Can obedience oblige us to disobey? Statement by Arcbishop Lefebvre - March 1988
Originally published in the July 1988 issue of The Angelus magazine
March 29, 1988
The rector of the seminary of the Society of St. Pius X in Switzerland, Fr. Lorans, having asked me to help in drawing up this issue of the Letter from Econe, it seemed to me, in these circumstances, that it would not be without benefit to put before you again what I wrote on January 20, 1978, concerning certain objections which could be made as to our attitude with regard to the problems created by the present situation of the Church.
One of these questions was: ''How do you see obedience to the pope?" Here is the reply I gave ten years ago:
The principles governing obedience are known and are so in conformity with sane reason and common sense that one is driven to wonder how intelligent persons can make a statement like, "They prefer to be mistaken with the pope, than to be with the truth against the pope."
That is not what the natural law teaches, nor the Magisterium of the Church. Obedience presupposes an authority which gives an order or issues a law. Human authorities, even those instituted by God, have no authority other than to attain the end apportioned them by God and not to turn away from it. When an authority uses power in opposition to the law for which this power was given it, such an authority has no right to be obeyed and one must disobey it.
This need to disobey is accepted with regard to a family father who would encourage his daughter to prostitute herself, with regard to the civil authority which would oblige doctors to perform abortions and kill innocent souls, yet people accept in every case the authority of the Pope, who is supposedly infallible in his government and in all words. Such an attitude betrays a sad ignorance of history and of the true nature of papal infallibility.
A long time ago St. Paul said to St. Peter that he was "Not walking according to the truth of the Gospel" (Gal. 2:14). St. Paul encouraged the faithful not to obey him, St. Paul, if he happened to preach any other gospel than the Gospel that he had already taught them (Gal. 1:8).
St. Thomas, when he speaks of fraternal correction, alludes to St. Paul's resistance to St. Peter and he makes the following comment:
To resist openly and in public goes beyond the measure of fraternal correction. St. Paul would not have done it towards St. Peter if he had not in some way been his equal... We must realize, however, that if there was question of a danger for the faith, the superiors would have to be rebuked by their inferiors, even in public.
This is clear from the manner and reason for St. Paul's acting as he did with regard to St. Peter, whose subject he was, in such a way, says the gloss of St. Augustine:
that the very head of the Church showed to superiors that if they ever chanced to leave the straight and narrow path, they should accept to be corrected by their inferiors (St. Thomas [in the Summa Theologica] IIa, IIae, q.33, art. 4, ad 2).
The case evoked by St. Thomas is not merely imaginary because it took place with regard to John XXII during his life. This pope thought he could state as a personal opinion that the souls of the elect do not enjoy the Beatific Vision until after the Last Judgment. He wrote this opinion down in 1331 and in 1332 he preached a similar opinion with regard to the pains of the damned. He had the intention of putting forward this opinion in a solemn decree.
But the very lively action on the part of the Dominicans, above all in Paris, and of the Franciscans, made him renounce this opinion in favor of the traditional opinion defined by his successor, Benedict XII, in 1336.
And here is what Pope Leo XIII said in his Encyclical Libertas Praestantissimum, June 20,1888:
If, then, by any one in authority, something be sanctioned out of conformity with the principles of right reason, and consequently hurtful to the commonwealth, such an enactment can have no binding force of law.
And a little further on, he says:
But where the power to command is wanting, or where a law is enacted contrary to reason, or to the eternal law, or to some ordinance of God, obedience is unlawful, lest while obeying man, we become disobedient to God.
Now our disobedience is motivated by the need to keep the Catholic Faith. The orders being given us clearly express that they are being given us in order to oblige us to submit without reserve to the Second Vatican Council, to the post-conciliar reforms, and to the prescriptions of the Holy See, that is to say, to the orientations and acts which are undermining our Faith and destroying the Church. It is impossible for us to do this. To collaborate in the destruction of the Church is to betray the Church and to betray Our Lord Jesus Christ.
Now all the theologians worthy of this name teach that if the pope, by his acts, destroys the Church, we cannot obey him (Vitoria: Obras, pp.486-487; Suarez: De fide, disp.X, sec.VI, no.16; St. Robert Bellarmine: de Rom. Pont., Book 2, Ch.29; Cornelius a Lapide: ad Gal. 2,11, etc.) and he must be respectfully, but publicly, rebuked.
The principles governing obedience to the pope's authority are the same as those governing relations between a delegated authority and its subjects. They do not apply to the Divine Authority which is always infallible and indefectible and hence incapable of failing. To the extent that God has communicated His infallibility to the pope and to the extent that the pope intends to use this infallibility, which involves four very precise conditions in its exercise, there can be no failure.
Outside of these precisely fixed conditions, the authority of the pope is fallible and so the criteria which bind us to obedience apply to his acts. Hence it is not inconceivable that there could be a duty of disobedience with regard to the pope.
The authority which was granted him was granted him for precise purposes and in the last resort for the glory of the Holy Trinity, for Our Lord Jesus Christ, and for the salvation of souls.
Whatever would be carried out by the pope in opposition to this purpose would have no legal value and no right to be obeyed, nay, rather, it would oblige us to disobey in order for us to remain obedient to God and faithful to the Church.
This holds true for everything that the recent popes have commanded in the name of Religious Liberty or ecumenism since the Council: all the reforms carried out under this heading are deprived of any legal standing or force of law. In these cases the popes use their authority contrary to the end for which this authority was given them. They have a right to be disobeyed by us.
The Society and its history show publicly this need to remain faithful to God and to the Church. The years 1974, 1975 and 1976 leave us with the memory of this incredible clash between Econe and the Vatican, between the Pope and myself.
The result was the condemnation, the suspension a divinis, wholly null and void because the pope was tyrannically abusing his authority in order to defend laws contrary to the good of the Church and to the good of souls.
These events are an historical application of the principles concerning the duty to disobey.
That clash was the occasion for a departure of a certain number of priests who were friends or members of the Society, who were scared by the condemnation, and did not understand the duty to disobey under certain circumstances. Since then, twelve years have passed. Officially, the condemnation still stands, relations with the pope are still tense, especially as the consequences of this ecumenism are drawing us into an apostasy which forced us to react vigorously. However, the announcement of consecration of bishops in June stirred Rome into action: it at last made up its mind to fulfill our request for an Apostolic Visitation by sending on November 11, 1987, Cardinal Gagnon and Msgr. Perl. As far as we were able to judge by the speeches and reflections of our Visitors, their judgment was very favorable indeed, and the Cardinal did not hesitate to attend the Pontifical Mass on December 8th, at Econe, celebrated by the prelate suspended a divinis.
What can we conclude from all this except that our disobedience is bearing good fruit, recognized by the envoys of the authority which we disobey? And here we are now confronted with new decisions to be taken. We are more than ever encouraged to give the Society the means it needs to continue its essential work, the formation of true priests of the holy, and Catholic, and Roman Church. That is to say, to give me successors in the episcopate.
Rome understands this need, but will the pope accept these bishops from the ranks of Tradition? For ourselves it cannot be otherwise. Any other solution would be the sign that they want to align us with the conciliar revolution, and there our duty to disobey immediately revives. The negotiations are now under way and we shall soon know the true intentions of Rome. They will decide the future. We must continue to pray and to watch. May the Holy Ghost guide us through the intercession of Our Lady of Fatima!
+ Marcel Lefebvre
Tony LaRosa "Remembering Archbishop Lefebvre"