Not everyone has heard of Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, the French Catholic who led a movement that caused a schism in the Catholic Church in the late 1980s. The Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) had effected so many drastic changes in many Catholic traditions in order to reconcile the Catholic faith with modernity. For one, the liturgy was reformed, simplified in a manner which the common man would understand. Henceforth Mass would be in the local language rather than Latin. For another, it recognised religious freedom. This meant that the Church would not try to have the coercive power of the State to ensure religious compliance. Many people were unhappy with the Second Vatican Council, Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre being one of such unhappy people. The unhappy ones like Lefebvre wanted Latin to be used in Sunday Mass. They opposed dialogues with other religions and said that Jews should convert to Christianity. Pope John Paul carried on a discussion with Lefebvre and other dissenters like him, hoping to convince them to change their minds. In 1988, Lefebvre ordained 4 bishops to carry on his work after his death without approval from the Vatican . Such an act of defiance got Lefebvre and his 4 bishops excommunicated. Lefebvre passed away on 25 March 1991. Lefebvre’s followers call their movement the Society of St. Pius X.
On 24 January 2009, Pope Benedict XVI reinstated the 4 bishops excommunicated in 1988 in a bid to end the schism between the Society of St. Pius X and the main Catholic Church. One of the 4 bishops is British-born Bishop Richard Williamson who has frequently expressed doubts over the existence of Nazi gas chambers and doesn’t think more than a few hundred thousand Jews were killed by the Nazis. Of course, the reinstatement is not an endorsement of Williamson’s views since Williamson was not excommunicated for his personal views.
As ought to be expected, this reinstatement caused a hue and cry. Jews are upset that a groups which wants to convert them rather than have dialogue with them should be back in favour. Many Catholics are upset that a group which opposes modernisation should be back in favour. They suspect, as I do, that Pope Benedict XVI is at heart, a very conservative Catholic who will not modernise the Church’s views on birth control or Priests’ celibacy or homosexuality. I have always believed that it is practically impossible for a moderniser to become the Pope. The previous Pope, John Paul II, though admired all over the world, was a conservative at heart who made sure that he would be succeeded by another conservative. In all probability, Pope Benedict XVI will do the same.