FaithWorld

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:

    Denunciations of anti-Semitism by SSPX bishops. Bishop Fellay has made several such statements, each stronger than the previous one. His latest, to the French weekly Famille Chrétienne, calls Jews “our older brothers.” Fr. Franz Schmidberger, the head of the SSPX in Germany who has been quoted as saying the Jews must be converted, has also distanced himself from Williamson’s comments. While these statements have been welcomed, they have not answered the real question of whether the SSPX will accept Vatican II documents such as Nostra Aetate that changed the traditional Church position on the Jews (see Bishop Tissier above…). Continued criticism of Bishop Richard Williamson and his denial of the Holocaust. Several Jewish and some Catholic leaders have said his apology to the Vatican for causing the uproar was not enough. The message is that he may have apologised and Pope Benedict may have condemned the Holocaust, but where are his full retractions, more direct criticisms of him and his denial or statements that people expressing such views have no place as office holders in the Church? The Central Council of Jews in Germany says it expects to see some “consequences” from the Vatican to prove it supports continued dialogue with and respect for Jews. One suggestion is that it suspend the procedure to beatify Pope Pius XII and later make him a saint. Criticism of the Vatican for botching its public relations. This is going Catholic mainstream, with even Radio Vatican (German service says:“This concurrence of the lifting the excommunication and the Holocaust-denial by Bishop Williamson was fatal. Simply fatal.”) and Benedict’s close ally Vienna Cardinal Christoph Schönborn openly complaining about it. As veteran Vatican watcher John Allen wrote: “The way this decision was communicated was a colossal blunder, and one that’s frankly difficult to either understand or excuse.” Cardinal Karl Lehmann of Mainz openly criticised Cardinal Darío Castrillón Hoyos — head of the office dealing with the SSPX — of not doing his homework on Williamson’s controversial views.
    Concern about a pattern in Benedict’s controversial statements. As Charlotte Knobloch, head of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, said: “We’ve heard the pope’s speech about Muslims in Regensburg, another statement about judging the Protestant church, then about evangelising Jews, the old Latin Mass, and now the rehabilitiation of a Holocaust denier. I don’t think this is a coincidence. The pope is a highly educated man. He says what’s being thought in the Church.”
    (Photo:Charlotte Knobloch, 24 Oct 2006/Arnd Wiegmann) Investigations into anti-Semitism within the SSPX, such as here on the America magazine blog In All Things or John Allen’s All Things Catholic column. Rumblings among Catholics who see Benedict as turning the clock back on many Vatican II reforms. Read this comment from Robert Mickens, the Rome correspondent of the London Catholic weekly The Tablet. Petitions by concerned Catholics, run in France by the Catholic weekly La Vie (entitled No Negationists in the Church) and in Germany by the Church reform group We Are Church (entitled Full Recognition for Conclusions of Second Vatican Coouncil Demanded). There’s another French petition going around by fax.

Some recent Reuters copy on the controversy:

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.”

A religion board game – satire or scandal?

How much fun — really — can you make of religion?  A U.S. marketer of board games may find out with ”Playing Gods” which it calls “the world’s first satirical board game of religious warfare.” It had its European premier this week at the London Toy Fair and will make a U.S. debut at the New York Toy Fair in February.

Ben Radford, head of the company that put the game together, said in a news release it is designed for two to five players who act as “gods” and …

“Try try to take over the world and make everyone on Earth worship him or her. As a god, you can try to convert other gods’ followers, promising them things like Afterlife, Prosperity, and Miracles. Or you can kill them off with plagues, locusts, earthquakes, floods, and other Acts of Gods.

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?”

Russian Othodox Church picks Kirill, better Vatican ties expected

The Russian Orthodox Church elected Metropolitan Kirill, 62, as its new leader on Tuesday, succeeding Alexiy II who died last month. The new leader of the 165 million-strong Church, the largest in the Orthodox world,  is seen as a moderniser who may thaw long icy ties with the Roman Catholic Church.

There was speculation before the vote that nationalists, anti-westerners and anti-Catholic forces among the clergy and monks might rally to block Kirill’s election. He seemed to take the possibility seriously enough to strike a conservative tone in recent days. In his address before the vote, Kirill spoke of “the assault of aggressive Western secularism against Christianity” and of “attempts by some Protestant groups to revise the teachings of Christianity and evangelical morality”. He also hit out at Protestant and Roman Catholic missionaries, saying they sought converts in post-Soviet Russia — a key point of discord with the Vatican. (Photo: Metropolitan Kirill before the vote, 27 Jan 2009/Alexander Natruskin)

But the vote showed his support was strong. Kirill received 508 votes from a total of 677 valid ballots cast. His rival, conservative nationalist Metropolitan Kliment, 59, polled just 169 votes and a third candidate, Metropolitan Filaret of Belarus, withdrew in favour of Kirill.

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.”

Soviet touches mark Russian Orthodox patriarch vote session

(Photo: Russian Orthodox prelates vote for candidates for patriarch, 26 Jan 2009/pool)

There was a slightly Soviet air to the proceedings as bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church voted on Sunday for three candidates to be considered as their new patriarch. Meeting in the gold-domed Christ the Saviour cathedral overlooking the Moskva River, just a few hundred metres from the Kremlin, about 200 metropolitans and bishops had delegates badges dangling from their necks along with their usual pectoral crosses. A Soviet-style “presidium” of 16 top prelates presided over the session in the Hall of Church Councils. The proceedings started with voting for an election committee, a drafting committee and a credentials committee. Journalists covering the session couldn’t help but think of the old communist party conferences.

Seated in the middle of this “presidium,” Metropolitan Kirill — the acting patriarch and frontrunner for the top post — added to the atmosphere by chairing the meeting with a distinctively firm hand. But there were differences, of course. Voting for the three candidates was secret. And when it came time to announce the results of the vote, there was no official stamp to validate the protocol. (Photo: Metropolitan Kirill addresses the Council of Bishops, 25 Jan 2009/Alexander Natruskin)

For readers outside of Russia, the only other major church election they might have seen in the news was the 2005 Roman Catholic conclave that picked Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger to become Pope Benedict XVI. That vote took place behind locked doors in the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel, beneath Michelangelo’s famous ceiling and his huge fresco of the Last Judgment behind the altar. Here the “presidium” sat in front of polished stone images of the 12 Apostles in a kind of modern icon style. Journalists were allowed in for the opening of the session,  had to leave during the pre-vote debates but could return for the actual voting and result.

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.