Was Archbishop Lefebvre legitimately suspended from exercising his ministry as a bishop and superior general of the SSPX?
Rome has always, at least tacitly recognized the SSPX’s legitimate continuation and the nullity of these suspensions: for example, in December 1987, Cardinal Gagnon did not hesitate to attend as a prelate the Pontifical Mass of “suspended” Archbishop Lefebvre.
November 11, 1974: An apostolic visitation is made to the Society's seminary in Econe, during which the visitors express several seriously problematic opinions (e.g., the evolution of truth and dogma).
November 21, 1974: Archbishop Lefebvre writes his Declaration declaring his adherence to Eternal Rome and rejecting the "the Rome of neo-Modernist and neo-Protestant tendencies"*.
February 13-March 3, 1975: The archbishop meets with an improvised commission of three cardinals, ostensibly to discuss the apostolic visitation. This meeting takes a hostile turn, and the cardinals condemn his Declaration as “unacceptable on all points.” Being unaware of the hostility towards his "Declaration" prior to this meeting, he does not have a lawyer present. Though promised, Lefebvre never receives a copy of the recorded meetings.
May 6, 1975: The aforementioned irregular commission writes Bishop Mamie at Fribourg telling him to withdraw his predecessor’s approval of the Society, which is beyond his canonical power (once a bishop has approved a religious congregation, only the pope can suppress it: 1917 Code of Canon Law, canon 493 and 1983 Code of Canon Law, canon 616).
Meanwhile, Cardinal Villot, the Secretary of State, forces Cardinal Staffa, Prefect of the Supreme Apostolic Signature (the highest ecclesiastical tribunal) to refuse the archbishop’s canonical appeal for an ecclesiastical trial of his case, under threat of dismissal.
October 27, 1975: Cardinal Villot writes to the hierarchies of the world informing them to no longer incardinate** any priests from the SSPX, as it has been suppressed.
June 12, 1976: Archbishop Benelli writes Archbishop Lefebvre, telling him not to ordain priests without their local bishops’ permission.
June 29, 1976: Archbishop Lefebvre goes ahead with foreseen ordinations.
July 1, 1976: The suspension of Archbishop Lefebvre and his newly ordained priests is declared.
The Church, by approving the SSPX, approved that it have all the ordinary means to lead its religious life and fulfill its aim. This is a fundamental consideration when taking into consideration the nullity of its suppression.
A brief examination into the legality of the actions (retracting the ability to incardinate members and the declared suspensions) taken against Archbishop Lefebvre and the Society will show that these proceedings were not canonical, and had no foundation. Rome has always tacitly recognized the SSPX’s legitimate continuation and the nullity of the suspensions: for example, in December 1987, Cardinal Gagnon did not hesitate to attend as a prelate the Pontifical Mass of “suspended” Archbishop Lefebvre, in May 1988. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, before his election to the pontificate, in talks with the Society also agreed to the principle of having a bishop consecrated from among the Society’s priests.
In the three weeks before the ordinations to be held on June 29, 1976, Archbishop Lefebvre was approached by Rome as many as six times with the request that he establish normal relations with the Vatican and that he give proof of this by saying a Mass according to the new rite. He was told that if the ordination Mass on the 29th would be with the Missal of Pope Paul VI, then all opposition would be smoothed over, despite the recent actions that had been taken by Cardinal Villot and Archbishop Benelli regarding the Society's right to incardinate.
Herein we see most clearly the one fundamental reason for the campaign against Archbishop Lefebvre and his Society: exclusive adhesion to the old Mass and refusal to say the new.
Further reading: The Hot Summer of 1976 and Archbishop Lefebvre
If only the one incurring them were to suffer, then yes, that is the more perfect way to act.
If however there is a question of depriving innumerable souls of the graces they need for salvation, then the greater good may demand that the unjust censures be disobeyed.
*By this, the archbishop meant the clergy in Rome who were demonstrating infidelity to the tradition of the Church, not the Church and papacy as an entity since Vatican II, a position taken by many in the sedevacantist and other movements, of which the Archbishop, and the Society since his death, have wholeheartedly disapproved.
**After Cardinal Wright wrote his letter of praise on February 18, 1971, giving Rome's permission to the foundation of the Society, the archbishop wrote to the Congregation for the Clergy seeking permission to directly incardinate religious priests into the Society. This was granted and furthermore, Bishop Adam (of Sion, Switzerland), considering that the Society was of international status, generalized this procedure (cf. The Angelus, April 1987, p. 3 and Fideliter, no. 55, p. 3ff.).
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