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In Praise of Archbishop Lefebvre and Defense of the SSPX

Editor’s note: as we announced last week, this is the beginning of an ongoing series presenting both sides of the SSPX debate. This answer to Mr. Salza will also include a general defense of the SSPX. Contributions to this debate on either side can be sent to editor [at]

Recently, John Salza wrote an article attacking Archbishop Lefebvre and the SSPX. Before we reply to John Salza, let us recount the greatness and heroic deeds, the sacrifices, struggles and missionary labors of His Grace, Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, the holy French Catholic Missionary to Africa, a true Apostle of Jesus Christ Our King. Let us examine the case from the very beginning to see where truth lies.

The First Phase of Lefebvre’s Life (1929-1958). Ordained a Priest in 1929 at the age of 23 to preparing for the Second Vatican Council in 1959. The Shining Catholic Missionary who helped grow the Roman Catholic Church in Africa.

I highly recommend all Catholics interested in the question watch this beautiful documentary, a greatly edifying, truly educational and highly inspirational video, that explains the glorious life and apostolic ministry of Archbishop Lefebvre in Africa. For those who prefer to read, his biography is published by Angelus Press as well as the three volume Apologia pro Marcel Lefebvre by Michael Davies.

In blood, sweat, tears and toil, Archbishop Lefebvre labored for decades, ministering to hundreds of thousands of Catholics, and spreading the missionary work to save souls. Together with Venerable American Archbishop Fulton Sheen, he was one of the greatest Catholic evangelists of the 20th century. His zeal was admired by Pope Pius XII, who elevated him to Vicar Apostolic, overseeing some 50,000 Catholics throughout Africa. His missionary ideas to elevate the nascent African Christendom were later adopted by Pius XII in his encyclical on the missions, Fidei Donum (1957).

His missionary efforts have borne the greatest fruits. The Church in Africa today is an amazing success story. As Aleteia notes, and in a completely incredible and unexpected way, there are now more Christians in Africa than in Europe and even Latin America.  According to John Allen, “Africa in the twentieth century went from a Catholic population of 1.9 million in 1900 to 130 million in 2000, a growth rate of 6,708 percent, the most rapid expansion of Catholicism in a single continent in two thousand years of church history.”[1] We cannot forget the great African Cardinals who have greatly blessed and enriched the Universal Church: doctrinal and liturgical traditionalist Cardinal Sarah with friends of Tradition like Cardinal Arinze, a supporter of complete rights and full freedom for the Missa Tridentina. God Bless Africa, and may the good Priests, Nuns, Bishops and Cardinals of Africa, along with Lay Catholic Evangelists – vocations are now quite numerous in the continent – continue to bless the Universal Church.

The Second Phase of Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre’s Life (1959-1988) Thirty Glorious Years of Fidelity to Catholic Tradition, and staunch Anti-Communist Catholic Action, amidst opposition and persecution. Catholic Champion of the Rights of Jesus Christ Our King, the Treasure of Tradition, Mary Immaculate as Mediatrix of All Graces, the Fifth Marian Dogma, and a heroic example of nearly blameless and flawless Catholic Devotion to Jesus and Mary before all.

Already in 1966, Archbishop Lefebvre sounded the prophetic warning, with the greatest love and devotion toward the Magisterial Authorities, that a Great Crisis for Christendom was beginning. Do we not recognize, 55 years later, these warnings as absolutely and incredibly prophetic?

The Church’s destruction is proceeding apace. Through an exaggerated authority granted to Episcopal conferences, the Sovereign Pontiff has rendered himself impotent. In a single year, how many painful examples! And yet, the Successor of Peter and he alone can save the Church.

Let the Holy Father surround himself with vigorous defenders of the Faith, let him appoint them to significant dioceses. Let him deign to proclaim the truth in weighty documents, let him hunt down error without fear of opposition, without fear of schism, without fear of casting doubt upon the pastoral dispositions of the Council.

May the Holy Father deign to encourage the bishops to set faith and morals aright individually, as befits any good shepherd; to support courageous bishops, to incite them to reform their seminaries, to reestablish studies according to St. Thomas in them; to encourage superiors general to maintain in their novitiates and communities the fundamental principles of all Christian asceticism, especially obedience; to encourage the development of Catholic schools, of a doctrinally healthy press, of associations of Christian families; at last also to repress those who instigate error and to reduce them to silence. Wednesday allocutions cannot take the place of encyclicals, of commands, of letters to bishops.

Doubtless I am rather bold to express myself in this manner! But it is with ardent love that I write these lines, love of the glory of God, love of Jesus, love of Mary, of her Church, of the Successor of Peter, bishop of Rome, vicar of Jesus Christ.

No wonder Cardinal Oddi said the drama with Archbishop Lefebvre is that he has “too much Faith.” He understood well the treasure of our faith, and thus the treasure of our Tradition.

Cardinal Oddi’s words show the Roman Church regards Archbishop Lefebvre as one of Her faithful sons, though he made a few mistakes.

We cannot forget two of perhaps the greatest and strongest traditional Catholic bishops in the Church today, Bishop Athanasius Schneider and Bishop Carlo Maria Vigano, have had words of appreciation, esteem and praise for Archbishop Lefebvre and the Society of St. Pius X.

The Third Phase of Archbishop Lefebvre’s Life (1988-1991): Consecration of Bishops, a few mistakes (everybody is allowed some), and difficulties with Rome under Pope St. John Paul II.

Here, in this third phase of his life, Archbishop Lefebvre was slightly confused by the schismatic sedevacantists. Although he had justly expelled them from his Society in 1983, for the great troubles they caused him, and had clearly taught: “It is very important that there should always be the bond with Rome if we wish to remain Catholic; even if we do not agree with everything being done in Rome, I think the bond is absolutely indispensable.” Now he himself began to be confused by their schismatic claims about Pope St. John Paul II. If only he had given as much attention to many of his priests who were Indult Traditionalists, who later founded St. Peter’s Fraternity. These priests loved and appreciated Pope St. John Paul II, for his own heroic efforts to defeat Communism in the USSR, and fight abortion everywhere in the world, together with travelling to visit the whole world, including India, my own country, to promote the Gospel, the Church, and Catholic Evangelism. I think that if Archbishop Lefebvre had considered these things, he may have more greatly respected Pope St. John Paul II.

Indeed, in the early years, Archbishop Lefebvre had the highest appreciation and esteem for Pope St. John Paul II and believed His Holiness was going to help save the Church from the post Vatican-II Crisis in the Church.

For example, in 1978, Archbishop Lefebvre wrote to him:

Holy Father, There is no doubt that the audience you granted me was willed by God. For me it was a great comfort to be able quite freely to explain the circumstances and the grounds for the existence of the Priestly Fraternity of St. Pius X and of its seminaries, and the reasons which led me to continue the Work in spite of the decisions by Fribourg and Rome. It is plain to any impartial observer that our Work is a nursery of priests of the sort the Church has always desired and the true faithful want. We are justified in thinking that if the Church would admit the fact and give it the legality to which it is entitled vocations would be even more plentiful.

Holy Father, for the honor of Jesus Christ, for the good of the Church, for the salvation of souls, we beg you to say a single word as Successor of Peter and Pastor of the Universal Church to the bishops of the whole world: ‘Let them carry on – We authorize the free use of what multisecular Tradition has used for the sanctification of souls.’

What difficulty is there in such an attitude? None. The bishops would decide the places and the times reserved for that Tradition. Unity would be discovered again at once at the level of the bishop of the place. On the other hand, what advantages for the Church: the renewal of seminaries and monasteries, great fervor in the parishes. The bishops would be stupefied to find in a few years an outburst of devotion and sanctification which they thought had disappeared forever.”(!)

Still, on balance, the great works that Archbishop Lefebvre had already accomplished speak for themselves. If Archbishop Lefebvre had gone to Rome, defended his cause, explained his case, and obtained Ordinary Jurisdiction for his Bishops (which, by divine law, can come to Bishops only through the Successor of St. Peter, as Pope Ven. Pius XII teaches), the Truth is that he probably would already have received the crown of canonization by now. That’s what the schismatic sedevacantists have cost His Grace, and why it’s so important to oppose their error. The 1988 Protocol which was signed between Rome and Archbishop Lefebvre, if it had gone through, would have been enough for Canonical Status.

I wish to note as well that His Excellency Bishop Fellay is a true successor of Archbishop Lefebvre. Damsel of the Faith recounted an ordinary incident that showed the great grace, humility and longsuffering of this traditional Catholic Bishop, during a Confirmation:

Nobody who was in that room is likely to forget what happened next: Bishop Fellay came in, with his as yet untreated foot – which turned out to have been seriously broken – on crutches, and with a big smile on his face! After first apologizing for the ‘inconvenience’ (!) his injury had caused, Fellay then suddenly said, with an even bigger smile: ‘This is a very good sign! It is a very good sign, because it shows that the devil is very angry that these little children receive the Sacrament of Confirmation!’ The faithful present were astonished. How was it that this holy man smiled through the pain of a broken foot and yet rejoiced over obstacles put into his way?

In addition, the SSPX has now done two great things that no other traditional Catholic fraternity, including the FSSP, the SSPV, the Resistance (all three groups that split off from the SSPX to go their own separate ways), the CMRI, the ICK and every other group (there are too many schisms in Tradition today, and too little focus on unity and charity). They’ve “graduated” Roman Catholic Bishops to Roman Catholic Tradition. And they’ve done it not only once but even twice! Alleluia! Bishop Lazo of the Philippines is the first, and we leave it to our readers to research and do their homework on His Excellency. We will mention the great work the SSPX did much more recently, in obtaining, by God’s Grace, that Bishop Huonder should not only want to offer the Traditional Latin Mass, but never again wish to offer the Novus Ordo Mass, according to His Excellency’s own words!

[Interviewer:] May I conclude from your remarks that you no longer wish to celebrate the Novus Ordo at all?

[His Excellency Bishop Huonder]I no longer want to do it. I sense simply that I can no longer do it, because when you are immersed in the traditional Mass, you simply come to a point where you sense that you can no longer do anything else.

Now, we will come to the objections of Mr. Salza and the answers to them.

Fact I: His Holiness Pope Francis has authorized the SSPX to continue legally and licitly ordaining Priests, even without requesting permission from local Bishops (which, in some cases, they do anyway, and they always respect the Bishops, the Shepherds of the Church).

Catholic Culture Reported:

Bishops of the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX) have been authorized by Pope Francis to ordain new priests without the approval of the local diocesan bishop, according to Bishop Bernard Fellay, the superior of the traditionalist group.

‘Last year, I received a letter from Rome, telling me you can freely ordain your priests without the permission of the local ordinary,’ Bishop Fellay reported. He said that the move indicated that although the status of the SSPX remains irregular, ‘the ordination is recognized by the Church not just as valid but in order.’

The SSPX has been involved in talks with the Vatican, aimed at regularizing the status of the group, and informed sources have indicated that an agreement is close to establish the SSPX as a personal prelature. Pope Francis has already said that SSPX priests have the authority to hear sacramental confessions and preside at weddings that will be recognized by the Catholic Church. Bishop Fellay remarked that the permission to ordain bishops is ‘one more step in his acceptance that we are… “normal Catholics.”

Therefore, the Pope recognizes that the ministration of the Sacraments by the SSPX Bishops is both valid and licit. If even Priestly Ordinations are recognized as being not only valid but also “in order,” then so much more are the other Sacraments. And all this is impossible unless the SSPX already has some kind of canonical mission, even if it is, as yet, not absolutely indisputable, and granted in writing like it was to St. Peter’s Fraternity.

Fact II: His Holiness Pope Francis clearly declared, during his Holy Year of Divine Mercy, that SSPX Priests are granted the faculty to absolve validly and licitly, and then, in a generous and gracious gesture, indefinitely extended these faculties after the Holy Year was concluded.

The SSPX website reported:

At the close of the Jubilee Year of Mercy, the Holy Father made special mention of the SSPX priests’ faculty to absolve sins.

On Monday, November 21st, 2016, the Vatican released an Apostolic Letter from Pope Francis called Misericordia et Misera. Of note to our readers, the Society of St. Pius X was mentioned in paragraph 12:

For the Jubilee Year I had also granted that those faithful who, for various reasons, attend churches officiated by the priests of the Priestly Fraternity of Saint Pius X, can validly and licitly receive the sacramental absolution of their sins. For the pastoral benefit of these faithful, and trusting in the good will of their priests to strive with God’s help for the recovery of full communion with the Catholic Church, I have personally decided to extend this faculty beyond the Jubilee Year, until further provisions are made, lest anyone ever be deprived of the sacramental sign of reconciliation through the Church’s pardon.

Thank you Holy Father! The SSPX should be more grateful to Pope Francis for his generous steps toward them, to reconcile them to full communion. One sees often that some among the SSPX – usually laity more than Priests – have contempt for the Holy Father and refer to him, with derision, as “Mr. Bergoglio,” (another bad practice that comes from the schismatic sedevacantists). This anti-clericalist attitude is not good, and does not come from true devotion or genuine piety. We can disagree with the Vicar of Christ, but we must do so respectfully and with charity toward the Holy Father.

When we speak contemptuously and derisively of the Holy Father, even Catholic Bishops who earlier were favorable to Tradition begin to be negatively disposed toward it. We must fight for the rights of Tradition to be recognized in Rome, but respectfully as Archbishop Lefebvre did.

Bishop Fellay said, about this generous gesture of Pope Francis:

As a result of the Pope’s act, during the Holy Year, we will have ordinary jurisdiction. In the image I mentioned, this has the effect of giving us the official insignia of firefighters, whereas such a status was denied us for decades. In itself, it adds nothing new for the Society, its members, or its faithful. Yet this ordinary jurisdiction will perhaps reassure people who are uneasy or others who until now did not dare to approach us. For, as we said in the communiqué thanking the Pope, the priests of the Society wish for one thing only: ‘To perform with renewed generosity their ministry in the confessional, following the example of untiring devotion that the saintly Curé of Ars gave to all priests.’

The SSPX’s sacramental actions are clearly already recognized as valid and licit. Getting full and indisputable canonical mission, preferably in writing like the 1988 Protocol, would complete it.

Fact III: Pope Francis, while still Cardinal Jorge Mario, clearly said to the SSPX Priests, in Argentina: “You are Catholic. That is evident. I will help you.” The truth is both Pope St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI worked hard to grant the Society a canonical status, and perhaps Pope Francis could complete the task, if the Society desires and asks for it.

Pope Francis said some 30 years ago to Fr. Christian of the SSPX:

And the Cardinal [the current Pope Francis] told us, ‘No, no, you are Catholic, that is evident; I will help you.’ He wrote a letter in our favor to the government, that is so leftwing that they managed to find an opposing letter by the nuncio. Therefore, a 0-0 tie. Now he is the pope, and our lawyer had the opportunity of having a meeting with the Pope. He told him that the problem was still going on with the Society, and asked him to please designate a bishop in Argentina with whom we could sort out this problem. The Pope told him, ‘Yes, and this bishop is myself, I promised to help, and I will do it.’

Now reportedly Cardinal Ratzinger said of Archbishop Lefebvre in 2003: “I consider him to be the most important bishop of the 20th century with regard to the universal Church.” Further, he directly addressed Mr. Salza’s critique when he said:

From my current point of view, I have to agree with Archbishop Lefebvre in retrospect about having his own bishops. Today after the experience of ’15 years of Ecclesia Dei,’ it is clear that such a work as that of the Priestly Fraternity of St. Pius X cannot simply be handed over to the diocesan bishops.


Reverend Fathers of the SSPX, John Salza, whose book you endorsed, and who frequented Society chapels for over a decade, is now attacking the Society for lacking canonical status.

Although some of his claims are clearly mistaken, just think, beside the theological reasons why canonical mission is necessary, how many practical advantages and blessings it would bring both to the SSPX and to all Catholic Tradition. Continue to advocate for Tradition and defend its cause in Rome and the wider Church, just like Archbishop Lefebvre so rightly did, and as you are so nobly continuing to do. But also, now that fifty years have passed since you were founded as a canonically regular society, and about thirty since Archbishop Lefebvre came very close to canonical normalization with Rome, please understand why so many Catholics who love and support you with all their strength, who pray for and donate to your apostolate, believe it would be better and preferable for you to obtain canonical normalization. If the Pope himself said the Society is canonically regular, all the Bishops of the Church would be absolutely obliged to accept it. And it is very probable that most of them will.

The SSPX has already grown to nearly 700 Priests. It can easily cross 1000 and even surpass 1500 soon, but it will do all that much faster if it has canonical status first, like St. Peter’s Fraternity. As we saw earlier, Archbishop Lefebvre lobbied for an “as-is” canonical regularization with Rome many times in His Grace’s letters. When more traditional Catholics can work within the canonical structure of the Church, the Latin Mass can be definitively restored and strengthened, for the good of souls.

The SSPX can do the same even today, bring the case to a happy conclusion, and silence the mouths of all misguided objectors like John Salza once and for all. Deus Vult! God wills it!


[1] John Allen cited in Philip Jenkins, The Next Christendom (Oxford University Press: 2011), 72-73. Cf. John Allen, The Future Church (New York: Doubleday, 2009).

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