On Jan. 24, Pope Benedict XVI reversed the excommunication of bishops of the schismatic Society of St. Pius X.
With 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.
What it wasn’t about.
1. It’s not about the Church’s view of the Holocaust.
Pope 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 Nazis.
He 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.”
So, why did he lift the excommunication on the Holocaust denier?
For 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 act.
And 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.
If 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.
2. It’s not about the Society of St. Pius X’s view of the Holocaust.
The 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.
“The 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.”
3. It’s not a Church approval of the society’s theology.
Not 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.
Being a bishop is one thing; being able to exercise episcopal ministry is another. These bishops are not excommunicated but remain suspended from ordained ministry.
There 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.
So, what is the action about?
1. It’s the first, decisive step in restoring the rift these bishops opened.
There have been many steps to lead to this news, but this is the first formal action that begins to heal the wound ecclesially.
These 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.
Just 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 the Church.
2. It’s a sign of opening to the members.
For 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.
3. It’s about avoiding longstanding schism.
The 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?
Pope Benedict doesn’t want to let that happen, so he’s reaching out right away to prevent any schism from being etched in stone.