Interpreting the words of Archbishop Lefebvre: a few sensible rules
In recent times, it has not been uncommon for people to claim to know for sure what Archbishop Lefebvre would have done under present circumstances. Indeed, the 'war of quotes', where one takes statements made in concrete situations and in response to actual realities, and attempts to apply them universally, is a dangerous game.
Fr. Celier, in this somewhat lengthy document, lays out the principles and rules by which the archbishop made his decisions. It is not an attempt to play prophet; rather, if we more deeply understand this objective methodology, we can both better understand why the archbishop said specific things in certain situations and why the same prudential methodology is followed still today by Bishop Fellay and the Society of St. Pius X.
The author, Fr. Gregoire Celier, is a priest of the Society of St. Pius X. Ordained in 1986, he is the author of many books and over 500 articles. This selection is adapted from a book written in 2007.
Archbishop Lefebvre, who had guided us so wisely during that terrible crisis in the Church, departed from us on March 25, 1991. Since that time, many events have occurred, such as the death of John Paul II or the election of Benedict XVI, such as the foundation of the Institut du Bon Pasteur [Good Shepherd Institute] or the motu proprio, Summorum Pontificum, such as the Address [to the Roman Curia] on December 22, 2005 or the visit to the Blue Mosque. The founder of the Society of St. Pius X obviously was not able to react to those events, much less tell us a course of action for dealing with these matters.
Nevertheless, since Archbishop Lefebvre had made many statements, between 1961 and 1991, about the present situation of the Church, the sedevacantist movement, in particular, has attempted, based on the considerable quantity of texts that has been preserved, to “make the archbishop of Econe speak” as though opposed to any contact with present-day Rome. The movement’s adherents do not hesitate, more than 15 years after the death of Archbishop Lefebvre, to describe in detail how he would react today to this or that event, using for this purpose some scattered sentence fragments, or a series of passages selected in such a way as to avoid other passages that might add nuances or even reframe the question.
In doing so they seek to prevent Bishop Fellay, the present Superior General of the Society of St. Pius X, from using his legitimate freedom of evaluation and of action, by creating an artificial and misleading opposition between the directives and choices of Bishop Fellay today and those which, according to their hypothetical reconstruction, Archbishop Lefebvre would have made if he had still been alive.
In response let us say first that a priori the authentic interpreter of Archbishop Lefebvre’s course of action is obviously the work that he himself founded and directed: it is situated right along the line of his thought, it lives by the Constitutions that he composed and often commented on, and it enlists hundreds of priests whom he himself ordained, directly or through the auxiliary bishops whom he chose. The present-day positions of this unique legitimate heir, the Priestly Society of St. Pius X—positions expressed by its superior general—manifest not what the archbishop surely would have done (it is impossible to know that, and absurd to claim to do so), but rather the line of action which, most probably, he himself would have adopted in the present circumstances.
The authentic interpreters of Archbishop Lefebvre’s thought are certainly not the sedevacantists, since the founder of Econe constantly condemned their false positions as being ruinous to the Church, and he systematically removed and excluded defenders of those positions from the Society of St. Pius X.
Nevertheless, the absurd pretention of these sedevacantists to be the authentic interpreters of Archbishop Lefebvre does not mean that it is illegitimate, or forbidden, or useless, to try to understand the underlying movement of Archbishop Lefebvre’s thought and action, to seek to express the principles that inspired him, and to draw from them a few speculative conclusions as to the way in which he could have reacted today.
But such an “academic” inquiry, while interesting in itself, must satisfy two essential conditions. First of all, it ought to remain modest in the practical consequences that it claims to deduce, for a man’s freedom cannot be enclosed even within the totality of his previous words and acts. It is altogether inappropriate to claim to present with certainty, based on his former course of action, how Archbishop Lefebvre would have reacted when confronted with current events: only conjectures, probabilities, simple suppositions are acceptable in this matter.
Then, and above all, this inquiry must follow the basic rules of exegesis, of interpretation, of hermeneutics. Commentary on a person’s thought cannot depend on mere divination, bad poetry, or figments of imagination interlarded with prejudices. Human thought, over the course of its history, has developed some necessary intellectual tools, which serious reflection cannot arbitrarily dispense with.
Let us begin, therefore, by recalling some of the first principles of understanding and interpreting a body of thought, whatever it may be. Not to respect these basic rules would run the risk of creating an intellectual myth out of thin air.
Archbishop Lefebvre presented his thought on the present situation of the Church in many ways, through published writings, through speeches of various sorts, by official letters, by personal correspondence, in public or private conversations. He also performed a certain number of actions, either as an individual person, or as bishop, or as founder and Superior General of the Society of St. Pius X.
It is methodologically sound to begin by situating each text in its context. A private letter in which a lack of restraint and freedom of expression prevail must not be judged with the same criteria as an official communication to someone in authority. A sermon given right after a dramatic event cannot possibly have the same tone as a speech given several years after the event. A text that has been reworked for publication is different from a sketch in which the ideas are tossed off hastily, etc.
It is also clear that over time an author’s thought can evolve, in its expression or in its subject matter. It is quite legitimate to try to show such an evolution, if it exists. However, this research does not justify any and all intellectual procedures.
In particular, one must a priori credit the author with a personal intention to be intellectually coherent. Of course, it belongs to the nature of doctrinal controversy to try to demonstrate that an author, in fact and despite his intentions, has fallen into incoherence or self-contradiction. But, unless there is proof to the contrary, one must start from the principle that over the course of his thinking he personally remained faithful to the same fundamental orientation. Contrary proof can be, for example, a statement (explicit or implicit) by the author that he was previously wrong, or the revisiting of the same subject matter, long afterward, along radically different lines, etc. But one cannot, without serious grounds, call a respectable author a mere demagogue who knowingly tells everyone he meets what that person wants to hear, even if it were the exact opposite of what that author has just told the preceding person.
Therefore, if some expressions, some statements penned by an author seem out of tune, then one ought a priori, unless there is a well-founded reason, to reconcile them with the recurring expressions and constant statements of that author. Ordinarily, indeed, it is methodologically sound to interpret what is variable in terms of what is constant, the obscure by what is clear, novel language in terms of oft-repeated thinking, and not vice versa. Obviously this is not a question of rejecting altogether any development of a person’s thought: it is, instead, a matter of not interpreting a simple variation in vocabulary as a break with a whole body of thought that has been clearly and constantly affirmed.
Moreover, when the author carries out responsibilities, especially when he holds a position of authority, it is legitimate and necessary to understand his words in the light of his actions, and his actions in the light of his words. If an author has occasionally uttered some more or less ambiguous words that can be interpreted in favor of a thesis, but in carrying out his responsibilities he has systematically removed defenders of that thesis, then it is methodologically unsound to understand those ambiguous words as though they in fact approved the aforesaid thesis.
It is advisable therefore, in dealing with Archbishop Lefebvre’s texts, to specify first of all the nature of the specific text and its exact significance; to put it back into its context; to compare it with other texts, so as to avoid facile charges of inconsistency.
To these general remarks that apply to any author whatsoever, we will add a few reflections on the personality of Archbishop Lefebvre, which will allow us to understand and interpret better his thought and his actions.
In the intellectual order, one can rather conveniently classify minds as being either “systematic” or “pragmatic” (without any pejorative sense in either case).
“Systematic” minds are more often found among intellectuals, in whom thought predominates. They approach any situation in terms of the principles, the “system” with which they are imbued, and seek to bring the circumstances of the situation into the unity of the system. Hence their thinking, their expression and their actions are very consistent (or try to be), but sometimes they lack flexibility in face of reality. Philosophers are obviously “systematic” minds of the first degree. We see in Plato, St. Thomas Aquinas, as well as in Kant or Blondel, an extremely coherent architecture in their thinking and their actions (whatever the objective value thereof may be), which explains all the steps that they take.
Although “pragmatic” minds also live according to principles, they initially approach a situation by analyzing that situation, its concrete circumstances and its implications. Upon that initial analysis they project the light of their principles so as to determine a course of action. Unlike the “systematic minds”, however, they are not especially concerned about checking whether what they are going to say or do at that moment is, formally and substantially, perfectly in harmony with what they have said or done previously, or with what they are going to say or do afterward. These “pragmatic minds”, therefore, are extremely flexible in adapting to reality, but they run the risk of appearing incoherent (at least) in the long term. Men of action, such as politicians, military men, and industrialists, are obviously first-degree “pragmatics”.
Archbishop Lefebvre was quite an educated man (holding a doctorate in philosophy and another in theology), and he was profoundly intelligent (as his successes over the course of his life demonstrate, especially the impressive development of the Society of St. Pius X). But he was in the first place a man of action, rather than an armchair “intellectual”. He belongs without a doubt in the category of “pragmatic minds”, as we have just described it briefly.
Therefore it seems to us a mistake to look for a “system” in his words or in his actions that would be the key to each and all of them: that does not correspond to the reality. The only reasonable, well-founded approach is to try to understand, by means of the widely varied texts that he published and the multifarious actions that he performed—texts and actions spread out in time and space, and influenced by the complex reality of the crisis of the Church—how Archbishop Lefebvre sought to respond to the events that Providence thrust upon him while respecting the intangible principles of the faith.
Moreover, like any human being, Archbishop Lefebvre reacted to events at several levels. Like any one of us, when he is grief-stricken he reacts as a man with vexation, and as a Christian with trust in the divine mercy.
By carefully analyzing Archbishop Lefebvre’s interventions during the period 1961-1991, one can rather easily distinguish three main levels in his reactions. Indeed, we find responses that can be classified as supernatural hope (or ecclesial vision); middle-term reflections, and the results of immediate and purely circumstantial reactions. His words or his decisions always combined these three elements in varying proportions. But the tone of his responses obviously depended on the momentary prevalence of one of these three elements. It is advisable therefore, when one proceeds to present the thought of Archbishop Lefebvre, to try to determine which dominant element explains the tone and the orientation of that specific intervention. In order to understand this better, let us try to describe succinctly these three levels of reaction.
As far as supernatural hope or ecclesial vision is concerned, it was absolute. For Archbishop Lefebvre, the Church, led by Our Lord Jesus Christ, would get through and get over that crisis so as to rediscover one day her supernatural splendor, if only through the glorious return of the Redeemer at the Parousia. At no moment did this crisis in the Church change the profound peace of Archbishop Lefebvre, at no moment did it provoke him to the least discouragement or temptation to abandon the faith.
On the other hand, if we closely analyze the texts that we still have, it is clearly evident that, in the middle term, Archbishop Lefebvre was profoundly uneasy about the situation of the Church. He concluded very early on (in 1960, or even at the end of the pontificate of Pius XII: cf. what he writes about the “dream of Dakar” in the preface to his Spiritual Journey) that the crisis was extremely serious, that it would throw the Church into an apparently irremediable chaos, that it would be (and this is the sort of expression that he sometimes penned) “humanly speaking fatal” for the Church. Archbishop Lefebvre, in his heart of hearts (there are plenty of texts to prove it) had no illusions from 1970 on about the fact that the Society would be severely censured; that the crisis would perhaps last for a century or more, etc.
Many people who do not make the effort to analyze the texts in depth or to compare them, do not appreciate this dimension of profound uneasiness, which is however a fundamental key in explaining his conduct. Just reread the text, “In order to remain Catholic, would it be necessary to become Protestant?” (A Bishop Speaks, p. 110 [per the French version—Ed.] dated October 11, 1964; the conclusion of his intervention at the Council dated September 9, 1965 (I Accuse the Council, p. 93 [ditto]); or the response to Cardinal Ottaviani dated December 20, 1966 (ibid., p. 107 [ditto]: the sum and substance of his most forceful criticisms of the Second Vatican Council is already there. As he himself declared 20 years later:
Some say, “the Archbishop has changed. He has changed his mind. He is no longer the way he was before.’” In reality, I do not think that I have changed anything of my attitude toward what has happened in the Church since 1960." (“Mes trois guerres,” conference at Econe on October 27, 1985, Fideliter 49 [January 1986]: 9 ff.) [see also the 1983 Ridgefield Conference: "Only when the Faith is in question"]
If we look now at the short term, Archbishop Lefebvre, like any human being, was obviously affected and impressed by immediate events, and naturally that colored his momentary judgments. A close analysis of the texts clearly shows, for example, that he hoped in the early 1970’s to obtain pontifical right [for the Society], just as he truly thought, at some moments in the year 1987-1988, that an acceptable agreement was possible. Similarly, one senses a certain optimism at the beginning of the pontificate of John Paul II, etc.
Conversely, some events that moved him, like the gathering in Assisi in 1986, could momentarily make him use words that were harsher than usual.
If in my speeches some rather extreme expressions may have been uttered, one must take into account the literary style." (“Interrogatoire des 11 et 12 janvier 1979,” in Itineraires 223 [May 1979]: 157)
It is advisable therefore, in dealing with Archbishop Lefebvre’s texts, to specify first of all the nature of the specific text and its exact significance; to put it back into its context; to compare it with other texts, so as to avoid facile charges of inconsistency; not to see in Archbishop Lefebvre’s course of action something excessively systematic and a priori that does not correspond to his temperament; to distinguish within a text what belongs to his supernatural hope, what belongs to his middle-term reflection and what belongs to his immediate reaction to an event. Only on the basis of these principles, which are derived from the general rules of human thought, will one be able to try, cautiously and modestly, to describe what might have been Archbishop Lefebvre’s reaction in such and such a circumstance.
1 A very motley movement that does however agree in saying that, for one reason or another, the present pope is not really pope, that he is an imposter, an intruder, a merely “material” pope, etc. Defenders of this movement conclude from this that Catholics must act as in the case of a vacancy of the Apostolic See (which occurs, for example, between the death of a pope and the election of his successor), a situation that is described canonically as “Sede vacante” (Latin for “the see being vacant”). Hence the name by which this movement is popularly known, “sedevacantism”.
2 For example:
Humanly speaking, there is no prospect that we will see the highest authorities in the Church acknowledge their error and thereby save the Catholic Faith." (“Le temps des tenebres et de la fermet ee dans la foi,” in Fideliter 59 [September 1987]: 80)
For my part, I think that the dear Lord alone can intervene, for humanly speaking we see no possibility of Rome reprimanding this trend,” (“Entretien avec Mgr. Lefebvre,” in Fideliter 79 [January 1991]: 4)
3 For example:
I knew very well, from the day when I refused the New Mass, that it would lead to a confrontation. One could however hope for tolerance." (“Malgre les persecutions, l’epopee de la Fraternite,” in Fideliter 59 [September 1987]: 71)
Dear Father, be assured that your invitation moves me deeply and that I am ready to travel to Flavigny to give all the encouragement that you wish. But please understand that in order to sustain the work that I am pursuing—in the midst of God knows what a labyrinth of difficulties!—I can do nothing public of a solemn nature in a diocese without having the bishop’s placet [permission]…. I already have complaints about the seminary. I manage to prove that they are false, and slowly I am taking root and making progress. But all doors will be closed to me for new foundations, for incardinations, if I publicly do something improper, canonically speaking. That applies to me, because of the survival and progress of my work; it does not necessarily apply to you, and I congratulate you for your foundation in Flavigny. I even hope that we can collaborate, if you agree to it…. You will find that I am over-cautious. But the affection that I have for these young clerics is what obliges me to be so. I must expand [my operations] and try to obtain Pontifical Right…”. (“Lettre de Mgr. Lefebvre a l’abbe Coache du 25 fevrier 1972,” in Fideliter 102 [November 1994]: 69-70)
For a long time I have hoped to reach an agreement with Rome, which would manifest a certain tolerance, which would “let us perform the experiment of Tradition”. This is why I went so many times to Rome to talk with the cardinals, and why I carried on a correspondence with Cardinal Seper, then with Cardinal Ratzinger, and why I even turned to the pope, who never followed up on my requests to meet with him… I had also placed some hope in Cardinal Ratzinger, who also seemed well disposed and was alarmed about the degradation of the Church, although unwilling to recognize the causes and to do away with them. But, as the years have gone by, it has indeed been necessary to face the evidence: the prospects of an agreement were becoming more distant." (“Malgre les persecutions, l’epopee de la Fraternite,” in Fideliter 59 [September 1987]: 70)