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?