Saturday, January 31, 2009

Benedict’s high risk strategy

The Pope has described it as an act of paternal mercy.

But while the lifting of the excommunication of rebel Lefebvrist bishops has been praised by arch-traditionalists, it has shocked many Catholics and members of other faiths, especially Jews.

It came during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity and on the eve of the fiftieth anniversary of Pope John XXIII's announcement of the Second Vatican Council - news that Pope Benedict had decreed that the "Lefebvrists", the four bishops excommunicated for disobedience and who have never fully accepted the Council, could return to the Church.

The Pope instructed the Congregation for Bishops to "remit" the excommunications of four leaders of the schismatic Society of St Pius X (SSPX) otherwise known as Lefebvrists.

The four men - Bernard Fellay, Bernard Tissier de Mallerais, Richard Williamson and Alfonso del Gallareta - incurred automatic (latae sententiae) excommunication in June 1988 when they were illicitly ordained bishops by renegade Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre (d. 1991), who founded the SSPX in 1970 and the Seminary of Ecône in south-west Switzerland.

According to the Vatican statement issued last Saturday, the Pope hopes that full communion would be reached as soon as possible.

But the decree has raised many questions about the relationship between the SSPX and the Vatican, concerns among the faithful about the impact on the Church, and shock at the apparent welcome to one of the bishops, Richard Williamson, who has made outrageous anti-Semitic statements (which Vatican officials have roundly condemned).

The decree, which was actually dated and took effect on 21 January, was immediately applauded by the SSPX, which claims to have some 500 priests and between 400,000 and 600,000 followers, half of whom are believed to be in France.

While the director of the Holy See press office, Fr Federico Lombardi SJ, said soon after that one "could already speak of full communion", the situation is not that simple.

The Vatican's statement indicated the contrary and, even though the one-page decree did not offer any clarification, it appears that the whole order of SSPX priests remain suspended from celebrating the sacraments, as decreed by Pope Paul VI in 1976.

And what was particularly noticeable in the decree is that there is no indication that the SSPX is repentant for the act of disobedience to Pope John Paul II by which they incurred the excommunication in the first place.

Yet Pope Benedict's decision to take this dramatic step should come as no surprise. It follows other key initiatives that he has undertaken, most specifically a series of actions two years ago to assure traditionalist Catholics that Vatican II did not substantially change Catholic liturgy or doctrine.

In 2007 the Pope fully restored use of the Tridentine Rite and also ordered the publication of two doctrinal instructions that, according to a number of theologians, narrowed the interpretation of the council's teaching on the nature of the Church and its relationship to other religions.

Those actions were all welcomed at the time by Bishop Fellay, the SSPX superior who had private talks with Pope Benedict XVI shortly after his election in 2005. It was that meeting, the Vatican's press statement of 24 January said, that was the start of the reconciliation between the SSPX and Rome.

"On that occasion, the Supreme Pontiff manifested the will to proceed by steps and in reasonable time on such a path," the statement said, and by lifting the excommunications the Pope was acting "benignly" and "with pastoral solicitude and paternal mercy".

It seems that he was also acting on his own initiative and did not widely consult other bishops - with the notable exception of Cardinal Darío Castrillón Hoyos. Sources at the Vatican have told The Tablet that the almost-80-year-old head of the Pontifical Commission "Ecclesia Dei" is intent on healing the Lefebvrist schism before he retires.

It was to Cardinal Castrillón that Bishop Fellay wrote on 18 December last year asking for removal of the excommunications and the decree says Pope Benedict acceded to the request.

It even quotes part of Bishop Fellay's letter to the cardinal in which he claims that he and the other three SSPX bishops accept the Roman Catholic Church's teachings "with a filial spirit" and believe "firmly in the Primacy of Peter and its prerogatives".

But in a note to his followers on 24 January the bishop revealed another section of his December letter to Cardinal Castrillón that the Vatican decree does not mention.

"We are ready to write the Creed with our own blood, to sign the anti-modernist oath (and) the profession of faith of Pius IV," he quoted from the letter.

"We accept and make our own all the councils up to the Second Vatican Council about which we express some reservations."

Vatican II is mentioned nowhere in the decree that remits the excommunications, and Fr Lombardi would not comment on whether the society was asked to adhere to the council's teachings.

However, French Cardinal Jean-Pierre Ricard, a member of the "Ecclesia Dei" Commission, said in a statement: "At a certain moment the question of the text of the Second Vatican Council, as a document of the Magisterium of primary importance, must be faced."

This will evidently be discussed during talks aimed - as the decree states - at resolving "the still open questions, in order to quickly arrive at a full and satisfactory solution at the origin of the problem".

But will the talks really resolve the impasse? Archbishop Lefebvre (who is also not mentioned in the decree) rejected several important teachings of the Council, including those related to religious liberty, ecumenism and liturgy. And his followers have remained in defiance of those teachings.

The official SSPX website for the US region says the Fraternity rejects the teaching on the "right to religious freedom" and a number of other statements in contained in the Vatican II declaration Dignitatis Humanae because they are contrary to Pius IX's Syllabus of Errors.

The assertion in the Council declaration Nostra Aetate that the Catholic Church "rejects nothing of what is good and holy" in non-Christian religions, it says, is contrary to tradition.

And it also flatly rejects ecumenism as found in the decree Unitatis Redintegratio because it holds to the belief that the Roman Catholic Church is the "unique ark of salvation" and that "Protestants and other non-Catholics do not have the faith".

No wonder Cardinal Ricard cautioned that lifting the excommunication was only "the beginning of a process of dialogue" that would "undoubtedly be long".

The cardinal noted that talks must resolve "two fundamental questions": the juridical structure of the SSPX and "an agreement on dogmatic and ecclesiological questions".

The first could be resolved fairly soon, given that the new decree says Pope Benedict is to reconsider the canonical situation of (the four bishops) concerning their episcopal consecration.

But what type of "agreement" can be forged with a group whose only reason for existence is to "achieve a lasting restoration of the Church", namely as it existed before Vatican II?

Many saw the timing of this decree as untoward, given that the Lefebvrists flatly reject ecumenism and most Vatican II reforms. But according to Fr Lombardi, it would be wrong to see the removal of their excommunications as an attack on Vatican II.

"On the contrary," he said, "I think it is a beautiful thing that the Council is no longer considered an element of division, but as an element in which every member of the Church can meet."

A front-page editorial in L'Osservatore Romano on 26-27 January bitterly complained that critics of the decree had unfairly attacked the Pope. It said he was "inspired by the new style of Church desired by the council, which prefers the medicine of mercy rather than condemnation". Bishop Fellay also saw it as a "unilateral, benevolent and courageous act".

By Wednesday, after the Chief Rabbinate of Israel had announced the breaking off of relations with the Vatican following the Pope's decision to lift the excommunication of Bishop Williamson who denies the Holocaust, Benedict spoke out again. The move was a paternal act of mercy, he said, reiterating his own unequivocal opposition to anti-Semitism.

The Vatican's top ecumenical officer, Cardinal Walter Kasper, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, said he was never consulted.

"It was the decision of the Pope," the soon-to-retire cardinal told The New York Times last week.

In sharp contrast L'Osservatore Romano defended the remission of the excommunications as a "collegial choice" and not some "sudden and unforeseen gesture" taken unilaterally by the Pope.

Some wonder if these attempts to move the Lefebvrist back to Rome could actually end up moving the rest of the Church towards Ecône.

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(Source: The Tablet)