Given the recent flurry of news stories dealing with the Priestly Fraternity of St. Pius X (FSSPX) and Pope Francis’s appreciation of them, I have been reading up again on the history of that group. What everyone knows about the story of the FSSPX is that in 1988, illegally and against the wishes of Pope John Paul II, its founder, Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, consecrated four new bishops to carry on his work educating and ordaining priests for the order. A simple narrative usually accompanies this fact: Lefebvre was a reactionary who rejected Vatican II, a crypto-Protestant who stood on his own conscience in the face of papal authority, a relic who anathematized the ecclesiastical modernization he could neither appreciate nor understand. Based on this narrative, the situation of the FSSPX is clear: Those who remained with it after 1988 are schismatics, separated from the Catholic Church. Anyone who wants to be a part of the Catholic Church must leave the FSSPX.
This simple story retains its plausibility only so long as one remains ignorant of the personality of Marcel Lefebvre and the prior history of the FSSPX. This is not to say that the 1988 consecrations were justified (it seems clear they were not), but that the characterization of the event, and the understanding of the ethos of the FSSPX supplied by the standard narrative is far off the mark.
In 1970, Lefebvre founded and then led the FSSPX, an order which he established to provide traditional priestly formation to a group of young men who wanted to become priests but found the rapid liberalization of their home dioceses disconcerting. Previously, Lefebvre had been a retiree, having served as Superior General of the Holy Ghost Fathers (a global missionary order of priests), Apostolic Delegate to all of French-speaking Africa, Vicar Apostolic of Dakar, and a missionary priest for many years. Had he died in 1965, Lefebvre would be remembered unequivocally as a saintly missionary and one of the architects of the African Church, which has flourished so abundantly over the past decades.
The FSSPX was canonically established in 1970 in a small town in Switzerland, with half a dozen or so seminarians living in an old building abandoned by another religious order. After news spread that a small Swiss seminary was providing traditional priestly formation, seminarians began to flock to the place—over one hundred in under five years. The authorities in the Catholic hierarchy found this rapid growth disconcerting, worrying that Lefebvre's small religious order would become a bastion of reactionary sentiment, disrupting the process of aggiornamento then underway and creating division in the Church. During the Second Vatican Council, Lefebvre had been, with Alfredo Cardinal Ottaviani, one of the leaders of the "International Group of Fathers" who attempted to dissuade the Council from adopting some of the more innovative proposals of the progressives. He was an outspoken critic of the new Roman Missal promulgated by Pope Paul VI in 1970, which subtly purged the liturgy of many elements theologically objectionable to Protestants.
Consequently, Lefebvre was seen as a dangerous man, and the seminary at Ecône was put under investigation by the Vatican. In 1975, Lefebvre expressed outrage in print at one of the investigators' denial of the bodily resurrection of Christ. Lefebvre was called to Rome, harangued by a panel of Cardinals for several hours for his lack of co-operation with the aggiornamento, and subsequently informed that the flourishing seminary he headed had to be closed—not because of any defect in the seminary or failure of protocol, but because he had expressed outrage of the errors ("Neo-Modernism") which were coming out of Rome.
Given the farcical nature of the charges and the lack of due process, Lefebvre ignored the order of suppression and continued merrily with his work. (The FSSPX continued to grow, and had to erect two new wings to accommodate all the seminarians.) He appealed the decision. His appeal was rejected. Then, Pope Paul VI became involved. Letters exchanged between Lefebvre and Pope Paul show a basic failure of understanding between them. The Pope seems to see Lefebvre solely in terms of the question of obedience—he must obey the order, because this is the only way of demonstrating his fidelity. Lefebvre repeatedly and emphatically declares his love and fidelity to the Pope, but decries the injustice of the order of suppression. It is repeatedly implied by the Pope that Lefebvre is forming priests in order to lead them into rebellion against Rome.
Lefebvre loved the Pope, but he rejected the changes he saw destroying the Church he had served all his life. He embraced the authoritative teaching of Vatican II, but rejected its ambiguous expressions and inversions, which he believed paved the way for abuse and error. Ultimately he loved Christ and the Truth, and would (like any good missionary) have rather died than abandon either. Despite all these virtues, a decade and more of ostracism, injustice, and (occasionally) outright dishonesty from Vatican officials left Lefebvre extremely distrustful of the Vatican. While a million abuses and heresies were permitted and even encouraged throughout the Church, Lefebvre's little seminary was being targeted and suppressed.
A year later, Lefebvre himself was suspended from ministry and prohibited from administering the sacrament of ordination. Why? Because he was operating an illegal seminary that used the traditional mass. Was the traditional mass illegal? No, even then there was a quiet acknowledgement among top Cardinals that it had never been abrogated. Why was the seminary illegal? Because it had been ordered to close. Why had it been ordered to close? For no good reason.
Once you follow this chain of inquiry to its roots, you begin to perceive something of the persecution experienced by the members of the FSSPX in the 1970s. The world had gone insane. The Church was hemorrhaging priests and religious. Orthodoxy had ceased to exist as a concept for most Catholics. And here, in a small corner of the world, sanity was being maintained. Good priests were being formed. The Gospel was being taught in its ancient integrity. And yet here alone, and almost nowhere else, the Church took on a posture of condemnation. The post-Conciliar Church was meant to be a Church of dialogue. But there was no room for dialogue with the Traditionalists. The post-Conciliar Church had renounced all condemnation, but it retained condemnation for the Traditionalists. It's no wonder that Lefebvre ultimately disregarded canon law in 1988 and consecrated his four bishops—Even when the Curia tried to barter with him, how could he trust them? They had already tried to strip him of everything, contrary to the spiritual good of those in his care, and contrary to the pastoral principles he had been taught and had practiced his entire life.
The popular narrative about the FSSPX holds that the group is in a state of schism, and has separated itself from the rest of the Church—that they need to make a return to the Church. But if we look at the facts fairly, it becomes clear that for the priests in the FSSPX, it is Rome that abandoned them: by failing to incorporate them into the life of the Church after Vatican II, by suppressing their order without just cause, and by ostracizing their leader. May Pope Francis have the heart to grant this group the canonical status owed to them—a religious order by all appearances far more faithful to the teachings of Vatican II, the Papacy, and the Gospel of Jesus Christ than a large number of progressive orders that litter the ecclesiastical landscape.