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BY The Editors
On Jan. 24, Pope Benedict
XVI reversed the excommunication of bishops of the schismatic Society of St. Pius X.
a nod to Legionary Father Thomas Williams, who summed up the news online, here
are the lessons we can draw from the Holy See’s action.
it wasn’t about.
1. It’s not about the Church’s view of the
Benedict XVI has spent his whole life plagued by, and opposed to, the Nazi
regime responsible for the horrors of the Holocaust. Members of his family
suffered hassles and unemployment for their opposition to the Nazi regime, and
the young Joseph Ratzinger saw his favorite teacher pulled from his school by
Nazis. He had to rebuild his school while attending courses because of the
reiterated on Jan. 28 his recognition and condemnation that the Nazis “carried
out the brutal massacre of millions of Jews, innocent victims of a blind racial
and religious hate.” He expressed his “hope that the memory of the Shoah moves
humanity to reflect on the unpredictable power of evil when it conquers the
human heart,” and that the Holocaust “be for everyone a warning against
forgetting, against negating or reductionism, because violence committed
against even one human being is violence against all.”
why did he lift the excommunication on the Holocaust denier?
one thing, the Vatican didn’t know about the bishop’s statement. But at any
rate, having an offensive opinion of the Holocaust is not an excommunicable
why is the bishop still a bishop?
Because becoming a bishop is no mere political appointment. It has a
sacramental character. It cannot be repeated or undone. Excommunication does
not take one’s episcopacy away. The sacramental seal remains.
Bishop Richard Williamson had made the same remarks as a priest who was a
candidate for bishop, that would be another matter. You can be sure he would be
a candidate no longer.
It’s not about the Society of St. Pius X’s view of the Holocaust.
historical opinions of Richard Williamson are completely personal and not the
official position of the Society of St. Pius X. Bishop Bernard Fellay said so
in no uncertain terms Jan. 28.
affirmations of Bishop Williamson do not reflect in any sense the position of
our fraternity,” he wrote. “For this reason I have prohibited him, pending any
new orders, from taking any public positions on political or historical
questions. We ask the forgiveness of the
Supreme Pontiff, and of all people of good will, for the dramatic consequences
of this act.”
It’s not a Church approval of the society’s theology.
only does the lifting of an excommunication not imply endorsement of the
historical views of a bishop — it doesn’t imply an endorsement of all his
theological views, either. It’s merely a recognition that the bishop in
question is not excommunicated.
a bishop is one thing; being able to exercise episcopal ministry is another.
These bishops are not excommunicated but remain suspended from ordained
are plenty of points to debate; still, only now these four bishops can dialogue
as brothers within the Church, rather than as separate ecclesial entities.
what is the action about?
It’s the first, decisive step in restoring the rift these bishops opened.
have been many steps to lead to this news, but this is the first formal action
that begins to heal the wound ecclesially.
four bishops were excommunicated because Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre ordained
them in an act of disobedience. He rejected the liturgical changes of the
Second Vatican Council (even though he originally signed them) and had other
points of disagreement, as well. He ordained bishops for an ecclesial
organization after the Holy Father asked him not to.
Notice, their ordinations as bishops were
never considered invalid, as, for instance, the ordination of a woman to the
priesthood might be. They are illicit but not invalid.
as a bishop is a bishop whether he adopts heinous views or not, when an
archbishop ordains new bishops, they are truly bishops, whether the archbishop
had the proper permissions or not. This is the true, permanent status of the
Church’s bishops. It’s the real authority of the binding and loosing power of
It’s a sign of opening to the members.
Rome, the hundreds of thousands of St. Pius X congregants are the true focus of
this act. At the end of the Week of Christian Unity, the Vatican dramatically
showed its commitment to Christian unity by showing how open the Church is to
having them back. Pope Benedict XVI reached out to them last year when he
normalized the “extraordinary rite” of the Mass the 1962 Missal — nearly the
same Mass the Society of St. Pius X celebrates.
It’s about avoiding longstanding schism.
greatest sin of all is the one that tears the body of Christ apart in our own
time: schism. In its most extreme form, this tearing of the body of Christ
leaves people in a lifeless form of Christianity without the sacraments. Even
when there is a schism that retains the sacraments, it presents a witness to
the world of Christianity that works at cross purposes with the Gospel. It
fosters the attitude that says: If Christians can’t agree with each other, why
should the world agree with Christians?
Benedict doesn’t want to let that happen, so he’s reaching out right away to
prevent any schism from being etched in stone.