Catholic Culture Overview
Catholic Culture Overview

Vatican II vs Pius IX? A Study in Lefebvrism

by Fr. William G. Most


One of the heart-wrenching controversies in today's Church is that between Archbishop Lefebvre and his followers, on the one hand, and the supporters of the papacy, on the other. Near schismatic proportions, this controversy involves much more than the anguish of conservative Catholics over liturgical change. Even when viewed with sympathy, the Lefebvrite problem introduces issues which cannot in charity or justice be swept aside. Fr. William Most addresses some of these issues in this article.

Larger Work

Faith & Reason


220 – 229

Publisher & Date

Christendom Press, Front Royal, VA, Fall 1980

Archbishop Lefebvre and his followers are seen by some as a group of people in favor of traditional sound doctrine who want a Mass in Latin. In fact, the desire for the Latin Mass in the old form is not the heart of the case at all. Nor is a desire for sound doctrine. Rather, this group explicitly denies certain doctrinal teachings of the Second Vatican Council.

To be specific, the Lefebvrites insist that the Declaration on Religious Liberty contradicts what they call infallible teachings of Pius IX found in Quanta cura and the Syllabus of Errors. They often point also to Gregory XVI's Mirari vos. These claims can be answered, but a preliminary point should first be made.

A New Case of Private Judgment

Catholics know that the most basic difference between Catholic and Protestant lies in private interpretation of Scripture. Catholic and Protestant both believe in Scripture, and Catholics should also accept Tradition as a source of revelation. But then comes the matter of deciding what Scripture and Tradition mean. Catholics decide the meaning of Scripture, not by private judgment, but by the teaching of the Church, a point which Vatican II reaffirmed.1 But many do not understand equally clearly that we must also avoid private interpretation of the documents of Tradition. Hence Pius XII had to tell Father Feeney that his interpretation of "Outside the Church, no salvation" was wrong, and that he was guilty of private interpretation.2 The Lefebvre group are guilty of the same tactics. They take their own interpretation of Pius IX, and their own interpretation of Vatican II and find that they clash.

But Vatican II, and Pius XII as well,3 officially interpreted these teachings. In the very first section of the Declaration on Religious Liberty, Vatican II said that this declaration, "leaves untouched the traditional Catholic doctrine about the moral duty of men and societies toward the true religion and the one Church of Christ." That means, obviously, that what follows does not change traditional teaching, but only develops it. It even accepts the traditional call for an established Church4 — which of course does not mean any repression of other churches. Therefore, if the Lefebvre group resorts to its own private interpretation of the documents of the Church, it is not from a simple desire for traditional soundness. Rather, they are, logically, following the most basic principle of Protestantism.

One more preliminary is in order. Much in the older documents is in the form of condemned propositions. Any novice in sound theology knows that such propositions are worded with special care, as are all Magisterial documents, and that if even a small thing is erroneous, the statement will be called false. With this in mind, and understanding the fact that there is no contradiction between Vatican II and older documents, we do well to show their harmony.

Indifference, Freedom and Coercion: The Documents

Gregory XVI in his Mirari vos of August 15, 1832, wrote that there is "a most fruitful cause of the evils with which, we lament, the Church is now afflicted, that is, indifferentism." He then went on to say what he meant by indifferentism: "[1] that evil opinion that souls can attain eternal salvation by just any profession of faith, if their morals follow the right norm . . . [2] from this most foul font of indifferentism flows that absurd view, or rather madness, that one should defend and vindicate for just anyone freedom of conscience."

We inserted numbers for convenience. In #1 the Pope says that not just any profession of faith has the power to save. Therefore, one cannot be saved by just any kind of faith. But can one be saved in spite of errors in faith, if in good faith? Pius IX, who is obviously opposed to indifferentism, taught that "God . . . because of His supreme goodness and clemency by no means allows anyone to be punished with eternal punishment who does not have the guilt of voluntary fault."6 In other words, no one will be damned who follows the moral law as he knows it. What of his faith? There must be at least a minimum faith, that God exists as the just rewarder and punisher. Yet Pius IX assures us that somehow — he does not explain the how — God will take care of that if a man does not commit what he knows to be mortal sin. As for #2, Pope Gregory means merely that a man does not have a right to be wrong. It does not deny what Pius IX taught, that a man may be saved not by, but in spite of, erroneous beliefs.

Proceeding from Gregory to Pius IX, we find that his strongest statements center around three condemned propositions in Quanta cura7 (Dec. 8, 1864). The three are given in quotation marks, yet, although the Acta normally identify quotes, no identification is given. Hence it seems that the three statements are, as it were, contrived — made very strong, and condemned because of at least one item in each.

The first statement is that "The best condition of civil society and civil progress altogether requires that human society be structured and governed with no consideration of religion, as if it did not exist, or, at least, with no distinction between true and false religion." In this we can easily see three errors, and one is enough to condemn. First, it is obviously not the best arrangement for a state to act as though religion did not exist, or, at least, to make no distinction. Second, it is not even a good thing to act as though religion did not exist. Even in the United States we do not do this entirely, for we have "In God we trust" on our money, we open sessions of Congress with prayer, and so on. Third, it is hardly wise to make "no distinction between true and false religion" (a point reinforced by the Vatican II Declaration when, in paragraph one, it called for an established Church).

The second condemned statement in Quanta cura rejects the idea "that the best condition of society is one in which there is no recognition of the duty of the government to repress violatores of the Catholic religion, except to the extent that public order demands." The first error here is like that above — it is surely not the best situation of society (although, as above, this does not say it could not be a good or permissible situation). The second error is that the government has no duty to repress violatores of the Catholic religion unless public order demands it. The Latin violatores is much stronger than the English, in which even parking errors are called "violations". The authoritative Harpers' Latin Dictionary says that violare means "to treat with violence, injure, invade, profane, outrage." Violatores of course are those who commit violare. Some examples of violare would be: (1) to bomb a Church (of course, public order would condemn that anywhere); (2) to slander the Church or its authorities (but even U.S. civil law punishes slanderers). On the other hand, merely to publish articles against Catholic teaching, short of slander, would not be violare.

The third statement condemned by Pius IX says that "freedom of conscience and of worship is a right of each and every sort of man, which should be proclaimed by law and asserted in ever rightly constituted society, and that citizens have a right to liberty of every kind, to be limited by no church or civil authority, in virtue of which they are able to manifest publicly, orally or in print, their concepts of any sort whatsoever" (emphasis added). The first error: people do not have a right to be wrong. Vatican II, for its part, merely said they have a right not to be coerced into thinking or acting contrary to their consciences. Secondly we note the extremes. The proposition says people have a right to every kind of freedom to teach concepts of any sort whatever. So sweeping a liberty would include inciting crime or revolution, or teaching that headhunting is good, or teaching polygamy, things which even U.S. law prohibits.

If space permitted, we could show in detail that the Syllabus8 of Pius IX is similar. For example, error 15 says that men have a right to be wrong; error 77 says that today we should no longer want the Catholic religion to be professed by the state while excluding all other cults. But we can urge the state to profess Catholicism, as Vatican II does, without excluding other cults from the country. And error 79 says people have the full power to profess any and all views. Error 80 says the Pope should reconcile himself to such ideas as that a man has a right to be wrong.

The great Pius XII — hardly a liberal — in his Ci riesce of Dec. 6, 1953 gave an authoritative interpretation of the Church's teaching on these matters. Let us note the chief facets. In Acta Apostolicae Sedis vol. 45, pp. 798-99, he asks: "Can it be that in determined circumstances, He [God] does not give to man any mandate, or impose a duty, finally that He gives no right, to impede and' to repress that which is erroneous or false? . . . Christ in the parable of the cockle gives the following admonition: Let the cockle grow along with the good seed, for the sake of the harvest."

Still more forcefully on p. 801:

. . . ever since, under Constantine the Great and other Christian emperors, the Church became the Church of the state, always, for higher and more prevailing motives, she has done thus [let error be] and also in the future she will be faced with the same necessity. In each case the attitude of the Church is determined by the care for and consideration of the common good — of the common good of the Church and of the state in individual states, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, by the common good of the universal Church [emphasis added].

As we saw in the quote from pp. 798-99, in determined circumstances, God does not even give a right, much less a duty, to repress error. Such circumstances existed even under the Christian emperors (p. 800) and will always exist, as the parable of the cockle makes clear.

We come to the teaching of Vatican II in Dignitatis humanae. As we already saw, it insists already in paragraph 1 that this document "leaves untouched the traditional Catholic doctrine about the moral duty of men and societies towards the true religion and the one Church of Christ." Therefore, objectively, all, both individuals and society, have the obligation to recognize the true Church. But since in practice human weakness does not always arrive at the truth, there must be a freedom from coercion in this matter. This is not the same as a right to be wrong — it is only a right not to be shot (or otherwise punished) for being wrong.

Even John Courtney Murray, who is "credited" by many with breaking with past teaching, insisted: "This conciliar affirmation of the principle of freedom was narrowly limited — in the text."9 (For he wishfully thinks in practice it will be given wider scope.) The text is in fact very limited.

In paragraph 2 the document says that,

the human person has a right to religious freedom. The freedom consists in this, that all men should be immune from coercion on the part of individuals or societies or any human power, and in such a way that in religious matters no one is to be forced to act against his conscience, nor impeded from acting according to his conscience in private and in public, either alone, or associated with others, within due limits.

"Within due limits" is vague. It could be taken to mean only that what violates public order must be repressed. Yet someone might claim it means that even false doctrine is beyond due limits. No one could prove or disprove such a claim.

We note that the focus is on not coercing consciences. A man must not be forced to sin, to act against conscience, and likewise, he must not be forced to omit that which his conscience demands, in public and in private (within due limits). This clearly means we must not force a man to do what he considers immoral, nor to omit what he considers morally demanded. What then of slandering the Church or attacking her doctrine?

Three distinctions are needed. First, if someone makes a false charge against the Church or Church authorities outside the doctrinal sphere, e.g., charging the Bishop with stealing from the poor, this is slander. It is hardly conceivable that the perpetrator of the slander would not know or could not find out that the charge is false. He has the duty to find out before making the charge even in private. Civil courts almost anywhere do punish this sort of thing. Pius IX would surely call it violare.

Secondly, publishing a defense of non-Catholic doctrine is a very different matter. In a sense, any claim that another doctrine is true is a, contradiction of Catholic doctrine, at least implicitly. Yet here the case is much different from the non-doctrinal slander. In the latter, as we said, it is hardly possible that the perpetrator would not be guilty in conscience at least of rashness for not investigating. But in the doctrinal matter, conscience is normally not guilty — a person can easily fall into many errors, and normally in good faith. Hence Aristotle (On the Soul 3.3) says that error "seems to be more natural to living creatures, and the soul spends the larger part of the time in it."

It is not only true that the doctrinal contradictions are normally without malice: in addition, there would be immense dangers to the common good of Church and state were the state to attempt to repress these errors. First, that would presuppose the state is capable of knowing the truth in such matters. If it simply accepted the Catholic Church, it could do so, but in many centuries and lands it has not seen that the Church is to be accepted. So if we made it a policy for the state to suppress error, it would in many places and times persecute the Catholic Church. That is Pius XII in Ci riesce, as we saw above, said that in the past the Church has always had to let error run, for the "common good of the universal Church", and "in the future she will be faced with the same necessity." Pius XII even added that God does not even give a right to suppress errors, and he appeals to the authority of Christ Himself, in the parable of the cockle.

Would Pius IX disagree? The closest he came was in his words on the obligation to repress violare. But he did not spell out what is included in violare. We saw that non-doctrinal slander is easily violare, but the inherent nature of doctrinal error is so very different that, at least, no one can prove it is to be included under violare. And if it cannot be proved, there is no obligation: lex dubia non obligat.

The third possibility would be explicit contradiction of Catholic doctrine. Would that be violare? We cannot honestly be sure, although it is not much different from the implicit contradiction we have just considered. Similarly, we could not be sure whether or not it would be outside "due limits". Would Ci riesce clear the matter? It did say that at least implicit contradiction is not to be suppressed. We cannot be sure if it would mean also explicit contradiction.

Of course, when neither Pius IX nor Vatican II is clear, no one can claim one document contradicts another.

In para. 4 the Council says that this freedom "which belongs to individuals should be recognized in them even when they act in common. For religious groups are required by the social nature of both man and religion." Clearly, if many individuals each have a right to non-coercion, then they can act in common. But the document does not say the groups have a right to be wrong, or even that groups as groups have a right to non-coercion. It is the individuals that have that right.

Comparing the Statements

Is all this contrary to past teaching? By no means. Let us compare the teachings.

Pius IX insists that a man does not have a right to be wrong; Vatican II does not contradict; it merely insists a man should not be shot for being wrong. Pius IX says that one cannot gain salvation by just any faith; Vatican II does not disagree. Rather it agrees with Pius IX's statement that no one is lost without grave sin. This supposes he must have a certain minimum basic faith, but need not be correct in all matters.

Pius IX said it is not "the best condition of civil society" that there be no consideration of religion, or that all religions be considered the same; Vatican II in para. 1 reaffirms this traditional doctrine of the duty of men and societies toward the one true Church.

Pius IX says it is not the "best condition of society in which there is no recognition of the duty of the government to repress violatores of the Catholic religion." We noted that violatores are those who commit violare, which Harpers 'Dictionary says means, "to treat with violence, injure, invade, profane, outrage." And here is the heart of the problem. However, we can show the agreement by considering several grades of acts against the Church, and asking what Pius IX and Vatican II say of each:

(1) Those who bomb a church. Pius IX would say this is violare; civil law almost anywhere would punish it, and Vatican II would say it is against public order and not "within due limits", and so not permitted.

(2) Those who slander the Church or Christ in a non-doctrinal way. Pius IX would say this is violare; Vatican II would say it is beyond "due limits" and against public order. Civil law almost anywhere punishes such slander.

(3) Those who publicly teach their non-Catholic doctrine, contradicting Catholic teaching only implicitly. The Ci resce invokes the authority of Christ Himself for saying the Church and state have no right from God to suppress this error.

(4) Those who in publicly teaching non-Catholic doctrine add explicit contradiction of Catholic teaching leave us uncertain. Probably the Ci riesce covers this, for it makes no distinction of implicit and explicit. But we cannot be sure. Nor could we be sure this is included in violare.

(5) Those who join with others in their own protestant belief and worship. Again, this is surely not violare. Vatican II says individuals have a right to immunity here both singly and when they join in common.

We add, however, that on some critical points neither Pius IX nor Vatican II is entirely clear. For what are the limits of violare or of "due limits"? Since there is a lack of certainty, no one can possibly claim one authority contradicts the other.

But we are sure of this: if anyone claims — as do followers of Lefebvre — that they are certain of a contradiction, they are guilty of two things: of excessive smugness about their interpretations, and of forbidden private interpretation. For in arriving at its teaching, Vatican II implicitly gave an interpretation of the older documents as not being in contradiction. Hence it is not Vatican II which was guilty of an attack on older Church teachings, but rather those who attack Vatican II, charging it with false doctrine even though it was protected from error by Christ.


  1. "On Divine Revelation, para. 10.
  2. Cf. DS 3866. Vatican II, "On Divine Revelation" para. 10 agrees: "The task of authoritatively interpreting the word of God, whether written or handed on [Scripture or Tradition] has been entrusted exclusively to the living teaching office of the Church, whose authority is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ."
  3. Pius XII did it in Ci riesce, as we shall see.
  4. Some would say that although such an obligation really lies on states, yet that history shows the state is excused, having proved itself over and over again incapable of determining which is the true church. (Positive obligations, of course, do admit of excusing causes).
  5. DS 2730.
  6. DS 2966. Vatican II concurs, in "Constitution on the Church", para. 16. 7 Latin text found in Jose Luis Gutierrez Garcia (ed.) Doctrina Pontificia, ii, Documentos politicos, Biblioteca de Autores Cristianos, Madrid, 1958, p. 8.
  7. DS 2915, 2977, 2979, 2980.
  8. In his introduction, "Religious Freedom" in the Walter M. Abbott edition of The Documents of Vatican II, America Press, 1966, p. 674.

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