Ecclesial unity, a defining feature of the Catholic Church, is a passion of Pope Benedict XVI. Pope Benedict has demonstrated praiseworthy willingness to seek unity, even when the effort risks stirring controversy, as has occurred with the pope’s recent overtures toward the breakaway Society of St. Pius X. Two weeks later, however, the project seemed to lie in tatters. Catholics and non-Catholics alike have expressed confusion and outrage. What went wrong, and what can be learned from the affair?
A brief restatement of the facts: On Jan. 24, the eve of the 50th anniversary of the announcement of the opening of the Second Vatican Council, Pope Benedict announced the lifting of the ban of excommunication from four bishops ordained by the schismatic Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre. The four are members of the Society of St. Pius X, founded by Lefebvre in 1970, which has rejected the teachings of the Second Vatican Council and the authority of recent popes. In 1988 the Vatican said that by being ordained without a pontifical mandate (that is, Vatican permission), the four had automatically incurred excommunication.
The initial announcement on Jan. 24 was soon followed by a firestorm of criticism when it was discovered that one bishop, Richard Williamson, had made public assertions that minimized the extent of the Holocaust. In an interview broadcast on Swedish television, Williamson claimed that the Germans had killed perhaps 300,000 Jews, no more. These positions were soon condemned by Vatican officials; the society’s superior general silenced Williamson on “political and historical matters”; and Benedict condemned Holocaust denial and reaffirmed his “full and unquestioning solidarity” with the Jewish people.
Still, the damage had been done. People within the Vatican expressed uncertainty over the canonical import of the pope’s action. Were these four bishops now in full communion with the Catholic Church? What changes or commitments had been required of them, if any? Meanwhile, others inside and outside the church continued to wonder whether the church countenanced Holocaust deniers. Religious and secular leaders alike called on Pope Benedict to clarify the church’s position. On Feb. 4 the Vatican Secretariat of State issued a strongly worded document stating that the Society of St. Pius X, as an “indispensable” condition of full communion, would have to accept all the reforms of the Second Vatican Council and the teachings of the last five popes (who were named, lest anyone miss the point). Additionally, Bishop Williamson would have to revoke in an “absolutely unequivocal and public” way his incendiary and false comments on the Holocaust.
The entire episode raised serious questions not only about the church’s relations with Judaism, but about the internal governance of the Curia and the way the Vatican communicates its message. In a rare move of public criticism, Cardinal Walter Kasper, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, said, “Up to now people in the Vatican have spoken too little with each other and have not checked where problems might arise.” Federico Lombardi, S.J., the Vatican spokesperson, was just as blunt. He called for the creation of a modern communications culture inside the Curia; currently each dicastery (department) communicates for itself.
In the end, it was hard to know whether to praise the Vatican for its openness or to fault it for playing the blame game. Clearly, much of the confusion and controversy could have been avoided if the Vatican had issued its clearly worded Feb. 4 statement, which explained what precisely was being done and what was required of the Society of St. Pius X, at the time of the initial announcement on Jan. 24. In our fast-paced, media-driven era, there is no substitute for a well defined message. If these difficult events have any upside, it is the opportunity they offer for the Vatican to evaluate and renovate Curial communications policies.
Given the pope’s desire for unity, many also hope that the Vatican has plans to reach out to theologians who have been subject to Vatican sanctions and to other groups as well. They too represent serious voices that express vital concerns in our church, and their current status at times strains our bonds of unity. And while some of their writings and positions may require ongoing discussion, it is noteworthy that unlike the Society of St. Pius X, none of them explicitly reject any prior papacy or council.
The widespread suspicion that anti-Semitism remains in the church is a perception the church must work to correct. Likewise, the authority of Vatican II must not be watered down. Undoubtedly Pope Benedict XVI shares both of these convictions. Yet unless old ways of proceeding are updated, his efforts on behalf of Christian unity risk being gravely misunderstood.