Monday, April 18, 2011

Did Archbishop Lefebvre Really Save the Mass of Tradition?

With the beginning of Holy Week, I look ahead with trepidation to the services for the Sacred Triduum.  The liturgical mediocrities (at best) and abuses (at worst) that prevail in my area at all times of the year are especially painful during this week, when the high, the solemn and the majestic are forced to give place to the low, the frivolous and the banal.  At such times, my thoughts turn most to the cause of restoring the traditional liturgy, which seems to move at the speed of mammal evolution; and the line of thought runs inevitably to a man whose career has been a significant factor in this cause.  

A few weeks ago, the Church celebrated the Annunciation.  March 25th was not only the feast of the Annunciation, but also the anniversary of the death of Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, founder of the Society of St. Pius X.  It was the occasion for numerous heartfelt acclamations of the archbishop and calls for his sainthood.  Most of all, there were the repeated claims that it is to Lefebvre that we owe the preservation of what is now known as the Extraordinary Form of the Mass.

Nobody can seriously question my credentials as a lover of Catholic orthodoxy and traditional Catholic worship.  I have declaimed from the rooftops on these subjects.  But when I hear Archbishop Lefebvre extolled as the savior of the usus antiquior, I cannot help asking, from behind unfriendly lines in the liturgical wars, this one simple question: Really?

I don't want to get into the question whether Lefebvre and the bishops he consecrated were legitimately excommunicated.  Two popes thought that they were, and proceeded accordingly; that is good enough for me, and should be good enough for any Catholic.   I don't want to get into the question whether a state of emergency existed in the Church that justified Lefebvre in defying the Pope and violating canon law.  There is no question that the Church has been wracked by a terrible crisis from within over the last century; but it is the Church, not the Lefebvrists, who is the ultimate arbiter of the state-of-emergency issue, and the Church has ruled against Lefebvre.  I also don't want to debate whether the priests of the Society are suspended.  The fact is that they are suspended, and they lack faculties from the bishops who have actual jurisdiction to grant them faculties.   What interests me is the claim that without Lefebvre, the Mass of tradition would now be extinct.

Concerning which, some thoughts:

-- Despite the changes in the liturgy under Pope Paul VI, and whatever may have been the desires of some elements within the Church, the Tridentine Mass  was -- Deo gratias -- not formally abrogated.  In 1984, four years before Lefebvre did the act for which he incurred excommunication, the Congregation for Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments issued Quattuor abhinc annos, which allowed bishops to authorize celebration of the traditional Mass under certain conditions.  Let no one attribute this document solely to the agitations of the archbishop or his Society: they were far from being the only ones in the whole, entire Church who wanted the preconciliar liturgy, as Summorum pontificum makes clear.  Whatever one might think of this document, or the stinginess of the bishops in authorizing the traditional Mass, Quattuor abhinc annos did prove -- and Summorum pontificum later affirmed -- that the restoration of the older liturgy was never decisively foreclosed.

-- In 1988, Pope John Paul II ordered Archbishop Lefebvre not to consecrate some bishops.  Lefebvre went ahead and did it anyway, after having agreed not to.  The Pope was clearly within his rights.  How could Lefebvre's act be understood other than as it was understood by the Pope himself: a frontal assault on the unity of the Church under Peter?  Can one commit schism in order to combat evils within the Church?  Can one do evil in order that good may prevail?  Aquinas answered that question in the negative.

-- In his motu proprio Ecclesia Dei adflicta, issued two days after Lefebvre's schism, the Pope called for "a wide and generous application" of the directives of Quattuor abhinc annos.  This clearly did not happen.  It could be argued -- not untruthfully -- that this was because a large number of bishops were inimical to the older form of the Mass.  But does this rule out the Lefebvrist movement as a factor?  Could it be that the defiance of Lefebvre and his followers helped to discredit the preconciliar liturgy and its devotees, and served as an excuse to block restoration?  How many priests and bishops who might otherwise have been sympathetic were turned off because of the Lefebvrists?  Might we have had something like Summorum pontificum sooner if Lefebvre had submitted to the Pope's rightful authority?  Indeed, if the cause of restoration had not been given the appearance of association with schism and rebellion, would there have been a need for Summorum pontificum?

-- There is nothing that the "progressive"/"liberal" elements in the Church hate so much as being confronted with a syllable of Latin, or a bar of chant, or a whiff of incense, or any other slight vestige of tradition in the liturgy -- unless it is coming face-to-face with somebody who loves tradition and is determined to do something about it.  Unfortunately, the priests and bishops of the Society are not around to discomfit the progressives.  Instead, they have quit the field of battle, going off to hide in their caves and fortresses, abandoning the parishes and chanceries to the progressives, and leaving the rest of us outgunned and outnumbered.  True, the Society is vocal and does the internet and print version of dropping propaganda leaflets over enemy territory; but did not Napoleon observe that the side that stays within its fortifications is beaten?  The reality is that these priests and bishops, who remain suspended and without faculties, are not in the trenches, and give neither aid and comfort to those they have left overwhelmed in parish and chancery, nor grief to the liberals.  The liberals are in fact perfectly content for the Society to stay right where it is, and to invite the rest of us to go and join it there and stop threatening their hegemony.  This should give the Society pause.

-- In fact, so far from giving the rest of us traditionalists aid and comfort, the Society continues to discredit us by (a) remaining outside the fold, despite the present Holy Father's bending over backward to accommodate them; and (b) continuing, notwithstanding the many concessions made to it, to act as though it is the True Church, and as though it is there to instruct Rome instead of the other way around.  This causes the rest of us who want to see the Mass of tradition restored to be viewed with suspicion.  To be viewed with suspicion by our bishops is particularly painful to those of us who refrain from attending Society chapels precisely to avoid either appearing or becoming disloyal to our bishops, however much they oppose that to which we are devoted.

I submit that there needs to be a serious re-examination by the Lefebvrists and their cloud of supporters of the proposition that Archbishop Lefebvre saved the Tridentine Mass.  This form of the Mass certainly has had its enemies in the Church, and still does; but it also has its devotees, not all of which reside within the confines of the SSPX.  The Lefebvrists need to consider whether their founder's break with the Church, and their own continuing isolation, have not in fact served the forces of modernism they claim to oppose, and delayed for years the restoration of authentic Catholic worship.


  1. Well said.I too think they have done a lot of harm, and I've always disliked the attitude that they exude. If anything, it drives people away, instead of garnering support. Thank God, literally, for the FSSP and the ability to go to a traditional Mass that is in full communion with Rome. Unfortunately, they are rather thin spread at present, but I keep praying for more vocations for them.

  2. Msgr Kelley in "The Battle for the American Church" has some interesting words to say about Archbishop Lefebvre. Will have to loan it to you.

  3. Deo Gratias for Archbishop Lefebvre and the SSPX. He will surely be declared a saint one day just like Saint Anthanasius. I seriously doubt that any of the Vatican II popes will be saints and especially not JPII. Check out the Facebook page at:!/pages/Pope-Benedict-XVI-Catholic-Prudence-Counsels-NOT-to-Canonize-JPII-in-Haste/192580334096734

  4. Three years later, and in the wake of the canonizations of John XXIII and John Paul II, you have been proven wrong.