“We are a Disruptive Factor in the Church”
Your Excellency, how did you see your episcopal consecration 30 years ago? Was this for you a definitive separation of the SSPX from Rome or an intermediate stage in a conflict in which you had reconciliation in mind?
If it had been a matter of separation from Rome then I would not be here today. The Archbishop would not have consecrated me for that, and I would have refused. It was not about separating from the Church, but about separating from the modern spirit, from the fruits of the Council. Others are now also admitting that something went wrong. Many ideas and aspects that we fought and are still fighting today, are now also affirmed by others. We never claimed that the Council made direct heretical statements. But the wall of protection against error has been removed and in this way error has been allowed to spread. The faithful need protection. This is what the constant struggle of the Church Militant boils down to, to defend the faith.
But not everyone who criticizes the "Council of the Media", and this includes the emeritus Pope Benedict XVI, is prepared to push the conflict to the point of excommunication. Why did you not strengthen the ranks of the faithful within the Church and fight for the truth in unity with Rome?
This is certainly partly due to the history of the French. Since the French Revolution a good part of French Catholics have been fighting against the error of liberalism. That is why the events during and after the Council were perceived much more sensitively and attentively over there than in Germany. It was not about blatant errors, but about tendencies, about opening doors and windows. The reforms that followed have shown this more clearly than the Council itself. Hence the problem was crystallized in the new Mass. In Rome Archbishop Lefebvre was told: "Either – or. Just celebrate the new Mass once, and everything is ok." Our arguments against the new Mass were not taken into account. Plus, the missal of Paul VI was written with the collaboration of Protestant theologians. When they pressure people to celebrate this Mass, then there truly is a problem. And we were pressured.
Did your refusal of the new Mass strengthen you and Archbishop Lefebvre’s conviction that the separation from Rome is God's will?
I insist : we never separated ourselves from the church.
Surely, the fact of excommunication speaks for itself. Why else did Pope Benedict XVI have to lift them?
In Catholic [Canon] law of 1917, an episcopal consecration without a mandate from the Pope is not considered a schismatic act, but only an abuse of power, and certainly not [grounds for] excommunication. All of Church history has a different view of the problem of episcopal consecrations that take place without a mandate from the Pope. This is very important.
Why is this so important? In 1988 the new Code of the Church was already in force, and the 1917 CIC [Code of Canon Law] also obliged the bishop to be faithful to the Holy See.
We were in an emergency, for Rome had promised us a bishop. The meeting between Cardinal Ratzinger and Archbishop Lefebvre on 5 May 1988 was about the consecration date. Archbishop Lefebvre and Cardinal Ratzinger could not come to an agreement. Archbishop Lefebvre put his suggestion forward. I am sure that if Cardinal Ratzinger had confirmed August 15 as the date of ordination without changing the candidate, the Archbishop would have agreed. But the date remained open. When Archbishop Lefebvre asked the Cardinal "why not at the end of the year?" he received the answer: "I don't know, I can't tell you." So the Archbishop thought they were playing [tricks] with him. That certainly played a part in the mistrust. And mistrust is still a key word in our history. We are working on that, to overcome this, but then something else comes up - it's really tedious.
Editor's note: The Pope emeritus told the editors that he did not remember the details, but that he was quite sure that the matter of personnel only played a less important role. John Paul II had firmly agreed on an episcopal consecration. Setting a date was not his (Cardinal Ratzinger's) job. Archbishop Lefebvre had signed the protocol at the end of the meeting, which - if he had stuck to his “yes’ - would have meant an agreement. An employee of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith visited Lefebvre in Albano the following day to pick up the paper. To everyone's dismay, Lefebvre explained that he had not been able to sleep all night and that he had come to the realization that in reality they only wanted to use an agreement in order to destroy his work.
Why did Cardinal Ratzinger, an acknowledged specialist and promoter of Catholic Tradition and a friend of the Traditional Mass, why did he not manage to dispel the Archbishop's mistrust?
He did not understand how deep the Archbishop’s motives and the uncertainty of the faithful and priests were. Many people simply had enough of the post-conciliar scandals and abuses, like the way and manner in which the new Mass was celebrated. If Cardinal Ratzinger had understood us, he would not have acted like he did. And I think that he regretted it. This is why as Pope he tried to make up for the damage with his Motu Proprio and the lifting of the excommunications. We are truly grateful for his reconciliation attempts.
But Cardinal Ratzinger, as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, also had to consider the difficulties and irritations of the other faithful: "It is irritating for example, that the SSPX disagrees with others on such essential points as the question of the validity of the [new] Mass. Some of your followers are of the opinion that their Sunday obligation is not fulfilled by attending what they consider to be the "heretical" new Mass.
I have to strongly disagree: we do speak of the invalidity of many [new] Masses, but to claim that all [new] Masses are invalid, that is not the line of the SSPX. We never said that. In our discussion with Rome we have always pointed out that we recognize the validity of the new Mass when it is celebrated according to the books and with the intention of doing what the Church is meant to do. A distinction must be made between valid and good.
What is this difference in your opinion?
The new Mass is flawed and contains hidden dangers. Of course, not every new Mass is openly scandalous, but the repeated celebration of the new Mass leads to a weakened faith or even to the loss of faith. Every day you can see how fewer and fewer priests still believe in the real presence. In the old Mass, the liturgy nourishes the faith; one goes to the rock, one is strengthened in this faith; certain actions help us along in our faith, for example in our belief in the real presence, in sacrifice – for example, simply through kneeling, through silence, thought the priest’s composure. With the new Mass you have to bring faith yourself, you hardly receive anything directly from the rite. The rite is flat.
But even before the liturgical reform there were priests with a weak faith, modernists and heretics. The liberal Council Fathers you criticized all grew up with the old Mass and were consecrated in the old rite. Do you consider conversions, which today also come through the new Mass, do you consider these Nightfever, self-deceptions?
No, I'm not saying that. All I'm saying is, if you receive a president and you have a choice between a silver trumpet and a tin trumpet, would you use the tin trumpet? That would be an insult, you don't do that. And even the best new Masses are like tin trumpets compared to the old liturgy. For Our Lord, you have to choose the best.
In a recent sermon you said: "How could they say such a poor, empty and flat Mass? You can't honor God like that." The new Mass is still the most precious thing in the lives of Catholic believers, and even today the Church produces martyrs and saints. Why do you not differentiate in your preaching?
I agree that in theological discussion one must make distinctions. But in a sermon you can't present everything so theologically. It takes a bit of rhetoric to shake souls a little, to wake people up and to open their eyes.
Pope Francis wants to offer the SSPX his hand of reconciliation. Are you still counting on an agreement or has this Kairos [critical and opportune moment] been missed?
I am optimistic. But I can't bring the hour of God forward. If the Holy Spirit is able to influence the present Pope, then he can also do this with the next one. This is what actually happened. Likewise with Pope Francis. When Pope Francis was elected, I thought: now comes the excommunication. But the opposite happened: Cardinal Müller wanted to obtain our excommunication and Pope Francis rejected that idea. He told me personally: "I will not judge you!" Reconciliation will come. Our Mother Church is incredibly torn at the moment. The Conservatives want us, and they said so in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. But the German bishops do not want us at all. Rome must deal with all these elements – and we understand that. If we were taken on board just like that, war would break out in the church. There is this fear that we may triumph. Pope Francis told journalists: "I will see to it that this will not be a triumph for you."
But there are also tensions and fears within the SSPX. In France, several priests and laity have separated from the SSPX because the negotiations with the Vatican have already caused mistrust. How would the SSPX cope with a reconciliation with Rome?
That will depend on what Rome asks of us. If they let us continue like we are, and if they give us enough guarantees - then nobody would leave. The mistrust is based on fear, of having to accept something new. If we're asked to follow a new path, no one would come.
What makes you so sure that everyone would come along? Even just the announcement of the talks has already triggered a massive unrest and an exodus. What outcome could reassure your followers? That suspicion wouldn't just go away if an agreement were reached.
That's true. But the good is there, the goodwill. For years we have been working with Rome, to rebuild trust. And we have made very good progress, despite all the reactions. If we reach a reasonable agreement with normal conditions, very few would stay away. I have no great fear of a new division in tradition if the right thing is worked out with Rome. We may question certain points of the Council. Our discussion partners in Rome told us: "the main points - religious liberty, ecumenism, the new mass – they are all open questions". This is incredible progress. Until now it was: "you must obey". Meanwhile, members of the Curia tell us: "you should open a seminary in Rome, a university in defense of Tradition". It's not all black and white anymore.
What would be a sensible solution?
A personal prelature.
If the legal form has already been found and the talks in Rome have gone well, what has been the reason for the failure of the decisive step so far?
Last year Archbishop Pozzo told us that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith had agreed to the text we were to sign. With that we would agree on a personal prelature. A month and a half later, Cardinal Müller decided to revise the text and demand a clearer acceptance of the Council and the legitimacy of Holy [New?] Mass. At first, discussion paths were opened up to us, then they blocked them. What are we really being asked to do? This is the devil at work. It is a spiritual battle.
Do you personally trust the Holy Father Pope Francis?
We have a very good relationship. Whenever we let him know that we're in Rome, the door to him will be open for us. He's always helping us on a smaller level. For example, he told us: "I have problems whenever I do something good to you. I help Protestants and Anglicans – so why can't I help the Catholics?" Many people want to prevent the agreement. We're a disruptive factor in the church. And the Pope stands in the middle.
(smiles and shows a handwritten letter written in French by the Holy Father to him, which begins with the salutation: Cher frere, cher fils - dear brother, dear son).