Society of St. Pius X


1905 (November 29) Marcel Lefebvre was born in Tourcoing, France.

1929 Lefebvre was ordained as a priest in Lille, France.

1947 Lefebvre was consecrated in Tourcoing as a missionary Bishop for Senegal.

1955 Lefebvre was appointed Archbishop of Dakar, Senegal.

1962 Lefebvre was transferred to France as Bishop of Tulle. He then became Superior General of the Holy Ghost Fathers.

1962-1965 Lefebvre played a leading role in the conservative minority during the Second Vatican Council.

1968 Lefebvre resigned from Superior General of the Holy Ghost Fathers.

1970 With the permission of local Catholic authorities, Lefebvre gathered conservative Catholic candidates to priesthood in Fribourg, Switzerland. The Society of St. Pius X was established with the authorization of the Catholic Bishop of Fribourg.

1971 Lefebvre’s seminary opened in Ecône, Switzerland.

1974 Following rumors of anti-Vatican II teachings in Ecône, the Vatican dispatched a canonical visitation (i.e. an inspection by an independent fact-finding commission) to the seminary.

1975 Following the canonical visitation, a commission of Cardinals ordered Lefebvre not to ordain priests until further notice.

1976 (June 29) Defying Vatican orders, Lefebvre ordered 13 new priests and on July 22 received from Rome a “suspension a divinis” (i.e. an order not to further celebrate the Catholic sacraments, a lesser penalty with respect to excommunication).

1988 (May 5) Lefebvre signed in Rome a preliminary agreement with the Vatican. Problems about the choice of one or more Bishops to be ordained as successors of the French Bishop led Lefebvre to a break in the negotiations with the Vatican. The final agreement was not signed, and on June 30 Lefebvre and the Brazilian Bishop Antonio de Castro Mayer (1904-1991) consecrated four Bishops – Bernard Fellay, Bernard Tissier de Mallerais, Alfonso de Galarreta and Richard Williamson – without the authorization of Rome. On July 2, Lefebvre, de Castro Mayer and the four new Bishops were excommunicated by the Vatican. As a result, those members of the Society of St. Pius X who did not want to break with Rome formed the rival Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter, a conservative body that remains in communion with the Vatican.

1991 (March 25) Lefebvre died in Martigny, Switzerland. Father Franz Schmidberger continued as Superior General of the Society of St. Pius X.

1994 Bishop Bernard Fellay was elected as Superior General of the Society of St. Pius X.

2000 During the Holy Year of the Catholic Church, a pilgrimage of the Society to Rome symbolically marked the beginning of a new dialogue with the Vatican.

2002 Most Brazilian followers of the late Bishop de Castro Mayer were reconciled with Rome.

2006 Fellay was re-elected as Superior General. Several former leaders of the Society of St. Pius X, after having reconciled with Rome, formed the Institute of the Good Shepherd.

2007 With the document called Summorum Pontificum, Pope Benedict XVI liberalized the use of the pre-Vatican II Missal and of the Latin language for the celebration of the Mass in the Catholic Church, a move many saw as a prelude to the reconciliation with the Society of St. Pius X.

2008 Fellay wrote to Pope Benedict XVI, asking from the lifting of the 1988 excommunications of the four Bishops of the Society of St. Pius X.

2009 Pope Benedict XVI lifted the excommunications of the four Bishops, although he clarified that this move did not mean that the Bishops and priests of the Society of St. Pius X had acquired a regular “canonical status” in the Catholic Church, which can only follow an agreement on theological issues. After the lifting of the excommunications, international media revealed that one of the Bishops, Richard Williamson, had expressed sympathy towards anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial, thus creating an international scandal.

2009-2011 “Doctrinal dialogue” took place in Rome between the Holy See and the Society of St. Pius X.

2012 (October 4) Bishop Williamson, who was hostile to any dialogue with the Holy See and continued with his anti-Semitic declarations, was expelled from the Society of St. Pius X. He organized an international “Resistance Movement” against the leadership of the Society. The Holy See asked the Society to sign a “Doctrinal Preamble” which would lead to its return into the Catholic fold as a “personal prelature” led by a Bishop appointed by the Pope. Fellay answered that the clauses in the Preamble asking for the acceptance of the new post-Vatican II liturgy and of the documents of the Second Vatican Council as fully legitimate and orthodox could not be signed by the Society. Once again, negotiations appeared to have stalled.


Marcel Lefebvre (1905-1991) was born in Tourcoing, France into a family of conservative French industrialists. Five out of eight
children of his parents would become priests or religious. A cousin, Joseph Charles Lefebvre (1892-1973),  would eventually become a Cardinal. Marcel Lefebvre’s father, René-Charles Joseph-Marie Lefebvre (1879-1944), was active in the resistance against the Nazis, who eventually arrested and deported him. He died in the concentration camp of Sonnenburg (present-day Slonsk, Poland) after having been severely beaten by a guard.

In 1923, Marcel Lefebvre entered the French Seminary in Rome, whose rector, Father Henri Le Floch (1862-1950), a member of the order of the Holy Ghost Fathers, was a decisive influence on the young seminarian. During his seminary years, a significant controversy erupted among Catholics in France about the Action Française, the right-wing monarchist movement led by Charles Maurras (1868-1952). Although Maurras was a non-Catholic and an admirer of the ancient Pagan world, many leading members of the Action Française were good Catholics. In 1926, Pope Pius XI (1857-1939) condemned   the Action Française, thus creating a crisis of conscience among its many Catholic members. Father Le Floch maintained his loyalty to the Action Française and in 1927 was asked by Pope Pius XI to resign from his position of rector of the French Seminary.

Young Marcel Lefebvre was greatly impressed by the political and religious ideas of Father Le Floch. After his priestly ordination in 1929, he soon joined Le Floch’s religious order, the Holy Ghost Fathers, and    he became a member in 1932. His vocation was as a missionary, and he was sent first to Gabon and then to Senegal. As a missionary, Lefebvre was particularly successful and some of his views – particularly about transferring the authority in the African church from white missionaries to local clergy – were surprisingly modern, particularly if considered in the light of later developments of his thoughts. The famous French Protestant missionary and theologian Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965) met young Lefebvre in Gabon and appreciated his missionary style and methods. Echoes of Lefebvre’s   missionary successes eventually reached Rome, and Pope Pius XII               (1876-1958) in 1947 consecrated him as a Bishop and “apostolic vicar” of   Dakar, Senegal. The capital of Senegal at that time was not yet the seat of a Catholic diocese, but in 1955, when the Archdiocese of Dakar was created, Lefebvre not only became its first Archbishop but also the “Apostolic Delegate” representing the Vatican in all of French-speaking Africa. Pius XII befriended Lefebvre and put him in charge of an ambitious program of “Africanization” of the Catholic Church in the French colonies, gradually replacing missionary French Bishops and priests with Africans.

“Africanization” for Lefebvre did not mean that the Catholic Church should support the full independence of the former colonies. In Senegal, he opposed the anti-colonial movement led by the Catholic writer Léopold Sédar Senghor (1906-2001), and in France he clashed with many Catholic Bishops for his support both of those opposing the independence of Algeria and of the conservative Catholic movement, La Cité  Catholique, led by Jean Ousset (1914-1994). In 1958, Pius XII was succeeded by John XXIII (1881-1963) – who, as apostolic nuncio in France, had opposed Lefebvre’s political ideas. In 1960, Senegal became independent with Senghor as its first president. Senghor quickly asked John XXIII to remove Lefebvre from his position in Dakar, and the Pope finally complied in 1962. However, he appointed as the new Archbishop of Dakar the future cardinal Hyacinthe Thiandoum (1921-2004), a close associate and friend of Lefebvre and ironically a living testament to the success of his “Africanization” policy.

Lefebvre’s appointment in 1962 as Bishop of the small French diocese of Tulle was seen by many as a sign of the disfavor he has fallen into with Pope John XXIII. He remained  in Tulle only for a few months, however, since he still commanded a majority within    his religious order of the Holy Ghost Fathers, where he was elected Superior General     in that same year. It was in this capacity that Lefebvre participated, quite intensely,   in the Second Vatican Council, where he quickly became one of the leaders, although  by no means the only one, of the conservative minority organized in the group known as Coetus Internationalis Patrum (International Group of Fathers). He was instrumental, with others, in obtaining amendments to several Vatican II documents. In the end, he signed them all, and in the immediate aftermath of the Council asked the Holy Ghost Fathers to accept them with reverence, at the same time interpreting them in accordance with the indication of the Popes.

The Holy Ghost Fathers, however, had been profoundly changed by Vatican II, and there was no longer a majority favorable to Lefebvre. He resigned from his position of Superior General in 1968. Many considered this move the end of Lefebvre’s ecclesiastical career, but in fact it marked the beginning of a second phase that made the name of this comparatively obscure Bishop without a diocese well-known among international media.

Several conservative priests who appreciated Lefebvre’s interventions at Vatican II approached him and asked whether he would
be interested in establishing a conservative seminary, immune from the liberal post-Vatican II trends. In 1970, he started gathering candidates to priesthood in Fribourg, Switzerland, and with the approval of the local Bishop established the Society of St. Pius X as a “pious union” (a form of Catholic association later called “private association of faithful”). The last twenty years  in the life of Lefebvre, who died of a cancer in Martigny, Switzerland, in 1991, are part of the history of the Society of St. Pius X.

In 1971, thanks to the generosity of wealthy Swiss supporters, the Society was able to open its first seminary in Ecône, Switzerland. Once again, this was a Catholic seminary, opened with the blessing of local Church authorities. Lefebvre’s initial position was that, since so many different experiences freely coexisted in the post-Vatican II Catholic Church, he should be allowed to propose “the experience of the Tradition.” Soon, however, rumors started to circulate that the seminary’s teachings promoted a global rejection of Vatican II and the new Catholic liturgy. In 1974, the Vatican dispatched to Ecône a “canonical visitation,” i.e. an inspection by an independent  fact-finding commission. The results of the visitation were examined in Rome by an ad hoc commission of Cardinals, which in 1975 ordered Lefebvre to refrain   from ordaining priests until further notice. In 1976, however, the Bishop decided to defy the Vatican order, and on June 29 he ordered thirteen new priests. On July 22 he was punished with a “suspension a divinis”, a lesser penalty with respect to excommunication. Lefebvre, however, defied the suspension, under which a priest or Bishop should refrain from celebrating Mass and administering the other Catholic sacraments. He went on ordaining new priests for the Society. In fact, his rejection of Vatican II became progressively more radical. He also started, in some cases, re-administering   the sacrament of confirmation administered by Catholic Bishops with the  post-Vatican II liturgy, regarding it as of dubious validity. This was the casus belli that in 1981 led several priests and sympathizers to abandon Lefebvre and the Society.

On the other hand, the death in 1978 of Paul VI (1897-1978), who came to regard Lefebvre’s actions as an intolerable challenge to his authority, and the election of the new Pope, John Paul II (1920-2005), led to increasing efforts at a dialogue between the Vatican and the Society. As a result of these efforts on May 5, 1988 Lefebvre signed a preliminary agreement with the Vatican, under which the Society would be authorized to celebrate the Mass under the pre-Vatican II Latin ritual and would be organized with a certain degree of autonomy under a Bishop specially appointed by the Pope. The question of how this Bishop would have been selected made it impossible to come to a final agreement, however, and negotiations were interrupted on June 19. On June 30, Lefebvre assisted by his friend, the Brazilian Bishop Antonio de Castro Mayer, consecrated four Bishops without Rome’s authorization. The four new Bishops – Bernard Fellay, Bernard Tissier de Mallerais, Alfonso de Galarreta and Richard Williamson – were promptly excommunicated by the Vatican, together with Lefebvre and de Castro Mayer.

The consecrations of June 30, 1988 marked the formal separation of the Society from the Holy See. The Vatican reacted, inter alia, by creating the possibility for the priests of the Society who individually wanted to come back to the fold to join newly formed religious orders. They were called “Ecclesia Dei” (from the title of a letter of John Paul II dated July 2, 1988) and were authorized to use the pre-Vatican II liturgy. The Ecclesia Dei organizations are in full communion with the Catholic Church, and in fact often exhibit a special loyalty to the Pope. Ecclesia Dei groups have been quite successful, and today they count more than three hundred priests throughout the world.

A significant event was the reconciliation with Rome of the followers of the late Bishop de Castro Mayer in the Brazilian diocese of Campos in 2002. When de Castro Mayer died in 1991, three Bishops of the Society of St. Pius X consecrated as a Bishop, once again without Rome’s approval Father Licínio Rangel (1936-2002). He continued to oversee those priests of the diocese of Campos who remained loyal to Mayer’s memory and ideas. Rangel was promptly excommunicated by the Vatican, but in 2000 he started a dialogue with Rome, which led to the lifting of his excommunication on Christmas Day, 2001 by Pope John Paul II. Rangel expressed the intention to fully reconcile with Rome with all Campos priests loyal to him, and in 2002 Rome created for them the Personal Apostolic Administration of St. John Mary Vianney, with Rangel as Administrator. The Holy See also appointed Father Fernando Arêas Rifan as Auxiliary Bishop of the Administration and granted him an automatic right to succeed Rangel after his death, an event that occurred on December 16, 2002. The reconciliation of the Campos priests with Rome was strongly criticized by the leadership of the Society of St. Pius X. Those who spoke approvingly of the reconciliation, including one of the historical leaders of the Society, Father Paul Aulagnier, were expelled. Eventually, Aulagnier and other dissidents were in turn reconciled with Rome, and they established in 2006 the Institute of the Good Shepherd that was headquartered in Bordeaux, France and was in full communion with the Holy See.

The post-1988 Society of St. Pius X is regarded as schismatic by the Vatican, but regards itself as being still a part of the Catholic Church. In the Mass, its priests use the Latin formula “una cum Pontifice nostro,” “in union with our Pope,” followed by the name of the current Pope. This creates a difference with other anti-Vatican II organizations which celebrate Masses “not una cum,” of which directories are now published for those who want to attend a Mass whose celebrant explicitly refuses communion with the Pope. These “not una cum” groups are either “Sedevacantist” – i.e. they regard the Holy See as vacant, in the sense that there is no valid Pope – or “Sedeprivationist,” i.e. they regard the current Pope as being the Pope “materially” only but not “formally”.

Sedeprivationism is a theory elaborated by the former Dominican priest Michel Guérard des Lauriers (1898-1988), perhaps the most famous theologian who taught in Lefebvre’s Ecône seminary. He abandoned Lefebvre and the Society in 1977, leading the first of many schismatic groups that refused to celebrate the Mass “una cum” and regarded Lefebvre and the Society as somewhat too moderate in their criticism of the Vatican. As it lost some moderate members to the Ecclesia Dei groups in communion with Rome, the Society regularly, at the other end of the spectrum, also loses radical members to the “not una cum” Sedevacantist and Sedeprivationist groups.

This has not prevented a significant growth of the Society, which was made more important by the incorporation of the Priestly Society of St. Josaphat Kuntsevych, an anti-Vatican II Ukranian group established in 2000 by Father Vasil Kovpak. The group claims 25,000 followers, although sources of the Ukrainian government maintain that they are only around 1,000, They are not to be confused with the members of a different anti-Vatican II group active in Ukraine, the Orthodox Greek-Catholic Ukrainian Church, which is Sedevacantist and is not in communion with the Society of St. Pius X. The Vatican issued a decree of excommunication against the Priestly Society of St. Josaphat Kuntsevych in 2007.

The relationship between the Society and John Paul II deteriorated quickly after 1988. The Society came to regard the Polish Pope’s positions on ecumenism and interreligious dialogue as heretical, and it vigorously opposed his beatification in 2011. On the other hand, the Vatican never really abandoned its efforts to start a dialogue again. These contacts increased after Lefebvre’s death in 1991, after the Society’s pilgrimage to Rome for the Holy Year 2000 proclaimed by the Vatican, and after the election in 2005 of a new Pope, Benedict XVI, who had handled on behalf of John Paul II the negotiation with the Society. Benedict XVI had repeatedly stated that some criticism of post-Vatican II developments was justified, at least as long as it was referred to wrong interpretations of the documents of the Second Vatican Council and not to the documents themselves. In 2007 Benedict XVI issued a document called “Summorum Pontificum,” which liberalized the use of the pre-Vatican II Latin liturgy in the Catholic Church, a gesture explicitly presented by the Pope as aimed inter alia at facilitating reconciliation with the Society of St. Pius X.

On December 15, 2008, Bishop Bernard Fellay, who had succeeded Father Franz Schmidberger as Superior General of the Society in
1994, formally asked the Pope to remove the excommunications of the four Society Bishops consecrated in 1988. On January 21, 2009, the excommunications were lifted, although the Vatican explained that both Bishops and priests of the Society still lacked a “canonical status” and would not become fully reconciled with the Catholic Church until a theological understanding might be reached. International media reported after the lifting of the excommunications that one of the Society Bishops, Richard Williamson, had given anti-Semitic interviews in which he denied the reality of the Holocaust. This created a situation of tension between the Vatican and the international Jewish community, which the Holy See tried to defuse by stating that Williamson’s anti-Semitic positions were not known to Rome when the decision to remove the excommunications was taken.

On October 26, 2009 the Holy See and the Society started theological conversations directed towards a possible reconciliation, which were declared as concluded in 2011. The Holy See then proposed to the Society to be fully reconciled and recognized as a “personal prelature,” i.e. a largely autonomous religious organization within the Catholic Church, headed by a Bishop coming from its own ranks. The condition was that the Society sign a statement called “Doctrinal Preamble,” whereby it recognized all the basic teachings of Vatican II, and not only the formal validity but also the full legitimacy of the post-Vatican II liturgy. The Society would be allowed to exclusively use the old Latin liturgy. The Society answered that the Preamble was not acceptable. It suggested modifications in fact allowing its Bishops and priests to continue to argue that new doctrines introduced by Vatican II deviated from Catholic orthodoxy, and that, while in most cases the new Mass was not formally invalid, remained dangerous for the spiritual well-being of the faithful. Since the Vatican could not in turn accept these modifications to the Preamble, the situation appeared to be stalled.

In the meantime, on October 4, 2012, Bishop Williamson was expelled from the Society of St. Pius X. Not only had his anti-Semitism become an embarrassment to the Society, but also he expressed his abrasive criticism of Superior General Fellay and of the very idea that an agreement with the Vatican was, under certain conditions, possible. The latter had become a rallying point for a wing of the Society which, while not Sedevacantist, remained hostile to any dialogue with Rome, at least until Rome would formally repudiate Vatican II, a condition that is obviously impossible.


The Society claims that it believes in Catholic doctrine as it was presented by the Church before the Second Vatican Council, i.e. before 1962. Recently some intellectuals, who can be regarded as fellow travelers of the Society, claimed that pre-Vatican II documents of Pope John XXIII, and even some of his predecessor Pius XII, anticipated some of Vatican II’s faulty doctrines and should be rejected. This position is considered with interest by the Society, although it cannot be considered as “official.”

The Society believes that Vatican II introduced entirely new doctrines, particularly in the areas of religious liberty, ecumenism and interreligious dialogue, and “collegiality,” a word used by the Council to mean that the Pope should share his responsibility of leading the Church with the international college of Bishops. These doctrines, the Society insists, are not simply “developments” of the pre-Vatican II teachings. In fact, they inescapably contradict them, since they seem to deny the traditional Catholic teaching that only the Catholic religion as defined by the highest authority in the Church is true. “False religions” may be tolerated in certain circumstances but do not have an inherent right to freedom. These doctrines, particularly disturbing to Lefebvre, were consistently reaffirmed by John Paul II and Benedict XVI, whose teachings on collegiality, freedom of religion and dialogue with other Christians and other religions are also rejected by the Society. The interreligious meetings organized in Assisi, Italy, by John Paul II in 1986, 1993 and 2002, and by Benedict XVI in 2011 are regarded by the Society as particularly objectionable. They serve as a confirmation that pre-Vatican II doctrines on the unique truth of Catholicism are now explicitly denied by the Holy See. Attempts by Benedict XVI to explain that the Assisi meetings may be interpreted in a way consistent with traditional teachings have not placated the Society’s criticism.

The “new doctrines” of collegiality, religious liberty and dialogue are for the Society evidence of the fact that the whole theology of Vatican II, and of several post-Vatican II statements by the Holy See, should be rejected. For the Society, they are based on an anthropology derived from modern philosophy, which in turn leads to an excessive emphasis on the inherent dignity of the human person, a view seen as detrimental to God’s absolute priority. This view, the Society maintains, is incompatible with “the Tradition.”

The average member of the Society certainly maintains that he or she does not profess any “new” doctrine, but simply “keeps” the Catholic doctrine as it existed before the Second Vatican Council, rejecting whatever in post-Vatican II teachings is contrary to the “Tradition.” Critics, however, maintain that, for all its emphasis on “Tradition,” the Society’s view of the Catholic Magisterium, and of Tradition itself, is not really “traditional.” Since “the Catholic Tradition” is not contained in any particular book or statement, and was presented in different ways throughout the centuries, the question is who in the Catholic Church should have the ultimate authority to define what is, or is not, part of the Tradition. The Catholic Church consistently taught that the ultimate authority for determining what is “traditional” and what is not is the Pope. The Society argues that the fact that most post-Vatican II teachings are inconsistent with the “Tradition” is self-evident, and that Catholic theology always regarded the “sensus fidelium,” i.e. the common opinion of the Catholic faithful, as relevant. But the Vatican has replied that in this case the alleged “sensus fidelium” is just the shared opinion of a comparatively limited number of priests and laypersons, and a few Bishops, who are either members or fellow travelers of the Society. Whether vesting the authority for defining what is part of the “Tradition” in agencies other than the Holy See, as the Society does, can be regarded as really “traditional” remains a particularly controversial issue.


For the Society, the new liturgy, introduced by Pope Paul VI after Vatican II, fully embodied the Council’s unorthodox theology. The new Mass, in particular, although not regarded by the Society as invalid, in its new formulae is accused of coming at least close to denying the traditional Catholic doctrine of Eucharist.

For this reason, with respect to all sacraments, the Society uses the pre-Vatican II rituals and has not accepted any further reform. Allowing the old rituals, as Benedict XVI did in 2007, to be used as “extraordinary,” while the new liturgy remains the “ordinary” form of worship, is regarded as not sufficient to defuse what for the Society is a widespread liturgical crisis. The Society asks that the fact that the new liturgy includes theological errors be publicly recognized, and the errors amended. In the meantime, it actively discourages Catholics from participating in liturgies conducted according to the new ritual. It even includes liturgies conducted with the old ritual by Ecclesia Dei and other priests not sharing the Society’s wider criticism of Vatican II, since it maintains that at least the sermons of these priests may confuse the faithful.


The Society is led by a Superior General, which is elected by the General Chapter for a term of twelve years. Bishop Bernard Fellay was elected in 2006 for his second twelve-year term, which will expire in 2018. The Society, with some 1,200 “affiliated members”, is present in 65 countries (32 with priests in residence, and 33 with priests visiting as missionaries). It is divided into 14 Districts, under which work 162 Priories and two autonomous homes. The Priories in turn control 750 churches, chapels and “Mass centers” (sometimes in private homes), six seminaries, two colleges, more than one hundred schools, and seven retirement homes for the elderly.

The number of priests grew from 30 in 1976 to 180 in 1986, 354 in 1996 and 561 in 2013, in addition to three Bishops (the fourth, Richard Williamson, was expelled). There are 119 male religious who are not priests, 185 nuns, 84 female oblates, 215 seminarians and 42 pre-seminarians. These figures do not include the members of the Ukrainian Society of St. Josaphat, discussed above, nor the members of the independent religious orders in communion with the Society.

Groups who left the Society in order either to reconcile with Rome or to join one of the “Sedevacantist” or “Sedeprivationist” organizations are not discussed here. A special case, however, involved the so-called “Nine,” i.e. four radical American priests who were expelled by Lefebvre in 1983 and five other priests who followed them voluntarily. The Nine established the Society of St. Pius V, headquartered in Oyster Bay Cove, New York, which declared that it was not in communion with the Holy See but regarded the issue of Sedevacantism as “unresolved”. In subsequent years, the Society of St. Pius V split again, with a sizeable portion of it joining full-blown Sedevacantism. One of the original Nine and the current leader of the Society of St. Pius V, Clarence Kelly, was consecrated in 1993 as a Bishop by Alfredo Méndez-Gonzalez (1907-1995), the retired Catholic Bishop of Arecibo, Puerto Rico, who had traditionalist sympathies. The reality of this consecration, which of course occurred without any Vatican authorization, was contested by some Sedevacantists, but is now largely accepted.

The Society of St. Pius V remains a comparatively small organization, and it failed to attract those who protested Fellay’s dialogue with the Vatican and in 2012 left the Society of St. Pius X. After he was expelled, they looked at Bishop Williamson as the potential leader of what they call the Resistance Movement. Relations between Williamson and the Nine were always quite tense. On December 17-21, 2012 Bishop Williamson preached a retreat in Kentucky to ten American priests who had just left the Society of St. Pius X, in the home of the parents of one of them, Father Joseph Pfeiffer. The Resistance Movement appears as a loosely organized network of independent priests, whose common points are the resistance to any accommodation with the Vatican and an insistence that they are not Sedevacantist. Two Brazilian male religious orders formerly in contact with the Society of St. Pius X, the Familia Beatae Mariae Virginis (Family of the Blessed Virgin Mary) in Candeias, Bahia, and the Benedictines of the Santa Cruz Monastery in Nova Friburgo, Rio de Janeiro, have also joined the Resistance Movement, as did a popular independent American traditionalist church, St. Athanasius in Vienna, Virginia. The opening of a Resistance seminary in Kentucky has been announced for 2013.

The Resistance Movement network, although comparatively small, has ramifications in Europe, Asia, Latin America, Australia and North America, and it appears to be growing. It remains to be seen whether the network will achieve a more stable organization, or, as it happened before to the Society of St. Pius V, most of its members will be attracted by Sedevacantism.


Although some media have insisted on anti-Semitism and sympathies for the political extreme rights as key features of the controversies surrounding the Society, they are but of a minor importance. Lefebvre certainly did not condone sympathies for Nazism, and his own father was involved in the anti-Nazi resistance and was killed in a concentration camp. Criticism of the dialogue with Jewish organizations for the Society was always a part of the more general critique of interreligious dialogue, but most leaders avoided clearly anti-Semitic statements, while maintaining that, from a theological and historical point of view, Jews should be regarded as “enemies of the Catholic Church.” Although Lefebvre and his successors expressed some sympathy for dictators granting certain privileges to the Catholic Church, including Spain’s Francisco Franco (1892-1975), politics was never a main field of interest for them. Political issues mattered only as a way of illustrating points of doctrine, including that, according to the Society, granting religious liberty to non-Catholic minorities was wrong. Those who went too far in their political statements, including Bishop Williamson, were expelled from the Society, although in the case of Williamson there were several different sources of tension with the Society’s leadership.

There is one point, which both Lefebvre and his Vatican foes repeatedly tried to clarify, but which remains somewhat unclear to public opinion: the main issue which led to the separation of the Society from Rome was not “the Latin Mass.” First of all, the common expression “Latin Mass” is not correct. Vatican II recommended keeping the Latin as one of the languages of the Catholic Church, and the Mass reformed by Paul VI was always celebrated in the Latin language occasionally, including by the Popes themselves. What Lefebvre found objectionable was not so much the switch from the Latin to the vernacular, but the new words used in the liturgy of the Mass, which he believed were of questionable orthodoxy. While Lefebvre maintained that the post-Vatican II Mass was “valid,” he also insisted that consistently attending the new Mass would put the faith and the orthodoxy of the faithful in danger, a position maintained by the Society to this very day. This attitude makes it difficult to come to a rapprochement with the Vatican, since it implies that the very Mass celebrated by the Pope daily is in fact dangerous for the Catholic faith. Under John Paul II and Benedict XVI, the Holy See allowed with increasing liberality the use of the pre-Vatican II liturgy, insisting only that those using the old liturgy should recognize the full legitimacy of the new and not criticize the priests and the faithful who prefer to follow Paul VI’s reforms.

Most importantly, the position on the liturgical reform is not the main issue dividing the Society from Rome. Perhaps liturgy is what attracts many conservative Catholics to the Society. But those interested mostly in liturgy often leave after a while, as they can find pre-Vatican II liturgy among Ecclesia Dei and other groups in full communion with Rome. The 2009-2011 dialogue confirmed that issues with the Society are more general, and mostly involve the Second Vatican Council. In a famous speech of December 22, 2005, Benedict XVI insisted that Vatican II should be interpreted according to a “hermeneutic of renewal in the continuity,” i.e. its reforms should be accepted but interpreted in continuity with the pre-Vatican II teachings and not as a rupture with them. In that speech, the Pope castigated the “hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture,” which interprets Vatican II as a break with the pre-Council Church. In later speeches Benedict XVI explained that the “hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture” has two versions, one liberal, which applauds the alleged rupture, and one traditionalist, which regards the rupture as heresy and disaster. But both versions, the Pope insisted, are wrong because in fact there was no rupture.

While many conservative Catholics did welcome the Pope’s clarification about how Vatican II should be interpreted, it was not good enough for the Society of St. Pius X. Because for them, and for a circle of intellectuals who are not themselves part of the Society but participate in some of its events, at least some key documents of Vatican II cannot be interpreted in continuity with previous teachings and represent an irredeemable rupture. The main points concern the idea of religious liberty, ecumenism and interreligious dialogue, and a notion of the Church that, according to the Society, undermines the unique authority of the Pope giving too much room to the need that he consults with the Bishops. This criticism of specific points, both during the lifetime of Lefebvre and thereafter, has evolved into a full-blown attack against the core theology and anthropology of Vatican II which, the Society and its fellow travelers claim, went from a vision of the world centered on God to one centered on the human being and his dignity, and from the primacy of the rights of God to a primacy of human rights.

Benedict XVI has proposed the Catechism of the Catholic Church published in 1992 under John Paul II, and of which the current Pope was one of the main authors, as the authoritative statement of the Catholic faith, where Vatican II is interpreted in the correct way. The 2012-2013 Year of the Faith was announced by the Pope as a call for the whole Church to recognize the importance and normative value of the Catechism. The Society, however, also rejects the 1992 Catechism as imbued with the unorthodox theology and worldview of Vatican II, just as it rejects for the same reason the new Code of Canon Law of 1983. It maintains a legal organization parallel to the Vatican’s own courts, deciding inter alia cases of annulment of Catholic marriages, a practice regarded as highly objectionable by Rome.

In an article published in the Vatican daily newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, on November 29, 2012, Archbishop Gerhard Ludwig Müller, head of the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, the Catholic Church’s watchdog for questions of doctrine, stated that the “hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture”, also in its “traditionalist” version, amounts to “heresy,” a very serious charge in Vatican language. Not unexpectedly, the statement was vigorously contested by the Society and its friends. Coming from the highest authority after the Pope on Catholic doctrine, it is however a clear indication that, while interpretation of the main teachings of Vatican II can be discussed, their outright refusal is regarded by the Vatican as utterly unacceptable. Those rejecting these teachings are considered outside the Catholic fold. As long as the Society rejects teachings regarded by Rome as the very core of Vatican II, the Vatican will probably continue to regard a full reconciliation as impossible.


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Massimo Introvigne

Post Date:
10 January 2013