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Breaking Down St. Thomas' Summa Article on Obedience - 1e - Application to 1988 Consecrations


In the last year I have heard twice that the 1988 consecrations were wrong - one from an FSSP seminarian and once from a "resistor" with pseudonym 'Gerard'. In his defence, Gerard qualified his  assertion with the statement that if my understanding of St. Thomas' doctrine on obedience was correct, then Archbishop Lefebvre was wrong.

Subjectively, it is clear that the Archbishop believed he was working in a state of necessity. The FSSP seminarian agreed to this immediately, but our discussion was truncated before we could delve into the issues surrounding whether or not the consecration would be defended objectively.

I would like to dig in a little deeper into this charge that the Archbishop objectively had no basis to disobey the order of Pope St. John Paul II to not perform the consecrations.

A key distinction is that there were two 'authorities' that the Archbishop was disobeying by performing the consecration: The Vicar of Christ and Canon Law.

Canon Law

Now I know that Peter Vere and Edward Peters have a different opinion, but let's look at this again from a Traditionalist perspective - maybe it is right after all.

The canonical warning cited canons 1013 and 1382:
Can. 1013 No bishop is permitted to consecrate anyone a bishop unless it is first evident that there is a pontifical mandate [Permission from the Pope].
Can. 1382 A bishop who consecrates some one a bishop without a pontifical mandate and the person who receives the consecration from him incur a latae sententiae excommunication reserved to the Apostolic See.
Now if someone simply stopped at this point they would state - oh this is bad, the Archbishop was wrong to perform the consecrations in 1988.

The danger of a canon by canon proof-texting of the law is that it ignores the law as a whole.  By reading the law as a whole we can form an understanding of the intent of the legislator (Pope) when it was written without the reactionary perspective to the consecrations.

This brings us to Canon 1323 and 1324 in the section "THE SUBJECT LIABLE TO PENAL SANCTIONS (Cann. 1321 - 1330)."
Can. 1323 The following are not subject to a penalty when they have violated a law or precept:
  • 4/ a person who acted coerced by grave fear, even if only relatively grave, or due to necessity or grave inconvenience unless the act is intrinsically evil or tends to the harm of souls;
  • 7/ a person who without negligence thought that one of the circumstances mentioned in nn. 4 or 5 was present.
Can. 1324
§1. The perpetrator of a violation is not exempt from a penalty, but the penalty established by law or precept must be tempered or a penance employed in its place if the delict was committed:
  • 5/ by a person who was coerced by grave fear, even if only relatively grave, or due to necessity or grave inconvenience if the delict is intrinsically evil or tends to the harm of souls;
  • 6/ by a person who acted without due moderation against an unjust aggressor for the sake of legitimate self defense or defense of another;
  • 8/ by a person who thought in culpable error that one of the circumstances mentioned in ⇒ can. 1323, nn. 4 or 5 was present;
  • 10/ by a person who acted without full imputability provided that the imputability was grave.
§2. A judge can act in the same manner if another circumstance is present which diminishes the gravity of a delict.
§3. In the circumstances mentioned in §1, the accused is not bound by a latae sententiae penalty.
Now we know that there was no trial and that the letter Ecclesia Dei was issued afterwards with the charge of schism.  However, there are two issues that are passed over by Vere as he jumps to the conclusion that the consecrations were a schismatic act because the Pope says so ... after the fact.

First, the canonical warning did not cite the canons on schism.  This is a major issue as the point of the canonical warning is to alert the person to their impending breach of canon law.  Without this element in the canonical warning, there is the first mark against the charge of schism.

Second, the consecration without a pontifical mandate is the section "USURPATION OF ECCLESIASTICAL FUNCTIONS AND DELICTS IN THEIR EXERCISE (Cann. 1378 - 1389)" and not the section DELICTS AGAINST RELIGION AND THE UNITY OF THE CHURCH (Cann. 1364 - 1369).

A natural reading of the law would support the conclusion that the consecration without pontifical mandate is not a schismatic act.  This was an add-on in the Ecclesia Dei letter and bcause it is in the wrong section the charge of schism is not retroactive following the reading of the law.

Now was it wrong to consecrate the bishops in 1988?

Obviously, the consecration of bishops is not an intrinsically evil act. So we can set that one aside.

Following the law we have the subjective elements - did the Archbishop believe that there was a case of necessity.  Vere states that the Archbishop knew the mind of the legislator (Pope JP II), but that is not relevant in the canon.  Archbishop Lefebvre believed that there was a necessity (CIC 1324) and now the question is was he negligent (CIC 1323) in informing himself of the reality of the situation?   
Whether or not the Pope stated that there is no state of necessity, doesn't have any bearing on whether or not the Archbishop believed that there was a state of necessity (created in part by the Pontiff's dereliction of duty). 

Prior to delving in to the objective issue, there is one other thing I would like to address, an objection raised by Dr. Peters:
SSPX Arg. 3. If one culpably thought there was [necessity], he would still incur no automatic penalties (Canon 1324.3; [other citations garbled]).Correct, but this argument avoids the crucial point that the excommunications which were lifted last week were not automatic excommunications, they were imposed excommunications (see c. 1331), that is, ones formally declared, by the Holy See no less. Whatever was the canonical status of the SSPX bishops on June 30, 1988, by July 1 they labored under declared excommunications, not automatic ones. ( Source )
As one author pointed out, the Holy See simply declared that they "have incurred <ipso facto> excommunication <latae sententiae>". So what we have is a declared automatic excommunication, which has bearing from the point of law (they can't hold office etc) but leaves open the question if the penalties were incurred at the moment of the act. From my reading, in order for the excommunication to not have been automatic, it would have been necessary for the Archbishop to have his day in court.  
We still wait for that day.

It seems that the argument from the objective perspective rests on the answer to the question: In 1988, did a state of necessity exist? 

First, what is a state of necessity?

Here's the sspx perspective:
A state of necessity is an extraordinary situation in which the necessaries of natural or supernatural life are threatened in such a way that to safeguard them one finds oneself habitually obliged to break the law. Now, law is essentially intended by legislators to procure these necessaries to their subjects. In the Church, the whole edifice of ecclesiastical law is by definition ordered to the preaching of the doctrine of faith and the administration of the sacraments.[5] If the application of the law goes against the end of the law intended by the legislators, it is no longer legitimate because self­ contradictory. The subjects can and must take no notice of it in order to obtain the end of the law despite the authorities who apply the law contrary to the law.
It is clear that since the Second Vatican Council the Church has found herself in such a situation. The common good of the Church is the handing down of the Catholic Faith, and if the pope has received authority from Christ, it is uniquely to safeguard Tradition.
Now, since the Council, instead of continuing to transmit the deposit of faith as did all their predecessors for 2000 years, the men of the Church have taken it upon themselves to impose on the faithful the principal theses of the new theology condemned by Pius XII in Humani Generis and then confirmed by Vatican Council II and the reforms that followed, novelties absolutely contrary to all that our Lord taught.
Since 1965, the authorities of the Church have imposed a new Creed in three articles, with religious liberty, ecumenism, and collegiality; since 1969, they have also imposed a reformed liturgy with a new Mass of Protestant spirit and sacraments renewed in an ecumenical sense. These popes have imposed the grave errors of neo­modernism, already condemned by their predecessors.
Faced with this generalized protestantization, the Church must react. A state of necessity exists that legitimates resistance; it is this resistance that explains the work of Archbishop Lefebvre and the Society of St. Pius X. (Source)
Now how is a state of necessity described in other sources?
State of necessity: An emergency situation in which canon law no longer applies because of a greater need for the good of souls. For example, because of Communist persecution in China, a bishop there can ordain a seminarian to the priesthood without requiring that he first finish all his seminary studies. (Source)
So there is a basic alignment between the SSPX and at least one other source (google let me down).

This also resonates with the end of Canon 1752 that states: "... the salvation of souls, which must always be the supreme law in the Church, is to be kept before one’s eyes."

Now, in 1988 was there a state of necessity in the objective sense?  

Were the Pope and Bishops neglecting the salvation of souls?

First, were the Pope and Bishops preaching Catholic Doctrine or some heresy (modernist or otherwise)?

  • Looking at the state of catechisms, doctrinal aberrations, lack of discipline, etc.  The answer is yes, objectively the salvation of souls was in danger in a systemic manner throughout the Church.  There may have been a few dioceses where this was not the case - but they were the exception. We are in basically a similar situation as St. Athanasius.
Second, what were they doing from a liturgical point of view?
  • In the Latin Church, the Novus Ordo Missae was the liturgical rule with all the sacrilegious variations thereof (Neo-Catechetical way, charismatics, etc).  
  • Attempts to suppress the Tridentine Mass as well as anything related to the pre-conciliar liturgies.
Third, what was the perspective on the pre-conciliar teaching?
  • That the Tridentine Mass had been abrogated and the pre-conciliar theology replaced / supplanted by the New Theology.
Obviously, I've not gone into the details, but suffice to echo the words spoken by Pope Benedict XVI to Bishop Fellay: "... there is a state of necessity in France".

How is France different from the rest of the Catholic world - such as Germany?

Objectively, the salvation of souls was at stake and those souls who recognized this state relied upon the SSPX for the sacraments.  Looking at the real state of the Church on the ground (as summarized above instead of the theoretical one), reaching the conclusion that there was a state of necessity in 1988 is supported.  

I have heard the objection that "the integrity of the Catholic Faith has not been affected". This is what I meant by the 'theoretical one', meaning that what is actually on the 'books' as Catholic Teaching hasn't changed so there isn't a state of necessity.  It is true that the Second Vatican Council and post-conciliar magisterium haven't changed black into white.  

This however is a fallacy. 

The state of necessity arises when there is a systemic danger to the faith due to some factor.  The pristine state of the Dogmas of the Faith do not impact the situation created by the Pope, Bishops, Priests, Monks, Brothers, Nuns (on a bus).  This factor is what created and sustains the crisis and the state of necessity.

In the entire context, specifically the salvation of souls / state of necessity, we can conclude that the Church was in a state of crisis in 1988 (universal degradation of doctrine and liturgy) and that there existed a need for the SSPX to continue to provide the sacraments that rely upon a bishop (priesthood, Confirmations, holy oils etc).

So from a point of view of canon law, the act wasn't "wrong" when we take into account the broader scope of the action.  Objectively, there is a state of necessity even if the Pope doesn't want to subjectively admit it.

It begs the question of whether or not Archbishop Lefebvre would have been negligent in his duty if he had not performed the consections.  I am, of course, setting aside the negligence of the Popes et al in the post-conciliar era. 

This leads us to the next element.

Vicar of Christ

The next question is whether or not Archbishop Lefebvre sinned in disobeying the Pope by consecrating the four bishops.  Again the 2x2 matrix makes things clear.

Is it within the sphere of authority of the Pope to order someone to not perform a consecration of bishops?

Looking at the first Vatican Council:
Wherefore we teach and declare that, by divine ordinance, the Roman church possesses a pre-eminence of ordinary power over every other church, and that this jurisdictional power of the Roman pontiff is both episcopal and immediate. Both clergy and faithful, of whatever rite and dignity, both singly and collectively, are bound to submit to this power by the duty of hierarchical subordination and true obedience, and this not only in matters concerning faith and morals, but also in those which regard the discipline and government of the church throughout the world. (
So it is safe to conclude that the command was well within the sphere of authority of the Pope. Meaning we are dealing with obedience in the lower of the two quadrants. If the wrong choice is made, the Archbishop would have committed a sin of disobedience where the object of obedience was either Our Lord Jesus Christ or His Vicar  - Pope St. John Paul II.

The key element now is whether or not sin was involved in the order. If it was sinful, then the Archbishop would be obliged to disobey. 

That the Archbishop believed it would have been a dereliction of duty to not provide for the continuance of the Society is clear.  So subjectively, he would have been obligated to disobey.

Now is there an objective basis for this conclusion?

Episcopal Duty: Archbishop Lefebvre had a duty, as a bishop, "preserving the true faith and a high moral tone among the people" (Source: Catholic Encyclopedia).  In 1988, what were the objective conditions in the Church?
  • A Pope promoting syncretism (ie: Assisi), 
  • A curial response to the Archbishop's Dubia, which (if memory serves)  didn't respond to the questions but offered answers to what the curia thought he was asking.
  • A general orientation against what the Church has always taught in both doctrine / dogma and liturgy.
  • Reliance upon a non-SSPX bishop for ordinations, confirmations etc, who was hostile to everything the SSPX represented. 
  • The faithful who relied upon the congregation (SSPX) to provide a refuge from the heresy running amok and unchecked within the Catholic Church.
  • Ordaining one bishop would leave a single point of failure for the SSPX.  
  • His failing health.
Objectively, if the Archbishop died without leaving bishops to provide the sacraments reliant upon the episcopal character, then he would have neglected his duty as a Catholic Bishop. Why? Among other things, those people who rely upon the SSPX for the sacraments etc would have been forced to rely upon the local ordinaries - who were one of the factors creating the crisis to begin with!  

This would be a sin.

I don't think anyone would believe things have gotten better since 1988.

Based on this analysis (cursory as it may be), the Archbishop did the right thing by disobeying Pope St. John Paul II. The Pope was negligent in his duty and that meant that the Archbishop had to choose between a Pope and God.

He chose well.


Links to other posts in this latest series on obedience


Obedience as per St. Thomas:

DisObedience as per St. Thomas Aquinas:

Key Distinctions:

Application to the 1988 Consecrations:



St. Thomas on Legitimate authority and obedience:


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