On January 21, in an act of great charity and courage, Pope Benedict XVI lifted the decrees of excommunication against the four bishops of the Society of Saint Pius X (SSPX). The four bishops — Bernard Fellay, Bernard Tissier de Mallerais, Alfonso de Galarreta, and Richard Williamson — had incurred excommunication as a result of their Episcopal consecrations by Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre that took place without papal approval in Econe, Switzerland on June 30, 1988. Despite the excommunications, the Society has carried the torch for Catholic tradition for the past 38 years, saying only the Traditional Latin Mass (now the Extraordinary Rite) and staunchly criticizing parts of Vatican II. The SSPX religious and faithful pride themselves on being “anti-modernist” and, unlike most “progressive” parts of the Catholic Church, their numbers continue to grow.
Pope Benedict has taken extraordinary measures to bring the SSPX back into the Church. Dialogue with the Society began almost immediately after Benedict’s papacy began and the Vatican has offered a number of olive branches, not the least of which was the great gift of Summorum Pontificum, which made the Traditional Latin Mass more available to all. However, the sticky situation of the excommunications remained — until January 21.
On the same day as the excommunications were lifted, a Swedish television station aired an interview with Bishop Williamson taped in November 2008. In the interview, Williamson said that “perhaps only 300,000” Jews had perished at the hands of the Nazis and “not one” in gas chambers.
Predictably, the Williamson episode has become a cause célèbre and a ripe opportunity for the Church’s enemies to hurl vitriol at both the SSPX and, especially, the Pope. Much of the harshest criticism has come from inside the Church itself. The lifting of the excommunications has been labeled “a disaster,” “a major mistake,” “evidence of Vatican incompetence,” and has prompted an absurd call for the Pope’s resignation by two “theologians.” One newspaper headline even referred to Williamson as the “Holocaust Bishop.” Subtle touch, no?
Meanwhile, the Vatican responded yesterday with a reminder that while Williamson’s excommunication had been lifted, he still had no canonical function in the church because he was consecrated illegitimately. “Bishop Williamson, in order to be admitted to episcopal functions within the church, will have to take his distance, in an absolutely unequivocal and public fashion, from his position on the Shoah (Holocaust), which the Holy Father was not aware of when the excommunication was lifted,” the statement said.
To the outside observer, this may seem a strange story, with the reason for the lifting of the excommunications and the importance of the Williamson interview seeming confusing. To keep things in context, two points should be kept uppermost in mind:
1. The lifting of the excommunications and the Williamson interview have nothing to do with each other. Anyone who knows the first thing about the Vatican recognizes that the decision to lift the excommunications must have been made months ago and simply was made public on January 21. The Vatican simply doesn’t move fast enough for anyone to think the timing could have worked otherwise.
Thus, Williamson’s personal beliefs about the Holocaust have nothing to do with the Pope’s charity toward the SSPX bishops. Making foolish statements on secular matters is not a justification for excommunication. The facts alone refute Williamson’s inanities — that is what is needed here and all that is needed.
Further, removing the excommunications affects — besides Williamson — three other SSPX bishops, the Society’s 460 priests, 200 seminarians, and nearly one million people who attend the Society’s masses. Should the Pope have lifted the excommunications on the three bishops other than Williamson, causing a cleaving of the Society? Or should he not have lifted the excommunications on any of the four bishops because Williamson minimizes the Holocaust?
Excommunication is spiritual, not political, medicine, and the primary mission of the Church is saving souls, not cuddling up to the principalities and powers that be. The minute she begins doing the latter, she stops doing the former.
2. There is nothing the Vatican could have done to prevent the uproar. Cries accusing the Vatican press office of “horrible timing,” “missteps” etc., continue. However, given the suspicious timing of the interview’s release, it appears the trap to embarrass the Pope would have been sprung whenever the Vatican made the announcement — last week, this week, next month — it didn’t matter. After all, the interview was taped in November 2008. Running the interview the day of the announcement leads one to conclude the station received forewarning of the Pope’s announcement. Further, some groups were claiming outrage before the interview ran, indicating they too were in on the plan.
As often is the case, however, something else is afoot here. In the name of Christian unity, concrete steps are being taken by the Holy Father to bring traditionalists back into the fold — and this is what those screaming the loudest are really worried about. The leaven brought to the Church by the addition of nearly 500 traditional priests and a million traditional worshippers is a joy to some — and absolutely terrifying to others.
Besides being the home of some of the history’s greatest and most sublime intellects like Augustine, Aquinas, Newman and Pope Benedict himself, the Church is also open to the world’s dunces, simpletons, nincompoops, gullible, pig-headed, arrogant, and close-minded, including many who are bishops and cardinals. Regardless of how much he says he loves Tradition, Williamson has proven himself a useful idiot for those who hate Tradition.
However, should the Church ever close her doors to the poor and the foolish and accept only those of whom the world approves, she would be denying the universal salvific mission that is her primary reason for being. Pope Benedict knows this and his great act of compassion toward the SSPX bishops proves it. The world does not understand this and its hysterical reaction proves this also.
Let us pray for our beloved Pope Benedict XVI so that, in his words, he “may not flee for fear of the wolves.”