The issue of the Lefebvre Schism

Wlodzimierz Redzioch talked to Cardinal Georges Cottier.

Cardinal Georges Cottier, the former theologian to John Paul II’s papal house, comments on the whole affair caused by the decision of Benedict XVI to lift the excommunication on the four traditionalist bishops.

Wlodzimierz Redzioch: – Your Eminence, let us begin with history. How did the schism of the traditionalists start?

Cardinal Georges Cottier, OP: – The schism of Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre occurred after Vatican Council II, during the pontificate of Paul VI. Archbishop Lefebvre began by founding a seminary in Ecône in Switzerland. At first, the bishops of Fribourg and Sion supported his initiative because they thought that the traditional values, which were disappearing in the turbulent post-conciliar period, could be preserved in this way. Unfortunately, with time it occurred that he did not only want to preserve the tradition but he also wanted to reject Vatican Council II. Archbishop Lefebvre, bishop emeritus of Dakar in Africa, who participated in the sessions of the Council, questioned its teaching in many fields, such as religious freedom, ecumenism, liturgy and then inter-religious dialogue. Numerous believers followed him to protest against the misuse of the liturgy that happened in those days. The Society of St Pius X that Archbishop Lefebvre founded and the traditionalist movement developed in many countries, especially in France, in the environment of the extreme right-wing (the right-wing Action Française always referred to religious values). There were many seminarians in Ecône and consequently, Archbishop Lefebvre began ordaining priests. Then he made another step – he consecrated four bishops.

– Let us add that it was in 1988, and the bishops were: Bernard Fellay, Bernard Tissier de Mallerais, Richard Williamson and Alfonso de Galarreta…

– The problem is that in the Catholic Church bishops are appointed by the pope and they cannot be consecrated without his mandate (in the Catholic Eastern Churches bishops are elected by the synod but they always are approved by the Holy Father). This illegal, although valid, consecration of the bishops incurred the excommunication called ‘latae sententiae’.

– What does the excommunication ‘latae sententiae’ mean?

– The excommunication ‘latae sententiae’ means that every believer is automatically excommunicated, after having committed a serious offence. In the concrete case of the Society of St Pius X it was canon 1382 of the Code of Canon Law, i.e. consecration of a bishop without the Pope’s mandate. The excommunication concerned both the bishop that made the consecration and the consecrated bishops.

– Bishop Bernard Fellay, the present superior of the Society of St Pius X, said that he would ordain new priests. Will these ordinations be valid?

– It would be valid ordinations, although illegal. However, I am astonished that Bishop Fellay announced the ordination of new priests after the excommunication had been lifted.

– John Paul II suffered because of the schism and did his best to lift it…

– Schism is a painful hurt for the Church. When we speak so much about ecumenism, about the will to bring about the unity of all Christians, one cannot tolerate a new schism. That’s why, in 1988 John Paul II called into being the Vatican Commission ‘Ecclesia Dei’ that aimed at maintaining contacts with the Society of St Pius X to end the schism and maintaining contacts with those who left the Society to remain united with the Pope. The commission was presided over by the Columbian Cardinal Darío Castrillón Hoyos, retired Prefect of the Congregation for the Clergy.

– The excommunicated bishops themselves asked the Pope to lift the excommunication, stressing that they suffered because of their situations and wanted to have full unity with the Church. Was the remission of the excommunication an answer of the Holy Father to their requests?

– During the talks those bishops have always declared to be Catholics and that they suffered because of the excommunication. At the same time they expressed their desire to preserve the old liturgy. That’s why Benedict XVI made the first step: he issued motu proprio ‘Summorum Pontificum’, widening the possibilities that had already existed, to celebrate the Eucharist and sacraments in the old rite (the possibility to use the Missal of St Pius V, reformed by Blessed John XXIII in 1962). The remission of the excommunication does not mean that these four bishops have been fully incorporated into the structures of the Catholic Church – they are suspended ‘a divinis’, but the obstacle for further discussions has been removed. The main problem is the negation of the validity of Vatican Council II. Full Catholic communion presumes recognition of this Council that is so important to the Church.

– It means that the conflicting issue in the contacts with the Society of St Pius X is the interpretation of Vatican Council II. But this issue does not only concern the followers of Lefebvre. It is also a topic of discussion in the Catholic Church. Some Catholics claim that the Council meant breaking with the past and speak about ‘hermeneutic of discontinuity’ (hermeneutics is explaining and interpreting the old written sources, especially the Holy Scriptures). Whereas Benedict XVI proclaims hermeneutic of reform and continuity. In his important speech to the Roman Curia on 22 December 2005 the Pope quoted John XXIII who unanimously defined the right counciliar hermeneutic claiming that ‘the Council wishes to transmit the doctrine, pure and integral, without any attenuation or distortion… It is necessary that "adherence to all the teaching of the Church in its entirety and preciseness..." be presented in "faithful and perfect conformity to the authentic doctrine, which, however, should be studied and expounded through the methods of research and through the literary forms of modern thought. The substance of the ancient doctrine of the deposit of faith is one thing, and the way in which it is presented is another...". Your Eminence, don’t’ you think that as a matter of fact, the open hostility towards the followers of Lefebvre shown by some Catholic environments that are defined as progressive or democratic is evoked by certain dislike for the Pope proclaiming ‘hermeneutic of reform and continuity’?

– After Vatican Council II we dealt with two kinds of misuse: conservatist and progressive. But no ‘progressive’ Church was founded.

– It is true that no ‘progressive’ Church was founded, perhaps the only reason being that where the bishops and priests interpreted Vaticanum II in a radically ‘progressive’ way, the Church almost stopped to exist, for example in Holland, Belgium or some regions of France.

- The Catholics called progressive were mainly imprudent theologians and bishops who spoke only in their own names. The Magisterium of the Church did not remain silent in the cases of those misuses. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith acknowledged many books and ideas of those ‘progressive’ Catholics as contrary to the Catholic doctrine.
Coming back to the theme of hermeneutic I would like to add that the Magisterium of the last great popes contained the authentic interpretation of the Council. Paul VI finished the counciliar works and did a lot to introduce the counciliar teachings: he called into being new institutions, issued many documents and during his Wednesday audiences he proclaimed the authentic hermeneutic of the Council. John Paul II always stressed that his task was to realise the authentic teaching of Vaticanum II. The same applies to Benedict XVI. You mentioned his wonderful and important speech to the Roman Curia in 2005, which concerned the right interpretation of the Council. It contains the criticism of all those who claimed that the history of the Church could be divided into the pre-counciliar and post-counciliar periods because the Council broke with the past. This is nonsense. Suffice to mention that in the counciliar documents the most quoted pope is Pius XII, acknowledged as the ‘pre-counciliar’ pope! If it had been not for Pius XII the Council would have not been summoned. This is one evidence for its continuity. On the other hand, the Magisterium must give answers to the problems of each epoch (for instance, today a big problem is the relationships between the Church and the state in all countries in the world) and to new threats for the Church but we mean pastoral aspects, which Benedict XVI explained very well. Unfortunately, after the Council many bishops did not expect such violent reactions and could not properly react to the misuses. The big post-counciliar crisis was a surprise although history should have taught us that after each council there were turbulences.

– Every schism in the Church is a big drama because the Body of Christ is divided. And Christ commanded us to be one. Shouldn’t the Pope’s attempt to end the last schism of our times have been supported enthusiastically by all Catholics?

– The problem of the Lefebvre schism is a contemporary event and that’s why people do not see it as a historical event but a present one that concerns them directly, often in an emotional way. I could see it in the canton of Valais in my Switzerland where Archbishop Lefebvre divided families. When some family member follows Lefebvre there are often dramatic discussions and tensions in case of a wedding or funeral. The paradox is that it is easier for us to speak to Protestants who are separated from the Catholic Church, but sometimes they long for unity than to speak to the aggressive and militant traditionalists (in Paris they took one church by force). But their attitude does not change the fact that they are our brothers in faith. Therefore, we must support the Holy Father in his brave and praiseworthy attempts to end the schism. History teaches us that if a schism lasts too long it cannot be reversed – the Lefebvre movement could have become a kind of sect. That’s why one should act without any delay.

– Let us talk about the reactions to the remission of the excommunication outside the Church. Is it not amazing that the liberal circles, theoretically hostile to any limitations of personal freedom and every form of censorship and excommunication, criticised very much this gesture of mercy towards the traditionalists made by the Pope, demanding some censorship?

– You can see that when the liberals are bias they become anti-liberals.

– The negationalist theses of Bishop Williamson, one of the four bishops of the Society of St Pius X, contributed to the complete perversion of the meaning of the remission of the excommunication. Some Jewish circles reacted to the papal decision with extraordinary hostility as if they did not differentiate between the two separate aspects of the problem: the purely ecclesiastical aspect (remission of the excommunication because of the illegal consecration of bishops) and worthy of condemnation but private opinions of one of the bishops. Was this a result of some complete misunderstanding of the ecclesiastical matters or rather an ordinary lack of good will?

– I think that it was some misunderstanding because people do not know what it means ‘to lift excommunication’. Even many Catholics were convinced that after the excommunication had been lifted the followers of Lefebvre would have returned to the Catholic Church. The Church has many technical terms that should be explained better to people. Just as you cannot understand football if you do not know what ‘offside’, ‘a penalty kick’ or other terms mean, you cannot understand the actions of the Church if you do not know her terminology. This ignorance of the ecclesiastical matters led to serious misunderstandings. In a word, we should have explained all matters from the very beginning. However, I am personally concerned about the fact that the announcement of the remission of the excommunication coincided with the publicising of the declaration of Bishop Williamson made several weeks earlier, about which the Vatican had not known.

– In the Vatican you did not know about the declarations of Bishop Williamson but someone must have known them and publicised them at the proper moment, i.e. when the excommunication was officially lifted…

– We may only pose some hypotheses but one thing is certain, the Church has always been criticised and smeared. Jesus said, ‘if they persecuted me, they will persecute you too’; that’s why we should not be much astonished at what has happened. The evil one is the father of lie. I have many Jewish friends and we must admit that the Church has made many positive steps in her dialogue with the Jews but their present generation is very much marked by the tragedy of the Holocaust. In Hitler’s plans the annihilation of the Jewish nation was to precede the destruction of the Church. Negating all of these matters bothers both the Jews and the Christian conscience.

– As the result of Bishop Williamson’s affair there were opinions in the Jewish world demanding to break all contacts with the Catholic Church. There are Jews who tell us, ‘You need us but we do not need you’, reminding us that Christians cannot renounce the Jewish roots of their faith. Looking at the past you can have the impression that some Jewish environments treat the dialogue with Catholics in an instrumental way to achieve their concrete aims, which have little to do with faith. Let us remember that in the past the Catholic-Jewish meetings were to serve, among other things, to incline the Holy See to acknowledge the state of Israel and then enter into diplomatic relationships with Israel, to expel the Carmelite Sisters and remove the crosses from the edges of the concentration camp in Auschwitz, constantly reminding us of the necessity to fight against anti-Semitism. How should we carry out the dialogue then? I am asking this question because you are a member of the pontifical Commission for Religious Relations with Judaism.

– It is not good to reduce dialogue to discussing current problems. The Commission conducts religious dialogue. We have contacts with the Chief Rabbinate of Israel and we talk about religious topics, discuss common researches. The sentence, ‘you need us but we do not need you’ is not true. The Church received the Old Testament but the Catholic and Protestant reading of the Bible differs from the reading of the rabbis and the tradition of the Talmud. Our bond is not of only historical character since Jesus was a Jew and the Church originated in this environment. Jesus was Israel’s Messiah and I think that true dialogue must be based on what St Paul writes in his Letter to the Romans, chapters 9-11. The fact that many Jews do not accept Jesus is a theological problem. The hope of St Paul that there will be a day of reconciliation is also the hope of the Church. The Church is not a negation of the nation of the first covenant with which we have deep bonds. John Paul II spoke of ‘our beloved brothers.’ The problem is that the Jews also, like traditionally Christian societies, have become increasingly secularised and stopped believing that the holy scriptures contain the Word of God. When you lack faith we have to do with the politicisation of dialogue. Whereas the dialogue with believing Jews is always fruitful, even if there are some tensions, because seeking the will of God connects us.

– Anna Foa, the Italian historian and grand daughter of the Rabbi of Turin, claims in her latest book that the new Jewish identity is not longer connected with faith but with two paradigms: Shoah and the state of Israel [paradigm is an accepted way of seeing the reality, a pattern]…

– It is very sad because it testifies that the Jewish society becomes laicised, too. That’s why the Jews seek their identity outside the Bible. They seek it, as the French intellectual Alain Besançon claims, in ‘the religion of Shoah.’ The creation of the state of Israel becomes an epoch-making fact with which they identify themselves. If there is no transcendent dimension what matters is history and politics.

– Gary L. Krupp, a Jews and President of the Foundation Pave the Way with its headquarters in New York aiming at spreading tolerance and understanding between religions by cultural and intellectual exchange, claims that the world mass media publicised the matter of the Lefebvre bishops as sensational news, in an incomplete way, thus deepening the controversies and negative reactions of people. Was it not yet another case when the social communications showed their attitudes of prejudice or hostility towards the Catholic Church (Prof. Jenkins calls anti-Christianity ‘the last tolerated prejudice’ in the contemporary world)?

– It is obvious that someone publicised this very delicate matter, which is negating Shoah, to strike the Church and evoke anti-Catholic feelings. Of course, the mass media assume the biggest responsibility for that. To put the headline, ‘Pope lifts excommunication on bishop that negates Holocaust’ on the front page is a case of misuse. It is not information but manipulation! If Benedict XVI had known that the bishop was a negationist, he would not have lifted the excommunication.

The interview was made at the beginning of March 2009, before the letter of Benedict XVI to the Bishops of the Catholic Church concerning the remission of the excommunication of the four Bishops consecrated by Archbishop Lefebvre, which was published on 12 March 2009.

"Niedziela" 13/2009

Editor: Tygodnik Katolicki "Niedziela", ul. 3 Maja 12, 42-200 Czestochowa, Polska
Editor-in-chief: Fr Jaroslaw Grabowski • E-mail: