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Marcel Lefebvre: Signatory to Dignitatis Humanae

by Rev. Brian W. Harrison, O.S., M.A., S.T.D.

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  • Descriptive Title:
    Marcel Lefebvre: Signatory to Dignitatis Humane
    Description:
    An article which shows that the late Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre signed Dignitatis Humanae, although he had constantly denounced it as irreconcilable with Catholic doctrine.
  • Larger Work:
    Fidelity
  • Publisher & Date:
    Ultramontane Associates, March 1994

In light of the fact that for over 20 years the late Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre constantly denounced the Vatican II Declaration on Religious Liberty, Dignitatis Humanae, as irreconcilable with orthodox Catholic doctrine, it is curious, to say the least, to discover that he himself, along with Pope Paul VI and most of the other fathers of Vatican II, was actually one of the signatories to the document. It has been demonstrated from the original Vatican II archives that his name (as well as that of fellow-traditionalist Bishop Antonio de Castro Mayer of Campos, Brazil) appears on the list of signatures to this and the other three documents promulgated on the final day of Vatican Council II, December 7, 1965.

In a sense, this is not exactly news which is hot off the press. In fact, the list of signatures was made public for the first time 16 years ago, when the Vatican Press finally finished its laborious publication of the complete council documents: dozens of huge Latin tomes known as the Acta Synodalia, which contain all the debates, written interventions, earlier drafts of the Conciliar documents, and so on. They include the complete lists of the names of the fathers who signed each document after the pope.

However, since only large Catholic libraries possess the Acta Synodalia (which cost over $2,000 per set), and since in any case the thousands of names are not in alphabetical order, the chance of anyone happening to notice the names of the two traditionalist prelates appended to Dignitatis Humanae was, shall we say, limited. No doubt there are those who find page after page of Latin episcopal names and titles a matter of the most absorbing interest; just as there are, no doubt, those who choose the local telephone directory for bedside reading—perhaps as a cure for insomnia. In any case nobody, as far as is known, ever spotted these two very unlikely promoters of religious freedom on the official lists for well over a decade after their publication in 1978.

When they were discovered in 1990 by some Frenchmen researching the Vatican II archives, a tempest in a teapot erupted in European traditionalist circles. However, up 'til now, most English-speaking Catholics have never had an opportunity to learn the facts. Mainstream journals apparently did not consider the matter important enough to be worth investigating and reporting. However, the Society of St. Pius X, which evidently did consider the report an important one, vehemently denied its truth in The Angelus, the society's American publication, and in its Australian cousin, a monthly newspaper entitled just Catholic. The result has been that the relatively few English-speaking Catholics who were aware of the news about these signatures remained in uncertainty as to whether there was any substance in the report.

In itself, of course, the question is scarcely of earth-shaking importance. Nevertheless, an article in English on these signatures is worthwhile publishing for several reasons. First, just to set the record straight on a point of history. Secondly, because Marcel Lefebvre—whatever one thinks of him — has been a figure of considerable importance in post Conciliar Catholicism, and details like this will help to build up a more accurate overall picture of his character for future historians and biographers. (To a lesser extent the same is true of Bishop de Castro Meyer.) Finally, because the controversy which exploded when the signatures were discovered shows us something about prevailing attitudes within the SSPX and its supporters.

What follows, then, is my attempt to set the record straight, partly by quoting material of my own which a Lefebvrist newspaper refused to publish.

There is now doubt—or even controversy—about the fact that Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre voted against the religious liberty schema with a decisive non placet right through all of its five successive drafts during Vatican Council II. During some of the voting sessions it was possible to give a vote in between "yes" and "no" namely, placet iuxta modum, which signified approval on the condition requested amendments, but Lefebvre never availed himself of that option. Thus, during the final vote on the morning of December 7 (when the fathers had to choose between a simple approval or disapproval of the last draft), he was one of the 70—about 3 percent of the total—who voted against the schema.

Nevertheless, when the supreme pontiff himself put his signature to the controversial declaration an hour or so later, the French traditionalist prelate followed suit, presumably as an act of submission of his private judgment to that of the Vicar of Christ. So did his Brazilian colleague. (Oddly enough, there were some other fathers present—none of them as publicly associated with criticism of the document as he was—who did not sign it.)

Subsequent history shows that Lefebvre's attitude at that moment did not last long. He came to speak out more and more decisively against the alleged unorthodoxy of Dignitatis Humanae, and it seems that as the years rolled by his memory of the events of that day in 1965 became somewhat blurred. The result was that when the discovery of his signature on the document was reported to the 85-year-old prelate in November 1990, a full quarter-century after the event, he vigorously denied the truth of the report.

The situation was not helped by the fact that the discovery was made by a man whom the archbishop already saw in a very negative light: a young French priest named Louis-Marie de Blignieres. Fr. de Blignieres had been ordained by Lefebvre for the SSPX, but after a few years departed with several others to form a new community which followed the traditional Dominican rule of life. If anything, they were even more radically opposed to the Conciliar and post-Conciliar developments than the SSPX — especially on account of the Declaration on Religious Liberty. However, during the period 1987-88, further study and reflection—which took into account, among other things, my own book on the subject—persuaded Fr. de Blignieres and his dozen or so confreres that, whatever the inadequacies of its formulation, Dignitatis Humanae does not in fact contradict traditional Catholic doctrine. They translated my book for publication in French, and were fully reconciled with the Holy See late in 1988 through the Vatican's Ecclesia Dei commission, as the Society of St. Vincent Ferrer.

I have visited these men in their rural French monastery, and count them among my friends. Using exclusively the traditional Dominican liturgy, they have continued to work quietly in harmony with the local and universal Church, producing a quality review of theology and spirituality as well as carrying out an effective pastoral apostolate with young people.

In the eyes of the SSPX, however, their about face, along with that of other traditional groups who opted for obedience to the pope on the terms of Ecclesia Dei made them into something like turncoats. Their very sincerity was called in question when they accepted Dignitatis Humanae, and when, two years later, they announced the finding of Archbishop Lefebvre's signature on the document in the Vatican II archives, their honesty was impugned.

In November 1990 (the interview was published in The Angelus in January 1991), Lefebvre denounced Fr. de Blignieres as badly intentioned." With permission from the Holy See, the latter had published in his magazine (Sedes Sapientiae, Winter 1990) a photographic reproduction of the original page from the Vatican archives with Lefebvre's signature near the bottom, and the title Declaratio de Libertate Religiosa (along with the titles of three other documents) at the top. We are talking here about the hand-written original, not the list published years earlier in the Acta Synodalia.

In the Angelus interview, however, Archbishop Lefebvre insisted that the published page showing his signature was merely "a large sheet. . . passed from hand to hand among the fathers of the Council. . . upon which everyone placed his signature." This sheet, the archbishop continued, "had no meaning of a vote for or against, but signified simply our presence at the meeting to vote for four documents." In order to emphasize what he saw as the absurdity of Fr. de Blignieres' claim, Lefebvre stressed that "the approbation or refusal of the documents was obviously accomplished for each document separately, the vote was in secret, accomplished on individual cards, and made with a special pencil, which permitted the electronic calculation of the votes."

Fr. de Blignieres and his community immediately retested this explanation of the signatures they had published. However, far from accusing Lefebvre of lying, they made it clear in print that they did not interpret his denial in that light, but there were some in SSPX circles who rushed to denounce them for "defaming" the archbishop as a liar when they refused to accept it. It is a common phenomenon that—especially after a lapse of some years—our memories can blot out or obscure certain things we would prefer not to remember. This does not have to involve personal dishonesty.

I too see no reason to think Lefebvre was lying. That, I believe, would have been out of character. Indeed, in arguing as he did, the aged prelate unwittingly made clear, it seems to me, that confusion which now existed in his memory regarding the various documents which he signed or marked on that day in 1965. By insisting that he never voted for Dignitatis Humanae, and ridiculing the idea that his "vote" is what appears on a page referring to four documents lumped together, the archbishop was hitting at a man of straw. Fr. de Blignieres never claimed that he had "voted" in favor of DH, or that the page he published was a list of "votes."

What happened was that after the individual voting on all these last four documents, they were promulgated together and signed together, by the pope and over 2,000 council fathers. The many pages necessary for all the signatures bore the titles of all four documents (the other three being the Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (also frequently denounced in subsequent years by Lefebvre), The Decree on Missionary Activity, and the Decree on the Ministry and Life of Priests). It is among these pages that the signatures of Archbishop Lefebvre and Bishop de Castro Mayer are found, and not only on the relatively unimportant attendance sheet which Lefebvre recalled in his interview.

The fact that all four documents were signed together does not mean the bishops were faced with the alternative of signing all or none. The fathers were informed that if they wished to sign one or more documents, but not all of them, they could make a marginal annotation beside their name, specifying which documents they did or did not wish to sign. No such annotation is found beside the names of either Lefebvre or de Castro Mayer, which proves that they were prepared to share in the official promulgation of that Declaration on Religious Liberty which they later publicly rejected.

The reaction of the SSPX and other supporters of Archbishop Lefebvre to this discovery was not exactly edifying. While typically presenting themselves as the faithful "remnant"—champions of truth in a church dominated by falsehood—they showed themselves in this case unwilling to face up to a truth which (for them) was clearly very embarrassing. Indeed, they made every effort to obfuscate, cover up and deny this proven historical fact. In France, a publication linked to the Society of St. Pius X vilified Fr. de Blignieres as a dishonest hireling receiving "thirty pieces of silver" from Cardinal Ratzinger in order to misrepresent the council archives and then refused to print his letter answering this charge!

I entered into correspondence with the Australian monthly Catholic several years ago about his matter, hoping that our traditional "Aussie" sense of fair play might produce a more open approach. Catholic, I believe, is not an official organ of the SSPX in Australia, but it certainly is de facto a mouthpiece, supporting Lefebvre and the Society to the hilt. My hopes were raised especially by the fact that I sent the editor, Mr. Donald McLean, a copy of a letter I had received, on official Vatican stationery, from Monsignor Vincenzo Carbone, a highly respected priest of many years' standing in the Holy See who is in charge of the archives of Vatican II. The letter, dated 17 January 1991, affirms that Fr. de Blignieres' claim is correct: Archbishop Lefebvre signed Dignitatis Humanae.

However, Catholic, while publishing my covering letter, responded on the same page by distorting the facts, reflecting Msgr. Carbone's statement on behalf of the Holy See as a lie, and dismissing my position as "ridiculous." The editor then refused to publish my subsequent letter rebutting this shameful travesty of the truth.

The simplest way to clear up the disinformation—at least for those who are willing to accept the facts—will be for me to reproduce here what Catholic would not allow its readers to see. I will begin, however, with the following extract form the aforesaid covering letter, which it did publish:

"It is an indisputable historical fact that [Lefebvre and de Castro Mayer] signed the final, officially promulgated Declaration on Religious Liberty. Their signatures (following that of the pope) were published as long ago as 1978, in the complete records of the Council's Acta Synodalia (Vol. IV. Part VII, pp. 809, 823).... To put an end to the discussion, I enclose a copy of a letter just received form the official in charge of the Vatican II archives, Msgr. Vincenzo Carbone. He declares that the signatures published by Fr. de Blignieres are authentic, and that "they pertain to the final documents approved and promulgated by the Council in the public sessions (Catholic, April 1991, p. 8. The Italian original of the letter says that 'le firme pubblicate corrispondone agli originali,' and that 'si riferiscono ai Documenti finali, approvati e promulgati dal Concilio nelle Session(i) publiche.')"

I told Msgr. Carbone of Archbishop Lefebvre's claim that the published signatures were merely on a sheet recording his presence at the voting session, and he thus pointed out that this was an error on the archbishop's part.

Nevertheless, on the same page as my letter the editor of Catholic insisted that the signatures indicated nothing more than "Lefebvre's presence at a vote for four Council documents." Beneath my letter he ran a comment by an Australian late vocation SSPX seminarian (who later withdrew from their seminary), Mr. D.J. McDonnell, who also called Msgr. Carbone a liar. Referring scornfully to the "phantom signatures," he said, "Well, let Father [Harrison] believe his bureaucrats. I prefer rather to believe the most faithful, courageous clear-sighted and persecuted archbishop in the Church today." Finally (still on p. 8), the editor reproduced the Angelus interview with Archbishop Lefebvre, expressing the hope that this would "finally put paid (sic) to [Father Harrison's] ridiculous assertion." At the same time. he expressed his unqualified concern for honesty regarding the signatures: "This matter needs to be cleared up once and for all. As Fr. Harrison says, we should not attempt to cover the truth about these signatures."

In a sense I suppose you could say the last sentence there "tells it like it is." Given the air of authority and finality of his remarks, it would appear that Mr. McLean was not indeed trying to "cover" the position which just happens to be the truth; he was trying to bury it forever. What follows is the relevant part of my reply, in a letter dated April 29, 1991. The editor who had just piously proclaimed his zeal for the unvarnished truth refused to publish any part of it in Catholic.

"In saying that my position is 'ridiculous,' you clearly imply not only that the official Vatican II archivist, Msgr. Carbone, is a liar, but that he is obviously a liar—a most ungracious calumny. For in his case, in contrast to that of Archbishop Lefebvre, there could be no question of an honest mistake or a lapse of memory many years after the event, because Msgr. Carbone has the original documents at his fingertips, and knows them better than any man on earth. But even supposing be is the morally corrupt individual you presume him to be, why should he be so stupid as to publish the false assertion that the archbishop's signature is on the final, official text (not just on 'a document which indicates his presence at a vote') when he would know that any other scholars who consult the archives could easily expose his lie? It should be remembered that there is nothing very 'secret' about this list of signatures, which was published by the Vatican back in 1978 (see reference in my previous letter). Do you wish to maintain that those 1978 editors also acted dishonestly, adding Archbishop Lefebvre's and Bishop de Castro Mayer's names to the list following the pope's signature?

Well, even if you do, my case does not rest solely on the credibility of either Msgr. Carbone or the 1978 editors of the Acta Synodalia. Both you and Mr. McDonnell have simply ignored the following statement from my previous letter. In repeating it, I hereby invite you either to refute it, or to admit your error. The photocopies of the signed pages published by Fr. de Blignieres are really proofs in themselves, because the titles at the top of those pages (Decretum, Declaratio, etc.) were never used for earlier drafts, or lists of votes, etc., only for the final, papally approved documents. In fact, anyone who has done research with the Council's Acta Synodalia as I have, knows that this is true. Those who try to call it in question simply expose their own ignorance.

In the latest issue of Fr. de Blignieres magazine Sedes Sapientiae (Winter 1991) there is a 12 page article refuting conclusively and in minute detail the futile attempts to deny that Archbishop Lefebvre signed the final document on religious liberty. It becomes clearer than ever that in the interview which you cite from The Angelus (January 1991). the archbishop's memory, a quarter century after the event, had slipped somewhat. As Fr. de Blignieres shows from original archive sources, there were indeed other sheets which the fathers signed simply to register their presence that day at the voting session. But these were not the sheets photocopied and published by Fr. de Blignieres! On the latter, which I sent to you last year, Mr. Editor, there appears on the line below Archbishop Lefebvre's signature, in his own identical handwriting, the expression Ego procurator pro . . .Augustinus Grimault" Archbishop Lefebvre was also signing the final document by proxy, on behalf of an absent friend, Bishop Auguste Grimault—proof positive that these photocopied signatures do not belong to a list of those who were present that day for the voting. Indeed, the council's rules forbade any voting by proxy or delegation: they permitted only the signing by proxy of the final, official document after the pope had approved and signed it. (See A.S. Vol. III, Part VIII, p. 184)

It is not true that if a number of fathers (not only Archbishop Lefebvre) voted against the final text, but then signed it half an hour later, they were thereby guilty of 'changing with the wind.' [I made this comment, because The Angelus, January 1991, argued that since the two prelates were certainly not men who 'changed with the wind,' it was implausible 'to make believe that they would have approved of that which they refused but a half-hour beforehand.'] It must be remembered that up to and including the final vote, the Conciliar schema on religious liberty had no magisterial authority whatever—it was just a proposal submitted for the free evaluation of the bishops. Once the pope had put his signature to the text, however (now with the new title Declaratio de Libertate Religiosa, the document published by Fr. de Blignieres), it became a document formally and solemnly approved by the Vicar of Christ. For a bishop to sign it then, after having just voted against it, does not imply weakness of character. It simply shows that (at least at that moment) he felt that loyalty to the magisterium required him to subordinate his own private judgment to that of the Roman Pontiff."

"If the society of St. Pius X," I continued, "is in good faith, it should either cease its denials of the fact brought to light by Fr. de Bhgnieres, or else send a delegation to Rome to inspect the original, untouched documents in the Vatican II archives. I am sure the Holy See will be more than happy to show them to the Society, as they were shown to Fr. de Blignieres. For it is clearly a sign of dishonesty and cowardice to accuse someone else of lying whilst refusing to look at the evidence which proves his veracity."

Not only did the editor of Catholic refuse to print this letter (claiming merely that the debate had continued for long enough "and now must cease"): much worse, he attempted to discredit it in the eyes of his readers by blatantly falsifying its content. In the September 1991 issue of Catholic, Mr. McLean told his readers that he had received this letter from me, adding the astounding assertion that Fr. Harrison seems to want to prove that Archbishop Lefebvre cast his vote in favor of the schema (p. 10)—an obviously indefensible thesis which, of course, I had never maintained. Indeed, I had twice said the exact opposite to Mr. McLean, both in the letter he was now "describing" to his readers, and in the one which he had published five months earlier!

I did indeed manage to get published a brief correction of this distortion, and a half-hearted apology from the editor. But at the end of the day, readers were still not shown the full evidence, and Catholic has never admitted that Lefebvre and de Castro Mayer did indeed sign DH, thereby sharing in its promulgation.

The most this newspaper would do, driven into a corner, was to speak ambiguously of the possibility of the two prelates' signatures being "on a document attached to Dignitatis Humanae" (Catholic, September 1991) which might merely indicate that they both acknowledged it as a document of the Church" (and if so, why all the fuss"? [November 1991]). That could easily be taken to mean some hypothetical document other than DH, which was somehow "pinned onto" it, and which the fathers were invited to sign in addition to the declaration itself. Its purpose would supposedly have been that of merely acknowledging the independent fact of the Conciliar document's promulgation, without taking any responsibility for it. That, of course, would be nonsense, since there were no such independent lists of signatures "attached" to any council documents. The pages bearing the signatures are integral parts of the original documents themselves, as the titles at the top of each page bear witness.

So much for Catholic, which has not breathed a word more about the signatures in more than two years. Since I do not subscribe to The Angelus, or any other journal of the SSPX, I do not know if the Society and its publications have now recognized their previous error in denying the authenticity of the signatures, and have made a due public apology to Fr. de Blignieres. If so, perhaps someone will write in to inform Fidelity. If not, I hereby invite the SSPX and its organs (as well as Catholic) to publish the statements which truth and justice require.

What they say—or fail to say—will continue to furnish the rest of us with indications of just how seriously we can take the Society's claims to be disinterested champions of the truth.

Rev. Brian Harrison, O.S. teaches theology at the Pontifical Catholic University of Puerto Rico in Ponce, Puerto Rico and was a frequent contributor to the old Fidelity magazine.

© Fidelity

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