FaithWorld

Fellay surprised by how quickly excommunications were lifted

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.

(Bishop Fellay’s interview in French on Feb 5 in Paris, issued on Feb 12 by SSPX communications office DICI/also on gloria.tv)

Another reason not to expect any change in his status, Fellay said, was the fact that rumours he heard from Rome said the Vatican was thinking of reaffirming his excommunication because he was leading a “schismatic drift”. Just before he was due to leave for Rome in mid-January to make courtesy calls on some Vatican officials, he said, he got a call saying officials there wanted urgently to discuss the excommunications with him.

We know the rest of the story from there. The excommunications were lifted, Bishop Richard Williamson’s interview caused an uproar and the Vatican handled the whole thing very poorly. What is striking in this part of Fellay’s account is the apparently sloppy handling of this even beforehand. Let’s step back and remember that this split was the most important schismatic act since the Second Vatican Council. The Vatican has been dealing with this issue for years. Why such a rush all of a sudden?

(UPDATE: Le Figaro‘s Jean-Marie Guénois reports that the decree lifting the excommunications was “signed on the pope’s orders by Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re on Saturday Jan 17 and handed the same day to Bishop Fellay, who had been summoned to the Vatican for this purpose.”)

Fellay did not discuss the much-criticised Vatican handling of the excommunications announcement. He  blamed the uproar over Williamson on “progressives and left-wingers” in the Catholic Church who “used the unfortunate comments of Bishop Williamson to force Rome to go back” on its opening to the SSPX. He denied the SSPX was anti-Semitic and said it was often labelled unfairly. It had earlier been branded as excommunicated and was now being branded as anti-Semitic. “We don’t like this label at all, it’s worse than the other one,” he said.

Jewish leaders speak of tensions before meeting Pope Benedict

Two Jewish leaders due to meet Pope Benedict on Thursday say he has to ensure the ultra-traditionalist Society of Saint Pius X (SSPX) changes some of its core views before current Catholic-Jewish strains can ease. We’ve run a news story on my interviews with them and a timeline on Catholic-Jewish relations. To give a fuller picture of what they’re saying, here are the transcripts of our talks.

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Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chair of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations (Photo: Conference of Presidents)

What do you hope to get from the meeting with the pope tomorrow? Can steps be taken to put this behind you?

Could Williamson end up as a bishop in cyberspace?

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.

Vatican orders Williamson recant after calling case closed

Holy flip-flop!

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. (Photo: Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, 19 June 2008/stringer)

Bertone’s statement (original here in Italian) also said clearly that an indispensible condition for a rehabilitation of the four SSPX bishops whose excommunications were lifted last week was “full recognition of the Second Vatican Council and the Magisterium of popes John XXIII, Paul VI, John Paul I, John Paul II and Benedict XVI.”

This might seem like the logical next step in the Vatican’s damage control campaign. But now look at the interview with Bertone the Italian Catholic daily Avvenire published just yesterday. When asked about Williamson’s comments, he answered: “There’s no need to confuse things… The Society of Saint Pius X …has asked the pope for forgiveness for this regrettable episode. The pope spoke clearly on Wednesday. It seems to me that the question can be considered closed.” (emphasis mine).

Germans fall out of love with their pope

When Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was elected the head of the Roman Catholicism in 2005, the best-selling daily Bild caught the national mood with a frontpage headline crowing Wir sind Papst! (We’re Pope!). Now, Germans are falling out of love with their pope for readmitting to the Church an excommunicated bishop who denies the Holocaust. For the vast majority of Germans, denying the Holocaust is beyond the pale. Shunning anyone who does deny the Holocaust is considered a civic virtue. So seeing the world’s most prominent German rehabilitate a Holocaust denier is quite distressing for a upstanding, post-war German democrat. How could he do it? (Photo: Pope Benedict at the Vatican, 2 Feb 2009/Alessandro Bianchi)

The Vatican and Catholic bishops around the world have been defending the pope, saying the lifting of the excommunications for the controversial Bishop Richard Williamson and three other bishops was an internal Church issue unrelated to his political views. They say repeatedly that this is not a rehabilitation, but simply a readmission to allow discussions on rehabilitation to start. After botching the initial announcement, the Vatican has had a tough time trying to convince public opinion in other countries. In Germany, where many understandably think Holocaust deniers deserve no sympathy whatsoever, this task is proving to be doubly difficult.

From Chancellor Angela Merkel and former Foreign Minister to leading Catholic thinkers, Jewish groups and editorial writers in top-selling newspapers — they’re all criticising the pope’s controversial decision to welcome Williamson back. Here is our news story from Berlin wrapping up the reaction. In Rome, another German, Cardinal Walter Kasper, bluntly told Vatican Radio: “There wasn’t enough talking with each other in the Vatican and there are no longer checks to see where problems could arise.”

Traditional Anglicans at the Vatican gates? Not so fast

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.”

But it doesn’t look like it’s going to be that way. The Vatican can wait, something it normally is very good at. The arguments I’m hearing here against such a move anytime soon are:

    Large group conversions can be unwieldy and full of surprises. After the controversy over the botched PR for the lifting of bans on the Society of Saint Pius X (SSPX) bishops, you can bet a lot more homework will be done on this one first.

Vatican/SSPX — the fallout continues

The fallout from the SSPX issue continues to rain down on the Vatican. Several items over the weekend showed how messy it can get when the Vatican botches its presentation of a potentially controversial decision.

    A demonstration against Williamson at the Vatican nunciature in Paris by several dozen Jewish protesters on Sunday. The Reuters photo below by Mal Langsdon shows a man holding a cartoon from the Paris daily Le Monde in which two SSPX bishops say in mock Latin “The gas chamber doesn’t exist.” Pope Benedict holds up a cloak which says “Down with Vatican II” and comments: “As long as they don’t say it in Hebrew, I’m not saying anything.” Will there be more of these elsewhere?

    Bishop Bernard Tissier de Mallerais, one of the four SSPX bishops whose excommunications Pope Benedict lifted last week, told the Italian daily La Stampa (here in English) that the rebel prelates have no intention of changing their traditionalist views when they negotiate their reinstatement in the Roman Catholic Church with Vatican officials.” No, absolutely not,” he said. “We do not change our positions, but we have the intention of converting Rome, that is, to lead Rome towards our positions.” This is the man who in 2005 told the traditionalist U.S. weekly The Remnant “I will say, one day the Church should erase this Council.  She will not speak of it anymore.  She must forget it.  The Church will be wise if she forgets this council.” Until now, most attention has focused on SSPX Superior General Bishop Bernard Fellay and the Holocaust-denying Bishop Richard Williamson. Fellay is considered the most moderate of the group and statements from the others are likely to take a tougher stand against any concessions to the Vatican. (Photo: Bishop Bernard Tissier de Mallerais, May 2008/SSPX) Several news outlets such as The Times and the BBC have picked up a story from Austria that the pope had approved the appointment of a new auxiliary bishop of Linz, Gerhard Wagner, who once described Hurricane Katrina as God’s punishment for sin and sexual excess in New Orleans and denounced the Harry Potter books for “spreading Satanism.” In a new interview with the Austrian Catholic agency Kath.net, he says “Islam is really a danger.” How much would you bet this would have gone unnoticed if there hadn’t been other negative news about the Vatican?

New statements and comments are popping up all over. A few trends emerge:

Bishop Williamson says SSPX will never agree to “conciliarism”

Bishop Richard Williamson has posted his observations on the lifting of excommunications against himself and three other bishops of the rebel traditionalist Society of Saint Pius X.  Like his colleague Bishop Bernard Fellay, he is triumphant and boasts the SSPX made no concessions to obtain the decree readmitting them back into the Catholic Church. He goes even further, saying that the deal with the Vatican only committed the SSPX to discussing its differences with Rome. Nothing about resolving them. (Photo: Bishop Richard Williamson, 28 Feb 2007/Jens Falk)

Williamson hardly mentions the controversy caused by his Holocaust denial, which has angered Jewish groups, overshadowed this story and forced Pope Benedict to issue a hair-shirt denunciation of the Holocaust — something he would not have had to do if he and his Vatican aides had handled this better. The bishop thanks Benedict and his aides for making their decision to lift the bans “despite, for instance, a media uproar orchestrated and timed to prevent it.”

The Vatican left the conditions for the lifting of the bans vague when it worked out the deal, leaving the SSPX pleased and many Catholics concerned that prior support for the Second Vatican Council was not required. After four days of speculation during which several bishops’ conferences spoke out to demand the SSPX support the Council’s reforms, Pope Benedict came out on Wednesday and made clear the bishops would have 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.”

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?”

German-speaking bishops insist SSPX accepts opening to Jews

Catholic bishops in the German-speaking countries have been especially outspoken in demanding the ultra-conservative Society of Saint Pius X (SSPX), whose four excommunicated bishops were welcomed back into the Church on Saturday, must explicitly accept Second Vatican Council documents assuring respect for the Jews. The Vatican had been demanding full acceptance of Council documents for years, including in a compromise it offered last June but the SSPX rejected it. As far as is known, it was not part of the deal that has now led to the bans being lifted. The issue has hit the headlines because one of the four, British-born Bishop Richard Williamson, openly denied the Holocaust in an interview on Swedish television broadcast last week. (Photo: St. Peter’s Basilica, 5 Feb 2005/Tom Heneghan)

The German Bishops Conference noted the four bishops, whose dissent against Rome mostly concerned its rejection of the Council reforms including a modern liturgy and recognition for Judaism and other religions, must now discuss their future status in the Church with Vatican officials. “We have the clear expectation and make the urgent request that the four bishops and the Society announce unmistakably and credibly their loyalty to the Second Vatican Council and especially the declaration ‘ostra Aetate,’ said a statement by Bishop Heinrich Mussinghoff, its main official for relations with Jews. Nostra Aetate, the Vatican II Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions, is the cornerstone of the post-Council opening to Jews, Muslims and other religions.

Munich’s Archbishop Reinhard Marx said Williamson’s comments were “unspeakable, unacceptable…” and added “Every denial of the Holocaust must be punished harshly.” In a statement, he noted the Vatican would now negotiate the conditions of the four bishops’ return into the Church. “There is no doubt that the decisions of the Second Vatican Council are binding for that.”