The Editors

Ecclesial unity, a defining feature of the Catholic Church, is a passion of Pope Benedict XVI. Pope Benedict has demonstrated praiseworthy willingness to seek unity, even when the effort risks stirring controversy, as has occurred with the pope’s recent overtures toward the breakaway Society of St. Pius X. Two weeks later, however, the project seemed to lie in tatters. Catholics and non-Catholics alike have expressed confusion and outrage. What went wrong, and what can be learned from the affair?

A brief restatement of the facts: On Jan. 24, the eve of the 50th anniversary of the announcement of the opening of the Second Vatican Council, Pope Benedict announced the lifting of the ban of excommunication from four bishops ordained by the schismatic Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre. The four are members of the Society of St. Pius X, founded by Lefebvre in 1970, which has rejected the teachings of the Second Vatican Council and the authority of recent popes. In 1988 the Vatican said that by being ordained without a pontifical mandate (that is, Vatican permission), the four had automatically incurred excommunication.

The initial announcement on Jan. 24 was soon followed by a firestorm of criticism when it was discovered that one bishop, Richard Williamson, had made public assertions that minimized the extent of the Holocaust. In an interview broadcast on Swedish television, Williamson claimed that the Germans had killed perhaps 300,000 Jews, no more. These positions were soon condemned by Vatican officials; the society’s superior general silenced Williamson on “political and historical matters”; and Benedict condemned Holocaust denial and reaffirmed his “full and unquestioning solidarity” with the Jewish people.

Still, the damage had been done. People within the Vatican expressed uncertainty over the canonical import of the pope’s action. Were these four bishops now in full communion with the Catholic Church? What changes or commitments had been required of them, if any? Meanwhile, others inside and outside the church continued to wonder whether the church countenanced Holocaust deniers. Religious and secular leaders alike called on Pope Benedict to clarify the church’s position. On Feb. 4 the Vatican Secretariat of State issued a strongly worded document stating that the Society of St. Pius X, as an “indispensable” condition of full communion, would have to accept all the reforms of the Second Vatican Council and the teachings of the last five popes (who were named, lest anyone miss the point). Additionally, Bishop Williamson would have to revoke in an “absolutely unequivocal and public” way his incendiary and false comments on the Holocaust.

The entire episode raised serious questions not only about the church’s relations with Judaism, but about the internal governance of the Curia and the way the Vatican communicates its message. In a rare move of public criticism, Cardinal Walter Kasper, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, said, “Up to now people in the Vatican have spoken too little with each other and have not checked where problems might arise.” Federico Lombardi, S.J., the Vatican spokesperson, was just as blunt. He called for the creation of a modern communications culture inside the Curia; currently each dicastery (department) communicates for itself.

In the end, it was hard to know whether to praise the Vatican for its openness or to fault it for playing the blame game. Clearly, much of the confusion and controversy could have been avoided if the Vatican had issued its clearly worded Feb. 4 statement, which explained what precisely was being done and what was required of the Society of St. Pius X, at the time of the initial announcement on Jan. 24. In our fast-paced, media-driven era, there is no substitute for a well defined message. If these difficult events have any upside, it is the opportunity they offer for the Vatican to evaluate and renovate Curial communications policies.

Given the pope’s desire for unity, many also hope that the Vatican has plans to reach out to theologians who have been subject to Vatican sanctions and to other groups as well. They too represent serious voices that express vital concerns in our church, and their current status at times strains our bonds of unity. And while some of their writings and positions may require ongoing discussion, it is noteworthy that unlike the Society of St. Pius X, none of them explicitly reject any prior papacy or council.

The widespread suspicion that anti-Semitism remains in the church is a perception the church must work to correct. Likewise, the authority of Vatican II must not be watered down. Undoubtedly Pope Benedict XVI shares both of these convictions. Yet unless old ways of proceeding are updated, his efforts on behalf of Christian unity risk being gravely misunderstood.

Comments

Bert M | 2/20/2009 - 5:19pm
If the Vatican sincerely desired to heal old wounds and bring back some of its "lost sheep" should that not have included the one hundred or more silenced theologians,the hundred's perhaps thousand's of priests that have since got married,those dedicated individuals, nuns, priests, and lay individuals that were denounced for helping gay's and people suffering with aids?
Matt Nannery | 2/19/2009 - 1:02pm
As 20-year career journalist and a seminarian two years away from ordination, I know the space between the person who articulates a message and the person who digests that message can be a dangerous one for both parties. This is as true for the space between the writer and his reader as it is for the space between the preacher in the pulpit and the parishioner in the pew. And this is the space where Pope Benedict has been spending a good deal of time lately. Why? As the editors of America state, the Holy Father is passionate about ecclesial unity, and such unity is the primary reason he's strode out onto such rocky terrain. Unity is why Pope Benedict has struck a conciliatory chord with the traditionalist Society of Saint Pius X in recent weeks. This is not to say, however, that he lauds the statements or actions of all Lefebvrist leaders. Quite the contrary is true. Nor is it to say that Pope Benedict or a future pope would not extend a conciliatory hand to leaders of progressive groups sometime down the line. He or his successor very well may. But you can bet that, as is currently the case with the SSPX, basic doctirnal concessions and statements of fealty to the Holy See would be required for full communion to ensue. But where is the laity in this? I have befriended lay people on both ends of this spectrum, and I can tell you that they share some very basic things in common: both feel marginalized, both feel that they are standing up for core Catholic beliefs, and both readily fess up to these feelings. When I did my summer hospital chaplaincy training, one of our visiting chaplains was a member of Spiritus Christi, a congregation that is in schism for ordaining women to celebrate Mass. Since one of the primary funtions of Catholic hospital chaplains is to give Communion to the sick, the consecration of the hosts which this chaplain brought to patients was in question. An analogous situation faced another friend of mine, whose child is studying in a school run by the SSPX. The child was just confirmed, and my friend told me she was glad the Holy Father had lifted the excommunications of the LeFebvrist bishops as it mitagated her concerns about the validity of her child's confirmation. In both situations, a core Catholic belief dear to both individuals, the validity of a sacrament, was in question. These are the problems that ensue when such groups abide on the periphery of the universal church. And these problems are equally troubling to both the Pope and the parishioner in the pew. How, then, can a pope who is both the primary authority on core Catholic beliefs and passionate advocate of unity quiet such lingering doubts? Pope Benedict's answer, from what I can glean from his actions vis-a-vis the SSPX, is to work through the necessary issues to bring the leaders of such groups back into communion with the universal church and, thereby, guaranteeing both the validity of the sacraments they administer and the peace of mind of their members. Doing that isn't easy. Pope Benedict has ruffled some feathers, both within the SSPX and among its critics. Nobody is completely happy with the situation, but I believe Pope Benedict is doing the right thing. When such groups are securely within the Church, the pope can exercise a level of control that he cannot when they are operating outside of it. Were the Holy See to make that underlying statement more clearly, perhaps all parties would grant Pope Benedict a little more slack as he traverses some very uneven terrain.
Therese | 2/17/2009 - 11:59am
Praiseworthy though the pursuit of Christian unity may be, there is much that is troubling about this recent episode ... and it doesn't only have to do with Holocaust negation. Bishop Richard Williamson has pronounced negative views of women, women's so called 'inferiority', and his thoughts that women belong 'in the home.' Another of the four Bishops proclaims that 'the cult of human rights' is a Masonic plot. Wonderful that there have been calls for denunciation of the Holocaust negating views...but why no denunciation of these other points of view. Is it because they are acceptable in Catholic teaching? Acceptable views for Catholic hierarchs to promote? And what about the rest of the Church that Benedict refuses to enter into dialogue with...insisting instead on silencing? Therese Koturbash
Michael Bindner | 2/17/2009 - 9:59am
There is papal infallibility and infallibility. Clearly Benedict made a booboo here. For those who think the Magisterium is never wrong, the current incident should be a wake up call (although likely it won't be). Certainty and Faith are not the same thing. Faith is what happens in the face of ambiguity.
LEONARD VILLA | 2/16/2009 - 2:24pm
Consider Abe Foxman of the ADL's reaction to the meeting of the Holy Father with various Jewish groups about the Williamson affair.This-an anti-Catholic individual and organization- is using the Williamson affair as cover. I suspect you do not note this behavior because of political correctness. According to Foxman, the Holocaust as an historical event should be a dogma of the Catholic Church. Foxman also said. ..."as long as the church allows an anti-Semitic bishop who denies the Holocaust to continue in his post under the aegis of the church, this means that the church is saying one thing yet doing another." Foxman is trying to reinforce hatred of the Catholic Church in this misstatement. He cannot be unaware that Williamson doesn’t hold a "post" in the Church.
FHKJ | 2/14/2009 - 10:45pm
Many thanks to the Editors of America for their thoughtful and insightful review of this unfortunate situation. It seems that the Pope's adivsors did not do their homework with respect to fully investigating the Bishops whose excommunications were lifted. As a faithful and practicing American Roman Catholic, I find myself questioning the Holy Father's priorities: for example, why has he expended so much energy and attention on the Mass of Pope John XXIII and the Society of St. Pius X? Does the Pope want to return the Church to pre-Vatican II practices? Additonally, if unity is the objective and the olive branch is being offered to SSPX; are not Father Hans Kung, Leonard Boff and Father Edward Schillebeecxyk worthy of similar consideration?
Robert Gordon | 2/14/2009 - 7:24am
It is also reported that the pope intends to make a bishop of an Austrian priest whoh claims that Katrina was God showing His anger over the sins of New Orleans. What's next? Will we go back to the Middle Ages and Renaissance and denounce Galileo all over again? Will some bishop denounce Darwin and become a cardinal? Will a Roman Catholic Zeus hurle thunderbolts at New York? Talk about returning to tradition!
Thomas Butch | 2/14/2009 - 3:09am
One significant problem not highlighted is that no one bothered to inform the Pope that Williamson held these odious and delusional views. It appears that the Pope's advisors have served him as well as President Bush's did.
Chris Thigpen | 2/13/2009 - 9:31pm
"And while some of their writings and positions may require ongoing discussion, it is noteworthy that unlike the Society of St. Pius X, none of them explicitly reject any prior papacy or council." I'm no fan of the Lefebvrists, but I believe the Holy Father is reaching out so ardently to the SSPX for two reasons: 1) He sees the Society as a powerful force for the "hermeneutic of [faithful] reform," especially in regards to the liturgy, and 2) He believes that, in essentials, members of the Society are actually Catholic. Far-left dissident theologians who reject such basic Catholic teachings as the divinity of Christ, the virginity of Mary, and papal infallibility do, in fact, explicitly reject prior papacies and Councils: concerning those three teachings, Nicea I, Ephesus, and Vatican I readily spring to mind. The road to full reconciliation with SSPX is uncertain, but at least the Church and the Society agree on foundational truths, even if certain individuals express "reservations" about Vatican II.
LEONARD VILLA | 2/13/2009 - 8:28pm
The issues that SSPX raise in their split from the Church are doctrinal/disciplinary categories which defy right-left analysis from the political sphere. I doubt whether the Pope regarded himself as "reaching right" in seeking to heal the split with the SSPX. You claim "others inside and outside the church continued to wonder whether the church countenanced Holocaust deniers. " Only the uninformed and knaves would so wonder. The uninformed because they were not aware that excommunication was not a penalty imposed for Williamson's kook opinions; the knaves because they knew perfectly well that the Pope was not anti-semitic or approving anti-semites or a denial of the Holocaust or countenancing every and any utterance of the SSPX bishops. The knaves saw it as cover for their continuing anti-Church and/or anti-Bendict agendas. Lastly anti-semitism is not a univocal term. You should define what you mean. The State Department's definition of anti-semitism includes for example criticism of the State of Israel. The term has morphed many times since its inception. It should also be noted that within and without the Jewish community many distinguish between the Holocaust, its horror, uniqueness, and its memory which must be preserved, and a Holocaust-industry which uses it wrongly to pursue other agendas. The frenzied St. Vitus dance of a reigning secular religion practiced by many "talking heads" within and without Germany, drew its energy from a perfect storm provided by the timing of the Williamson-interview and the lifting of the excommunications. That storm was not an accident. It had choreographers. Who are they? Where are they? You should comment on and investigate that.
BYGONE | 2/13/2009 - 8:21pm
When the Pope sups with devils he must dine with a long spoon as well as guarding his back.
David | 2/13/2009 - 7:45pm
"It is noteworthy that unlike the Society of St. Pius X, none of them explicitly reject any prior papacy or council". Hans Kung rejects both Vatican I and II because he rejects Papal Infallibilty. That's a bit like accepting the New Testament but not believing in the Divinity of Christ.
Denis Quinlan | 2/13/2009 - 5:00pm
Pope Benedict's obvious desire to foster unity within the Church speaks highly as to his values and priorities, and it is also one of the enduring legasies of Vatican Council II. The lifting of the censure of excommunication from the four "right" leaning bishops, unfortunately, had unforseen consequencies. However,many will be watching to see if there is balance and consistency here with regard to the treatment of some theologians and others who may be perceived as leaning to the "left". The article touched on this toward the end almost as an after thought. If building up the unity of the Church - the People of God - is the Pope's vision as it seems to be then no group must be excluded by being irnored.
PAT HANLEY | 2/13/2009 - 4:36pm
The Pope is not always right but he is never wrong!
Robert Cortegiano | 2/13/2009 - 4:26pm
I think there is a much larger issue at stake here than communication within the Vatican or its approach to public relations. The latter part of this article begins to suggest it, though rather cautiously. Why would Pope Benedict reach out to a group that openly espouses such hatred? I have a hard time accepting that it is an expression of his heart and desire for unity alone. There are many others who have been silenced or excommunicated for their desire to make the church more loving and inclusive, yet the open hand of friendship is extended to those that uphold divisive viewpoints that are clear rejections of the dignity of the human person. I think of the good people of Spiritus Christi Church in Rochester, NY who were excommunicated for their support of women's ordination, sharing Eucharist openly with all who sought it, and blessing gay marriages. Why has there been no effort to reach out to these courageous faithful who have tried to make the church and the world more loving and compassionate and open to the dignity of all people? Reaching out to estranged bishops that maintain hateful ideas that only do further violence to the Jewish people simply does not make sense. Not a single bishop was censured for his complicity in the sins of the sexual abuse crisis that is still a gaping wound in the heart of our Church. Is this not an issue that effects the unity of the body of beleivers? Where is the mind and the heart of our Pontiff? What are his eyes fixed upon? I pray we all have the grace to kneel before the Cross as St. Ignatius suggests in the Exercises, and to gaze upon our Lord who poured out his life in love and self-giving, asking ourselves, "What have I done for Christ? What am I doing for Christ? What will I do for Christ?" Maybe this is where we need to begin as we seek a way forward towards justice and peace in a Church that has so despareately lost its way.

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