Archbishop Lefebvre preparing the Council

Archbishop Lefebvre preparing the Council (1959-1962)

Written by Bishop Bernard Tissier de Mallerais and originally published in the French magazine, Fideliter. The English translation was taken from the May 2002 issue of The Angelus.

On June 5, 1960, Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, then Archbishop of Dakar and President of the Episcopal Commission for French-speaking West Africa, was appointed by Pope John XXIII to the Central Preparatory Commission for the Council. His Excellency took part in all the sessions of that commission until June 1962, during which time he was able to assess the seriousness of such preparation. However, he became quickly aware of the formidable struggle of influence between the “Romans” (e.g., those wanting to preserve Tradition) and the Liberals. That struggle intensified and finally broke out in the open at the very beginning of the Council.

Archbishop Lefebvre was not yet aware of the intrigues and behind-the-scene dealings that would rig the Council when he received a letter from Cardinal Tardini dated June 18, 1959. That letter was an inquiry asking bishops around the world questions and suggestions regarding the various topics which should be addressed during the coming Council. On May 17, 1959, Pope John XXIII had announced the establishment of such preparatory commission.

Some episcopal responses deserve to be known. For example, Bishop Carli, from a small diocese in Italy, wished to have the Council pronounce a firm condemnation of the theory on evolution, as well as of the moral relativism already rampant. That bishop’s concerns were added to those of a Brazilian prelate, Bishop Antonio de Castro Mayer, who asked that the coming council “denounce with the strongest words the conspiracy against the City of God.” Bishop de Castro Mayer thought and wished that the formation of clerics should result with priests more aware and more combative against what he called “the Anti-Christian Conspiracy.”

Cardinal Tardini’s survey

One of Bishop de Castro Mayer’s compatriots and confreres, Bishop Geraldo de Proenca Sigaud, was no less determined and pugnacious in denouncing “the implacable enemy of both the Church and Catholic society...”, i.e., the Revolution, insisting on an “active counter-revolutionary stance,” especially against Communism.

The Archbishop of Dakar (Senegal), who was about to form a holy alliance with these prelates was at first preoccupied by the ever-increasing dominance of bishops’ conferences, which he saw as an obstacle to the true authority of diocesan prelates. In his response to Cardinal Tardini, His Excellency did ask for some clarifications pertaining to the laity’s apostolate. He also expressed his concern for sound doctrine by proposing remedies to the deviations that had begun to spread in the seminaries, in particular that doctrine be taught following the Summa of St. Thomas and with the help of a manual on the Church’s social doctrine. Two aspects of Church doctrine were of particular concern to the Archbishop:

  1. The dogma “outside the Church, no salvation,” which he insisted needed to be reinforced especially against errors undermining the missionary role of the Church.
  2. He also asked for a clear affirmation of the Marian truth that the most holy Virgin Mary, Mother of God is Mediatrix of all graces. Such affirmation, said Archbishop Lefebvre, would undoubtedly confirm the spiritual motherhood of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

These proposals by the Archbishop and the three other bishops mentioned earlier were very touchy and more conspicuous by their demand on doctrinal affirmation than all other suggestions and proposals made by the rest of the world’s Catholic bishops.

First skirmishes

The question regarding the selection of the Council’s periti (experts) was addressed at the very first plenary session of the Central Commission. Archbishop Lefebvre had received in advance, like his colleagues, the list of the experts chosen by the pope, and was the only one to voice his opposition to such contradiction between theory and practice.

Said the Archbishop:

As for the quality of the theologians and experts in Canon Law, they must have a true love for the Church and they must adhere completely first in their hearts, with their lips and by their actions to the doctrines of the Roman pontiffs and the documents written by them. This is of paramount importance, since we have been surprised to find the names of theologians whose doctrine is at variance with the necessary qualities demanded in advisors."

At least three of these experts had been censured by the Church hierarchy. “When I mentioned these names,” he continued:

Cardinal Ottaviani did not react. However, after that meeting, during a coffee break, I was approached by His Eminence, who took me by the arm and said: 'I understand your concern, but what can we do? The Holy Father, himself, wants things to be this way. He desires to have experts who have made a name for themselves.'"

By November 1961, open sessions began for examining and discussing the schemas prepared by the various commissions. The Archbishop agreed, generally speaking, with most of the sessions by giving his placet. The Council was about to proclaim the truth against contemporary errors, in order to eradicate them for good. So thought Archbishop Lefebvre, who later said:

That would have heralded a new era for the Church, and struck a decisive blow against Protestantism. Had we followed that route, the Council would have become a lighthouse for the world. If only they would have used the pre-Conciliar schemas, which contained a solemn profession of sound doctrine concerning modern problems."

Two kinds of documents

On January 20, 1962, after Cardinal Ottaviani had introduced his schema explaining that “the deposit of the Faith must be safeguarded in all its purity,” Archbishop Lefebvre, believing that the Church could not keep the deposit of the Faith without combating errors, said: “The Council must tackle the current errors. How are we supposed to defend the Faith if we don’t have principles?

Then on January 23, His Excellency made another statement suggesting that the Council commission should prepare two sets of documents, the first set to be composed of canons condemning the errors of the day, and the second set of documents comprising a work that would constitute “a synthesis of the whole Catholic Faith, while dispelling in passing the principal errors of the times such as Teilhardism, naturalism, materialism, etc., but presented in a positive fashion.”

As the sessions and debates proceeded, it became apparent that there was a split among the cardinals. When a schema was introduced by the chairman of the sub-commission which had drafted it, a debate ensued led by the cardinals, especially Lienart, Frings, Alfrink, Dopfner, Konig and Leger opposing Ruffini, Siri, Larraona and Brown.

It was very clear to all the members present,” Archbishop Lefebvre explained, “that there was a division within the Church, a division that was not accidental or superficial, but deep; a division that was more pronounced between the cardinals than between archbishops or bishops.”

Dramatic confrontation

On June 19, 1962, on the eve of the last day of preparatory sessions, two schemas opposing each other were presented for discussion. The first document, Chapter 9 of the schema on the Church, prepared by the sub-commission on theology, dealt with “Relations between the Church and State, and religious tolerance.” It comprised 9 pages of text along with 14 pages of footnotes referring to pontifical Magisterium going from Pius IX to Pius XII. On the other hand, the second text prepared by the Secretariat for Christian Unity, chaired by Cardinal Bea, was entitled “On Religious Liberty.” It comprised 15 pages of text and 5 pages of footnotes, with no references at all to the Church’s perennial Magisterium. Having received the documents ahead of time, the Archbishop wondered:

The first is Catholic Tradition, but as for the second, how should we label it? Liberalism, another French Revolution, a Declaration of the Rights of Man — this is what they are trying to impose on the Church. Just incredible! Let us wait and see what is going to happen at the session."

And so it came to pass. Cardinal Ottaviani began his presentation by attacking the opposite schema. Said His Eminence:

In setting forth the doctrine of the relations between a Catholic state and other religions, I believe that the Council must follow the Church’s own doctrine, and not the doctrine that would please non-Catholics or accede to their demands. That is why I believe that it is necessary to eliminate discussion of the constitution proposed by the Secretariat for Christian Unity because it betrays the influence of contacts with non-Catholics."

After illustrating this influence by several examples, he presented his schema, dominated by concern for the preservation and defense of the Catholic Faith, and for safeguarding the temporal common good based on the unity of all the citizens in the true religion.

Then Cardinal Bea stood up to present his own concept of religious liberty, valid for every circumstance and for every man, even “in error about the Faith.” Until this moment, the Church had only maintained the right of her own sons; now was she going to demand the same for those who follow cults?  Indeed, this was the case, as Cardinal Bea soon explained, underscoring the ecumenical significance of the subject:

Today this question is of very great interest to non-Catholics, who have repeatedly reproached the Church for being intolerant in those places where her members are in the majority, and of clamoring for religious liberty in those places where they are but a minority. Each and every case where intolerance has been found has been carefully noted and brought up. This objection harms to the utmost all the efforts expended to bring non-Catholics to the Church. While developing this schema in fulfillment of its duty, the Secretariat had this circumstance before its eyes, and wondered what was the Church’s duty concerning religious liberty and how it should be exercised."

In order to justify his assertions in opposition to the prior universal practice of the Catholic world, Cardinal Bea went so far as to advance the proposition that “in current conditions, no nation can properly be said to be Catholic, and none can be considered as alone and separate from the others,” which would suggest a common international regime of religious liberty. “Besides,” he added, “the state as such does not know the existence and realm of the supernatural order.” In fine, the reigning pontiff wanted an aggiornamento, “that is, adaptation to the current conditions of life and not the re-establishment of what had been possible, and even necessary, under other sociological structures.”

Tolerance or religious liberty

Cardinal Bea concluded: “Our two reports disagree on the fundamental questions set forth in numbers 3 and 8. It belongs to this illustrious assembly to judge.” Irritated by the historical relativism which his opponent had just applied to Church law pertaining to public worship, Cardinal Ottaviani thought it good to reply by underscoring the opposition: “Now everyone can see that we do not agree about certain things; indeed, that we disagree on matters of doctrine.”

They were like that, the two of them standing,” Archbishop Lefebvre would relate. “The rest of us, seated, watched two eminent cardinals clash over such a fundamental thesis.”

The voting ensued, and Archbishop Lefebvre said:

On religious liberty, non placet… because it is based on false principles solemnly condemned by the sovereign pontiffs, for example, by Pius IX, who called this error “a delirium.” On the Church, chapters IX-X, placet. But the presentation of the basic principles could be done more in relation to Christ the King as in the encyclical Quas Primas. The goal of this Council is to preach Christ to all men and to reaffirm that the Catholic Church alone can authentically preach Christ, Christ the salvation and life of individuals, families, professional societies, and other civil organizations."

The Reign of Christ the King

He explained:

The schema on religious liberty does not preach Christ, therefore it is false. The schema presented by the commission on theology does introduce a sound and authentic doctrine, but reads more like a treatise, and it does not stress enough the only reason behind all such doctrine, which is no less than the social kingship of Christ the King. From the focus of Christ, source of salvation and of life, all the fundamental truths could be set forth in a “pastoral” fashion, as they say, and at the same time the errors of secularism, naturalism, materialism, etc., would be expelled."

That intervention, so unique by its supernatural elevation, which brought the debate back to the highest principle, could not help but make a striking impression on the minds of the commission fathers. For a man filled with the spirit of wisdom had stood up asserting not the rights of man, but the rights of Christ the King.

The Latin Fathers (Italians, Spanish, Latin-American) were supportive of the Ottaviani schema, whereas the Fathers from America, England, Germany, Holland and France sided with Cardinal Bea.

And so the Council, whose goal was to give the Church a new impetus and to manifest her unity, was irreparably divided only a few weeks before the grand opening of that Council. Archbishop Lefebvre explained:

That division was on one fundamental theme:  the social kingship of our Lord Jesus Christ. Should our Lord reign over all nations? Cardinal Ottaviani said definitely yes, whereas Cardinal Bea was saying, No!  I wondered, 'If things are this way now, what will come out of this Council?'"

Have you read the book, Marcel Lefebvre: The Biography ?