In response to the uproar resulting from the combined lifting of the excommunication on the SSPX bishops and immediate publicity that one of those bishops (Bishop Williamson) has made statements that minimize/deny the Holocaust, Pope Benedict has written a letter (a “word of clarification”) to the bishops of the world.
One of the great delights of the letter is its candor. And he covers a lot of territory in a relatively short space (about 2,500 words). The following is just a few snippets. The Holy Father:
- Acknowledges where things went wrong
“An unforeseen mishap for me was the fact that the Williamson case came on top of the remission of the excommunication. . . . Another mistake, which I deeply regret, is the fact that the extent and limits of the provision of 21 January 2009 were not clearly and adequately explained at the moment of its publication.”
- Explains what the remittance of the excommunications means–and doesn’t mean
“The excommunication affects individuals, not institutions. . . . The remission of the excommunication was a measure taken in the field of ecclesiastical discipline: the individuals were freed from the burden of conscience constituted by the most serious of ecclesiastical penalties. This disciplinary level needs to be distinguished from the doctrinal level. The fact that the Society of Saint Pius X does not possess a canonical status in the Church is not, in the end, based on disciplinary but on doctrinal reasons. As long as the Society does not have a canonical status in the Church, its ministers do not exercise legitimate ministries in the Church. . . “
- Asks whether this measure was needed–and provides a compelling explanation
“The first priority for the Successor of Peter was laid down by the Lord in the Upper Room in the clearest of terms: “You… strengthen your brothers” . . . Leading men and women to God, to the God who speaks in the Bible: this is the supreme and fundamental priority of the Church and of the Successor of Peter at the present time. A logical consequence of this is that we must have at heart the unity of all believers. Their disunity, their disagreement among themselves, calls into question the credibility of their talk of God. “”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.”"Can we be totally indifferent about 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? Should we casually let them drift farther from the Church? . . . Can we simply exclude them, as representatives of a radical fringe, from our pursuit of reconciliation and unity? What would then become of them?”
- Shows that he sees this issue–and the world’s reaction–in a larger context
“. . . as a result, an avalanche of protests was unleashed, whose bitterness laid bare wounds deeper than those of the present moment.”"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.”
- End even offers some scriptural exegesis and application, taking us through his own thoughts on a passage from Galatians
“But sad to say, this “biting and devouring” [Gal. 5:15] 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?”
Of course, one might wish that some of the mishaps could have been avoided and this letter made unnecessary. At the same time, the media has been watching this episode closely and giving it a lot of press, so it provides another opportunity for the Pope to teach while the world is listening.