Understanding the Crisis: Archbishop Lefebvre and Collegiality

by Brent Klaske

As we are still in the very early days of a new papacy, it is helpful to remind ourselves that the ultimate solution to the very grave crisis in which we find ourselves will only and eventually come from the Sovereign Pontiff. This does not mean for a moment that we are not to do our work in so far as it is set before us especially that of prayer and sacrifice, but it does mean that the “salvation” of the Church is not going to come from us, or only in an indirect way.

One of the strikes against the authority of the Sovereign Pontiff, perhaps the greatest attack, is the erroneous teaching of collegiality. This attack, which seeks to undo the monarchical constitution of the Church, and in its place leave a democratic structure comprised of the Pope and the bishops throughout the world, who also exercise authority collegially, without the Pope’s having by necessity called them to that task, strikes at the heart of Our Lord’s foundation of the Church upon Peter.

But while it is deadly important to consider and understand the fight against collegiality from the perspective of the Sovereign Pontiff, today we will consider the intervention of Archbishop Lefebvre at the Second Vatican Council. There, in October 1963, he addressed the entire assembly of the Council concerning the notion of collegiality as found in the schema on the Church.

He states:

This text, in fact, claims that the members of the College of Bishops possess a right of government, either with the Sovereign Pontiff over the universal Church or with the other bishops over the various dioceses.

From a practical point of view, collegiality would exist, both through an international Senate residing in Rome and governing the universal Church with the Sovereign Pontiff, and through the national Assemblies of Bishops possessing true rights and duties in all the dioceses of one particular nation.

In this way national or international Colleges would gradually take the place in the Church of the personal government of a single Pastor. Several Fathers have mentioned the danger of a lessening of the power of the Sovereign Pontiff, and we are fully in agreement with them. But we foresee another danger, even more serious, if possible: the threat of the gradual disappearance of the essential character of the bishops, namely that they are “true pastors, each one of whom feeds and governs his own flock, entrusted to him in accordance with a power proper to him alone, directly and fully contained in his Order.” The national assemblies with their commissions would soon – and unconsciously – be feeding and governing all the flocks, so that the priests as well as the laity would find themselves placed between these two pastors: the bishop, whose authority would be theoretical, and the assembly with its commissions, which would, in fact, hold the exercise of that authority. (source: I Accuse the Council)

What is fascinating here is that many others, as Archbishop Lefebvre points out, had seen the danger of diminishing the authority of papal authority through collegiality, but few had seen or explained so clearly, the danger to the role of an individual bishop in his diocese.

And yet, is this not so evidently the case in the modern Church? Bishop X wishes to restore some modicum of sanity in the liturgy of his diocese, and yet is checked by the decisions of the conference of bishops, or Bishop Y intends (as happened with Bishop Bruskewitz some few years ago) to follow the universal norms governing the reception of the Blessed Sacrament, but the bishop’s conference and others oppose him, and go so far as to attack, saying he should have held his tongue after the decision was made by the country’s “college” of bishops. Does this not illustrate –and we’re talking about a very small modicum of restoration – the great Archbishop’s point?

It was this sort of prophetic foresight by which the Archbishop saw the coming meteoric rise of bishops’ conferences, such that as a bloc they not only make difficult, or even practically impossible, the normal exercise of episcopal power, but they also act as a bloc to pressure Rome into approving various novelties, or act as a wall to prevent any “undesirable” changes from moving from Rome to the life of the average Catholic in the pew.

Now, up until now, apart from some notable exceptions, this conflict and tension has not appeared as clearly, because of the spirit of innovation and novelty that seems to prevail on all fronts. But, when the time comes in which a bishop or Pope wishes to work towards the restoration of all things in Christ, he will find himself handicapped through the practical collegiality which has taken over throughout the entire Catholic world.

What then is the solution to this crisis? How is the Sovereign Pontiff, and also the local ordinary, to overcome collegiality, understand their true authority, and work toward the correct and consistent application of that same authority?

Let us hear again from Archbishop Lefebvre, who proposes changes to the same proposed text of the Council. In those changes, he argues that the only way to undo the false teaching of collegiality is by a return to the clear teaching of the Church through the ages.

Holy Council of Trent, basing itself on these sacred traditions, confirms that the Roman Pontiff alone possesses in his own person a full, ordinary episcopal power over the universal Church. As to the bishops, the successors of the Apostles, as true pastors they feed and govern their own flock entrusted to them, each bishop with a personal power, direct and complete, deriving from his sacred consecration.

This brief look at the text reveals the great program of Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre: it was a program of a restoration of order. In his fight for the Mass of All Time, he is seeking to restore the order of worship whereby man honors his Creator in a fitting and clear way. In his fight against the tyranny of religious liberty and separation of Church and State, he seeks to restore the order of states and governments. Finally, in this fight, he seeks to restore the order of authority to both Sovereign Pontiff and to the diocesan bishops.

Thus, let no one say that Archbishop Lefebvre sought his own will, or his own glory. Instead, let us see clearly in the fight against collegiality, the Sovereign Pontiff and the bishops had no greater friend than Marcel Lefebvre, and to this day have no greater friend than the Society he founded to continue his work of restoration.


Brent Klaske
Brent Klaske


Director of Operations at Angelus Press. I have worked in Catholic publishing for more than 20 years. I currently live near St. Marys, KS with my wife and 10 children.

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