By Greg Erlandson
Pope Benedict XVI's remarkable letter to the bishops of the world regarding his ill-received decision to lift the excommunications of four schismatic traditionalist bishops is without parallel in the modern papacy.
Sent to the bishops of the world and subsequently made public by the Vatican, the letter is an expression of sorrow, a plea for reconciliation and a powerful example of papal humility. It is another surprise in a pontificate of the unexpected. (The text was published in the March 29 issue of OSV.)
But Pope Benedict's letter is also a plea to a world rent asunder by competing ideologies, and even a warning that our willingness to go on the attack against each other is profoundly wounding within the Church.
The pope first and foremost emphasized that the remission of the excommunications of the rebel bishops had nothing to do with the Holocaust-denying silliness of one of the four bishops. He admitted, however, that the Vatican should have done its research rather than sailing blindly into the controversy, a point on which both supporters and critics of the papal gesture of mercy would agree.
Pope Benedict was genuinely dismayed that his "gesture of reconciliation with an ecclesial group engaged in a process of separation thus turned into its very antithesis: an apparent step backwards with regard to all the steps of reconciliation between Christians and Jews taken since the [Second Vatican] Council."
His dismay at this turn of events is palpable, but he also noted that among his fiercest critics were fellow Catholics: "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."
The pope used his letter to make a plea for unity, and this plea was not just directed to a schismatic group, but to all of us:
"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."
Our disunity, the pope feels, is a sign of contradiction to our very message, and it is doubly hurtful because we are witnesses to a world that increasingly acts as if God is irrelevant to them.
For all Catholics, the most challenging part of the letter may be his reflection on intolerance. In words that resonate far beyond the traditionalist issue, Pope Benedict wondered if in the Church, as in society, one "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."
The words recall a declaration he made as cardinal in the book "God and the World": "I believe that a great deal of tolerance is required within the Church, that the diversity of paths is something in accordance with the breadth of Catholicity -- and that one ought not simply to reject it, even when it is something contrary to one's own taste."
In that context, then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was speaking of the new movements and decrying the prejudice for spiritual uniformity. In his letter to bishops, Pope Benedict extends this tolerance to a movement that is even more despised in many Church circles.
This will not be the end of the debate regarding the Lefebvrites, nor is it the end of debate and disagreement in the Church. But with his letter, the pope has taken a black mark on his papacy and, by shining an honest and thoughtful light upon it, turned it into something remarkable.
We would do well to heed his words and examine our hearts.
Greg Erlandson is president and publisher of OSV.
Please note: Comments left online may be considered for publication in the Letters to the Editor section of OSV Newsweekly.
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