The Coetus: Trad Godfathers at Vatican II

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Above: Archbishop Lefebvre with Pius XII. Lefebvre and other members of the Coetus were respected by the popes before Paul VI, including by John XXIII. 

There will be factions. This is the first rule of all voting assemblies, from the Roman Senate to the US House of Representatives. To believe that this rule does not apply to the Ecumenical Councils of the Church is a naïveté that does not survive reading Church History.

The second rule of voting assemblies is that the victorious faction is usually in a position to impose its interpretation of the events that took place during the assembly. “Qu’on ne l’oublie pas, [l’histoire] a été écrite par les vainqueurs,” says the Count of Saint-Priest regarding the unflattering portrayal of Queen Brunhilda by those who benefitted from her fall.[1] This interpretation usually involves the inevitability of victory (the “right side of history” discourse) and disdain for the defeated minority. It is a partial interpretation.

Vatican II is no exception. To look at it through the victors’ lens is to see it out of focus: the works by the generation of the “ideological sanctuarization of the Second Vatican Council,” to quote Guillaume Cuchet,[2] reveals blind spots and distortions.[3] Such a distortion is conspicuously present in Bishop Barron’s forward to the Vatican II Collection published by Word on Fire, but such generalizations and oversimplifcations can also be found in Ratzinger.

The series of articles we here propose as a sort of corrective, and which intends to follow the chronology of Vatican II, will focus on the “minority” at Vatican II as represented by, but not coterminous with, the Cœtus Internationalis Patrum (“International Group of Fathers”).[4]

This minority of what one of its members termed a “traditional orientation”[5] organized itself early on during the Council and would eventually be called the aforementioned Cœtus Internationalis Patrum (CIP). Its natural leader was Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, former Apostolic Delegate of Senegal and Bishop of Tulle in France (until August 11, 1962) and Superior General of the Congregation of the Holy Ghost since July 26,1962 (until October 26, 1968). Soon a steering committee emerged (four men around Archbishop Lefebvre). The CIP would ultimately number nine sympathizers among the Cardinals, fifty-five “fellow travelers” among the bishops, 839 “occasional signers” (who signed onto to petitions and other documents composed by the CIP), and twenty-two theologians, whether periti or merely advisors.[6]

The historian’s work that went into the investigation of the members and activity of the CIP is that of French Canadian  historian Philippe Roy-Lysencourt. He defended his dissertation on the CIP (under joint supervision of Université Laval in Québec and Université Jean Moulin in Lyon, France) in 2011 summa cum laude.[7] This was no mere academic hurdle: at 2,331 pages and eight volumes, it constitutes a masterpiece of research and analysis of an insufficiently-studied aspect of the Council.[8]

In addition to the obvious published documentation such as the monumental Acts of the Second Vatican Council,[9] Roy-Lysencourt has also leafed through all the relevant archives: at Écône (for Archbishop Lefebvre’s correspondence), at Solesmes (for Abbot Dom Jean Prou’s correspondence), at the Vatican, even as far as Diamantina in Brazil (for Archbishop Geraldo de Proença Sigaud’s correspondence), etc. His work will allow us to shed light on the struggles, victories, and defeats of the group of Council Fathers who fought for traditional Roman theology, discipline, and liturgy throughout the four sessions of the second Vatican Council (October 11, 1962- December 8, 1965).[10]

Let us turn, then, to the Vatican Council and the foundation of the CIP.

One often thinks of the Second Vatican Council as having emerged from St. John XXIII’s mind as did Athena from Zeus’s head. In fact, in one of the great ironies of history, it was two traditional-leaning Cardinals, Ottaviani and Ruffini, future Cardinal-sympathizers of the CIP, who presented the idea of an ecumenical council (which already had been floated under Pius XI and Pius XII) to John XXIII within hours of his election. Historian Yves Chiron recounts:

In fact, as soon as John XXIII was elected on October 28, 1958, as the conclave was about to end, Cardinals Ruffini and Ottaviani, who instigated the project for a council that was discussed under Pius XII’s pontificate, suggested it to the new Pope.[11]

On January 20, 1959, John XXIII had a famous conversation with Cardinal Tardini during which he brought up a Council (“Suddenly, a great idea arose in Us and illuminated Our soul . . . Our voice expressed it for the first time: a Council!”[12]), and he announced his intention to call a council in consistory five days later.

An intense work of preparation began, various “ante-preparatory” commissions putting together schemas, or drafts, of documents for the future Council Fathers to vote on. But of all these only the schema on the liturgy (Bugnini’s Sacrosanctum Concilium) made it through the first session. All the other schemas, work of the Roman schools (which, for the most part, were traditional), were set aside, starting with the schema on Revelation which had not garnered the 66% “no” votes (non placet) and therefore had to remain up for discussion. On November 21, 1962, however, John XXIII withdrew it and entrusted its revision to a mixed commission made up of the Doctrinal Commission and, incongruously, the Secretariat for the Promotion of Christian Unity (the other progressive organism at the Council beside the Liturgy Commission). This constituted a victory for the “liberal” faction of the Council;[13] a prominent Protestant observer of the Council wrote in his diary that day that the pope’s act would “give to the forward-looking men on the Secretariat the chance to shape the schema.”[14]

In reaction to this trajectory in favor of the outlook of the various preconciliar movements (liturgical movement, biblical movement, pastoral movement, ecumenical movement, etc.), a “piccolo comitato” (small committee) gathered around Lefebvre.[15] It slowly took form throughout the first session (October 11-December 8, 1962). It is important to note that many of these men were those whom John XXIII had previously entrusted with the writing of the schemata, preparatory documents for the Council itself (the “Roman schools”). These were not a “fringe group” as they are portrayed or marginalized today.

There was at first a “study group,” an informal gathering of traditional-leaning Council Fathers. It came together spontaneously to resist the power of the progressives at the Council, (the “European Alliance”), who were steering the Council in a new direction.[16] At this point there was no concerted strategy nor plan: it was just a meeting of the minds.

This informal group, realizing that action was needed, acquired a more concrete structure during the first intersession (viz. the recess between the first two sessions, December 9, 1962-September 28, 1963). Archbishop Geraldo de Proença Sigaud of Diamantina (who had close ties to the conservative Tradition Family Property group) and Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre decided to organize a group, and started networking among like-minded people. Lefebvre was able to garner the support of the Benedictines of Solesmes,[17] with whom he had studied the schemas that, as a Council Father, he had received during the intersession. Realizing the need for a theological heavyweight, Archbishop Lefebvre took on the brilliant and hard-working Abbé Berto as his peritus (theological expert). Abbé Berto, who like Archbishop Lefebvre had studied at the French Seminary in Rome during the rectorship of Father Henri Le Floch in the 1920s, soon became the principal theological advisor to the entire group, until his health prevented him to continue.

The actual (though unofficial) foundation of the CIP dates to Wednesday October 2, 1963, three days into the second session (September 29-December 4, 1963).[18] Fifteen Council Fathers met and unanimously picked Archbishop Lefebvre as president of the association. The group spontaneously organized itself into two tiers: a steering committee to organize action; and general assemblies. These assemblies met on Tuesday evenings and hosted lecturers to present talks on the Council’s current themes; they were attended by CIP members and sympathizers. As for the steering committee, it was composed of (in alphabetical order, with their function at the opening of the Council):[19]

  • Luigi Maria Carli (1914-1986), Bishop of Segni in Italy, a canon lawyer, who joined the CIP in October 1963 (56 interventions at the Council);
  • Antonio de Castro Mayer (1904-1991), Bishop of Campos in Brazil, CIP cofounder (50 interventions);
  • Geraldo de Proença Sigaud, SVD (1909-1999), Bishop of Diamantina in Brazil, CIP secretary (25 interventions);
  • Marcel Lefebvre, C.S.Sp. (1905-1991), Superior General of the Holy Ghost Fathers, CIP cofounder and leader (28 interventions);
  • Jean Prou, OSB (1911-1999), Abbot of Solesmes and Superior of the French Congregation of Benedictines, early member of the CIP (35 interventions).

This second session saw the greatest period of growth for the CIP. On the one hand, existing members knew whom to invite from among the friends they already had from the preconciliar days; on the other hand, like-minded men recognized each other during the discussions and votes in the conciliar assemblies. Abbé Berto described how the CIP emerged:

[It] was not born of a single mind’s set plan; it was not born of any groups of men’s common project; it was not born of a sworn pact. It was born of a ‘harmony’ that had been unwittingly ‘preestablished’ among Fathers who did not know each other before the Council, but who recognized each other as if they had always known each other.[20]

Soon the CIP hosted lectures by Council Fathers and theologians on current Council issues. These were open to anyone with a claim to participating in the Council in any way (down to “private experts”). A “minor cœtus” was made up of the CIP Fathers’ theologians: “it started out as friendship, then, very soon, to daily fraternal collaboration with the intentions of the major Coetus.”[21] Besides Abbé Berto, the other leading theologian within the group was Dom Georges Frénaud.[22] Their role would consist in studying the schemas, then writing and distributing notes and memoranda among the Council Fathers in Rome. They also assisted the Council Fathers of the CIP in putting together their oral and written interventions in the Council aula at Saint Peter’s Basilica.

This activity is what brought, among others and as an example, Bishop Carli into the group.[23] Judging by the list of Council Fathers who added their signatures to his intervention on November 13, 1963 during the 66th general congregation, others joined him that day in the CIP’s efforts to influence the Council.[24]

Such were the beginnings of the CIP, which formed as it were the backbone of the Conciliar resistance to the liberal tendency at the Council. In order better to understand the outlook of its leadership, it will be illuminating to read the wish-list  (the vota) its members had individually sent to the Antepreparatory Commission in response to the letter soliciting them that Cardinal Tardini, Secretary of State, had sent them on June 18, 1959. We shall devote our next article to those vota.


[1] Alexis de Saint-Priest, Histoire de la royauté considérée dans ses origines jusqu’à la formation des principales monarchies de l’Europe (Paris: Delloye/Garnier, 1842), 42.

[2] Guillaume Cuchet, Comment notre monde a cessé d’être chrétien. Anatomie d’un effondrement (Paris: Éditions Points, 2020), 98. The term “sanctuarization” is intended to liken Vatican II to Holy of Holies for the generation that lived it. See the review of this book in Catholic World Report.

[3] For an example among many, see John O’Malley, What Happened at Vatican II (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2008). On the other hand it would be unfair to class alongside such works G. Alberigo’s and his Bologna school’s serious, if slanted, multivolume History of Vatican II.

[4] Hilari Raguer, “An Intitial Profile of the Assembly,” in G. Alberigo and J. Komonchak ed.s, History of Vatican II, Vol. 2, The Formation of the Coucnil’s Identity. First Period and Intersession, October 1962-September 1963 (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1997), 199: “Although the International Group of Fathers was the catalyst for the so-called minority, not all the Fathers of the minority belonged to it in a strict sense.” O’Malley expands this to a “small minority,” What Happened at Vatican II, 8.

[5] Letter of Archbishop Geraldo de Proença Sigaud to Marcel Lefebvre, Diamantina, 19 April 1963, Écône seminary archives (ASE) E02-09A, 001, cited in Philippe Roy-Lysencourt,  “Le Coetus Internationalis Patrum au concile Vatican II : genèse d’une dissidence?” [email protected] 18 (2012):  5, n23.

[6] Ph. Roy-Lysencourt, Les Membres du Cœtus Internationalis Patrum au concile Vatican II. Inventaire des interventions et souscriptions des adhérents et sympathisants. Liste des signataires d’occasion et des théologiens (Leuven: Peeters, 2014).

[7] Ph. Roy-Lysencourt, “Le Cœtus Internationalis Patrum, un group d’opposants au sein du concile Vatican II,” PhD diss. (Université Laval and Université Jean Moulin, 2011). We may have to wait a couple of years before its publication.

[8] Too little attention had been devoted to the CIP before Roy-Lysencourt: a few pages in 2,585 of Salvador Gómez de Arteche, “Grupos ‘extra aulam’ en el II Concilio Vaticano y su influencia,” PhD diss. (Universidad de Valladolid, 1980), and Luc Perrin, “Il ‘Coetus Internationalis Patrum’ e la minoranza conciliare,” in Maria Teresa Fattori and Alberto Melloni eds., L’Evento de le decisioni, Studi sulle dinamiche del concilio Vaticano II (Bologna: Il Mulino, 1997), 173-187 and id. “Le Coetus Internationalis Patrum et la minorité à Vatican II,” Catholica 63 (Spring 1999): 71-84.

[9] Acta Synodalia Sacrosancti Concilii Oecumenici Vaticani Secundi (Typis Polyglottis Vaticanis, [Rome], 1970-), thanks to Matthew Hazell now available on line.

[10] The expression “Roman theology” denotes that of the faculties of the Pontifical Universities of Rome in the nineteenth and first half of the twentieth centuries.

[11] Yves Chiron, Histoire des traditionalistes suivie d’un dictionnaire biographique (Paris: Tallendier, 2022), 125-126.

[12] Allocution during the audience of May 8, 1962; see also Y. Chiron, Jean XXIII, 275.

[13] Ralph Wiltgen, The Rhine Flows Into the Tiber: The Unknown Council (New York: Hawthorn Books, 1967), 51.

[14] Douglas Horton, Vatican Diary 1962: A Protestant Observes the First Session of the Vatican Council II (Philadelphia-Boston: United Church Press, 1964), 134-135.

[15] Letter of Mgr Lefebvre to Cardinal William Godfrey, Rome, 19 October 1961. Écône seminary archives (ASE), E02-05, 001, cited in Roy-Lysencourt, Les Membres, 9, n1.

[16] The “European Alliance” included those bishops and periti who broadly represented the Nouvelle théologie or “ressourcement” movement, and was made up both the “Liberal” wing (which would become the journal Concilium), led by men such as heretic Hans Küng, and the “Conservative” wing (which would become the journal Communio), led by men such as Joseph Ratzinger. Both of these “wings” were united against the Curia, the Roman theologians and the Coetus at the Council. They are classed as the “victorious party” at the Council, even though this is not the whole truth, as these articles will show.

[17] Letter of Abbé Victor-Alain Berto to Canon Madec, 19 September 1963. Archives of the Dominican Sisters of the Holy Ghost (ADSE), Victor-Alain Berto collection; “Notice biographique,” Notre-Dame de Joie, Correspondance de l’abbé V.A. Berto, prêtre 1900-1968, 2nd ed. (Paris: Nouvelles Éditions Latines, 1989): 41.

[18] As noted in Dom Jean Prou’s datebook, Wednesday 2 October 1963. Archives of the Benedictine Abbey of Solesmes (AABS).

[19] Summary biographies in Roy-Lysencourt, Les Membres, 21-76.

[20] Abbé Victor-Alain Berto to the Editor-in-Chief of the review Rivarol, Letter, 19 march 1966. ADSE,  Victor-Alain Berto collection, file “Le deuxième Concile du Vatican.”

[21] Ibid.

[22] Abbé Victor-Alain Berto to “MB,” Letter, 17 October 1963. ADSE, ibid. Dom Georges Frénaud, OSB (1903-1967) had also studied at the French Seminary in Rome (1919-1927) during the Rectorship of Father Le Floch. He received the Benedictine habit at Solesmes on December 20, 1926. After teaching theology there from 1942, he was named prior on October 27, 1961 and was chosen by Dom Prou as his peritus and secretary during the council.

[23] Ralph Wiltgen, The Rhine Flows Into the Tiber, 89. Cardinal Döpfner, a leader of the liberal faction, “later admitted that there was no bishop at the Council whom he feared more,” ibid.

[24] Besides members of the steering committee (Lefebvre, Proença Sigaud, Prou, Castro Meyer), one recognizes the names of Bp Joseph Nepote-Fus, Bp João Pereira Venâncio, Brother Luciano Rubio (Prior General of the O.E.S.A.), Giocondo M. Grotti O.S.M., Bp Carlos E.S. Bendeira de Mello, OFM, of Palmas in Brazil.

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