The Écône consecrations were a set of episcopal consecrations that took place in Écône, Switzerland on 30 June 1988. They were performed by Roman Catholic Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre and Bishop Antonio de Castro Meyer, and the priests raised to the episcopacy were four members of Lefebvre's Society of St. Pius X (SSPX). The consecrations, performed against the explicit orders of Pope John Paul II, represented a milestone in the troubled relationship of Lefebvre and the SSPX with the Church leadership. The Holy See's Congregation for Bishops issued a decree signed by its Prefect Cardinal Bernardin Gantin declaring that Lefebvre had incurred automatic excommunication by consecrating the bishops without papal consent.
On 24 January 2009, Pope Benedict XVI lifted the excommunications of the four bishops (Bernard Fellay, Bernard Tissier de Mallerais, Richard Williamson, and Alfonso de Galarreta) consecrated by Archbishop Lefebvre. Bishop Fellay, superior general of SSPX, issued a statement in which the society expressed its "filial gratitude to the Holy Father for this gesture which, beyond the Priestly Society of Saint Pius X, will benefit the whole Church," and that "[SSPX] wishes always to be more able to help the pope to remedy the unprecedented crisis which presently shakes the Catholic world, and which Pope John Paul II had designated as a state of 'silent apostasy.'"
Reaction to the lifting of excommunications was divided. Many Traditionalist Catholics attributed the decision to the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary. But other Catholics, especially those of progressive stance, said they were surprised that the Pope has acted in such a positive way toward bishops holding such reactionary positions. The inclusion of Bishop Williamson in the measure was particularly controversial, because some of his remarks were seen as opening him to accusations of being a Holocaust denier. The lifting of his excommunication presented problems for Catholic-Jewish relations, culminating in the Chief Rabbinate of Israel severing ties with the Holy See on 28 January 2009 in protest.
Criticism of the Écône consecrations centred on the fact that they were carried out against the explicit orders of the then reigning Pope John Paul II. Under the Catholic Code of Canon Law, the consecration of a bishop requires the permission of the Pope, and (unless a papal dispensation has been granted) at least three consecrating bishops. Violation of the rule about the Pope's permission expressed in Canon 1013 has, since 1951, entailed automatic (latae sententiae) excommunication reserved to the Holy See both for the consecrator and for the recipient of the consecration, and in this case there was not only an absence of permission but an actual prohibition by the Pope.
Lefebvre and his supporters argued that the circumstances under which the consecrations took place were such that none of the clergy involved were truly excommunicated. One of their arguments was that a 'state of necessity' existed in which the ordinary provisions of canon law could be set aside. John Paul II himself rejected this argument, stating in his apostolic letter Ecclesia Dei that "there is never a necessity to ordain Bishops contrary to the will of the Roman Pontiff". Consecrating a bishop without papal approval was also condemned by Pope Pius XII after the Chinese government set up the state-controlled Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association. Pius XII stated that the sacramental activity of illicitly consecrated bishops was "gravely illicit, that is, criminal and sacrilegious", and rejected the defence of necessity put forward by those involved.
Announcement of the consecrations
In the 1970s, Lefebvre had stated that he would not consecrate bishops to continue his work with the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX). It is alleged that in 1974 (at the age of 69) he told a confidant that he could not take such a step, "for this would mean I would do what Martin Luther did, and I would lose the Holy [Spirit]".
In the 1980s, Lefebvre's stance changed. In 1983 (at the age of 78), while in the United States, he reportedly sounded out his American priests about the prospect of him consecrating bishops. Those superiors who objected to the idea were removed from their posts as a result. In 1986–1987, the Society's adherents in St Mary's, Kansas were required to attend a series of catechetical sessions in which they were prepared for the forthcoming consecrations and their fallout.
At the age of 82, Lefebvre first publicly announced his intention to consecrate bishops in a sermon at an ordination Mass in Écône on 29 June 1987, in which he declared that "Rome is in darkness, in the darkness of error" and that "the bishops of the whole world are following the false ideas of the Council with their ecumenism and liberalism." He concluded: "This is why it is likely that before I give account of my life to the good Lord, I shall have to consecrate some bishops."
Discussions with Rome
Lefebvre and the Holy See engaged in dialogue and, on 5 May 1988, Lefebvre and Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (the future Pope Benedict XVI) signed the text of an agreement intended to end the dispute and open the way for the consecration of a successor to Lefebvre. In the first, doctrinal, part of the document, Lefebvre, in his own name and on behalf of the SSPX promised fidelity to the Catholic Church and to the Pope, accepted the doctrine contained in section 25 of the Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution Lumen gentium on the Church’s magisterium, pledged a non-polemical attitude of communication with the Holy See on the problematic aspects of the Vatican II, recognized the validity of the revised sacraments and promised to respect the common discipline of the Church and her law. The second, legal, part of the document envisaged that the SSPX would become a Society of Apostolic Life with certain exemptions, it would have the faculty to celebrate the Tridentine rites, a special commission including two members of the SSPX to resolve conflicts and a member of the SSPX be consecrated as a bishop.
This document was to be submitted to the Pope for his approval. However, Lefebvre quickly came to the view that he was being enticed into a trap. The very next day, he declared he was obliged in conscience to proceed, with or without papal approval, to ordain on 30 June a bishop to succeed him.
A further meeting took place in Rome on 24 May. Lefebvre was now promised that the Pope would appoint a bishop from among the members of the SSPX, chosen according to the normal procedures, and that the consecration would take place on 15 August, at the close of the Marian year. In return, Lefebvre would have to request reconciliation with the Pope on the basis of the protocol of 5 May. Lefebvre requested in writing that the consecration of three bishops take place on 30 June and that the majority of the members of the special commission must be from the SSPX. On the Pope's instructions, Ratzinger replied on 30 May to Lefebvre concerning these requests, "[O]n the question of the commission, whose purpose was to favour reconciliation, not to make decisions, the Holy Father thought it best to keep to the agreement that Lefebvre had signed on 5 May"; on the question of the ordination of bishops, the Pope reiterated his readiness to speed up the usual process so as to nominate a member of the Society to be consecrated on 15 August, and Lefebvre was asked to provide the necessary information on candidates for this purpose, but, Ratzinger added, "Since you have announced again recently your intention to ordain three bishops on 30 June with or without the agreement of Rome, you must state clearly that you entrust yourself to the Holy Father's decision in full obedience."
Consecration of four bishops
On 3 June, Lefebvre wrote from Écône, stating that he intended to proceed with the consecrations. On 9 June, the Pope replied to him with a personal letter, appealing to him not to proceed with a design that "would be seen as nothing other than a schismatic act, the theological and canonical consequences of which are known to you." Lefebvre did not reply, and the letter was made public on 16 June.
On 17 June, Cardinal Bernardin Gantin, Prefect of the Congregation for Bishops sent the proposed bishops a formal canonical warning that they would automatically incur the penalty of excommunication if they were ordained by Lefebvre without papal permission.
On 29 June, Cardinal Ratzinger sent the following telegram to Lefebvre:
For the love of Christ and His Church, the Holy Father asks you paternally and firmly to depart today for Rome, without proceeding on 30 June with the episcopal ordinations that you have announced. He prays the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul to inspire you not to be false to the episcopacy that has been placed in your charge and the oaths you have taken to remain faithful to the Pope, the successor of Peter. He begs God to keep you from leading astray and scattering those whom Christ Jesus came to gather in unity. He entrusts you to the intercession of the Holy Virgin Mary, Mother of the Church.
On 30 June, Lefebvre consecrated four SSPX priests: Bernard Fellay, Bernard Tissier de Mallerais, Richard Williamson and Alfonso de Galarreta. Bishop Emeritus Antônio de Castro Mayer of Campos, Brazil was co-consecrator with Lefebvre.
Prince Sixtus Henry of Bourbon-Parma was present at the consecration ceremony and was the first to congratulate Lefebvre publicly.
The day after the consecration, 1 July 1988, the Vatican's Congregation for Bishops issued a decree signed by Cardinal Bernardin Gantin, Prefect of the Congregation, declaring that Lefebvre had incurred automatic excommunication. On the following day, 2 July, Pope John Paul II issued the apostolic letter known as Ecclesia Dei, in which he condemned the Archbishop's action. The Pope stated that, since schism is defined in canon 751 of the Code of Canon Law as "withdrawal of submission to the Supreme Pontiff or from communion with the members of the Church subject to him", the consecration "constitute[d] a schismatic act." He declared: "In performing such an act, notwithstanding the formal canonical warning sent to them by the Cardinal Prefect of the Congregation for Bishops on 17 June last, Mons. Lefebvre and the priests Bernard Fellay, Bernard Tissier de Mallerais, Richard Williamson and Alfonso de Galarreta, have incurred the grave penalty of excommunication envisaged by ecclesiastical law", a reference to canon 1382 of the Code of Canon Law.
Lefebvre declared that he had not withdrawn his submission to the Pope, and that canons 1323 and 1324 of the Code absolved him of culpability because of the crisis in the Church. Canon 1324 provides that, when someone wrongly believes that there is a state of necessity that compels him to perform a canonically illegal act (even if his ignorance on this point is culpable, provided that the act in question is not inherently evil or tending to the harm of souls), the canonical penalty for the relevant act is to be reduced or replaced, and automatic penalties do not apply. The Holy See rejects this argument as irrelevant, both because Lefebvre had been served with express canonical warnings and because of the rule in canon 1325 that ignorance which is "crass or supine or affected" provides no defence under canons 1323 and 1324. (Lefebvre's defenders have claimed that the SSPX does not plead "ignorance" but merely necessity; however, Lefebvre himself did appeal to canons 1323 and 1324.)
According to the SSPX, several churchmen and canon lawyers have affirmed that the consecration was not a schismatic act, on the basis that Lefebvre was merely consecrating auxiliary bishops rather than attempting to establish a parallel church. It has been claimed that Cardinal Castrillón Hoyos, the canonist Count Neri Capponi, Fr. Gerald Murray of the Catholic University of America, Fr. Patrick Valdini of the Catholic Institute in Paris, and Karl-Theodor Geringer and Rudolf Kaschewski of the University of Munich have taken this position. Murray and Prof. Geringer have since stated that their views have been misrepresented; it is not clear whether this is true of the other authorities.
In line with general canonical opinion, the Holy See holds that Archbishop Lefebvre committed a schismatic act, but not that he created a schismatic Church. Accordingly, when Cardinal Edward Idris Cassidy presented a revised edition of the Vatican's Directory for the Application of Principles and Norms on Ecumenism, he stated that "[t]he situation of the members of [the SSPX] is an internal matter of the Catholic Church." Efforts to interpret this statement as implying that the consecration was not a schismatic act contradict canonical doctrine expressed, for instance, in the circular letter 10279/2006 of 13 March 2006 from the Pontifical Council for Interpreting Legislative Texts, which states that "heresy (whether formal or material), schism and apostasy do not in themselves constitute a formal act of defection" (emphases added) from the Catholic Church. On the other hand, the Holy See takes the position that the expressions used by many adherents of the SSPX do indicate a personal "withdrawal from submission to the Supreme Pontiff or from communion with the members of the Church subject to him", which, as noted above, is the definition of schism found in canon 751.
Viewing Lefebvre's action as schismatic, a number of former members and supporters of the SSPX resigned or withdrew their support from the Society and joined the newly founded (and Vatican-approved) Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter.
Lifting of excommunications
By a decree of 21 January 2009 (Protocol Number 126/2009), issued in response to a request that Fellay made on behalf of all four bishops whom Lefebvre had consecrated, the Prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, by the power expressly granted to him by Pope Benedict XVI, remitted the automatic excommunication that they had thereby incurred, and expressed the wish that this would be followed speedily by full communion of the whole of the Society of Saint Pius X with the Church, thus bearing witness, by the proof of visible unity, to true loyalty and true recognition of the Pope's Magisterium and authority. The decree, signed by Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, Prefect of the Congregation, is as follows:
His Holiness Benedict XVI — paternally sensitive to the spiritual unease manifested by the interested party due to the sanction of excommunication and trusting in the effort expressed by them in the aforementioned letter of not sparing any effort to deepen the necessary discussions with the Authority of the Holy See in the still open matters, so as to achieve shortly a full and satisfactory solution of the problem posed in the origin — decided to reconsider the canonical situation of Bishops Bernard Fellay, Bernard Tissier de Mallerais, Richard Williamson, and Alfonso de Galarreta, arisen with their episcopal consecration.
With this act, it is desired to consolidate the reciprocal relations of confidence and to intensify and grant stability to the relationship of the Fraternity of Saint Pius X with this Apostolic See. This gift of peace, at the end of the Christmas celebrations, is also intended to be a sign to promote unity in the charity of the universal Church and to try to vanquish the scandal of division.
It is hoped that this step be followed by the prompt accomplishment of full communion with the Church of the entire Fraternity of Saint Pius X, thus testifying true fidelity and true recognition of the Magisterium and of the authority of the Pope with the proof of visible unity.
Based on the faculty expressly granted to me by the Holy Father Benedict XVI, in virtue of the present Decree, I remit from Bishops Bernard Fellay, Bernard Tissier de Mallerais, Richard Williamson, and Alfonso de Galarreta the censure of latae sententiae excommunication declared by this Congregation on July 1, 1988, while I declare deprived of any juridical effect, from the present date, the Decree emanated at that time.
Reaction to the decree varied. Some traditionalist Catholic attributed it to the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary, while other traditionalists, maintaining that the excommunication was non-existent, blamed the four bishops for asking for its remission. Others expressed surprise at the favour that the Pope had thus shown to bishops holding such positions, with particular regard to Bishop Williamson, who was accused as a Holocaust denier. The inclusion of this bishop presented problems for Catholic-Jewish relations, culminating in the Chief Rabbinate of Israel temporarily severing ties with the Vatican in protest.
Notes and references
- "Pope lifts excommunications of 4 bishops". The Associated Press. 24 January 2009. Retrieved 24 January 2009.
- Press Release from the Superior General of the Priestly Society of Saint Pius X[dead link], January 24, 2009.
- /17845/Excommunication-lifted-from-dissident-Catholics Excommunication lifted from dissident Catholics, January 24, 2009.
- Israel's chief rabbinate severs ties with Vatican, January 24, 2009.
- Canon 1013 of the Code of Canon Law
- Canon 1014 of the Code of Canon Law
- Canon 1382 of the Code of Canon Law
- Le Croix, 1 July 1988
- Encyclical Ad Apostolorum Principis)
- "But by 1983 he was in the United States, sounding out his priests on the possibility of consecrating bishops. He asked each in turn for his view on the subject. Those Society superiors who had objected to what he and they knew would be a formally schismatic act, in a year's time were all removed from their positions. They were replaced by those priests who had gone along with the idea." Thomas W. Case, The Society of St. Pius X Gets Sick, Fidelity, October 1992
- See the sermon "Bishops to Save the Church", Marcel Lefebvre, June 1987
- Protocol of Agreement between the Holy See and the Priestly Society of Saint Pius X This is an English translation of the original French
- For public worship, care of souls and apostolic activity
- That is why, taking into account the strong will of the present Roman authorities to reduce Tradition to naught, to gather the world to the spirit of Vatican II and the spirit of Assisi, we have preferred to withdraw ourselves and to say that we could not continue. It was not possible. We would have evidently been under the authority of Cardinal Ratzinger, President of the Roman Commission, which would have directed us; we were putting ourselves into his hands, and consequently putting ourselves into the hands of those who wish to draw us into the spirit of the Council and the spirit of Assisi. This was simply not possible. Sermon on the occasion of the Episcopal Consecration, Marcel Lefebvre, June 1988
- The full text of this letter, and of the whole exchange of correspondence from 8 April to 19 June can be found at SSPX site DICI
- Decree of Excommunication
- Ecclesia Dei
- In the state of necessity the duty to provide help arises independently of the cause of that necessity The 1988 Consecrations, si si no no, SSPX Asia, September 1999 No. 34
- "Castrillón Hoyos: "Unfortunately Monsignor Lefebvre went ahead with the consecration and hence the situation of separation came about, even if it was not a formal schism." Rapprochement by unhasty stages, but not too slow either Interview with Cardinal Darío Castrillón Hoyos, President of "Ecclesia Dei", on relations between Rome and the Lefebvrians, 30 Days
- Count Neri Capponi: "[T]his act [of episcopal consecration on June 30, 1988] was not, per se, schismatic" (Latin Mass Magazine, May/June 1993). Cited in The Illicit Episcopal Consecrations of Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre by Mario Derksen
- Fr. Murray: "[C]anonically speaking, he [Archbishop Lefebvre] [i]s not guilty of a schismatic act punishable by canon law" (Fr. Murray may have changed his view with regards to this conclusion; I do not have access to the Summer 1996 issue of the Latin Mass and am therefore unable to verify if he has or not). Cited in The Illicit Episcopal Consecrations of Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre by Mario Derksen
- Fr. Valdini: "It is not the consecration of a bishop which creates the schism. What makes the schism is to give the bishop an apostolic mission" (Question de Droit ou de confiance, L'Homme Nouveau, Feb.17, 1988). Of course, Archbishop Lefebvre never gave any of his 4 bishops an apostolic mission. Cited in The Illicit Episcopal Consecrations of Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre by Mario Derksen at DailyCatholic.org
- Archbishop Lefebvre and Canons 1323:4° and 1324 §:5° A Canonical Study - Second Draft Edition by Peter John Vere. His lengthy study ends with: In conclusion, having exhausted the issue from a canonical perspective, despite the Lefebvrite Movement's attempts to argue canons 1323 and 1324, there can be no doubt Archbishop Lefebvre incurred the latae sententiae excommunication reserved to the Holy See due his act of schism in consecrating bishops illicitly against the expressed instructions of the Roman Pontiff.
- L'Osservatore Romano of 30.6-1.7.1988, p. 4, published the following:
"The following specific statement is made in relation to rumours circulating in Archbishop Lefebvre's circles concerning the latae sententiae excommunication envisaged in canon 1382:
"In accordance with canon 1013, which states: 'No bishop is permitted to consecrate anyone as bishop, unless it is first established that a papal mandate has been issued', the episcopal consecrations that have taken place on 30 June at the hands of Archbishop Lefebvre, in spite of the admonition of 17 June, were carried out expressly against the will of the Pope by an act that, according to canon 751, was formally schismatic, seeing that Archbishop Lefebvre has openly withdrawn submission to the Supreme Pontiff and from communion with the members of the Church subject to him.
"In consequence, both Archbishop Lefebvre and the bishops whom he consecrated, Bernard Fellay, Bernard Tissier de Mallerais, Richard Williamson and Alfonso de Galarreta, have ipso facto incurred latae sententiae excommunication reserved to the Apostolic See. Furthermore, canon 1323 cannot apply for them, since in this case none of the legal situations envisaged in that canon has been established, seeing that even the alleged "necessity" has been deliberately created by Archbishop Lefebvre for the purpose of maintaining an attitude of separation from the Catholic Church, in spite of the offers of communion and the concessions granted by the Holy Father John Paul II."
- The Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter was founded in July 1988 by 12 clerics who had been members or associates of the Society of St. Pius X. Why did they leave? They left when Archbishop Lefebvre decided to consecrate four bishops against the express will of the Holy Father. A Response to Christopher Ferrara Father Arnaud Devillers, Superior General, Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter – Summer 2002
- An example of an SSPX member who took this attitude is Florian Abrahamowicz