Marcel Lefebvre casts a long shadow. Rightly or wrongly, one man encapsulates so much of internal drama and strife that defines the gradual abeyance of the Roman Church's pre-modernity in favor of modernism. In the light of which, the man has become something of a romantic figure, as he pretty much embodies (for better or worse) the collapse of classical Catholicism (loosely defined) in favor or a more contemporary manifestation.
The imagination of Lefebvre's struggle and the valiant resistance of the SSPX, to be honest, always elicits a sense of nostalgia. It always returns me to those younger years, full of wide-eyes naivety, trying to make sense of how the religion of my birth could have undergone such a massive recasting, wondering why all of the mysticism was displaced, and, most importantly, looking for a hero. A hero - someone or some side to fall on that could not only succinctly state what had happened, but boldly march against it, until at last everything that had been felled by such shadows might again see the light.
And then life happened. Real life, seeing everything in the flesh, realizing the actual circumstance was more complicated and the heroic solution was only possible in the romance of a given moment.
Recently, there have been some very fine (critical) reflections on Lefebvre. Patrick has (as is his custom) a thought provoking piece that gets to the heart of the matter without sparing any punches. Fr. Chadwick has two very good posts to consider, both of which are filled with the perspective born from genuine experience.
Lefebvre was one of many actors on the stage during those critical years when Vatican II finalized the sweeping recasting of the Roman Church and, as a result, left classical Catholicism to the margins of history. Yes, Papal Infallibility was sign post to the road ahead, but, ultimately, Vatican II was responsible for formally discarding the major holdouts to modernization that previously seemed impassible. Lefebvre was there and he was one of many who saw history stand darken their door.
Lefebvre was more of an after effect. He (as he became defined in the last twenty or so years of his life) and his society were both bi-products of the modernization, unconsciously and irrevocably calling to the very same moment that produced the very things they rejected. Thus it is somewhat baffling that the man has acquired a mythos of anti-modern heroism. It was someone like the late Cardinal Brown who warned those gathered that the changes being endorsed would represent a grave alteration, the "blowback" for which would be terrible. Lefebvre was not in the field fighting the active resistance. He was (as his signature on the Council's documents ever reflects) part of the aftermath, the movements to define the modernization that had been put in place, whereas Cardinal Brown fought the resistance and lost. There are more heroic figures who saw the changes taking place and raised their doubts. They left that Council, or died during its proceedings, taking with them whatever premonition they had of their church's future as a result of the decisions being made.
These figures have largely fallen into obscurity. Lefebvre remains. In no small part it is do to the success of the society he founded. The SSPX has created the hagiography of their founder. Lefebvre's minor role during the critical years of the Council is largely overshadowed by his role during the papacy of John Paul II. It is during these years that Lefebvre becomes the embodiment of resistance and wields what increasingly appears to be an immovable influence on Traditionalism and the popular conception of classical Catholicism. Even with Paul VI, Lefebvre had a way of keeping himself and his society close enough to the papacy to garner attention and effectively project a reputation. He maximized this during John Paul II's papacy, all the while building a well oiled machine that would successfully endure after his death.
A consequence of Lefebvre's success is that classical Catholicism commonly defined, even among prelates, is identified with Lefebvre and takes the form of various arbitrary opinions and decisions he rendered obligatory on his society. In truth, Traditionalists in the Roman Church, even those who do not associate with the SSPX, are more than obliging to this development. The Traditionalist position largely plays by the goal posts set by Lefebvre and the full breadth of classical Catholicism or Western/Latin Christianity is squandered as much by Traditionalists as it is the mainline Roman Church.