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James Martin, S.J.January 24, 2009

A surprising, and important, story out of Rome today: Pope Benedict XVI has lifted the ban of excommunications of four Lefebvrite bishops, members of the controversial Society of St. Pius X.  The news was relayed to us by Robert Mickens, the London Tablet correspondent, who has also pointed out that the decree itself does not mention anything about the Second Vatican Council, which the Lefebvrites explicitly reject.  Jeff Israely at Time has the story here.  Also, Greg Kandra at Deacon’s Bench has a video of one of the recently reinstated bishops, Bishop Richard Williamson, who also (recently: last year) denied that Jews died in the gas chambers in the Holocaust.

The lifting of the ban of excommunication of the SSPX is an interesting counterpoint, to say the very least, to the excommunication threatened against Fr. Roy Bourgeois, who participated in a women’s ordination ceremony. 

Here is the CNS story by John Thavis

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Pope Benedict XVI has lifted the excommunication of four bishops ordained against papal orders in 1988 by the late Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre. The move was considered a major concession to the archbishop’s traditionalist followers.

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.

It said some questions remain unresolved with the society, including its future status and that of its priests, and that these issues would be the subject of further talks.

"The Holy Father was motivated in this decision by the hope that complete reconciliation and full communion may be reached as soon as possible," a Vatican statement said.

The head of the society, Bishop Bernard Fellay, had requested the annulment of the excommunication in a letter Dec. 15. Bishop Fellay wrote that he and the three other bishops illicitly ordained in 1988 were determined to remain Catholic, and accepted the teachings of Pope Benedict "with filial spirit."

The Vatican 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."

The decree removing the excommunications, issued by the Congregation for Bishops, underlined the hope that this step would be followed by full communion, and that all members of the Society of St. Pius X would demonstrate "true fidelity and true acknowledgment of the Magisterium and the authority of the pope."

The move came after one of the illicitly ordained bishops, British-born Bishop Richard 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 recorded last November but aired in mid-January.

The 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 excommunication.

"Saying a person is not excommunicated is not the same as saying one shares all his ideas or statements," Father Lombardi said.

The removal of the excommunication was a key condition of the Society of St. Pius X in its on-again, off-again talks with the Vatican over reconciliation. The pope in 2007 granted another of the society’s requests, widening the possibility for use of the Tridentine rite, the form of Mass used before the Second Vatican Council.

Archbishop Lefebvre rejected several important teachings of the Second Vatican Council, including those related to 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.

The Vatican action came the day before the 50th anniversary of Pope John XXIII’s announcement of the Second Vatican Council. Father Lombardi said it would be wrong to see the lifting of the excommunication as a rejection of Vatican II.

"On the contrary, I think it is a beautiful thing that the council is no longer considered an element of division, but as an element in which every member of the church can meet," he said.

In addition to Bishops Fellay and Williamson, the decree removed the excommunication for French Bishop Bernard Tissier de Mallerais and Argentine Bishop Alphonso de Galarreta. The Vatican said in 1988 that Archbishop Lefebvre and the bishops he ordained had incurred automatic excommunication for defying papal orders against the ordination.


James Martin, SJ

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14 years ago
Wow! I was with these good people a number of years myself, and speaking strictly for myself, I'm truly amazed! Well, Pope Benedict XVI did whatever he thought he needed to do, so good luck to him and to the Catholic Church as a whole. As a personal opinion, albeit one based on years of practical experience, my spin is this: the Traditional Latin Mass is NOT, nor has it EVER been the issue with these bishops. Good luck to us all, then. Because as many of us have said for years:''Give these folks Pope St. Pius V for their Pope, and St. Athanasius for their bishop and still these good people would find something to object to!'' Thanks! Dennis
14 years ago
More shoes may drop in the coming weeks, but casual observers would have to conclude this announcement marks a full and final repudiation of Vatican II by the current leadership in Rome. The SSPX web site has a triumphant note from Bishop Fellay; he and the other schismatics do not appear to have recanted their views on religious liberty, ecumenism, and their general philosophy that Vatican II was a 'pastoral' rather than dogmatic gathering. Fellay does reassert his loyalty to the 'chair of Peter' and celebrates the reunion of what he calls Tradition with the Catholic Church. Oy! For Catholics who believed in Vatican II, it appears that the contradictions of continued participation in the Roman church will be enhanced. Perhaps there will be a 'balancing' announcement marking the 50th anniversary of John XXIII's call for the Council.
14 years ago
'On the contrary, I think it is a beautiful thing that the council is no longer considered an element of division, but as an element in which every member of the church can meet,' said the papal press secretary. Really? He said this on the same day this group published official statements in which they continue their rejection of the Second Vatican Council. But we're supposed to see their continued denial as proof that the council is no longer considered an element of division.' Why? Apparently because you don't have to accept the Council to be Catholic, so ipso facto, it is not a cause of division. I've seen some pretty remarkable doublespeak come out of the Apostolic palace, but his statement has got to set an all-time record. 'Welcome home, guys, all is forgiven. Oh, those trivial little matters about rejecting a Council of the Church, calling the reformed liturgy invalid and saying you're the only true Catholics? Well, we can always chat about that later.' Puh-leeeeze!
14 years ago
I regard this decision as a serious mistake by the Pope. And yes, I do have nothing but contempt for a group which, among other things, harboured the Vichy collaborator, Paul Touvier, helping him to evade justice for many years. Touvier was later convicted of crimes against humanity for ordering the assassination of seven Jewish hostages at Rillieux la Pape.
14 years ago
This is really a big step for the Holy Father! Maybe he will be willing to sit down and listen to all the thousands of people who have joined the Independent Catholic Movement in this country and around the world ! There is hope for our brethen in Rome yet !!!
14 years ago
It seems to me that Jesus The Christ is the only one who can truly correct this kind of problem within His Church. While I was serving high mass as an altar boy, I was always under the impression that Jesus placed His Peter in charge of His Church. Now I was also always under the impression that His Peter was part of Christ' Body in His Church who is His Bride and was in charge! Christ' Peter is the head of HIS Church, until The Second Coming, and if the twenty-first century has gone so low as to elect another peter, then I’m sure that Christ will take care of that in His Own way. In the mean time who are any of us to yell HOLY MURDER for any decision that His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI might make. As far as I’m concerned he’s the now representative of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ Church and will be until God’s Angels decide otherwise. God Bless, Peace
14 years ago
It is a curious development that Our Holy Father has chosen to take this extraordinary step on the heals of the Motu Proprio, and the restablishment of the Extraordinary Fom of the Mass. It would seem obvious that His Holiness is trying to make a big statement here. The "Reform of the Reform" is in full swing. Seminarians are now openly and happily learning the ancient Latin Liturgy. Flocks are young people are gravitating to Orders that promote and foster the Extraordinary form. There are actually more Traditionalists attending Mass in France now tha the New Order. The battle is won. Now it is just a mopping up operation. Finis Est. Bill
13 years 12 months ago
What am I to say to my dear Jewish Brothers and Sisters? I don't have an explanation for this except that Pope Benedict has consistently made decisions on internal affairs in the church without considering that he is a visible leader in the world. He appears to think and act in a silo. He may be trying to repair divisions in the church,instead he has not only hurt our Jewish brothers and sisters, and he has created yet more division. I still believe that the Holy Spirit is in charge and is the gift to us of the Resurrection. The trials and tribulations which we encounter, particularly from the actions and thoughts of others who we think should know better, makes me cling to God's will. I will continue to ride the roller coaster and continue to listen to what the Lord wants of me, even if it means to minister in distress. Of course the greatest battelfied for the enemy of Christ is among believers. My prayer must ever be, not my will, but Thy Will be done in me. To be continually hurt is to be continually challeneged to forgive. Many times, I am not up to it. I am so sorry for this blow. All my Catholic brothers and sisters who are in solidarity with the Jewish people suffer this with you.
13 years 11 months ago
I graduated from Georgetown in 1966 and majored in Latin. So I am somewhat biased in favor of the old mass since I can easily read the Latin in a missal, and besides, was an altar boy for 13 years, so the ceremonies are familiar to me. My formation was very different from that of today. We were taught to believe everything the Council is said to have repudiated, and which the SSPX says is church teaching which cannot be changed, even by a council. In short, I believe, with the SSPX, that our future in in our past. I would like to see full normalization of the relation between Rome and the SSPX because the Church can use their 500 well trained and dedicated priests, and the positions it holds regarding the Council are respectable. Reasonable men can differ as to whether the Church really benefited from the Council and new liturgy. None of this excuses Bishop Williamson or his assinine views on history. He has been silenced by the SSPX. But he is a bishop and had to be included along with his fellow SSPX bishops in the decree lifting the excommunications. Racism has always been condemned by the Church, and Benedict XVI is no racist. Enemies of the Cburch must not use the fact that one of the SSPX bishops is an apparent nut case to condemn the Church. Nor is it anti-Semitism to point our that Jews have power and wealth all out of proportion to their numbers.

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