Published on March 17, 2009
Last January, the Vatican’s Congregation for Bishops remitted (that is to say, lifted) the excommunication placed two decades ago on four bishops of the Lefebvrite Society of St. Pius X. The official decree expressed an ardent hope. “This gift of peace, coming at the end of the Christmas celebrations, is also meant to be a sign which promotes the Universal Church’s unity in charity, and removes the scandal of division.”
Instead, it turned into a greater scandal, when word spread that one of the bishops, Richard Williamson, was an active denier of the Holocaust. In an incendiary interview on Swedish television, mere days before the decree was published, Williamson claimed Nazi gas chambers did not exist and that perhaps only 300,000 Jews (instead of the accepted estimate of six million) were killed by Hitler’s regime.
Immediately, Pope Benedict XVI’s decision to repair relations with the ultraconservative Society (which considers the Second Vatican Council heretical) became the long-anticipated signal that the Pope, once feared as the Panzer cardinal, was astride his tank and finally making a hard turn to the right. His decision was attacked, not least by his fellow German, Chancellor Angela Merkel, for diminishing the horror of the Holocaust, and by many others, Jews as well as Catholics, for encouraging illiberalism and intolerance. (I, too, was one of many dismayed by the Pope’s action.)
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Last week, the Pope released a letter to his fellow bishops, offering a “word of clarification” about the remission. It is, altogether, an extraordinary document: a candid confession of personal anguish and self-criticism, unprecedented in the modern history of the Church. “I was saddened by the fact,” Benedict wrote, “that even Catholics who, after all, might have had a better knowledge of the situation, thought they had to attack me with open hostility.”
The substance of the Pope’s essay in explanation is the true meaning of reconciliation. “So if the arduous task of working for faith, hope and love in the world is presently (and, in various ways, always) the Church’s real priority, then part of this is also made up of acts of reconciliation, small and not so small.”
As a loyal but inconstant reader of papal encyclicals, however, I was struck, above all, by the difference in the letter’s tone. It felt decidedly modern, of our time.
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It is usual to think of the long service of Pope Leo XIII as the first modern papacy. His “Rerum Novarum” was a classic defense of workers’ rights. But in language tone, Leo was unquestionably old school. “It is We who are the chief guardian of religion and the chief dispenser of what pertains to the Church; and by keeping silence we would seem to neglect the duty incumbent on us.”
John XXIII, the first modern pope in the sense of being recognizably, joyously, ordinary, wrote two influential encyclicals. Despite a well-deserved reputation for broad humor (Q: “About how many people work in the Vatican?” A: “About half.”), John used the pontifical “We,” too, even in his groundbreaking “Pacem in Terris.” “Since this is so, We, the Vicar on earth of Jesus Christ, Savior of the World and Author of Peace, and as interpreter of the very profound longing of the entire human family….”
It was only with the election of Pope John Paul II that papal letters started to read like they were written by an individual, not by committee. In his last encyclical, “Ecclesia de eucharistia,” John Paul could write: “When I think of the Eucharist, and look at my life as a priest, as a Bishop and as the Successor of Peter, I naturally recall the many times and places in which I was able to celebrate it … I have been able to celebrate Holy Mass in chapels built along mountain paths, on lakeshores and seacoasts; I have celebrated it on altars built in stadiums and in city squares….”
Pope Benedict XVI inherited this tradition of writing in the simple first person, but his letter of March 10 breaks new ground in the lows of humility it plumbs. “But I ask now: Was it, and is it, truly wrong in this case to meet half-way the brother who ‘has something against you’ (cf. Mt 5:23ff.) and to seek reconciliation?”
The letter is a thinking-through, with both body and soul.
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After the remission, an obtuse Richard Owen, Rome correspondent of The Times of London, opined: “Instead of lifting the excommunications of Bishop Williamson and three other bishops from the ultra-conservative Society of St. Pius X founded by the late Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, he could have demanded that they first unconditionally accept his authority and the reforms of Vatican II.”
Excuse my Latin, but this is, decidedly, a load of (non-papal) bull. Benedict’s letter itself informs us that this condition was met. “This gesture was possible once the interested parties had expressed their recognition in principle of the Pope and his authority as Pastor, albeit with some reservations in the area of obedience to his doctrinal authority and to the authority of the Council.”
And the decree lifting the excommunication quoted a letter from one of the bishops, dated only last December, that phrased acceptance in unmistakable terms. “We accept her teachings [that is, of the Roman Catholic Church] in a filial spirit. We firmly believe in the primacy of Peter and in his prerogatives…”
There is much to regret in the way the Vatican handled the remission. But failure to secure what Owen glibly says ought to have been demanded was not one of them. Like me, originally, he wasn’t thinking clearly.