Catholic Culture Overview
Catholic Culture Overview

The Excommunication of Followers of Archbishop Lefebvre

by Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Legal Texts


From the Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Legislative Texts — The commentary is from the current issue of the magazine of the Canon Law Society of Great Britain and Ireland.

Publisher & Date

Vatican, August 24, 1996

NOTE: On the excommunication for schism which the adherents to the movement of Bishop Marcel Lefebvre incur.

1 . From the Motu Proprio "Ecclesia dei" of 2nd July 1988 and from the Decree "Dominus Marcellus Lefebvre" of the Congregation for Bishops, of 1st July 1988, it appears above all that the schism of Monsignor Lefebvre was declared in immediate reaction to the episcopal ordinations conferred on 30th June 1988 without pontifical mandate (cf CIC, Can. 1382). All the same it also appears clear from the aforementioned documents that such a most grave act of disobedience formed the consummation of a progressive global situation of a schismatic character.

2. In effect no. 4. of the Motu Proprio explains the nature of the "doctrinal root of this schismatic act," and no. 5. c) warns that a "formal adherence to the schism" (by which one must understand "the movement of Archbishop Lefebvre") would bring with it the excommunication established by the universal law of the Church (CIC, can. 1364 para.1). Also the decree of the Congregation for Bishops makes explicit reference to the "schismatic nature" of the aforesaid episcopal ordinations and mentions the most grave penalty of excommunication which adherence "to the schism of Monsignor Lefebvre" would bring with it.

3. Unfortunately, the schismatic act which gave rise to the Motu Proprio and the Decree did no more than draw to a conclusion, in a particularly visible and unequivocal manner — with a most grave formal act of disobedience to the Roman Pontiff — a process of distancing from hierarchical communion. As long as there are no changes which may lead to the re-establishment of this necessary communion, the whole Lefebvrian movement is to be held schismatic, in view of the existence of a formal declaration by the Supreme Authority on this matter.

4. One cannot furnish any judgement on the argumentation of Murray's thesis (see below) because it is not known, and the two articles which refer to it appear confused. However, doubt cannot reasonably be cast upon the validity of the excommunication of the Bishops declared in the Motu Proprio and the Decree. In particular it does not seem that one may be able to find, as far as the imputability of the penalty is concerned, any exempting or lessening circumstances. (cf CIC, can. 1323) As far as the state of necessity in which Mons. Lefebvre thought to find himself, one must keep before one that such a state must be verified objectively, and there is never a necessity to ordain Bishops contrary to the will of the Roman Pontiff, Head of the College of Bishops. This would, in fact, imply the possibility of "serving" the church by means of an attempt against its unity in an area connected with the very foundations of this unity.

5. As the Motu Proprio declares in no. 5 c) the excommunication latae sententiae for schism regards those who "adhere formally" to the said schismatic movement. Even if the question of the exact import of the notion of "formal adherence to the schism" would be a matter for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, it seems to this pontifical Council that such formal adherence would have to imply two complementary elements:

a) one of internal nature, consisting in a free and informed agreement with the substance of the schism, in other words, in the choice made in such a way of the followers of Archbishop Lefebvre which puts such an option above obedience to the Pope (at the root of this attitude there will usually be positions contrary to the magisterium of the Church),

b) the other of an external character, consisting in the externalising of this option, the most manifest sign of which will be the exclusive participation in Lefebvrian "ecclesial" acts, without taking part in the acts of the Catholic Church (one is dealing however with a sign that is not univocal, since there is the possibility that a member of the faithful may take part in the liturgical functions of the followers of Lefebvre but without going along with their schismatic spirit).

6. In the case of the Lefebvrian deacons and priests there seems no doubt that their ministerial activity in the ambit of the schismatic movement is a more than evident sign of the fact that the two requirements mentioned above (n.5) are met, and thus that there is a formal adherence.

7. On the other hand, in the case of the rest of the faithful it is obvious that an occasional participation in liturgical acts or the activity of the Lefebvrian movement, done without making one's own the attitude of doctrinal and disciplinary disunion of such a movement, does not suffice for one to be able to speak of formal adherence to the movement. In pastoral practice the result can be that it is more difficult to judge their situation. One must take account above all of the person's intentions, and the putting into practice of this internal disposition. For this reason the various situations are going to be judged case by case, in the competent forums both internal and external.

8. All the same, it will always be necessary to distinguish between the moral question on the existence or not of the sin of schism and the juridical-penal question on the existence of the delict of schism, and its consequent sanction. In this latter case the dispositions of Book V1 of the Code of Canon Law (including Cann.1323-1324) will be applied.

9. It does not seem advisable to make more precise the requirements for the delict of schism (but one would need to ask the competent Dicastery, cf. Ap. Const. "Pastor Bonus", art 52). One might risk creating more problems by means of rigid norms of a penal kind which would not cover every case, leaving uncovered cases of substantial schism, or having regard to external behaviour which is not always subjectively schismatic.

10. Always from the pastoral point of view it would also seem opportune to recommend once again to sacred pastors all the norms of the Motu Proprio "Ecclesia Dei" with which the solicitude of the Vicar of Christ encouraged to dialogue and has provided the supernatural and human means necessary to facilitate the return of the Lefebvrians to full ecclesial communion.

Vatican City, 24th August 1996.

Comment — Although dated August 1996, presumably its publication early in 1998 was in view, at least in part, of the forthcoming tenth anniversary of the Consecrations and the issuing of the Motu Proprio and Decree.

While initiatives taken under their auspices have had a positive impact, with a number of new religious institutes, and flourishing vocations, now in full communion with the Holy See, and increasingly welcomed by diocesan bishops in some parts of the world, it is also true that there are many places where little attention has been given to its implementation.

Moreover while the Lefebvrist movement has had some set backs, the number of adherents has not diminished significantly. A recent book to mark twenty five years of the Society of St Pius X in Britain (R.Warwick, The Living Flame, London 1997) indicates that there are some twenty Lefebvrist church buildings in Great Britain at present, with some 2000 regular worshippers. In the United States the situation is more extensive and much more varied, with many independent priests and chapels, as well as more extremely sedevacantist groups such as the Society of St Pius X (sic - Ed. note) and the Mount St Michael Community.

The question of apostolic succession has also become more complex. The fissiparous nature of such groups means that not all their orders are derived from Archbishop Lefebvre. Some, having departed from the Society of St Pius X, have obtained orders or episcopal consecration from Archbishop Ngo Dinh Thuc, or his successors, Bishop Alfred Mendez (formerly of Arecibo), or from Old Catholic and similar sources. For details of the American scene one should consult M. Cuneo. The Smoke of Satan, New York 1997, a book which is informative if irritatingly discursive.

Supporters of the Society of St Pius X frequently distribute leaflets containing highly selective or tendentious quotations. One, for example, claims that the Society is neither schismatic nor excommunicated. Generally the line of argument is that since Archbishop Lefebvre was not schismatic, he was not excommunicated, and a fortiori neither were any of his followers.

The leaflet quotes Cardinal Castillo Lara to the effect that consecrating a bishop without the Pope's permission is not in itself a schismatic act. It continues that merely to consecrate bishops, without intending to set up an alternative hierarchy in the jurisdictional sense is not an act of schism. Several canonists are quoted as endorsing these views, Count Neri Capponi, an advocate accredited to the Signatura, Professor Geringer of Munich University, Fr. Patrick Valdini, Professor of Canon Law at the Catholic Institute of Paris, and Fr. Gerald Murray who presented his thesis on the subject at the Gregorian University.

Reference is also made to the decision of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, dated 28th June 1993, that the excommunication imposed on followers of Archbishop Lefebvre on 1st May 1991 by Bishop Ferraio of Hawaii was invalid since there had been no schismatic acts in the strict sense. One cannot be certain as to the accuracy of such quotations, at least in terms of completeness. For example the decree mentioned added a rider that there were other grounds on which the Bishop could take action.

I am not aware whether Fr.Murray's thesis has been published, but it would appear that the Council had been sent not the thesis but two articles published in the Fall issue of "Latin Mass" magazine. The first was an interview with Fr .Murray conducted by Roger McCaffrey (pp.50-55). The second was a summary of the thesis prepared by Steven Terenzio (pp.55-61).

Murray's first line of argument appears to be that the lay followers of Society of St Pius X do not incur the excommunication, because only an external violation of a law or precept can be subject to a canonical penalty (art.cit. p.56), and there must be grave imputability. The warnings contained in the Motu Proprio give no specific indications as to what constitutes "adherence," making liability to penalty at least open to doubt.

A second line of argument is that the Archbishop denied schism, and that simple disobedience does not constitute schism, only systematic and habitual refusal of dependence.

A third line of argument is that an erroneous view that necessity justified his action would have made his action culpable, but removed canonical malice and therefore liability to excommunication (canon 1323 7o). His argument in effect is that the provisions of the 1983 Code are so exigent for imputability to be proved >and a penalty incurred, that the Archbishop and his followers escape by virtue of the very postconciliar legislation they so oppose.

"On the other hand, Canon 209 prescribes: 'Para. 1. Christ's faithful are bound to preserve their communion with the Church at all times, even in their external actions. Para.2 They are to carry out with great diligence their responsibilities towards both the universal Church and the particular Church to which by law they belong.' It is obvious that a lay person who exclusively frequents chapels directed by suspended priests of the Society of St Pius X, which operate without the permission of either the local or the universal Church, is not, in fact, at the very least, living in external communion with the Church. Thus we have the anomalous situation of a group of faithful who are in fact in some real way living apart from real communion with the Church, but who are almost certainly not subject to the canonical penalties intended to discourage and punish such behaviour." (cited from Terenzio, art. cit. p.61).

The Note was clearly prepared as a reply to the arguments of this kind (cf. n.4). The suggestion that there might be any doubt cast upon the excommunication declared by the Congregation for Bishops in the case of the Archbishop and those he consecrated is given short shrift.

It might be worth remembering that the penalty was raised to excommunication because of the creation of the Patriotic Catholic Association in China, and consecration of Bishops without a mandate. The 1917 Code (canon 2370) had provided only for suspension.

Historically the situation had arisen in Latin America when difficult travel conditions had delayed the arrival of the mandate, and a planned consecration had gone ahead without it, but with no schismatic intent. Here the situation was quite different, and although the intention might not have been to set up an alternative jurisdiction, only to provide for the sacraments, de facto that is what was already happening. Moreover since the protocol originally signed by Archbishop Lefebvre actually provided for the consecration of one Bishop, necessity could hardly be argued.

The Note then turns to those whose excommunication has not been declared; the clergy and faithful associated with the Society of St Pius X. The Council prescind from any decision that might be made by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, but sets out two general legal criteria that would be required for "formal adherence."

The first is an internal criterion, one of intention. An external violation of a law cannot incur a penalty where there is inculpable ignorance, inadvertence or error with regard to violating the law (can. 1323 2°). Equally the penalty must be reduced where the person was unaware of the penalty, through no fault of their own, or lacked full imputability (can. 1324 9° & 10°). There is a requirement of schismatic intention, that is freely and consciously accepting the substance of the schism, that is putting one's personal choice above obedience to the Pope. Generally, this will be characterised by an habitual stance contrary to the Magisterium of the Church.

The second criterion is external, the external effect given to this choice. The most obvious sign of this is to attend solely and exclusively those celebrations conducted by followers of Archbishop Lefebvre, and eschewing those of the mainstream Church, not only local Bishop and clergy, but, for example, those legitimately using the 1962 liturgical books, such as the Fraternity of St Peter.

To a degree the Council is accepting the argumentation presented by Fr.Murray in that an external violation of the law is required not simply a supposed internal attitude of mind, and that more is required subjectively than attendance even habitually at Lefebvrist centres or celebrations. The latter is compatible with an internal disposition which still accepts the authority of the Pope. However, it parts company with him in that it argues that the disobedience involved in aligning oneself with the Lefebvrists itself implies a schismatic intention, even though one might not formally reject the authority of the Pope or local Bishop. Such a position is logically inconsistent, and one must ask what is the prevalent intention in a particular case.

The Note points out that one must distinguish between the moral question of the sin of schism, and the legal question of a delict and its imputability. Once there has been an external violation, imputability is presumed until it appears otherwise (can. 1321 para 3). The onus is on the person to establish elements removing or reducing imputability. In the internal forum there is no such presumption. This means that in the case of lay people, their position will often be difficult to discern. In this situation one must have a mind to the liberty guaranteed by canon 18. In the case of clergy, their external involvement in the ministry in the ambit of the schismatic movement is itself sufficient evidence that both internal and external criteria for formal adherence have been fulfilled. However, such a censure is undeclared and therefore subject to the limits mentioned in canons 1331 and 1335.

While the document speaks of Lefebvrists, it does not refer by name to the Society of St Pius X, and so the criteria should be applied also to other similar groups that are associated with the Archbishop's followers, religious communities, the dissident clergy of the Diocese of Campos in Brazil, but also others, such as those mentioned above, who hold similar positions, even though their hierarchs may not have been declared excommunicated.

It does not apply to those who belong to groups whose position has been regularised by the Commission Ecclesia Dei, or established by the authority of the local Bishop of Scranton on 24th May 1998.

The position of 'freelance' clerics, retired or otherwise released from their Diocese, but not subject to any other penalty, who are operating chapels without reference to the local Bishop, or in defiance of his known wishes would have to be judged on their individual merits. In some cases it may be the Bishop rather than the cleric who is not open to dialogue about regularising their situation in accordance with the provisions of the Motu Proprio. The same may be true for groups of lay people seeking spiritual provision in the form of chaplaincy, and who have availed of the services of a priest or bishop whose situation is irregular.

While there might be a direct approach to the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei, the latter is reluctant to force Bishops' hands and prefers to work by persuasion.

15th July 1998

Rev. Gordon F.Read

Fr. Michael Brown, Assistant Judicial Vicar, Hexham & Newcastle Diocesan Tribunal

(Fr. Michael Brown was not one of the authors of the British Commentary on the text, rather he was the one who put it into e-text and sent it out to the other Traditional canonists on the net.)

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