Pope to lift excommunications of four 'Lefebvre' bishops


IN WHAT appears to be an attempt to heal a 20-year schism in the Catholic Church, Pope Benedict XVI is about to lift the excommunications of four traditionalist “Lefebvre” bishops, according to Italian media reports yesterday.

Whilst the Holy See would neither confirm nor deny the reports, many Vatican commentators believe the pope has already signed the pontifical decree cancelling the 1988 excommunications of four bishops from the Society of Saint Pius X, the society founded in 1970 by the controversial, traditionalist French archbishop Marcel Lefebvre who died in 1991.

Having served as a Vatican diplomat and then as superior general of the Holy Ghost Fathers, Archbishop Lefebvre made international headlines in the 1970s and 1980s through his virulent opposition to many of the changes embodied in the 1962-65 Second Vatican Council.

In particular, he and his followers rejected the introduction of Mass in the local language, opting instead to use the traditional Tridentine Latin Mass.

Archbishop Lefebvre’s opposition to change concerned much more than fundamental liturgical questions, however. Essentially, he argued that Pope John Paul II had made too many concessions to Protestants, Jews, Muslims and others in his pursuit of improved ecumenical and inter-religious relations.

Archbishop Lefebvre was not much impressed by showcase occasions such as John Paul II’s widely acclaimed Day of Prayer for Peace in Assisi in October 1986, attended by 150 different religious leaders including the Dalai Lama, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Buddhist monks, Lutheran ministers, Japanese Shintoists, Jewish Rabbis, Muslim Imams, Sikhs, African animists, North American Indians and many others.

Tensions between Rome and Archbishop Lefebvre came to a head in 1988 when he consecrated four bishops, in contradiction of John Paul II’s wishes and despite warnings that to proceed with the ordinations would result in immediate excommunication of the bishops and priests involved.

For his part, Archbishop Lefebvre argued that he had acted “in a case of necessity” because the changes that had occurred in the church since the council were simply “not Catholic”.

Given that the pope has already eased restrictions on the use of the Latin Mass, many believe that in an attempt to heal the breach with the Lefebvre followers, he will indeed lift these 1988 excommunications.

If he does, further controversy seems likely, given that one of the four excommunicated bishops, Bishop Richard Williamson, has already generated widespread protests from the international Jewish community because of TV interviews, in Germany and Sweden, in which he denied that six million Jews had died in Nazi concentration camps. According to Bishop Williamson, the true figure was 200-300,000 Jews.