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Dear visitors: This website from Catholic Answers, with all its many resources, is the world's largest source of explanations for Catholic beliefs and practices. A fully independent, lay-run, 501(c)(3) ministry that receives no funding from the institutional Church, we rely entirely on the generosity of everyday people like you to keep this website going with trustworthy , fresh, and relevant content. If everyone visiting this month gave just $1, would be fully funded for an entire year. Do you find helpful? Please make a gift today. SPECIAL PROMOTION FOR NEW MONTHLY DONATIONS! Thank you and God bless.

Holier Than Thou

The Society of St. Pius X holds itself up as the last bastion of authentic Catholic practice, all that is left of the true Church, or, as the SSPX calls it, “eternal Rome.” The members of the Society believe that what calls itself the Catholic Church is corrupt, ruled by “antichrists” and infected with “spiritual AIDS.” But in holding themselves up as the purveyors of true Catholicism and Tradition, they seem to forget that most Catholic and traditional of virtues: obedience.

The Society was formed in the wake of the Second Vatican Council by some French seminarians who recoiled at the chaos they saw burgeoning around them. As clean-cut, cassock-wearing young men, they reached a point where they had had enough of the heterodox theology they were being taught. They approached Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, the recently retired head of an order called the Holy Ghost Fathers who had spent much of his ecclesial career in Africa, and asked for help. 

Prior to Vatican II, John XXIII had tapped Archbishop Lefebvre to help prepare some of the prepatory schema for the Council, efforts the archbishop saw go largely to waste when confronted by the will of the French and German bishops. Nonetheless, he continued to play a role at the Council, leading, for instance, the charge against the Declaration on Religious Liberty. Although he signed the document, he spent the rest of his life fighting it and several other documents that were produced during those pivotal years, namely the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy and the Decree on Ecumenism.

Immediately following Vatican II, Archbishop Lefebvre had his own problems. In the so-called “spirit” of the age, the Holy Ghost Fathers decided to make some changes of which he, as a traditionalist and their superior general, did not approve. Given that his views would not prevail, he chose to retire to Rome, where he probably would have spent the rest of his days had the seminarians not come calling.

Suspicious of Change

The seminarians and Archbishop Lefebvre had no use for the liturgical changes that were then taking place, and it is hard not to see their point. Compare the so-called Old Mass with that of Pope Paul VI and, while they are the same in substance, they are very much different in what philosophers would call their accidents. Indeed, to Lefebvre and his charges, the substance of the new Mass itself was so different as to be corrupt. 

There was also the matter of ecumenism. Though the Vatican II decree on this subject said nothing of the sort, some took the spirit of the decree to mean that, as a means of salvation, there was no difference between Catholicism and other expressions of Christianity or even non-Christian religions. Speaking in the name of the Council, many Catholic theologians taught that anything goes. Lefebvre & Co. saw this and were aghast. 

The most damning issue as far as the budding Lefebvrites were concerned was religious liberty. The Church has never taught that one has an unfettered right to proclaim error, especially if one lives in a Catholic state. Rather, the state has a duty to uphold the true religion—Catholicism—and non-Catholics can be restricted in the public practice of their faith, although this should never lead to coercion. This was the teaching of every pope from Gregory XVI to Leo XIII.

The popes that followed, speaking to different circumstances brought on by a major increase in religious persecution that began in the twentieth century had a more nuanced approach. With these pontiffs, there was more discussion of the rights of the human person. Nonetheless, the fundamental teaching remained the same: No one has a fundamental right to publicly proclaim error (although the state may allow this if doing so accomplishes some greater good).

Vatican II’s Decree on Religious Liberty was widely misconstrued. According to many seminaries, priests, theologians, and even bishops, the document taught that one could say anything one wanted to about religious matters, and the state had no duty or even right to stop them. In these people’s minds, Church teaching had changed.

But wait a minute, traditionalists said. Church teaching can’t change. And what about Gregory XVI’s Mirare Vos or Pius IX’s Quanta Cura, which said that such an idea of religious liberty was “insanity”? With no satisfactory answer forthcoming, they believed the Church had given into the age. This was in spite of the fact that the Vatican II document on the subject was not addressing the sort of establishment questions keen on the traditionalists’ minds. Rather, the focus of Dignitatis Humanae was the exercise of religious liberty, not the issue of “the confessional state” (Russell Hittinger, “How to Read Dignitatis Humanae on the Establishment of Religion,” Catholic Dossier, March-August 2000).

Consider all that had happened since Leo XIII died in 1903: France, Portugal, Mexico, Germany, Russia, China, Vietnam—not to mention the countries in what became the Warsaw Pact—all saw tremendous steps taken against the free exercise of the Catholic faith. The result was that the twentieth century saw more martyrs than had been seen by the previous nineteen centuries combined. “By the 1960s the pressing problem was how to induce secularist regimes to respect freedom of religion” (Hittinger, p.).

As witness to this, the Council’s Decree on Religious Liberty devotes much space to discussing man’s right to freedom of conscience. But the very first article of the decree says, “So while the religious freedom which men demand in fulfilling their obligation to worship God has to do with freedom from coercion in society, [this document] leaves intact the traditional Catholic teaching on the moral duty of individuals and societies toward the true religion and one Church of Christ” (Dignitatis Humanae 1, emphasis added). It also makes this clarification elsewhere. In other words, the Council Fathers were serving notice they intended to teach nothing at which pre-conciliar popes would have looked askance.

The traditionalists were suspicious of what they viewed as ambiguous language in the decree and seemed convinced that the document said something it didn’t. Based on the evidence that seemed manifest to them, their conclusion was that the Church had given into modernism, that heresy of heresies condemned by Pope St. Pius X. Despite our Lord’s promises (cf. Matt. 16:18), the gates of hell had prevailed.

So was formed the Society of St. Pius X. In 1970, Bishop François Charrière of the Diocese of Fribourg in Sweden agreed to allow the Society of St. Pius X to come into his diocese and set up their seminary at Ecône. He did so on an ad experimentum basis of six years. In other words, they were on probation.

The Gauntlet Is Thrown Down

Things went well for the group. When Archbishop Lefebvre opened the doors to his seminary in 1970, he had 11 seminarians. Four years later, he had 40. Partly out of jealousy, partly out of genuine concern over the impertinent things Lefebvre taught his charges about Vatican II and the post-conciliar Church, the French bishops complained to Rome. Pope Paul VI sent an investigative committee of cardinals to Ecône in late 1974. Members of this committee were reputed to have made remarks to the seminarians and professors such as “Truth changes with time” and “The traditional conception of our Lord’s Resurrection is open to discussion” (“A Short History of the SSPX to 1996,” reprint from Angelus Press, January 1996, a conference given by Rev. Fr. Ramon Angles).

Whether these curial cardinals actually made such un-Catholic comments is open to debate, but one thing is certain: Lefebvre reacted with a vengeance. On November 21, 1974, he wrote a declaration that challenged the authenticity of both the Pope and Vatican II:

“Because of this adherence [to Eternal Rome] we refuse and have always refused to follow the Rome of the neo-Modernists and neo-Protestant tendencies such as were clearly manifested during the Second Vatican Council and after the Council in all the resulting reforms.

“All these reforms have indeed contributed and still contribute to the demolition of the Church, to the ruin of the priesthood, to the destruction of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and the sacraments, to the disappearance of the religious life, and to naturalistic and Teilhardian teaching in universities, seminaries, and catechetics, a teaching born of liberalism and Protestantism many times condemned by the solemn magisterium of the Church. No authority, even the very highest in the hierarchy, can constrain us to abandon or diminish our Catholic faith such as it has been clearly expressed and professed by the Church’s magisterium for 19 centuries.

“To insure our salvation, the only attitude of fidelity to the Church and to Catholic doctrine is a categorical refusal to accept the Reformation. We will pursue our work of the formation of priests under the star of the age-old magisterium in the conviction that we can do no greater service to the Church, the Pope, and to future generations” (“La Declaration du 21 Novembre 1974,” Ittinéraires., n. 195, trans. in The Collected Works of His Excellency Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, vol. 1 [The Angelus Press], p. 34).

As canon lawyer Peter J. Vere notes, “To preserve the liturgy and discipline of the pre-conciliar era was one matter; to impugn in the name of the pre-conciliar magisterium the validity of the post-conciliar reforms, while questioning the authority of the post-conciliar Church hierarchy, was quite another issue entirely—one which could not but bring negative canonical repercussions upon both Archbishop Lefebvre and the SSPX” (Vere and William Woestman, O.M.I., “Is the Society of St. Pius X in Schism? A Canonical History of the Lefebvrite Schism”).

After the New Year, the new ordinary of the Diocese of Fribourg, Bishop Pierre Mamie, withdrew the recognition of the SSPX given by his predecessor. This was confirmed three months later by Arturo Cardinal Tabera Araoz, prefect of the Congregation for Religious. 

The Society claims it was never validly suppressed, since it does not admit Bishop Mamie’s right to suspend it. Yet at the same time Bishop Mamie issued his decree of suspension, the commission of cardinals formed by Paul VI to investigate Lefebvre’s company issued the following:

“It is with the entire approval of His Holiness [i.e., Paul VI] that we communicate the following decisions to you:

“A letter will be dispatched by Msgr. Mamie according him the right to withdraw the approval which his predecessor gave to the Fraternity and to its statutes. This has been done in a letter from His Excellency Cardinal Tabera, Prefect of the Congregation for Religious.

“Once it is suppressed, the Society ‘no longer having a juridical basis, its foundations, and notably the Seminary at Ecône, lose by the same act the right to existence’” (Sacra Congregazione per L’Educazione Cattolica, Prot. N. 70/72, 6 May 1975, Itinéraires, n. 195, trans. in M. Davies, Apologia Pro Marcel Lefebvre, pp. 57–59, emphasis added).

Lefebvre wrote the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura stating that he did not recognize the commission’s right to pass such a judgment and that only the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith could competently make such a decision. On June 10, 1975, the Apostolic Signatura rejected his appeal, noting Pope Paul VI had approved the Commission’s decision in forma specifica. And just in case Lefebvre had any suspicion that the pontiff had not acted in this way, he got a letter from Pope Paul VI saying, “Finally, the conclusions which [the Commission of Cardinals] proposed to us, we made all and each of them ours, and we personally ordered that they be immediately put into force” (Paul VI, Lettre de SS Le Pape Paul VI à Mgr. Lefebvre, 29 June 1975La Documentation Catholique, n. 1689, trans. in M. Davies, p. 113).

The Next Step to Schism

The SSPX continued as if the Pope had never said a thing. In a way, to the members’ minds, he hadn’t. Lefebvre was convinced the Roman Curia was misleading Paul VI. If His Holiness only knew the real story and understood what was going on in the Church outside the papal apartments—well, Lefebvre would be celebrated, not suspended. So life at Ecône continued as usual. 

This, of course, meant preparing seminarians to receive the sacrament of holy orders, with the first class set for ordination during the summer of 1976. The basis Lefebvre & Co. took for their position was “despite the letter from Pope Paul dated 29 June 1975, the entire legal process taken against [the SSPX] had been so irregular that it could not be considered as having been legally suppressed” (Davies, p. 202).

The Vatican disagreed. “You should, at the same time, inform Msgr. Marcel Archbishop Lefebvre that, de mandato special Summa Pontificis, in the present circumstances—and according to the prescriptions of Canon 2373, 1°, of the [Pio-Benedictine] Code of Canon Law, he must strictly abstain from conferring orders from the moment he receives the present injunction” (Secretariat of State, Prot. N. 307, 554, 12 June 1976, trans. in M. Davies, p. 194).

Lefebvre wrote a public letter beseeching the Pope to have a change of heart. The Pope directed that the archbishop be informed his mind had not changed and reminded Lefebvre that he could not ordain his seminarians.

Lefebvre refused submission to the Pope’s order: He ordained the seminarians to the priesthood. The Vatican suspended him. The Holy See also declared that “those who have been ordained are ipso facto suspended from the order received, and, if they were to exercise it, they would be in an irregular and criminal situation” (R. Panciroli, press conference, July 1, 1976, trans. in M. Davies, p. 216).

On July 29, 1976, the Pope suspended Lefebvre a divinis. According to canonist Peter Vere, this meant Lefebvre was “now forbidden by the Holy See from the exercise of holy orders, a prohibition reserved to the Holy Father personally. In other words, his suspension was now perpetual until its absolution, and applicable to more than simply the ordination of seminarians to major orders” (Vere and William Woestman, O.M.I., “A Canonical History of the Lefebvrite Schism”). Lefebvre said, “This conciliar church is schismatic because it has taken as the basis for its updating principles opposed to those of the Catholic Church… The church that affirms errors like these is both schismatic and heretical. This conciliar church is just not Catholic.”

Things were relatively quiet after this, if you can call “quiet” the intemperate things the archbishop was saying about the Pope and the Church. On August 4, 1976, for instance, Lefebvre said, “All those who cooperate in the application of this upheaval, accept and adhere to this new conciliar church … enter into schism” (Fr. Noél Barbara, Ecône Full Stop, Fortes in Fides). This is the height of irony when one considers the definition of schism: The refusal of submission to the Roman pontiff or of communion with the members of the Church subject to him (Catechism of the Catholic Church 2089, cf. CIC, can. 751).

In 1986, Lefebvre wrote the following: “All these [pre-John XXIII] popes have resisted the union of the Church with revolution; it is an adulterous union and from such a union only bastards can come. The rite of the new mass is a bastard rite, the sacraments are bastard sacraments. We no longer know if they are sacraments, which give grace or do not give it. The priests coming out of the seminaries are bastard priests who do not know what they are. They are unaware that they are made to go up to the altar, to offer the sacrifice of Our Lord Jesus Christ and to give Jesus Christ to souls” (Marcel Lefebvre, An Open Letter to Confused Catholics [Fowler Wright Books, Ltd., for the Society of St. Pius X], p. 116).

In his August 29, 1987, letter to the four men he would later consecrate as bishops, he wrote, “The See of Peter and posts of authority in Rome being occupied by Antichrists, the destruction of the Kingdom of Our Lord is being rapidly carried out even with His Mystical Body here below” (quoted by Thomas W. Case, “The Society of St. Pius X Gets Sick,” Fidelity magazine, October 1992).

A New Olive Branch Is Rejected

Despite these and other statements, Pope John Paul II, who succeeded Paul VI in late 1978, desired reconciliation. After intensive negotiations, Lefebvre signed a protocol of agreement May 5, 1988, that would have regularized the SSPX with the rest of the Church and lifted all canonical penalties. 

The protocol stipulated that the Holy See would give the SSPX one bishop, consecrated from among the priests of its own ranks. The Society of St. Pius X would also get its own commission within the Vatican whose sole responsibility would be the care and duty of the Tridentine movement. In return, the Society agreed to recognize the validity and traditional underpinnings of both Vatican II and the Mass of Paul VI.

One day later, Lefebvre reneged on his part of the deal. He told 30 Days magazine he had decided he could not trust the Vatican because it would not give him a firm date on which he could consecrate his bishop.

“I entered these negotiations because Rome’s reactions in the second half of last year had raised in me a faint hope that these churchmen had changed. They have not changed, except for the worse. Look at Casaroli in Moscow! They have spiritual AIDS, they have no grace, their immunity defense system is gone. I do not think one can say that Rome has not lost the faith. As for eventual excommunication, its disagreeableness diminishes in time” (ibid., quoting Richard Williamson’s “Letter to Friends and Benefactors,” August 1, 1988).

As a result of this, Lefebvre informed Rome of his decision that he would consecrate three bishops, writing, “We believe it preferable to wait for times more propitious for the return of Rome to Tradition” (Letter to John Paul II, June 2, 1988, trans. in The Pope Speaks 33, p. 203). Then Lefebvre told the Pope, “We shall give ourselves the means to carry on the work that [God] has entrusted to us, being assured by His Eminence Cardinal Ratzinger’s letter of May 30 that the consecration is not contrary to the will of the Holy See, since it was granted for August 15” (ibid.).

John Paul II said any consecration would be done without papal approval and beseeched Lefebvre to honor his agreement of May 5. The archbishop subsequently announced he would ordain fourbishops. The Pope then directed Bernard Cardinal Gantin, prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, to warn Lefebvre that, if he went forward with his plans, he and the four would incur excommunication latae sententiae in accordance with canon 1382. 

The monition had no effect, and on June 30, 1988, Marcel Lefebvre illicitly consecrated Bernard Fellay, Bernard Tissier de Mallerais, Richard Williamson, and Alfonso de Galaretta as bishops. The very next day, John Paul II released Ecclesia Dei Adflicta. In addition to establishing the Ecclesia Dei commission and granting a more generous permission for the saying of the Tridentine Mass, the Pope reiterated that the “rejection of the Roman primacy [by Lefebvre and the four bishops] constitutes a schismatic act.” Cardinal Gantin confirmed that the five bishops had incurred excommunication.

It Looks like a Duck and Quacks Like a Duck . . .

The Society members ignored Rome. In fact, since 1988, they have made a cottage industry out of explaining why not only are their bishops not schismatic but why they were not really excommunicated.

SSPX apologists will tell you that the consecrations did not constitute a schismatic act but were merely an act of disobedience. Indeed, they claim that no one in the Society ever denied the Pope’s authority. But again consider the definition of schism: refusal of submission to the pope or of communion with members of the Church subject to him. When did Lefebvre and the Society submit to the authority of the pope? It is one thing to say one recognizes the pope’s authority; it is another thing to submit to that authority.

The Society says also that Lefebvre acted out of fear and a state of necessity. But fear does not apply when willfully ordaining bishops without the requisite papal mandate. Plus, the Pope had promised the Society a bishop; how could there be any state of necessity?

The Society claims it has several noted canonists on its side, such as Fr. Gerald Murray, Rosalio Jose Cardinal Castillo Lara, and Prof. Karl-Theodor Geringer, who teaches canon law at the University of Munich. But take a look at the quotes the Society uses from these men and compare them with what these men actually said, and you see the art of quoting out of context at its finest.

Regarding published a brochure backing the claims of the Society that quoted Fr. Murray in a tendentious manner (the brochure can be found at, Fr. Murray wrote to it, “You have intentionally misquoted me and even worse put words into my mouth . . . in support of your propagandistic assertions. . . . You have fabricated and falsified my remarks . . . [in] a shameful attempt to legitimize your claims. . . . I demand you withdraw this publication . . . [in which you leave] out the things I did say, but which you wish I had not said.” Fr. Murray is still waiting for satisfaction.

The SSPX is a morality tale, an example of what happens when a group sets out to be faithful to the Church but along the way decides it is a better arbiter of true Christianity than the Church it claims to follow. If we decide we know better than the Church on this or that subject, then our private judgment creeps in and we become our own magisterium. The result is that we inevitably find ourselves ever more distanced from the Church.

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