Today, the Pope, through the Curia, “remitted” the excommunications placed in 1988 on the four new bishops who had just been consecrated without permission (validly, but not legally) by Archbishop Lefebvre. The remission was retroactive, going back all the way to 1988, and removing all juridical penalties otherwise incurred. Archbishop Lefebvre’s penalties for doing the consecrations were not removed. (Not that it matters at this point, as excommunication only lasts until the moment of death. But it could have been done, just as governors can issue posthumous pardons.) This was an important step.
The SSPX (Society of St. Pius X, aka Archbishop Lefebvre’s traditionalist group) has a complicated relationship with the Church. They have their own chapels and clergy, but still regard themselves as Catholic. Some of them regard themselves as literally more Catholic than the Pope, and think Pope Benedict XVI is a dangerous liberal and Vatican II an illegitimate Church Council. Others wish desperately for reunification, and are prevented by local idiocy.
In general, the Vatican today is sympathetic to these folks, who largely are composed of ordinary Catholics with legitimate desires for traditional practices (like the old Mass, or having Mass said in Latin) that were never really abrogated legally. Since their legal rights were violated by the practices of local priests and bishops acting illegally, it is they who were wronged. Even Archbishop Lefebvre was acting out of a legitimate desire to conserve legal Church practices. For this reason, it was announced a few years back that the Vatican did not feel that the SSPX was in formal schism.
Then-Cardinal Ratzinger always sympathized with the SSPX’s desires, even if he (as an obedient son of the Church) thought their methods were very wrong. He was always one of the chief negotiators for bringing them back, and no doubt felt his failure in these attempts very deeply. As soon as he became Pope, he began trying once more to call them back. He also took steps to make the continuity of Church practice, and the desirability of Church tradition, explicitly visible and legal. Although these steps were not fast enough or thorough enough to gain SSPX approval, he did win the cooperation and reintegration of at least three traditionalist religious orders and many individual SSPX members.
Rumors and news of official SSPX semi-negotiation and letters kept surfacing and disappearing again over the years. However, ever since the motu proprio Summorum Pontificum was promulgated, those rumors have gotten ever stronger. During the Pope’s recent trip to France and Lourdes, he spent some time scolding the French bishops for ungenerosity with the traditional forms; and SSPX groups showed up to cheer the Pope. Also at this time, the SSPX organized to begin praying the Rosary for a removal of their bishops’ excommunications. In a way, this was aggressive; but in a way, it also showed their great longing to have things normalized. (Pretty great, as they reported members praying 1.7 million rosaries.) Apparently the SSPX leadership wrote the Pope a letter asking for a removal of the excommunications. And so, the Pope took steps, strong news release-y rumors filtered out, and today the excommunications were remitted.
On the other hand, there is no question that even a little separation from the Church is not healthy. There are plenty of loony people inside the Church — even loony bishops — but some members of the SSPX have hared off after things like geocentrism, royalism, or (in Bishop Williamson’s case) holocaust denial. Very odd, creepy prayers circulate, and many odd, creepy things are practiced in the name of traditionalism, even though they often only date back to 1962. But who is to tell people to quit the madness? There is no accountability for this kind of stuff outside the Church.
(Also, it’s been noticed before that every time SSPX negotiations with the Vatican are going well, Williamson tends to send out a press release saying something outrageous, ensuring that he’ll be attacked, arguments will break out, and the SSPX will back out of negotiations. Many wonder whether this is him being crazy or him being deliberately obstructive, to avoid losing power. Would it be fair, to allow him to continue holding the SSPX membership hostage to his mouth?)
So for the good of souls and minds, and for the sake of justice, the Pope is trying once more to call the SSPX back. That’s the point of the remission of excommunications. It doesn’t mean the SSPX have won; but also, it doesn’t mean that they have lost and must grovel. There’s no win or lose here, especially when the Pope has always largely agreed with you. It just means that the bishops of the SSPX aren’t excommunicated anymore, and thus are personally better off. The hope and understanding is that this will make for a good start for negotiations.
However, it is important to point out what this doesn’t do. It doesn’t legitimize the SSPX bishops as normal Catholic bishops in good standing or give them a normal place in the hierarchy. It doesn’t even say that they aren’t sinning by doing what they do. It certainly doesn’t say, “Oh, yeah, we’re good with all of Williamson’s statements, and we agree with him that it’s Catholic doctrine that women shouldn’t wear pants.” (Another Williamson comment.) Heck, no! (Especially since that one pope told the Bulgars that he didn’t care a bit whether or not women wore pants instead of skirts.)
What it does say is, “The door is open, and the ball is in your court. Respond.”
A really good parsing of the decree of remission by Father Z. The specific canon law reasons are not given in any form that we mere mortals have decode. We’ll have to wait and see on that one, to get commentary from the canon lawyers.
The official SSPX response may seem a little coldly worded. But for the SSPX, it’s pretty warm. After the nice letter to the Pope, the SSPX bishops have to reassure all their sterner followers and themselves that they haven’t wimped out. Still, words like “filial gratitude” and “thanks” are prominent in this statement, which has definitely not always been the case.
Apparently, Fellay’s letter to the SSPX membership is much more warmly worded. News agencies quote him as calling the remission “unilateral, benevolent, and courageous”. He apparently also said that SSPX members would no longer be “unfairly stigmatized”.
Finally, it is notable that Bishop Fellay also issued a statement this week to the effect that the SSPX did not endorse the private opinions of its members. (Which is to say, crazy things said by Bishop Williamson.) Naturally, he also condemned the interviewers, but this is pretty much par for the SSPX. They’re a combative and sensitive lot, and their instinct is to circle the wagons when outsiders say anything. For Fellay to condemn Williamson’s statements at all is another big step.
Things are in a very sensitive position right now. With any luck, the SSPX will respond quickly, things will be normalized, the bishops will get some kind of position to keep them happy, Williamson will get some help, and everything will go merrily in the peace of Christ. But there are a lot of unhappy SSPX folks; a lot of priests and bishops who’ve had run-ins with the SSPX; a lot of priests and bishops who will suddenly have a different administrative situation going on in their jurisdictions, even if it’s for the good; a lot of progressives who will feel threatened by the SSPX; and a lot of traditionalists who resisted joining the SSPX, and who now feel that their loyalty is being disrespected if the SSPX position is in any way vindicated. The Pope has to herd all these cats (or sheep) without losing them.
However, if he can manage this and things go well with the SSPX, some of the people even further out than the SSPX (like the sedevacantists, who believe there hasn’t been any valid pope since before John XXIII, or the various antipope fringes) may come in from the cold as well. That would be very desirable. (And the Pope is responsible to Jesus for the souls of all these folks, too.)
Naturally, the media is trying to spin this act of mercy as “Excommunication lifted on holocaust denier”.
Obviously, they haven’t been paying attention. You can be a murderer, a liar, a thief, or a rapist without being excommunicated. You can live a very moral and legal life in most all respects and still choose to separate yourself from the communion of the Church. Excommunication is about very specific offenses against the Church and its teaching; it is not about whether or not you’re a twit who’s drunk the antisemitic Kool-Aid. (That would be dealt with by the confessional, the mental health professional, and long talks with folks who have numbers tattooed on their arms.)
This shouldn’t be surprising. If a mass murderer confesses his sins truly and sincerely and does what he can to make amends — even if that’s just a mental prayer for his victims — he can be a Catholic in good standing even as he sits down for his lethal injection. The Church is a hospital for sinners, with Jesus Christ as head physician and chief surgeon. We, sinners trying to become saints, welcome our fellow sinners.
(And I, a twit who has said many foolish and creepy things that were not to the benefit of souls, am happy to welcome my fellow twit as a brother. I’m just glad I’ve never had as big and captive an audience or felt so persecuted and edgy, tempting me to say even stupider and more harmful things than I have.)
Does the media expect anyone arriving at Emergency in an ambulance to be in perfect health? No, of course not!
So why do they expect people having excommunications remitted to be perfect saints and Doctors of the Church to boot?
And if anybody is expecting the Pope to make the SSPX walk barefoot in the snow to ask forgiveness, that’s not going to happen. He hasn’t prescribed that medicine, so don’t you try. They have been much sinned against, and he’s trying a nice treatment of rest and soothing balm to heal their wounds before anything else. Once they’re feeling stronger, the Pope will no doubt have plenty of work for them to do, and perhaps some other medicines to use. But first things first.
(I hope that my words haven’t hurt or discouraged anybody (except maybe Bishop Williamson, but I’m sure he doesn’t care what I think, since I wear pants and believe that the Holocaust did occur). When I explain things that have emotional connotations, I think I have to explain how people feel about them by using a certain expressiveness. There’s no feuds like family feuds, so there’s a lot to explain….)
Look, folks. There’s plenty of crud going on in the world that is sad and murderous. This is a move toward joy, forgiveness, peace, and unity. I am determined to rejoice in this day; and I hope that other people have the sense to do the same. Ignore any gloating or insults on any side (even mine), and just be happy for the Church.
Fr. Tim Finigan is on the ball, and notes some early happy reactions from the French and German hierarchy.
Damian Thompson is also covering the story over on his blog with many posts.
Some canon law comments from the comment box over at Father Z’s:
“Remission is specific language to indicate that the sanction existed and has been lifted, such as in “remission of sins”… the sanction really existed between 1988 and now. But the important thing is that it is now lifted….
“So, the “reconsideration of the canonical situation”, simply means, it seems, that the Pope decided to re-examine whether the continuation of the excommunication was appropriate after Fellay’s letter, and decided to grant the remission.
“….in the present case the SSPX excommunications are explicitly being lifted without simultaneous full reconciliation, with regularization of Episcopal ministry and the lifting of other sanctions being left for the moment of return to full communion.”
“‘Deprived of juridical effect’ is a statement of revocation, not an admission of invalidity.”
“The excommunication, which was incurred ‘latae sententiae’ back in 1989, has, according to the Decree of the Congregation for Bishops, been ‘remitted’. A censure which has been incurred or declared (in this instance, the Congregation for Bishops declared that the censure of excommunication had been incurred by these four Bishops on 1 July 1989) cannot be remitted unless the offender has purged his contempt (cf. c 1358, 1), i.e., he has ‘truly repented of the offence and has made, or at least has seriously promised to make, appropriate reparation for the damage and scandal’ (c 1347, 2). Once contempt has been purged, the censure, which is a medicinal penalty the purpose of which is to bring about the correction of the offender’s behaviour and his reintegration into the life of the Church, must be remitted (cf. c 1358, 1), although the person remitting the penalty (in this case the Prefect of the Congregation for Bishops at the behest of the Roman Pontiff) can make further provision, including the imposition of a penance, should it be so warranted.”
“Before incurring excommunication, the SSPX clergy had already incurred suspension a divinis. It was the suspension that made—even before the excommunications—SSPX liturgies illicit. The excommunication was lifted, but the suspension a divinis was not.
“So, SSPX priests and Bishops are no longer excommunicated, but they still cannot licitly celebrate the Sacraments and sacramentals or exercise any clerical ministry. This will be solved once full communion is achieved, which I hope will now happen soon.”