Pope Paul VI's Letter to Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre
“[The Council] has invested its teachings with the authority of the supreme ordinary magisterium, which ordinary magisterium is so obviously authentic that it must be accepted with docility and sincerity by all the faithful, according to the mind of the Council as expressed in the nature and aims of the individual documents.”
— Pope St. Paul VI
Introduction + Background
Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre (1905-1991) was a traditionalist French archbishop and ardent critic of Vatican II who founded the once schismatic, and still canonically irregular, Society of Saint Pius X (SSPX). Though Archbishop Lefebvre participated in the Council, and signed each of its sixteen documents signaling his approval, he became dispirited at how the Council was implemented.
After his Society was stripped of its canonical status in 1975, Lefebvre had a choice to make. He could halt SSPX activities while pursuing reconciliation between the Society and the Church, or move ahead with his plans despite Vatican resistance. He chose the latter. Lefebvre announced that on June 29, 1976, he intended to ordain several new seminarians at the SSPX seminary. After this announcement, Lefebvre immediately received clear instructions from Pope Paul VI forbidding Lefebvre to carry out these illicit ordinations, warning of the canonical penalties for Lefebvre himself and those he would ordain.
Tensions came to a head on September 11, 1976, when Lefebvre visited the Pope in person to discuss several matters: illicit ordinations, the Society, and his grievances concerning the Second Vatican Council. Unfortunately, the meeting did not go well. Lefebvre remained stridently against Vatican II and refused to accept the Pope's terms for reconciliation.
A month later, in October 1976, Pope Paul VI sent the letter below to Archbishop Lefebvre. The letter is little known today but still important for several reasons. First, it identifies the seriousness of Lefebvre's behavior. Second, the Pope outlines his conditions for rectifying matters, including a call that Lefebvre affirm his adherence to Vatican II. Finally, the Pope responds to several of Lefebvre's major criticisms of Vatican II, complaints that have been revived by many in the Church today.
Sadly, the letter didn't resolve the tensions. In 1988, Lefebvre, then in his eighties, announced plans to consecrate four new bishops for the SSPX to carry on his work and allow for future ordinations, even without permission from the Holy See. Unauthorized consecration incurs automatic excommunication, and sadly, Lefebvre died in this state of excommunication.
(The text of the Pope’s letter below has been taken from Origins, NC Documentary Service, December 16, 1976. It was reprinted in The Pope, the Council, and the Mass: Answers to Questions the Traditionalists Have Asked (Emmaus Road Publishing, 2006) and has been posted here with the publisher's gracious permission.)
Letter from Pope Paul VI to Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre
October 11, 1976
When We received you in audience on last September 11 at Castel Gandolfo, We let you freely express your position and your desires, even though the various aspects of your case were already well known to Us personally. The memory that We still have of your zeal for the faith and the apostolate, as well as of the good you have accomplished in the past at the service of the church, made Us and still makes Us hope that you will once again become an edifying subject in full ecclesial communion. After the particularly serious actions that you have performed, We have once more asked you to reflect before God concerning your duty.
We have waited a month. The attitude to which your words and acts publicly testify does not seem to have changed. It is true that We have before Us your letter of September 16, in which you affirm: “A common point unites us: the ardent desire to see the cessation of all the abuses that disfigure the church. How I wish to collaborate in this salutary work, with Your Holiness and under Your authority, so that the church may recover her true countenance.”
How must these few words to which your response is limited—and which in themselves are positive—be interpreted? You speak as if you have forgotten your scandalous words and gestures against ecclesial communion—words and gestures that you have never retracted! You do not manifest repentance, even for the cause of your suspension a divinis. You do not explicitly express your acceptance of the authority of the Second Vatican Council and of the Holy See—and this constitutes the basis of the problem—and you continue in those personal works of yours which the legitimate authority has expressly ordered you to suspend. Ambiguity results from the duplicity of your language. On Our part, as We promised you, We are herewith sending you the conclusion of Our reflections.
1. In practice you put yourself forward as the defender and spokesman of the faithful and of priests “torn apart by what is happening in the church,” thus giving the sad impression that the Catholic faith and the essential values of tradition are not sufficiently respected and lived in a portion of the people of God, at least in certain countries. But in your interpretations of the facts and in the particular role that you assign yourself, as well as in the way in which you accomplish this role, there is something that misleads the people of God and deceives souls of good will who are justly desirous of fidelity and of spiritual and apostolic progress.
Deviations in the faith or in sacramental practice are certainly very grave, wherever they occur. For a long period of time they have been the object of Our full doctrinal and pastoral attention. Certainly one must not forget the positive signs of spiritual renewal or of increased responsibility in a good number of Catholics, or the complexity of the cause of the crisis: the immense change in today’s world affects believers at the edge of their being, and renders ever more necessary apostolic concern for those “who are far away.”
But it remains true that some priests and members of the faithful mask with the name “conciliar” those personal interpretations and erroneous practices that are injurious, even scandalous, and at times sacrilegious. But these abuses cannot be attributed either to the Council itself or to the reforms that have legitimately issued therefrom, but rather to a lack of authentic fidelity in their regard. You want to convince the faithful that the proximate cause of the crisis is more than a wrong interpretation of the Council and that it flows from the Council itself.
Moreover, you act as if you had a particular role in this regard. But the mission of discerning and remedying the abuses is first of all Ours; it is the mission of all the bishops who work together with Us. Indeed We do not cease to raise our Voice against these excesses: Our discourse to the consistory of last May 21 repeated this in clear terms. More than anyone else We hear the suffering of distressed Christians, and We respond to the cry of the faithful longing for faith and the spiritual life. This is not the place to remind you, brother, of all the acts of Our pontificate that testify to Our constant concern to ensure for the church fidelity to the true tradition, and to enable her with God’s grace to face the present and future.
Finally, your behavior is contradictory. You want, so you say, to remedy the abuses that disfigure the church; you regret that authority in the church is not sufficiently respected; you wish to safeguard authentic faith, esteem for the ministerial priesthood and fervor for the eucharist in its sacrificial and sacramental fullness. Such zeal would, in itself, merit our encouragement, since it is a question of exigencies which, together with evangelization and the unity of Christians, remain at the heart of Our preoccupations and of Our mission.
But how can you at the same time, in order to fulfill this role, claim that you are obliged to act contrary to the recent Council in opposition to your brethren in the episcopate, to distrust the Holy See itself—which you call the “Rome of the neo-modernist and neo-Protestant tendency”—and to set yourself up in open disobedience to Us? If you truly want to work “under Our authority,” as you affirm in your last private letter, it is immediately necessary to put an end to these ambiguities and contradictions.
2. Let us come now to the more precise requests which you formulated during the audience of September 11. You would like to see recognized the right to celebrate Mass in various places of worship according to the Tridentine rite. You wish also to continue to train candidates for the priesthood according to your criteria, “as before the Council,” in seminaries apart, as at Ecône. But behind these questions and other similar ones, which We shall examine later on in detail, it is truly necessary to see the intricacy of the problem: and the problem is theological. For these questions have become concrete ways of expressing an ecclesiology that is warped in essential points.
What is indeed at issue is the question—which must truly be called fundamental—of your clearly proclaimed refusal to recognize in its whole, the authority of the Second Vatican Council and that of the pope. This refusal is accompanied by an action that is oriented towards propagating and organizing what must indeed, unfortunately, be called a rebellion. This is the essential issue, and it is truly untenable.
Is it necessary to remind you that you are Our brother in the episcopate and moreover—a fact that obliges you to remain even more closely united to the See of Peter—that you have been named an assistant at the papal throne? Christ has given the supreme authority in his Church to Peter and to the apostolic college, that is, to the Pope and to the college of bishops una cum Capite.
In regard to the pope, every Catholic admits that the words of Jesus to Peter determine also the charge of Peter’s legitimate successors: “…whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven” (Mt 16:19); “…feed my sheep” (Jn 21:17); “…confirm your brethren” (Lk 22:32). And the First Vatican Council specified in these terms the assent due to the sovereign pontiff: “The pastors of every rank and of every rite and the faithful, each separately and all together, are bound by the duty or hierarchical subordination and of true obedience, not only in questions of faith and morals, but also in those that touch upon the discipline and government of the Church throughout the entire world. Thus, by preserving the unity of communion and of profession of faith with the Roman pontiff, the church is a single flock under one pastor. Such is the doctrine of Catholic truth, from which no one can separate himself without danger for his faith and his salvation” (Dogmatic Constitution Pastor Aeternus, Ch. 3, DZ 3060).
Concerning bishops united with the sovereign pontiff, their power with regard to the universal church is solemnly exercised in the ecumenical councils, according to the words of Jesus to the body of the apostles: “…whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven” (Mt 18:18). And now in your conduct you refuse to recognize, as must be done, these two ways in which supreme authority is exercised.
Each bishop is indeed an authentic teacher for preaching to the people entrusted to him that faith which must guide their thoughts and conduct and dispel the errors that menace the flock. But, by their nature, “the charges of teaching and governing…cannot be exercised except in hierarchical communion with the head of the college and with its members” (Constitution Lumen Gentium, 21; cf. also 25). A fortiori, a single bishop without a canonical mission does not have in actu expedito ad agendum, the faculty of deciding in general what the rule of faith is or of determining what tradition is. In practice you are claiming that you alone are the judge of what tradition embraces.
You say that you are subject to the Church and faithful to tradition by the sole fact that you obey certain norms of the past that were decreed by the predecessor of him to whom God has today conferred the powers given to Peter. That is to say, on this point also, the concept of “tradition” that you invoke is distorted.
Tradition is not a rigid and dead notion, a fact of a certain static sort which at a given moment of history blocks the life of this active organism which is the Church, that is, the mystical body of Christ. It is up to the pope and to councils to exercise judgment in order to discern in the traditions of the Church that which cannot be renounced without infidelity to the Lord and to the Holy Spirit—the deposit of faith—and that which, on the contrary, can and must be adapted to facilitate the prayer and the mission of the Church throughout a variety of times and places, in order better to translate the divine message into the language of today and better to communicate it, without an unwarranted surrender of principles.
Hence tradition is inseparable from the living magisterium of the Church, just as it is inseparable from sacred scripture. “Sacred tradition, sacred scripture and the magisterium of the church. . . . are so linked and joined together that one of these realities cannot exist without the others, and that all of them together, each in its own way, effectively contribute under the action of the Holy Spirit to the salvation of souls” (Constitution Dei Verbum, 10).
With the special assistance of the Holy Spirit, the popes and the ecumenical councils have acted in this common way. And it is precisely this that the Second Vatican Council did. Nothing that was decreed in this Council, or in the reforms that we enacted in order to put the Council into effect, is opposed to what the 2,000 year-old tradition of the Church considers as fundamental and immutable. We are the guarantor of this, not in virtue of Our personal qualities but in virtue of the charge which the Lord has conferred upon Us as legitimate successor of Peter, and in virtue of the special assistance that He has promised to Us as well as to Peter: “I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail” (Lk 22:32). The universal episcopate is guarantor with us of this.
Again, you cannot appeal to the distinction between what is dogmatic and what is pastoral to accept certain texts of this Council and to refuse others. Indeed, not everything in the Council requires an assent of the same nature: only what is affirmed by definitive acts as an object of faith or as a truth related to faith requires an assent of faith. But the rest also forms part of the solemn magisterium of the Church to which each member of the faithful owes a confident acceptance and a sincere application.
You say moreover that you do not always see how to reconcile certain texts of the Council, or certain dispositions which We have enacted in order to put the Council into practice, with the wholesome tradition of the Church and in particular with the Council of Trent or the affirmations of Our predecessors. These are for example: the responsibility of the college of bishops united with the sovereign pontiff, the new Ordo Missae, ecumenism, religious freedom, the attitude of dialogue, evangelization in the modern world…
It is not the place, in this letter, to deal with each of these problems. The precise tenor of the documents, with the totality of its nuances and its context, the authorized explanations, the detailed and objective commentaries which have been made, are of such a nature to enable you to overcome these personal difficulties. Absolutely secure counselors, theologians and spiritual directors would be able to help you even more, with God’s enlightenment, and We are ready to facilitate this fraternal assistance for you.
But how can an interior personal difficulty—a spiritual drama which We respect—permit you to set yourself up publicly as a judge of what has been legitimately adopted, practically with unanimity, and knowingly to lead a portion of the faithful into your refusal? If justifications are useful in order to facilitate intellectual acceptance—and We hope that the troubled or reticent faithful will have the wisdom, honesty and humanity to accept those justifications that are widely placed at their disposal—they are not in themselves necessary for the assent of obedience that is due to the Ecumenical Council and to the decisions of the pope. It is the ecclesial sense that is at issue.
In effect you and those who are following you are endeavoring to come to a standstill at a given moment in the life of the Church. By the same token you refuse to accept the living Church, which is the Church that has always been: you break with the Church’s legitimate pastors and scorn the legitimate exercise of their charge. And so you claim not even to be affected by the orders of the pope, or by the suspension a divinis, as you lament “subversion” in the Church.
Is it not in this state of mind that you have ordained priests without dimissorial letters and against Our explicit command, thus creating a group of priests who are in an irregular situation in the Church and who are under grave ecclesiastical penalties? Moreover, you hold that the suspension that you have incurred applies only to the celebration of the sacraments according to the new rite, as if they were something improperly introduced into the Church, which you go so far as to call schismatic, and you think that you evade this sanction when you administer the sacraments according to the formulas of the past and against the established norms (cf. 1 Cor 14:40).
From the same erroneous conception springs your abuse of celebrating Mass called that of Saint Pius V. You know full well that this rite had itself been the result of successive changes, and that the Roman Canon remains the first of the eucharistic prayers authorized today.
The present reform derived its raison d’être and its guidelines from the Council and from the historical sources of the liturgy. It enables the laity to draw greater nourishment from the word of God. Their more active participation leaves intact the unique role of the priest acting in the person of Christ. We have sanctioned this reform by Our authority, requiring that it be adopted by all Catholics.
If, in general, We have not judged it good to permit any further delays or exceptions to this adoption, it is with a view to the spiritual good and the unity of the entire ecclesiastical community, because, for Catholics of the Roman Rite, the Ordo Missae is a privileged sign of their unity. It is also because, in your case, the old rite is in fact the expression of a warped ecclesiology, and a ground for dispute with the Council and its reforms under the pretext that in the old rite alone are preserved, without their meaning being obscured, the true sacrifice of the Mass and the ministerial priesthood.
We cannot accept this erroneous judgment, this unjustified accusation, nor can We tolerate that the Lord’s Eucharist, the sacrament of unity, should be the object of such divisions (cf. I Cor 11:18), and that it should even be used as an instrument and sign of rebellion.
Of course there is room in the church for a certain pluralism, but in licit matters and in obedience. This is not understood by those who refuse the sum total of the liturgical reform; nor indeed on the other hand by those who imperil the holiness of the real presence of the Lord and of his sacrifice. In the same way there can be no question of a priestly formation which ignores the Council.
We cannot therefore take your requests into consideration, because it is a question of acts which have already been committed in rebellion against the one true Church of God. Be assured that this severity is not dictated by a refusal to make a concession on such and such a point of discipline or liturgy, but, given the meaning and the extent of your acts in the present context, to act thus would be on Our part to accept the introduction of a seriously erroneous concept of the church and of tradition. This is why, with the full consciousness of Our duties, We say to you, brother, that you are in error. And with the full ardor of Our fraternal love, as also with all the weight of Our authority as the successor of Peter, We invite you to retract, to correct yourself and to cease from inflicting wounds upon the Church of Christ.
3. Specifically, what do We ask of you?
A.—First and foremost, a declaration that will rectify matters for Ourself and also for the people of God who have a right to clarity and who can no longer bear without damage such equivocations.
This declaration will therefore have to affirm that you sincerely adhere to the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council and to all its documents—sensu obvio—which were adopted by the Council fathers and approved and promulgated by Our authority. For such an adherence has always been the rule, in the Church, since the beginning, in the matter of ecumenical councils.
It must be clear that you equally accept the decisions that We have made since the Council in order to put it into effect, with the help of the departments of the Holy See; among other things, you must explicitly recognize the legitimacy of the reformed liturgy, notably of the Ordo Missae, and our right to require its adoption by the entirety of the Christian people.
You must also admit the binding character of the rules of canon law now in force which, for the greater part, still correspond with the content of the Code of Canon Law of Benedict XV, without excepting the part which deals with canonical penalties.
As far as concerns Our person, you will make a point of desisting from and retracting the grave accusations or insinuations which you have publicly leveled against Us, against the orthodoxy of Our faith and Our fidelity to Our charge as the successor of Peter, and against Our immediate collaborators.
With regard to the bishops, you must recognize their authority in their respective dioceses by abstaining from preaching in those dioceses and administering the sacraments there: the Eucharist, Confirmation, Holy Orders, etc., when these bishops expressly object to your doing so.
Finally, you must undertake to abstain from all activities (such as conferences, publications, etc.) contrary to this declaration, and formally to reprove all those initiatives which may make use of your name in the face of this declaration.
It is a question here of the minimum to which every Catholic bishop must subscribe: this adherence can tolerate no compromise. As soon as you show Us that you accept its principle, We will propose the practical manner of presenting this declaration. This is the first condition in order that the suspension a divinis be lifted.
B.—It will then remain to solve the problem of your activity, of your works, and notably of your seminaries. You will appreciate, brother, that in view of the past and present irregularities and ambiguities affecting these works, We cannot go back on the juridical suppression of the Priestly Fraternity of Saint Pius X. This has inculcated a spirit of opposition to the Council and to its implementation such as the Vicar of Christ was endeavoring to promote.
Your declaration of November 21, 1974, bears witness to this spirit; and upon such a foundation, as Our commission of cardinals rightly judged, on May 6, 1975, one cannot build an institution or a priestly formation in conformity with the requirements of the Church of Christ. This in no way invalidates the good element in your seminaries, but one must also take into consideration the ecclesiological deficiencies of which We have spoken and the capacity of exercising a pastoral ministry in the Church of today. Faced with these unfortunately mixed realities, We shall take care not to destroy but to correct and to save as far as possible.
This is why, as supreme guarantor of the faith and of the formation of the clergy, We require you first of all to hand over to Us the responsibility of your work, and particularly for your seminaries. This is undoubtedly a heavy sacrifice for you, but it is also a test of your trust, of your obedience and it is a necessary condition in order that these seminaries, which have no canonical existence in the Church, may in the future take their place therein.
It is only after you have accepted the principle that We shall be able to provide in the best possible way for the good of all the persons involved, with the concern for promoting authentic priestly vocations and with respect for the doctrinal, disciplinary and pastoral requirements of the church. At that stage, We shall be in a position to listen with benevolence to your requests and your wishes and, together with Our departments, to take in conscience the right and opportune measures.
As for the illicitly ordained seminarians, the sanctions which they have incurred in conformity with Canon 985, 7 and 2374 can be lifted, if they give proof of a return to a better frame of mind, notably by accepting to subscribe to the declaration which We have asked of you. We count upon your sense of the Church in order to make this step easy for them.
As regards the foundations, houses of formation, “priories” and various other institutions set up on your initiative or with your encouragement, We likewise ask you to hand them over to the Holy See, which will study their position, in its various aspects, with the local episcopate. Their survival, organization and apostolate will be subordinated, as is normal throughout the Catholic Church, to an agreement which will have to be reached, in each case, with the local bishop—nihil sine Episcopo—and in a spirit which respects the declaration mentioned above.
All the points which figure in this letter and to which We have given mature consideration, in consultation with the heads of the departments concerned, have been adopted by Us only out of regard for the greater good of the church. You said to Us during our conversation of September 11: “I am ready for anything, for the good of the church.” The response now lies in your hands.
If you refuse—quod Deus avertat—to make the declaration which is asked of you, you will remain suspended a divinis. On the other hand, Our pardon and the lifting of the suspension will be assured you to the extent to which you sincerely and without ambiguity undertake to fulfill the conditions of this letter and to repair the scandal caused. The obedience and the trust of which you will give proof will also make it possible for Us to study serenely with you your personal problems.
May the Holy Spirit enlighten you and guide you towards the only solution that would enable you on the one hand to rediscover the peace of your momentarily misguided conscience but also to ensure the good of souls, to contribute to the unity of the Church which the Lord has entrusted to Our charge and to avoid the danger of a schism.
In the psychological state in which you find yourself, We realize that it is difficult for you to see clearly and very hard for you humbly to change your line of conduct: is it not therefore urgent, as in all such cases, for you to arrange a time and a place of recollection which will enable you to consider the matter with the necessary objectivity?
Fraternally, We put you on your guard against the pressures to which you could be exposed from those who wish to keep you in an untenable position, while We Ourself, all your brothers in the episcopate and the vast majority of the faithful await finally from you that ecclesial attitude which would be to your honor.
In order to root out the abuses which we all deplore and to guarantee a true spiritual renewal, as well as the courageous evangelization to which the Holy Spirit bids us, there is needed more than ever the help and commitment to the entire ecclesial community around the pope and the bishops. Now the revolt of one side finally reaches and risks accentuating the insubordination of what you have called the “subversion” of the other side; while, without your own insubordination, you would have been able, brother, as you expressed the wish in your last letter, to help Us, in fidelity and under Our authority, to work for the advancement of the Church.
Therefore, dear brother, do not delay any longer in considering before God, with the keenest religious attention, this solemn adjuration of the humble but legitimate successor of Peter. May you measure the gravity of the hour and take the only decision that befits a son of the Church. This is Our hope, this is Our prayer.
From the Vatican, October 11, 1976.
PAULUS PP. VI