FaithWorld

The pope and the Holocaust: Regensburg redux?

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. (Photo: Bishop Richard Williamson, 28 Feb 2007/Jens Falk)

Pope Benedict’s lifting of the ban and Williamson’s comments about the Holocaust are unrelated as far as Church law is concerned. The excommunications lifted last Saturday were imposed because the four were ordained without Vatican permission. As Father Thomas Resse, senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University, told me: “The Holocaust is a matter of history, not faith. Being a Holocaust denier is stupid but not against the faith. Being anti-Semitic, however, is a sin.” This is an important distinction, but not one the Vatican seems to be able to get across.

It was all very reminiscent of the pope’s Regensburg speech in 2006. Few in the Vatican knew it was coming. The Vatican was overwhelmed by the Muslim reaction and the media interest. This time, it is also not clear how many people in the Vatican even knew about Williamson’s history. Surely, those negotiating with the traditionalists for the lifting of the excommunications should  have known. If they didn’t, why didn’t they? If they did, why did they not tell Kasper’s department? The Holocaust is such a sensitive issue for Jews that this response could have been seen from miles away. (Photo: Pope Benedict speaks at Regensburg University, 21 Sept 2006/KNA)

Even if the Vatican felt the rapprochement with the traditionalists was necessary, a clear and severe distancing from Williamson’s views issued simultaneously to the announcement of the lifting of the excommunications certainly would not have hurt.

It is still too early to gauge the public relations fallout within the Jewish community and in the Church itself. In all the years I have been covering Catholic-Jewish relations, this is the biggest blow-up I can recall — bigger than the Carmelite convent at Auschwitz, the Good Friday prayer,  the controversy over Pius XII or the late Pope John Paul receiving Arafat.  It will take a long time for this one to heal. Those involved in Catholic-Jewish dialogue say it will go on. It will.

Paris cardinal and others comment on SSPX ban lifting

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. (Photo: Cardinal André Vingt-Trois, 8 Sept 2008/Benoit Tessier)

He called the decision “a measure of clemency and mercy” that would allow the Church to repair a damaging split. He declined to question the bishops’ motives, saying that “when people express their desire to respect the teachings of the church and the primacy of the pope, my ministry of mercy does not allow me suspect them a priori and to suspect them to be the worst people on earth … what they have in their hearts, only God can judge. Not me.”

The handful of journalists present repeatedly asked about one of the bishops, Richard Williamson, whose denial of the Holocaust this week outraged Jewish leaders. “The Jewish community was not shocked by this decision, it was shocked by the comments of Bishop Williamson,” he said. “He may have some twisted thoughts, but it’s not because the excommunication is lifted that these twisted thoughts have been approved.”

Pope lifts SSPX bans but conditions still unclear

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. (Photo: Pope Benedict at the Vatican, 10 Jan 2009/Alessia Pierdomenico)

We’ll have to see the full documentation to know exactly who has agreed to what. It seems that the excommunications have been lifted first (as the SSPX wanted) and the SSPX and the Vatican are now to hold discussions to clear up their doctrinal differences. The assumption is that the doctrinal gap can be bridged but there is no indication how or when this would be done.

The Vatican announcement (here in SSPX English translation and original Italian) says that Fellay wrote a letter on Dec. 15 restating the SSPX request for the excommunications to be lifted. It then says:

If Catholic rebels return to Rome, who caved?

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? (Photo: Pope Benedict at the Vatican, 10 Jan 2009/Alessia Pierdomenico)

Our vaticanista Phil Pullella writes that lifting the excommunications “would be a major gesture by Benedict to resolve a crisis in the Church that surfaced in 1988, when the late French Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre illegally consecrated four bishops without the requisite permission of the late Pope John Paul.”

The Swiss-based SSPX has about a million followers worldwide compared to 1.1 billion for the official Church. It maintains the old Latin Mass and rejects Vatican II reforms such as dialogue with other religions.

Rebels hope rosaries help return them to Rome

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.

In his latest Letter to Friends and Benefactors (here in French), Fellay says the SSPX is in a “delicate position” following the ultimatum the Vatican presented in June to accept papal authority and cease criticising the pope. Fellay effectively rejected the conditions as too vague while claiming to be open to further discussion on the condition that the Vatican drops the excommunications. But, as he makes clear again in his Letter, the SSPX remains firmly opposed to accepting the reforms of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). “We cannot and do not want to leave any ambiguity on the question of accepting the Council, the reforms and the new attitudes that are tolerated or favoured,” he wrote.

Cardinal Dario Castrillón Hoyos, the head of the Pontifical Commission “Ecclesia Dei,” has since complained that some traditionalists had responded to the liberalisation of the old Latin Mass last year by making even more demands. He called them “insatiable, incredible.” He didn’t mention the SSPX by name and his comments appeared to be aimed more broadly. But the change in tone from the cardinal who has done so much to accommodate the SSPX cannot be a good sign for Fellay.

Breakaway Catholics hope Lourdes changes pope’s views

Prayer candles at Lourdes, 5 Nov 2006/Regis DuvignauThe 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?

Rev. Régis de Cacqueray Valmenier, superior of the SSPX’s district in France, stressed in a communique that the breakaway Catholic group welcomed his visit and maintained an“unswerving attachment to the Apostolic See.”

But the rest of his statement made clear it was still at odds with Benedict:

“Let us pray the rosary to the Very Holy Virgin Mary so that the successor of Peter, in this terribly difficult epoch when he must govern the Church, may find at Lourdes the lucidity and the strength to recognise, denounce and extirpate the Council’s errors which are essentially the origin of the crisis in the Church.

The Pope and Carla – a photographer’s dream

Pope Benedict at a recent general audience at the VaticanDuring 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:

Will Carla Bruni be at the airport to welcome the pope?

Vatican spokesman Rev. Federico Lombardi smiled. He said Carla Bruni’s husband — who happens to be Nicolas Sarkozy, the president of France – had made it known that he might be at the airport. But he said he did not know if Bruni would be there. Heads of state usually wait for popes at their palaces but sometimes, to show their added respect for the pontiff, they also go to the airport.

In Paris, government officials confirmed Sarkozy would break protocol and greet Benedict at Orly airport, something he is not required to do because this is an official visit rather than a more formal state visit. They said they expected Carla to be there … but didn’t want to be quoted on that.

SSPX “answer without response” to Vatican ultimatum

SSPX world headquarters logoThe 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.”

This is a clever way of ducking deadline pressure, but it doesn’t answer the real issues. It looked like the Vatican had the SSPX in a corner when the ultimatum of June 4 became known early this week. By wording the five conditions so vaguely that contentious issues such as the new Mass and the Second Vatican Council reforms went unmentioned, Pope Benedict and Cardinal Darío Castrillón Hoyos — the Vatican official dealing with traditionalists — may have thought they might win over the schismatics. Benedict had already taken the first step towards a possible accord last year by liberalising the use of the old Latin Mass that the SSPX has championed as its visible trademark. The ultimatum made a further conciliatory gesture by keeping the explicit requirements to a minimum.

Pope Benedict, 13 March 2007/Osservatore RomanoBut Benedict has his red lines too. Compare the current five conditions to the much more explicit five conditions that SSPX founder Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre accepted in May 1988 (with the then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger) but renounced the following month. The new list of conditions strips away the explicit demands of the 1988 document, but they basically remain implicit — a fact that Vatican spokesman Rev. Federico Lombardi confirmed this week.

SSPX Bishop Fellay snubs pope’s ultimatum on rejoining Rome

Bishop Bernard Fellay, 13 Jan 2006/Franck PrevelIt 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.”

In another part of the sermon, he says: “We are, shall we say, something like at a crossroads. In a certain way, Rome is telling us, O.K. we are ready to lift the excommunications, but you cannot continue this way. So we have no choice. We are not going this way. We are continuing what we’ve done. We have fought now for 40 years to keep this faith alive, to keep this tradition, not only for ourselves but for the Church. And we are just going to continue. Happens what happens. Everything is in God’s hands.”

Click here for our news report. Here is an audio file of his sermon (in English). Hat tips to Andrea Tornielli for breaking the story and blogging it along (in Italian) and La Croix’s Isabelle de Gaulmyn for the Vatican clarification (in French). The relevant part of Fellay’s sermon is copied out verbatim on the second page of this post (see below) to give the full context of his comments.

Clock ticking as Vatican calls Catholic rebels’ bluff

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.

Andrea TornielliAndrea Tornielli (left), the well-informed vaticanista of the Milan daily Il Giornale, has produced two scoops in recent days about an ultimatum the Vatican has presented to the “Lefebvrists”. He first reported in Il Giornale on Monday that the pontifical commission “Ecclesia Dei” had told SSPX leader Bishop Bernard Fellay that the Swiss-based rebel group should accept by June 28 the reforms of the Second Vatican Council and the validity of the new Mass (“Novus Ordo”) that replaced the old Latin Mass if it wanted to return to the full communion with Rome that was broken in 1988. Tornielli reported today on his blog Sacri Palazzi the actual conditions as written to Fellay (see Fr. Z’s English translation). If the SSPX accepts them, it can become a “prelature” within the Catholic Church, much like Opus Dei is now. If not, they lost their best chance at rejoining Rome and having any influence on the Vatican.

They have already had considerable influence. Pope Benedict has resurrected the old Latin Mass, one of the main SSPX demands. But that was not actually the heart of the matter. His demand that the SSPX must in return accept Vatican II, including its statements on religious freedom, is the one that sticks in the Lefebvrists’ throats the most. This two-track approach seems to be a strategy to welcome back those traditionalists who really just wanted the Latin Mass, and isolate the harder-line types who rejected Vatican II completely.