One wishes that Pope Benedict XVI’s letter to the world’s Catholic bishops on the controversy surrounding the lifting of the excommunications of four dissident Lefebvrist bishops — which was dated March 10 and released publicly today — had not been necessary. Benedict was badly served by the Curia in this affair. A different kind of man and a different kind of pope might have been inclined to take the Olympian view and simply ignore the firestorm caused by the fact that one of the Lefebvrists, an international crank named Richard Williamson, was a longtime Jew-baiter who had recently indulged in the most grotesque form of holocaust denial. For all that the world media’s Rottweiler Brigade has been nipping at his heels ever since the Lefebvrist storm broke, however, Benedict XVI is not that kind of man, and he’s not that kind of pope. He is, in fact, a man of exquisite manners and deep pastoral sensitivity, who knew that something unprecedented was required of him to set things aright. Both of those qualities are amply displayed in his letter.
The letter makes several crucial points.
The pope candidly acknowledges that what he had intended as a gesture of mercy backfired badly: “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.”
The pope further acknowledged that this fiasco was in part the fault of inept work by the Curia, and that it was “our Jewish friends who quickly helped to clear up the misunderstanding and to restore [an] atmosphere of friendship and trust. . . .”
As for ensuring against such problems in the future, the pope made the necessary bureaucratic move: the Ecclesia Dei Commission, established as an independent agency by John Paul II afer the Lefebvrist schism in 1988, and charged with reconciling Lefebvrists and others who wanted to return to full communion, has been put under the authority of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. There will be no more free-lancing from Ecclesia Dei, which had become a loose cannon careening around the ecclesial deck.
The reining in of Ecclesia Dei and its subordination to the Catholic Church’s principal doctrinal office also sends an important signal to the Lefebvrist leadership, which has continued to insist throughout this affair that it represents “the Tradition” (always capitalized) and that it continues to have the gravest doubts about the Second Vatican Council’s teaching on religious freedom, on the nature of the Church, and on the Church’s relationship with other religious communities. Benedict XVI’s letter makes clear that, while he recognizes that most of the Lefebvrist faithful couldn’t care less about Catholic church-state theory and simply want to worship in the manner of their grandparents, he also understands that the leadership of the Society of St. Pius X [SSPX], which is the embodiment of the Lefebvrist movement, tilts toward forms of doctrinal dissent more typically found on the Catholic Left. The unmistakable implication is that there will be no reconciliation or restoration of full communion until the Lefebvrist leadership acknowledges Vatican II as an authentic expression of Catholic faith. One might suggest that this process would be advanced were the leadership of the SSPX to cease referring to itself as the incarnation of “the Tradition,” as if it were the rest of the Catholic Church that went into schism in 1988.
At the same time, the pope’s letter reminds Catholic progressives that Catholicism did not begin at Vatican II, or even begin anew at Vatican II. The Council’s documents have to be read in the light of 2,000 years of Christian tradition, not read against that tradition. The Church began with the Paschal Mystery of Christ’s suffering, death, and resurrection, which Christians will celebrate one month from now on Good Friday and Easter; the Church did not begin on December 7, 1965, when Paul VI promulgated the “Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World.”
The papal letter also includes a powerful plea to Catholics to re-focus on the real issues of the day: “In our days, when in vast areas of the world the faith is in danger of dying out like a flame which no longer has fuel, the overriding priority [for everyone in the Church] is to make God present in this world and to show men and women the way to God. Not just any god, but the God who spoke on Sinai . . . that God whose face we recognize . . . in Jesus Christ, crucified and risen. 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.” Thus the pope puts into the proper context the problems posed by both the Lefebvrist schism and the psychological schism in which some Catholic progressives live — both forms of schism impede the evangelical mission of the Church at a moment when that mission has acquired a new urgency.
It remains to be seen whether Benedict XVI will now take in hand a reform of the personnel and practices of the Roman Curia, which is essential if the evangelical brilliance of this pontificate is to fulfill its great potential. For the moment, however, the Rottweiler Brigade has been put in its place; a major flaw in the Roman bureaucracy has been fixed; the Church has been reminded of the dynamic relationship between tradition and development in Catholic self-understanding; Catholics living in both formal and informal schism have been told, politely but firmly, that they are impeding the Church’s mission; the psychological path has been cleared for a successful papal pilgrimage to the Holy Land in May; and, as Jews approach Passover and Christians approach Easter, both have been reminded that their inevitable entanglement is of the will of God, as St. Paul tried to explain to the Romans two millennia ago. That’s accomplishment enough for one letter.
–George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.