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Question 11
Wasn't Archbishop Lefebvre excommunicated?
(for consecrating bishops unlawfully)
June 29, 1987

Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, experiencing failing health, aware of his episcopal duty to pass on the Catholic Faith and seeing no other way of assuring the continued ordination of truly Catholic priests, decided to consecrate bishops and announced that, if necessary, he will do so even without the pope’s permission.

June 30, 1988: "Operation Survival"
June 30, 1988, "Operation Survival".
From left to right: Bishops de Galarreta,
Tissier de Mallerais, de Castro Mayer, Archbishop Lefebvre, and Bishops Williamson and Fellay

4 new SSPX bishops receive their crosiers
The 4 new SSPX bishops after receiving
their crosiers and being enthroned

June 17, 1988

Cardinal Gantin, Prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, officially warned the Archbishop that, in virtue of canon 1382 (1983 Code of Canon Law), he and the bishops consecrated by him would be excommunicated for proceeding without pontifical mandate and thereby infringing the laws of sacred discipline.

June 30, 1988

Archbishop Lefebvre, together with Bishop de Castro Mayer, consecrated four bishops.

July 1, 1988

Cardinal Gantin declared the threatened excommunication (according to canon 1382) to have been incurred. He also called the consecrations a schismatic act and declared the corresponding excommunication (canon 1364 §1), as well as threatening anyone supporting the consecrations with excommunication because of “schism".

Bishop Antonio De Castro Mayer explains why it is duty to carry out the consecrations with Archbishop Lefebvre
Bishop de Castro Mayer
 gives a brief sermon declaring his
participation in the ceremonies is as a profession of Faith

July 2, 1988

In Ecclesia Dei Afflicta, the pope repeated Cardinal Gantin’s accusation of schismatic mentality and threatened generalized excommunications (cf. question 12).

Now, the excommunication warned of on June 17, for abuse of episcopal powers (canon 1382), was not incurred because:

  1. A person who violates a law out of necessity* is not subject to a penalty (1983 Code of Canon Law, canon 1323, §4), even if there is no state of necessity:[1]

  • if one inculpably thought there was, he would not incur the penalty (canon 1323, 70),

  • and if one culpably thought there was, he would still incur no automatic penalties[2] (canon 1324, §3; §1, 80).

*"The state of necessity, as it is explained by jurists, is a state in which the necessary goods for natural or supernatural life are so threatened that one is morally compelled to break the law in order to save them." (Is Tradition Excommunicated? p. 26)


Footnotes for item 1


1 And yet objectively there is. (Cf. Is Tradition Excommunicated? pp.27-36)


2 Excommunication for unlawful consecrations (canon 1382) or schism (canon 1364) are of this kind.

  1. No penalty is ever incurred without committing a subjective mortal sin (canons 1321 §1, 1323 70). Now, Archbishop Lefebvre made it amply clear that he was bound in conscience to do what he could do to continue the Catholic priesthood and that he was obeying God in going ahead with the consecrations (Cf. the Sermon of June 30, 1988, and Archbishop Lefebvre and the Vatican, p. 136). Hence, even if he had been wrong, there would be no subjective sin.

  2. Most importantly, positive law is at the service of the natural and eternal law and ecclesiastical law is at that of the divine law (principle 8).  No “authority,” [principle 9] can force a bishop to compromise in his teaching of Catholic faith or administering of Catholic sacraments. No “law,” can force him to cooperate in the destruction of the Church. With Rome giving no guarantee of preserving Catholic Tradition, Archbishop Lefebvre had to do what he could with his God-given episcopal powers to guarantee its preservation. This was his duty as a bishop.

  3. The Church’s approving the SSPX (question 2) allow it what it needs for its own preservation. This includes the service of bishops who will guarantee to maintain Catholic Tradition.

More on this topic

Bishop Fellay's press release on withdrawal of excommunications
The excommunication of the bishops consecrated by Archbishop Lefebvre, on June 30, 1988... and which we had always contested, has been withdrawn by another decree...

Bishop Fellay on the withdrawal of the 1988 excommunications
Thanks to this gesture, Catholics attached to Tradition throughout the world will no longer be unjustly stigmatized and condemned for having kept the Faith of their fathers. Catholic Tradition is no longer excommunicated...

Get the full picture
about the SSPX with this select group of informative conferences and articles

The 1988 Episcopal Consecrations:

A two-part comprehensive study of "Operational Survival" undertaken by Archbishop Lefebvre and Bishop Castro de Mayer

A Canonical Study
German canonist Fr. Rudolph Kaschewsky briefly explains in this July 1988 article how the 1988 Consecrations did not incur excommunication, nor were they a schismatic act

Two Years After the Consecrations
A conference given by Archbishop Lefebvre on in 1990 summarizing the SSPX's position and status of Catholic Tradition in light of the 1988 Episcopal Consecrations

One Year After the Consecrations
An interview with Archbishop Lefebvre about the SSPX, Church and Catholic Tradition one year after the 1988 Consecrations

June 1988 Letter to Pope John Paul II from the SSPX's Superiors
Summarizes the causes of the failure of the 1987-88 discussions with Rome and that the papal mandate for consecrating a bishop was implicitly given © 2013                    home                    contact