By Joseph O'Brien
Pope Benedict XVI's decision last month to "remit," or remove, the excommunications of four traditionalist bishops consecrated by Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre in 1988 was the first step in healing what appeared to be a formal schism. But it sparked a firestorm of criticism from Jewish groups and left-leaning Catholics.
The first problem was the timing. It fell during the Church's Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, an undertaking the traditionalists view with suspicion, and nearly on the anniversary of Pope John XXIII's calling of the Second Vatican Council, whose teachings on ecumenism, relations with the Jews and religious freedom they reject outright.
And it didn't help that Bishop Richard Williamson of the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX), one of the four bishops, in a television interview aired two days before the announcement denied that 6 million Jews could have been killed in gas chambers during the Holocaust.
The public-relations damage was done, even though Bishop Bernard Fellay, superior general of the SSPX, quickly issued a public apology on behalf of the entire society and prohibited Bishop Williamson from speaking "on political or historical issues," the bishop himself issued an apology, and Pope Benedict reiterated the Church's solidarity with the Jews and condemnation of the Holocaust.
A large part of the problem was widespread reporting that the bishops had been fully "rehabilitated." Not so says chancellor for the Diocese of La Crosse, Wis., and canon lawyer Benedict Nguyen.
"It's a very narrow, particular thing the pope has done canonically," he told Our Sunday Visitor. "Everything else remains the same regarding the SSPX, including their irregular status and the irregularity of the orders of the four bishops involved. This is just a first step so that they can continue the dialogue."
Noting that canon law has as much in common with the rules of a family as with civil law, Nguyen offered an analogy to explain the pope's decision -- a son or daughter whose parents kick out of the house, but wants to return.
"If the parents say they can live in the house again, it doesn't mean the problem which sent them from the house isn't there anymore," he said.
But Nguyen cautions those observing these developments between Rome and the SSPX from "within the house."
"We should be careful we don't find ourselves being the elder brother of the prodigal son," he said. "This should be a cause for rejoicing because there has been a major first step in reconciling our brothers and sisters back to full communion with the Church."
Now that the excommunication has been lifted, though, the issues that first caused contention between Rome and the SSPX must be addressed, said Father John Zuhlsdorf, a popular Catholic blogger on traditional liturgy. Both sides, he said, will need to address the problems the SSPX have with certain Vatican II documents.
"People of good will can disagree about particular points in the council documents," he said. "They can argue that there are parts that don't have clear and highly authoritative formulations. I don't think the SSPX are going to disagree about ecumenism, for example, but about ecumenism that compromises Catholic doctrine to achieve unity."
He said the SSPX would do well to work with Pope Benedict, who was a theological adviser at Vatican II, rather than wait for his successor.
"The SSPX are fortunate to have someone right now, as bishop of Rome, who understands their theological starting point as well as if not better than they do," Father Zuhlsdorf said.
There's little doubt that full reconciliation is beyond immediate grasp. "Our wish is really to sit down with Rome and have some discussions about the difficulties regarding the Second Vatican Council," said the U.S. District Superior of the SSPX, Father Arnaud Rostand. "We really would like to go to the root of the problems as we see it. The crisis in the Church has come from the novelties introduced at the Second Vatican Council, and we would like to be listened to on these topics."
"I have always personally believed I am a Catholic and faithful to the pope," Father Rostand said. "What I suffer the most is seeing the Church falling to pieces in the crisis she is going through."
A more immediate issue, the status of Catholic-Jewish relations, must be addressed, too, said Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Atlanta, chairman of the U.S. bishops' Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs. At the moment, Archbishop Gregory said, the Jewish community is "hurt and confused" by the comments made by Bishop Williamson.
"The statements of Bishop Williamson were very unfortunate and absolutely scandalous," he said. "The issue of the Holocaust and its historicity have been accepted by the Catholic Church. Certainly John Paul II spent his entire pontificate trying to strengthen the bonds that unite Catholics and Jews."
While the archbishop's committee has not met to discuss what, if any, response must be made to heal the damage done by the wayward bishop's remarks, he said the bishops' conference is using "every means at its disposal" to heal the wounds which Bishop Williamson's remarks caused.
Archbishop Gregory said Bishop Williamson's remarks served only to distract the Church's focus on the real issue -- the continued discussion between the SSPX and Rome.
"In many ways it is a terrible moment that this particular issue [of Bishop Williamson's remarks] has received such attention and removed the focus from what the Holy Father certainly wanted to do with a gesture of reconciliation," he said. "The Holy Father is committed to pursuing that dialogue, and we believe the fraternity is also willing to begin the slow process of conversation with the Holy See."
What's good for the gander isn't necessarily good for the goose.
That's what a canon lawyer has said about the recent demand by Roman Catholic Womenpriests (RCW), a breakaway organization that seeks to ordain women as priests in the Catholic faith. There are currently 38 "priests" (including one man) and five "bishops" in RCW.
Last May the Vatican's doctrinal congregation issued a decree stating that anyone who attempts to ordain a woman automatically incurs excommunication.
But it didn't take long for RCW to notice the similarities between their own case and that of the Society of St. Pius X's bishops who had their excommunication lifted last month.
"Roman Catholic Womenpriests call on Pope Benedict to lift the decree of automatic excommunication issued ... against all in our movement as a gesture of reconciliation and justice toward women in the Church," said an RCW press release.
But according to U.S. canon lawyer Benedict Nguyen, when it comes to Church law, previous decisions carry no weight.
"There is no precedence in canon law," said Nguyen, the chancellor of the Diocese of La Crosse, Wis.
"The SSPX expressed suffering and regret for what they did," he said, pointing out that this was expressed by the SSPX's offers of service to the Church. "The SSPX made a pledge of loyalty to the pope and the magisterium and offered to put themselves at the disposal of the Church."
Nothing like it has come from the RCW, according to Nguyen.
"If these other folks want their excommunication [remitted] they have to make a movement toward dialogue, toward reconciliation, and toward reform of what they did," he said.
What they did -- attempting to ordain women -- Nguyen added, is itself the biggest sticking point against lifting RCW members' excommunications.
In the RCW's case, the members violated, "a constitutive element of the Sacrament of Holy Orders. It's the difference between a suspended priest saying Mass and a priest saying Mass with beer and pretzels. It really is the proverbial difference between apples and oranges," he said.
Joseph O'Brien writes from Wisconsin.
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