Yesterday, I read this in our morning edition of The Age: “Pope clears right-wing bishops: One of Four is a Holocaust Denier” (the subtitle isn’t on the web edition – I’ll get to that in a moment).
Saturday’s report was just a rumour at that stage – although one with good basis (the article was written by a journo from The Age citing Andrea Tornielli), but the reports this morning are coming in that the act has been accomplished: Pope Benedict has lifted the excommunication on the four Society of Saint Pius X bishops ordained by Archbishop Lefebvre. (If you like your papal announcements hot off the internet and in Italian, here is the link for the Holy See’s official Bulletin: REMISSIONE DELLA SCOMUNICA LATAE SENTENTIAE AI VESCOVI DELLA FRATERNITÀ SACERDOTALE SAN PIO X , 24.01.2009 (and in English HERE on WDTPRS.com – see here for further comment by Fr Z.).
Now, as Brother Martin would have said, “What does this mean for us?”
I think the very first thing to note is that this is NOT a restoration of full communion between the Catholic Church and the Churches of the Society. It puts the Fraternity in a relationship with the Catholic Church which is in almost exact parallel to the relationship of the Orthodox Churches. You will recall that at the end of Vatican II, Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras recinded the mutual excommunications of the Churches within one another’s communions. Forty years later, full communion has still not been established between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches – but the relationship is at least one of fraternal brotherhood seeking full communion.
So, the removal of the excommunication does not mean there are not still issues of great disagreement between Rome and the Society. Those differences include differences with regard to how the teachings of the 2nd Vatican Council is received. THAT includes questions of the relationship of the Church to other world religions, and especially to the Jews. And THAT brings up the question of “Holocaust denial”.
The Age report claimed that “One of four is a Holocaust denier”. The evidence for this claim is in this interview given here in Sweden:
Whatever the evidence may or not be for the Holocaust, there is no doubt about one thing: the evidence that Bishop Williamson is a “holocaust denier” is undeniable. In response to this interview, Bishop Fellay (the head of the Society) has issued this letter (thanks to Fr Ray Blake via Fr Z.)
Bishop Fellay states that a bishop has no magisterium to declare on such matters of history. He clearly distances himself and the society from Bishop Williamson’s ideas – but note (in line with his position that a bishop should have no position on this issue) that he does not take the opportunity to reject Bishop Williamson’s claims outright.
Make no mistake about these guys: they are what The Age and other liberal media outlets would definitely call “right wing” and “ultra-conservative”. But The Age journalist fails to exercise any distinction between the “crimes” of these right-wingers. It is, for instance, one thing for a Latin Christian to exercise their right and perogative to “conduct Mass solely in Latin”. It is another thing to “categorically reject the validity of any other religions” (at least for a given meaning of “validity”). It is yet another thing completely to deny the historical veracity of the Shoah.
In her article, The Age journo tries to lump Pope Benedict into the same basket as the SSPX chaps by describing him as “energetically conservative”. An interesting adjective, “energetically”. Yes, for an 81 year old, the Holy Father is certainly “energetic” – but compared to the SSPX bishops, he is decidely “liberal”. I don’t think you would find either Bishop Fellay or Bishop Williamson ever visiting a synagogue, let alone ever offering a moment of prayer in a mosque…
The lifting of the excommunication does not mean that there are not still serious issues between the Society of Saint Pius X and the Catholic Church. It does not mean that the Catholic Church (or Pope Benedict) endorses the extreme and false opinions of some of these bishops. But being “conservative” and “right-wing” as such is not an offence against the Catholic faith.
And Bishop Fellay is right about one other thing too – we can only distance ourselves from the controversial and shameful opinions of holocaust deniers. The denial of the Holocaust is not offence against the Catholic faith – although it is an offence against the Jewish people, history and right reason. As such Holocaust deniers deserve censure, not excommunication.
Update:Damien Thompson at the Daily Telegraph thinks the Bishop Fellay letter looks like a fake. And note well, Thompson has it wrong. The lifting of the excommunications do not mean that Fellay and Williamson now belong “to the same Church” as himself (except in the broader sense of being baptised members of the one Church of Jesus Christ). They are still in schism from the Catholic Church.