In his much anticipated letter, itself a sign of how “heated” the matter has become, the Pope set out to clear the air in order “to contribute to peace in the Church”, an issue he insisted upon twice, admitting at the same that errors were made by the Vatican, errors like the “extent and limits of the provision of 21 January 2009 [which] were not clearly and adequately explained at the moment of its publication.” Even a subsequent press release by the Secretariat of State was not enough to end the controversy.
in the “unforeseen mishap” concerning Bishop Williamson, who more or less denies the Holocaust, there was a lack of information since “I have been told that consulting the information available on the internet would have made it possible to perceive the problem early on.”
As a result of the overlapping of statements by the negationist bishop with the “gesture of mercy” of remitting the excommunication, the Pope wrote, meant that a “gesture of reconciliation with an ecclesial group engaged in a process of separation [. . .] turned into its very antithesis: an apparent step backwards with regard to all the steps of reconciliation between Christians and Jews taken since the Council—steps which my own work as a theologian had sought from the beginning to take part in and support.”
“I was saddened by the fact that even Catholics who, after all, might have had a better knowledge of the situation, thought they had to attack me with open hostility. Precisely for this reason I thank all the more our Jewish friends, who quickly helped to clear up the misunderstanding and to restore the atmosphere of friendship and trust which—as in the days of Pope John Paul II—has also existed throughout my pontificate and, thank God, continues to exist.”
Having dealt with the Williamson issue, in essence saying that those who were supposed to brief him failed to do so, the Pontiff went on to explain the reasons and goals of remitting the excommunication.
The most serious of canonical sanctions, said the Pope, was imposed in 1988 on Mgr Marcel Lefebvre and the four bishops he ordained without a pontifical mandate in order to call “those thus punished to repent and to return to unity. [. . .] The remission of the excommunication has the same aim as that of the punishment: namely, to invite the four Bishops once more to return.” Such a “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.”
However, excommunication and its remission affect those who are “freed from the burden of conscience constituted by the most serious of ecclesiastical penalties;” it does not affect communities, including Monsignor Lefebvre’s Society of Saint Pius X and its followers. The Society as such “does not possess a canonical status in the Church” and this for “doctrinal reasons”. This means that the Society and its ministers, “even though they have been freed of the ecclesiastical penalty, do not legitimately exercise any ministry in the Church.”
With such matter explained, Benedict XVI addressed the most recurring accusation against his decision, namely “whether such a gesture was fitting in view of the genuinely urgent demands of the life of faith in our time.”
“Of course there are more important and urgent matters,” he said, but the “first priority” for the Successor of Peter is “the overriding priority” to “make God present in this world and to show men and women the way to God.”
“The real problem at this moment of our history is that God is disappearing from the human horizon, and, with the dimming of the light which comes from God, humanity is losing its bearings, with increasingly evident destructive effects.”
“A logical consequence of this is that we must have at heart the unity of all believers.” If this was the goal, is it wrong to extend a hand to a “a community which has 491 priests, 215 seminarians, 6 seminaries, 88 schools, 2 university-level institutes, 117 religious brothers, 164 religious sisters and thousands of lay faithful? [. . .] Can we simply exclude them, as representatives of a radical fringe, from our pursuit of reconciliation and unity? What would then become of them?”
“Certainly, for some time now, and once again on this specific occasion, we have heard from some representatives of that community many unpleasant things—arrogance and presumptuousness, an obsession with one-sided positions, etc. Yet to tell the truth, I must add that I have also received a number of touching testimonials of gratitude which clearly showed an openness of heart.”
Yet “should we not admit that some unpleasant things have also emerged in Church circles? At times one gets the impression that our society needs to have at least one group to which no tolerance may be shown; which one can easily attack and hate. And should someone dare to approach them—in this case the Pope—he too loses any right to tolerance; he too can be treated hatefully, without misgiving or restraint.”
In his conclusion the Pope explained that we must accept that “biting and devouring,” which Saint Paul mentions in his Epistle to the Galatians, “also exists in the Church today, as expression of a poorly understood freedom. Should we be surprised that we too are no better than the Galatians? That at the very least we are threatened by the same temptations? That we must always learn anew the proper use of freedom? And that we must always learn anew the supreme priority, which is love?”
Finally, said the Pope, “[m]ay the Lord protect all of us and guide our steps along the way of peace. This is the prayer that rises up instinctively from my heart at the beginning of this Lent, a liturgical season particularly suited to interior purification, one which invites all of us to look with renewed hope to the light which awaits us at Easter.” (FP)