The uproar over traditionalist Bishop Richard Williamson and his denial of the Holocaust highlights an open secret here in Rome: Vatican departments don’t talk to each much, or at least as much as they should. The pope appears to have decided to lift the 1988 excommunication of four schismatic bishops of the SSPX (including Williamson) without the wide consultation that it may have merited. The Christian Unity department, which also oversees relations with Jews, was apparently kept out of the loop. The head of the office, Cardinal Walter Kasper, told The New York Times it was the pope’s decision. Kasper’s office and the Vatican press office, headed by Father Federico Lombardi, were clearly not prepared for the media onslaught that followed the discovery of Williamson’s views denying the Holocaust.
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.
Pope Benedict is reportedly planning to lift the excommunication of four ultra-traditionalist Catholic bishops who have defied the Vatican for decades by rejecting some central reforms of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). Andrea Tornielli, the well-informed vaticanista of the Italian daily Il Giornale, says the decree inviting the bishops of the Society of Saint Pius X (SSPX) back to the Roman fold should be announced this weekend. If this is true (which, given Tornielli’s track record, it presumably is), the unanswered question now is: who caved?
The arch-traditionalist Catholic Fraternity of Saint Pius X hopes that praying the rosary will help them where repeating their positions has not. The SSPX leader, Bishop Bernard Fellay, has urged his followers to pray a million rosaries to the Virgin Mary by Christmas “to obtain by her intercession the withdrawal of the excommunication decree.” The SSPX’s founder Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre and its four bishops — including Fellay — were excommunicated when Lefebvre consecrated them as bishops in 1988 against the will of the Vatican.
The arch-traditionalist Fraternity of Saint Pius X, which broke with Rome two decades ago and saw its bishops excommunicated, hopes Pope Benedict’s visit to Lourdes this weekend will inspire him to roll back the reforms of the Second Vatican Council. The SSPX rejects the Council’s opening to other religions and upholds strict adherence to Catholic traditions such as the old Latin Mass. It was encouraged when Pope Benedict allowed wider use of the Tridentine liturgy last year. But in recent talks on possibly reentering the Roman fold, it once again baulked at accepting the authority of a pope who defends the 1962-1965 Council. Many ailing Catholics turn to Lourdes as their last hope for healing after all else fails. Is this a sign the SSPX might see Lourdes as its last hope too?
During a Vatican briefing this week on Pope Benedict’s trip to France, a television producer got up and asked the question that surely was foremost in the minds of many photographers and television crews struggling to hold back yawns as subjects such as France’s secular history were discussed:
The schismatic traditionalist Society of Saint Pius X (SSPX) has reacted to a Vatican ultimatum by challenging the conditions Rome set for its return to the Catholic fold. By sending this in a letter, SSPX leader Bishop Bernard Fellay partly fulfilled one condition of the ultimatum, i.e. answering by the end of this month. But he did not fulfill the more important other half of that requirement, i.e. that he respond positively. In fact, he told the Vatican that other conditions — to accept papal authority and not criticise the pope — were too vague to be accepted, according to SSPX spokesman Rev. Alain Lorans. As Lorans put it: “You can say he’s not responding, despite answering it.”
It seems there’s no need to wait until Monday* to see how the traditionalist Catholic Society of Saint Pius X (SSPX) will respond to the Vatican ultimatum and pledge loyalty to Pope Benedict. Its leader Bishop Bernard Fellay spoke about the conditions last Friday (June 20) — before it was known that Benedict had called his bluff — and made clear the SSPX could not accept it. “They just say ‘shut up’,” he said in a sermon at an SSPX seminary in Winona, Minnesota. “We are not going … to shut up.”
While most attention on the Godbeat is focused this week on a possible but not probable Anglican schism, the Vatican has started the clock ticking on a real Catholic schism it wants to settle once and for all. And it wants an answer by Saturday (not much Anglican-style muddling through there!). A slow and patient strategy by Pope Benedict to deal with the traditionalist rebels in the Society of Saint Pius X (SSPX) has now reached the endgame phase.