During January’s Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, Pope Benedict XVI lifted the excommunication incurred by the four bishops of the Priestly Society of St. Pius X (SSPX) whom Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre had illicitly consecrated on June 30, 1988.
By this “gift of peace” decreed on January 21, the Holy Father hoped “to consolidate the relations of mutual trust” between the Society of St. Pius X and the Apostolic See so as to advance “the necessary discussions” in still unresolved matters.
Italian traditionalists leaked this news to the secular press that day, triumphantly but erroneously claiming it meant the entire SSPX had been restored to full communion and visible unity with the Church. On Friday, January 23, a previously recorded interview with one of the four bishops, Richard Williamson, in which he claimed that only a few hundred thousand Jews had been killed by the Nazis, was aired on Swedish television.
The Vatican waited until Saturday, January 24, to publish the decree officially so that the parties named therein would receive their personal copies first. By then, however, the confusion and controversy in the media and on the Internet had come to a boil. Even in some Catholic circles, misinformation obscured or even displaced the real and historical news about the Priestly Society of St. Pius X.
In the years following the Second Vatican Council, Archbishop Lefebvre became the leader of an international movement of Catholics who were determined to preserve the traditional Latin Mass and resist what they saw as conciliar innovations at odds with perennial Church teaching. Lefebvre trained new priests at his seminary in Écône, Switzerland, but his uneasy canonical status in the post-Vatican-II Church prevented him from consecrating a bishop as his own successor (which would have required the approval of the Apostolic See).
In 1988, Cardinal Ratzinger led Vatican negotiations to regularize the status of the SSPX. At the last minute, Lefebvre backed out of a proposed agreement and ordained four bishops without permission.
Nevertheless, the Vatican did not completely abandon traditionalist Catholics. The Ecclesia Dei Commission was established by Pope John Paul II to address their liturgical needs. The commission continued to dialogue with several communities variously affiliated with the Lefebvrite movement, and over the years it succeeded in bringing some of them back into the Catholic Church. In 2000, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith laid to rest many traditionalist concerns about ecumenism by issuing the declaration Dominus Iesus, which reaffirms that the Catholic Church is the one true Church founded by Christ.
The SSPX bishops agreed to resume negotiations, but only if Rome would liberalize the use of the 1962 Missal and remit the excommunications. In 2005, a Curia official wrote to the four bishops recommending that they submit a formal petition for the latter; the first condition was satisfied with the publication by Pope Benedict of the motu proprio Summorum Pontificum, dated September 14, 2007, allowing any Catholic priest to celebrate the traditional Latin Mass, now officially called “the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite.”
In the introductory letter to the motu proprio, the Pope wrote, “There is no contradiction between the two editions of the Roman Missal. In the history of the liturgy there is growth and progress, but no rupture.” In this new atmosphere, Bishop Bernard Fellay, currently the superior general of the SSPX, asked his followers during a pilgrimage to Lourdes to pray the rosary for the intention of reunion with Rome so that he could offer a spiritual bouquet to the Holy Father. In a letter dated December 15, 2008, addressed to Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyos, president of the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei, Bishop Fellay wrote, “We are always firmly determined in our will to remain Catholic and to place all our efforts at the service of the Church of Our Lord Jesus Christ, which is the Roman Catholic Church. We accept its teachings with filial respect.”
News of the decree met with a chilly reception from the Church bureaucracies in the Western European countries where most SSPX communities are located. The president of the Swiss Bishops Conference characterized it as an effort “to end an ongoing schism with a Society which numbers several hundred thousand followers and 493 priests worldwide. Nevertheless the four bishops are still suspended. They are therefore canonically forbidden to exercise their episcopal ministry.”
Cardinal André Vingt-Trois of Paris explained in a radio interview that Archbishop Lefebvre had consecrated the four SSPX bishops “not only without the Pope’s consent but contrary to a previous warning by Pope John Paul II,” which meant that all five men thereby committed a “formal and particularly serious act of disobedience against the Pope.” A statement by the Permanent Council of the Bishops of France emphasized “that the lifting of the excommunication is not a pardon. It is the starting point on a long road that will require a precise dialogue…. No ecclesial group can serve as a substitute for the Magisterium.”
The president of the German Bishops Conference noted “the willingness of Pope Benedict XVI to take a further step toward the schismatic movement of the late Archbishop [Lefebvre] in order to promote the unity of the Church…. [A]t the same time [he] leaves no doubt that the decisions of the Second Vatican Council are the irrevocable foundation for the life of the Church.” Bishop Gerhard Müller expressed concern about the SSPX seminary in Zaitzkofen, which is located in his diocese of Regensburg. “Its canonical status has to be clarified by Rome. Anyone who wants to be Catholic must acknowledge the general order of the Church and abide by the instructions of the diocesan bishop.”
Few if any canonical distinctions were made in the secular news coverage about the four SSPX bishops. Instead it amplified the usual complaints that the Pope is trying to “turn back the clock” and reinstate a preconciliar Church and liturgy. But the real public relations fiasco was Bishop Williamson’s television interview, recorded long before in Germany, broadcast in Sweden on January 23, and immortalized on the Internet.
The media now had a villain, someone who “denied” the Holocaust; in Germany, where such speech is a crime, pundits and politicians began a “furor festival” [Empörungsfestival] that went on for weeks.
The SSPX authorities promptly apologized for Williamson’s views and disassociated their community from them. The district superior for Germany declared that “the trivialization of the genocide of the Jews by the Nazi regime…[ is] unacceptable to us.” The superior general, Bishop Fellay, silenced his wayward subject and demanded that he retract “this nonsense.”
“It is obvious that a bishop can speak with religious authority only on matters of faith and morals. Our Society claims no authority in historical or other secular matters,” he said. “Therefore I have forbidden Bishop Williamson to issue a public statement on any political or historical matter until further notice.”
On January 28, Williamson wrote to Cardinal Castrillon Hoyos apologizing for his “imprudent remarks” on television, expressing his “profound regret that I have caused you and the Holy Father so much unnecessary trouble,” and thanking them for the decree. Williamson reportedly hired legal counsel to defend himself against eventual criminal charges in Germany. On January 31, Fellay dismissed Williamson from his post as rector of the SSPX seminary near Buenos Aires; later the Argentine government asked him to leave the country because of a technicality in his immigration status.
Williamson’s offensive comments were predictably used to impugn the motives and character of Pope Benedict XVI. Several German-speaking bishops and theologians scandalously joined in the chorus with anti-Catholic commentators, demanding that the Pope rescind the decree, apologize, state his own position, etc. Under considerable pressure, German Chancellor Angela Merkel called on Pope Benedict XVI for a “very clear” rejection of Holocaust denial.
When the Chief Rabbi in Jerusalem announced that he would postpone the meeting of a commission for Jewish- Catholic dialogue at the Vatican in early March, the media reported that he had “broken off relations.” (A few days later Rabbi Rosen decided to hold the meeting as scheduled). Meanwhile, tens of thousands of Catholic laymen in France and Germany signed petitions in support of the Holy Father.
On February 4, the Vatican Secretariat of State issued an unsigned note that made three unmistakable points: (1) “His Holiness intended to remove an impediment that jeopardized the opening of a door to dialogue,” but did not change the juridical status of the Society of St. Pius X; (2) the SSPX will be approved canonically if and only if it fully recognizes the Second Vatican Council and the magisterial teaching of every pope since Blessed John XXIII; (3) Bishop Williamson’s positions on the Holocaust are “absolutely unacceptable and firmly rejected by the Holy Father,” as he himself mentioned at his first general audience after issuing the decree. Quoting from that January 28 audience, the note reaffirmed the Pope’s “full and unquestionable solidarity with our brothers, the recipients of the First Covenant.” Finally, the note required that Bishop Williamson publicly and unequivocally renounce his views on the Holocaust if he is ever to function as a Catholic bishop.
The third point follows from the second. As Charlotte Knobloch, president of Germany’s Central Council of Jews, correctly explained on February 5, the statement that SSPX bishops would need to accept the teaching of the Second Vatican Council means “they would have to publicly retract their statements that Jewish citizens are murderers of God,” a notion based on a misunderstanding of Matthew 27:25 and explicitly rejected in the Vatican II document Nostra Aetate.
Speaking to the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera in late January, Cardinal Castrillon Hoyos said that he is convinced that the whole Society of St. Pius X will come into the Church. “In our discussions Msgr. Fellay recognized the Second Vatican Council; he assented to it theologically. Only a few difficulties remain….” Asked by the interviewer whether he meant Nostra Aetate, the cardinal replied, “No, that is not a problem. It is a matter of discussing aspects like ecumenism and freedom of conscience….”
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