Editor’s note: This interview was originally published on March 1, 2022, in the French newspaper La Nef. Translated by Zachary Thomas, it is published with the kind permission of La Nef.
Yves Chiron, a respected French historian known best to English readers through his recent biography of Annibale Bugnini, has just published an impressive and fascinating book Histoire des traditionalistes (Traditionalists: A History). This timely work, released just as the “traditionalist” question is back in the spotlight, will prove an indispensable reference on the subject.
La Nef: Where does the traditionalist movement come from? Who are they, and what are they fighting for?
Yves Chiron: The word “traditionalist” appeared in a magisterial document for the first time in St. Pius X’s Lettre sur le Sillon (Notre Charge Apostolique) in 1910. There the pope wrote: “The true friends of the people are neither revolutionaries, nor innovators: they are traditionalists.” The word had already existed for several decades. Émile Poulat has drawn attention to one movement in particular: the Catholic counter-revolution, which is to say Catholics (priests, bishops, and laity) who throughout the 19th and 20th centuries were hostile to the Revolution and its effects, not primarily out of nostalgia for the king but because they rejected the principles of 1789. Catholic counter-revolutionaries were hostile to moral and intellectual liberalism. Naturally, they became also anti-modern, anti-progressive, etc.
La Nef: Even today some have drawn a connection between the spirit of the traditionalist movement and the attitudes of Action française, especially its disobedience in the face of Roman condemnation in 1926. What do you say?
Yves Chiron: There is no direct link between Action française and Catholic traditionalism, and certainly no filiation. Catholic traditionalism came before Action française. Nevertheless it is true that Action française typically joined the struggle against liberalism in every domain, fought against modernism, and refused the separation of Church and State. But it wasn’t sympathy for Action française that made Mgr. Lefebvre the figurehead of traditionalism. In fact no one has ever demonstrated this supposed sympathy. Mgr. Lefebvre himself would admit that he had never read Maurras’ books.
La Nef: On the same note, what are we to make of the links some have made between traditionalism and Vichy?
Yves Chiron: That is historically false. Under the Vichy regime the main figures of what would later be called traditionalism were young people or priests and laity of mature age. Some of them were part of the resistance (Michel de Saint Pierre, Mgr. Ducaud-Bourget, or the future Mother Marie-Dominique, who would go on to be one of the cofounders of the Dominicans of the Holy Spirit), others were not engaged in political options (like the future Mgr. Lefebvre), and still others were ardent Maréchalists (Jean Madiran, Jean Ousset) or engaged in reforms of the French state (like Louis Salleron, a theorist of agricultural corporatism). The choices they made in 1940–1944 did not determine their later struggles for the Catholic faith.
La Nef: To what extent did Vatican II really affect the development of the traditionalist movement?
Yves Chiron: Traditionalism began before the Second Vatican Council. One thinks of Father Luc Lefèvre’s Pensée catholique and Jean Ousset’s Cité catholique, both arising in the post-war period, or to the battles waged by Father Georges de Nantes (also known as the “Abbé de Nantes”) in the 1950s. The Second Vatican Council was a catalyst. But more so what I have called the “peri-Council”: what was said and written before, during, and after the Council and certain applications of the Council which were contested even before the texts of the Council themselves. Since that time, and even after, until the present day, there is no single traditionalist front united against the Council. Father de Nantes, in his critique of MASDU, was certainly the first, along with the sedevacantists (who originated in Mexico) to refuse the Council in its entirety. Nevertheless, ever since the Council many-–la Pensée catholique, for example—have tried to defend the orthodoxy and legitimacy of the officially-promulgated texts against interpretations and applications commonly given to them.
La Nef: You show that the catechisms gave rise to vigorous opposition, but that it was especially the liturgical reform that mobilized traditionalists and a large number of the faithful. Why their strong reaction?
Yves Chiron: Criticism of the new catechisms and critiques or rejections of the new liturgy were certainly the principal focus of traditionalist efforts in the 1970s. That is understandable because these are two areas that directly affect the faithful: the way the faith is taught to children and the way it is expressed in the Mass and the other sacraments (lex orandi, lex credendi). In France, the battle over the catechisms unfolded in several phases: in the 1950s, in 1967-1969, and beginning in 1980. What I have called “the three battles for the catechism” were won by the traditionalists: Rome caused the contested books to be withdrawn or corrected. But that does not mean that they were replaced by books that corresponded to the traditionalists’ expectations.
With regard to the Mass, the struggle was nearly universal and one can say that it continues to this day. Without getting into too much detail, the “New Mass,” issuing from the movement for liturgical reform begun even before the Council, was criticized for the way it was defined in 1969, for its minimization of the sacrificial and propitiatory character of the sacrifice, the desacralization of its ceremony, etc. One should recall that at the end of 1969 the Vatican made several by no means minimal or marginal corrections to the new missal, and Paul VI had to issue several clarifications and reassurances in November 1969.
La Nef: Mgr Lefebvre and the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX) soon took center stage. Why did he join the fray and why did he begin to take ever more extreme positions against the new Mass, the Council, and the pope himself?
Yves Chiron: During the Council, Mgr. Lefebvre was one of the leaders of what was called the “minority.” Working principally through the Coetus Internationalis Patrum (CIP), this group fought, in the face of ambiguous texts and several of the more audacious proposals put forward at the Council, for the reaffirmation of certain doctrines and the condemnation of various errors. But he did not call the Council into question in a public way until many years later.
Likewise, he was not noticeably hostile toward liturgical reform. During the phase of episcopal consultation before the Council, in 1959, he was favorable to “expanding the possibility of celebrating Mass in the evening.” Later, during the early implementation of the liturgical reform, he was not hostile to the introduction of the vernacular at certain points in the Mass. Nevertheless, in January 1964 he expressed his alarm at “the most unlikely experiments”1 and his indignation that in many churches “the liturgical rubrics are being violated with impunity.”2
La Nef: Did Mgr Lefebvre’s radical positions make his 1988 rupture with Rome inevitable?
Yves Chiron: Between 1965—when the Council ended—and 1988—when he decided to consecrate bishops without Rome’s consent—, more than twenty years passed. Vatican II did not immediately bear the fruits many had hoped for. Paul VI himself lamented the fact and on several occasions expressed his regret publicly. The crisis in the Church—which had begun, we must remember, before the Council—was at fever pitch in the 1970s. Mgr Lefebvre underwent, so to speak, a parallel radicalization. And he did not see any merit in later attempts at restoration by John Paul II and Cardinal Ratzinger (the “Ratzinger plan” of 1982, his 1983 conferences on the catechism, the 1985 Ratzinger Report, etc.). His adversaries would say that in 1988 Mgr Lefebvre lost “the sense of the Church.” The least we can say is that he no longer trusted Rome.
La Nef: Mgr Lefebvre’s rupture with Rome in 1988 set the stage for the birth of several traditionalist groups that are not only in full communion with Rome but also surpass the number of those attached to the SSPX. What are the most important facts to keep in mind about these groups formed in 1988?
Yves Chiron: The SSPX remains the most important of the traditional institutes in terms of number of priests, but several other traditional institutes have been born which are in communion with the Holy See: the Fraternity of St. Peter, the Fraternity of St. Vincent Ferrier, the Institute of Christ the King, the Institute of the Good Shepherd, and others. Then there are the traditional monasteries who have followed the path of communion. When Benedict XVI raised the excommunications in 2009, it had no major impact. On the contrary, the motu proprio Summorum Pontificum of 2007 liberalizing the traditional Mass was a truly historic event which nothing can erase. It consolidated and legitimated an older movement.
La Nef: How do you analyze the motu proprio Traditionis custodes? Does it mark a rupture on the traditionalist question?
Yves Chiron: This motu proprio fell like lightning from a clear sky, although the bishops’ survey had raised fears in the preceding months. One part of the surprise was that decisions were taken without consulting these institutes, abbeys, and parish communities in advance. Be that as it may, has a new liturgical war been declared? Much depends on the bishops. We can already make a preliminary assessment, country by country, if not diocese by diocese. Where have Masses been suppressed and where has the status quo been maintained? Further, the (at least occasional) obligation to concelebrate has been raised once more. Another cause for concern: priestly ordinations in the traditional rite. This issue will be felt acutely in the coming months.
La Nef: Francis justified Traditionis custodes as a response to “a rejection not only of the liturgical reform, but of the Vatican Council II itself.” Are members of these traditional groups in communion with Rome guilty of such a rejection?
Yves Chiron: You’re right that Francis has made an issue out of rejections or systematic critiques of Vatican II among the traditional communities in communion with Rome. But the reproach is too broad-brush. As long as the results of the survey that preceded and led to the motu proprio are not published, we cannot know exactly which episcopates reported this growing “rejection.” Based on what we can observe elsewhere, rejection of Vatican II is more common among certain American traditional Catholics than in France. Father Blignières, founder of the Fraternity of Saint Vincent Ferrier, pointed out recently that his community’s journal Sedes Sapientiae has published “nearly eighty articles” since 1988 on various questions that have been contested after the council (religious liberty, the authority of the magisterium, etc). He insists that they are not meant to challenge conciliar teaching but to study it in the spirit of the hermeneutic of continuity.
La Nef: Do you think that Traditionis custodes and the Responsa of last December might create a new “Lefebvre affair”?
Yves Chiron: The decisions contained in Traditionis custodes and aggravated by the Responsa create a troubling state of affairs. I do not expect a new “Lefebvre affair” to arise because traditionalism today does not have a single head as it did in 1976–1988 (though Mgr. Lefebvre refused to be called such). Moreover, on the subject of liturgy, the various institutes and communities do not follow the same practices. For example, three institutes (the Fraternity of St. Peter, the Fraternity of St. Vincent Ferrier, and the Institute of the Good Shepherd) refuse all concelebration according to the new rite, while other institutes and communities accept it in certain circumstances.
Furthermore, there is no longer a front of bishops united against the traditional Mass. In Marseille, for example, after the pope’s motu proprio and the Responsa from the Congregation for Divine Worship, the archbishop of the diocese, Mgr. Aveline, who is no traditionalist, came to celebrate a pontifical Mass in the parish under the care of the Missionaries of Divine Mercy on February 9th, the solemnity of Our Lord’s Baptism.
La Nef: If you had to assess the traditionalist movement as a whole, what are the main pros and cons our readers should take away?
Yves Chiron: It would be impossible, even presumptuous to make such an assessment. The historian is not a judge or arbitrator. The most he can do is to be rigorous in his research and in the portrait he draws. In writing Histoire des traditionalistes—which includes a biographical dictionary with one hundred detailed entries—I was struck by the prominent role of laity, the diverse careers of the priests or religious and in some cases their evolution. There are examples of great courage, even heroism, and also of stubbornness, and in some cases of rigidity to the point of blindness. As a historian I do not think that the Latin liturgy will disappear and I do think that there will continue to be differences of opinion regarding the interpretation of Vatican II. I like very much Jean Madiran’s definition, which sounded like a warning: “The ‘traditionalists’ are not, they cannot be, either a party, an army, or a church; it is a state of mind and also a way of living. It is a professio and a devotio.”
1 “initiatives les plus invraisemblables”
2 “les règles liturgiques sont impunément violées”
Histoire des traditionalistes
By Yves Chiron
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