Pope Benedict XVI has lifted the excommunication order on four bishops, ordained against the Pope’s will, by the late Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre in 1988.
In a statement, the Vatican said the decree removing the excommunication, signed Jan. 21 and made public three days later, marked an important step toward full communion with the Society of St. Pius X, founded by Archbishop Lefebvre in 1970.
However, it said more talks were needed before the bishops, and other priests belonging to the traditionalist society, could be fully reconciled with the Church. “We hope that this step may be followed by the caring accomplishment of the full communion with the Church of the whole Society of St. Pius X, thus witnessing true fidelity and truthful recognition of the magisterium and the Pope’s authority with the proof of visible unity,” the Vatican statement read.
Despite the lifting of the excommunications, the SSPX prelates remain suspended from ordained ministry.
News of the decree was made public the day before the 50th anniversary of the announcement of the Second Vatican Council by Pope John XXIII.
An editorial in the Jan. 25 edition of the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano affirmed that the timing was no coincidence. “The good fruits of the Council are innumerable, and among them there are now this merciful gesture to the bishops excommunicated in 1988,” wrote Giovanni Maria Vian, the newspaper’s editor in chief. “It is a gesture that would have pleased John XXIII and his successors. … [Pope Benedict XVI issued the decree] with the clear intention to see this painful fracture made better soon.”
Speaking to reporters Jan. 24 in Paris, Cardinal André Vingt-Trois, chairman of the French bishops’ conference, called the decision “a measure of clemency and mercy” that would allow the Church to repair a damaging split.
France is home to the largest of the provinces of the St. Pius X Society, with around 100,000 members out of a total of 600,000. The Society of St. Pius X has for many years called for the removal of the excommunication, the most recent request being made by the head of the society, Bishop Bernard Fellay, in a letter Dec. 15.
The Vatican, in its Jan. 24 statement, said the Pope had responded positively to the request in order to promote “the unity in charity of the universal Church and succeed in removing the scandal of division.”
Until now, the society had always contested the 1988 excommunication and wanted it removed without recognition that any excommunication existed. But in a statement issued Jan. 24, Bishop Fellay brushed aside those concerns, and instead welcomed the Pope’s “courageous” decision in a spirit of “filial gratitude.”
The statement added that the society wanted to be “always more able to help the Pope” in “remedying” the crisis affecting the Church. He went on to write that the society agreed that further talks are necessary with the Holy See because they will enable the society “to explain the fundamental doctrinal reasons which it believes to be at the origin of the present difficulties of the Church.”
In addition to Bishop Fellay, the decree removing the excommunications, issued by the Congregation for Bishops, concerned Bishop Bernard Tissier de Mallerais, Bishop Richard Williamson and Bishop Alfonso del Gallareta.
But the move came just days after Bishop Williamson provoked Jewish protests with assertions that the Holocaust was exaggerated and that no Jews died in Nazi gas chambers. He spoke in a TV interview aired in mid-January.
According to sources, the Vatican was unaware of the television interview. Even so, Vatican spokesman, Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, said emphatically that the Vatican did not share Bishop Williamson’s views, but that it was a completely separate issue from the lifting of the decree. “Saying a person is not excommunicated is not the same as saying one shares all his ideas or statements,” Father Lombardi said.
Vian, in his Jan. 25 editorial, also said the news of this decree is “not tarnished by the unacceptable opinions and attitudes of denial made against Jews” by Williamson.
On Jan. 28, Bishop Fellay apologized to Pope Benedict for Bishop Williamson’s remarks. “Because we recognize how ill-advised these declarations were, we can only look with sadness at the way in which they have directly struck our fraternity, discrediting its mission,” Bishop Fellay said. “We ask the forgiveness of the Supreme Pontiff, and of all people of good will, for the dramatic consequences of this act. ... This is something we cannot accept, and we declare that we will continue to preach Catholic doctrine and to administer the sacraments of grace of Our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Relations between the Vatican and the society have markedly improved in recent years, helped by Summorum Pontificum, the Pope’s 2007 “motu proprio” (on his own initiative) that widened use of the pre-conciliar Traditional Latin Mass, now called the Extraordinary Form. Behind-the-scenes maneuvers and talks have been going on for months on lifting the decree, which is being seen by many at the Vatican as an extraordinary act of grace on the part of the Holy Father.
However, it won’t be clear until after extensive talks whether the society will overcome a major hurdle as far as it’s concerned: accepting the reforms of the Second Vatican Council. The society has, since the time of Archbishop Lefebvre, rejected the Council’s teachings on such issues as religious liberty, ecumenism and liturgy.
The Vatican statements did not mention the Council’s teachings, and Father Lombardi had no comment on whether the society was asked to adhere to them.
In a press release and letter to the society’s membership, Bishop Fellay, alongside the other three bishops, assured Benedict of his readiness “to write the creed with our own blood, to sign the anti-modernist oath, the profession of faith of Pius IV, [to] accept and make our own all the councils up to the Second Vatican Council about which we express some reservations.”
Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyos, the president of the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei, which has been charged with trying to achieve reconciliation with the Society of Pius X, believes that by lifting the excommunication the society may be more amenable to accepting the Council’s teachings and begin to tone down its rhetoric.
The society’s willingness to enter into talks is taken to be a “good sign” by some in the Vatican, although, as its statement suggests, the society is only willing to do so on its own terms. If the Society of St. Pius X continues to reject the Council’s reforms and plays this gift as a vindication of their position, then reconciliation will be out of reach.
As the Holy Father is insistent on there being a hermeneutic of continuity (no break between the pre-conciliar Church and the Church of today), if the society persists in its position, its members will formally be declared in schism.
But the Vatican is seeing that as a worst-case scenario. For now, officials are just waiting to see if the Pope’s “extraordinary generosity” will be met in kind.
Edward Pentin writes