“What does it mean for the Church to be visible?”
Archbishop Lefebvre and the Conciliar Church – John Lane (edited and expanded by The WM Review)
Editor’s comment: Whatever some may think about Archbishop Lefebvre, his thoughts, words, and deeds, it is clear that he was an enormously significant figure in the twentieth century response to Vatican II. Hence, while he is not an authority, what he thought about the Conciliar Church is an interesting and important topic in its own right.
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This is Part III of an essay by John Lane – and this part has been very extensively edited and expanded, with permission, by S.D. Wright. Originally published on the St Robert Bellarmine Forums as a printable PDF here. Image is from Wikicommons.
We have seen that Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre repeatedly used language indicating that he believed the following things:
- There exists a body of men who can be denoted as the “Conciliar Church”
- This Conciliar Church is a separate body to the Catholic Church.
In this final piece we will consider the second claim again from a different perspective.
Vatican I taught that:
“God, through his only begotten Son, founded the Church, and he endowed his institution with clear notes to the end that she might be recognized by all as the guardian and teacher of the revealed word.”
The Council then teaches that these notes or marks are those mentioned in the Creed, namely unity, holiness, sanctity and apostolicity. This is the teaching of all Catholic theologians and it would be superfluous to provide authorities for this point.
As such, the true Church of Christ is identified from among other claimants as the body of men which possesses these marks. The Roman Catholic Church alone possesses them and is thus identifiable as the true Church. Further, those bodies of men which lack even one of these marks show themselves by that fact not to be the Church established by Christ.
In this part we shall consider what Archbishop Lefebvre said and wrote about these four marks and the Conciliar Church, and the implications for those who remain entangled with this body. In this part, we will prescind from the question as to whether the Conciliar Church is a true society or something else, and consider merely whether the Archbishop did or did not believe that it remained the true and visible Catholic Church.
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Visibility of the Church
What does it mean for the Church to be visible? As mentioned, and explained at length elsewhere, the four marks are the chief means by which the Church of Christ is identified as such from other claimants. They are also the principle means by which the Church is rendered visible. For more on this true meaning of the Church’s visibility, see here.
We can take the words of the great theologian Louis Cardinal Billot, as a typical explanation of how these four marks relate to the visibility of the Church:
“First of all the visibility of the Catholic Church is unshaken, to the extent that it is the true Church of God. This kind of visibility is the visibility of believability from the four marks which we discussed earlier, by which it is clear that we should believe by faith that this is the only legitimate and genuine religion out of all the religious societies in the world.”
Not all of these marks are to be understood in the same way, and must be understood in the sense that the theologians define them. For example, unity is what is known as a “negative note”: Salaverri explains that if one were to find an organisation lacking the unity which the Church must enjoy, and experiencing a degree of disunity incompatible with this, “by that very fact it is known that it is not the true Church of Christ.” The theologian Berry compares it to a shape that lacks four sides: by that lack, we know that it is not a square. For more on the Church’s visible unity of faith, see here.
All this was clearly recognised and applied by Archbishop Lefebvre in the final years of his life when he addressed the question of the visibility of the Conciliar Church, appearing to occupy so many of the Catholic Church’s structures.
Archbishop Lefebvre and the Four Marks
In a 1989 interview, one year after the episcopal consecrations, Archbishop Lefebvre discussed the distinction between the Conciliar Church and the Catholic Church in terms of the four marks and the visibility of the Church:
“To stay inside the Church, or to put oneself inside the Church – what does that mean? Firstly, what Church are we talking about? If you mean the Conciliar Church, then we who have struggled against the Council for twenty years because we want the Catholic Church, we would have to re-enter this Conciliar Church in order, supposedly, to make it Catholic. That is a complete illusion. It is not the subjects that make the superiors, but the superiors who make the subjects. […]
“This talk about the ‘visible Church’ on the part of Dom Gerard and Mr. Madiran is childish. It is incredible that anyone can talk of the ‘visible Church’, meaning the Conciliar Church as opposed to the Catholic Church which we are trying to represent and continue. I am not saying that we are the Catholic Church. I have never said so. No one can reproach me with ever having wished to set myself up as pope. But, we truly represent the Catholic Church such as it was before, because we are continuing what it always did. It is we who have the notes of the visible Church: One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic. That is what makes the visible Church.”
The year before, Archbishop Lefebvre had made the following remarks explicitly linking the four marks and the visibility of the Church, later published in Fideliter:
“You continue, and you really represent, the Church: the Catholic Church. I think you need to be convinced of this: you really represent the Catholic Church.
“Not that there is no Church outside of us; that is not the point. But lately we have been told that it is necessary for Tradition to enter the visible Church. I think that this is a very, very serious mistake. Where is the visible Church? The visible Church is recognized by the signs she has always given for her visibility: she is one, holy, catholic and apostolic.
“I ask you: where are the true marks of the Church? Are they more in the official Church (I am not talking about the ‘visible Church,’ I am talking about the ‘official Church’) or in us, in what we represent, what we are?”
He then explains at length the nature of the four marks and where they are and are not found today:
“It is clear that it is we who keep the unity of the faith, which has disappeared from the official Church. One bishop believes in this, the other does not, the faith is diverse, their abominable catechisms contain heresies. Where is the unity of faith in Rome?
“Where is the unity of faith in the world? It is we who have kept it. The unity of faith realised in the whole world, this is Catholicity. Now, this unity of faith in the whole world no longer exists [for them], so there is practically no longer any Catholicity [there]. There will soon be as many “Catholic Churches” as there are bishops and dioceses. Each one has its own way of seeing things, of thinking, of preaching, of doing its catechism. There is no longer any Catholicity [for them].
“Apostolicity? They have broken with the past. If they have done anything, it is this. They no longer want what happened before the Second Vatican Council. Look at the motu proprio of the Pope condemning us, he says: “Vatican II is the living Tradition.” We must not go back to before Vatican II, it does not mean anything. The Church carries Tradition with her from century to century. What is past is past, gone. All of Tradition is found in today’s Church. What is this Tradition? To what is it linked? How does it relate to the past? […]
“And then, holiness. We are not going to praise ourselves. If we don’t want to consider ourselves, let’s consider others and let’s consider the fruits of our apostolate, the fruits of vocations, of our religious and also in Christian families. Good and holy Christian families are sprouting thanks to your apostolate. It is a fact, no one denies it. Even our progressive visitors from Rome have noted the good quality of our work. When Bishop Perl said to the Sisters of Saint-Pré and Fanjeaux that it is on bases like theirs that the Church must be rebuilt, this is no small compliment.”
He concludes, speaking about the Society of St Pius X, but – as is clear from both of these texts – in an explicitly non-exclusive way:
“All this shows that it is we who have the marks of the visible Church. If there is still a visibility of the Church today, it is thanks to you. These signs are no longer found in others. There is no longer the unity of faith in them, and it is faith that is the basis of all visibility of the Church.
“Catholicity is faith that is one in space, apostolicity is faith that is one in time, and holiness is the fruit of faith, which is concretized in souls by the grace of God, by the grace of the sacraments. It is completely wrong to consider us as if we were not part of the visible church. It is unbelievable.”
The Archbishop therefore holds that the Conciliar Church lacks the four marks which identify the true Church. It is therefore proved for him: it is not the Catholic Church.
This inevitably gives rise to what can seem to be a terrifying question.
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Where is the Church?
Archbishop Lefebvre held that these marks are manifested by the Society of St Pius X, and therefore at least they continue to represent the visible Catholic Church – again, not exclusively, but substantially.
What does this distinction mean? It means that while the SSPX is, in the Archbishop’s mind, certainly a part of the Catholic Church and continuing the Catholic Church, it does not constitute the Church herself. Where else would the Church then be?
Let us ask first: What is the Church? The Church is the body of all of those who profess the true faith, share the same sacraments and sacrifice, and are subject to the Roman Pontiff. Subjection to the Roman Pontiff means obeying his laws, above all else. In other words, the Catholic Church is her members, rightly ordered. This body of men will manifest the four marks – not individually, but collectively.
This definition corresponds to the classical criteria for someone to be a Catholic, which was confirmed by Pius XII in his encyclical Mystici Corporis Christi:
“Only those are to be included as members of the Church who have been baptized and profess the true faith, and who have not been so unfortunate as to separate themselves from the unity of the Body, or been excluded by legitimate authority for grave faults committed.”
One who meets these criteria is a Catholic, by definition.
We can immediately observe that those who separate themselves from the unity of the body – for example, by adhering to the programme of the Conciliar Church – are excluded by this definition. We can also note that such persons can hardly constitute “legitimate authorities” able to exclude those who remain Catholic.
We say again, one who meets the criteria given by Pius XII above is a Catholic, by definition.
We know well that there exists in the world an obvious body of men – men who do meet these criteria, who are at least trying to be subject to the popes from before Vatican II, seriously endeavouring to believe and profess externally what the Church has always taught, openly rejecting the errors of Vatican II (both explicitly and implicitly), and likewise disregarding the problematic parts of the New Code of Canon Law and Conciliar liturgical laws (such as they exist). This body of men continues, for example, to assist at the old Mass, fast in Lent, abstain from meat on Fridays, and refuse to engage in joint worship with non-Catholics.
It is clear that the body of men just discussed continue to be Catholics – whatever group with whom they happen to be associated in this chaotic time. But the Catholic Church just is the body of men that meets this description; and taken as a whole, this body does manifests these marks, even if in a somewhat diminished or obscured way – and thus the terror of the question falls aside.
What of “Novus Ordo Catholics”?
We previously noted that Archbishop Lefebvre contrasted the apostates from the French hierarchy with two other classes of men who remained associated with the Conciliar Church.
” [T]here is in France, an extraordinary resistance on the part of many priests, the faithful, and very many young Catholics. This is a great hope. The Catholic Church survives and is organizing itself against the persecution of the Conciliar Revolution. […]
 “Many other bishops among those nominated before Vatican II are with us in their heart, but they do not dare to express this publicly.”
Clearly in the Archbishop’s mind, at least the first group (if not the second) remained Catholic despite being associated with the Conciliar Church. Whether this is accurate or not, or tenable then or today, is a separate question. But we see here again, that the Conciliar Church, as he spoke of it, consists of apostates from the Catholic Church, acting as a foreign body obscuring the true Church and her members, with which it is to a significant extent “entangled”.
Some – not, as we have shown, Archbishop Lefebvre – treat the term “the Conciliar Church” as if it refers to “everyone who is not a traditionalist”. But this does not consider the very great degree to which the Church may appear to be distorted and disfigured in the absence of her principle of unity, the Roman Pontiff. But the absence of the Roman Pontiff – however one wants to interpret the word “absence” – is itself the essence of the crisis. As Romano Amerio put it in his classic book Iota Unum:
“The external fact is the disunity of the Church, visible in the disunity of the bishops among themselves, and with the Pope. […] The internal fact producing [this disunity] is the renunciation that is, the non-functioning, of papal authority itself, from which the renunciation of all other authority derives.”
One can read the Archbishop’s glowing endorsement of Amerio’s book and analysis here.
The many men who have openly defected from the Catholic Church, perhaps by adhering to the Conciliar Church, are no longer Catholics. This is so, even if the renunciation of papal authority means that they have not yet been expelled: in any case, such expulsions would merely be confirmations of things which had already happened, and not the cause of their intrinsic effects.
Now, we should be clear that under certain circumstances – i.e. “the renunciation of papal authority” – the clarity of the Church’s marks and her other perfections may be accidentally diminished. This is markedly different to the loss of the four marks that the Archbishop believed the Conciliar Church to have suffered. The absence of authority can make it hard to say what is truly authorised and what is forbidden, as well as who is a Catholic and who isn’t – even among the hierarchy. However, to posit that this obscurity or difficulty means that non-Catholics remain a part of the Church is something different: it is to posit the loss rather than diminution of visibility and the mark of unity.
This is important because there appear to be some (or perhaps many) men who outwardly practice the New Religion in some elements, such as attending the New Mass – and yet only do so because they believe that it is required by (specifically) the Roman Catholic Church. They remain Catholic in their faith, and would immediately reject these things if the Roman Catholic Church were to condemn them.
Many such men substantially fulfil the classical criteria discussed for membership in the Catholic Church. In other words, they are Catholics (at least probably so). They are, nonetheless, in a dangerous position. Like all of those associated with the Conciliar Church, they at least verbally subject themselves to the Conciliar popes – whom we, of course, believe are illegitimate – even if this has little effect on their actual profession of faith. This submission is generally unreal, and does not meet the definition of submission to the pope found in Catholic theology. The reason that it is dangerous is that if it is ever reduced to practice it will result in a corresponding change of religion.
Such men mistakenly take the Conciliar Church to be the Roman Catholic Church: but this is a different type of mistake to an Eastern Schismatic or an Anglican. With the latter two, there is no sense at all that it is the Roman Catholic Church and the Roman Pontiff to which they must submit; with the first, it is the essence of their position. They are mistaken in fact about the legitimacy of these recent claimants, but many of those who are in good faith, despite the constant danger that their position may cause them to adhere to the Conciliar Church proper, remain members of the Church. Some of them obviously so, some of them less obviously so.
The presence of Catholics erring in good faith, entangled with the Conciliar Church, may go some way to explaining why the traditional clergy have generally not required abjurations of heresy from those coming from the Novus Ordo. Without positive reason to suppose that some specific individual was a non-Catholic – perhaps shown by what Archbishop Lefebvre specified, namely visibly deliberate adherence to the programme of the new religion at the expense of the old – what would be the reason to impose an abjuration?
Absent a declaration by authority that the “New Church” is a sect, which would establish a universal presumption in law, each case must be judged on its merits by the priest on the spot. This is indeed the practice that has generally been followed since Vatican II by traditional priests. This topic is worthy of further study, and some of these points may need to be made good in a separate essay.
To draw these points together, we can now answer the question. Where is the Church? She is where she always has been. In the Archbishop’s writing, those who have separated themselves and adhered to the Conciliar Church have left her, but she continues still as herself, as the body of all of those baptised men that profess the true faith, share the same sacraments and sacrifice, and have not separated themselves from the unity of the body or been excluded by legitimate authority
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How then do we avoid the danger enunciated by Fr. Simoulin in the second part, that these terms, the “Conciliar Church” and “Modernist Rome” may become “a source of terrible confusion and may breed a Manicheism (or over-simplification) in which the understanding of the Church, faith in the divinity and a simple sense of the supernatural would be the first victims”?
The answer would seem to be simple enough, and it is the Archbishop’s answer: the Church will be eclipsed. An eclipse is the placement of one body before another, so that the second is obscured. The obscured body is still exactly what it was, and where it was before the eclipse, and will emerge in due course.
Three weeks before he died, he wrote the preface for a book by Fr Giulio Tam. In this, his last published text, Archbishop Lefebvre declared his belief in the prophecy of Our Lady of La Salette and applied it to his time:
“The collection sheds such brilliant light on the doctrinal Revolution officially inaugurated in the Church during the Council and continued up to our days that one cannot help thinking of the “seat of iniquity” foretold by Leo XIII, or of Rome losing the faith foretold by Our Lady at La Salette.”
The apocalyptic references in this document underline the severity of the crisis in the Church. To repeat, Archbishop Lefebvre believed in the prophecy of La Salette relating to Rome losing the faith and becoming the seat of Antichrist.
Is it outlandish and fanciful to claim that a false sect has separated itself, and is obscuring and being taken to represent the Catholic Church? While we are not asserting that the following are fully reflective of the situation today, these excerpts from a seminary text by an American priest between the wars reflect the possibilities that have been considered by theologians:
“The prophecies of the Apocalypse show that Satan will imitate the Church of Christ to deceive mankind; he will set up a church of Satan in opposition to the Church of Christ. Antichrist will assume the role of Messias; his prophet will act the part of Pope, and there will be imitations of the Sacraments of the Church. There will also be lying wonders in imitation of the miracles wrought in the Church.” 
“[T]here seems to be no reason why a false Church might not become universal, even more universal than the true one, at least for a time.”
The state of the Catholic Church in the post-Vatican II era is a deep and abiding mystery. It is unsurprising that there exist numerous and radically differing theories which attempt to explain it. Nor is it surprising that Archbishop Lefebvre himself wavered somewhat, at least in emphasis, between several of those theories. What I think all of those who recognise his greatness can agree upon, is that his honesty, candour, and courage in the face of such an impenetrable mystery was unsurpassed. We owe him an incalculable debt of gratitude for his words as well as his actions, both of which shed a great deal of light on the Passion of the Mystical Body of Christ.
Archbishop Lefebvre and the Conciliar Church – John Lane (edited and expanded by The WM Review)
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 Vatican I, ‘Session 3: 24 April 1870 Dogmatic constitution on the catholic faith’ Chapter III no. 10. Available at: https://www.papalencyclicals.net/councils/ecum20.htm
 Cardinal Louis Billot SJ, Selections from Tractatus de Ecclesia, by various translators. Document received by the WM Review 2021. This text falls in Question 7, just before the start of Thesis XI.
 We include here the footnote from Part II of S.D. Wright’s study on the visible unity of the Church: “Salaverri, The Church of Christ 493. E. Sylvester Berry, The Church of Christ, B. Herder Book Co. London 1927. p 147. See also: Salaverri 1212: “b) Negative, that is, having a negative function, it is that by which, when it is discovered to be lacking in a Christian society, by that very fact it is known that it is not the true Church of Christ.” And also 1218: “A proof from the Notes by way of exclusion is reduced to this: These four Notes cannot be lacking in the true Church. But they are not lacking in the Roman Catholic Church, while they are lacking in all the other Christian societies. Therefore only the Roman Catholic Church is the true Church of Christ. This is a proof which proceeds from the definition of a negative Note, which is in the major proposition, but it is equivalent to a demonstration from the positive Notes for the Roman Catholic Church, because all other Christian societies are excluded.” Cf. also Berry 152: “If we take unity of faith, worship, and government, regardless of truth or legitimacy, we have only a negative mark. Any Church lacking unity in these things cannot be the true Church of Christ […] Unity, considered in itself, is merely a negative mark, yet it has always had the force of a positive mark due to the fact that unity in any form has always been found in one church alone.” Cf. Also Sylvester Hunter, Outlines of Dogmatic Theology Vol I 3rd edition, Benzinger Bros 1894, p 316. Van Noort II 159. Fenton 18.10
 Archbishop Lefebvre, Interview One Year After the Consecrations, published in Fideliter, July-August 1989. Available here: https://web.archive.org/save/http://archives.sspx.org/archbishop_lefebvre/one_year_after_the_consecrations.htm
 Archbishop Lefebvre, September 9 1988. Published in Fideliter, N° 66 November-December 1988. Translation by the WM Review with the assistance of DeepL. This text is extremely difficult to find in full, nonetheless we have in our possession photographs of this issue of Fideliter. Extracts of it are available in French here: https://www.amissfs.com/textes-publies/la-visibilite-de-leglise-par-mgr-lefebvre
 Interview with Don McLean, Editor of Catholic, January 1986. Available at: https://web.archive.org/web/20211220231215/http://www.sspxasia.com/Documents/Archbishop-Lefebvre/Interview_With_Archbishop_Lefebvre_Jan_86.htm
 Romano Amerio, Iota Unum – A study of the changes in the Catholic Church in the XXth century, Sarto House, Kansas City MO, 1996. 143.
 At any rate, the state of doubt of what to do for such persons “coming to tradition” does not disprove the other points made here.
 Legitimate is an important qualifier: men who have defected from the Church can hardly be said to have the power to exclude Catholics from the body that they have left.
 In this crisis of the Church, let us remain truly ROMAN Catholics, by Father Michel Simoulin, District Superior of the Society of Saint Pius X for Italy, Communicantes, May 2001. Available at: https://web.archive.org/web/20211220230400/http://fsspx.com/Communicantes/May2001/Let_us_remain_truly_ROMAN_Catholics.htm
 Preface to Fr. Giulio Tam’s Documentation sur la Révolution dans l’Église, March 4, 1991. This is another text difficult to find in English, but available here in French: https://web.archive.org/web/20211220233149/https://laportelatine.org/formation/crise-eglise/rapports-rome-fsspx/presentation-du-premier-numero-de-la-documentation-sur-la-revolution-dans-leglise-du-4-mars-1991
 Ibid. 155.