The pope has certainly earned his salary this week. In his attempt to heal a schism, he inadvertently set off a fire storm.
As most everyone knows by now, the pontiff lifted the excommunication of four bishops illicitly ordained by the late Archbishop Marcel Lefevbre in 1988, whose dissent from the Second Vatican Council drew a small but fervent following. One of these bishops, Richard Williamson, is a holocaust denier.
To understand the saga, it is necessary to peel back its various layers.
Many who followed Lefevbre did so because of a devotion to the traditional form of what is known as the Latin (Tridentine) Mass. A smaller number rejected the whole of the efforts of Vatican II to take account of the modern world by engaging in ecumenical relations, and a deepened appreciation for religious tolerance and human liberty. Part of their complaint, rightly in my estimation, was that an excessively optimistic outlook whereby everything that was simply new was seen as automatically good was simply wrong and weakened Catholic identity. This would result in a spiritual malaise and moral mediocrity that would ultimately become unattractive and deadening. History bears out their insight, but as Chesterton once observed, “Heresy is truth gone mad.”
There are toxic vapors at the far end of the Lefevbre swamp and Bishop Williamson seemed to have breathed deeply of the fumes. The man, for sometime evidently, has been a marginal character, a fact that the Vatican and the pope admittedly should have known but did not. Some preliminary effort should have gone into uncovering Bishop Williamson’s conspiratorialist propensities. What’s more, an assessment of the communications failure on the part of the Vatican is appropriate.
The bishop now has a choice to make: paddle further out into the swamp (the Lefevbrites having already silenced him), or he can pull back and recant. The Vatican has demanded that he “distance himself in an absolutely unmistakable and public way from his position.” Unless he comes to see the historical absurdity and moral obtuseness of his assertions, he will have no ministry in the Church.
We need to be clear that the lifting of the excommunication of the bishops did not re-establish full communion between these men and the Roman Catholic Church. They remain suspended priests, forbidden by canon law from practicing their ministry. They will remain so until some resolution is achieved as to their full adherence to the authority the pope, which would include the authority of Vatican II. The lifting of the excommunication begins the discussion, it does not settle it.
Among the documents that Vatican II published is Nostra Aetate (The Declaration on the Relation of the Church with Non-Christian Religions) which emphatically decries all forms of anti-Semitism, anywhere and by anyone. Whether or not these bishops follow the teaching of this document will be followed carefully.
It seems at least worth pondering the possibility that when people are offered the opportunity to come in from the cold they sometimes may come to learn the lesson of reciprocal responsibility which is what civilized life is mostly about. But sometimes they don’t.
Some of the reaction to all this is clearly justified. Certainly Joseph Ratzinger knows full well the evil of denying the very evil he witnessed at close range. This was the man who grew up in a family known for its resistance to the fascists, who as a child in his native Germany refused to attend the mandatory Hitler Youth meetings, and who had a cousin with Down’s Syndrome euthanized by the Nazis as part of their war against the disabled. He has spoken out repeatedly and consistently against anti-Semitism, as a priest, bishop, cardinal and now pope.
But some of the reaction smacks distinctly of opportunism by politicians, theologians and even some bishops who have other axes to grind with Pope Benedict. These opportunists have sought to exploit whatever confusion, ignorance and possibility this controversy affords.
For those of us inspired by Pope Benedict’s efforts at the renewal of the Church’s liturgy and life, it is sad that what might have been an occasion for a spiritual deepening — both for Catholics and with those outside the Church — has instead turned into a political imbroglio.