Fraud or Illusion?

I have just written the third of a thread of comments concerning Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre (1905-1991) and the Roman Catholic traditionalist movement. I have seen some of Patrick’s articles in his own blog, and he obviously said his piece to provoke discussion. He said so in so many words. I was reluctant to take up the subject myself. We have just come out of Holy Week and have celebrated Easter to the best of our limited possibilities. I was unwilling to go into the subject of Archbishop Lefebvre and address the various terms of insult.

As I said in my comment, I follow Voltaire’s idea: Think for yourself and respect the same privilege in others. Had I lived in the eighteenth century, I would probably have thought along the same lines had I been an educated person with knowledge of philosophy. Gratuitous invectives show me little sign of someone thinking for himself, but I can be wrong and often am. If that really is Patrick’s thought, I respect him even when it is painful to the memory of a man who has been dead for twenty five years and for many of us who have been influenced in different ways by him.

I also said in my comment that I did not believe that Archbishop Lefebvre or his priests or other followers was deliberately setting out to deceive, in the way that a scammer gets money out of people by fraud. I first saw the Archbishop in the flesh when he came to England in early 1982 to celebrate a Pontifical Mass in Chelsea Town Hall, a rather fine Edwardian baroque building that made a fine church for the occasion. I met him a couple of times in France, and he confirmed me in May 1983 in Paris, since I had recently swum the Rhône (the river that springs in Switzerland and flows through Riddes where the Ecône seminary is located). Unfortunately, in those years, I was still as naive as a child and I spoke French just about as well as I spoke Russian or Chinese! A few months in France enabled me to put a few words together in a sentence and make some sense. I’m still improving!

From October 1982, at the behest of Fr Montgomery, I went to be a “pre-seminarian” at the Ecôle Saint-Michel at Niherne, a small farming village near Châteauroux (Indre). I kept myself more or less sane with a “personal joke” about Nihil-erne being in “French India” and therefore under the domination of the British Empire (I had not heard of Romantia in those days). The idea was ludicrous, but it gave me something to go on. I was lodged in a derelict maison de maître in a room with several adolescent boys. I had a good French teacher, but that was about it. The liturgy was dreary.

It was in the spring of 1983 that I heard about the Naughty Nine, a group of nine American priests of the SSPX who were sedevacantists and made a big deal of using the pre Pius XII liturgy. Archbishop Lefebvre had begun to purge the radical elements from both “right” and “left” – the sedevacantists and those who wanted a ralliement with Rome and Pope John Paul II. How wide was the “orthodox” middle of the road? Was it not becoming more and more a razor edge? I was too isolated to get much of an understanding of what was going on – except that I went to Orléans each Sunday to play the organ at St Euverte. That was a redundant church rented by a group led by a fanatical right-winger called Dominique Cabanne de Laprade who had once been involved in an attempt to assassinate General De Gaulle! There were some sensible young people who came from Paris to sing the Gregorian proper and give something a little more spiritual than the political speeches and anti-Masonic rants at the end of Mass just before I would play the final voluntary.

Decidedly, the French traditionalist scene was weirder than that of the former Welsh church in north London! After a term at a prieuré near Bordeaux, where I was little more than a skivvy, I was done with the Society of St Pius X by the summer of 1983. Many other things happened in the following years, but I was away. I attended the Episcopal Consecration ceremony on 30th June 1988 when I was a student at Fribourg. I just put on a cassock and surplice and mixed with the seminarians. There was so much media hype about Archbishop Lefebvre doing what was really the only option open to him. One thing about Cardinal Ratzinger was that however well-meaning he was, he never saw a job through to the end, and someone else would chop it all to pieces. That was also the pontificate of Benedict XVI, a man whom I profoundly respect and admire as a theologian but was no better a Pope than I would be (he didn’t want the job in the first place)! Like him, I am no leader! So, there were four new bishops, including Williamson who was known to say very strange things to young men going to confession to him.

What is it with “Lefebvrism” as the media call it or the traditionalist reaction in the RC Church? The roots go back to the mid 1960’s when priests and leading lay folk started seeing things change into something that reminded them of liberal Protestantism. They reacted more or less like the Recusants in the sixteenth century. The film Catholics from 1973 about an Irish monastery gives something of the spirit of those early days. The radicalising movement was however under way.

I have already written on Sedevacantism and some of its less rational offshoots. In the late 1960’s, sedevacantism was marginal and quite cranky. Father Joaquín Sáenz y Arriaga, a Jesuit theologian from Mexico, put together something of a theory in scholastic terms, and made his sede-vacante declaration in the years 1971-73. Sedevacantism took off in Mexico, and two priests from that country went to Archbishop Ngo-Dinh-Thuc for the episcopate. It penetrated into the Society of St Pius X via a Dominican priest, Fr Michel Louis Guérard des Lauriers who introduced his own subtle distinctions in his Cassiciacum Thesis. The Naughty Nine were expelled for sedevacantism in 1983, and joined up with the Mexicans. Therefore, acceptance of the 1962 editions of the Roman liturgy was a test of non-sedevacantism. Fr Black in England was for the old liturgy, but was not a sedevacantist, and had to conform to the rules the Archbishop laid down.

I suppose that if I came up with an ideology and made the Use of Sarum its war banner, then perhaps not using Sarum would have to become a test of not following the forbidden ideology. Anyway, that’s another matter.

I never went to Ecône as a seminarian, because I left the Society so quickly in 1983. From then on, my experience with Roman Catholic traditionalism was marginal American conservatism, priests more or less associated with Cardinal Siri in Genoa and then the Indult of 1984, Ecclesia Dei that came out as a result of the ceremony I witnessed at Ecône and the various offshoots of the Society of St Pius X who were bitten by the Roman bug. Rome is a city in which I suffered from anxiety like I never felt in any other, including London and Paris. My love-hate relationship with Rome was in 1985-86 when I joined a bunch of American conservatives housed by the Czechs at the Nepomucene College. It doesn’t really matter how out on the sedevacantist limb you are, or convinced by conservative conspiracy theories, there is something profoundly perverse and built on a notion of truth unknown in the New Testament or the early Church. Rome freaked me out! I continued with the “true church” until my time as a deacon in the Institute of Christ the King working as a deacon in a French country parish in the most surreal compromise possible between the French Right and villages where the older people still had personal memories of seeing Résistance fighters shot by the Nazis.

I don’t see all that so much as fraud or deception but illusion and ideology. I can hear the question being asked of me about my position as an Anglican in a Continuing Church. I am not so eager to justify myself. Perhaps I am in a part of the Church, or in an entity in which the Church is present, like Christ in a hundred fragments of consecrated hosts. Perhaps not. I am in my late 50’s and severely burned out and pretty well broken. My Bishop is kind with me and I try to help him in every way I can. Our Church (the ACC) isn’t yet big enough to get into all the ideologies and power games of men without conscience or remorse. We are little and what’s in the jar is what it says on the label. That’s all. I am grateful for that!

I have had so little to do with traditionalist RC’s over so many years. In the 1990’s I got to know a little bunch of young men in London, and their views colluded with some Germans I got to know in Fribourg. We became quite carried away with Eastern Orthodoxy, which seemed so refreshing compared with the opaque scholastic ideology. In my Orthodox Blow-Out Department, Eastern Orthodox dialogue with other members of their own Church, and it isn’t pretty. Orthodoxy tempted me in about 1989 for the last time. Since then, I see many of the same problems as with Roman Catholicism and other forms of religious fanaticism. My alma mater taught me Ressourcement theology, and that was refreshing – and gave me the keys towards a return to a form of Anglicanism if I was not to fade away from Christianity altogether.

Many of the fallacies of Roman Catholic traditionalism lie in assumptions that are now proven to be absurd. One example is that the Pope is infallible except when he isn’t! Could not that be said for us all? We are infallible when we get something right! All that sounds too easy – and childish – and idiotic. These are some of the assumptions that are clearly nonsense. This sobering realisation can be extended to much of Counter-Reformation Catholicism as to many of the decadent and corrupt aspects of that nice little Sarum parish in Suffolk in 1530 and others like it. Very often, when we open our eyes and emerge from the House of the Blind, we don’t like what we can see. But, you can’t get the Jinn back into the bottle. Clearly, Christ meant something different, and something that can make a difference in our lives for the good.

We then go on and find that “liberalism” is also built on fallacious ideas and ignorance. Intolerance comes from fear and insecurity, then fear of our having to deny everything we believed in the name of truth. In the Enlightenment, that truth was reason and free thought. Now it is new knowledge that casts doubt on conventional reasoning and materialism. I believe that we will arrive at a higher knowledge and experience than religious prejudice or atheistic/materialistic prejudice. In our wonder and humility in the face of the transcendent and immanent God, liturgy can only take on a new meaning.

We celebrate old liturgies and rites because we don’t know anything better and the new rites seem to be such a shallow and meaningless substitute – at least for the few of us who are sensitive to such things. In the end, it is always the same between pneumatics and hylics, between knowers and the ignorant, between artists and philistines, Aspergers autists and “neuro-typicals”, everything, you name it. We are no better than anyone else and our pride becomes our downfall. We will always live in this world that shows incredible beauty and wonder next to cruelty, ugliness and death. After our own deaths, we will experience something different, perhaps through the most excruciating suffering. We will not change the world, and we will be forgotten when we die.

But, perhaps we will have discovered ourselves, been ourselves and found happiness that others will take aeons to find. Who knows?

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17 Responses to Fraud or Illusion?

  1. Stephen K says:

    We are no better than anyone else and our pride becomes our downfall. We will always live in this world that shows incredible beauty and wonder next to cruelty, ugliness and death. After our own deaths, we will experience something different, perhaps through the most excruciating suffering. We will not change the world, and we will be forgotten when we die. But, perhaps we will have discovered ourselves, been ourselves and found happiness ……..

    Indeed, Father, I think this is one of the sobering and salutary insights to which all worthwhile religions and philosophies bring us, and is well said.

  2. Fr. David Marriott SSC says:

    Father, you write ‘I am in my late 50’s and severely burned out and pretty well broken.’ In my Easter homily, I spoke of the time when Jesus was asked: ‘And a certain ruler asked him, saying, Good Master, what shall I do to inherit eternal life? As this conversation ends, Jesus tells the ‘ruler’: ‘Yet lackest thou one thing: sell all that thou hast, and distribute unto the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come, follow me. And when he heard this, he was very sorrowful: for he was very rich.’
    Now it seems to me that, whether you were indeed ‘very rich’ or not, you did indeed give up all that thou hadst, and have followed your Lord, but not perhaps in the way you might have imagined: and you continue to do this still as so many of us have come to look forward to a daily visit to the blog….
    May the blessings of Easter fortify you…..

  3. Neil Hailstone says:

    Interesting and helpful in many ways and food for thought. Utter rot that you lack fluency in French. The Maigret in me, puff puff puff, alors Janvier etc, would deduce the high degree of proficiency required to make a living as a Translator.

    • I thought that would bring a smile to your lips. I am completely fluent in French, but I still get genders of some nouns mixed up! Yes, you do need to know the language to work as a translator. All that being said, I do like understatement and Yorkshire humour!

    • I noticed. Do you really need all this stuff? 95% or more of ordinary English people manage just fine without religion or just go along with the mainstream RC Church in England or the Church of England – or the Methodists, United Reformed, etc. Nothing prevents any of us going off at a tangent and “doing our own thing” but we can’t force other people to do likewise. I’m afraid you are pissing into the wind on this one – and I’m not a $$PX supporter, far from it.

      Criticise the ideology, not the people, if you want to get a message over. That’s my bit of advice, since you have come to this blog to post the link to yours.

      • Dale says:

        I will second Fr Anthony here Patrick. The issues are not personalities. There are some real problems with ecclesiology within many Traditionalist Catholic movements , especially the Society (and on your blog, I did write some of my own observations about issues that I have with them). But your attacks seem to be too personal and they border on the vindictive. The Archbishop was not perfect (and who is?), but at the time he was almost the only one who dared to stand up to the bizarre liturgical and theological tendencies of the post-Vatican II Church.

        Having said that, he was also a product of the post -Vatican I Church who could not conceive of being Catholic without submission to the person of the Pope. I do not agree with this standpoint, as do most Anglo-Catholics, Old Catholics, and the Orthodox, but considering his background, education and formation, what he did do was indeed courageous; he placed himself in a very difficult position, rejecting the new papal-liturgy, a very Protestantized theology, but unable to conceive of the Pope who supported the new religion to be wrong himself. It does perhaps make no sense to some of us, but try to be more understanding of the difficulties he had in standing, at the time, alone, against the destruction of the whole of the Apostolic Roman tradition by the individual who was supposed to be its guardian, and against his own ingrained reverence not only to the office of the Pope, but to the person who occupied the office as well. He could go so far, but no further.

        I have never asked this of you, but I would hope that you delete your diatribe [on your own blog] against the Archbishop, or at least severely modify it.

  4. Dale, I would greatly like to oblige but I have already taken down the voice recording, which I made after consuming most of a bottle of gin. Otherwise my posts are going to remain. My latest I consider one of the best on the subject anywhere to be found online.

    • Like with my reflections on drug addiction and our freedom to do wrong as well as do right, you are responsible for your opinions and writings. If you are right and you are truly thinking for yourself, posterity will vindicate you. It might not.

      My own policy on this blog is not to character-assassinate except in the case of known and convicted criminals who have been judged for their acts. My opinions and position of matters relating to religious ideologies is known, and I try to stick to criticism of the ideology and not of the persons. I have come across some horrible and morally low priests in my time. I prefer not to dwell on evil, and rather to move on to better things.

      I cannot agree with your personal accusations against Archbishop Lefebvre. I think he was wrong in many ways, but I believe that he acted according to his conscience and what he believed to be right. You won’t be judged for being born in the 1980’s and not the 1950’s or earlier. We have our perspectives and experience of life. Retrospect and hindsight often bring wisdom, and we are still coming to grips with other minority groups like the Petite Eglise dating from the 1790’s or the Old Believers in Russia under Peter the Great.

      I prefer a more academic and serene approach, but that is my preference.

  5. Rubricarius says:

    I think asking Patrick to delete what he has written is rather OTT. Surely one of the things we all value is the right of free speech?

    Having said that I think Dale makes some very good points about Lefebvre’s history and having been brought up within the ‘system’ Lefebvre clearly had great difficulty coping with the idea that what he loathed the most in life was originating with the very system he was trying to uphold. For what it is worth – and not very much – I met him a total of four times. The third time was at Econe and I managed to have a short argument with him. The final time, in London, he was as nice as pie. Indeed when I did visit Econe – only once back in 1989 – Lefebvre was actually charming to an elderly friend who Lefebvre remembered from Chelsea Town Hall. They joked and laughed together quite naturally.

    What is quite clear is that Lefebvre was completely out of his depth with understanding what was happening and how to deal with it. Now a lot of us can be in the same position in different situations but if we are honest with ourselves we admit that and act accordingly. The $$PX must be unique in the history of Latin Christianity for having priested something like over a thousand men since 1971 but, for various reasons, has lost roughly half of them. The huge issue was Lefebvre’s vacillations and then convincing himself that any position he currently held was the right one and that those who spoke out against, even if they agreed with one of his former (or later) positions, were wrong and consequently incurred his wrath. In the early days of Econe all was very fluid, after all it was there that Guerard des Lauriers forumlated his ‘Cassiacum’ theory. Some of the seminarians thought Paul VI was a pope, others did not but at the time they all tolerated each other. As the movement grew so did the cult of ABL and his opinions became more important than anything else.

    Over the years clergy broke away, be it to go to ‘Mater Ecclesia’ or later the FSSP, or in the other direction to form the SSPV etc. In both cases Lefebvre was harsh in his criticism of them even to the point of ridicule. A friend of mine was cast out c.1980 for disagreeing with Lefebvre, literally given 48 hours to vacate his priory and remove all his belongings. Is it right that any large religious foundation can have people serve it and then cut them without anything because policy has changed?

    I do think he has been significantly overrated by many people. I found Econe a huge disappointment I must say. Everyone, or almost everyone, around me was saying how wonderful it all was and I couldn’t see that at all. There was an elderly Jesuit travelling with our party, the late Fr. Enright. When he saw my breviary he started talking to me and shared his disappointment too. ‘Whatever the solution is, this is not it’ he said to me. Very wise words indeed.

    • I rather agree with these calm and factual comments. As I have said, my time with the SSPX ($$PX) extended from the early months of 1981 until about June 1983. I was never a cleric with them, and saw the real colours here in France.

      You, Dale and myself seem to be about contemporary in our experience of the Fr Black era in England and / or having met Archbishop Lefebvre on his travels. He was a product of northern French Catholicism, tight-knit families like in the Liverpool area in England. They were medium bourgeois families and reacted very sharply to the Socialist / Masonic phalanx that had brought about virulent anti-clericalism from about the 1890’s to the outbreak of World War I. It was the era of the Drefus Affair and the issue of Anti-Semitism in the 1900’s, Pius X / Benigni / Sodalitium Pianum up to the death of that Pope in 1914, and then the driving underground of Intégrisme under the pontificate of Benedict XV and Pius XI. This is the Vieille France background. I have been in France for a long time and have had time to learn about the issues. During and since the Nazi Occupation from 1940 to 1944, France was divided over the De Gaulle position of resistance and the collaborationism of Marshal Philippe Pétain who held most of the south of France. Archbishop Lefebvre’s parents were anti-Nazi collaboration and were arrested and put in a concentration camp.

      His time in Rome in the 1920’s and in Africa held him in a strong Ultramontanist position, yet with enough Gallicanism to dare to resist Paul VI (who fancied himself as a 20th century Pius IX). He remained in the scholastic mould and the French way of training seminarians common to the Sulpicians and many of the orders of missionaries. There was a hefty spoonful of Jansenism in all that as in Vieille France in general. He was a man of his time and upbringing. At the same time, he was quite “Salesian” and had a sense of humour.

      Most priests I have known, born at the time of World War I or the 1920’s and ordained during World War II were only beginning to understand some of the issues around Vatican II and German and French liberalism. Those older priests experienced a marked disconnection between what they were taught and what was happening. 3 solutions: go along with it all, especially if they had been in the Résistance / De Gaulle position during the war; give up the priesthood and get out; or try to hold on in their parishes. My experience of Fr Montgomery showed something very different from the “military” spirit of the SSPX, that of the old country priest, yet he saw the SSPX as the hope for the future that young men would not find in the dioceses. The difference in spirit just had to be lived with. I as an ex-Anglican tried to go along, and I have never suffered as I suffered during the winter of 1982 to 1983 in that crappy school of theirs in the middle of nowhere.

      Like Benedict XVI, Archbishop Lefebvre was no leader in a situation of conflict. He feared for the credibility and unity of the SSPX. He seemed to have sedevacantist sympathies for a time. He would have felt that his only response could by authoritarianism. Get rid of the bad eggs. Then there was the other side – submitting to Rome or at least negotiating. He was gained by the second tendency in a gradual process. It is interesting to look at the profiles of the four priests he chose for consecration. Two hard-liners (Williamson and De Galaretta) and two “pro-Rome”-ers (Tissiers de Mallerais and Fellay). That could be analysed in many ways. Like any institution or corporation, unscrupulous men wheeled themselves into positions of power. The SSPX started to put “independent” priests and traditionalist groups out of business.

      I think the real cause of the problem was the radicalisation of sedevacantism, and then the reaction in the search for a less destructive position. There was not only the issue of institutional credibility, but each of us can only take so much conflict. There began the drift in the other direction and the first talks with John Paul II from 1983. That is the root of the persecution of sedevacantists and the marginalisation of other hard-liners. On the other hand, why was Fr Williamson chosen for the Episcopate in 1988, unless Archbishop Lefebvre had returned to a harder line position after the breakdown of the talks with Cardinal Ratzinger? There was indeed a lot of shifting.

      I got out very early, but continued to observe the SSPX. The corporation came before anything else. Get in with Rome if that would bring more “loyal” and generous clients and benefactors. It was beginning to smell like something like Opus Dei! I don’t think that Archbishop Lefebvre could cope with conflict, and retired fairly early on leaving the leadership to Fr Franz Schmidberger. This German priest was / is a ruthless character, and without any stupid comparison with Nazism, ran the show like clockwork.

      This intestine conflict between the sedevacantists / hard-liners and what I might call the pragmatists pro-Rome caused the greatest number of defections. Most of the pro-Rome priests and seminarians were leaving in about 1983, and had similar canonical problems as one ordained by someone like Archbishop Ngo-Dinh-Thuc. I knew some of them at the Nemomucene College in Rome, studying at the Angelicum and finding canonical solutions via the good offices of Bishop Pavol Hnilica, Fr Gregor Hesse and Fr Gilles Wach (the latter from the Archdiocese of Genoa).

      After the consecrations of 1988, we would see the SSPX as something very tight-fisted and working like Opus Dei or the Jesuits. The Fraternity of St Peter, the first split-off against the consecrations, modelled itself on what they had left. The Institute of Christ the King was sui generis and based on ideas of Cardinal Siri and Italian Catholicism “through French eyes”. Then there were loads of little religious and monastic communities going in one direction or another. Yes, I see lack of leadership and vacillation, and a more sinister conspiracy on the part of those who used Archbishop Lefebvre and had him retire as soon as he would agree to do so. Was he a “Vicar of Bray”? Perhaps to some extent, but he had to watch it with his own faithful and with the cash cows (the money being for the seminaries and new chapels as well as for Swiss and German priests driving around in BMW’s). Victims of the machinations were treated shoddily. A Roman Catholic priest has to be found a new incardination or deposed. A SSPX priest would just be told to pack his bags like a seminarian, most uncanonical. Canon law confers rights as well as duties.

      Like you, I gave up on the SSPX very early on (summer 1983) and found no greener grass anywhere. I went to Fr Wach’s seminary in 1990. Its early days were quite happy and reasonably easy-going, then they became silly with the blue tat, the balai dans le cul and the internal clampdowns. Most laity and the old parish priests in France couldn’t see the problems because they weren’t informed and didn’t have to live with the SSPX priests. Rare were the priests who were for the old liturgy but yet saw the problems with the SSPX and their systematic persecution of traditionalists who were not with them.

      Many of the same problems got carried over into the Ecclesia Dei communities. Only the Institute of Christ the King dared to challenge (in practice) the 1962 liturgy, under the influence of Fr Frank Quoëx (who left the Institute a few years before his death). We had folded chasubles and almost restored Palm Sunday and the Mass of the Presanctified.

      In the end of the day, anyone under Roman Catholic auspices is under heavy constraint and a little bit like Anglican vicars in Victorian days adding more and more ritual to the Prayer Book until someone came up with the English Missal and the local Bishop gave up trying to police the non-conformity. Only, most Roman Catholic bishops have more authority to remove a priest from his parish.

      All that is to say that I understand the issues very intimately: historical, political and doctrinal. Archbishop Lefebvre was a poor leader who cracked up under conflict, as did Benedict XVI. The big difference was that Benedict XVI is a theologian for whom I have a lot of esteem (even if I don’t agree with everything), and Archbishop Lefebvre was fed on nit-picking scholasticism in anti-Modernist Rome. As an Anglican, that I could do was to return to Anglicanism in an acceptable form. Whether I should have done that or become a boat builder is a matter for discussion! I was through with it all years ago. I think I understand what the problems are. I can’t stand the SSPX any more than the Jesuits or Opus Dei – ça sent la secte! But, I do acknowledge good faith and rectitude of intention when I see it.

      Sorry to be in a “middle of the road” position. It no longer concerns me.

    • Dale says:

      Rubricarius, one of the best summations of the issue that I have ever read. Thank you.

  6. Rubricarius says:

    Fr. Anthony,

    I would agree with 99% of that: I would disagree with your estimation of De Galeretta as a ‘hardliner’ though and in my estimation I would put him in with the ‘soft’. Likewise I would put Tissier at the end, beyond Williamson, of the ‘hardliners’. I may be wrong – I often am but am old enough to live with it – but I still believe we have yet to see Tiissier make his move.

    Like you though, I really don’t care and have no interest: leave me quietly with my nineteenth century breviary – and I cut a lot out of that!

    • I think you are right about my mistaken classification of + De Galeretta and + Tissier de Mallerais. If the latter bishop made a move and did his own thing or joined up with + Williamson, that could be interesting. I suppose it depends on how quickly Rome absorbs the + Fellay led $$PX.

      As you say, I’m glad to be so far away from it all. It’s the modern world. Everything has to be global and nothing on a small and intimate scale.

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