The Tragedy of Marcel Lefebvre

by Paul Stenhouse, M.S.C., Ph.D

Australian Catholics have been justifiably distressed by the excommunication of ex-Archbishop of Dakar Marcel Lefebvre.

A recent article in the Australian by Greg Sheridan (16-17/7/88) deplored the expulsion of  'a. man and a movement which on virtually all major issues are orthodox'.

Headlines like Rebels Defy Church over Mass (Sun-Herald, 7/8/88) evoke a response from many Catholics who see Archbishop Lefebvre as a pious priest who wants only to defend traditional Catholic doctrine and values.

Contributors to Correspondence columns of Australian newspapers have pointed out what they regard as the unhappy consequences of many of the reforms of Vatican II, and praised what they regard as Archbishop Lefebvre's genuine struggle to preserve the distinctive 'Catholic identity'.

A note of caution needs to be injected into the Australian debate about the fairness or otherwise of his excommunication, for there is an "X" factor that seems always to be overlooked in discussions of Integrisme, (the French term for the doctrines of Archbishop Lefebvre); and that factor is politics.

Prominent among Lefebvre's most loyal followers are former members of the French Monarchist movement Action Francaise, (condemned in 1926 by Pope Pius XI for its extreme right-wing views); disillusioned French veterans who withdrew with dishonour (in their view) from Vietnam in 1954, and who in the same year of Dien Bien Phu went on to Algeria where they fought for eight years, leaving one million dead, until they were compelled to withdraw (again, in their view, dishonourably) in 1962; as well as numerous political militants whose ambition is to set up a 'Christian' State in Europe.

When a student for the priesthood, Lefebvre had personal experience of Action Francaise, whose founder Charles Maurras, a free-thinker, saw the Catholic Church as essential for the restoration of the Monarchy in France. Maurras 'despised' the three 'evil doctrines' of the French Revolution: Liberty, Equality and Fraternity. And Lefebvre saw the rector of the Seminaire Francaise in Rome, Father Le Floch, a supporter of Action Francaise and a person whom he admired greatly, sacked because of his views.

It is well-known that Lefebvre's movement has the solid backing of the European Monarchists who are still disgruntled at what they see as the 'betrayal' of Europe's monarchical 'tradition' by Pope Paul VI through his support for the implementation of the decrees of Vatican II.

In Archbishop Lefebvre's estimation, Vatican II has attempted to apply these three "evils' of Republican France to the Church.

'Liberty,' according to him, leads to religious indifferentism, anarchy and disorder; 'Equality' leads to 'democratic' ideas in the Church — Collegiality of Bishops, Episcopal Conferences, Diocesan and National Synods, all of which he sees as destructive of authority; and 'Fraternity' spells the end of missionary endeavour, because according to him it makes all religions equal.

For him, as for Maurras, this is a 'betrayal', since salvation of the world lies in a return to the pre-Vatican II and even pre-Revolutionary France 'past' — to monarchical rule. Catholic hierarchy, culture and civilisation, in the view of Action Francaise, and of Archbishop Lefebvre, has a mission to support the monarchical political model.

In August 1986 I met up with a group of Lefebvre's French and Belgian supporters in the mountains of North Lebanon. They were housed in a Greek Orthodox Monastery, giving lectures on the evils of democracy, parliamentary government, the Pope, and the Catholic hierarchy in France.

The leader of this group, and a most vocal denouncer of the evils of democracy, and of the Church hierarchy, was a deputy in the European Parliament, elected by the special interest group of extreme Right Wing militants who have found their champion in the ageing Marcel Lefebvre.

Many of the European nobility whose wealth and titles can be traced to Papal patronage have remained loyal to the Church and not tried to use it as a springboard to attain twentieth century political power.

Not all Europe's aristocratic families have been able to resist the temptation, however, and many of these were mightily offended when Pope Paul VI disbanded the Noble Guard and the ~ Palatine Guard of Honour, and annulled all prerogatives that formerly had been granted to the nobility. The Pope did this symbolically to cut ties that have existed for over a millenium, to enable the Church to turn towards the Third World with greater credibility.

The Integrists and their supporters have taken every opportunity to discredit all the Pontiffs since Pius XII.

Paul VI was especially hated by them. In December 1975 Vers Demain a Canadian journal of the Integristes claimed that the real Pope Paul VI had been kidnapped, and a Marxist look-alike created by plastic surgery had taken his place as head of the Church.

Lefebvre's dislike for Cardinal Villot, Paul Vi's Secretary of State, and for the Vatican Curia generally, is well-documented. This has led some commentators to suggest that the unnamed well- placed Italians who allegedly suggested to the author of In God's Name that Pope John Paul I had been murdered because he was planning on reversing the direction of the post-Vatican II Church, were in fact monarchist supporters of the rebel Archbishop.

It would be na´ve in the extreme to claim that Lefebvre was excommunicated solely because of his support for truly traditional Catholic values; or because the post-Vatican II Church was jealous of his success in attracting seminarians to Econe.

As Pope Paul VI said many times, if all that Archbishop Lefebvre wanted was permission to say Mass in the Latin according to the Rite of Pius V, he would have granted it gladly.

But sadly, the seminary of Econe is not, as Lefebvre claims, just a Traditional' seminary like all those that existed prior to the Council. No pre-Vatican II seminary formed its priests in a spirit of opposition to the reigning Pope, to an Ecumenical Council, or to the teaching authority of the Church.

No pre-Vatican II seminaries demanded that students for the priesthood reject the official Catholic Church, in order to adhere to some allegedly 'faithful' Church for which in the words of Marcel Lefebvre, 'disobedience (to the Pope) is a serious obligation'.

Followers of Lefebvre are not alone among Catholics in their anxiety about the preservation of Catholic tradition and the integrity of Catholic doctrine and practice.

But Archbishop Lefebvre's hatred for religious ecumenism rings hollow in the light of the political ecumenism which he espouses in the spirit of Charles Maurras, where believers and unbelievers unite to impose their Right Wing political line on the Catholic Church.

The Marcel Lefebvre who wrote to Pope Paul VI in September 1976 of his 'unreserved allegiance to the Holy See and to the Vicar of Christ,' and in another breath describes the Pope and the Roman Curia as 'disciples of the Father of lies' and the Vatican as 'more than ever an instrument for destroying the faith' Sun Herald, 7/8/88), seems to have more in common with Martin Luther than with St Athanasius, St Hilary or St John Fisher to whom he has been likened by his supporters (L'Aurore, 15/1/76).

For it was Martin Luther who in 1518 wrote to Pope Leo X, 'Whether you give me life or death, approve or reprove, as you may judge best, I will harken to your voice as to that of Christ himself. Yet no sooner did the Pope find fault with his teaching than the former Augustinian monk published a book entitled 'Against the detestable Bull of the Antichrist,' and launched into a virulent campaign of hate that ended with the Articles of Schmalkald in which the doctrine that the Pope was the Antichrist was elevated to an article of 'faith'.

Those who choose to follow Marcel Lefebvre into excommunication from the Catholic Church need to realise that they are unconsciously involving themselves in issues much wider than whether Mass is offered in Latin, or whether the Green catechism is used for religious instruction in schools.

From "Annals Australia" July 1988