A little more about Archbishop Lefebvre

I was recently given the link to this video by a correspondent who was once a seminarian at Ecône and knew Archbishop Lefebvre rather well. This video is intended as a reply to a polemical book against sedevacantism, theory represented by Fr Cekada and others. The book in question had been recommended by the present leaders of the Society of St Pius X. The video contends that Archbishop Lefebvre was in himself open to the possibility of the sedevacantist theory, something at variance with the official line or alternative positions the Archbishop adopted for diplomatic or pragmatic reasons.

The reason why I add a post on this subject is to try to find a balanced view over a situation of deep conflict in an ecclesiastical organisation, and how it can serve as an analogy for understanding difficulties closer to home for Anglicans in an analogous situation. Perhaps the Archbishop should have adopted a firm position as a soft-liner (negotiate with Rome to get canonical status as a religious order of priests) or a hard-liner (denounce the “errors” of modern Rome and remain separate for as long as Rome does not return to “orthodoxy”). Had he done that, he would have lost half of his men, and would have to justify that policy of narrowing down rather than a “comprehensive” approach. In the end, there were three “tendencies”: the two mentioned above plus what I might call the “clones” or uncritical supporters of the person of Archbishop Lefebvre who would go along with anything, even if it changed into its opposite.

I saw the same kind of malaise, expressed differently, at the seminary of Gricigliano. I was there during the more easy-going foundation phase, and was gone before the real silliness (canons, blue tat, etc.) set in. In the SSPX, the differences were deeper, ideological and very much connected with powerful persons.

There is one thing I have sought to understand over the years: human nature itself and how malignant narcissists can take something over for their own ends and poison the well from top to bottom. The reign of terror sets in and the purges begin of any independently-minded person involved in the corporation. It happens in politics, business, banking – and the Church, in any hierarchical human institution with a chain of command. It is not necessarily the leader (in this case Archbishop Lefebvre) who is the malignant narcissist but the men seconding him, advising him and exercising power over the lower ranks of the hierarchy. This is the story also of the Roman Curia, where a pope is not necessarily badly intentioned but gives way to pressure from below. This is the true reason behind the abdication of Benedict XVI, a man who had decades of experience of the Roman Curia and who thought that it could be guided by kindness and a pastoral hand. Now the leader is a devious Jesuit (no one really can understand his true agenda), and we now observe the lines of division.

What emerges is an Archbishop Lefebvre who reacted like any Roman Catholic churchman in episcopal orders in history: reconcile conflict and seek to promote peace and unity. He had to be seen to be decisive and carry authority, but against his own desire to tolerate divergences such as existed between the hard-line and the soft-line. His advisers and heads of districts of the Society did not share this generous tolerance and institutional considerations came second to doctrines and principles. Perhaps there is rectitude in this kind of intolerance of weakness and perceived falsehood. The problem is that intolerance breeds intolerance, the “mark of Cain” and man’s murderous instinct.

Over the years, I have seen the interaction of the “alpha male“, the man who leads, is assertive and competitive, and the “beta male” who is either a cog in the machine or has no place in the competitive power struggle. There seem to be alpha males who are true leaders and are guided by conscience and sound moral values, and then there are the bullies and criminals, men without conscience or remorse for wrong deeds, but yet use the priesthood (or rather the clerical status) as a tool for their personal agendas. It is a human problem, the corruption of human nature and sin, the genesis of the “pathocracy“. Ecclesiastical entities (societies, institutes, dioceses, etc.) can quickly become pathocracies in the wrong hands.

I don’t think Archbishop Lefebvre was evil, but he was the “constitutional monarch” of a number of ruthless men who struggled for their agendas. He was weak and easily manipulated.

We have had troubles of this kind in the Continuing Anglican movement, as attested by Douglas Bess in his book Divided we Stand. The experience I lived through in the TAC was almost identical to that of the SSPX. The question was our Anglican identity (albeit Anglo-Catholic) against the conviction according to which Continuing Anglicanism was a failed experiment, and that the only way was to seek uniate status with Rome, or simply convert as individuals to the traditionalists or the parish and diocesan system. We Continuing Anglicans are also “sedevacantists” in a way, though our intellectual way of explaining things is different. We do not recognise the authority of the Lambeth Conference or the Archbishop of Canterbury. We have set up independent Churches and we have our own hierarchy. The SSPX did not dare to establish itself as a sui juris Church! We even went further with the consequences! The dividing lines are exactly analogous.

Archbishop Hepworth had hopes of being “let off the hook” for being a former Roman Catholic priest and then divorced and remarried. Some of the mandarins of Ecône might have dreamt of promotions and honours from the Pope – a bit of purple trim on the cassock, a mitre or even a Cardinal’s hat. Archbishop Lefebvre had his men. I followed Archbishop Hepworth too uncritically, but yet formulated the intention within my own mind not to make any personal application to Rome. I would be a part of the TAC or there was no deal for me. The TAC had a “hard-line” minority that is now getting on very well with the ACC (which I joined in April 2013) and the other Continuing Churches that had nothing to do with the events leading up to the establishment of the Ordinariates. I too was not very constant, because I was influenced by others and could not see the “big picture” clearly. We cannot judge others from the point of view of retrospect! Archbishop Hepworth always denied that he was doing the same thing as Archbishop Lefebvre in seeking uniate status, but Archbishop Lefebvre was “cleaner” as a person, and went ahead with the means of guaranteeing the future of his Society beyond his own lifetime – by consecrating bishops. The TAC never (in anything other than appearance) had the hierarchical structure of the SSPX, financial resources or seminaries. A lot more was at stake in the SSPX, because its numbers of clergy and laity could be verified.

There are many parallels also with the foundering ACC in the late 1990’s due to bishops seeking their own agendas in competition against other bishops. Fortunately, though a considerable amount of damage was caused to the ACC and the credibility of the entire bowl of “alphabet soup”, the bad elements left and a new core of conscientious men has been able to build something small, but worthwhile, wholesome and stable. I keep an eye on John Bruce’s blog, in spite of his calling me a “crank”. It describes problems that still simmer under the surface (even if the description may be exaggerated or distorted), and of the problem of “churches” (I will not name any) established for the sake of individuals who wanted to be bishops for some reason known to themselves.

This kind of conflict is endemic to human nature, even among persons who have received Christian sacraments and profess the way of Christ. It is human sin. Unchecked, a religious entity can become a pathocracy and oppose its very purpose. This is the consequence of over-institutionalisation. Some might dream of being “mainstream” clergy, but the pathocracy manifests itself again, albeit in a different way. The demon is weakened when thought comes from persons thinking for themselves and not “groupthink” as Orwell might have put it. Anything worthwhile in the way of art, literature and philosophy comes from individual persons – or the Saints in the history of the Church. Hierarchies, especially those run by bullies and sociopaths, bring out the worst of human nature.

The reaction from pathocracy, when it isn’t violent revolution and bloodshed, is anarchy – which also can be corrupted and turned into terrorism. I believe that the real solution is small communities in which we know each other and have forged friendships. Anything bigger becomes a bureaucracy, in which individual responsibility and moral rectitude and covered up by anonymity – and then becomes pathocracy until it cannibalises itself. Then the cycle begins again.

I do believe that our Bishops should be very careful in the unity movement and their noble initiatives to reconcile past conflicts that have no further meaning now. I believe that Christianity survived not through forced unity with political and coercive power, but through tolerance of diversity, the unity being at a spiritual and sacramental level. I want to be able to trust my Metropolitan, Archbishop Haverland, and my Diocesan Ordinary, Bishop Damien Mead. It is because of them that I am a priest in a Church, and not a severed branch rotting away. I am optimistic that my Church has learned from her own suffering and that of other ecclesial entities with and outside Anglicanism. I try to be an obedient son of my Church, but yet one who thinks for myself. I am prepared to lay aside my priesthood if my Church becomes corrupt and I find myself again orphaned. I don’t believe it will happen, and I pray that God will continue to fill us all with his grace, light and love.

We should not dwell too much on these negative stains and betrayal of the spirit of Christ, but we must learn in order to move on to more radiant and beautiful things in our present and future. I would like no longer to read about the alleged wickedness of individuals, even of Archbishop Hepworth, but to challenge bad ideologies and everything that impedes our progress towards forgiveness, light and grace.

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4 Responses to A little more about Archbishop Lefebvre

  1. imprimipotest says:

    The Rev. Cekada’s remark that, even at his first Mass, he did not pray for the pope, assuredly indicates that he already had chosen to be a ‘sede vacantist’.

    However, there is no evidence that Archbishop Lefebvre ever acted thusly; nor is there any evidence that he truly encouraged such a grave act of omission or stance.

    • Naturally, he would seek by any means to vindicate his own position, so he is only half of an argument.

    • At least Rev. Cekada’s position was always consistent. Lefebvre’s largely depended upon how he felt in the morning, or being charmed by Polish actors.

      • I appreciate your new blog article and the one you link to of David Sullivan. Sedevacantism in the terms of Fr Cekada, Fr Barbara and others depends on infallibilist theology and Jesuit neo-scholastic speculation. However, we continuing Anglicans are “sedevacantists” in a way by not recognising the Lambeth Conference and the Archbishop of Canterbury. The practical consequence is the foundation of new Churches (in the meaning conveyed by the Eastern Orthodox Churches and the Council of Constance).

        The Old Catholics in 1725 and 1870 just got on with it without absurd bogus popes and “We are a church without being a church”.

        I’ll grant you one thing about Archbishop Lefebvre. He was intellectually weak, unable to think beyond neo-scholasticism and infallibilism. None of us can have all gifts or faults.

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