THE CATHOLIC KNIGHT: In pontifical fashion, the Holy Father (Pope Benedict XVI) has issued a corrective letter written in a charitable and apologetic way. Though every bishop received a copy, the primary recipients intended were so-called "progressive" bishops of liberal diocese, who have publicly expressed their disdain over the pope's recent decision to remove the excommunication of the four SSPX bishops. These so-called "progressive defenders of Vatican II" display their blatant hypocrisy by promoting ecumenical dialog with every religion under the sun, but simultaneously reject any conversation whatsoever with the SSPX. Such hypocrisy is not only uncharitable, and unchristian, but it flies in the face of everything the Second Vatican Council is about. If you're going to have ecumenism, you cannot "pick and choose" what religions you will dialog with, based on your own personal preferences.
The SSPX has been unfairly attacked by liberal Modernists all over the world, and progressive bishops are no exception. The Bishop Williamson affair is a scandal, to be sure, but not nearly on the magnitude promoted by the mainstream news media. The corrective actions of Bishop Fellay, Superior General of the SSPX, should have demonstrated beyond a doubt that Bishop Williamson's views concerning the Holocaust do not reflect those of the SSPX or the majority of her members. To connect the SSPX with Bishop Williamson's views on the Holocaust is an artificial construct entirely - a stereotype and a generalization - similar to the kind used by anti-Catholics who frequently connect the entire Catholic priesthood with those few priests (less than 5%) who sexually abused minors. It's unfair, inaccurate and unwarranted. The very notion that supposedly "progressive" Catholic bishops would behave in such a way toward the SSPX is scandalous. It is unconscionable that they would treat their fellow Christians with such stereotype and generalization. Yet it has happened, and the Holy Father seeks to correct this.
In regards the the Williamson affair directly, the Holy Father was not aware of his views on the Holocaust when he lifted the excommunications. He said he wasn't, and that should be enough for any Catholic of good will. Secondly, even if the pope was aware, it still may not have affected the removal of Williamson's excommunication, since the excommunication pertained to a completely different matter, that had nothing to do with Williamson's views on this or that. To connect the removal of Williamson's excommunication with his views on the Holocaust is once again another artificial construct having no basis in reality. As awful as Holocaust denial is, it is not an excommunicatable offense. The Church cannot excommunicate somebody simply because one holds to strange views on history that have nothing to do with Church doctrine. Like it or not, the Holocaust is no more a matter of Church doctrine than the evolution of species or the French Revolution. Third, Williamson's excommunication has been removed, along with that of the other three SSPX bishops, who have nothing to do with his views on the Holocaust. Still, none of the SSPX bishops have yet been received into full communion with the Catholic Church, and the pope has made it clear to Bishop Williamson that he must reverse his position on the Holocaust before he can be fully accepted. It is possible the other three SSPX bishops may be fully received into the Church without Williamson, but then it is also possible Williamson may repent and also be readmitted into the Church along with the other three. The so-called "progressive" bishops of the Church had better be prepared for either possibility, and accept it, if they don't want to become total hypocrites in every respect. You can't possibly call yourself an ecumenist when you refuse to accept those who want to come back into the Church, and accept everything the Church has infallibly taught.
Finally, the Holy Father addresses the issue of hermeneutic continuity, which is at the root of many of these problems. He addresses the matter on both sides.
On the side of the SSPX, and other Traditionalists, it is impossible to suspend the Church's development at one point in history or another. The Church cannot be locked into the Missal of 1962, or the pre-conciliar customs and traditions, for all eternity. The Missal of 1962 is itself the product of liturgical development and revision. The traditions and customs of the pre-conciliar period are the result of nearly 2000 of ecclesiastical evolution. The Church must continue to develop, just as it has always developed, throughout it's entire history. Simultaneously, the process of development can sometimes be fraught with trial and error, as is the case in this post-conciliar period. There is nothing wrong with pointing out perceived errors and vigorously attempting to correct them, but not at the expense of denying the Church's ability to adapt and change over time.
On the side of the Catholic Church, especially those bishops who consider themselves progressive "defenders of Vatican II," the council cannot be properly interpreted outside of the context of previous ecumenical councils and historic Church tradition. According to the bishops present at the council, and the pope who oversaw it's conclusion, Vatican II was a pastoral council, of a lower order than previous ecumenical councils, having deliberately chosen not to define specific doctrine, nor attach the "note of infallibility" to any particular document or decree. Therefore, Vatican II cannot be interpreted as "Super Dogma," as is commonly done by some erring individuals, as if it were a break with previous Church history and tradition. It is not. Vatican II augments previous Church history and tradition. It does not cancel it, nullify it, nor reverse it. If one is to understand Vatican II, then one must understand it this way, or else one does not understand it at all. Like it or not, the abusive interpretations of the Second Vatican Council are about to become mainstream conversation in the Church.
The Holy Father's letter...
Dear brethren in the Episcopal ministry!
The lifting of the excommunication of the four bishops ordained by Archbishop Lefebvre in 1988 without a mandate of the Holy See has led, both within and outside the Catholic Church, for a variety of reasons, to a discussion of such vehemence as we had not experienced for a long time. Many bishops felt at a loss before an event which came unexpectedly and could barely be integrated positively among the questions and tasks of the Church of today. Although many pastors and faithful were willing in principle to value positively the Pope's desire for reconciliation, against this was the question of the appropriateness of such a gesture, given the real urgency of a believing life in our time. Several groups, however, accused the Pope openly of wanting to return behind the Council. An avalanche of protests was set into motion, the bitterness of which made injuries visible which transcended the moment. Therefore I feel pressed to address to you, dear brethren, a clarifying word, which is meant to help to understand the intentions which have guided me and the competent organs of the Holy See in this step. I hope in this way to contribute to peace in the Church.
One mishap for me unforeseeable, was the fact that the Williamson case has superimposed itself on the remission of the excommunication. The discreet gesture of mercy towards the four bishops ordained validly but not legitimately, suddenly appeared as something entirely different: as a disavowal of the reconciliation between Christians and Jews, and therefore as the revocation of what in this area the Council had clarified for the way for the Church. The invitation to reconciliation with an ecclesial group separating itself had thus become the opposite: an apparent way back behind all the steps of reconciliation between Christians and Jews which had been made since the Council and which to make and further had been from the outset a goal of my theological work. The fact that this superposition of two opposing processes has occurred and has disturbed for a moment the peace between Christians and Jews as well as the peace in the Church I can only deeply regret. I hear that closely following the news available on the internet would have made it possible to obtain knowledge of the problem in time. I learn from this that we at the Holy See have to pay more careful attention to this news source in the future. It has saddened me that even Catholics who could actually have known better have thought it necessary to strike at me with a hostility ready to jump. Even more therefore I thank the Jewish friends who have helped to quickly clear away the misunderstanding and to restore the atmosphere of friendship and trust, which - as in the time of Pope John Paul II - also during the entire time of my pontificate had existed and God be praised continues to exist.
Another mishap which I sincerely regret, is that the scope and limits of the measure of 21 January 2009 have not been set out clearly enough at the time of the publication of the procedure. The excommunication affects persons, not institutions. Episcopal consecration without papal mandate means the danger of a schism, because it calls into question the unity of the Bishops' College with the Pope. The Church must, therefore, react with the harshest punishment, excommunication, and that is to call back the persons thus punished to repentance and into unity. 20 years after the ordinations this goal has unfortunately still not been achieved. The withdrawal of the excommunication serves the same purpose as the punishment itself: once more to invite the four bishops to return. This gesture was possible after the affected had expressed their fundamental recognition of the pope and his pastoral authority, albeit with reservations as far as obedience to his magisterial authority and that of the Council is concerned. This brings me back to the distinction between person and institution. The releasing of the excommunication was a measure in the field of ecclesial discipline: the persons were freed of the burden of conscience of the heaviest ecclesial censure. From this disciplinary level one has to distinguish the doctrinal area. That the Fraternity of Saint Pius X does not possess a canonical position in the Church is not based ultimately on disciplinary grounds but on doctrinal ones. As long as the Fraternity does not possess a canonical position in the Church, its officials do not exercise legitimate offices in the Church. One has therefore to distinguish between disciplinary level affecting the persons as persons, and the level of doctrine, at which office and institution are concerned. To say it once again: As long as the doctrinal issues are not resolved, the Fraternity has no canonical status in the Church and its ministers, even if they are free from ecclesiastical censure, do not exercise in a legitimate way any ministry in the Church.
Given this situation, I intend to connect the Pontifical Commission "Ecclesia Dei", which since 1988 is responsible for those communities and individuals who, coming from the Fraternity of Pius X or similar groups, want to return into full communion with the Pope, in the future with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. This shall make it clear that the problems now being treated are essentially doctrinal in nature, especially those concerning the acceptance of the Second Vatican Council and the postconciliar Magisterium of the Popes. The collegial organs through which the Congregation works on the questions arising (especially the regular assembly of the Cardinals on Wednesday and the General Assembly every one or two years) guarantee the involvement of the prefects of various Roman congregations and of the worldwide episcopate in the decisions to be made. One cannot freeze the magisterial authority of the Church in 1962 and - this must be quite clear to the Fraternity. But to some of those who show off as great defenders of the Council it must also be recalled to memory that Vatican II contains within itself the whole doctrinal history of the Church. Who wants to be obedient to it [sc. the Council] must accept the faith of the centuries and must not cut the roots of which the tree lives.
I hope, dear brethren, that with this both the positive meaning as well as the limit of the measure of 21 January 2009 is clarified. But now the question remains: Was this necessary? Was this really a priority? Are there not much more important things? Of course, there are more important and urgent things. I think that I have made clear the priorities of the pontificate in my speeches at the beginning of it. What I said then remains my guideline unchangedly. The first priority for the successor of Peter, the Lord has unequivocally fixed in the Room of the Last Supper: "You, however, strengthen your brethren" (Lk 22, 32). Peter himself rephrased this priority in his first letter: "Be ready always to satisfy every one that asketh you a reason of that hope which is in you." (1 Peter 3, 15). In our time, in which the faith in large parts of the world threatens to go out like a flame which can no longer find food, the first priority is to make God present in this world and to open to men the access to God. Not to just any god, but to the God who spoke on Mount Sinai, that God whose face we recognize in the love unto the end (John 13, 1)- in the crucified and risen Jesus Christ. The real problem of our historic hour is that God is disappearing from the horizon of men and that with the extinguishing of the light coming from God disorientation befalls mankind, the destructive effects of which we are seeing ever more.
To lead men to God, to the God speaking in the Bible, is the supreme and fundamental priority of the Church and the successor of Peter in this time. From it then it follows on its own that we have to be concerned for the unity of believers. For their strife, their internal dissent, calls their talking about God into question. Therefore, the effort for the common witness of faith of the Christians - for ecumenism -is included in the highest priority. Then there is also the necessity that all who believe in God seeking peace with each other, trying to become closer to each other, in order to walk, in the different-ness of their image of God, yet together towards the source of light - inter-religious dialogue. Those who proclaim God as love unto the end, must give the witness of love: devoted to the suffering in love, fending off hatred and enmity - the social dimension of the Christian Faith, of which I have spoken in the encyclical "Deus caritas est".
If then the struggle for Faith, hope and love in the world is the true priority for the Church in this hour (and in different forms always), then still the small and medium-sized reconciliations also belong to it. That the quiet gesture of a hand stretched out has become a great noise and thus the opposite of reconciliation, we have to take note of. But now I have to wonder: Was and is it really wrong, also in this case, to go to meet the brother, who "hath any thing against thee" and to try for reconciliation (cf. Mt 5, 23f)? Does not civil society, too, have to try to prevent radicalizations, to bind their possible supporters - if possible - back into the major creative forces of social life to avoid isolation and all its consequences? Can it be entirely wrong to strive for the lessening of tensions and constrictions and to give room to the positive which can be found and integrated into the whole? I myself, in the years after 1988, have experienced how by the return of communities previously separating themselves from Rome the interior climate there has changed, how the return to the great, wide and common Church overcame onesided-ness and lessened tensions, so that now they have become positive forces for the whole. Can a community leave us totally indifferent in which there are 491 priests, 215 seminarians, 6 seminaries, 88 schools, 2 university institutes, 117 brothers, 164 sisters? Should we really calmly leave them to drift away from the Church? I am thinking, for example, of the 491 priests. The plaited fabric of their motivations we cannot know. But I think that they would not have made their decision for the priesthood, if next to some askew or sick elements there hot not been there the love of Christ and the will to proclaim Him and with Him the living God. Should we simply exclude them, as representatives of a radical marginal group, from the search for reconciliation and unity? What will then be?
Certainly, we have long and have again on this occasion heard many dissonances from representatives of this community - pride and a patronizing know-it-all attitude, fixation into onesidedness etc. For the love of truth I must add that I have also received a series of moving testimonials of gratitude, in which was made perceptible an opening of hearts. But should the great Church not also be able to be magnanimous [in German its a play on words: "great Church - great of heart"] in the knowledge of the long wind she has; in the knowledge of the promise which she has been given? Should we not, like good educators, also be able not to hear some bad things and strive to calmly lead out of the narrowness? And must we not admit that also from ecclesial circles there have come dissonances? Sometimes one has the impression that our society needs at least one group for which there need not be any tolerance; which one can unperturbedly set upon with hatred. And who dared to touch them - in this case the Pope - lost himself the right to tolerance and was allowed without fear and restraint to be treated with hatred, too.
Dear brethren, in the days in which it came into my mind to write this letter, it so happened that in the seminary of Rome I had to interpret and comment the passage of Gal 5, 13-15. I was surprised at how directly it speaks of the present of this hour: "Do not make liberty an occasion to the flesh, but by charity of the spirit serve one another. For all the law is fulfilled in one word: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. But if you bite and devour one another; take heed you be not consumed one of another." I was always inclined to regard this sentence as one of the rhetorical hyperbole which occasionally there are with St. Paul. In some respects it may be so. But unfortunately, the "biting and devouring" is there in the Church even today as an expression of a poorly understood freedom. Is it surprising that we are not better than the Galatians? That we at least are threatened by the same temptations? That we have always to learn anew the right use of freedom? And that we have always to learn anew the first priority: love? On the day on which I had to speak about this in the seminary, in Rome the feast of the Madonna della Fiducia - our Lady of Trust - was celebrated. Indeed - Mary teaches us trust. She leads us to the Son, in Whom we all may trust. He will guide us - even in turbulent times. So at the end I would like to thank from my heart all the many bishops who have given me in this time moving signs of trust and affection, but above all the gift of their prayers. This thank I extend to all the faithful who have shown me during this time their unchanged fidelity to the successor of St. Peter. The Lord preserve us all and lead us on the path of peace. This is a wish that spontaneously rises from my heart, especially now at the beginning of Lent, a liturgical time particularly propitious to inner purification, and which invites us all to look with new hope towards the radiant goal of Easter.
With a special Apostolic Blessing, I remain
Yours in the Lord
Benedictus Pp. XVI
From the Vatican, on 10 March 2009
Bishop Bernard Fellay, Superior General of the SSPX, responds below....
Pope Benedict XVI has addressed a letter to the bishops of the Catholic Church, dated March 10, 2009.
After the recent « outburst of a flury of protests », we warmly thank the Holy Father for having repositioned this debate at the high level where it must take place—of the Faith. We fully share his chief concern for preaching »in our days, when in vast areas of the world the faith is in danger of dying out like a flame which no longer has fuel. »
The Church is going through, in effect, a major crisis that cannot be resolved except through an integral return to the purity of the Faith. With St. Athanasius, we profess that « whoever wants to be saved, must above all accept the Catholic Faith : unless each one preserves this whole and inviolate he will, without doubt, be lost forever. »
Far from wishing to freeze Tradition in 1962, we wish to consider the Second Vatican Council and the post conciliar teaching in the light of that Tradition that Vincent of Lerins defined as « that which was always believed everywhere and by everyone » (Commonitorium), without rupture and in perfectly homogenous development. It is therefore that we could efficaciously contribute to the missionary mandate of our Savior (cf. Matt 28, 19-20)
The SSPX assures Pope Benedict XVI of its desire to address the doctrinal discussions recognized as necessary by the Decree of January 21, with the desire to serve the revealed truth that is the first concern to be shown in regard to all men, Christian or not. The SSPX assures him of its prayer so that his faith will not fail and he will confirm all his brethren. (cf. Luke 22, 32).
We place these doctrinal discussions under the protection of Our Lady of Trust with the hope that she will obtain for us the grace to faithfully transmit what we have received « tradidi quod et accepi » (I Cor. 15,3).
Menzingen, le 12 mars 2009
+ Bernard Fellay