The Vatican published today the official text of an unprecedented letter Pope Benedict has sent to Roman Catholic bishops around the world explaining his reasons for readmitting four ultra-traditionalist bishops to the Church and his dismay at the uproar caused by the Holocaust denial of one of them, British-born Bishop Richard Williamson. Papal protocol usually keeps a safe buffer around the pope, shielding him from the rough and tumble of daily disputes, but Benedict broke with that tradition to write about his dismay at the Williamson controversy, admit it was mishandled and reveal how isolated he was from information anyone could easily find on the Internet. Given its unusually personal nature, we reprint it here. The text and translations into other languages are available in the Vatican’s daily bulletin.
Tens of thousands of people have signed petitions either backing or criticising Pope Benedict for readmitting ultra-traditionalist Bishop Richard Williamson into the Roman Catholic Church. The supporters are ahead in statistical terms, but this isn’t really a representative sample so it’s hard to draw any firm conclusions. It does give some idea, though, of how much interest the issue has created.
Could the Pope make a historic visit to commmunist Vietnam later this year? A papal envoy hinted at this on Thursday, as Vietnam and the Vatican are seriously discussing establishing diplomatic ties. “This is my wish,” Vatican Undersecretary of State Monsignor Pietro Parolin told reporters when asked if he thought the Pope could visit the Southeast Asian country this year. He added that the question had not been discussed in meetings with the Foreign Ministry and government’s religious affairs committee.
Bishop Bernard Fellay, head of the ultra-traditionalist Society of Saint Pius X (SSPX), has made some interesting comments in an in-house video interview shown at a meeting of his supporters in Paris on Thursday evening. First of all, he said he was surprised to see how quickly the Vatican lifted excommunication orders against him and three other bishops. Relations with Rome had been “rather cold” for months, he said, since he declined to accept a Vatican ultimatum last June to stop criticising the pope and to accept his authority in doctrinal matters. Fellay said he wrote to the Vatican in December requesting the retraction of the excommunications as a way to make contact again. “Since the letter was relatively severe, I didn’t expect a quick response. It was just a way to reestablish contact,” he said.
What should be done with Bishop Richard Williamson? In the wave of protests following his denial of the Holocaust, many critics argued he should have no place in the Roman Catholic Church. He gave them more ammunition over the weekend by telling Der Spiegel that he would have to study the historical evidence before deciding whether to publicly recant, as the Vatican has demanded. But he and his three fellow rebel bishops from the ultra-traditionalist Society of Saint Pius X (SSPX) have already been let back into the Church thanks to Pope Benedict’s decision to lift their excommunications. They now have to find an official niche in the Church to occupy.
Vatican Secretary of State Tarcisio Bertone, who is Number 2 to Pope Benedict at the Holy See, ordered Bishop Richard Williamson to recant his Holocaust denial “absolutely, unequivocally and publicly” if he wants to serve as a prelate in the Roman Catholic Church. The tough statement, reported here by our Vatican correspondent Phil Pullella, came after a mounting chorus of Catholic bishops denounced Williamson’s statement and more or less clearly urged the apparently reluctant Vatican to take some strong disciplinary measures. Many of those appeals included calls for Williamson’s ultra-traditionalist Society of Saint Pius X (SSPX) to support Second Vatican Council reforms they have until now rejected.
Amid all the controversy over the Vatican’s handling of the return of four excommunicated ultra-traditionalist bishops, some newspapers are reporting that Pope Benedict is now preparing to welcome a far larger group into the Church — the 400,000-strong Traditional Anglican Communion. We noted speculation about this last June. The Italian daily La Stampa wrote today that this group would be accepted into the Roman Catholic Church by Easter. Its headline was “Goodbye Canterbury, Benedict Takes Back Even the Anglicans.”
Paris Cardinal André Vingt-Trois, chairman of the French Bishops Conference, held a press briefing on Saturday evening on the lifting of excommunications of four bishops of the ultra-traditionalist Society of Saint Pius X (SSPX). France is home to the largest of the provinces of the dissident group, with around 100,000 faithful of a worldwide total of 600,000. Sitting in a medieval meeting room in Notre Dame cathedral, he defended Pope Benedict’s decision to take the four bishops back into the Roman Catholic Church and indicated the SSPX would have to bend to Church discipline.
Pope Benedict lifted the excommunications of four ultra-traditionalist SSPX bishops on Saturday. While much daily media attention is focused on the fact that one of the four is a Holocaust denier denounced by Jewish groups in advance, the interesting internal Catholic question is what the conditions of this deal were. The two sides have been at loggerheads for years over the SSPX’s refusal to accept some reforms of the Second Vatican Council. SSPX leader Bishop Bernard Fellay insisted the Vatican should lift the excommunications first and talk about differences later. The Vatican wanted them to accept the reforms first and be rehabilitated later.