Pope to bishops: check your mail
Those of us who thought the pope had said the final word on the Williamson saga will have to think again. It seems to be never-ending.
On Thursday the Vatican officially releases a letter to the world’s bishops in which the pope essentially acknowledges that the Vatican handled the lifting of the excommunications of four ultra-traditionalist bishops very badly and that it hurt him personally that things went awry.
(Photo: Pope Benedict at his weekly audience, 11 March 2009/Alessia Pierdomenico)
The story started leaking out on Tuesday night in the blog of Andrea Tornielli of Il Giornale and a story with partial excerpts was published in the Italian newspaper Il Foglio on Wednesday. The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung printed what it said was the full text in German of the pope’s letter. Our story is based on a face-to-face conversation I had with an Italian archbishop who received the letter. We discussed it over a light meal near St Peter’s Square.
If the leaks and the archbishop’s comment are any indication, the letter may be a sort of first — a pope explaining to his bishops why he did something that some of them contested, at times openly. He talks about his pain and also speaks of the Society of Saint Pius X (SSPX), how he felt that he had to bring them back into the fold because there are good people among them. But the pope also acknowledges how some of them are arrogant and think they know better than everyone else. He says some speak in ways that are discordant with the Church and its teachings. Why do you think the pope felt he had to do this? Was it necessary to write the letter? Will it be interpreted as a sign of weakness or strength? The entire letter will be be on the Vatican’s website tomorrow after 1100 gmt.
(Photo: Bishop Richard Williamson, 28 Feb 2007/Jens Falk)
For those of you who read Italian, here is a link to Andrea Tornielli’s blog. For German speakers, here’s today’s Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung text. Following are some excerpts from the German text translated by Reuters:
“The lifting of the excommunications of the four bishops ordained by Archbishop Lefebvre in 1988 without a mandate from the Holy See has led, for several reasons, to a dispute inside and outside the Catholic Church more vehement than we have seen in a long time. Many bishops felt helpless in the face of an event that came unempectedly and hardly corresponded to the questions and tasks of today’s Church . While many bishops and believers were ready to view the pope’s will to reconciliation positively, there was on the other hand the question of the appropriateness of such a gesture in view of the really urgent issues for believers in our time. Some groups openly accused the pope of wanting to go back to before the Second Vatican Council. An avalanche of protests began whose bitterness showed hurt that went beyond the present moment. So I felt obliged to write to you, my brothers, to clear some things up and help understand the intentions that I and the responsible organs of the Holy See had in making this step. I hope in this way to contribute to bringing peace into the Church…
“A mishap that was unforseeable for me occured because the Williamson case overshadowed the lifting of the excommunications. The calm gesture of mercy towards four validly but illicitly ordained bishops suddenly seemed to be something completely different: a rejection of Christian-Jewish reconciliation, a withdrawal of what the Council had declared in this matter as the path of the Church. In this way, an invitation to reconciliation with a breakaway Church group turned into its opposite: an apparent retreat behind all steps of reconciliation between Christians and Jews taken since the Council. From the start, taking these steps and developing them has been a goal of my theological work. I can only deeply regret that this overlapping of two contrary events has occurred and upset the peace between Christians and Jews and the peace in the Church…
“I hear that attentive tracking of the news available on the Internet could have made it possible to learn about this problem in time. I learn from this that we at the Holy See must pay more attention to this source of news in the future. I was also saddened to see that also Catholics, who actually could have known better, thought they had to lash out at me with ready-to-pounce hostility. I’m all the more thankful to the Jewish friends who helped clear up the misunderstanding quickly and restore the atmosphere of friendship and trust that — as during the time of Pope John Paul — has reigned during the whole time of my pontificate and, thank God, still exists…
“Another mishap that I honestly regret is that the limits and extend of the measure of 21 January 2009 were not clearly presented when the act was announced. Excommunication applies to people, not institutions. Ordaining a bishop without a papal mandate means the danger of a schism, because it challenges the unity of the college of bishops with the pope. The Church must therefore react with the harshest punishment, excommunication, in order to bring the punished ones to regret their act and return to unity. Twenty years after the ordinations, this goal has still not yet been reached … The lifting of the excommunications was a measure in the area of Church discipline: the people involved were freed of the burden on their conscience of having the harshest Church punishment. One must differentiate the doctrinal area from this disciplinary area. That the Society of Saint Pius X has no canonical standing in the Church is actually not based on disciplinary reasons, but on doctrinal reasons … As long as the doctrinal questions have not been cleared up, the Society has no canonical statue in the Church and its leaders, while free of the Church punishment, do not exercise any office legally in the Church…
“Can we be indvifferent to a community that has 491 priests, 215 seminarists, six seminaries, 88 schools, two university institutes, 117 brothers and 164 nuns? Should we simply let them drift away from the Church? I think for example of the 491 priests. We cannot know the web of their motivations. But I think they would not have decided to become priests if, along with some lopsided or sick (aspects), there had not been a love for Christ and the will to preach about him and with him the living God. Should we simply shut them out of the search for reconciliation and unity as representatives of a radical fringe group? What would happen then?
“Of course, for a long time, we have heard occasional dissonant tones from representatives of this community — arrogance and a know-it-all attitude, a fixation on one-sidedness, etc. To be honest, I have to add that I have also received several moving testimonies of thankfulness that showed an opening of the hearts. But shouldn’t the great Church also be able to be magnanimous, knowing the long-term perspective it has and the promise given it? Shouldn’t we, like good teachers, be able to ignore some bad things and try to move out of this squeeze? And shouldn’t we admit that dissonent tones have also come from Church circles? One sometimes has the impression that our society needs at least one group that it need not show any tolerance to and can lash out at with hatred? And whoever dares touch it — in this case, the pope — loses the right to tolerance and can also be met with hatred without anyone being shy or reserved about it?”