An Interview with Fr. Anthony Cekada regarding Archbishop Lefebvre and the 1983 split with the SSPX

NB: This article is an example of some of the interviews Stephen did when on his journey from the Novus Ordo to the true Catholic position.


As with most interviews, this one requires a preface – but for two reasons.

One, I have mostly stayed out of the blogosphere since the close of 2006. That calendar year proved to be a major revelation for me in so many ways – not just in my interviews with clergy but in the reactions people had to them. This interview with Fr. Cekada represents a re-entry into the blogosphere, albeit in a limited manner.

Two, it would seem that among normal people that interviewing a subject does not necessarily make one agree with everything that person says. Just recently here in America, Charles Gibson interviewed the Vice Presidential Candidate Sarah Palin. Would anyone possessing a modicum of sense argue that, because Gibson interviewed her, ipso facto, he agreed with everything she said? So too, because I have interviewed Bishop Tissier de Mallerais, or Bishop Richard Williamson, or Mr. John Sharpe, or Dr. David Allen White, or have clarified stories I’ve written by asking Bishop Fellay – none of those things mean that I agree with everything that these men say. I will say that all of these men have my admiration in one way or another and their general and/or specific takes on the present crisis in the Church and world mattered deeply to me.

Perhaps what I’ve been trying to do has not been clear up until now so let me clarify it as best I can.

I was born in 1979. That means I was born into a wholly Novus Ordo Conciliar Church. It was not until I turned 17 that I started to read, investigate, and act on “new intelligence” (to me) about the Council, the Mass, and the Pope. Some people like to pretend that there is some clear, straight-arrow narrative that explains everything, or that you’re not allowed to change a position once you’ve learned new things. Others, like myself, decided to sift through the detritus – not just by reading everything out there – be it by Archbishop Lefebvre, Klaus Gamber, Romano Amerio, or Atila Sinke Guimaraes, among many – but by asking questions – of our parents, their friends, priests, our own friends. Sometimes those questions had straightforward answers, at other times, they led to more questions.

The interviews I have done up until now – and the ones that are upcoming – represent, at their deepest core, a desire to know what has happened to the Church, and what to do about it – not just in our own lives – a frankly, very easy answer (pray and study) – but what to do about it in the action that matters in a Catholic life.

We have Catholic questions. We are demanding Catholic answers. Not just ones that sound Catholic to our post-Conciliar ears, deaf because of the tintinnabulations of the doublespeak of Vatican II, but Catholic answers that have footnotes, precedent, and citation in Catholic history and Tradition. When there is doubt, and there is much doubt today, we do not place all our faith in one single religious congregation, or in the words of one dead archbishop (because we know being holy does not make one infallible), but rather we rely on the Vincentian Canon as a litmus test for belief: was it believed “semper, ubique, ab omnibus?” – “always, everywhere, and by everybody.”

It is clear to many of us who never knew the pre-Conciliar Catholic Church – as we are the generation that will soon be at the helm of the lay Traditionalist movement – that what is currently happening to the Church is unprecedented, and we want to know the best way to deal with it – not just by taking the words of family or friends or dead Archbishops for it, but by investigating and asking questions ourselves, and by putting those questions and answers in prayer – and then following the consequences, no matter how horrific they might seem. In my journey I have ever sought to follow St. Anselm’s classic definition of theology: “fides quaerens intellectum” – “faith seeking understanding.” I humbly ask for your prayers as I continue my journey.

As far as responses, since this interview was published, Fr. Cekada wrote a history of the legal dispute here and Bp. Williamson has simply given his response by referencing a July 1983 interview he gave to the Angelus. You can find that at
“I do not say that the pope is not the pope, but I do not say either that you cannot say that the pope is not the pope”
-Archbishop Lefebvre, to his American priests, 1979
An interview with Father Anthony Cekada
by Stephen Heiner
at St. Gertrude the Great, Cincinnati, Ohio
August 2008

Stephen Heiner: Father, in talking about the 1983 split with the Society of St. Pius X, could you please give us a précis of what happened – we’ll get into more specifics later – but just a broad overview of the split in 1983.

Fr. Anthony Cekada: Well there were a number of issues that started to pile up and there were difficulties we had encountered over the years with the way the Society was operating, the direction it was going, and the different things the Archbishop was doing. Simply, in regards to ’83, these came together and added up to a flash point.

What was that flash point?

It was an aggregation of different points that we mentioned in our letter to the Archbishop. For example, the John XXIII liturgy which the Archbishop had suddenly decided to impose on the entire Society of St. Pius X, when we had been using the 1955 liturgy. There was that. There was also the difficulty, specifically in the United States, of priests ordained in the New Rite. There was a Fr. Philip Stark who was saying Mass in the Southwest District of the Society. We had tried to resolve that problem in a number of different ways. You had the idea of following the party line of the Society – the Society as a substitute for the Magisterium of the Church. You had in the background the negotiations with – at that time – Ratzinger of the CDF. The Archbishop was carrying on a negotiation with him, and when you heard that, that was especially troubling. What kind of pushed things over the top was Archbishop Lefebvre’s acceptance of modern marriage annulments. There was a case out west where there was a prominent traditional Catholic who we discovered was actually involved in a second marriage. So, we did a little investigation and we found out that the first marriage had been annulled on the grounds of “psychic immaturity” by one of these modernist tribunals. We told the person that you can’t accept that – that it was baloney – and this person then wrote to the Archbishop. The Archbishop wrote back through Fr. Parrrice LaRoche who was the Secretary General of the Society and without inquiring into the reasons for the annulment, said that the presumption had to be for the validity of the annulment – that text is reproduced in our letter of March 25, 1983. That pushed things over the edge.

So you got this as a CC?

Yes, Fr. Kelly got it as a sort of “for your information.”

So what was the conversation then when this letter was received?

Oh well, we said “this is the end.” It was a question of the sacrament of Matrimony. And no one in their right mind can believe that these annulments are valid. Now Lefebvre expected us to accept them, and that pushed it over the edge for us.

So at this point, there wasn’t a question of the tribunals’ legitimacy, in your mind, it was much more a question of the reason given for the annulment?

Yes, that these reasons were absurd – it was approving divorce.

Describe the feelings at the Seminary before and after the expulsions and put us in that time period – tell us what was going on.

Well the Seminary up that point had been operating very smoothly and very quietly. And Fr. Sanborn had been at it since 1977. He had successively transplanted the seminary from Armada, Michigan to Ridgefield, Connecticut. Things were percolating along. The difficulty arose in 1982 with the condition that the seminary accept the liturgy of John XXIII. Whereas, previously in the United States we had used the pre-1955 liturgy. So there was that element of contention. Then there was the arrival of Fr. Richard Williamson, who was sent over as an enforcer.

And as vice-rector.

Yes, as Vice Rector and as an unofficial Visitor to the Northeast District. There was a move in 1981 or 1982, definitely after the General Chapter of 1982 to sort of “tighten up” and to unify the organization and to enforce generally the “party line,” whatever the party line of the day from Econe would be. So, we Americans at that point in the Northeast District were not seen as sufficiently following the party line so Williamson was sent over as a kind of spy.

And was perceived as such from Day One? And he knew that you knew that as well?

Oh sure. Oh yes he did. That was clearly his role. He was supposed to sniff around and sniff out opposition. He had a provocative way of dealing with people at the Seminary. Now, I didn’t witness that myself, I was told that by Fr. Sanborn.

Where were you?

I was in Oyster Bay.

Because you were the Bursar.

Yeah, and I continued to teach classes up at the Seminary. And of course we all kept in touch. There was a particular case of a newly ordained priest, Fr. Thomas Zapp, who did not want to do the Bugnini/Roncalli liturgy, and that did not go over well.

So what exactly is the sequence of events leading up the expulsion?

Well, not long after we received the “FYI” annulment reply – surely by January of 1983 – we were boiling quite a bit. We were wondering what to do. We got together – the older priests – myself, Fr. Dolan, Fr. Sanborn, Fr. Kelly, and Fr. Jenkins and we knew we had to do something. We decided on a letter to the Archbishop and the General Council, of which Fr. Schmidberger was a part, and lay the cards on the table. We wanted to say: “here are the things that are wrong, and here’s what we propose to do.”

And the primary author of this document was Fr. Sanborn.

Yes. And at this time we brought in some of the other Fathers as well, who had expressed some concerns – Fr. Berry, Fr. Collins, Fr. Skierka, and Fr. Zapp. I don’t know how many meetings we had or how many different drafts or discussions of the letter we had, but finally, on March 25th, we all signed it. At the time of the signing Fr. Clarence Kelly quoted John Hancock and said “Gentlemen, we shall either hang together or hang separately.” We then sent the letter to Econe – to the Archbishop, Fr. Schmidberger, Fr. LaRoche, Fr. Aulagnier, Klaus Wodsack, and Denis Roch. We explained the difficulties, and we gave them six resolutions that we thought they should adopt. And you know that in the Society of St. Pius X, that when you sent a letter like that, it was your death warrant.

What was the knowledge, if any, of the seminarians to this letter, to your course of action, and their sympathies? Did you keep this from them, because this was the end of the school year?

Oh yes. Well, the Archbishop was due to come in April for Ordinations.

And this obviously couldn’t wait.

No, we wanted to make contact beforehand so that he could react appropriately.

And in the days before email, you had to actually wait for a letter to arrive. I’m sure a phone call came quickly…

Well not to us, but I’m sure Fr. Williamson got a phone call. Something like, “What are you doing? There’s a revolt over there in the United States.” We knew that the Archbishop was going to come over and bounce us out. That was a foregone conclusion.

So you knew, and the response to the letter was a phone call, or a threat?

No, I actually don’t recall a letter or a phone call…

So when was the next contact? Was there a big meeting when he came to the States?

Oh no, his idea always was divide and conquer. So the Archbishop went to the seminary first, and had a talk with Fr. Sanborn and removed him as Seminary Rector and installed Fr. Williamson in his place. Then he talked with Frs. Jenkins and Collins, trying to sound them out. Fr. Berry was down in Oyster Bay with us. His idea was to get rid of Fr. Sanborn and ship him off to Ireland and get him out of the country. We suspected that he would get rid of him first and then come back and pick us off later at Oyster Bay. He didn’t really want to talk to us, but we insisted that he come down.

In what way did you insist?

We called Fr. Sanborn and told him that the Archbishop really needed to come down and speak with us because these were important matters. He came down on April 27th, 1983 with Frs. Williamson and Schmidberger and we had a meeting in Oyster Bay in the afternoon in the downstairs conference room. They sat on one side of the table, and on the other side of the table were myself, Fr. Kelly, Fr. Dolan, and Fr. Berry. We started to talk, and the Archbishop began with a critique of Fr. Zapp, that it was really disobedience and all that. I told the Archbishop that Fr. Kelly and myself were deputed by the rest of the Fathers to speak for them and that we thought the best way to proceed was to discuss the resolutions of the letter…

And what is the atmosphere at this point? Is it tense?

Oh very. No back-slapping. So I passed out the copies of the resolutions. So the first resolution was about the doubtfully ordained priest. So we wanted to talk about Fr. Philip Stark, S.J. who was a Jesuit, interestingly enough an erstwhile secretary to Thomas Merton, who had gone to work for Fr. Bolduc. We found out, through a letter from a layman, that Stark had been ordained in the new rite by Cardinal Sheehan in Baltimore. We had done a study some years before on the New Rite of Ordination, and Archbishop Lefebvre was aware of our views and that as far as we were concerned, he was doubtfully ordained. So the Archbishop tried to schmooze us and be diplomatic. “Well, it’s a very delicate question…it would be better if he got re-ordained…it would preserve the peace,” and so on. I pressed him, though and I asked if he was going to make it a policy to re-ordain, and he flatly said “No.” So that was that. So we moved on.

So you backed him into a corner?

Yes, and he hated that because he was a diplomat. But this was a serious matter…doubtful ordination! So anyway, we moved on to the next thing, the liturgy of John XXIII. And we told him that we had been using Pius X in the United States, we don’t want to do John XXIII, and besides, in the General Chapter in 1976, the idea was “let be” regarding local customs, and the custom here in the US was the Pius X missal. We were not going to enforce this Bugnini liturgy. So then the Archbishop said that the General Chapter had never said that, and that he had merely tolerated it, but now he was insisting.

So Fr. Williamson and Fr. Schmidberger weren’t talking, and so you couldn’t ask them to confirm this…

No, and even if we had, they would have not disagreed publicly with the Archbishop.

And, by the way Father, this conversation is happening in, French?

Broken French – my French by this time was shabby, Fr. Kelly’s was nonexistent – and when we had difficulties Frs. Dolan or Berry, or Fr. Williamson would help translate. So regarding the liturgical question, Lefebvre said “You refuse to think with the Society.” And we really pounced on that, because what did that mean? The expression in Catholic theology is to “think with the Church” not think with a particular religious organization. So we really drove into that – what does it mean to “think with the Society?” So Fr. Schmidberger saw this was a really problematic formulation and he tried to smooth it over. And so I repeated the question, and Fr. Schmidberger tried again to answer the question for the Archbishop so as to sort of redirect the heat. And Fr. Dolan asked the Archbishop, “Who gave you the right to impose a liturgy anyway? Where were we going to go? 1962, 1968?” The Archbishop countered by saying that unless something was “harmful to souls” you had to accept it, or the last valid piece of legislation, etc. But the underlying answer was that whenever the Archbishop finally decided on a question, everyone else had to go along with that. So we saw we had our answer to that, so I thought we should move on to the next point. And at this point, the Archbishop noticed that there was a 7th point to the resolutions that I had recently added.

Well, recapitulate all 6 for those who don’t know…

The first was doubtful priests, then the John XXIII, then expulsion of priests, then the idea of loyalty to the Church above loyalty to the Society, then the recognition of the Society’s subordination of authority to the authority of the Church, and the last thing was annulments. So we tried to move on to number 3 and he noticed number 7 and started sputtering. The 7th resolution was something I had put together that basically – if these resolutions were adopted – would give powers of enforcement to me and to Fr. Kelly and that we would have power to put these resolutions into some kind of permanent provisions that would be put into the bylaws of all the corporations governing all the properties here in America. So, when he saw this he hit the roof. He knew that we were, in effect, calling his bluff. We thought he would schmooze us on some of the points, blow us off on others, go back, tell everyone that everything was fine, and then go away and change his mind. So at this point he said it was useless to continue and launched into a tirade against us. We were disobedient, and rebellious, and that he was finished with us, and that we should go find our own bishop, etc. When he had stopped, and we were obviously at an impasse, Fr. Schmidberger said immediately, “What about the different properties?”

So, at that point Fr. Schmidberger realized that it was really totally over. He was already thinking ahead to practical matters.

Oh yeah, that was it.

And you hadn’t made any provision to answer this question?

No, I thought it might come up, actually. And, we told them, “We don’t know, we’re not going anywhere.” And we told them that we were going to continue our apostolate. The Archbishop then said: “We’ll sue.” Fr. Kelly and I then suggested that the lawyers have a conversation about these matters. I told him that it would be a mess, because of all the jurisdictions…

The Archbishop must have been thinking that it would be resolved like the French legal system…

Oh yes, well in France everything is centralized and everything is done by statute. In the States we have fifty different jurisdictions, and it’s based on common law, and then you have federal courts on top of everything. So you’re going to have different principles from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, and our legal system is a slow creaking mess. We then figured that was the end. And we said a prayer to close the meeting. And then we thought, it might be a good idea to have the Archbishop stay for dinner.

After all that?

Well yes, we thought it would bring the temperature down a lot. And he agreed and said sure.


No, he was virtuous and he was a gentleman and he was a diplomat. So he said fine. Fr. Schmidberger said fine. And then Fr. Schmidberger looks at Fr. Williamson, who said to him in German “I don’t want to eat with such people.” I then replied in German, “Be careful, you never know who understands German.” So that was it, torpedoed. So they went up, and we saw them off and kissed his ring. We told him we were very grateful for all that he had done for us.

So it was a bittersweet leaving, then?

Sure. We always said, after that, that things might have been resolved peacefully if he had just stayed for the meatloaf. We were serious, because if you sit down and have dinner with someone after something like that, maybe you could have worked something out. But alas, that was that. He then went back to the seminary and we found out that he had started right away on a letter denouncing us.

So then?

So on the following Sunday we told our congregations, and they were disappointed that the Archbishop would go in for things like this, but the prevailing attitude was one of support for what we had done, that we weren’t going to give in on any of this. We had all seen priests do this in the 60s and we sure weren’t going to do this.

What I think was also strange is that over the years this always came to be understood in SSPX circles as “well all this was just because they didn’t want to recognize the Pope.” And that wasn’t it at all – it wasn’t about not recognizing Wojtyla, but about not recognizing Archbishop Lefebvre as Pope. He was a devout man, but he didn’t have any authority to decide these questions of annulments, etc.

So then we enter the period of litigation. Did either side propose to settle immediately? Because from what I’ve heard the story has always been that you didn’t want to settle at all because you wanted everything.

Well I don’t think the discussions went there. The lawyers for both sides talked. Our lawyer told us that the Archbishop didn’t seem at all interested in negotiation and thought he was going to win very quickly, just by going to court.

But, did you want to settle?

Well, listen, anytime you go into litigation, you want everything. That’s the attitude. But 80-90% of all civil cases settle – there’s some statistic – but it’s knowing when to settle. I mean, ultimately, circumstances forced a settlement on them.

What circumstances?

Well, they had a lousy lawyer. This guy was a close personal friend of the Archbishop. The Archbishop had a very high opinion of him but he was a bad lawyer, and in fact we had tax problems because of some of the stuff he had done. We used to say that if you had a legal issue that you should ask this man and then do the exact opposite. Anyway, he had filed suit in 1983 in Federal Court. He tried to get all the properties through a federal suit, and he didn’t realize you couldn’t do that because a Federal court in New York didn’t have jurisdiction over the out of state properties. Our opponents discovered that, four years later, when we filed a motion to dismiss based on that. At that point, the circumstances forced them to settle.

So four years?

And six lawsuits.

What is happening pastorally in these four years? I mean, you were the Society of St. Pius X.

Yes. Our position was, hey, call yourself the Society of Roncalli or whatever you want, because you’re using his Mass. We continued to service all the chapels.

So they, in effect, had to start missions…

Yes, they started parallel missions in Long Island, Rochester, Pennsylvania.

So what did this do to your congregations?

Well nothing, because there were only a few people who went over.

So when all was said and done, what did you get?

We got Oyster Bay, Staten Island, Rochester, the house in East Meadow, Clearfield and Williamsport in Pennsylvania, St. Gertrude’s in Cincinnati. They got the Seminary, and Armada, and Minneapolis/St. Paul and Detroit. And in the settlement we also got 15 months to move our congregations in St. Paul and Detroit. We also paid them off. $350,000.

So as a fraction of legal fees, what did $350,000 mean?

Oh, I don’t know, we spent a lot of money…


Oh, no. I made a point of never adding it up. Too depressing! My guess would be $200,000 for four years.

So did that $350,000...that wasn’t taking care of their legal fees?

I don’t know. But because they were so suspicious during negotiations, they cost themselves a lot of money. They were so insistent that the mortgages to be in the exact state they were on April 27th, 1983. So we acquiesced to their demands. Instead of giving them back, potentially, paid off properties, we took out mortgages on both of those properties, and restored them to “the state they were in” in 1983. So this effectively halved their settlement…

And you weren’t allowed to call yourselves the Society of St. Pius X…

Yes, and then we were the Society of St. Pius V. Our initial chapel in Oyster Bay was Pius V.

What about the charge that in effect you were “thieves,” that you “stole” these properties from the Society or “defrauded” it?

Behind this is the same old problem, the hidden assumption that Abp. Lefebvre and the Society are a substitute magisterium, a substitute church. The Archbishop or his successor calls all the shots for “tradition” — La foi, c’est moi. And there’s a double-standard, if not a hypocrisy at work, because it’s OK for Abp. Lefebvre to say to the pope, “We resist you to your face,” but no one can say that to the Archbishop. Or it’s heroic “resistance” for French traditionalists to seize a church like St. Nicholas and turn it over to the Archbishop even though they did not pay for it, but American priests and laity who hold onto churches they did pay for and keep Lefebvre out are “thieves.” Nice trick. But even if he had his name on all the church deeds, I still would have fought him in court — because once the Archbishop started accepting phony priests and annulments, invalid sacraments, no matter what civil laws and judges said, he lost any moral right he had to those churches. Our people lost their churches once already in the 60s to bishops who purveyed invalid sacraments, and we were not going to let that happen again. Unlike the priests in the 60s who tried to resist, we were fortunately in a lot better position legally to do so.

So it’s been 25 years this year. Step back. Did you do the best thing possible?

(Pauses) Well, to be honest, I would have taken an even harder line and before the Archbishop had come to America I would have changed the locks to the Seminary and kept him out of there as well. This man was permitting doubtful sacraments and countenancing phony annulments and if I were able to keep him away from people, fine. It’s really too bad. People have the idea when it comes to the Archbishop that you can’t really say anything bad about him. And that’s really too bad, because he was yet another devout man who did many, many good things, who did many good things for me, but he turned out bad, in the sense that he went along with the modernist program as far as the sacraments go. When I came to Econe, don’t forget I had been in the seminary system for ten years and that I had seen other men who were as holy as Archbishop Lefebvre, nice, good men, who had as many exemplary qualities as the Archbishop – I had seen them cave into Modernism and surrender. He was, unfortunately, another one in that series. The point was acting on principles and fidelity to the Church rather than fidelity to a given person. And that was the problem. He was not the Church.

The feeling, I think, then as now, from the faithful in the pew, is that these are priests’ problems. This is just priests’ calculating the number of angels dancing on a pin, we all want the Traditional Mass, you just got upset about a collect here and a commemoration there (besides, who wants to deal with all that "flipping around the missal," as I was told by a Society priest once), and about Holy Week…

Oh, and none of it matters. Well this is the attitude of people who don’t like to think things through, but we certainly know where that leads. That’s the SSPX’s continuing problem. This is a Latin-Massism, a “praxis” of sorts. There’s no theory. You have a Latin Mass – it appeals to you – but nothing else really matters. You then can’t get into the idea of the New Mass being evil, etc. This causes problems because you become indifferent to doctrine, and that’s Modernist. No distinctions = Modernism.

Okay, so let’s accept your premise. These things matter, ideas have consequences. What next? It’s often said that sedevacantism doesn’t bring unity. And this is seen in the fact that over time the original nine priests splintered into different groups.

Well the SSPX suffers from the same affliction. You have all these splinter groups from the Society – the FSSP, the IBP, other groups…

But you’re willing to admit that you suffer from the same problem…

Well yes, but there is the defection of authority. Of course you’re going to have disagreements, but that’s because you don’t have someone who has jurisdiction from almighty God…

And you don’t have someone who can arbitrate to both parties’ satisfaction…

Precisely. When deprived of the authority we need above us, there is bound to be division.

So you admit there is a lack of unity, with reason. What about the charge that sedevacantism is a “dead end”? What do you think people mean by that?

So what’s the live end? That’s my question. To have a Magisterium and a Pope who defects? Is it a live end to have a church that defects that gives you an evil Mass and that gives you teachings that contradict previous teachings? Is that a live end?

Well it’s certainly live-ly…

Yes, but what are we to make of it? The Church defects? So now we head into absurdity because the Magisterium shifts to the individual. So you have the SSPX problem of taking decrees and doctrinal pronouncements from the people that they theoretically recognize as the Pope have to pass in review in front of the Superiors of the Society who decide which of them are in accord with Tradition and which are not. This was the idea of sifting – the French word was cribler – they do the sifting. And, that seems like a pretty dead end to me, because I don’t see that anywhere in a Catholic theology book. We know that the Church can’t defect. It’s contrary to the nature of the Church. But we know that the Church does not cease to exist when you don’t have a Pope for a while, not even for a long time. There’s no theologian who says that.

Okay, so it’s not a dead end, but some say that sedevacantism adds nothing practically to their spiritual life, so why bother? In their words…I’m a simple Catholic, I say the Rosary, I go to Mass, I don’t know about all these heady cerebral theology stuff, I don’t know much about Bellarmine, and the SSPX doesn’t teach a different catechism than you teach…so what’s the practical use?

Well the practical use is a matter of getting to Heaven or not – because if you understand that you’re supposed to submit to the Roman Pontiff as an essential condition for salvation, and you don’t submit to him, that poses a problem. In effect, you’re asking, “What does sedevacantism do for me?” This is a consumer approach to theology…

Yes, why “switch”? Why should I buy sedevacantism?

It shouldn’t work that way. You start with the Faith and then you proceed using certain principles. That’s what you’re supposed to do.

“Principles, not taste.”

That would be a great slogan for an advertising campaign for sedevacantism.

Well the opposing campaign, I suppose, would be run by the SSPX. Before I get back to them, I want to touch on the Motu Proprio “Summum Pontificum.” You said in a sermon early on that you thought Ratzinger would grant this sort of “universal indult.” And not quite a year later he granted it…

He must have listened to my sermon…

Indeed, and after listening to your sermon (available on, of course) he granted it. You came out, I think, uncharacteristically quickly, in the slow-food Cekada fashion of working through issues, and you wanted to come out forcefully, I think. And you didn’t say it was a wholesale bad thing. You said that it would make things clearer. You said that the Latin Mass appearing in any form is not a bad thing. Do you still believe that?

Oh yes, very much. It makes people aware of this particular issue. Perhaps, with the grace of God, they will really think things through. When I was ordained you didn’t have this type of interest. People weren’t talking about the Traditional Mass and you would start with very few people in any given city…

But the Traditional Mass is mainstream now…people know about it, in a lot of dioceses it is being celebrated a lot more. So what does that mean? The Mass will work a change? Because whether or not valid priests are saying these Masses, the words of the Mass are an effective catechism…

Well people see it – it’s like the High Church Anglicans. They would use their equivalent of the Tridentine Mass and it got many people thinking and led to conversions…

As you see it now, 30 years in the United States, your reflections on the Traditional movement…you’ve remarked before that more and more people are asking about these issues and talking about them, and a big part of that is the Internet. Are there any downsides?

Well, of course, the appalling things that are found on the Internet, but the positive thing is that people read and then contemplate. The downside is that when you’re writing theology there is this sort of instant reaction, and the problem is when you speak about religious matters you have to speak with more care. You look at Angelqueen or some of these other places….too many people have opinions about things that they don’t know anything about.

Well, a big part of the Traditional movement, outside of the Internet, lies with the SSPX. It’s often said that you just have really long-toothed sour grapes about them. Father Cekada’s never really gotten over getting expelled.

Hmmm. It’s the same old issues and the same old problem, that they are a substitute Magisterium unto themselves. They continue to operate on the same flawed principles that they did 30 years ago.

Are there sedevacantist clergy in the Society?

Oh yes. They have to live under this sort of Maoist regime. Let me explain. The latest case of a sedevacantist priest in the Society – he has to have all his parish bulletins reviewed by a Society superior…

So this is a true story, not some rumor…

No, it’s true. He’s also been instructed to write a self-critique of sedevacantism…

Oh, that’s vintage Mao. Self-accusations…

Well, yes, in the Society we had those things too – we had the “Let 1,000 Flowers Bloom” and the “Democracy Wall” and all that, but then there were purges. I don’t know if this priest will be assigned to a work camp…

But he’s still a practicing priest within the Society?


So they’d rather keep than purge?

Well Bishop Fellay and I haven’t had a heart-to-heart in a long time. But what they want is the same thing Big Brother wanted: change your mode of thinking to their mode of thinking. I mean, Fr. Schmidberger was a sedevacantist way back when. He was also in favor of the Pius X liturgy, in illo tempore. But people now, who would adhere to those things, they need to be “re-educated.”

So with the current administration, what will be a 24-year reign of a Superior General when all is said and done – a man who is much loved by the laypeople of the Society, a man who is said to be most in temperament like the Archbishop, the one who was originally put forth in the dossier to John Paul II for consecration to bishop…what do you see in the future? Ratzinger is old, and sick. Bishop Fellay, whether he wants to admit it or not, really does want to come to some kind of agreement, that’s why all the meetings…

Well, I’m no prophet, but it could go either way. But why make a deal when you can be in a constant state of negotiation – in other words, the SSPX can have the milk, why buy the cow? They have this great following who buy into “recognize and resist.” They’ve hoodwinked people into thinking this is what you do, disobey the Vicar of Jesus Christ on earth. So there are people all over the world who believe this now. If you make a deal with “the Holy Father,” then you have to obey him. And you’ve bought the cow. Then he can say – he or his successor – we think that Bishop Fellay is a bit too hard on this or that point, so he needs to be re-educated…

Or why not suppress the Society altogether? The legal precedent of the Jesuits should give anyone pause.

Yes. So I don’t see them buying the cow.

So why all these meetings, why all these talks of negotiation, why the neverending tour of conferences where Bishop Fellay gives a modified “state of the union” address?

Oh well because it shows we’re talking with the Pope and all that…

But how long can this go on?

Oh, the Archbishop did it all along. Well, Fr. Williamson in one of the early newsletters said: “We recognize the Pope because we pray for him and we negotiate with him.” And it struck me as so funny, because unlike some of these people in the Society I was raised really as a pre-Vatican II Catholic and the idea that you obey the Pope – well that was the first thing you did – obey, not negotiate with him.

I’ve always heard you say and seen you write, that this all comes back to the issue of the Pope. There’s no authority, so there’s a lack of unity…as my final question, let me ask what has often been asked of me by friends who find the sedevacantist position emotionally and spiritually difficult: how do we know with certainty that it is the right position?

Well the answer is perceived in miniature by the fact that people see that there is something amiss in the New Mass or that the new doctrines are screwy, etc. You just have to logically think it out – you can’t go on guts or sentiment. In popular culture, the Pope is a superstar, and naturally you want to be somehow part of it, but you have to look at the New Mass and the new teachings. You can’t go with your gut…

But some might say, there’s been confusion about popes before, and St. Vincent Ferrer picked the wrong Pope, so how can I hope to get it right if a saint got it wrong?

Yes, but St. Vincent Ferrer didn’t make his choice in the same situation. He didn’t say, “that Pope over there, celebrates a Mass that is a great sacrilege or teaches a heretical notion about the nature of the Church.” That’s the difference in the analogy.

But do you agree that it makes the layman uneasy – if a saint can’t get it right, how can I hope to?

You can’t just throw your hands up. St. Vincent Ferrer recognized someone as the Pope, and you have to submit to him…

Well then another response would be, I’m just going to follow Archbishop Lefebvre’s line because he’s the man God sent in this time of crisis…

That’s extremely subjective. You can’t use your gut. It’s the “great prophet” substitute. Ideas have consequences.

Indeed. Thank you for your time, Father.


This interview originally appeared in the October 2008 issue of The Four Marks

Fr. Anthony Cekada is a priest at St. Gertrude the Great in Cincinnati. He is a well-known author of many articles regarding the Traditional movement. He is currently working on finishing two books, one on the Mass, and one on the question of sedevacantism.Stephen Heiner is the owner of Get Smarter Prep, a test prep company based in Overland Park, Kansas. He occasionally freelances for various secular and religious magazines and newspapers and has interviewed more bishops and priests in the traditional Catholic movement than any layperson to date.

Stephen Heiner

Stephen founded True Restoration in 2006 and served as its first President until 2023. He now lives in Reading, Pennsylvania.

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17 Responses

  1. Olin says:


    You forgot to ask Fr. Cekada to talk about the punishment the old code of canon law (the only code of canon law Fr. Cekada recognizes as valid) proscribes to anyone who takes a Catholic bishop to a civil court: automatic excommunication.


  2. Stephen Hand says:

    What happened to Bishop Williamson’s reply? It appears to have been at least temporarily removed. Do you know if it will be reposted?

  3. Stephen Hand says:


    Bishop Williamson wrote:

    “I am rather less anti-sedevacantist than a number of my colleagues. I don’t happen to believe sedevacantism is the biggest sin in the book. It has been demonized. At worst, sedevacantists are proud and sterile, but there are also some very honest and intelligent Catholics who simply cannot believe that recent Popes are true Vicars of Christ.” —Interview, Angelus Online

    I do wish good Fr. Cekada could cut as much “slack”. Williamson’s reply is hardly unprincipled, hardly an “emotional” response. I see it as both realistic and charitable.

  4. To be fair, Olin, the Nine never took the Archbishop to court – the Archbishop sued them. I don’t think “defending yourself against a lawsuit from a bishop” is grounds for an automatic excommunication.

    I’m not a canon lawyer, but…

  5. Stephen

    You provide no way to contact you – you can reach me at truerestoration at gmail dot com, I’ll be happy to let you know what happened to the 1983 interview.

  6. Olin says:


    Indeed, it wasn’t “The Nine” who took the Archbishop to court, but rather five of “The Nine”.

    According to Bishop Williamson, as is recorded in Volume I – The Ridgefield Letters, pg 34-35:

    On Sunday night, May 20, when the Archbishop arrived back at the Seminary at a late hour from Kansas, somewhat tired and travel-weary, no sooner had he stepped out of the car than he was served with a civil court summons in a suit to evict the Society from the seminary property here in Connecticut, a suit filed by Fathers Cekada, Dolan, Jenkins, Kelly and Sandborn. Those standing by noticed and will not easily forget the look of pain on the face of the Archbishop, who it must be remembered was their Father in the priesthood. Now according to the old Code of Canon Law, anyone citing a Catholic Bishop before a civil judge incurs automatic excommunication (Canon 2341). Hence, according to the only Code of Canon Law which they themselves recognize, these five priests are excommunicated!

    Canon 2341: If anyone, in violation of canon 120, dare to summon before a lay tribunal a Cardinal of the Holy Roman Church, or a Legate of the Holy See, or any other major official of the Roman Curia in connection with business pertaining to his office, or his own Ordinary, he incurs ipso facto an excommunication specially reserved to the Holy See; if he dare to summon in the same manner another Bishop, even merely titular, or an Abbot or Prelate nullius, or the highest superior of a religious institute approved by the Holy Seem he incurs an excommunication latae sententiae simply reserved to the Holy See; finally, if, without having obtained the permission of the Ordinary of the place, he dare to summon in the same manner any other person who has the privilegium fori, the culprit, if a cleric, incurs ipso facto suspension from office reserved to the Ordinary; if a lay person, he shall be punished by his own Ordinary with suitable penalties according to the gravity of the case.

    Archbishop Lefebvre was the defendant; neither the Archbishop nor the SSPX initiated the civil law suit brought against them by Fr. Cekada, et al.


  7. Stephen Hand says:

    I sent an email Stephen last night after seeing this from romcath1 at

  8. Olin

    My goal in this interview was not to mediate something that was long ago decided, but to air two points of view on the same topic.

    Now, again, neither you nor I are canon lawyers, and simply citing a canon can be helpful, but, the lawsuit you are referring to was just another of 6 which occurred AFTER the Archbishop initiated the initial lawsuit in Federal Court.

    Epikeia most certainly applies here – while you are not allowed to “take a bishop to court” I don’t think this applies, and I think you would be hard pressed to find a canonist who would think so, to a situation where you are sued first by a bishop. I think a countersuit would be considered simply self-defense and not applicable to the primary intent of the canon.

  9. Fr Laisney says:

    Comments on Fr. Cekada’s interview, from my own recollection of what Archbishop Lefebvre told me.

    First, one can read in between the line that the letter sent to Archbishop Lefebvre and members of the General Counsel of the Society of St. Pius X contained 6 points, but the letter given to him on 27th March 1983 contained 7 points. From my recollection of Archbishop Lefebvre’s words on the matter, he did not expect such surreptitiously added clause, and said to Fr. Schmidberger: “did you see that?” Then, recalling the event, he said to me: “it was impossible: this is so incompatible with any religious order.” That seventh point manifests the heart of the matter: they were asking for “power of attorney” to take the legal dispositions in all the associations of the Society of St. Pius X in the USA to enforce their requirements in the previous sixth points. Now the first thing that strikes the reader is that they were priests in the North East District of the USA (at that time there were two districts), and were asking legal authority over the whole of the USA, thus also in another district which was none of their business! Secondly, they were asking civil guarantees against what they clearly knew to be the will of the superior (and the decisions of the General Chapter of 1982). Who cannot see there the most blatant lack of religious obedience? Such 7th point was absolutely incompatible with religious obedience.

    Now there is not an once of obedience in Fr. Cekada! A priest never belongs to the Church “in general”, but always within a certain “branch”, i.e. a diocese, or a religious order. His superior is not just the Pope, but he has some immediate superiors, to whom he is bound to obey: either the local bishop, or the superiors of his religious order. Since Fr. Cekada did not belong to a diocese, it was clear that he should always have considered himself as belonging to the Society of St Pius X, and therefore bound to obedience to its superiors. But here is the flaw: Fr. Cekada never had an once of obedience!

    Now Fr. Cekada excuses himself of it by presenting many times the status of the Society of St Pius X as “less binding than a rosary confraternity.” He says that he considered the Society of St Pius X “as a means”: he did not consider it as a “family” in which one belongs, but as a “tool” which one uses. He never considered it for what it really was, a “society of common life without vows”. This expression, describing its very nature, was at the very beginning of the Statutes approved by Bishop Charrière in 1970. It describes a reality very clearly structured in the Church: similar to a religious order, with that difference that there were no vows; now that does not mean that there is no obligation! There are the normal religious obligations, but not in virtue of a vow: quite a difference!

    Archbishop Lefebvre often explained to us at the seminary that the reason why he did not require vows in the Society of St Pius X was that, in missionary circumstances when access to the superior for the required permission was awkward lead to the necessity often to presume permissions and thus the vows were sometimes a hindrance to the exercise of the mission. But at the same time he insisted on the fact that a priest, by the very virtue of his priesthood, is more bound to the three evangelical counsels (which are the object of the three religious vows) than even a monk in solemn vows. Now this is very traditional spirit: see for instance St. Thomas Aquinas teaching that the holiness required of a priest is much greater than that required of a monk. The reason for this requirement in a priest, Archbishop Lefebvre explained to us, was the fact that, by his priesthood, he ought to live the mysteries which he offers (imitamini quod tractatis), and therefore to be intimately united with Our Lord in His Sacrifice. Now what greater example of poverty, chastity and obedience than Our Lord Jesus Christ on the Cross? Therefore, concluded Archbishop Lefebvre, the priest is most bound to practice these three evangelical counsels. Obedience is the most essential of the three counsels, and the greatest example of obedience is that of Our Lord, “obedience unto the death of the Cross”. But not for Fr. Cekada.

    Fr. Cekada pretends to defend his resistance to Archbishop Lefebvre, putting it in parallelism with the resistance of Archbishop Lefebvre to Pope Paul VI. Everybody can see that there is one great flaw is this argument: Archbishop Lefebvre was not Pope Paul VI, and Fr. Cekada is not Archbishop Lefebvre! Pope Paul VI will go in history as the Pope who has done so many changes, causing such wreck in the Church while Archbishop Lefebvre will go as the “good and faithful servant, who in time of wrath was found a reconciliation”, the one who held Tradition when so many were giving it up; on the other hand, Fr. Cekada might find his name among the list of the schismatics of the late 20th century, at most – which we do not wish him, we’d rather see him humble himself and correct his ways, we pray for that. Fr. Cekada is so sure of himself that he cannot even see that the ut changed into an et in the form of ordination (the only change in the form of ordination), which history might prove had been used already in early middle ages and was then considered valid with no doubt, he cannot see that such a change does not introduce a serious doubt on the validity, therefore one ought not to systematically doubt all new ordinations: one needs to study case per case, if there is ground for serious doubt. The same could be said for all other subjects, as Archbishop Lefebvre explicitly said for the 1962 rubrics: there is nothing against the faith that could justify rejecting a validly promulgated set of rubrics. Thus there is no parallel between the legitimate resistance of Archbishop Lefebvre to Pope Paul VI, and the illegitimate disobedience of Fr. Cekada to Archbishop Lefebvre.

    The crisis of the Church is indeed a stumbling block for many, and “a thousand fall at thy left side and ten thousands at thy right side” (Ps. 90). Some fall on either side! Fr. Cekada quotes a passage of Archbishop Lefebvre, where he shows that in certain grievous circumstances it is legitimate to resist authority, and takes from it a leave from the virtue of obedience, drawing from it permission to put in question every single decision of Archbishop Lefebvre, as if the subordinate had to review every order, and approve it before he would be bound in obedience. With very much right judgment, Archbishop Lefebvre said that unless a matter of faith is involved, one has not the right to disobey, and in the 1962 rubrics, matters of faith are not at stake, therefore one ought to accept them. But that is not satisfying to Fr. Cekada. In the same way, the very respect for the authority of the Church makes that there is a principle of law that the presumption is in favour of authority: hence one ought not to put in question all judgements of authority before any particular analysis; the fact that those who have the authority abuse of it sometimes (even often) should never make us lose from sight the holiness of the office which they hold, even if they are unworthy of it; therefore the presumption remains and should be held even though one may in particular cases question some particular judgements (which may be often, but always a posteriori). One can see here that in fact Fr. Cekada and co. systematically consider invalid everything which has been done by the Church authorities, as if they had lost all authority: so we come back to this very fundamental difference between them and Archbishop Lefebvre: they were sedevacantists and he was not. They refused to belong to that Church which Our Lord Jesus Christ established on Peter and his successors, no matter how unworthy they are.

    For those who did not understand the religious problem, the Good Lord in His Divine Providence did not prevent them to steal 14 properties – at least to try. Now one thing they do not say is that several years before 1983 guidelines for all the civil associations owning the properties on behalf of the Society of St. Pius X had been issued by the Superior General (to put order in thing). The guiding principle of these guidelines was to unify the situation in the Society of St. Pius X in such a way that the legal control of these associations reflects the hierarchy of the religious society. Now after four years, lots of oral promises, going so far as to write the new statutes, having them signed by the members of the General House (including Archbishop Lefebvre), but either not signing them themselves, or at least not having them filed in the civil registrar: they thereby kept the control of these properties in their own personal hands and not in the name of the religious order. Yet donations had been asked in the name of the Society of St. Pius X, often prominently putting Archbishop Lefebvre’s name forward to get the faithful’s generosity. It was clearly a case of theft. This opened the eyes to many faithful, Deo gratias.

    As for foreign presence in the Society of St Pius X in the States, the Gospel comes to mind: “And where are the nine? There is no one found to return and give glory to God, but this stranger” (Lk 17:17-18). Archbishop Lefebvre was a man “meek and humble of heart.” This is what was most lacking in some of the Nine, and the deep reason why they did not understand him, and broke away.

    Father François Laisney, former US District Superior from 1984-1990.

  10. Olin says:


    I wasn’t claiming that either one of us are canon lawyers in my last comment: I was simply posting a statement made in the past by Bp. Williamson, and providing a related reference. As for myself, I’ll defer to Bp. Williamson’s judgment on the matter, and would suggest others do the same.


  11. from Fr. Cekada:

    Ninety percent of Fr. Laisney’s criticisms of me in his post are some variation of the charge that I was “disobedient.” This, of course, is predicated on the SSPX’s elaborate creation myth: that their organization enjoys the canonical status of a society of the common life without vows. I have amply demonstrated in “The Legal Status of the Society of St. Pius X and Its Former Members” that this notion is complete hogwash. Let Fr. Laisney write a canonical study answering that article. And let him be very scrupulous in citing the canonical commentaries he will use to prove his case. As for the seventh point on powers of attorney, as I explained in my article “The Nine vs. Lefebvre,” this was to keep His Excellency from following his usual practice of “diplomatically” agreeing to something and then weaseling out of the agreement. A tad harsh? Ask Ratzinger about the May 5, 1988 agreement that the archbishop signed, and then repudiated the next day.

    — Fr. Cekada

  12. Fr Laisney says:

    After 38 years of the SSPX living as a Society of common life without vows, who will Fr. Cekada will convince that we never had any structure, or were nothing else than a lose bunch of priest? Let him look at the “nine”: this is a lose bunch of priest, who never had any authority nor any true unity among them. Now unity is a mark of the Church and of all true “work of the Church”, and the lack of unity is a mark of the lack of being part of the Church. We pray for Fr. Cekada’s conversion.

    As for the 1988 May 5th protocol, Fr. Cekada should read my book: Archbishop Lefebvre asked on the 6th for a date, not to repudiate it, but rather to put it in practice! Asking for a date for the consecration was not a repudiation of the protocol, but rather a natural step towards its implementation; the only thing that was not in agreement with the protocol in that letter was the “threat” of going ahead on 30th of June if no date was given. It was rather Cardinal Ratzinger who reacted as if asking for a date was opposed to the protocol, withdrawing the publication of that protocol.

  13. from a reader from the UK:

    Fr. Laisney should be asked three questions:

    1) If it is a question of obedience to legitimate authority to use the 1962 rubrics why did the SSPX in parts of the USA, Germany, the UK and other places, use the pre-Pius XII rites from the beginning up until 1983 following the approval of this practice at the 1976 Chapter? Was the SSPX thus in error by doing so?

    2) If legitimate authority must be followed except where there is a danger to the faith could Fr. Laisney explain what danger to the faith is presented by the 1965 rite? (The reforms mandated by Sacram Liturgiam and Inter Oecumenici) Surely if this is free from doctrinal error out of obedience to Paul VI it should be followed (and indeed was followed too at Econe at an earlier phase of its history).

    3) If Benedict XVI, as Vicar of Christ, were to mandate changes in addition to the new oration for the Jews on Good Friday such as the use of a common calendar for both the ‘Ordinary’ and ‘Extraordinary’ forms of the same one rite, or e.g the use of a revised pericope cycle would Fr. Laisney obey him?

  14. Stephen Hand says:

    As someone who once despaired and decided to cut Conciliar ambiguity in favors of its popes until(“reform of the reform”) Benedict showed his hand, and that I had been “had,” when he dined with Hans Kung and blessed his Global Ethic and “God”, I think it might be best to simply let the past be.

    Those who are not traditionalists, I can tell you, watch and are cynically amused by Traditionalist polemics directed against each other and it serves only to keep them feeling justified in not looking seriously at the most important issues which all traditionalists agree on; e,g,. how Benedict’s new pluralism, which absorbs both heretical modernism (Kung) and forms of traditionalist piety, snaps the law of contradiction in two, consistent with the Council itself which did it first.

    The SSPX, as Fr. Laisney said, is akin to a global religious order whose main and most blessed goal is the preservation of the Deposit of the Faith. For that the whole world owes it the most profound debt of gratitude.

    Fr. Cekada, like the SSPX, has every right to write briefs for the prosecution against the popes of Vatican II, as the SSPX does too. He should. Ultimately I believe a restored Church will decide whose “briefs” are most accurate (Bellarmine or those fathers who held different opinions).

    I personally am grateful for all the cogent analysis from each side and find it all both interesting and important. I only wish the rehash about the original split would yield to that analysis, as opposed to defensive polemics directed against the other side (for others who need to awaken are watching), and that both the scattered “nine” and the SSPX would continue even more in the days ahead to direct their accusations, bullseye, against Benedict’s uncatholic and novel pluralism which was born in the polluted waters called Vatican II.

  15. Eric Jones says:

    We at Durendal discussed this interview and gave our thoughts, which I compiled into a summary, available at the above link.

  16. Thank you, Mr. Heiner, for your excellent interviews and the discussions they generate. I’m one of those struggling to sort all of this out and come to a reasoned position in relation to traditionalism that I can act on. Your work provides considerable light for the journey.