After seeing on last night’s news some misreporting on this event, I prepared the following statement for our Ecumenical and Interfaith Newsblog and our Commission mailing list. I was ably assisted in this by Andrew Rabel’s column in Inside the Vatican.
On 1 July 1988, Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, who had been suspended from episcopal duties largely due to his refusal to accept the authority of the Second Vatican Council, received latae sententiae excommunication for ordaining four bishops for the Society of Saint Pius X without permission from the Holy See.
Archbishop Lefebvre died in 1991, but the excommunication continued to apply to the four bishops. On January 24th, with the approval of Pope Benedict XVI, Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, Prefect of the Congregation of Bishops, issued a decree removing the excommunication of these four bishops.
The removal of these excommunications has caused a great deal of confusion and controversy, especially owing to the fact that one of the four, Bishop Williamson, has publicly and strongly expressed opinions of “Holocaust-denial”. Some have seen the lifting of the excommunications as a papal endorsement of these extreme and anti-Semitic views.
It must therefore be made quite clear that the removal of excommunication does not mean that these four bishops have been received back into communion with the Catholic Church. In his decree, Cardinal Battista Re made it quite clear that this act is only the first “step” toward the “accomplishment of full communion with the Church of the entire Society of Saint Pius X”.
The excommunications were lifted because the bishops fulfilled the five conditions the Congregation required of. All five of these conditions concern the acceptance of the authority of the Bishop of Rome.
Many other serious issues remain between the Catholic Church and the Society of Saint Pius X. The chief among these is alluded to by Bishop Bernard Fellay, the bishop who currently heads the Society, in his response to the decree. He writes: “We accept and make our own all the councils up to the Second Vatican Council about which we express some reservations.” Those reservations are very serious, and include the Council’s decrees on ecumenism, interfaith relations and religious freedom.
At this stage, the relationship between the Catholic Church and the bishops of the Society have returned to what they were before the 1988 excommunications, that is, when Archbishop Lefebvre had been suspended from his episcopal duties (‘a divinis’) and could not legally celebrate any of the Catholic sacraments.
Cardinal Kasper, the President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity and Chair of the Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews has explained the lifting of the excommunications as: “a gesture to favour the reconstitution of the unity of the Church. It is only a first step, because a series of themes must still be discussed. It is necessary to see in what way they accept the Council. It remains to be seem what will be the status of the SSPX. … Benedict XVI expressed himself about this problems with extreme clarity. I understand that the opinions of Williamson can cast a shadow on relations with Judaism, but I am convinced that the dialogue will continue. We have good relations with them.”
A dialogue will now begin between the Society of Saint Pius X and the Holy See. Before full communion can be restored, all of the bishops of the Society will need to accept, among other things, the Catholic Church’s teaching on the relationship with the Jewish people.