On ecumenism: Open Letter to Confused Catholics

Archbishop Lefebvre: Holy Ghost Superior General

Archbishop Lefebvre describes the negative consequences of false ecumenism.

Extracts from chapter 10 of Archbishop Lefebvre's classic apologetic work for Tradition, An Open Letter to Confused Catholics.


In this confusion of ideas (in which some Catholics now seem to be quite at ease), there is a tendency especially dangerous to the Faith, the more so because it masquerades as charity. The word which appeared in 1927 during a congress held at Lausanne, Switzerland, would have put Catholics on their guard if they had consulted their dictionaries. “Ecumenism: a movement toward reunion of all Christian churches in a single church.” Now it is clear that we cannot combine contradictory principles. We cannot unite truth and error so as to form one thing, except by adopting the error and rejecting all or part of the truth. Ecumenism is self-condemnatory.

Universal ecumenism

The expression has become so fashionable since the last Council that it has slipped into everyday speech. We speak of universal ecumenism, of exploratory ecumenism and whatever else, to express a taste or a preference for diversity and eclecticism. In religious language ecumenism has recently been extended to non-Christian religions and translated straightway into action. A newspaper in western France gives us a perfect example of the way this evolutionary process works. In a small parish near Cherbourg, the Catholic population showed concern for the welfare of the Muslim workers who had arrived to work on a building site. For this charitable action they can only be praised. In the next stage, however, the Muslims asked for a place to celebrate the fast of Ramadan, and the Christians offered them the basement of their church. Then a Koranic school opened. After a couple of years the Christians invited the Muslims to celebrate Christmas with them “around a common prayer made up of extracts from the Koran and verses from the Gospels.” Misplaced charity had led these Christians to come to terms with error.

In Lille the Dominicans have offered the Muslims a chapel to be turned into a mosque. In Versailles collections have been taken up in the churches for the “purchase of a place of worship for the Muslims.” Two other chapels have been handed over at Roubaix and at Marseilles, together with a church at Argenteuil. Catholics have become the apostles of the worst enemy of the Church of Christ—which is what Islam is—and are offering their money to Mohammed. It appears that there are more than 400 mosques in France, and in many cases Catholics have given the money for their construction.

Freedom for all religions

Nowadays all religions have the Freedom of the City within the Church. A French cardinal celebrated Mass in the presence of some Tibetan monks, dressed in their ceremonial robes and seated in the front row, bowing before them while a commentator announced: “The bonzes share with us in the Eucharistic celebration.” In a church at Rennes, worship of Buddha was celebrated. In Italy, 20 monks were solemnly initiated into Zen by a Buddhist.

I could cite endless examples of such syncretism going on around us. We see associations developing, movements being born which always seem to find an ecclesiastic as leader who wants to join in the quest to “blend all spiritualities in love.” Or astounding projects like the transformation of Notre Dame de la Garde (at Marseilles) into a place of monotheistic worship for Christians, Muslims and Jews, a project which fortunately was stopped by some groups of lay people.

Ecumenism in the strict sense, i.e., as practised among Christians, has motivated joint Eucharistic celebrations with Protestants, such as at Strasbourg. The Anglicans were invited to Chartres Cathedral to celebrate “Eucharistic Communion.” The only celebration which is not allowed, either at Chartres, or at Strasbourg, or at Marseilles, is that of Holy Mass according to the rite codified by St. Pius V.

If all religions are of equal value...

What conclusion can be drawn from all this by a Catholic who sees Church authorities condoning such scandalous ceremonies? If all religions are of equal value, he could very well work out his salvation with Buddhists or Protestants. He is running the risk of losing faith in the true Church. This in fact is what is suggested to him. They want to submit the Church to natural law; they want to put it on the same footing with other religions. They refuse to say—even priests, seminarians and seminary professors—that the Catholic Church is the only Church, that she possesses the truth, that she alone is able to lead men to salvation through Jesus Christ. “The Church is only a spiritual leaven within society, but the same as other religions; a bit more than the others, perhaps...” They sometimes grant it a slight superiority, if you press them.

If this is the case, then the Church is merely useful; she is no longer indispensible. She is only one of the means of salvation.

We must say it clearly: such a concept is radically opposed to Catholic dogma. The Church is the one ark of salvation, and we must not be afraid to affirm it. You have often heard it said, “Outside the Church there is no salvation”—a dictum which offends contemporary minds. It is easy to believe that this doctrine is no longer in effect, that it has been dropped. It seems excessively severe.

Yet nothing, in fact, has changed; nothing can be changed in this area. Our Lord did not found a number of churches: He founded only One. There is only one Cross by which we can be saved, and that Cross has been given to the Catholic Church. It has not been given to others. To His Church, His mystical bride, Christ has given all graces. No grace in the world, no grace in the history of humanity is distributed except through her.

Baptism of desire

Does that mean that no Protestant, no Muslim, no Buddhist or animist will be saved? No, it would be a second error to think that. Those who cry for intolerance in interpreting St. Cyprian's formula, “Outside the Church there is no salvation,” also reject the Creed, “I confess one baptism for the remission of sins,” and are insufficiently instructed as to what baptism is. There are three ways of receiving it: the baptism of water; the baptism of blood (that of the martyrs who confessed the faith while still catechumens) and baptism of desire.

Baptism of desire can be explicit. Many times in Africa I heard one of our catechumens say to me, “Father, baptize me straightaway because if I die before you come again, I shall go to hell.” I told him “No, if you have no mortal sin on your conscience and if you desire baptism, then you already have the grace in you.”

The doctrine of the Church also recognizes implicit baptism of desire. This consists in doing the will of God. God knows all men and He knows that amongst Protestants, Muslims, Buddhists and in the whole of humanity there are men of good will. They receive the grace of baptism without knowing it, but in an effective way. In this way they become part of the Church.

The error consists in thinking that they are saved by their religion. They are saved in their religion but not by it. There is no Buddhist church in heaven, no Protestant church. This is perhaps hard to accept, but it is the truth. I did not found the Church, but rather Our Lord the Son of God. As priests we must state the truth.

Error is an obstacle to the Holy Ghost

But at the cost of what difficulties do people in those countries where Christianity has not penetrated come to receive baptism by desire! Error is an obstacle to the Holy Ghost. This explains why the Church has always sent missionaries into all countries of the world, why thousands of them have suffered martyrdom. If salvation can be found in any religion, why cross the seas, why subject oneself to unhealthy climates, to a harsh life, to sickness and an early death? From the martyrdom of St. Stephen onwards (the first to give his life for Christ, and for this reason his feast is the day after Christmas), the Apostles set out to spread the Good News throughout the Mediterranean countries.

Would they have done this if one could be saved by worshipping Cybele or by the mysteries of Eleusis? Why did Our Lord say to them, “Go and preach the Gospel to all nations?

It is amazing that nowadays certain people want to let everyone find his own way to God according to the beliefs prevailing in his own “cultural milieu.” A bishop once told a priest who wanted to convert the little Muslims, “No, teach them to be good Muslims; that will be much better than making Catholics of them.” I am assured and know for certain that before the Council the Taize community wanted to abjure their errors and become Catholics. The authorities said to them, “No, wait. After the Council you will be the bridge between Catholics and Protestants.” Those who gave this reply took on a great responsibility before God, because grace comes often only at a given moment; it may perhaps not come again. At the present time the brethren of Taize are still outside the Church, sowing confusion in the minds of the young people who visit them.

I have spoken of the conversions which have abruptly fallen in countries like the United States—where they used to amount to 170,000 a year—and Great Britain and Holland. The missionary spirit has faded away because of the wrong definition of the Church and because of the conciliar declaration on religious liberty of which I must now speak.