Pope John Paul II

Apostolic letter given on July 2, 1988.

1. With great affliction the church has learned of the unlawful episcopal ordination conferred on June 30 by Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, which has frustrated all the efforts made during the previous years to ensure the full communion with the church of the Priestly Society of St. Pius X founded by the same Archbishop Lefebvre. These efforts, especially intense during recent months, in which the Apostolic See has shown comprehension to the limits of the possible, were all to no avail.[1]

2. This affliction was particularly felt by the successor of Peter, to whom in the first place pertains the guardianship of the unity of the church,[2] even though the number of persons directly involved in these events might be few, since every person is loved by God on his own account and has been redeemed by the blood of Christ shed on the cross for the salvation of all.

The particular circumstances, both objective and subjective, in which Archbishop Lefebvre acted provide everyone with an occasion for profound reflection and for a renewed pledge of fidelity to Christ and to his church.

3. In itself this act was one of disobedience to the Roman pontiff in a very grave matter and of supreme importance for the unity of the church, such as is the ordination of bishops whereby the apostolic succession is sacramentally perpetuated. Hence such disobedience—which implies in practice the rejection of the Roman primacy—constitutes a schismatic act.[3] In performing such an act, notwithstanding the formal canonical warning sent to them by the cardinal prefect of the Congregation for Bishops last June 17, Archbishop Lefebvre and the priests Bernard Fellay, Bernard Tissier de Mallerais, Richard Williamson and Alfonso de Galarreta have incurred the grave penalty of excommunication envisaged by ecclesiastical law.[4]

4. The root of this schismatic act can be discerned in an incomplete and contradictory notion of tradition. Incomplete, because it does not take sufficiently into account the living character of tradition, which, as the Second Vatican Council clearly taught, "comes from the apostles and progresses in the church with the help of the Holy Spirit.

There is a growth in insight into the realities and words that are being passed on. This comes about in various ways. It comes through the contemplation and study of believers, who ponder these things in their hearts. It comes from the intimate sense of spiritual realities which they experience. And it comes from the preaching of those who have received, along with their right of succession in the episcopate, the sure charism of truth."[5]

But especially contradictory is a notion of tradition which opposes the universal magisterium of the church possessed by the bishop of Rome and the body of bishops. It is impossible to remain faithful to the tradition while breaking the ecclesial bond with him to whom, in the person of the apostle Peter, Christ himself entrusted the ministry of unity in his church.[6]

5. Faced with the situation that has arisen, I deem it my duty to inform all the Catholic faithful of some aspects which this sad event has highlighted.

a) The outcome of the movement promoted by Archbishop Lefebvre can and must be, for all the Catholic faithful, a motive for sincere reflection concerning their own fidelity to the church's tradition, authentically interpreted by the ecclesiastical magisterium, ordinary and extraordinary, especially in the ecumenical councils from Nicaea to Vatican II. From this reflection all should draw a renewed and efficacious conviction of the necessity of strengthening still more their fidelity by rejecting erroneous interpretations and arbitrary and unauthorized applications in matters of doctrine, liturgy and discipline.

To the bishops especially it pertains, by reason of their pastoral mission, to exercise the important duty of a clear-sighted vigilance full of charity and firmness, so that this fidelity may be everywhere safeguarded.[7]

However, it is necessary that all the pastors and other faithful have a new awareness, not only of the lawfulness but also of the richness for the church of a diversity of charisms, traditions of spirituality and apostolate, which also constitutes the beauty unity in variety: of that blended "harmony" which the earthly church raises up to heaven under the impulse of the Holy Spirit.

b) Moreover, I should like to remind theologians and other experts in the ecclesiastical sciences that they should feel called upon to answer in the present circumstances.

Indeed, the extent and depth of the teaching of the Second Vatican Council call for a renewed commitment to deeper study in order to reveal clearly the council's continuity with tradition, especially in points of doctrine which, perhaps because they are new, have not yet been well understood by some sections of the church.

c) In the present circumstances I wish especially to make an appeal both solemn and heartfelt, paternal and fraternal, to all those who until now have been linked in various ways to the movement of Archbishop Lefebvre, that they may fulfill the grave duty of remaining united to the vicar of Christ in the unity of the Catholic Church and of ceasing their support in any way for that movement. Everyone should be aware that formal adherence to the schism is a grave offense against God and carries the penalty of excommunication decreed by the church's law.[8]

To all those Catholic faithful who feel attached to some previous liturgical and disciplinary forms of the Latin tradition, I wish to manifest my will to facilitate their ecclesial communion by means of the necessary measures to guarantee respect for their rightful aspirations. In this matter I ask for the support of the bishops and of all those engaged in the pastoral ministry in the church.

6. Taking account of the importance and complexity of the problems referred to in this document, by virtue of my apostolic authority I decree the following:

a) A commission is instituted whose task it will be to collaborate with the bishops, with the departments of the Roman Curia and with the circles concerned, for the purpose of facilitating full ecclesial communion of priests, seminarians, religious communities or individuals until now linked in various ways to the society founded by Archbishop Lefebvre who may wish to remain united to the successor of Peter in the Catholic Church while preserving their spiritual and liturgical traditions in the light of the protocol signed on last May 5 by Cardinal Ratzinger and Archbishop Lefebvre.

b) This commission is composed of a cardinal-president and other members of the Roman Curia, in a number that will be deemed opportune according to circumstances.

c) Moreover, respect must everywhere by shown for the feelings of all those who are attached to the Latin liturgical tradition by a wide and generous application of the directives already issued some time ago by the Apostolic See for the use of the Roman Missal according to the typical edition of 1962.[9]

7. As this year specially dedicated to the Blessed Virgin is now drawing to a close, I wish to exhort all to join in unceasing prayer, which the vicar of Christ, through the intercession of the mother of the church, addresses to the Father in the very words of the Son: "That they all may be one!"

Given at Rome, at St. Peter's, July 2, 1988, the 10th year of the Pontificate.

Two days following the illicit (but valid) ordinations of four bishops by Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, the document Ecclesia Dei Adflicta was issued. However, just 11 days later, the present Holy Father spoke some very direct words regarding the SSPX episcopal consecrations [which were the catalysts for this decree], placing them into the wider context of the crisis in the Church. Speaking as the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the future Pope Benedict addressed the National Conference of Chilean Bishops in Santiago.

“Without any doubt, the problem that Lefebvre has posed has not been concluded by the rupture of June 30th. It would be too simple to take refuge in a sort of triumphalism, and to think that this difficulty has ceased to exist from the moment in which the movement led by Lefebvre has separated itself by a clean break with the Church. A Christian never can, or should, take pleasure in a rupture.

"Even though it is absolutely certain the fault cannot be attributed to the Holy See, it is a duty for us to examine ourselves, as to what errors we have made, and which ones we are making even now. The criteria with which we judge the past in the Vatican II decree on ecumenism must be used -- as is logical -- to judge the present as well.

"One of the basic discoveries of the theology of ecumenism is that schisms can take place only when certain truths and certain values of the Christian faith are no longer lived and loved within the Church. The truth which is marginalized becomes autonomous, remains detached from the whole of the ecclesiastical structure, and a new movement then forms itself around it.

"We must reflect on this fact: that a large number of Catholics, far beyond the narrow circle of the Fraternity of Lefebvre, see this man as a guide, in some sense, or at least as a useful ally. It will not do to attribute everything to political motives, to nostalgia, or to cultural factors of minor importance.

"These causes are not capable of explaining the attraction which is felt even by the young, and especially by the young, who come from many quite different nations, and who are surrounded by completely distinct political and cultural realities. Indeed they show what is from any point of view a restricted and one-sided outlook; but there is no doubt whatever that a phenomenon of this sort would be inconceivable unless there were good elements at work here, which in general do not find sufficient opportunity to live within the Church of today.

"For all these reasons, we ought to see this matter primarily as the occasion for an examination of conscience. We should allow ourselves to ask fundamental questions, about the defects in the pastoral life of the Church, which are exposed by these events. Thus we will be able to offer a place within the Church to those who are seeking and demanding it, and succeed in destroying all reason for schism. We can make such schism pointless by renewing the interior realities of the Church. There are three points, I think, that it is important to think about.

"While there are many motives that might have led a great number of people to seek a refuge in the traditional liturgy, the chief one is that they find the dignity of the sacred preserved there.

"After the Council there were many priests who deliberately raised 'desacralization' to the level of a program, on the plea that the New Testament abolished the cult of the Temple: the veil of the Temple which was torn from top to bottom at the moment of Christ's death on the cross is, according to certain people, the sign of the end of the sacred. The death of Jesus, outside the City walls, that is to say, in the public world, is now the true religion. Religion, if it has any being at all, must have it in the nonsacredness of daily life, in love that is lived.

"Inspired by such reasoning, they put aside the sacred vestments; they have despoiled the churches as much as they could of that splendor which brings to mind the sacred; and they have reduced the liturgy to the language and the gestures of ordinary life, by means of greetings, common signs of friendship, and such things.”

For the complete text of Papa Ratzinger’s remarks, please go to



1. Cf. Informatory note of June 16, 1988; L'Osservatore Romano, English ed., June 27, 1988, pp. 1-2.

2. Cf. Vatican Council I, "Pastor Aeternus," Ch. 3; Denzinger-Schonmetzer 3060.

3. Cf. Code of Canon Law, Canon 751.

4. Cf.

ibid., Canon 1382.

5. Vatican Council II, "Dei Verbum," 8; cf. Vatican Council I, "Dei Filius," Ch. 4; DS 3020.

6. Cf. Mt. 16:18; Lk, 10:16; "Pastor Aeternus," Ch. 3; DS 3060.

7. Cf. Canon 386; Paul VI, "Quique Iam Anni," Dec. 8, 1970; "Acta Apostolicae Sedis" 63 (1971) pp. 97-106.

8. Cf. Canon 1364.

9. Cf. Congregation for Divine Worship, "Quattuor Abhinc Annos," Oct. 3, 1984; AAS 76 (1984) pp. 1088-1089.


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