Vatican statement accompanying papal letter to bishops

March 12, 2009

lombardiThe Vatican’s official spokesman, Rev. Federico Lombardi S.J., has issued the following statement on the letter Pope Benedict has sent to Roman Catholic bishops around the world about the controversy over the readmission of four excommunicated ultre-traditionalist bishops to the Church. In view of the controversy surrounding that step and the Vatican’s admittedly clumsy handling of its announcement, we wanted to run the statement in full below. Again, any comments on how you see this controversy are welcome.

(Photo: rev. Federico Lombardi, 13 June 2007/Herbert Neubauer)

The difficult commitment to reconciliation

The “Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church concerning the remission of the excommunication of the four Bishops consecrated by Archbishop Lefebvre” is definitely an unusual document and deserves all our attention. Never before in his Pontificate has Benedict XVI expressed himself in such a personal manner and intensity on a controversial subject. There isn’t the slightest doubt: this Letter bears his mark, from beginning to end.

The Pope has lived this event, the remission of the excommunication, and the following reactions with an involvement and suffering that are manifest. He speaks of a “discussion more heated than any we have seen for a long time”, and has felt the need to intervene to “contribute to peace in the Church”, a peace that has been disturbed.

With his usual lucidity and humility, he recognises the shortcomings and the mistakes which have had a negative influence on the course of events; and with great nobility, he doesn’t make others shoulder the responsibility, thus showing his solidarity with his collaborators. He speaks of insufficient information pertaining to the Williamson case, and lack of clarity in presenting the measure of remission of excommunication and about its meaning. However, this is not the most significant aspect of his reflexions.

Whereas the “Williamson case”, misconstrued as a denial of the path of reconciliation between Christians and Jews, is fortunately behind us, the Pope reminds us, with legitimate pride, that the sharing and promotion of all the steps accomplished for the reconciliation since the Council, have been “since the beginning the objective of his own theological work”; and he thanks the “Jewish friends” for their contribution in re-establishing quickly an atmosphere of trust, although a certain sadness still lingers because of the attacks coming from certain Catholics on this subject.

The Pope then sets out to clarify the nature, the meaning and the intentions of the remission of excommunication; he explains that, since excommunication was a punishment for persons who had accomplished an act that endangered Church unity by not recognising the Pope’s authority, therefore, now that the persons who were thus sanctioned have shown their acknowledgment of the Pope’s authority, the remission of the excommunication was a warm invitation to their returning within the unity of the Church.

The Pope makes a distinction as far as the problem of the juridical recognition of the Saint Pius X Fraternity is concerned, linking it clearly to doctrinal questions about the acceptance of Vatican II Council and the magisterium of the Popes since that Council. Until that happens, their representatives will not be able to fulfil any recognised ministry in a legitimate way in the Church.

A central point of the Letter concerning the Pope’s decision – in the light of the mainly doctrinal nature of the needed clarification – is the join the Commission “Ecclesia Dei”, for the relations with the traditionalist communities, with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, thus ensuring a better practice of collegiality in the procedure and decision making. With this perspective of a renewal in the Curia’s organisation, the Pope gives an answer to most of the objections concerning the making of the recent measure, especially to the episcopates more directly implicated.

However, there still remains the question of many people, in the light of the recent tensions: Was this measure of remission of excommunication really necessary ? Weren’t there in the Church questions of greater importance and urgency ?

The answer to this question makes up more than half of the Letter. The Pope’s writing becomes more and more intense. Benedict XVI feels deeply challenged in his responsibility as Pastor of the universal Church, and compelled to clarify, without hesitation, his brothers in the Episcopate, co-responsible of the well-being of the Church, about the priorities and the spirit in which he carries out his service.

In a nutshell, he recalls the great priorities of his Pontificate, which were anyway clearly said from the very first day: lead men to God, the God who revealed himself in the Bible and in Christ; Christian unity; dialogue between those who believe in God, at the service of peace; testimony of love according to the social dimension of Christian life.

However, the Pope then goes on to invite his interlocutors to a personal and ecclesial reflexion in a committed and urgent manner. That a gesture, intended to be merciful in view of reconciliation, should give rise to a situation of acute tension, is a paradox that should compel us to questioning so as to discern about the spiritual attitudes that have been manifest and at work in this event.

The first criterion that the Pope asks to reflect upon is the commandment of reconciliation with the “brother who has something against you”, according to what the Lord said on his ‘Sermon on the Mount’.

The Pope’s questions become pressing, animated by a vivid preoccupation for unity. Without losing any sense of realism, for he recalls the grave defects of the traditionalists, but equally critical in a realistic way, the Pope feels obliged to ….. in the conflict between members of the Church and of society who seem to oppose, with unyielding intransigence, every effort of reconciliation, or simply any recognition of positive elements in others. The spiritual realism reaches its zenith when he evokes saint Paul’s injunction to the Galatians “not to bite and devour each other”.

The reflexion concludes with yet another passionate invitation to love as an absolute priority for the Christian, and a profound aspiration for peace in the Church community.

Beyond the errors or mishaps, which are recognised in a fair manner and overcome when possible, beyond any human prudence that calls to avoid touching sensitive points, the Pope brings us back, with firmness and courage to the Gospel as fundamental and ultimate criterion, not only of Christian and Church life, but of the government of the Church as well.

For it is only through mutual conversion to this Gospel that we can hope to overcome the divisions, and to be able to understand the profound convergence between Tradition and Council.

Finally, we are led to understand that our Pope, by his personal commitment in these situations of crisis, brings us to rediscover the essential point, more profound and radical, which will enable us to resume our journey.


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