Did the Pope heal, or deepen, the Lefebvrist schism?
By George Weigel | Newsweek Web Exclusive
Jan 26, 2009
What do the Cardinal Richelieu and King Louis XVI, the Bastille and the Reign of Terror, the Bourbons and Robespierre, the revolutionary depredations in the Vendée, the Dreyfus Affair, the anti-clericalism of the French Third Republic, and the World War II Vichy regime have to do with the schismatic movement that the late Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre led out of the Roman Catholic Church in 1988—a movement that Pope Benedict XVI is now trying to move toward reconciliation by lifting the excommunications of its four illegally ordained bishops on Jan. 21?
In a word: everything.
There are, of course, many different kinds of people in the Lefebvrist movement; the great majority of them are men and women who find the older forms of Catholic piety—especially the Latin Mass celebrated in the Tridentine form—more spiritually beneficial than the reformed liturgy that followed the Vatican Council II (1962-1965). And it is also true that Archbishop Lefebvre, one of the leaders of the anti-reformist faction at Vatican Council II, was very unhappy with what was done to the Church's liturgy after the council.
But Lefebvre was also a man formed by the bitter hatreds that defined the battle lines in French society and culture from the French Revolution to the Vichy regime. Thus his deepest animosities at the council were reserved for another of Vatican Council II's reforms: the council's declaration that "the human person has a right to religious freedom," which implied that coercive state power ought not be put behind the truth-claims of the Catholic Church or any other religious body. This, to Lefebvre, bordered on heresy [to be fair to the Archbishop, the Weltanschauung of the council documents is to say the least difficult to reconcile with that of the Church prior to the council. For Vatican II has since been viewed—by all factions within the Church as well as those without her—as an astonishing volte-face with respect to the Church’s approach to the secular world. Did not our present Holy Father once describe Gaudium et Spes as a “counter-syllabus”, in that its orientation ran totally contrary to Pius IX’s syllabus errorum of 1864? Surely the Archbishop is to be commended, not condemned, for questioning the wisdom of embracing the world at precisely the time that the world was energetically casting out what little remained of Christendom in its foundations?]. For it cast into serious question (indeed, for all practical purposes it rejected) the altar-and-throne arrangements Lefebvre believed ought to prevail—as they had in France before being overthrown in 1789, with what Lefebvre regarded as disastrous consequences for both church and society [in other words the Church, through Dignitatis Humanae and Gaudium et Spes had accommodated herself to modernity. This would not have been a problem were ‘modernity’ founded upon the Christian religion, but it is not, for it bases itself philosophically upon secularism, which latter can provide no faith productive unto eternal life, nor any code of morals for human behaviour which is not subject to alteration upon a whim. The social normalisation of aberrations such as homosexual partnerships and abortion are the logical consequences of modernity. In the political sphere, both Nazism and Communism are modernity’s children. She may since have disowned them, but she bore them nonetheless, and who knows what future horrors she will spring upon us?].
Marcel Lefebvre's war, in other words, was not simply, or even primarily, against modern liturgy. It was against modernity, period [this is a perceptive comment, probably Weigel’s most valuable insight in the whole of his article]. For modernity, in Lefebvre's mind, necessarily involved aggressive secularism, anti-clericalism, and the persecution of the church by godless men [not just in Lefebvre’s mind, Mr. Weigel. It is a matter of the historical record]. That was the modernity he knew, or thought he knew (Lefebvre seems not to have read a fellow Frenchman's reflections on a very different kind of modernity, Alexis de Tocqueville's "Democracy in America"); [and how’s that going, eh? Look at what democracy in America has given us—Barack Obama, a holocaust of forty million unborn souls slaughtered since 1973, gay “marriage” and a host of other abominations too numerous to mention] it was certainly the modernity he loathed. And to treat with this modernity—by, for example, affirming the right of religious freedom and the institutional separation of church and state—was to treat with the devil.
The conviction that the Catholic Church had in fact entered into such a devil's bargain by preemptively surrendering to the modern world at Vatican Council II became the ideological keystone of Lefebvre's movement. And the result was dramatic: Lefebvrists came to understand themselves as the beleaguered repository of authentic Catholicism—or, as the movement is wont to put it, the Tradition (always with a capital "T"). For 10 years, Pope John Paul II tried to convince the recalcitrant Archbishop Lefebvre otherwise; he got nowhere [one is not surprised he got nowhere. How did he expect to convince Archbishop Lefebvre while engaging in highly questionable acts like the prayer meeting of religions at Assisi, and kissing the profoundly anti-Christian Qur’an? Actions speak louder than words]. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger then tried to mediate. But at the end of the day, Marcel Lefebvre hated modernity more than he loved Rome [pithy]. So in 1988, rejecting the personal pleas of John Paul II and Ratzinger (men who could hardly be accused, reasonably, of preemptive concessions to modernity) [hmm, this is a matter for debate], an aging Lefebvre ordained four bishops to carry on his work, without the requisite authorization from Rome. Those four bishops (whose orders, while illegally conferred under church law, are nonetheless valid sacraments in the church's eyes) [yes] automatically incurred excommunication by participating in a schismatic act—an act in conscious defiance of church authority that cuts one off from the full communion of the church. It is those excommunications that have now been lifted by Benedict XVI, in an effort to move the Lefebvrist movement toward reconciliation with Rome and toward the restoration of full communion [yes, because we’re not there yet].
That one of the Lefebvrist bishops, Richard Williamson, is a Holocaust denier and a promoter of the "Protocols of the Elders of Zion" has drawn considerable attention and commentary, particularly from Jewish scholars and religious leaders who have made large investments in Jewish-Catholic dialogue since Vatican Council II. Their concern is entirely understandable, although it has to be said that the lifting of Williamson's excommunication in no way constitutes a papal endorsement of Williamson's lunatic view of history [a very important point], or a retraction of John Paul II's 1998 statement deploring the Holocaust, or a revocation of Vatican Council II's teaching on the sin of anti-Semitism. At the same time, it ought to be recognized that Williamson's Holocaust denial and his embrace of a crude anti-Semitic canard like the "Protocols" is not all that surprising, given that Lefebvrist political ideology grew out of the same French fever swamps that produced the anti-Dreyfusards. (Even as it ought to be recognized that the hypersecularists of the Third French Republic hated Catholics as much as some anti-Dreyfusards hated Jews.) [I’m sure Williamson has some grasp of these matters, but he is not himself French, was not born in France, did not grow up there, and is hardly likely to share the keen penetration of these politico-religious questions the late Archbishop shows in They Have Uncrowned Him. Williamson has long engaged in fruit-and-nuttery, but his holocaust denial—at least at this present time—is more likely to proceed from a desire to forestall the reconciliation of the SSPX than from adherence to the Archbishop’s politics.]
Williamson's inanities, while deplorable and disgusting, are something of a sideshow, however [correct]. For the highest stakes in this drama hove into view when Bishop Bernard Fellay, the current head of the Lefebvrist movement, issued a Jan. 24 letter on the lifting of the excommunications to the movement's faithful. It is an astonishing document, declaring as it does that "Catholic Tradition is no longer excommunicated" and that the Lefebvrists constitute those "Catholics attached to Tradition throughout the world." [if Weigel has reported Fellay accurately here, the latter has made a sweeping statement of breathtaking arrogance, as though there were no Catholic Tradition at all outside the ranks of the SSPX]. The letter goes on to affirm "all the councils up to the Second Vatican Council about which we express some reservations." And it implies that the talks that will now commence between the Vatican and the Lefebvrists, now that the excommunications have been lifted, will focus on those "reservations." [it is perfectly legitimate for the SSPX to seek dialogue with the Holy See about their reservations. How many times must I say that it is fruitless to require of them a blanket submission to the teachings of Vatican II, when no-one seems to be able to define authoritatively what those teachings are? Who shall interpret the council for us? George Weigel?]
Responsible canon lawyers have raised questions about whether this arrogance on the part of Bishop Fellay does not cast into question his fulfillment of the canonical requirements for a lawful lifting of his excommunication. In any event, non-canonists will read his letter as Fellay's unilateral declaration of victory: the Lefebrvists have been right all along; the Holy See has finally recognized the error of its ways; the only things left to discuss are the terms of surrender. Ironically, but hardly coincidentally, the Catholic left (which has been clever enough to avoid formal schism while living in intellectual and psychological schism since Pope Paul VI's 1968 encyclical on family planning, Humanae Vitae) has welcomed Benedict XVI's canonical rescue of the Lefebvrist bishops, with numerous left-leaning Catholic dissidents now saying, in effect, "Where's my bailout?" [pithy. But to whom is Mr. Weigel here referring? How many of his “left-leaning Catholic dissidents” have, like the bishops of the SSPX, been excommunicated, or suffered any real punishment at all? The only such that Melancholicus can think of is the crack-potted handful of womynprysts who from time to time simulate the reception of sacred orders in synagogues or on riverboats. These can never be reconciled unless they retract their error and abjure their pretended “orders”. They are not in a situation even remotely comparable to that of the Lefebvrist bishops.]
Benedict XVI undoubtedly intended this lifting of excommunications as a step toward healing a wound in the church. Bishop Fellay's letter, in response to the pope's gesture, suggests that the healing has not taken place. Moreover, Fellay's letter raises the stakes for everyone, and to the highest level. For what is at issue, now, is the integrity of the Church's self-understanding, which must include the authenticity of the teaching of Vatican Council II [the teaching of the council and its continuity with sacred tradition MUST be clarified as a matter of urgency, not merely to satisfy the Lefebvrists but for the good of the whole Church. It is not sufficient to declare the teaching of Vatican II “authentic” and to leave it at that, when no two individuals can agree on what precisely that teaching is.]
Father Federico Lombardi, SJ, the pope's spokesman, emphasized to reporters on Jan. 24 that the lifting of the excommunications did not mean that "full communion" had been restored with the Lefebvrists [this is true. The four bishops, as well as all the clergy in communion with them, are still suspended a divinis, and lack the faculties required to absolve penitents and solemnize marriages]. The terms of such reconciliation are, presumably, the subject of the "talks" to which Bishop Fellay referred in his letter. Those talks should be interesting indeed. For it is not easy to see how the unity of the Catholic Church will be advanced if the Lefebvrist faction does not publicly and unambiguously affirm Vatican Council II's teaching on the nature of the church, on religious freedom, and on the sin of anti-Semitism [what, precisely, is “Vatican Council II’s teaching on the nature of the church” [sic] or, indeed, on any other matter? Mr. Weigel cannot say. Nor can Melancholicus, and nor can anyone else, save the Holy Father speaking ex cathedra. Let us not expect theological miracles from the leaders of the SSPX when the holy Catholic Church herself has not authoritatively defined what that teaching is]. Absent such an affirmation, pick-and-choose cafeteria Catholicism will be reborn on the far fringes of the Catholic right, just when it was fading into insignificance on the dwindling Catholic left, its longtime home [this closing remark is neo-catholicism at its very ripest, all the more so since it has absolutely no correspondence with the facts on the ground. It also betrays the cocksure smugness of the neo-catholic position, confident that he alone holds the key to the Catholic faith against the heretics and schismatics on either side of him, and blind to his own mediocrity. Since when does the political position of the Lefebvrists—however much one may disagree with it—contradict defined dogma? It is not sufficient for Mr. Weigel to argue that their political stance contradicts what Vatican II seems to say, for a case can be made that Vatican II itself seems to contradict the socio-political teachings of the Roman pontiffs from the age of the Enlightenment down to 1960. Let the teachings of Vatican II be clarified and defined with the precision of earlier Magisterial decrees before we begin accusing those who are not neo-catholics of “pick-and-choose cafeteria Catholicism”. Furthermore, since when is this pick-and-choose attitude “fading into insignificance” on the left? In Melancholicus’ personal experience, both in Ireland and the United States, this attitude is as robust as ever. The ranks of the left may gradually be thinning, but those who remain still cling to their cherished ideology as resolutely as when they were forty years younger, and they are plenty capable of doing severe damage to what remains of Catholicism in many countries before departing into that good night. They have not gone away simply because the last conclave elected Benedict XVI.]
Not a bad article overall, and quite perceptive in many respects, but Mr. Weigel exhibits two of the most frustrating traits commonly found in the neo-catholic mind. The first is this notion of the “authenticity of the teachings of Vatican II”, the acceptance of which all neo-catholics demand as a sine qua non—but none of them ever takes the trouble to explain to us what that means. Perhaps to them it is self-evident, but they cannot expect us to agree. We can affirm with them that Vatican II was an ecumenical council of the Catholic Church, validly convoked by lawful authority, whose documents were lawfully promulgated and which taught no formal heresy. But what, precisely, did Vatican II teach? The council defined no new doctrine binding upon the faithful. It proposed a plethora of policy changes and new orientations, to be sure, but these things are not de fide after the manner of doctrines of faith or morals. What does Vatican II require us—under pain of sin—to believe that we were not required to believe before 1965? Nothing! What does Vatican II require us—again under pain of sin—to do that we were not required to do before 1965? Again, nothing!
The second is Mr. Weigel’s notion that Archbishop Lefebvre’s hatred of modernity was somehow misplaced and that, with the importuning of John Paul II, he and his followers ought to have ‘gotten with the programme’, so to speak. On the contrary, there needs to be a debate at the highest levels of the hierarchy up to and including the Holy See about the opening of the Church towards the world set in motion by Vatican II. This will—and should—involve revisiting the council documents and at the level of the Magisterium clarifying the copious ambiguity therein. The post-1789 world is NOT something intrinsically good, from which the Church has nothing to fear. In his book They Have Uncrowned Him, the Archbishop traced the pedigree of this modernity: conceived at the Renaissance, brought to birth at the reformation, through adolescence in the age of Enlightenment to a ghastly maturity in the blood-soaked twentieth century and then seemingly embraced uncritically and with open arms by the Catholic Church at Vatican II, on her knees and seeking the world’s approval—on the world’s own terms!
Maybe it’s just me, but how any synod of bishops can get together less than twenty years after the most horrifying human carnage the world had ever seen and draft a document proclaiming in fulsome and ebullient terms the wondrous virtues of modern man truly beggars belief. And how could the Holy Father of the day really believe, after everything he had seen in his own lifetime and with his own eyes, that error would correct itself as though automatically, with no intervention from the Church or other external coercion?
Well, Nazism corrected itself, didn’t it? So... it wasn’t necessary for the Allies to resist Hitler, then?
And in the religious sphere, it has been nearly five hundred years now and we all know how Protestantism corrected itself in the meantime...