ASK FATHER: Could the excommunication of Archbp. Lefebvre be lifted posthumously?

From a reader…


Was the excommunication of Archbishop LeFebvre lifted? Is it possible to do so posthumously?

The excommunication imposed on Archbp. Lefebvre by the law itself (latae sententiae) and also declared by the Congregation for Bishops was not lifted before he died.

There are those who claim that Lefebvre was not ever really excommunicated because there were attenuating circumstances as described in can. 1323, §4, that is, if a person commits an act that incurs the censure was acting out of fear or out of necessity. Lefebvre clearly feared that his work and vision would end with his death because there were no other bishops to carry on and he clearly thought it was necessary to consecrate bishops. Others would argue that those weren’t adequate. But it seems that it’s what Lefebvre was thinking that matters and canon law has to be interpreted in a way that favors the person in question.

In any event, the Congregation for Bishops issued a decree stating that all the bishops involved in the 1988 consecration had incurred the excommunication that results from consecrating bishops without the mandate of the Holy See.

Is it possible to lift the excommunication posthumously?


As a matter of fact, a modern example of this occurred in 1965.  At the time of the Great Schism back in 1054, in super complicated circumstances, there were mutual excommunications between Westerners and Easterners, Latins and Byzantines.   At the time of Vatican II, the Orthodox Patriarch Athenagoras I of Constantinople and Paul VI mutually lifted the excommunications.

If Paul VI could lift the excommunications from the time of the 11th century, then a Pope could lift Lefebvre’s excommunication posthumously.    It could be a good, healing gesture as a matter of fact.

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  1. Thomas S says:


    Presumably Archbishop Lefebvre received Last Rites. Would absolution not have lifted the excommunication when he was in danger of death? Or would that have required deliberate repentance specifically for the consecrations themselves?

  2. Thomas:

    Would the Last Rites given in danger of death have lifted the excommunication?   Possibly.

    The older form of absolution runs in English (though it must be pronounced in Latin):

    May our Lord Jesus Christ absolve you; and I, by His authority, absolve you from every bond of excommunication [for clerics suspension] and interdict, in as much as I am able and you require. + Thereupon, I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, + and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

    “in as much as I am able” is key.  If a person commits an act that winds up in an excommunication the lifting of which is reserved to the Holy See (or by a confessor to whom the Holy See has given that faculty), then in normal circumstances a confessor can’t lift the excommunication and the penitent can’t receive absolution.   That’s why in the older form of absolution you see the business about excommunication, suspension (for clerics) and interdict BEFORE absolution from sins.  The censure has to be lifted before the sins are absolved.

    Given that, we turn to the 1983 Code of Canon Law:

    Can. 976 Even though a priest lacks the faculty to hear confessions, he absolves validly and licitly any penitents whatsoever in danger of death from any censures and sins, even if an approved priest is present.

    This means a couple of things. 

    Even if there is a priest in good standing right there with a dying person, when there is danger of death even a laicized priest is given – by the law itself and the attendant situation – the faculty validly to absolve. 

    And note that the canon does NOT say, something like “any censures except those reserved to the Holy See”.   It says, “in danger of death any censures”.   From this we surmise that, were the Archbp., when in danger of death, absolved with the older form, his censure would have been lifted, he would have been absolved and probably given the Apostolic Pardon as well. 

    St. Marcel Lefebvre?

  3. cathgrl says:

    Well, Joan of Arc was excommunicated before she was martyred …

  4. Dan says:

    “St. Marcel Lefebvre?“

    I truly believe that one day, probably not in my lifetime, he will be officially canonized by the Church.

  5. Cicero_NOLA says:

    Would such a posthumous declaration be analogous to a decree of nullity, i.e. “there never was a valid excommunication”? Or is it saying, “this person is no longer excommunicated starting today”? I suppose it depends on the wording of the declaration.

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  7. robtbrown says:


    If there hadn’t been an excommunication, then how could someone be loosed (absolved) from it?

    Are you in the Crescent City?

  8. dallenl says:

    I have the greatest sympathy for Fr. Lefebvre but feel he should have presented his struggle from within and in union with Rome. I would note that there seems little penalty attached to those on the left who promote their heterodox ideas. Surely someone on the opposite side could be extended the same courtesy. In any event, it is my understanding that Fr. Lefebvre did reach out prior to his death and that Rome was considering a way in which some sort of accommodation could have been made. Unfortunately, nothing was finalized before his death.

  9. matt from az says:

    I, too, believe that someday Archbishop Lefebvre will be exonerated and canonized.
    Unlikely to happen any time soon, but that’s what prayers are for.

  10. Uxixu says:

    While I find it really hard to fault Abp. Lefebvre before 1988, the personal appeal of the reigning pope to not go through with it shouldn’t just be ignored. Nor should the idea that the mandate is a trivial technicality instead of a major part of the traditional rite.

    Fidelity magazine had a piece where they demonstrated that it unfortunately appeared Abp. Lefebvre had little intention of ever going through with the protocol he signed. He had spent the previous year clearing out SSPX leadership who publicly stated that it would be schismatic. Fr Bisig, for example, was rector of the seminary and Fr. Baumann was also in leadership. Further, the Winona consecrations had been delayed for fear a prominent lay donor would withdraw support and the consecrations were done only a week or two after the deed closed (and indeed the donor appears to have withdrawn support after that).

    We should recognize there were multiple facets at work. Was the Curia jerking him around on the date? He certainly had good reason to distrust the Curia after being treated so miserably (and canonically illegally) by Cardinal Villot amongst others, which is why Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei was created of course. The same Fidelity piece pointed out the problem probably wasn’t when but who. They presumably had dossiers on all the candidates (presumably the four selected were on the list and all probably had some of the less cautious statements of the Archbishop’s they had echoed which are still popular in trad circles from Freemasonic infiltration to apostasy. Could a pope ever issue to a mandate who had even hinted he believed such a thing?

    It is interesting to ponder what might have been if John Paul II stepped in personally was able to assuage the concerns and give him a date to keep and that had Abp. Lefebvre kept the protocol and got his single bishop. Would friendly bishops have invited SSPX in when instead they were wary of association? Would John Paul II have issued something like Summorum Pontificum in 1988 following the advice of his commission of cardinals? It probably wouldn’t have helped places like Los Angeles or Chicago, that’s for sure… though the Protocol included an amnesty for all current houses Perhaps he would have gotten a second or third later down the road.

    Would SSPX have splintered into a resistance faction sooner?

    Worth a read.

  11. TonyO says:

    I would love to see Archbishop Lefebvre exonerated. It would be immensely easier to do if someone came forward and explicitly said “I gave him the (above listed) absolution at the moment of death”. I seriously doubt that he will be canonized, because it would require the Vatican not only to admit that they completely mishandled the situation (which is more or less true), but ALSO attest that Lefebvre completely properly handled the situation, which is rather difficult, muddled, and arguably is NOT true. He was, clearly, a man of strong backbone, backed into a very unpleasant corner, who stuck to his position through thick and thin, which is much to be admired. But (arguably) a man more willing to compromise what may be compromised without sin might have accomplished more. (Admittedly, we’ll never know that: in this kind of situation, even hindsight isn’t 20-20.) Because the facts on the ground are muddled, there will always be detractors who will argue that some of the difficult situation was brought on by Lefebvre’s own intransigence (i.e. some lack of prudence), and therefore the evidence for heroic virtue is somewhat undermined.

    I thank God I have not been put into such tight circumstances, and pray that I never will. Fortunately, there are many, many saints in heaven who are not and never will be canonized, and I hope Lefebvre is there whether we ever figure it out here below.

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