What were the events that motivated Archbishop Lefebvre to make his 1974 Declaration and what occurred as a result?
Many Catholics know that Archbishop Lefebvre's 1974 Declaration was a pivotal statement, but often are not aware of its historical background and the consequences that followed its publication. So we offer an extract from the chapter “I adhere to Eternal Rome” of Bishop Tissier de Mallerais' book, Marcel Lefebvre: The Biography.
III. Suppression of the Society
Meetings in Rome and the canonical visit
A year would pass. The number of seminarians grew to 95, throwing “more than one episcopate into a state of real alarm,” as Cardinal Garonne wrote to Bishop Adam on March 9, 1974. One in every six or seven French seminarians went to Econe!
Garrone was pressured into acting by the Secretary of State, Cardinal Jean Villot, who promised the French bishops that he would sort out the matter. The permanent secretary, Archbishop Etchegaray, gave an assurance that “in six months time, Econe would be finished.” The heads of the three congregations involved (Seminaries, Clergy, and Religious) met and decided on resolutions that received “the Holy Father’s approval.”
Then on March 5, “in obedience to the directives received” (of Villot perhaps?), they organized a meeting with the two bishops concerned (Mamie and Adam). The meeting took place on April 26 at the headquarters of the Sacred Congregation for Seminaries. They examined the “resolutions” mentioned above and decided to ask Archbishop Lefebvre “to explain clearly and expressly how he was adhering to the conciliar directives” and to accept the norms governing “the opening of houses in other dioceses.”
On his return to Fribourg, Bishop Mamie summoned the archbishop on April 30: “Where are you planning to open new houses?” The archbishop replied: “I am in fact going to Rome to see the secretary of the Sacred Congregation for Religious and I will tell him.”
On May 4, he had a meeting with Archbishop Augustin Mayer, who was intrigued by the foundation at Albano. They also spoke of Suresnes (Paris) and Armada.
“Good,” said the secretary, “but what about your liturgy?”
“I see no other option that would be useful to the Church,” Archbishop Lefebvre explained.
It is a theological question. You recognize that there is a serious situation: there are causes and their remedies. Now, one cannot accept bits of this reform without accepting everything; but in that case the seminary would close in three weeks!”
“That’s very serious,” Augustin Mayer replied, both surprised and concerned.
Things were not “very serious” in Econe but they were in France. Recruitment was very poor in those seminaries where the liturgical reform and the corresponding concept of the priesthood were enforced: in October 1973, there were only 131 new seminarians!
In summer 1974, a holidaymaker passed by Econe and asked to see Archbishop Lefebvre, who did not recognize the individual in a black clerical suit.
“What!” exclaimed the Bishop of Strasbourg (for it was he), “ya don’t recognize Arthur?”
“Oh, Bishop Elchinger,” said the archbishop, who finally recognized his former fellow student from seminary, Leon-Arthur Elchinger.
“Arthur” asked: “Ya got quite a crowd here, from what I hear? At Strasbourg, things are not so hot. How d’ya do it?”
How did he do it? But more to the point, how could he be stopped? Such was the question that troubled France, Fribourg, Sion, and Rome.
The storm broke suddenly on November 11, 1974: after breakfast the archbishop gathered together the Econe community to announce that they would that very day receive two apostolic visitors who were coming to conduct an inquiry on behalf of the three Roman Congregations, following orders from Paul VI himself. In the corridor of the cloister while waiting for the visitors, Archbishop Lefebvre confided to Fr. Aulagnier:
I well suspected that our refusal to accept the New Mass would sooner or later be a stumbling block, but I would have preferred to die rather than have to confront Rome and the pope!”
Bishop Albert Descamps, secretary of the Biblical Commission, and Msgr. Guillaume Onclin, under-secretary of the Commission for the Revision of the Code of Canon Law, arrived at nine o’clock in the morning. For three days the two Belgians would question the priests and seminarians, and make theologically questionable remarks to them. They thought the ordination of married men was normal and inevitable, they did not admit that truth is immutable, and they expressed doubts concerning the physical reality of Christ’s Resurrection. They never went to chapel, and when they left offered no report of their visit for Archbishop Lefebvre to sign. However, they said to Fr. Gottlieb: “The seminary is 99% fine.” And the priest said to himself: “99%? That only leaves 1% for the Mass, it’s not much!”
A lady from the diocese came to see Bishop Adam on November 11 and told him: “Now I only want the Mass of St. Pius V. I’m going to Econe.” The bishop replied coldly: “I wouldn’t bother; in any case, the unity of the Church will soon be sorted out.”
Archbishop Lefebvre left for Rome on November 16. On November 21 while he was visiting one of the Congregations, a Swiss Guard who until that moment had been like a statue spoke to him suddenly: “Your Excellency, you don’t expect anything from those people, do you?”
Amazed, the archbishop said nothing but he remembered the canonical visit and understood that he could expect nothing more from the Congregations. When he returned to Albano, “in a moment of indignation” as he would later say, he wrote in one go and without correction an admirable statement of his principles. This he presented to the community at Econe on December 2:
This has been the position of the seminary and the Society since the beginning, but it [the declaration] puts it in clearer and more definitive terms because the crisis has grown more serious.”
The Declaration of November 21, 1974
The entire reform “is consistent,” explained the Archbishop, with the New Mass, new catechisms, and new seminaries. All these things come from the strains of Liberalism, Protestantism, and Modernism that emerged at the Council and that are now leading the Church to her ruin.
Our backs are against the wall and we have to make a choice. Without rebelling, we choose the beliefs and practices of the Church of all time. Consequently:
We adhere with our whole heart, and with our whole soul to Catholic Rome, the Guardian of the Catholic Faith and of those traditions necessary for the maintenance of that Faith, to eternal Rome, Mistress of Wisdom and Truth.
Because of this adherence we refuse and have always refused to follow the Rome of neo-Modernist and neo-Protestant tendencies, such as were clearly manifested during the Second Vatican Council, and after the Council in all the resulting reforms". [See here for full text.]
Archbishop Lefebvre had not even finished reading his declaration when the seminarians, aware of the importance of the moment, began to applaud. Scorning all human prudence and drawing on a vision of faith, the archbishop had openly declared war on all the post-conciliar reforms.
On November 27, he confided in his professors:
Whatever sanctions are imposed upon us, there is no longer any question of obedience under these conditions. It is a matter of keeping the Faith. If 10, 20, or even 40 leave, I am staying!”
However, by December 2, no one had left. Some seminarians had rushed to the telephone to tell their parents how happy they were to have been strengthened by this declaration.
When Fr. Barbara visited Econe, the archbishop gave him the text, and he hurried to publish it in Forts dans la Foi along with a sermon of St. Athanasius against the Arians: “They have the churches but we have the Faith.” Soon the declaration was reprinted in Itineraires and in other magazines.
On January 21, 1975, the two visitors submitted their reports to the three cardinals in the presence of Bishop Mamie. Cardinal Garrone brandished the declaration of Archbishop Lefebvre, saying: “See!” From then on, things moved quickly: on the 24th, Bishop Mamie asked Cardinal Tabera to authorize him to withdraw his predecessor’s approval for the Society. The three cardinals considered that a warning should precede this measure, and on the 25th they summoned Archbishop Lefebvre in order to speak to him “concerning points that leave us somewhat perplexed” after the canonical visit.
The archbishop met the three cardinals on February 13.
“The visitors’ report is very favorable,” said Garrone, “but they caught a whiff of opposition to the Council and the pope. Look here,” he said pointing at Itineraires which was on his desk, “”your declaration confirms this suspicion: you are against the pope and the Council!
Archbishop Lefebvre went on the counter-attack:
What about the new heterodox catechisms? And the New Mass which is none other than the Mass of Luther? And openness to Communism? And the Freemasons who are not excommunicated? And religious liberty that puts all religions on the same footing?”
A second meeting took place on March 3. Tabera explained: “You let yourself be called Athanasius!” Garrone shouted: “You are obsessed with Liberalism!” And he added: “You are mad!” and claimed that “the Church is on a path of discovery.” From these beginnings they came to the essence of their exchange:
Your manifesto is unacceptable. It teaches your seminarians to depend on their personal judgment and on Tradition such as they understand it. This is freethinking, the worst of all liberal doctrines!”
“That is false,” replied the archbishop, “the basis for our judgments is the Magisterium of the Church of all time.”
You recognize yesterday’s Magisterium but not today’s. But the Council belongs to the Magisterium, as the pope wrote to Cardinal Pizzardo in 1966."
"The Church keeps her Tradition and cannot break with it. It is impossible. That is how the Church is.”
Certainly, as Garrone said, the living Magisterium of today is the rule of Faith; however, as Archbishop Lefebvre replied, it is only the rule in so far as it is itself ruled by yesterday’s Magisterium, by Tradition. When the Magisterium malfunctions, it is Tradition that judges.
The Society is suppressed
However, Garrone ruled out any malfunctioning of the Magisterium:
it was an absolute rule of Faith. As for the Council, he admitted that it had been followed by a crisis in the Church, but it was not the cause of that crisis. Before this wall of sententious incomprehension, Archbishop Lefebvre observed: “I was invited for a meeting and in fact I had to face a court that had decided to condemn me.”
As for his declaration, he said to the three cardinals: “I could put it differently, but I could not write anything different.”
Back in Econe at this time, the teaching staff took it into their heads to correct the manifesto and met together to draw up a “moderate declaration.”
“Your Excellency,” they asked him, “withdraw your first text and sign this one.”
But the archbishop would no more give in to Econe than to Rome. He did not retract his declaration. Consequently, he was certain to lose his case at the Vatican.
In fact on April 25, Cardinal Tabera assured Bishop Mamie that he “possessed all the necessary authority to withdraw the acts and concessions” of his predecessor. Unfortunately, this was correct! The Society had not even received Rome’s nihil obstat and had not become a Society of diocesan right, but remained at the preliminary stage of pia unio. The bishop therefore was able to dissolve it (cf. Canon 492, §§ 1-2, and 493) if he had a serious reason. In the view of those responsible, the “declaration” was a serious reason, even if it was not so before God. [NB: the opinion of Archbishop Lefebvre and others is that the SSPX was actually given the Holy See's formal approval by Cardinal Wright’s decree of praise─see this FAQ for details.]
On May 6, Bishop Mamie, therefore, informed Archbishop Lefebvre that he was withdrawing the approval given by his predecessor, and the same day the three cardinals upheld this decision with the approval of Paul VI. They added: once the Society is “suppressed,” its seminary and all its activities lose the right to exist.
Archbishop Lefebvre replied in three ways: at Pentecost of that Holy Year, the archbishop and his seminarians joined in the magnificent pilgrimage of the Credo association to show with the faithful their attachment to the Rome of all time; then, from Albano on May 31, he wrote a letter of submission to the successor of Peter containing a request for a review of his “trial”; finally, on June 5, he lodged an appeal with the court of the Apostolic Signatura against Bishop Mamie’s decision. It was not the Bishop of Fribourg, he wrote, but the Holy See that had the power to suppress the Society (this first point is debatable); next, he has been judged on doctrine and only the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is competent in this matter; finally, if his declaration deserves to be condemned, the condemnation should concern him and not his work.
The appeal was rejected on June 10: the steps taken by Bishop Mamie had been carried out according to the decision of the cardinals’ commission, itself approved in forma specifica by the pope. Another appeal launched on June 14 asked for proof of this specific approbation; there was no reply because Cardinal Villot, Secretary of State, had written to Cardinal Staffa forbidding him to consider the appeal.
On June 29, 1975, Archbishop Lefebvre ordained three priests and thirteen subdeacons at Econe. The same day, Paul VI wrote him a letter demanding his submission, an act that “necessarily implied” accepting the suppression of the Society with all the practical consequences, and accepting the Council “which has no less authority than the Council of Nicea and in some ways is more important than it.”
IV. Econe continues
Not collaborating in the auto-demolition of the Church
Jean Madiran highlighted this extraordinary claim that put Vatican II over Nicea. They said and repeated that this Council was a pastoral council and not dogmatic, and now they want to turn it into dogma!
At Econe, the question of survival was much closer to hand. Four professors left the seminary (not counting the two eminent Dominicans who would never come back), and during their final classes some even went as far as to explain to the seminarians why they were leaving. Others suggested to the Archbishop that he break the seminary up into small groups and continue clandestinely. Canon Berthod reacted:
Your Excellency, that would be the death of the seminary. Either we continue, or we do not continue! We cannot continue if we are spread out: studies, perseverance, and recruitment would become difficult. Econe must continue. Econe is Econe!”
Besides, the seminarians were perfectly at peace. The archbishop kept them continually informed of developments in great detail. His perspective on the situation was admirable, and he never attacked individuals, especially not the Pope. Thus, they had complete trust in the archbishop who had promised them: “I will not abandon you!”
Then Archbishop Lefebvre decided very simply:
The new school year starts on September 14. The seminary goes on. We want to do what the Church has always done. So, we are going to continue to develop and open a German-speaking seminary at Weissbad near Appenzell.”
The archbishop’s answer to the suppression was to march on. On November 21, 1975, the anniversary of his “declaration” and two months into a school year that saw 127 seminarians in the three seminaries of Econe, Armada, and Weissbad, Archbishop Lefebvre clarified the basis of his rejection of “the cardinals’” orders (he was still avoiding calling Paul VI into question):
The Society still exists. Its suppression was illegal and in any case unjust. One day, Providence will allow its official rehabilitation.
But it still exists before God and the Church.... Law is meant to serve life. Now, at the moment they are using law to serve death and to go against the life of the Church. Human authority participates in the authority of God, the author of life. However, the laws of the Church since the Council are laws of death and spiritual abortion. These laws are invalid.”
On October 27, Cardinal Villot wrote to all the episcopal conferences telling them “solemnly” to refuse incardination to the members of the Society. Archbishop Lefebvre would not be stopped by this last policy of death: “If incardination is difficult, I will not hesitate to think about incardinating you in the Society.” He based his view on the letter of praise from Cardinal Wright which was similar to a “decree of praise.” He also founded it on the permission that the Sacred Congregation for Religious gave to three religious to enter the Society without asking explicitly to be incardinated in a diocese. Finally he used the opinion of Bishop Adam who had told him: “Since your Society is spread throughout several dioceses, it certainly has the power to incardinate within its own ranks.” All these arguments were probable (“colored” to use the canonical term).
At the end of August the Archbishop twice met the Bishop of Sion (not at the bishop’s residence), who told him he had received a personal visit from Cardinal Villot. Thus, Archbishop Lefebvre was convinced that Jean Villot wanted to satisfy the demands of the French bishops and was responsible for the campaign against the Society from beginning to end.
However, Nestor Adam advised him: “Econe must continue! Put a bit of Paul VI in your Pius V Mass, and carry on.”
The archbishop left the trickery to one side and merely accepted the encouragement: “Carry on.” Paul VI wrote to him on September 8 and threatened to punish him for refusing to obey. Archbishop Lefebvre replied on September 24, professing his “devotion towards the successor of Peter, ‘master of truth’ for the whole Church,” but he would not comply.
There was far more at stake than the suppression of a new society and seminary.
He explained his thinking to the seminarians:
Asking us to close the seminary at Econe means asking us to take part in the destruction of the Church. When the good Lord calls me, I don’t want to say in my conscience: ‘Well, I have destroyed something that the good Lord allowed me to do through His Providence and which besides had canonical permission and was practically approved by the Roman visitors.’ I am asked to destroy all that because it does not follow the post-conciliar tendencies that are destroying the Church. Well, no!”
72 “An anniversary,” text of Archbishop Lefebvre, June 13, 1980.
73 Letter of Cardinal Garrone, signed by Garrone, Wright, and Augustin Mayer, addressed to Bishops Mamie and Adam, March 9, 1974.
74 Bishop Raffaele Macario had just given his placet on Feb. 22, 1974.
75 Spiritual Conferences at Econe, May 23, 1974.
76 And 25 Frenchmen had just entered Econe.
77 Diary of Econe, summer 1974, 148.
78 On June 23, 1974, the commission formed by the heads of the three dicasteries decided on the canonical visit; a letter from the three cardinals dated November 5 notified Archbishop Lefebvre.
79 To Cardinal Garrone, on March 3, 1975: “Doubtless I was too indignant,” he would say, although his admitting to exaggerated indignation does not seem fair.
80 Diary of Econe; Spiritual Conferences at Econe, 12 A, Dec. 2, 1974.
81 Roland Gaucher, Monseigneur Lefebvre, combat pour l’Eglise (Albatros, 1976), 228-247; Yves Montagne, L’eveque suspens (Rome: Catholic Laymen’s League, 1977), 52-75.
82 Mgr. Lefebvre, Relation sur la maniere dont la commission des trois cardinaux a procede (Report of the manner in which the commission of three cardinals acted), etc., Rome, May 30, 1975 (addressed to Paul VI).
83 Aulagnier, La Tradition sans peur, 97.
84 On May 5, 1974, on the Feast of St. Pius V and the day of Fr. Calmel’s funeral, he even took the resolution to defend the traditional Mass, cost what it may. Letter to Friends and Benefactors, no. 16, March 19, 1979.
85 Letter to Cardinal Dino Staffa, Prefect of the Apostolic Signatura, May 21, and appeal submitted on June 5.
86 Cardinal Staffa showed this letter to Archbishop Lefebvre’s lawyer.
87 Itineraires, no. 197 (Nov. 1975), editorial.
88 Spiritual Conferences at Econe, 47 B, Oct. 11, 1977.
89 Handwritten letter to benefactors, June 17, 1975; Aulagnier, La Tradition sans peur, 101-103.
90 Spiritual Conferences at Econe, 20 B, June 28, 1975, eve of the ordinations.
91 Ibid., 23 A, Nov. 21, 1975; cf. 22 A, Sept. 29, 1975.