Excommunication of Archbishop Lefebvre Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

When Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre openly defied Pope John Paul II by ordaining four bishops to lead his dissenting conservative faction of the Roman Catholic Church, John Paul excommunicated Lefebvre, alienating many of Lefebvre’s followers and strengthening the belief of others that the papacy-led church was not the true Catholic Church.

Summary of Event

The Second Ecumenical Council of the Vatican, Second Ecumenical Council of the Vatican (1962-1965) known as Vatican II (1962-1965), Vatican II (1962-1965)[Vatican 02] brought leaders of the Roman Catholic Church together to consider the place of the Church in modern society and to clarify doctrines and alter policies and rituals accordingly. The “spirit of Vatican II” was one of rejecting seemingly outdated forms and policies in favor of greater lay (nonclerical) participation and leadership and greater “relevance.” Roman Catholic Church;Vatican II[Vatican 02] Many church leaders—including bishops, priests, nuns, and theologians—saw opportunities for greater freedom: Perhaps priests could marry, and perhaps women could become priests. Divisions between clergy and laypeople were minimized; Latin was first undermined and then jettisoned as the language of ritual. Roman Catholic Church;excommunication of Archbishop Lefebvre [kw]Excommunication of Archbishop Lefebvre (June 30, 1988) [kw]Archbishop Lefebvre, Excommunication of (June 30, 1988) [kw]Lefebvre, Excommunication of Archbishop (June 30, 1988) Roman Catholic Church;excommunication of Archbishop Lefebvre [g]Europe;June 30, 1988: Excommunication of Archbishop Lefebvre[06850] [g]Vatican City;June 30, 1988: Excommunication of Archbishop Lefebvre[06850] [g]Switzerland;June 30, 1988: Excommunication of Archbishop Lefebvre[06850] [c]Religion, theology, and ethics;June 30, 1988: Excommunication of Archbishop Lefebvre[06850] Lefebvre, Marcel John Paul II

Some claimed that the early church served as a model for such liberal changes, whereas others saw the changes as a compromise with Protestantism. Some felt that the Catholic Church’s claim to being the true church of God was being diluted by a new ecumenical approach to and “dialogue” with non-Christian religions, especially Judaism. This new spirit and its fruits dismayed and angered many who may generally be labeled as conservative or traditionalist. To varying degrees, they dismissed or openly rejected the changes and even the validity of the post-Vatican II Catholic Church on historical or religious grounds. Some went so far as to claim that the modern popes (which ones varied, depending on the critics) were not even legitimate pontiffs and that the Church had been without a true pope (these critics are known as “sedevacantists,” from the Latin sede vacante, which means literally “while the seat is vacant”).

When the Code of Canon Law Code of Canon Law was updated in 1983 (from 1917), traditionalists rejected any changes as illicit. Among these was the Frenchman Marcel Lefebvre. Ordained in 1929, he served as a missionary in Gabon in Africa from 1932 to 1946 and was ordained bishop for Senegal in 1947; he became the first archbishop of Dakar, Senegal’s capital city, in 1955. In 1962, Lefebvre returned to France as archbishop of Tulle and was elected superior general of the Holy Ghost Fathers, the order he joined when he became a missionary. Resistant to the changes inspired by Vatican II and forced on him by the order, he resigned as superior general in 1968. The following year, he formed his own conservative priestly order at Ecône, Switzerland, the Society of Saint Pius X, Society of Saint Pius X and served as its superior general from 1970 to 1982.

In 1976, Pope Paul VI Paul VI sanctioned Lefebvre (Suspensio a divinis) for “the grave act of disobedience” of using outdated (pre-Vatican II) rites for ordaining his order’s priests and relieved him of his episcopal and priestly authority. Lefebvre responded by claiming that the post-Vatican II church, with its “new dogmas, new priesthood, new institutions, new worship,” was “schismatic [split from the true church] and heretical.” He openly defied the pope by continuing as before.

In November, 1978, the recently elected Pope John Paul II lifted the ban on Lefebvre’s ordinations, and in the early 1980’s he embraced Lefebvre both before and after a half-hour audience. Although the pope intended these acts to be conciliatory, they only gave Lefebvre more legitimacy in the eyes of many and freed him to criticize the Church and the papacy more openly.

Through the early 1980’s, John Paul worked to silence open dissent from liberal factions in the Church, especially from such outspoken theologians as Hans Küng Küng, Hans and Charles E. Curran, Curran, Charles E. but he also acted in the spirit of Vatican II. In 1983, the Code of Canon Law was updated in line with Vatican II. John Paul authorized the Catholic ordination of married Anglican priests and reversed his staunch opposition to socialist-inspired liberation theology. In 1985, on the twentieth anniversary of the closing of the Second Vatican Council, he hosted an “extraordinary synod” of bishops that celebrated Vatican II and reaffirmed it as the “gift of the Holy Spirit.” In 1986, John Paul hosted an ecumenical world day of prayer in Assisi, Italy, where he publicly worshiped with representatives of many religious traditions. None of this assuaged Lefebvre’s resistance.

Suffering from cancer and eighty-two years old, Lefebvre prepared to ordain three men as bishops during the summer of 1987. Encouraged by the appointment of an apostolic visitor by John Paul, Lefebvre refrained. Ordaining priests was one thing, but for one bishop to “ordain” other bishops on his own authority was clearly beyond even the traditional pale. On May 5, 1988, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger Ratzinger, Joseph (who later became Pope Benedict XVI) signed a protocol with Lefebvre and the Society of Saint Pius X recognizing Lefebvre’s acceptance of Rome’s authority in most matters and recommending that the pope appoint a successor to Lefebvre. On May 24, Ratzinger and Lefebvre met again in Rome, and Lefebvre learned that the pope was willing to appoint a successor from within the Society of Saint Pius X. Lefebvre insisted on three bishops rather than one, however, and that the date for ordination would be June 30.

The Vatican and Lefebvre continued to haggle, exchanging letters until June 15, when Lefebvre publicly announced that he would ordain his own successors. On June 30, 1988, despite further warnings from the Vatican, Lefebvre ordained four men as “bishops” who would lead his flock. This act brought down an automatic excommunication (latae sententiae) on Lefebvre and the four ordinands. They were no longer in communion with the Catholic Church and could neither receive nor administer the sacraments of the Church. The following day, Cardinal Bernardin Gantin Gantin, Bernardin of the Congregation of Bishops declared Lefebvre’s excommunication. In a papal motu proprio on July 2, John Paul II confirmed Lefebvre’s excommunication for schism and for having consecrated bishops. On July 3, the Vatican publicly warned Lefebvre’s followers, clergy and laity alike, that they could be formally excommunicated for standing by Lefebvre and his movement.


Pope John Paul II’s excommunication of Marcel Lefebvre was a reaction to Lefebvre’s deliberate challenge to the power and authority of the papacy. In the twentieth century, that power and authority extended no further than the bounds of the Church, its leaders and members. Lefebvre, like other members of the traditionalist wing of the Catholic Church, resented the post-Vatican II liberalization of the Church, its movement toward Protestantism and secularism, and its ecumenical rapprochement with non-Christian religions. He rejected the spirit and much of the detail of the 1983 redaction of the Code of Canon Law, which reflected progressive elements of Vatican II. Lefebvre had long criticized all these aspects of late twentieth century Catholicism and had been punished with a suspension of his episcopal duties by Pope Paul VI. Only in directly usurping the authority of the pope to ordain new bishops, however, did he finally force the papacy’s hand. John Paul acted to preserve the pope’s prerogatives and to recognize Lefebvre’s act formally as schismatic—that is, as an act that severed him from communion with the Church.

The excommunication was juridical in nature and had little impact on Lefebvre’s movement. Although many of Lefebvre’s followers abandoned the cause rather than adhere to an excommunicated schismatic, the bulk of them—perhaps a few hundred thousand and 250 priests—remained in defiance of the Vatican while awaiting the Church’s return to its “authentic” roots. Lefebvre died of cancer in 1991 without ever being reconciled with the Vatican. Roman Catholic Church;excommunication of Archbishop Lefebvre

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hebblethwaite, Peter. Pope John Paul II and the Church. New York: Sheed & Ward, 1995. Contextualizes the pope’s action as part of a determination to bring both extreme conservative and extreme liberal Catholic teachers and pastors toward the middle mapped out by Vatican II.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lefebvre, Archbishop Marcel, and François Laisney. Archbishop Lefebvre and the Vatican, 1987-1988. 2d ed. Kansas City, Mo.: Angelus Press, 1998. Collection of theological and ecclesiastical documents concerning the Vatican’s relation with Lefebvre dated between June, 1987, and December, 1988. Most have no introductions; Laisney provides a brief preface. The collection itself and brief notes about the documents were prepared by pro-Lefebvre advocates.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Nemeth, Charles P. The Case of Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre: Trial by Canon Law. Kansas City, Mo.: Angelus Press, 1994. Presents a legal defense of Lefebvre’s actions following the Code of Canon Law and its recent interpretation.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Seidler, John, and Katherine Meyer. Conflict and Change in the Catholic Church. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1989. Provides brief discussion of Lefebvre’s excommunication as a part of John Paul’s attempt to rein in ecclesiological dissent.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Tissier de Mallerais, Bishop Bernard. Marcel Lefebvre: The Biography. Kansas City, Mo.: Angelus Press, 2004. Full-length biography of the controversial figure by a French bishop who is a member of the archbishop’s movement.

Means Is Ordained by the American Episcopal Church

John Paul II Becomes Pope

First Woman Conservative Rabbi Is Ordained

Pope John Paul II Issues an Environmental Message

Categories: History