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Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Was Archbishop Lefebvre Really Excommunicated?

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Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre

Sadly, in the current catastrophe that is the Post-Conciliar Church, some blinded men, instead of joining the fight against the heresy, apostasy, and de facto schism around us, insist on melodramatically condemning, with the most condescending and arrogant invective, the late Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre. Although any excommunication that was previously levied against the living bishops of the SSPX has long since been remitted, some hardened Neo-Catholics insist that Abp. Lefebvre himself remains perpetually excommunicated, one Neo-Catholic priest even going so far as to presume his damnation. Thus the same Neo-Catholics who tell us that the Church’s perennial teachings on religious liberty, ecumenism, and collegiality are confined to past times and changeable, treat a 1988 letter from a pope as if its infallibility ranked somewhere between Dogma and Holy Writ.

The 1988 letter I am referring to, of course, is John Paul II’s Ecclesia Dei adflicta. Twenty-six years later, Neo-Catholics cling to this letter as it represents, in their minds anyway, the one infallible document that ensures Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre can never be rehabilitated or declared a Saint in the future. As usual, the irony of the Neo-Catholics, on the one hand preaching the Mass of Pius V is changeable at the whim of future popes, while on the other hand preaching John Paul II’s excommunication is certainly valid and binding for all time, escapes them entirely.

Nevertheless, at the risk of beginning yet another dialogue of the deaf (as Bishop Fellay recently described his meetings with Rome), I would like to present a book review that first appeared in The Catholic University Bulletin in the year 1900 by the Rev. Doctor John T. Creagh. Rev. Creagh was reviewing a book by the Rev. James Louis O’Neill, also written in 1900, entitled, Was Savonarola Really Excommunicated? An Inquiry. (For background on Savonarola, click here.) Anyone who is familiar with the canonical details of the Archbishop Lefebvre case will find the similarities striking.


First, much to the shock of our Neo-Catholic friends, nowhere in the apostolic letter Ecclesia Dei adflicta, does John Paul II actually excommunicate Archbishop Lefebvre. Instead, he states that the involved bishops, “have incurred the grave penalty of excommunication envisaged by ecclesiastical law.” The pope is referring to an earlier July 1, 1988 decree by Cardinal Gantin, who was then the Prefect of the Congregation for Bishops. Cardinal Gantin, in his own decree, did not give a judicial sentence, but instead stated that the bishops, by the very act of consecrating without papal mandate, had incurred the penalty envisaged by Canon Law. In other words, they had incurred an automatic excommunication from the law itself. The problem for Cardinal Gantin, and the Neo-Catholics, has always been the pesky Canon Law, which states if one sincerely believes one is acting under necessity, even if the necessity does not objectively exist, no automatic excommunication can apply.

Similarly, Pope Alexander VI did not issue a judicial sentence upon Savonarola, but instead declared in 1497 that Savonarola had been automatically excommunicated for not complying with the pope’s previous warning. There was only one problem. The offense Pope Alexander cited in his excommunication decree was not the same as the one previously warned against. Thus, a sitting pope had declared a priest excommunicated based on a factual error. In Archbishop Lefebvre’s case, Cardinal Gantin had declared an archbishop excommunicated based on a legal error. The common theme here is that just because a pope makes a declaration of excommunication does not, per se, make that excommunication valid. We are not here talking about an infallible declaration of dogma, but a fallible disciplinary decision. Thus, just like any other canonical pronouncement, a declaration of excommunication must be correct in law and fact in order to be valid and binding. In addition, like Savonarola, the Archbishop was not given due process, no proof was offered to demonstrate that he did not act out of necessity, and no judicial determination was rendered.

Thus, we have below, two priests from the year 1900, one a Doctor, who both have serious doubts as to the validity of Savonarola’s excommunication despite the fact that Pope Alexander VI, by all accounts, both willed that Savonarola be excommunicated and firmly believed that he had been excommunicated through his decree. Unless the Neo-Catholics can prove that SSPX priests invented a time machine and penned these pieces under pseudonyms 144 years ago, their de fidei belief in the infallibility of papal excommunications seems to be in trouble.

I now present to you, without further ado, a review of the book, Was Savonarola Really Excommunicated? An Inquiry,   by the Rev. James L. O'Neil, O. P.

Chris Jackson

savanBOOK REVIEW: Was Savonarola Really Excommunicated? An Inquiry, by Rev. James L. O'Neil, O.P.

The impression generally received from historical works dealing with the life and times of Savonarola is that he was a recalcitrant monk whose indignation and zeal against current abuses caused him to forget his obligation of obedience and led him even to the length of disregarding ecclesiastical censures.   That he was really banned by the Church is accepted as an established fact, and no incident in his career offers more difficulty to his apologists that the decree of excommunication formulated against the unfortunate friar by Alexander VI.   Not a few of his admirers do not hesitate to proclaim his merits and virtues not less than saintly, but an excommunicated saint would be a rare figure in the Church’s calendar. Father O'Neil's work, therefore, combating as it does the time-honored recognition of the reality of Savonarola's censure, while it pretends to deal with only one detail of his history, is a very serious vindication of his proper place in Catholic opinion, and is-calculated to excite considerable interest.

That the Pope intended to excommunicate the friar, no one can doubt. In   1496 a papal commission was appointed to investigate Savonarola's case, and the members were informed of Alexander's determination to punish him as superstitious, disobedient to the Holy See, schismatic and heretical letters sent subsequently from Rome to Florence make it only too clear that Savonarola's actions had been regarded as subversive of the Pontiff's influence and policy, and contain threats of censure which are directed principally against the Dominican. And it is certain that the Pope actually promulgated a Bull carrying his intention and threats into execution.   In a papal letter, published in May, 1497, it is expressly said that since Savonarola has disregarded the excommunication previously threatened   against   him, "he has incurred it, and under it with damnable pertinacity still lies."   If this does not mean that   Savonarola was excommunicated, words fail to express the idea.   Immediately afterwards Alexander ordered, Savonarola has excommunicated state to be proclaimed in the churches of Florence.

The question, "Was Savonarola really excommunicated," would seem to be already answered by both the words and the acts of the Pope.   And yet few will turn from a perusal of this present work without at least entertaining most serious doubts as to the validity of Savonarola's excommunication.

The thesis sustained by Father O’Neil, while not a favorite with Church historians, is by no means a new one. Savonarola himself, a canonist of ability, is the author of a long disquisition, in which, with many appeals to learned authorities, he supports his contention that the law had not been fully observed in essentials in his case, and that consequently the sentence was of no effect. His staunch friend, Ficodella   Mirandola, went more exhaustively into the matter   in   his "Defence   against the unjust   excommunication." The well-known attitude of saints like Philip Neri and Catharine of Uicci is hardly compatible with a belief that   the object of their esteem had been marked with the final seal of the Church's rejection and reprobation. And this tendency to regard Friar Jerome as more sinned against than sinning, and his condemnation as the result of misleading information given to the authorities in Rome, has found louder voice in more recent times in biographies and in special studies like Father Lottini's " In Veramente Scomunicato II Savonarola."

It is necessary to bear in mind that   the question dealt with is a purely legal one, and bears solely on the fact of excommunication.   It is not even intended by the author to decide whether a valid excommunication could have been inflicted for any of Savonarola's actions. He confines himself strictly to an appreciation of the justice and validity of the censure actually pronounced, and because censures are surrounded with so many legal conditions and technicalities, many of them affecting validity, it is clear that in the present case we must not content ourselves with deciding whether the actions of the censured party merited censure, or even whether the Pope actually declared him excommunicate.   The crucial question is, was the law fully observed as regards its requirements for validity?   If not, the censure was null and void, and Savonarola was not really excommunicated.   Father O'Neil's conclusion is that in Savonarola's case there was no process, no proof, no judgment, such as are demanded by the canons; the necessary citations and warnings were never given ; and hence the sentence of excommunication is void. The argumentation is based entirely on documents bearing on the case.

In November 1496, there appeared a Bull threatening excommunication latae sententiae against any one who should impede in any way the incorporation of St. Mark's Convent in the new Tusco-Roman province.   The persons against whom this threat was really directed were the prior of St. Mark's, Savonarola, and his friends, and it was equivalent to a warning.   Failure to heed the terms of this letter would certainly entail excommunication.   In May of the next year another letter appeared, ,in which Savonarola was pronounced excommunicate for three reasons,-because he preached pernicious doctrine, to the scandal and loss of souls, because he refused to go to Rome when summoned by the Pope, because he declined to unite St. Mark's Convent with the newly-formed Tusco-Roman congregation. Father O'Neil's statement that there was no Bull of excommunication issued, either of inflictive or declaratory sentence, is hardly reconcilable with this last papal edict. But the manner in which the author disposes of the reasons alleged in the Bull leaves nothing to be desired.  

The charge of pernicious doctrine is dismissed as groundless and a fabrication of the Arrabbiatti. Neither it nor the precept to visit Rome could serve as ground for an anathema, inasmuch as neither had been the object of warning or threat of censure.   The third reason is the most serious, and, to prove it insufficient, recourse is had to a comparison between the Bull of excommunication and the letter in which the menace of censure is found.   The latter document simply warned all persons not to interfere with or impede the union of convents under pain of excommunication.   And yet the Pope says in the Bull of excommunication that he had ordered Savonarola to unite the convent of St. Mark's to the new province, under penalty of excommunication.   The difference between the statement actually inserted in the earlier edict and the reference to it in the final one is very material.   This discrepancy more than suffices to justify the contention that Friar Jerome was never excommunicated. For the last Bull issued did not inflict excommunication; it merely declared that   it had been incurred because a certain command had been given and disobeyed. And since this command was never given and consequently never disobeyed, it is clear that the friar was punished for disobedience of which he had not been guilty.   In other words, the excommunication was without cause, and therefore invalid.

This is not the only argument advanced by the author, but is by far the most conclusive.   The attitude of the Dominican order, the tendencies of later Popes, the devotion of different saints, the celebration of Mass by the victim on the day of his execution, have at best but a confirmatory force, and in presence of a valid sentence of excommunication would be worthless.

The work is modestly termed an inquiry.   The author disavows any pretension to decide the matter finally.   And he is careful to emphasize the fact that we are not concerned with an ex-cathedra papal decision, but with a disciplinary pronouncement in which the Pope relied for information on persons who longed for the downfall of Savonarola. Especially to be commended are the profuse citations from original documents with which the work is enriched, and the very complete bibliography given in the appendix.

Rev. Doctor John T. Creagh

Last modified on Tuesday, October 7, 2014