Once upon a time, things got really bad in the Church. People were losing the faith. Many of the clergy became lax. One wondered if the pope cared as much about souls as he did approval from the world.
Then a clergyman stepped forward and proclaimed a need to return to the past. Only by bringing back the “ancient ways” could the Church be saved. And disobedience to the pope would be required.
By the way, that man was Martin Luther. Did we fool you?
The actions of Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, founder of the Society of St. Pius X, were not nearly as bad as Martin Luther’s. But his move to “save” the Church is based on a similar justification — disobedience to the legitimate authority of the pope.
Archbishop Lefebvre defied Pope John Paul II by ordaining four bishops to preserve the pre-Vatican II traditions of the Church. The pope declared that Archbishop Lefebvre excommunicated himself from the Church after this act.
Many Traditionalists wisely steer clear of Archbishop Lefebvre and the SSPX. Yet some insist that the archbishop was in the right and his ordinations were necessary to preserve the true faith.
Here’s why they’re wrong.
Archbishop Lefebvre infringed on the divine right of the pope.
By ordaining bishops against the pope’s wishes, Archbishop Lefebvre tried to usurp the Roman primacy. Just as Christ alone chose His apostles, so too the Vicar of Christ alone chooses the successors to the apostles. It is the exclusive right of the pope to select, consecrate, and send bishops.
This is the teaching of the Church, going way back to pre-Vatican popes. For example, Pope Pius IX affirmed that Christ gave Peter and his successors the exclusive right to choose bishops. Other popes and councils concur. The question is, why did Archbishop Lefebvre claim to defend tradition while rejecting this MAJOR part of that tradition?
The Church warned Archbishop Lefebvre not to go through with the ordination.
It wasn’t as if Archbishop Lefebvre consecrated the four bishops and then learned about Rome’s disapproval the next morning. Both parties were in correspondence about this for a long time. The Vatican even showed a willingness to meet some of the archbishop’s wishes. But Archbishop Lefebvre decided to take matters into his own hands, which, let’s admit it, shows a real lack of trust in God’s providence.
“But Pope Francis…”
When talking about Archbishop Lefebvre’s problems, it’s common for apologists for the SSPX to immediately point to the current pope: “Well, look at all the horrible stuff Francis has done! Why aren’t we talking about that?”
First of all, many critics of Archbishop Lefebvre (ourselves included) have not shied away from criticizing the craziness going on in the Church today — even among the hierarchy.
Second, deflecting attention away from the archbishop does nothing to absolve his guilt. What he did was wrong. It’s as if someone accused Johnny of lying, but Johnny’s friend responded, “Well, at least he didn’t steal a car like Bobby.” Even if Bobby’s actions were worse, we shouldn’t give Johnny a free pass.
Are there clergymen today who are worse than Archbishop Lefebvre? Of course. But right now we are talking about Archbishop Lefebvre, not them.
As we’ve said before, you can sympathize with Archbishop Lefebvre on many issues. He rightfully pointed out that many clergy seemed intent on destroying so much of our beautiful Catholic tradition.
But Christ is the ultimate head of the Church and He made the pope His vicar on earth. One cannot choose the successors of the apostles in defiance of the pope.
This is the tradition of the Church. If admirers of Archbishop Lefebvre truly support tradition, they need to abide by this truth and stop letting the archbishop off the hook.