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This series was originally published in the July & September 1999 editions of SiSiNoNo.

Part 1


This issue of The Angelus English-language edition of SiSiNoNo begins a series of two studies - one theological and one canonical - regarding the "state of necessity" invoked by Archbishop Lefebvre to justify his consecration of four bishops on June 30, 1988.  These remarks are for those who admit the existence of an extraordinary crisis in the Church, but do not know how to justify the extraordinary action of Archbishop Lefebvre on June 30, 1988 when, lacking permission from Pope John Paul II, he transmitted the powers of episcopal orders to members of the Society founded by him.

Archbishop Lefebvre justified his act by appealing to the state of necessity. The force of this excusing cause was not undervalued by Vatican authorities, who did not contest it on the doctrinal level, but responded with an argument of fact, namely, that there was not a state of necessity,[1] knowing full well that, if it had been, the action of Archbishop Lefebvre would have been fully justified, even as much as it concerns the "no" of the pope, according to Catholic doctrine on the state of necessity.

The strength of the justification adduced by Archbishop Lefebvre escapes, on the contrary, most people through the simple fact that Catholic doctrine on the state of necessity is little known. We will try to explain it. The principles we will use are found in any traditional treatises regarding moral law or canon law. It is an absurdity to admit an extraordinary crisis in the Church and, at the same time, to pretend to measure what has been done in such extraordinary circumstances with the rule of norms valid in ordinary circumstances. It is contrary to logic and to the doctrine of the Church Law, in fact:

...ought to be established on the more ordinary conditions of social life and, in consequence, necessarily leaves out of consideration those things which occur only rarely [emphasis added].[2]

St. Thomas Aquinas reinforces this principle:

Universal laws…are established for the good of the whole. Therefore, in establishing them the legislator bears in mind that which happens ordinarily and in the greater number of the cases (Summa Theologica, II-II, Q. 147, A. 4) [emphasis added].

Therefore, in cases "that happen rarely" and in which "one happens to have to act outside the ordinary laws," "it is necessary to judge on the basis of principles higher than the ordinary laws" (ST, II-II, Q. 51, A. 4). These "higher principles" are the "general principles of divine and even human law" (Suarez, De Legibus 1. VI c. VI n. 5) which supply for the silence of positive law.

The Church is authorized to apply said principles when, because of cases not foreseen by the law, it defers to the general principles of law and to the common and constant judgment of the Doctors, which, precisely because common and constant, must be considered canonized by the Church.[3]

That having been set forth, we offer for the convenience of readers a summary of the arguments that we will treat here in succession.

I. Duties and powers of a bishop in a state of necessity

A. State of necessity and its various degrees

The state of necessity consists in "a threat to the spiritual goods of life, of liberty or other earthly goods."[4]

If the threat regards earthly goods, we have material necessity; if it regards spiritual goods, we have spiritual necessity, a necessity all the "more urgent than that material" to the extent that spiritual goods are more important than material goods.[5]

In reality various degrees of spiritual necessity can be given, but theologians commonly distinguish five of them:

  1. ordinary (or common) spiritual necessity is that in which any sinner finds himself in ordinary circumstances;

  2. grave spiritual necessity is that when a soul finds herself threatened in spiritual goods of great importance (e.g., faith and morals);

  3. spiritual necessity almost extreme is the status of a soul which, without someone else’s help, could be rescued only with great difficulty;

  4. extreme spiritual necessity is that status of a soul is situated which, without the help of someone else, could not be able to be saved or would be able to do so with such difficulty that her salvation would be considered morally impossible;

  5. grave general (or public) spiritual necessity is that when several souls find themselves threatened in spiritual goods of great importance (e.g., faith and morals). Canonists and theologians commonly adduce as examples of grave general or public spiritual necessity epidemics and the public spreading of a heresy [emphasis added].[6]

B. Today’s state of grave general spiritual necessity

Today a state of grave general (or public) spiritual necessity exists because many Catholics are threatened in faith and morals by the public and undisputed spreading of neo-modernsim or self-styled "new theology," already condemned by Pope Pius XII as the assembly of errors which "threaten to destroy the foundations of the Catholic Faith,"[7] a revival of that modernism previously condemned by Pope St. Pius X as "the synthesis of all heresies."[8]

This public diffusion of errors and of heresies was dramatically denounced by Pope Paul VI who went so far as to speak of the "auto-destruction" of the Church[9] and of the "smoke of Satan in the temple of God,"[10] and was admitted by Pope John Paul II at the beginning of his pontificate on the occasion of a Congress on missions to people:

There is need to admit realistically and with a deep and sober sensibility that Christians today, for the most part, are dismayed, confused, perplexed and even frustrated; ideas conflicting with revealed and constantly taught Truth have been scattered by handfuls; true and real heresies in the sphere of dogma and morals have been spread, creating doubts, confusions, rebellions; the liturgy has been violated; immersed in intellectual and moral "relativism," and therefore in permissiveness, Christians have been allured by atheism, by agnosticism, by a vaguely moralistic enlightenment, by a socialistic Christianity, without defined dogma and without objective morals.[11]

There is, therefore, a state of grave public or general necessity: grave, because faith and morals have been threatened; public or general, because these spiritual goods, indispensable to salvation, have been threatened among a large part of the Christian people. The situation has grown worse after 20 years of Pope John Paul II:

It was believed [Pope Paul VI once acknowledged] that after the Council there would have come a sunny day in the history of the Church. There came, on the contrary, a day of clouds, of storm, of doubt.[10]

Under these "clouds," in this "storm," amidst these "doubts," souls nevertheless must direct their course to the harbor of eternal salvation in the brief time of trial allotted to them. Who can deny that today, generally, many souls live in a state of "grave spiritual necessity?"

< 1988 Episcopal Consecrations: A Canonical Study

part 2 >


1 Motu proprio of July 2, 1988.

2 Brisbois Apropos des lois purement penales in Nouvelle revue theologique, 65 (1938), p.1072

3 V. can. 20 of the Pian-Benedictine Code ["The 1917 Code of Canon Law is also called the Pian-Benedictine Code because it was compiled through the initiative of Pope Pius X and promulgated under Pope Benedict XI (Sept. 15, 1917)". The 1917 Code of Canon Law is a known for its conceptual and systematic vision (excerpted from ff 10 of the online article, The 1988 Consecrations: A Canonical Study, Part II) - webmaster] and F. M. Cappello, S.J., Ius suppletorium in Summa iuris canonici, vol. I (Roma, 1961), p.79.

4 V.E. Eichmann-Kl. Morsdor, Trattato di diritto canonica, and G. May, Legittima difesa, resistenza, necessita.

5 St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Suppl, Q. 8, A. 6; v., also P. Palazzini, Dictionarium morale et canonicum, under the word, "caritas" (erga proximum).

6 See, for example, P. Palazzini, Dictionarium morale et canonicum, under the word "caritas"; Billuart, De charitate, diss. IV, art. 3; Genicot, S.J., Institutiones Theologiae moralis, vol. I, 217, A and B, etc.

7 Pope Pius XII, Humani Generis, 1950 (Kansas City: Angelus Press).

8 Motu proprio, Nov. 18, 1907.

9 Discourse of Pope Paul VI at the Lombard Seminary in Rome, Dec. 7, 1968.

10 Discourse of Pope Paul VI, June 30, 1972.

11 L’Osservatore Romano, Feb. 7, 1981. © 2013                    home                    contact