In the disaster, Pope Benedict XVI found himself to be the one most exposed, and practically alone.
Both within and outside of the curia, many are blaming the pope for everything. In effect, it was his decision to offer the Lefebvrist bishops a gesture of benevolence. The lifting of excommunication followed other previous gestures of openness, also decided personally by the pope, the last of which was the motu proprio “Summorum Pontificum,” dated July 7, 2007, with the liberalization of the ancient rite of the Mass.
As he had done before, this time as well Benedict XVI did not demand in advance anything from the Lefebvrists in return. So far, all of his acts of openness have been unilateral. The pope’s critics have seized upon this in order to accuse him of naivety, or appeasement, or even of wanting to take the Church back to before Vatican Council II.
In reality, Benedict XVI has explained his intention absolutely clearly, in one of the key addresses of his pontificate, the one delivered to the Roman curia on December 22, 2005. In that speech, pope Ratzinger maintained that Vatican II did not mark any rupture with the Church’s tradition, but in fact it was in continuity with tradition even where it seemed to mark a clear break with the past, for example when it recognized religious freedom as an inalienable right of every person.
In that speech, Benedict XVI was speaking to the entire Catholic universe. But at the same time, he was also addressing the Lefebvrists, to whom he pointed out the direct route for healing the schism and returning to unity with the Church on the points that they oppose most vigorously: not only religious freedom, but also the liturgy, ecumenism, relations with Judaism and the other religions.
On all of these points, after Vatican Council II the Lefebvrists had gradually separated from the Catholic Church. In 1975, the Priestly Fraternity of St. Pius X – their organizational structure – did not obey an order to disband, and formed a parallel Church, with its own bishops, priests, seminaries. In 1976, its founder, Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, was suspended “a divinis.” In 1988, the excommunication of Lefebvre and of four new bishops he had ordained without papal authorization – who were in turn suspended “a divinis” – was the culminating action of a schism that had been underway for years.
The lifting of this excommunication therefore did not by any means heal the schism between Rome and the Lefebvrists, just as the lifting of the excommunications between Rome and patriarchate of Constantinople – agreed on December 7, 1965, by Paul VI and Athenagoras – did not by any means mark a return to unity between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Churches of the East. In both cases, the dropping of the excommunication was intended to be simply a first step toward reversing the schism, which remains.
He goes on to add something even more profound:
The question comes naturally: was all of this really inevitable, once the pope had decided to lift the excommunication of the Lefebvrist bishops? Or was the disaster produced by the errors and omissions of the men who are supposed to implement the pope’s decisions? The facts point to the second hypothesis.
The decree revoking the excommunication bears the signature of Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, prefect of the congregation for bishops. Another cardinal, Darío Castrillón Hoyos, is the president of the pontifical commission “Ecclesia Dei,” which, ever since its creation in 1988, has dealt with the followers of Lefebvre. Both of these cardinals have said that they were taken by surprise, after the fact, by the interview with Bishop Williamson, and that they were never aware that he was a Holocaust denier.
But wasn’t it the primary responsibility of these two cardinals to carry out an in-depth examination of Williamson’s personal profile, and of the three other bishops? The fact that they did not do so seems inexcusable. Such an examination wasn’t even difficult. Williamson has never concealed his distaste for Judaism. He has publicly defended the authenticity of the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion.” In 1989, in Canada, he risked being taken to court for praising the books written by Holocaust denier Ernst Zundel. After September 11, 2001, he supported conspiracy theories to explain the collapse of the Twin Towers. Just a click on Google would have turned up all of this background material.
Another serious lapse concerned the pontifical council for the promotion of Christian unity. Reversing the schism with the Lefebvrists is logically part of its competencies, which also include relations between the Church and Judaism. But the cardinal who heads the council, Walter Kasper, says that he was kept out of the deliberations: this is all the more surprising in that the issuing of the decree lifting the excommunication took place during the annual week of prayer for Christian unity, and a few days before International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
Church politics at its best. I wonder if Cardinal Kasper who is known in many circles for being somewhat progressive in his thought was shut out of these conversations simply because of his purported liberalism? A clear case of people not checking with those in the know.
I also wonder how long it’s been since either of the Cardinals have touched a keyboard, much less done a google search. They should both hold their staff’s feet to the fires for this one. And yet, I wonder if the Cardinal’s staff people even had any inkling of this. It seems to me that the two Cardinals “rubber stamped” this along without much consideration. The prevailing wisdom seems to be one of arrogance.
Vatican bureaucrats think only in terms of what the main purpose of events like this are. In this case, it was the start of healing a schism. So if the Pope wants to start that process the Cardinals look at this as something minor–after all, it is just the start of these talks, primarily in theory designed to separate the wheat from the chaff anyway. Or in this case the nutters from those who just value the Latin mass.
But only geeks like me and Vaticanistas like Sandro or Rocco would know that. Joe Catholic has no idea and neither does the mainstream media. A huge learning session needed to go along with this action–and I suppose the Pope will end up taking his lumps for this but it’s really the fault of anybody else who knew about the start of this process and didn’t act to advise the pope.
And now he’s left to take most of the heat in this regard.
Being the Pope is lonely. Even when good intentioned in Peoria, you might make Catholics in Zimbabwe angry. When something makes sense to Chinese Catholics, it might seem repressive or scary to U.S. Catholics.
Moral of the story: Always have good PR people posted at all four corners of every room you’re in.