WASHINGTON — When Pope Benedict XVI lifted the excommunication of four bishops from the Society of St. Pius X Jan. 21, the gesture had a two-fold design. Not only was it intended to express pastoral concern for members of the Lefebvrist group, it was also timed to mark the 50th anniversary of the calling of the Second Vatican Council.
The excommunications originally came about when Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, founder of the Priestly Society of St. Pius X, ordained four bishops to carry on his work. Archbishop Lefebvre went ahead with the ordinations in spite of the fact that Pope John Paul II had not granted permission for them. The society, which continues to celebrate the Mass and the other sacraments according to the pre-Vatican II liturgical books, also takes issue with several teachings of the Second Vatican Council, including religious freedom.
Two months after Pope Benedict’s action in lifting the excommunications ignited a firestorm of protests — because one of the bishops had made remarks dismissive of the Nazi Holocaust — and threatened four decades of Catholic-Jewish dialogue, the Pope issued a letter to the world’s bishops that clarified his intentions.
The March 12 letter expressed both profound regret for the Vatican’s mishandling of the action and deep sadness that so many of his flock attacked his motives.
Described by commentators as an “unprecedented” and “extraordinarily personal” missive, the letter reflects the emotional and spiritual reflections of an elderly Pope who is not afraid to reveal his deepest hopes and fears — or to openly acknowledge that mistakes occurred on his watch.
Yet, the letter does not reveal a pope in retreat, but a religious leader who uses his own stumbles as an opportunity to underscore the urgent need for Christian unity in an age of unbelief.
“In our days, when in vast areas of the world the faith is in danger of dying out like a flame which no longer has fuel, the overriding priority is to make God present in this world and to show men and women the way to God,” Benedict wrote. “The real problem at this moment of our history is that God is disappearing from the human horizon, and, with the dimming of the light which comes from God, humanity is losing its bearings, with increasingly evident destructive effects.”
“Leading men and women to God, to the God who speaks in the Bible: This is the supreme and fundamental priority of the Church and of the Successor of Peter at the present time,” he continued. “A logical consequence of this is that we must have at heart the unity of all believers. Their disunity, their disagreement among themselves, calls into question the credibility of their talk of God.”
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Thus, this informal letter serves as a forum for clarifying Benedict’s response to four weighty issues of concern to Catholics: the ongoing need for Christian reconciliation, his commitment to the Second Vatican Council, damage to Christian-Jewish relations, and an apparently dysfunctional Vatican bureaucracy.
“The letter is unusual for its personal tone. But its candor is very consistent with the Joseph Ratzinger of Salt of the Earth and some of his other books and interviews before he was elected Pope,” observed Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver. “The burdens that come with the Chair of Peter show through pretty clearly in the text.”
Papal biographer George Weigel said the Pope’s language underscores his “exquisite courtesy,” combined with a hard-edged acknowledgement that the Roman Curia must change its ways.
The Pope directed that the Pontifical Commission “Ecclesia Dei” — the curial entity led by Cardinal Darío Castrillón Hoyos that oversaw dialogue with the Lefebvrist bishops — will now operate under the auspices of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
“This letter will do great good for Catholic-Jewish relations, and it will remind the hard left and hard right that their sandbox wars are impeding the evangelization mission of the Church,” said Weigel. “But it is still necessary to face the problems of a bureaucracy that is not functioning well in the one job it has — to serve the Pope.”
The Pope wrote about the public relations disaster that struck the Vatican after the Holy See lifted the excommunication of the four bishops. Almost immediately, news headlines noted that one of the four, British Bishop Richard Williamson, during a television interview, had minimized the scope of the Nazi Holocaust.
Because of the “unforeseen … fact that the Williamson case came on top of the remission of the excommunication,” Pope Benedict wrote, the “discreet gesture of mercy towards four bishops ... appeared as something completely different: as the repudiation of reconciliation between Christians and Jews, and thus as the reversal of what the council had laid down in this regard to guide the Church’s path.”
The experience taught him several practical lessons he will employ in the future, he confirmed: The Vatican should have prepared the Church for the decision to lift the excommunication, and it should have broadened its methods of research regarding the backgrounds of the four bishops.
“I have been told that consulting the information available on the Internet would have made it possible to perceive the problem early on,” the Pope wrote. “I have learned the lesson that in the future in the Holy See we will have to pay greater attention to that source of news.”
Church leaders feared that the controversy would permanently damage Catholic-Jewish relations. As soon as the crisis erupted, the Pope and bishops around the world acted quickly to distance the Church from Bishop Williamson’s Holocaust views.
Chicago Cardinal Francis George, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, characterized Bishop Williamson’s statements as “deeply offensive and utterly false.”
Now, the general consensus among Catholic and Jewish leaders engaged in interfaith dialogue is that the letter has completed the process of repairing the damage inflicted during the past two months. In his letter, the Pope thanked Jewish leaders for assisting his efforts to heal the breach.
“It’s a superb letter, and its effect is to put the controversy to rest,” said Father James Massa, executive director of the U.S. bishops’ conference Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs.
Jewish leaders have been “pleased with the whole series of steps the Holy See has taken to reassure our Jewish friends that the Church was committed to the Second Vatican Council and Nostra Aetate, the council’s “Declaration on the Relation of the Church with Non-Christian Religions,” which marked a sea change in Catholic-Jewish relations.
Though Jewish leaders continue to press for a break on talks regarding the canonization of Pope Pius XII, among other issues, they applaud the Pope’s latest gesture.
“With this crisis in relations now over, the American Jewish Committee looks forward to renewing, together with the Church, the important principles of Nostra Aetate, and together moving forward to disseminate the Nostra Aetate ideas of reconciliation between Christians and Jews,” Rabbi Gary Greenebaum, U.S. director of interreligious affairs for the American Jewish Committee, told the Register.
Church Unity Is Fundamental
But if Catholic-Jewish dialogue is back on track, the same cannot be said for two other issues that surfaced: Christian unity and the Holy See’s effort to bring the Society of St. Pius X back into the Church.
In his letter, the Pope expressed a profound sense of hurt that Catholics were quick to misjudge his intentions with regard to the schismatic bishops.
“I was saddened by the fact that even Catholics who, after all, might have had a better knowledge of the situation, thought they had to attack me with open hostility,” he wrote.
The Pope perceives “intransigence” and resistance to Christian unity from many quarters. While ultra-progressive Catholics turn their backs on the Church that existed before the opening of Vatican II in 1962, traditionalists reject what they perceived as the council’s break with the past. The Pope asked both groups to ponder the need for reconciliation and unity.
“The Church’s teaching authority cannot be frozen in the year 1962 — this must be quite clear to the Society” of St. Pius X, he wrote. “But some of those who put themselves forward as great defenders of the council also need to be reminded that Vatican II embraces the entire doctrinal history of the Church. Anyone who wishes to be obedient to the council has to accept the faith professed over the centuries and cannot sever the roots from which the tree draws its life.
“But I ask now: Was it, and is it, truly wrong in this case to meet halfway the brother who ‘has something against you’ (Matthew 5:23) and to seek reconciliation?”
With these words, the Pope articulated a central theme of his pontificate — and the fundamental mission of his Petrine office.
“The Pope’s chief responsibility is to ensure the unity of the Church. As long as there is schism, the Church is not united,” said Jesuit Father Edward Oakes, who teaches theology at the University of St. Mary of the Lake in Mundelein, Ill., the seminary for the Archdiocese of Chicago.
Father Oakes suggested that the Pope presents a subtle understanding of a faith shaped by historical revelation and changing circumstances that have led, for example, to new teachings on religious freedom and a transformed relationship with the Jews.
Father Oakes described these shifts in perspective as “innovation within continuity.” A deepened understanding of new circumstances is inevitable, he said. “But in order to prevent that new awareness from becoming an occasion for disunity, we need an infallible interpretation of what change is authentic.”
Now, said Father Oakes, “the ball is in the court of the Lefebvrists. They are the ones who should respond to what the Pope said in his letter — Church history did not end in 1962. The issue is doctrinal now, not liturgical.”
Bishop Bernard Fellay, superior general of the Society of St. Pius X, issued a statement March 12 in response to the Pope’s letter. “We wholeheartedly thank the Holy Father for having placed the debate back on the level on which it must be held, that of the faith,” Bishop Fellay wrote. “Indeed, the Church is going through a major crisis which can be resolved only by an integral return to the purity of the faith.”
He said the society does not want to stop Tradition at the 1962 point, but “wish to consider the Second Vatican Council and post-conciliar teaching in the light of this Tradition which St. Vincent of Lérins defined as ‘what has been believed at all times, everywhere and by all’ (commonitorium), without rupture and in a perfectly homogenous development.”
Bishop Fellay also assured the Pope that the society is determined “to enter into the doctrinal talks recognized as ‘requisite’” by the decree lifting the excommunications.
Joan Frawley Desmond writes from Chevy Chase, Maryland.