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. (Photo: Bishop Richard Williamson, 28 Feb 2007/Jens Falk)
It’s not clear when the SSPX bishops will begin negotiating their rehabilitation with the Vatican, partly because we don’t know how long Williamson will take for his new history assignment. But whenever those talks get under way, one of their goals will be to find a role for the four men who, although illicitly ordained, are valid bishops. And if they are rehabilitated, they will have to be bishops of somewhere or something. As the Catholic Encyclopedia puts it, bishops “are appointed for the government of one portion of the faithful of the Church, under the direction and authority of the sovereign pontiff, who can determine and restrain their powers, but not annihilate them”.
The operative word here is “restrain”. SSPX leader Bishop Bernard Fellay could be made bishop of a personal prelature, on the model of Opus Dei, but that still leaves the other three without official positions. The two others — Alfonso de Galarreta and Bernard Tissier de Mallerais — haven’t received too much media attention yet and it’s not clear what they might end up doing. But Williamson looks set for the sidelines even if he pops up on YouTube doing penitential readings from Saul Friedländer‘s books. (Photo: Bishop Jacques Gaillot/partenia.org)
The Vatican has a way of restraining insubordinate bishops. They can be appointed to a “titular see,” i.e. a see (diocese) in name only. These sees are normally given to bishops who don’t run a diocese, for example a bishop working in the Curia. But the case of French Bishop Jacques Gaillot shows they can also be used to sidetrack someone. Gaillot was bishop of Evreux in France from 1982 to 1995 and stood out for his left-wing political and theological views (including blessing a same-sex union in 1988).
In 1995, the Vatican told Gaillot to resign or be removed from his see. He refused to resign and was reassigned to the titular see of Partenia, a diocese now lost under the sands of the Algerian Sahara. It ceased to exist in the fifth (yes, 5th) century after Huneric, the King of the Vandals, drove its bishop Rogatus into exile.