4] Renowned socialist and patriotic poet and essayist Charles Pierre Péguy (1873-1914) converted to Catholicism in 1908.
[5] Action Française was a pre-World War II monarchist movement that also promoted Catholicism as an integral component of French culture (although its leader, Charles Maurras, was not a believer himself).
[6] The year 1848 saw revolutions in several European countries and is sometimes termed “The Springtime of the Peoples” or “The Year of Revolutions.” The French revolution of 1848 overthrew King Louis-Philippe of the Orleans dynasty, established National Workshops in an attempt to end unemployment, and ultimately inaugurated the Second Republic with Napoleon III as its first president.
[7] Temps Présents, a weekly that succeeded to Dominican-run Les Sept , was a conservative Catholic journal. It published articles by such writers as Jacques Maritain, François Mauriac, and others, and was actively supported by Charles de Gaulle, whom it hailed as the new Under-Secretary of War in 1940. It was published  1934-1940 and 1944-1947.
[8] Women who work in the streets replacing the straw seat of chairs.
[9] Colonel Ramollot is the fictional representative of brash but dim military sorts, not unlike Major General Stanley in Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance.
[10] In the Actonian sense of the term.
[11] This theologian is Fr. Michel Louis Guérard des Lauriers, OP (1898-1988). He was ordained a Dominican priest in 1931 and obtained a PhD in mathematics in 1940. He was on the faculty of the Lateran and Angelicum universities under Pius XII, who consulted him on the doctrine of the Assumption of Mary and briefly relied on him as a confessor. He was among the theology professors whom Paul VI asked to resign in1970; he then joined Archbishop Lefebvre’s seminary at Ecône. He taught there until 1977, when Archbishop Lefebvre asked him to leave on account of his notion that Paul VI was only materially, but not formally, the pope (the “Cassiciacum” or “sedeprivationist” thesis).
[12] Bouyer here alludes to Cardinals Paul-Émile Léger  (1904-1991), Archbishop of Montreal 1950-1968, who had replaced his predecessor after denouncing him for his alleged Modernism, and Leo Jozef Suenens (1904-1996), Archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels 1961-1979, who was president of the Legion of Mary in his country. Both became enthusiastic reformers at Vatican II.
[13] “The world,” French Le Monde, is the name of the French equivalent of the Washington Post.
[14] Ottaviani
[15] The Sulpicians.
[16] This Latin term is a mediaeval designation for an Apostolic Legate.  Judging by Bouyer’s Memoirs, this must refer to Bugnini, at the time of this article’s publication recently named Apostolic Pro-Nuncio to Iran.
[17] Bouyer here refers to the first version of the General Instruction on the Roman Missal, from which the doctrine of the Eucharistic sacrifice was absent. This aspect of the first GIRM had been the object of criticism in Cardinals Ottaviani and Bacci, Short Critical Study on the New Order of Mass on 5 June 1969.
[18] Louis Bouyer was among those experts in his capacity as member of the Consilium.
[19] The Italian version of “His Holiness.” Bouyer here refers to the stratagems that the Italian Vincentian Annibale Bugnini used to deceive Paul VI and the Consilium into approving his own (or his own extra-curial superiors’) ideas for reform; see Louis Bouyer Mémoires (Paris: Cerf, 2014), 200-201.
[20] L’Habit vert is a 1937 film by Roger Richebé in which the chairman of the Institut de France finds his wife in the company of her lover. The latter, to extricate himself from this awkward situation, claims to have come to ask for support for his candidacy at the same institute. Taken in, the husband promotes the his wife’s lover so efficiently that he ends up at the Académie Française, whose members wear the green uniform that lent its name to the film’s title. The point of Bouyer’s allusion is that not everyone in that institution joined it on such merits.
[21] A group of traditionalists, with Msgr Doucaud-Bourget at the helm, took over this church from the diocese of Paris in 1977. Since then, it has been turned over to the Society of Saint Pius X. At the time it made the papers; that it has remained in the hands of Traditionalists to this day reveals their determination in the face of such prelates as François Marty (see n. 2 above).
[22]  This would be Jean Daniélou (1905-1974), made cardinal in 1969. He died on the front step of a former prostitute for whose husband he had come to give bail money. The anti-clerical press, as well as those in the Church who resented him, made hay of these circumstances.
[23] Could this be François Marty, Cardinal Archbishop of Paris?
[24] A list of the members of the International Theological Commission’s first “Quinquennium” will be found at (consulted 13 January 2015). Was the theologian of “a neighboring country” Joseph Ratzinger? Bouyer and he had been friends during and after the Council…
[25] This may be Henri de Lubac (1896 -1991), one of the founders of the Patristic series Sources Chrétiennes, the very title of which inspired the term Ressourcement. He had been Daniélou’s professor in Lyon before World War II and was a member of the International Theological Commission along with Louis Bouyer 1969-1974, when this event took place.
[26]  Joseph de Maistre, Louis de Bonald, and  Félicité-Robert de Lamennais were writers who promoted the Pope’s prerogatives against Gallicanism.
[27]  O sancta simplicitas (“O holy simplicity”) are the words John Hus allegedly said from the stake about the simple peasant he saw adding a faggot to the fire.
[28] This Church historian was most likely Fr. Guy de Broglie, SJ, whom Bouyer replaced (originally only for a semester a year) at the Institut Catholique de Paris in 1947. Inter pocula is the Latin expression meaning “over drinks.”
[29] This law, passed in December of 1905, ended both State subsidies to the Catholic Church and the State’s privilege of naming bishops.
[30] Bouyer addresses the problem of episcopal nominations between Vatican I and Vatican II in The Church of God, Body of Christ, and Temple of the Spirit, Charles Underhill Quinn trans. (Chicago: M. Mayer, 1982), 505.
[31] The 12 July 1790 “Constitution civile du clergé” intended to subordinate the Church to the State.
[32] Lamennais had defended separation of Church and State and the uprising of the Polish people in his journal L’Avenir. Pope Gregory XVI, who had condemned the Polish uprising against what he termed “the authorities established by God” in the encyclical Cum Primum (9 June 1832), more specifically aimed at L’Avenir in the encyclical Mirari Vos against the separation of Church and State and freedom of the press later that year (15 August 1832).
[33] The Capitol is the most prominent hill in the center of old Rome; one of its sides is a cliff, the Tarpeian rock, off which certain criminals were hurled to their death as capital punishment.
[34] Lammenais’s Essay on Indifference in Matters of Religion (1817) attacked the notion of a non-denominational State in favor of the official endorsement of Catholicism. The term “palinodes” refers to Lamennais’s profound change of mind that led to his condemnation by the Pope and, eventually, to his apostasy. This trajectory provides a template for the evolution of the Church in France during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries: from exaggerated Ultramontanism in the nineteenth century to functional apostasy in the 1970s.