The Annunciation and Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre

A blessed feast of the Annunciation to all.

Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre died on this day in 1991. The Annunciation represents a glorious beginning, a new season of hope. It seems that Heaven wanted to emphasize a new season of hope in the death of this “great man of the universal Church”. Because of his work, all was not lost, the devastation was not complete, and there is hope for future generations. We who, 23 years later, enjoy the privilege of assisting at the ancient Latin liturgy owe Archbishop Lefebvre a tremendous debt of gratitude.

He could have chosen another path. Obedience would have been easy. He could have kept his beloved Mass, his old fashioned spirituality, and perhaps even his priests and seminary for a time. He would have been praised universally for his humble obedience. He would have enjoyed the society of Rome and might even have been made a cardinal. He would have died in concord with the pope, without enduring the malicious taunts of “schism”, and without the bitter grief of “excommunicate” affixed to his name. He was precisely the kind of Catholic for whom schism and excommunication held the greatest terror. But then, if he had chosen this easy path, he would have left us nothing – and countless despairing souls would have been lost. Instead he placed the glory of God and the salvation of souls over his own good name and reputation. He chose tribulation over comfort, calumny over praise, and the death of an exile – “on the existential peripheries”, if you like – in order to pass on the treasures he had received.

All of the canonically regular traditional orders owe their existence to Archbishop Lefebvre.

All of the Ecclesia Dei communities owe their existence to Archbishop Lefebvre.

Summorum Pontificum would not exist but for Archbishop Lefebvre.

Indeed, the Society of Saint Pius X serves as perhaps the most salient check on Modernism in the Church, as they are virtually the only clerics who can speak out publicly without fear of reprisals.

And yet, for all of these gifts, ungrateful men who should know better – men who are undeniable beneficiaries of Archbishop Lefebvre’s great sacrifices – continue to wage a relentless campaign against him and the Society he founded. It’s not enough for such men to disagree; they must discredit him entirely. They exhibit all the signs of envious souls who, lacking his courage, must assuage their bad consciences.

22 thoughts on “The Annunciation and Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre

  1. Jeff, obedience to legitimate authority always trumps courage. I feel terrible about how the situation developed and proceeded, but the disobedience of the Archbishop cannot be defended. Who knows what impact he would have had working within the Church.


  2. Jim, I think ABL would have had the same impact that so many others had who worked within the authorized structures. There are many statements by prelates who were unhappy with the revolution, but they chose obedience and had zero long-term effect. Every Catholic understands that the imperative of obedience is never absolute. With respect to the consecrations, canon law provides for emergency measures. The only dispute is whether ABL faced a crisis of sufficient magnitude to justify his actions. I think it’s clear that he did.


  3. In “Witness to Hope,” when then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was discussing the Lefebvrist controversy with George Weigel, he described Abp. Lefebvre as “a very difficult man.” While he may have felt obliged in conscience to give as generous an assessment as he could of Abp. Lefebvre to the SSPX in his capacity as pope, Benedict’s private view of the man was quite different. One might go so far as to speculate that he acted similarly when Cardinal Carlo Martini died: Generous praise of the good Martini had done on the occasion of his death, while still having private reservations about Martini’s deficits.

    I agree with those who say that Abp. Lefebvre did not “save” the Tridentine, but in fact nearly killed it. It was in large part because of him and the illicit ordinations he insisted on performing that the TLM was seen as an identifying mark of potential schism, hardening episcopal hearts against allowing it in their dioceses. The ones responsible for saving the TLM were John Paul II with Ecclesia Dei and Benedict XVI with Summorum Pontificum.


  4. A word to anyone who wants to comment on this thread: Respectful disagreement is welcome. But if you insult your blog host, Archbishop Lefebvre, or the SSPX; or are otherwise rash and uncharitable; or if your comment is just too high maintenance (as determined by me); or if you simply cannot be trusted to behave, your comment will not be published. Thanks for understanding.


  5. Michelle, I want to thank both you and Jim for respectful comments on a volatile topic.

    First, if ABL was a schismatic, Pope Benedict XVI would never have referred to him as “a great man of the universal Church” – not even to be polite.

    Second, it just isn’t historically credible that the “hardening of episcopal hearts”, which slammed the door on the TLM, was the result of the 1988 consecrations because they were perceived as schismatic and illicit. How does this explain the near-universal suppression of the TLM from 1969-1988? This theory ignores the fierce ideological hostility of the bishops to the TLM itself due its perceived defects.

    Ecclesia Dei was a direct result of the Econe consecrations. The TLM was dead in the water before then. Is there any evidence that this liberalization would have been granted otherwise? Why, then, did Rome wait for nearly 20 years before acting?

    Summorum Pontifum was the first response to three prerequisites of the SSPX before accepting a new canonical structure from Rome: 1) universal permission for 1962 missal; 2) lifting of excommunications; 3) doctrinal talks with Rome. I have seen no evidence that this permission would have been granted apart from the SSPX’s specific requirements.


  6. Jeff, There are many instances in the history of the Catholic Church where obedience to legitimate authority, even when it was mistaken grew great saints-Padre Pio to name a recent one. He unjustly prohibited from exercising public ministry but his obedience resulted in great things for the Church eventually. When our Blessed Mother appears she ALWAYS tells the seers to obey their local priests and bishops even if they contradict what she has said. Obedience brings santification. Disobedience, as evidenced by these past years, brings separation and discord. Legitimate authority only loses its legitimacy when it orders sinful actions.



    • Jim, I certainly agree that obedience to legitimate authority is necessary, even (and sometimes especially) when that authority is mistaken. It’s an important principle, but not the highest principle.

      Problems arise when rebellion is cloaked in obedience, as has been the case in the past 40+ years, resulting in great harm to souls. Obedience to a wholesale rebellion against tradition and the magisterium, no matter how subtle and no matter who demands it, cannot possibly be obligatory. Obedience to the post-conciliar novelties has not resulted in unity or sanctification.

      ABL was faced with the kind of false obedience that actually undermines the principle of authority. Indeed we can see that, empirically and historically, that is exactly what happened in the Church. Never has disobedience among Catholics been so ubiquitous and even respectable. That isn’t the fault of Archbishop Lefebvre. Rebellion begets rebellion, and complicity cannot be justified in the name of obedience.


    • Here’s a good example of why the SSPX is still necessary:

      Now then, what do you suppose would happen if a diocesan priest spoke up about this, charitably explained the heresy of indifferentism from the perennial magisterium, and warned his flock not to participate in the event on pain of sin? Don’t think there wouldn’t be severe reprisals. If this good priest were fortunate enough to retain his faculties, he would most likely be assigned to the nearest prison chaplaincy or nursing home (which are extremely important ministries, of course, but the truth would be effectively suppressed).

      I suppose it’s pointless to imagine such a scenario: diocesan seminaries do a pretty good job of screening their candidates.


      • Jeff, you don[t address if my examples have any merit. But I stand firm, nothing justifies sin for anyone. God will work with and through the faithful and obedient. He has shown this time and time again. This is why Long-suffering is one of the fruits of the Holy Spirit. God bless! Jim


      • Jim, your examples do have merit. But I don’t believe they are relevant in this case. There was no sin in Padre Pio’s obedience, no complicity with sin, no harm to souls, no contempt for the tradition of the Church, no rebellion against God. Likewise with respect to the obedience of visionaries. That’s just not the case when it comes to the present hierarchy which, all too often, demands silence and complicity in rebellion and contempt for pre-conciliar magisterial authority. Of course nothing justifies sin, ever. My point is that disobedience is not always sin.


  7. Winnipeg Statement,communion in the hand ,Died for many not for all, Buddhist statue place on top of the tabernacle in Assisi, Cardinal Mahony,Bernardin,Annibale Bugnini,,,,,etc General Absolution abuse, Arch Bishop Weakland. Dutch Catechism, The Legion of Christ cover up, Mount cashel NFLD, WYD Communion in Plastic cups Gay Priesthood (good buy good men) No salvation outside the Church(four letter language). The oath against modernism dropped…….etc

    Father Paul said, he had to find a Bishop to ordain him because the seminary wouldn’t recommend him to be ordain so he said Quote” i had to find a Bishop who ordain anybody with B%%%s” his words

    So if you think Archbishop Lefebvre did not have emergency on his hands what do you consider a emergency?

    Fr. Paul Nicholson

    Fr. Paul Nicholson blasts Abp. Marcel Lefebvre on anniversary of his death, compares SSPX to Medjugorje advocates


  8. John Murray;

    I have never claimed any such thing. I deleted your ludicrous claim from my blog. You haven’t the foggiest notion of what you are raving about.


  9. Obedience isn’t really a distinct virtue, if it isn’t something distinct from just doing what you think is good. It’s distinctness comes from this: you submit your own judgment about the best way to proceed for the good to another person’s judgment about the best way to proceed for the good. This submission is rational when it takes place in its proper place, namely, submission to one who has authority to command in this matter at hand.

    There are two sorts of authority, original and received. Original authority resides with Him who is the original author of creation (though, in a analogous sense, an author of a story has “authority” to make his characters do what he wants). All creatures who have authority have it because they receive it, ultimately from God, though it may be mediately through men. The reason this distinction is important is that received authority, by its nature, is limited. It is limited in two important ways: it is limited as to sphere – nobody is an authority over others on every single matter – and it is limited by relation to God – no creature with received authority has the authority to overturn God’s law. So, when we rational creatures, we humans with free will are required by moral obligation to submit to a creature with received authority, each and every such command is open to 2 questions: Is this command outside your jurisdiction (subject matter) to give, and does this command contradict God’s law (which includes natural law also)? A positive answer to either one means that the apparent law is no law, it is not binding because it is not authoritative, it does not legitimately descend from the true and ultimate source of authority.

    (These questions do not obtain for commands that come directly from God: “is this outside your authority” or “does this contradict God’s law” are automatically answered in the negative for commands that come from God. That’s why Abraham was absolutely right to obey God’s command to take Isaac up the mountain to offer him as sacrifice. In spite of the fact that human sacrifice is not something God normally requires and in spite of the fact that God had promised to make of Abraham a great race specifically through Isaac. Abraham displayed heroic faith and obedience in this.)

    The virtue of obedience then comes out to the fore when the person in authority judges X will be better than Y for all of us, and therefore commands “you are to do X” when you come to the judgment that Y would be better than X. If the subject matter is within his scope of authority, and if neither X nor Y are, of their own nature, contradictory to God’s law, then your being subordinate to the superior means precisely that virtue (and God) require you to follow along and do X rather than Y.

    I don’t claim to know perfectly all of what the laws of the Church demand in terms of liturgical requirements and permissions, but as far as I can tell, it is impossible for a faithful Catholic to think that the Pope has no authority to formulate changes to the order of the Mass, as long as it retains the essential sacrificial core of a re-presentation of Christ’s sacrifice. So, even if the Novus Ordo is objectively less than satisfactory than the LM, the Church (and the Pope) commanding its use is within their scope of authority.

    I think the same pretty much applies to the ordination of bishops: maybe canon law was written was poorly, maybe the Pope chose poorly in telling ABL not to ordain those men, but as far as I can tell the Church and the Pope have the authority to tell a bishop not to ordain someone a bishop. So, on both matters, scope of authority says these were matters where ABL was subject to orders.

    For the other question, although it can be a little troublesome trying to decide “does this law contradict God’s law,” people often try to create ambiguity where it doesn’t really exist. For instance, in the earliest days of the Church, the Mass had not yet settled into its eventual Trid form. (For one thing, in the earliest days, the Mass was not in Latin, and was not performed in Rome). So it is not fundamentally contrary to the nature of the Church that she be without the LM. Nor are there any direct commands from God that we celebrate the Mass in this form. Nor is there any basis for ABL to say to himself “for the Church to be without bishops ready to defy Rome in order to keep the LM is contrary to God’s law.” So, I have trouble locating a REAL justification for ABL to set aside the law and follow his own judgment.

    That said, I must agree with our Blogmaster that we who appreciate the LM have certainly received a great benefit as the result of ABL’s resistance to Rome. And those who levy the charge of schismatic need to tread very cautiously indeed. But I tend to think this is an example of God writing straight with crooked lines. One thing we should always be aware of is that even though God manages to bring great good out of our wrong acts like disobedience, we cannot be certain that He hadn’t prepared something even better had we been obedient. C.S. Lewis had something to say to that: “nobody is ever told what would have been…”


  10. Thanks for this comment, Tony. You wrote:

    “The virtue of obedience then comes out to the fore when the person in authority judges X will be better than Y for all of us, and therefore commands ‘you are to do X’ when you come to the judgment that Y would be better than X. If the subject matter is within his scope of authority, and if neither X nor Y are, of their own nature, contradictory to God’s law, then your being subordinate to the superior means precisely that virtue (and God) require you to follow along and do X rather than Y.”

    Agreed, but we must be clear that limits exist even in this scenario.

    Take the case of a child whose father believes in feeding his children only meat and potatoes, and no fruit or vegetables. What to feed his children is clearly within the scope of the father’s legitimate authority. Furthermore, there is no sin in eating meat and potatoes – so the father isn’t commanding that his child do anything contradictory to God’s law. But the child soon learns that a healthy diet requires fruit and vegetables, and so he believes himself compelled to disobey his father and leave the house for a time until his father, whom he loves and reveres and obeys in everything he can, comes to his senses. Is the child’s disobedience a sin? I think not. The only thing in dispute is whether the child’s “disobedience” is morally optional or morally obligatory.


    • Taking the analogy a step further, can we say that it is sinful to cooperate with the father? Let’s say that other children are still in the house. They are severely malnourished. Is it right for the child who left his father’s house to cooperate with the father’s program of malnourishment? If his father requires that he go grocery shopping for meat and potatoes on his way to Sunday dinner with the family, is he morally obligated to do so? Also – would it be wrong for the child to warn the other children of the problem? Would it be wrong for the child to correct his father in their presence? You can see where this is going …


  11. Jeff, there are always difficult areas, and there is no question ABL’s situation was difficult in some sense. As is the child’s situation that you present. Here is what I would say: suppose the child first learns of the need for a balanced diet with fruits and veggies in school. Should he just simply disobey his father and eat what HE thinks is a healthy diet? No, I don’t think that is what virtue implies. He should bring his problem to Dad. “Dad, science seems to think that health requires fruits & veggies, but you won’t allow us to eat them – why not?” Well, son, it turns out that our family has allergies to 99% of fruits and veggies, that’s why I give you supplements that you never knew about.” Or maybe some other reason. Until the child asks, the child doesn’t know whether Dad’s reason for the command is better or worse than the need for balanced diet, and he shouldn’t make an assumption.

    But let’s suppose that Dad’s answer is dumb, such as “this is what my father fed me, so it’s what I am feeding you.” Or worse, “I don’t care whether your diet is healthy or not, I don’t like fruits and veggies.” This last would make it clear that Dad’s command is not even intended for the good of the community – which is the basis of law, and thus fails of one of the necessary elements of law. And thus would fail to be binding. If the former (my father did it, so…), the child can pursue the issue with reason: Did Grandpa know modern science has proven the need for vitamins that are present only in fruit & veggies?” If Dad persists in an unreasonable stance that refuses to consider the good as known, that refusal to apply reason shows a command divorced from ANOTHER aspect of the nature of law: St. Thomas says law is “nothing else but an ordinance of reason for the common good.” Something that explicitly does not derive from reason fails to be law.

    But if Dad’s response is one that accepts that reason must play its part in identifying the good, and after weighing all the facts (and the plausibility that attaches to the so-called “facts” that are doubtful, as is often the case) and STILL comes to the conclusion that “no, a diet with fruit & veggies is not better”, is the child justified in disobeying? Even if he is convinced that Dad got the judgment call wrong? Well, the only way to say that the child is justified in disobeying is to accept that the child’s judgment shall trump Dad’s on the matter. (If the child is old enough to leave the house for a time, he thereby puts himself outside of Dad’s immediate authority, so his obligation to obey changes also.)

    Spiritual advisors and saints repeatedly tell us that if a person in authority makes a mistake of judgment, we are required to obey anyway. God knows what the superior is going to command, and if He doesn’t want to put you in a position of having to do something that is objectively harmful to the common good (though not intrinsically wrong), He will prevent the superior from giving that command. If God doesn’t prevent it, then our falling into that situation where we are (sometimes quite rightly) confident that the command is harmful overall, is comparable to God putting us into a natural disaster – something where we must suffer the ills of the situation in good heart. To suffer the foolish superior is, precisely, what God wants of us.


    • Tony, I tried to craft an analogy where obedience would result in definite harm: malnutrition, disease (rickets), early death in the case of all meat and no vegetables. It’s true that we are called to suffer “the foolish superior”, and that obedience when there is full agreement is without merit. But an obedient son, though in a position to help, would have been complicit in bringing serious harm to himself and his siblings – regardless of whether his father’s motives were malicious or pure or just confused.

      In the case of Lefebvre, he believed that his obedience would have involved complicity in the spiritual “malnutrition” and probably death of countless souls, the salvation of souls being the highest law (Canon 1752). I think our present circumstances – the vast spiritual desolation that now grips the Church everywhere – vindicate the archbishop’s judgment. Obedience cannot possibly be obligatory if it requires that one cooperate in bringing harm to souls.

      Could God have circumvented Lefebvre and provided for the continuation of Catholic Tradition without his disobedience? Of course. Can we presume that God would have done so? I’m not prepared to agree, though I will admit that there is virtue in that kind of absolute trust in divine providence. The FSSP staked everything on this, in an act of great faith. (But let’s remember that the founders of the FSSP were not troubled by their previous status as canonically suspended due to their disobedience! It was the consecrations, and not the archbishop’s disobedience in other matters, to which they objected). To my limited understanding, there seems to be merit in both approaches, each of which derive from intense fidelity to the Faith and seem to involve impossible odds. I fault neither side for their choices, but if it were me, I would have prayed for the courage and serenity to act as Lefebvre acted.


  12. While I have a lot of issues with the Society, I certainly have a good deal more sympathy for the man than I did early on. There’s a quote from him in de Mattei’s history of Vatican II that was heart-rending and nigh unto irrefutable. I will post it when I get the chance.


    • Likewise, Dale. Please share that quote when you can. Pope Francis, along with certain events here locally, have really forced me to re-examine my old prejudices with respect to Archbishop Lefebvre and the SSPX. In many cases, my previous opinions were clearly erroneous or, at best, uninformed.

      The SSPX has plenty of blemishes, mainly having to do with certain unbalanced personalities in the ranks of the laity who tend to be loud and obnoxious. But this is going to be a problem with any movement that resists the mainstream for whatever reason. A scene from Fr. Benson’s “Lord of the World” comes to mind. I think Bishop Fellay is making a great effort to restore a Catholic “sense of normal” to the Society, possibly in preparation for its new role as a lifeboat for refugees in the months and years to come. The Society’s challenge will be to restrain a self-righteous elder brother impulse and to receive the great unwashed as they (we!) are, as Lefebvre did in the mission fields, while teaching with great patience and charity.


  13. But an obedient son, though in a position to help,

    One of the ways of interpreting the virtue of obedience disputes this characterization: the son had no position to help. Yes, he was in a “position to help” absent the consideration of obedience, sure. But the full description of his position is that he was under obedience on the matter, and the command was not itself immoral, and so he was not in a position to refuse to obey. That position left him no room to fix the problem DIRECTLY. Though, the obedient son always has the right to pray for help, to ask others to help, to offer sacrifice for grace for his superior, and so on. And to offer up his obedience as a sacrifice to God. All of these are helping indirectly, not just “doing nothing to help.”

    Complicity in another’s evil implies first that you are free to comply or not comply. That you are not obligated one way or another by higher obligations. But that’s just what is at issue: ABL had obligations, of course, not to be complicity in matters on which he was free to decide. That’s entirely true, and good priests have often had to walk very fine lines in refusing to “go along with” things that were truly not matters of obedience but were matters of expectation, pressure, and so on. Nor should ABL have gone along with any commands that were objectively sinful of themselves. I don’t think, though, that “not continuing to say mass according to the ancient order” can be called objectively sinful of itself. Nor can “not ordaining men who will continue to say the mass according to the ancient order regardless of orders from Rome”.

    That’s my 2 cents. I don’t think that we will ever be able to sort out just how much grief ABL saved us from, and how much his actions actually caused, until the end of time. But it is certainly true that the Church mishandled him from early days, and my personal opinion is that JPII mishandled him rather gravely indeed. That’s just my opinion.


    • Tony, I do see your point, and ordinarily it is a given in the spiritual life. The idea that the son is morally obligated to obey his father in this matter – even at the price of great physical harm to himself, up to and including death – strikes me as untenable but perhaps not out of the question. Let me ponder that one. But what of his siblings who are perishing? This changes the dynamic. Assuming that he has tried everything else (Abp. Lefebvre tried for 20 years before the consecrations) to save his siblings, there comes a point when obedience to his father, for him, may indeed be regarded as disobedience to a higher law.

      Archbishop Lefebvre saw that the Catholic people were starving, perishing, and after 20 years there was still no hope coming from his lawful superiors. His time was running out. A minimum of three bishops are customary for episcopal consecrations, as a safeguard, and these bishops had to come from somewhere if the Faith were to continue in all its integrity. He acted. I can understand how, at the time, the consecrations might have been regarded as a sin by good Catholics with infinite patience. But we have the advantage of hindsight: 25 years of impossibly murky water under the bridge since 1988, when virtually no help came from Roman authorities that was not literally squeezed out of them by the SSPX. Personally, I believe the archbishop is more than vindicated.


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