Pope clarifies Vatican stand four days after lifting SSPX bans
(Photo: Pope Benedict at his weekly Vatican audience, 28 Jan 2009/Tony Gentile)
Pope Benedict clarified a crucial point in the Vatican’s dispute with the rebel traditionalist Society of Saint Pius X (SSPX) during his regular weekly audience today. Apart from the issue of Bishop Richard Williamson and his denial of the Holocaust, which has angered Jewish leaders and caught most of the headlines, the decision to lift the excommunications of the four SSPX bishops raised serious concerns among many Catholics because it seemed to signal a departure from reforms of the 1962-1965 Second Vatican Council. Specifically, by lifting the bans without demanding the SSPX bishops first recognise all Council reforms, it looked like Benedict was not trying to defend these Church teachings against their most implacable critics. Benedict has long been a champion of a conservative re-interpretation of the Council so any concessions he makes to the SSPX go beyond the narrow issue involved.
The Second Vatican Council was a major and complex event (well explained in the new book What Happened At Vatican II by Georgetown University Professor John W. O’Malley pictured at right). Its reforms include the opening to Jews, Muslims and other religions and a commitment to religious freedom. They replaced earlier teachings that Jews were Christ-killers, that all other faiths were deeply in error and that democracy and the separation of church and state were modernist aberrations. Many Catholics would not be able to recognise their own Church if it went back to those notions. Some would even leave if it did. But the SSPX officially rejects these reforms as grave errors and it refused to agree to them as a pre-condition for having the excommunications lifted.
The fact that Benedict agreed to lift the bans without gaining this concession from them (which the Vatican was demanding as late as last June) prompted speculation that he would fudge this condition in the negotiations due with the SSPX to regularise their status within the Church. SSPX Superior General Bishop Bernard Fellay fuelled this suspicion by writing a triumphant letter to his followers clearly stating he had not made this concession (the Vatican statement was not clear on this point). Statements from the Vatican in reaction to the uproar about Williamson have been curiously defensive. Church officials have said his views were unacceptable and not related to the excommunication issue. Those statements were fine as far as they went. But they never shifted to the offensive and said, “And what’s more, we’ll demand that they sign up to all Vatican II documents.” The whole episode led Catholics to ask, as did blogger David Gibson, “Why so much for this group?”
This point was not lost on Catholic bishops elsewhere. On Monday, the German bishops’ conference said the SSPX must accept Vatican II, especially the document Nostra Aetate that set relations with Jews on a new basis. On Tuesday, the bishops’ conference in Switzerland — where the SSPX has its headquarters — said the same thing, also citing Nostra Aetate. Today, the French bishops’ conference joined in, saying that “The Second Vatican Council is not negotiable at all. No Church group can take the place of the Magesterium,” the overall teaching of the Church. While none of these statements criticised the Vatican directly, they were stage-whispered shouts of concern to Rome that the Vatican was going too soft on the SSPX.
At his audience today, Benedict made three special announcements. The first hailed the election of Metropolitan Kirill — a friend of the Vatican — as the new patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church. The third repeated Benedict’s condemnation of the Holocaust and solidarity with Jews — a well-known position he would not have had to repeat if this whole episode had not been presented so poorly in the first place.
(Photo: Pope Benedict speaks with Holocaust survivor at Auschwitz, 28 May 2006/pool)
The second announcement concerned the lifting of the SSPX excommunications:
“I hope that this gesture of mine will be followed by the desired commitment on their part to take the further steps needed to achieve full communion with the Church, thereby showing true loyalty and true recognition of the Magisterium and the authority of the pope and of the Second Vatican Council.”
That still doesn’t mean the SSPX will follow through. There is good reason to expect the coming negotiations to be extremely difficult and the SSPX will try to deconstruct this statement to the point where they don’t have to make any concessions. But at least now, after four days of vagueness, Benedict has given the impression of drawing a line in the sand. Let’s see how it holds up when the SSPX starts negotiating with Rome.
What do you think? Will Benedict stand up for Vatican II? Or is he using this as another way to re-interpret it in a more conservative way?