Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Legislative Texts, Explanatory Note on the Excommunication for Schism which the Adherents to the Movement of Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre Incur Dal Motu Proprio, 24 August 1996.


1. From the Motu Proprio “Ecclesia Dei” of 2nd July 1988 and from the Decree “Dominus Marcellus Lefebvre” of the Congregation for Bishops, of 1st July 1988, it appears above all that the schism of Monsignor Lefebvre was declared in immediate reaction to the episcopal ordinations conferred on 30th June 1988 without pontifical mandate (cf CIC, Can. 1382). All the same it also appears clear from the aforementioned documents that such a most grave act of disobedience formed the consummation of a progressive global situation of a schismatic character.

2. In effect no. 4. of the Motu Proprio explains the nature of the “doctrinal root of this schismatic act,” and no. 5. c) warns that a “formal adherence to the schism” (by which one must understand “the movement of Archbishop Lefebvre”) would bring with it the excommunication established by the universal law of the Church (CIC, can. 1364, §1). Also the decree of the Congregation for Bishops makes explicit reference to the “schismatic nature” of the aforesaid episcopal ordinations and mentions the most grave penalty of excommunication which adherence “to the schism of Monsignor Lefebvre” would bring with it.

3. Unfortunately, the schismatic act which gave rise to the Motu Proprio and the Decree did no more than draw to a conclusion, in a particularly visible and unequivocal manner – with a most grave formal act of disobedience to the Roman Pontiff – a process of distancing from hierarchical communion. As long as there are no changes which may lead to the reestablishment of this necessary communion, the whole Lefebvrian movement is to be held schismatic, in view of the existence of a formal declaration by the Supreme Authority on this matter.

4. One cannot furnish any judgement on the argumentation of Murray’s thesis because it is not known, and the two articles which refer to it appear confused. However, doubt cannot reasonably be cast upon the validity of

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the excommunication of the Bishops declared in the Motu Proprio and the Decree. In particular it does not seem that one may be able to find, as far as the imputability of the penalty is concerned, any exempting or lessening circumstances. (cf CIC, can. 1323) As far as the state of necessity in which Mons. Lefebvre thought to find himself, one must keep before one that such a state must be verified objectively, and there is never a necessity to ordain Bishops contrary to the will of the Roman Pontiff, Head of the College of Bishops. This would, in fact, imply the possibility of “serving” the church by means of an attempt against its unity in an area connected with the very foundations of this unity.

5. As the Motu Proprio declares in no. 5 c) the excommunication latae sententiae for schism regards those who “adhere formally” to the said schismatic movement. Even if the question of the exact import of the notion of “formal adherence to the schism” would be a matter for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, it seems to this pontifical Council that such formal adherence would have to imply two complementary elements:

a) one of internal nature, consisting in a free and informed agreement with the substance of the schism, in other words, in the choice made in such a way of the followers of Archbishop Lefebvre which puts such an option above obedience to the Pope (at the root of this attitude there will usually be positions contrary to the Magisterium of the Church),

b) the other of an external character, consisting in the externalising of this option, the most manifest sign of which will be the exclusive participation in Lefebvrian “ecclesial” acts, without taking part in the acts of the Catholic Church (one is dealing however with a sign that is not univocal, since there is the possibility that a member of the faithful may take part in the liturgical functions of the followers of Lefebvre but without going along with their schismatic spirit).

6. In the case of the Lefebvrian deacons and priests there seems no doubt that their ministerial activity in the ambit of the schismatic movement is a more than evident sign of the fact that the two requirements mentioned above (n.5) are met, and thus that there is a formal adherence.

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7. On the other hand, in the case of the rest of the faithful it is obvious that an occasional participation in liturgical acts or the activity of the Lefebvrian movement, done without making one’s own the attitude of doctrinal and disciplinary disunion of such a movement, does not suffice for one to be able to speak of formal adherence to the movement. In pastoral practice the result can be that it is more difficult to judge their situation. One must take account above all of the person’s intentions, and the putting into practice of this internal disposition. For this reason the various situations are going to be judged case by case, in the competent forums both internal and external.

8. All the same, it will always be necessary to distinguish between the moral question on the existence or not of the sin of schism and the juridical penal question on the existence of the delict of schism, and its consequent sanction. In this latter case the dispositions of Book VI of the Code of Canon Law (including Cann.1323-1324) will be applied.

9. It does not seem advisable to make more precise the requirements for the delict of schism (but one would need to ask the competent Dicastery, cf. Ap. Const. “Pastor Bonus”, art 52). One might risk creating more problems by means of rigid norms of a penal kind which would not cover every case, leaving uncovered cases of substantial schism, or having regard to external behaviour which is not always subjectively schismatic.

10. Always from the pastoral point of view it would also seem opportune to recommend once again to sacred pastors all the norms of the Motu Proprio “Ecclesia Dei” with which the solicitude of the Vicar of Christ encouraged to dialogue and has provided the supernatural and human means necessary to facilitate the return of the Lefebvrians to full ecclesial communion.

Vatican City, 24th August 1996.




Comm 29 (1997): 239-243; CLSGBI Newsletter 115 (September 1998): 7-9.