What was he thinking?

BenedictXVI.jpgWhat was Pope Benedict’s intent when he revoked the excommunications of four bishops (one of whom is a Holocaust-denier) from a movement that broke away from the Roman Catholic Church twenty years ago?

Do his conciliatory actions reveal an intent to privilege internal unity over external relationships between Catholics, Jews, and various Christian bodies?

Is he trying to move the Catholic Church away from the reforms (now almost half a century old) of Vatican II? Did he foresee the controversy? What of his previous attempts to build bridges between Jews and Catholics?

To my mind, these are all very legitimate questions.

But when what we have are the terse words of a spokesman, or the words of an anonymous “Vatican insider”, the media are left to piece together the evidence in a detective-story way that inevitably has an element of speculation.

Take the lede of this article from the New York Times:

Pope Benedict XVI, reaching out to the far-right of the Roman Catholic Church, revoked the excommunications of four schismatic bishops on Saturday, including one whose comments denying the Holocaust have provoked outrage.

The decision provided fresh fuel for critics who charge that Benedict’s four-year-old papacy has increasingly moved in line with traditionalists who are hostile to the sweeping reforms of the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s that sought to create a more modern and open church.

A theologian who has grappled with the church’s diminished status in a secular world, Benedict has sought to foster a more ardent, if smaller, church over one with looser faith.

But while the revocation may heal one internal rift, it may also open a broader wound, alienating the church’s more liberal adherents and jeopardizing 50 years of Vatican efforts to ease tensions with Jewish groups.

The writer makes a few assumptions. It isn’t clear whether the Pope intended to reach out to the “far-right” within the church as much as to traditionalists outside it (insiders who aren’t identified).

I sincerely doubt that the Pope wants a “smaller” church.

And while some of the Pontiff’s actions have stirred controversy among Jewish leaders and more liberal elements in the Catholic church, he has also made attempts to reach out to Jews.

Let me go out on the proverbial limb here and confess that I like the way Time handled this hot potato.

Here’s the lede:

Pope Benedict XVI has reinstated four bishops from an archconservative breakaway wing of the Roman Catholic Church, a decision that is bound to stir controversy within his own flock. But Saturday’s announcement that the Vatican will undo the 20-year schism between the Vatican and the so-called Lefebvrian movement is all the more sensitive because it comes only days after the broadcast of an interview in which British-born Bishop Richard Williamson, one of those Benedict is bringing back into the fold, denies that the Nazi Holocaust ever happened.

“I believe there were no gas chambers,” Williamson said. The bishop, who has been accused of anti-Semitism in the past, declared that the historical evidence was “hugely against” the accepted belief that close to 6 million Jews were systematically exterminated as part of Adolf Hitler’s Final Solution. Williamson claims that no more than 300,000 Jews died during World War II.

The Vatican made no mention of those remarks in the communique that announced the papal decree that revokes the 1988 excommunication of Williamson and his three fellow bishops. Papal spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said the decree in no way means the Pope, a German, shares Williamson’s views on the Holocaust.

Basically, the writer’s lede avoids inflated adjectives and lets the facts speak for themselves. But he also got some revealing quotes from a few Vatican (unnamed, of course) officials that open up the possibility that the Pope’s decision met with some questions even within the walls of the Vatican.

According to the Vatican official, Benedict circumvented standing procedure “in cases of schism and heresy” that calls for consultation with the doctrinal Congregation office that he himself used to lead. “There wasn’t the consultation as there normally is in these cases,” the official says. “There was much perplexity in the Congregation.” He added that in cases of revoking an excommunication there must be a “concrete act of faith” to demonstrate obedience to the Church’s teachings and authority. The official Vatican statement cited a letter by Lefebvre’s successor, Bishop Bernard Fellay, stating that the group has always considered themselves obedient Catholics.

Here’s another perspective from Catholic World News — one which doesn’t mention the views of Bishop Williamson.

And from across the pond at the Guardian.co.uk, we get a more incendiary point of view, helpful for its quotes from British groups–Williamson is British.

Listen to this brief interview with veteran Vatican tea-leaf-reader, National Catholic Reporter senior correspondent John Allen on National Public Radio last night.

Short-term, at least, Allen describes the Pope’s reinstatement of the four schismatic bishops as a “catastrophe” for Catholic-Jewish relationships.

There are undoubtedly tons of other news links on this unfolding story. Please send us some.

The firestorm has, predictably, already aroused strong reactions from some of our readers.

As in a forensic investigation, reporters will continue to try to pull together the facts to make a coherent and logical whole–but it is almost guaranteed that major questions will remain.

Picture of Pope Benedict XVI is from Wikimedia Commons.

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  • Jerry

    A word of clarification, “reinstatement” is too strong a verb for the SSPX bishops’ status. All that has happened is that they have had their excommunications revoked.

    This is important because the bishops are still not in good standing with the Church, and while validly ordained, they do not have even titular dioceses, for instance.
    Reinstatement implies that they have an office and business cards, so to speak, and this is not the case. They are not out of the doghouse just yet, and it’s far from certain that they will get out. Particularly Bishop Williamson.

    It’s easy to use a word like “reinstate” or “rehabilitate” with regard to the SSPX bishops–I’ve been guilty of this, too– but it is not accurate, and I think the nuanced terminology is important with such an inflamed topic.

  • http://www.getreligion.org/?p=3978 E.E. Evans

    Fair point, Jerry.

    I revoke my use of the word reinstatement.

    Another point, glaringly obvious, also ocurred to me–while there may be controversy within a denomination, those inside it are also going to see nuance and complexities that those outside of it do not. Even, and particularly, journalists.

    The challenge for a reporter is to allow insiders to speak, but to give an outsider’s perspective that makes a story meaningful to a broad group of readers.

  • http://www.samueljhoward.us Samuel J. Howard

    Jerry is correct. These stories all fail badly, because they don’t note right up front that the Bishops all remain suspended.

    “But Saturday’s announcement that the Vatican will undo the 20-year schism between the Vatican and the so-called Lefebvrian movement is all the more sensitive because it comes only days after the broadcast of an interview in which British-born Bishop Richard Williamson, one of those Benedict is bringing back into the fold, denies that the Nazi Holocaust ever happened.”

    The Vatican hasn’t undone a schism. First off, the SSPX is almost as seperated today as it was last Thursday. Second, while the Bishops were excommunicated for a schismatic act, it’s not entirely clear that there is a schism to be healed, some senior Vatican officials have suggested in recent years that the SSPX is not in schism.

    Even if they are in schism, it’s confusing to say that the Vatican has undone the schism. The undoing is as much on the schismatics through their submission as on the Vatican through its acceptance of the submission.

  • http://www.opinionatedcatholic.blogspot.com jh

    I am so glad you have this piece up. It was on the whole another bad weekend for secualr religious reporting on things Catholic. Though the Vatican seemed a tad better in anticpating the news cycle this time than usual.

    I will second the comments above. I also would give this link that would would explain to Journalist what is going on and might give a slight education on terms

    http://amywelborn.wordpress.com/2009/01/24/your-move-2/

    There are issues here that get muddled. What exactly is excommunication? What are people rights under Canon Law? Can the Church go back retro and keep this British “Bishop” excommunicated though it would seem that no part of Canon law would allow that?

    On a personal note I think the Holy Father is correct on this and he realizes that the longer SSPX stays out of the fold it becomes even more eccentric. It is best to deal with this within the unity of the Church and frank discussion.

    Is this a horrific for Jewish Catholic relations? Too some it might but these same voices are in a uproar over Benedict over things such as praying for the Jews to Convert. I have to think the calm rational Jewish voices that see what Benedict as a whole has done will bring some calm to this and point out the obvious facts.

    If Catholic Jewish relations are so fragile that because 4 people can now recieve a Catholic Burial and receve the Sacraments from licit Priest well they were not in such great shape to start with. I truly don’t think we are that point.

  • Martha

    The man in question, Bishop Williamson, seems like a fruitcake of the highest order.

    I think that the Pope is moving very subtly here; at first, I didn’t get what he was doing. Now, I think that he is giving them enough rope to hang themselves.

    The SSPX movement started off as a defence of ‘traditional’ Catholicism; I think Pope Benedict is saying to them “Very well. Let us speak about what you claim to be the differences. If you insist on complete separation unless – for example – there is condemnation of the Jews, then we can see that you have moved away from what the Society was intended to be, and you stand revealed not as defenders of Catholicism but cranks and anti-Semites.”

    This gives the SSPX an opportunity to decide what it is and where it wants to go; at the moment, there are sincere people attached to it who genuinely believe they are being faithful to what Catholicism should be. The situation as it stands also allows the likes of Williamson to present himself as persecuted for the sake of truth. With these kinds of delicate, long-term dialogues being initiated, then we will have the opportunity to see whether they are more interested in the faith or in their own private hobbyhorses.

    As things stand, Bishop Williamson can represent himself as the face of “true” Catholicism being denied a voice by the liberals in the Vatican. This move for reconciliation (which is a long way off) by the Pope is both pastoral – the duty of care for those in the SSPX – and, I think, disciplinary – what is the purpose and function of the SSPX? If they prefer to insist upon certain particulars outside the question of the reforms of the Church after Vatican II, then everyone can see finally what their real motivation is. It will be a clarification. The genuine members will have the opportunity to reconcile with Rome; those who prefer their prejudices will also have a chance to make their stance absolutely clear.

    I am not saying that the only reason for anyone to be in the SSPX is because of prejudice, neither do I mean to imply that all traditionalists can be lumped in with the SSPX. But I do think that, like it or lump it, if they’re defying the Pope, in the end they’re schismatic.

  • http://orrologion.blogspot.com Christopher Orr

    bringing back into the fold

    Isn’t part of the problem in the coverage of this action the fact that it is assumed that Rome is doing more than simply and unilaterally lifting canonical actions taken against “the so-called Lefebvrian movement”. This doesn’t mean the Lefebvrians have been reconciled, only that one particular canonical impediment to that reconciliation has been removed.

    This is more akin to the lifting of anathemas by the Patriarch of Constantinople and the Pope. An impediment has been removed, but unity has not been achieved due to the fact that serious differences remain.

    The connection to Williamson seems odd to me as one cannot be excommunicated for denying the Holocaust exists – that is not a canonical matter. It may be grounds for discipline or defrocking, but Williamson is not (yet) under the jurisdiction of the Pope of Rome. It would be like blaming the Pope for Gene Robinson’s consecration as bishop because the Pope has friendly relations with the Abp. of Canterbury, Rowan Williams. If and when the schism is healed, then the media can press the Pope for what actions he may take regarding the publicly expressed opinions of one of his bishops.

  • http://www.soilcatholics.blogspot.com Peggy

    I had to chuckle at your own use of “half a century” referring to the lifespan of the V2 changes in the Church, when considering the life of the Church.

    Let’s see:

    20C > 0.5C

    By a lot!
    ****
    I have noticed even in my field that it is difficult for the press to express clearly these nuances in status, policies, etc., relating to technical matters, whether it be a church, a civil law, or the way a complex machine works. The text then gets rather wordy, legalistic, and technical and can lose layperson readers, ie, the general public–their customers.

    So there is a fine line, but yes, the it would be helpful for the press to convey these nuances more accurately while maintaining readability for the non-technical person.

  • Jerry(the other Jerry)

    Given that I have distant relatives who survived the death camps and have a friend with a tattoo on her arm, I had a very strong reaction to this story so I’ll try to keep my personal reaction out down to a minimum.

    I found http://uk.reuters.com/article/topNews/idUKTRE50O1BU20090125 to be interesting since it explored some of the questions asked.

    WHAT ABOUT THE BISHOP WHO DENIES THE HOLOCAUST?

    Bishop Williamson angered Jewish groups by denying the Holocaust in a television interview only days before the lifting of his ban. His comments strained Vatican ties with Jews badly but had nothing to do with the excommunications, so the Vatican went ahead with all four cases. They may hurt his chances for future jobs within the Church, however.

    The question of motive and how it was handled is very important in this case because it says quite a bit about the current Pope. He could have made the same decision but made the announcement differently taking into account the very understandable reaction to the motives of those who deny history. He could have taken the same action with three out of the four and announced a review of the holocaust denier. He could have explained the intent of his announcement.

    There’s a sobriquet that some have applied to the Pope based on his country of origin that I will not repeat here. But his actions in this case do cause the question to be asked about what the Pope really believes about the evil perpetrated on so many by evil men.

    To put it another way, what would the reaction be in the US if the President made an equivalent decision? There would be justifiable outrage.

    If that bishop does get some job in the Catholic Church, my questions will have been answered. The world is watching to see what happens next.

  • http://www.followingthelede.blogspot.com Sabrina

    Here is a link to the Catholic News Service story:
    http://www.catholicnews.com/data/stories/cns/0900355.htm

    And here is one by a Philly Catholic blogger who always seems to know what’s going on before the rest of us do:
    http://whispersintheloggia.blogspot.com/2009/01/horizon-of-unity-remains-open-to-us.html

    My take is that this is a particularly European move, and one the rest of the world’s Catholics might well view with puzzlement — the Lefevrists are, after all, a very, very small group within the universal Church — and not a particularly influential one.

    However, the reinstatement does seem in keeping with Pope Benedict XVI’s general direction: Easing restrictions on celebration of the Extraordinary Form of the Mass, changes to the vernacular liturgy to have it reflect the Latin more accurately, and his desire to encourage Catholics to go back to receiving Communion on the tongue rather than cradled in the hands.

    It is hard, I believe, for most American Catholics to not see it as a repudiation of the Second Vatican Council’s “opening” — particularly, to more (and better prepared) laity participation in the Church. An odd thing for American Catholics to experience now, when priestly vocations are greatly diminishing, and our active and formed participation may prove crucial.

    And, I, for one, do worry about what this will do to our relationship with Jews. When the restrictions on the Extraordinary Form of Mass were lifted we heard pleas from Jewish leaders to not restore any excuse (even if only incorrectly perceived as such) for Catholic anti-Semitism. Sigh. It has to be said, Pope Benedict is no John Paul II when it comes to Catholic-Jewish relations.

    An aside:

    When I was talking with a veteran Catholic journalist about it this morning, his comment was: “It’s a strange bid for Christian unity. But, why not unity with the Orthodox first? It would make much more sense.”

  • Joe

    This raises an interesting question about how one covers the Vatican. We’d consider it bad journalism to not second-guess press statements by Wal-mart or Cuba, so why must the state news and press statements of the Vatican go second-guessed or have motives implied?

  • http://www.opinionatedcatholic.blogspot.com jh

    Jerry

    if it calls into question Pope Benedicts views of past actions I think that is because people are then ignoring the whole body of Benedict’s work. Including that his Cousin was killed by the Nazi’s for being defective

    THe issue of Canon Law and RIGHTS are in play here. The reasons why people may be excommunicated are laid out and limited and just like the Church cannot excommunicate Child Molestors, Serial Killers, there is really no grounds to recommend to excommunicate someone because they think 400,000 Jews died in the Holocust than 5 million.

    I am not exactly sure what you mean by the President making a similar choice. At this point I don’t think we can revoke Citzenship because someone has strange views on hisotry no matter how offensive they might be.

    Let me put another way and I said this in reponse to a belief net post questioning if the Church had lost moral authority over this issue my response was as follows:

    “One thought here on “Moral Authority”. I find it curious that over the last few years that has been such angst over the Prisoners in Gitmo- THEY NEED Due Process, What About the Right of Habeus Corpus!! We are a Nation of laws.

    The message is whether you agree with it or not was our moral authority hurt because we should given even to people that want to destroy us give Due Process and other norms available to American.

    Strangely though this argument seems to being ignored in this case. It does not matter that all Catholics have rights under Canon Law. Lets us now go back and keep this Bishop excommunicated on the basis of something that is not in Canon Law. How can a Church gain moral authority when it acts in such a way.”

    Now this might all seem legalistic and all but I think the comparison is apt. Returning to the Church though Nancy Pelosi and Joe Biden are in direct opposition to the Church as to abortion there appears to be no real avenue to excommunicate them. Or Andrew Sullivan that is direct public oppositon to Church on Gay marriage. Set a precedent here and the we go down all sorts of rabbit holes

    LEt me say I am no Bishop Williamson fan and a huge critic I think like many others that Pope Benedict realizes that he will not submit in the end and that there will be facture and those that will not come back will go to him.

    The SSPX has a lot of good people in it and many do not subscribe to these views. The Pope thugh recent decrees have in fact reconciled various SSPX affilated groups in the Church and away from situations that seem to go out of control. SSPX has already fractured and the groups that fracture from them become even more extreme.

  • http://www.opinionatedcatholic.blogspot.com jh

    Sabrina ,

    I would suggest going to the SSPX web site. THey have far more than a European influence. They are quite active in the US and Central America

    As to the Orthodox well Pope Benedict as well as John paul the II have made that a major major iniative. Thought the Pauline Year stuff is not reported the Holy Father has used that again to reach out to Orthodoxy. Just look at the major Russian Orthodox/ Catholic engagement that has been going on for the past decade and has even acclerated under Benedict.

    Your comments on Vatican II are very apt and I think you are on to something. I happen to share Benedict’s view that too many Catholics do not see Vatican II and incorporate it into the whole Tradition of the Church. Strangely and in a ironic way this is the same problem with SSPX.

    But I think that is a important side story to this that you mention and it is inBenedict thinking. However even that part of the story gets mixed up by the Press. While the Press talks Pope Benedict and the Latin Mass they failed to take into account Pope Benedict’s Advocacy for other Church movements. Such as the Charismatic renewal and similar organizations that drive traditionalist up the wall.

  • http://wafflinganglican.blogspot.com The Waffling Anglican

    I’m afraid, as an outsider, that I don’t see what’s particularly subtle or complex about this. People seem to be confabulating two completely separate issues:

    (a) the SSPX guys were schismatic and were ordained under questionable circumstances. This was the cause of their excommunication, the revocation of which is a step in bringing them back into full communion with the Catholic Church.

    (b) The SSPX guys are jerks, which may be highly objectionable, but is not to my understanding subject to excommunication or the revocation thereof.

    I have people in my family who believe all sorts of crazy umm… male bovine deposits. I still talk to them and send them Christmas cards. I just don’t hold them up as god examples.

    Were being a jerk grounds for detrmining communion, there would be darned few bishops in the US RCC, and probably none in the US branch of the Anglican Communion.

  • Jerry(the other Jerry)

    if it calls into question Pope Benedicts views of past actions I think that is because people are then ignoring the whole body of Benedict’s work.

    Then I go back to the how it was announced. At best how the decision was announced demonstrated cluelessness or unconcern about the reaction.

  • Brian Walden

    What do Bishop Williamson comments have to do with the excommunications? The media coverage seems to assume that they go hand in hand when in actuality they’re not related. Williamson was excommunicated for his illicit episcopal ordination, not his comments on the Holocaust. If anything it’s up to journalists making the claim that his comments should affect the excommunications to show where they merit excommunication under canon law.

    Personally, I think the much better argument is that the SSPX hasn’t shown enough contrition for the illicit ordinations to merit the lifting of the excommunications. But I’m going to trust Pope Benedict on this one. He’s been extremely magnanimous with the SSPX, yet despite his generosity he wisely still holds all the chip in his hands with the SSPX remaining under suspension. He’s thrown them a line – the SSPX can use it to pull themselves in or to hang themselves. We’ll see what happens, the Church could really use them if they’ve got the humility to be obedient to the Holy Father.

  • http://www.opinionatedcatholic.blogspot.com jh

    Jerry,

    Then I go back to the how it was announced. At best how the decision was announced demonstrated cluelessness or unconcern about the reaction.

    Sdaly how things are announced by the Vatican particually when they are bombshells seems to fit a pattern here on a lot of matters. They have a disturbing habit of releasing Documents and orders on a Friday or Saturday and there is no response for days

    I guess though that soo see how it was annouced and what stories ran with it we would have to be watching the Vatican Press and European papers.

    For instance Vatican Radio (which is the main media arm of Vatican) reported

    January 24, 2009

    The international media have given a lot of attention these days to statements made by Mons. Richard Williamson, one of
    the four bishops of the Priestly Fraternity of St. Pius X whose 1988 excommunication Pope Benedict XVI revoked today.

    Last November, Williamson made statements to Swedish television in which he denied the historical reality of the Shoah
    (Holocaust), in statements which are obviously his own personal opinions.

    Such declarations were promptly condemned by the FSSP superior general, Mons, Bernard Fellay. in a letter to Swedish TV,
    pointing out that Williamson’s personal positions are completely not to be shared in any way.

    Just as obvious is that such positions about the Holocaust are certainly not those of the Pontifical Magisterium
    nor of the Catholic Church in general, which has solemnly declared itself on the subject of the Holocaust – and on
    anti-Semitism in general – multiple times in the past five decades.
    Luis Badilla reports further:

    In the case of Benedict XVI, he gave the first sign shortly after he was elected Pope. Responding to the message of best wishes
    sent by the Chief Rabbi of Rome, Riccardo Di Segni, he invited him to attend the Mass marking the start of his Petrine Ministry
    in St. Peter’s Square.

    All of Benedict XVI’s thinking about Judaism, and his Magisterium, has been in line with the Vatican II declaration
    Nostra aetate (1965), which he often cites in his addresses, along with similar statements by his predecessors
    Paul VI and John Paul II.

    Benedict XVI’s addresses during his visit to the Synagogue in Cologne in August 2005, and to Auschwitz-Birkenau in May 2006,
    represent the high points so far of Jewish-Catholic relations during his Pontificate.

    But certainly not the only highlights, because he made equally significant statements on his trip to the United States
    (on two occasions, in Washington and New York), and to France last year.

    In his visit to the Synagogue in Cologne, Benedict XVI confirmed his firm intention to continue ‘with great vigor’ along
    the path “towards improving relationships and friendship with the Jewish people”.

    He called the Shoah ‘an unprecedented crime’ during ‘the darkest days of German and European history’ by a ‘crazed racist
    ideology with a neo-pagan matrix’ which intended to ‘exterminate European Jewry”.

    Like John Paul II before him, he bowed his head humbly to express the apology of the Church “before all who have experienced
    any manifestation of this mysterium iniquitatis”.

    He recalled the “common roots and rich spiritual patrimony that Jews and Christians share”, pointing out that “whoever encounters
    Jesus, also encounters Judaism”.

    He condemned “the hatreds, persecutions and all the manifestations of anti-Semitism directed against the Jews in every age
    and by whomever”.

    He urged “a sincere and trusting dialog among Jews and Christians”, adding that a sincere dialog “should not gloss over
    existing differences and minimize them: but precisely in the things that distinguish us from each other – because of
    our intimate convictions about or respective faiths – we should respect and love each other.”

    [The report goes on to play a substantial excerpt from the Holy Father’s remarks in Auschwitz-Birkenau on May 26, 2006

    http://freeforumzone.leonardo.it/discussione.aspx?idd=354494&p=243

    I am sure the Vatican would like the NYT and others to report on their media arm is saying but well sometimes it does not happen

  • Brian Walden

    Jerry(the other Jerry), while the Catholic Church generally doesn’t help itself in the PR department, I think this is primarily a case of media exaggeration. The excommunications are for an internal offense – ordaining bishops without the pope’s permission. I don’t see how the discipline for that offense is anyone’s business but the Church’s.

    Denouncing the Catholic Church for Bishop Williamson is kind of like the mirror image of denouncing the Catholic Church for Cardinal Mahony. Both men are living caricatures of the extreme ends of the Church.

  • Christophe

    The excommunications are for an internal offense – ordaining bishops without the pope’s permission. I don’t see how the discipline for that offense is anyone’s business but the Church’s.

    If we were talking about some miscellaneous corporation deciding whether or not someone qualified for an executive parking space, that would be a reasonable position. But the Church makes somewhat stronger claims about its position relative to morality, and about the role of communion in human life.

  • Jerry

    Something that other bloggers (and I think maybe was implicitly mentioned here) have mentioned, is that we should also consider the priests and laity involved with the SSPX. By normalizing their relationship with the Church they are no longer stuck in an echo chamber with Bishop Williamson and the loonier wing of SSPX.

    I find Williamson’s opinions about the Holocaust beyond the pale, utterly contemptible, but living in schism is not a trivial thing in Catholic theology, and to keep a whole bunch of Christians in a state of schism to stick it to one loony bishop is hardly just.

  • John Cox

    Your critique echoes the one made by Ross Douthat at “The Atlantic” — the Pope, or at least the Unnamed Vatican Sources — ought to be better at PR.

    (And I was VERY disappointed in John Allen’s “critique” which was surprisingly shallow.)

    The assumption is that if Benedict *was* better at PR, the Secular Press would report the issue fairly, or more fully, or, you know, better.

    That shows a winsome niavete, in my opinion.

    Those same cliched headlines and knee-jerk ledes would have been written if B16 had wandered into the Vatican equivalent of the White House Press Room and chatted away for a couple of hours, or all day, with reporters, patiently answering, and explaining, and patiently answering the same questions again, and explaining the same points again. And again.

    I think Benedict has a very good understanding of the power of words, and that in the context of the Church, the Word goes forth in power and does not return unfruitful.

    The example that comes to my mind is his Regensburg (sp?)Address, which drew headlines (and exactly the same criticism — “what was he thinking?!”) because of the historical quote that critiqued Islam. But my impression is that it actually precipitated what Benedict intended: the beginning of a new conversation not only between the Church and Islam, but within Islam.

    The word as deed.

    Not too bad for a PR catastrophe, in retrospect.

  • Martha

    I think if we look at the SSPX situation in regard to how Pope Benedict has dealt with Fr.Hans Küng, it will be beneficial to our understanding.

    All the various factions which splintered off after Vatican II – either because it went too far or didn’t go far enough – are still Catholics, who have souls to be saved and a claim on the paternal care of the Pope. If they are nutty, that’s not his fault. He has to try to steer them back on the right direction, and if they go chasing off on their own, then that’s their business.

    After all, how many self-declared Popes are there out there already? See this Wikipedia article and have your horizons expanded – there are a selection of Americans on there ;-)

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conclavism

    And don’t forget, the SSPX has already had its own internal schism, when the Society of St. Pius V split off from it. Yes, we have the SSPX and the SSPV! Left to their own devices, these people will just keep fissioning into smaller and smaller subsets, but the whole tangled question of ordinations and consecrations will continue to get even more entangled and insoluble.

    We’ve already got enough hassles with the Old Dutch lineages running around ‘ordaining’ anything that will stand still – see the womenpriests who claim to have valid orders through them – anything that puts a halt to this kind of carry-on has got to be a good thing :-)

  • http://www.getreligion.org/?p=3978 E.E. Evans

    John Cox,

    First of all, I hadn’t read Ross Douthat when I wrote this post.

    I wasn’t critiquing the Pope’s ability to do public relations, nor was my headline meant as a critique. It was a question. My point is that many times we don’t have access to his thinking –and so we fill in the blanks.

    I am still of that mind.

    I’m curious –How would you like the press to cover the Pope, if you believe, as apparently you do, that they so often get him wrong?

    I’m also interested in knowing whether our denomination influences how we see these matters. Would a practicing Catholic covering the Pope have a better understanding of the nuances?

  • Martha

    Regarding the timing of this release – as Amy Welborn points out on her blog “Charlotte Was Both”, this week is the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council – the reason so many of the traditionalist groups (including the SSPX) had a fit of the vapours in the first place.

    It’s very probably no accident that this approach was announced in this week; of course, that’s the kind of internal subtleties that the media don’t pick up on. How many newspapers, in between saying “Holocaust denier gets cozy with Hitler Youth Pope”, mentioned that oh yeah, Vatican II anniversary coming up?

    E.E., the Vatican Press Office is, well, Italian :-) Go to the Vatican website and all the articles are still up in Italian, waiting for some kind and patient soul on the Interwebs to translate them into English for the non-Italian speakers amongst us. Again, Amy Welborn has very good suggestions as to what they *should* do in cases like this – but don’t hold your breath waiting.

  • Brian Walden

    E. E. Evans, reporters could start by replacing Fr. Reese in their Blackberry’s with prominent Catholic bloggers. The blogs were all over this story. They had background information about the continued dialogue between the Vatican and the SSPX like the “5 Conditions” from June and the SSPX’s rosary crusade for the Holy Father which ended in December – the lifting of the excommunications didn’t just come out of the blue. There was also tons of analysis. I don’t know if any of the information is quotable, but it could certainly help reporters to get up to speed quickly.

    While the Vatican does not make things easy for reporters, I think John Cox’s point is still valid. Just look at this get religion post from a few weeks ago: http://www.getreligion.org/?p=5277 . It doesn’t matter what the Pope or the Vatican actually say. Reporters pick out what makes for a good headline. It’s easier than digesting the typically dense documents.

  • FW Ken

    What was Pope Benedict’s intent…

    Several posts (Jerry’s #19 and Martha’s #21 for example) have pointed to the pastoral dimensions of this act. Perhaps – just perhaps – the pope did this out of concern for the souls of the SSPX clergy and faithful. Perhaps his intent isn’t political at all. And, Elizabeth, he has stated that if the Church becomes true to herself, it will be a smaller Church. I don’t think that’s his desire or intent as much as an acknowledgment of reality.

    As to Bishop Williamson, I think that anyone interested enough to read this blog would agree the man is a flaming nut job. But instead of looking at the pope’s actions as some sort of symbolic validation of his views, can we see it as an act of concern for his person – his soul? Might reconciliation with Christ’s Church allow this man to revisit his bizarre views and change them? Our western culture is quick to condemn, but compassion might actually heal.

    How would I like the press to cover the Catholic Church? That’s an interesting question that will give me something to ponder under the covers on what passes for a cold night in Texas (single life can be a drag, you know). But my first thought is that I would like the press to cover all matters, including religion, with a fair consideration of how an actor sees his/her own acts. Why does the person think they did something? What was there expressed intent? What do they think they did? I’m not saying consider all that uncritically, but it seems to me good reporters won’t read into a situation their personal agendas and opinions as they explore the facts in a case. Of course, I’m not a professional journalist, but I have read many articles critical of the Church which I thought were fair. Others were clearly hatchet jobs.

  • http://www.getreligion.org/?p=3978 E.E. Evans

    Yes, I absolutely agree with you, Ken. I think that we journalists have a tendency to assume bad motives that aren’t neccesarily there. Perhaps we might all be more charitable in giving public figures the benefit of the doubt-even those we think are darned wrong. But (and I realize I’m saying something controversial) we tend to be generous with those who share our viewpoint and not as much with others who don’t.

    And I agree with your second point, too. As a commenter said here, it’s not easy to cover the Vatican with some degree of accuracy, but it’s not impossible, either.

    That being said, I still think there is room for interpretation. But you have set a helpful yardstick.

  • Ben

    I’ll say something anathema to this blog. To me, this is one of those odd cases where it may actually help to have journalists who aren’t so deeply versed in Catholic knowledge covering this. When I read some of the comments above from those filling in the picture with their background knowledge of Catholic practices I’m left feeling like these posters are missing the forest for the trees. Does the hair splitting over what lifting of ex-communication versus reinstatement *really* change the news here: the stunning lack of regard this represents for inter-religious relations? John Allen was spot on, and I’m sure his marriage to a Jewish woman played some part in his ability to keep perspective.

  • FW Ken

    Ben, what you are saying is that the REAL story is the inter-religious relations. What others (myself included) are saying is that is not at all the real story; it’s an element, but peripheral to the pope’s action. You are entitled to your opinion, but it’s helpful to stay clear about the journalistic issue: what, in this case, constitutes “getting religion”?

    And isn’t it entirely possible that John Allen’s Jewish wife limits his perspective, or, perhaps, determines it in a manner that shapes his writing?

    And what about Jerry’s take on it in #19:

    we should also consider the priests and laity involved with the SSPX. By normalizing their relationship with the Church they are no longer stuck in an echo chamber with Bishop Williamson and the loonier wing of SSPX.

    What if drawing these folks back into the larger body ameliorated the anti-semitism? Wouldn’t that improve inter-religious relations?

    And yes, Elizabeth, I have just been less generous to one who doesn’t share my viewpoints and more generous to one who does (in this case; Jerry and I don’t often agree). But then, a blog comment isn’t a New York Times article. :-)

  • Julia

    The excommunications were the consequent penalties for insubordination and flauting of the internal rules (canon law) of the organization.

    Maybe it would help to understand that there are two measuring sticks:

    1) Church law i.e. canon law

    2) Moral law that is handled in the confessional and on Judgment Day. A few matters overlap – example: sins that involve a priest’s misuse and abuse of the confessional.

    Wikipedia on Canon Law http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Canon_law_(Catholic_Church)

    Note in particular the following which might partly explain why Common Law countries like the US might not understand what is going on.

    Much of the jurisprudential style was adapted from the Roman Law Code of Justinian. As a result, Jewish [they must mean Catholic]ecclesiastical courts tend to follow the Roman Law style of continental Europe, featuring collegiate panels of judges and an investigative form of proceeding, called “inquisitorial”, from the Latin “inquirere”, to enquire. This is in contrast to the adversarial form of proceeding found in the Common Law system of English and U.S. law, which features such things as juries and single judges.

    Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Canon_law_(Catholic_Church)

  • Julia

    Here’s a link to the current (1983) Code of Canon Law, if you’d like to peruse it.

    http://www.scribd.com/doc/236788/Code-of-Canon-Law-1983

  • Ben

    FW Ken,

    Ben, what you are saying is that the REAL story is the inter-religious relations.

    Agreed, and well put.

    What others (myself included) are saying is that is not at all the real story; it’s an element, but peripheral to the pope’s action.

    Okay, that’s a helpful distinction. But as reporters for general interest publications rather than the Catholic press, the importance and impact of the story for the wider world is not located inside the walls of the Vatican where the Holocaust comment may seem peripheral. Rather, the story is located in the deep rift this will cause between two world religions, and the degrading of history that is the shared experience of humanity.

    While it’s important to understand a religion to represent its side within a story, that does not mean that journalism’s job is to present a religion’s side as THE story. This is the fallacy I think you have fallen into.

    You are entitled to your opinion, but it’s helpful to stay clear about the journalistic issue: what, in this case, constitutes “getting religion”?

    Would presenting the impact on Jewish-Catholic relations as “peripheral” within a general interest news story on this decision really be “getting” Judaism?

  • FW Ken

    Ben,

    It was not a story about Judaism, but about Catholicism. As such, don’t reporters have an obligation to present the story accurately? I’m not suggesting that the press present a puff piece on how the pope made nice with some rad-trads (radical traditionalists), but that, whatever interests the wider world, the real story isn’t about Bp. Williamson. He’s a minor player.

    Now, of course, you can write a story about Jews up-in-arms over this insult to their suffering. You could, I suspect write a story about Jews who understand that, as Jerry said,

    By normalizing their relationship with the Church they are no longer stuck in an echo chamber with Bishop Williamson and the loonier wing of SSPX.

    to which I added:

    What if drawing these folks back into the larger body ameliorated the anti-semitism? Wouldn’t that improve inter-religious relations?

    Which article you write would depend on who you choose to talk with. I submit a good article should not have focused so dramatically on either of those possibilities (remember that we disagree on what the “real” story is), though including one perspective or another – or both – would have been helpful. Instead, they lit the torches and got the pitchforks to storm the Vatican castle. I don’t see that as good journalism or good civil discourse. Which has nothing to do with puffing one religion or the other. It’s about fairness and honesty.

    There are two related (I think) questions:

    does the New York Times treat all religions in this same manner? Or is it reserved to those groups which conserve elements of the Christian Faith which offend the Times (i.e. evangelicals and Catholics)? In Elizabeth’s terms, do they treat those religions that share their viewpoints more generously than those that don’t?

    Secondly, was the Times so concerned about the feelings of Jews in their reporting on the situation in Gaza, or was their reporting, like much mainstream reporting, a one-sided anti-Israeli hatchet job? Does the Times, in fact, care a whit about Jews, or just a juicy story that re-affirms their own view of the world?

  • str1977

    This is more akin to the lifting of anathemas by the Patriarch of Constantinople and the Pope. An impediment has been removed, but unity has not been achieved due to the fact that serious differences remain.

    The difference being that there never was a valid papal excommunication of Patriarch Michael Cerullaeus in 1054, as Pope Leo IX was already dead. Dead Popes cannot excommunicate anyone and excommunications against people who by now are dead cannot be lifted.

    The Pope’s intentions to reach out as far as he possibly could are noble (and we’ll see how far this bears fruit). Still, I think he made a grave mistake in doing so under the circumstances, placing the Church in scandal.

  • str1977

    Strangely though this argument seems to being ignored in this case. It does not matter that all Catholics have rights under Canon Law. Lets us now go back and keep this Bishop excommunicated on the basis of something that is not in Canon Law. How can a Church gain moral authority when it acts in such a way.”

    All Catholics have rights under canon law. It would have been the right (and the only right) of those four to remain excommunicated until they submitted – they haven’t done so.

    It is totally off the mark to talk as if the four received justice – they received mercy. And it is up to the one showing that mercy to decide under which circumstances.

    And no, the Catholic Church is not neutral regarding the things Richard Williamson does, which is hatemongering not only against Jews but also against the Catholic Church.

  • str1977

    There are certainly axe-grinding journalists around – but there is nothing that a well-meaning journalist could have done to avoid the scandal except for not reporting.

    This time it is not the journalists’ fault.

  • http://contracts jh

    All Catholics have rights under canon law. It would have been the right (and the only right) of those four to remain excommunicated until they submitted – they haven’t done so.

    It is totally off the mark to talk as if the four received justice – they received mercy. And it is up to the one showing that mercy to decide under which circumstances.

    And no, the Catholic Church is not neutral regarding the things Richard Williamson does, which is hatemongering

    Is it mercy ?Yes but the Mercy is directed toward the 600,000 SSPX folks and taht is the whole point

  • http://www.opinionatedcatholic.blogspot.com jh

    There are certainly axe-grinding journalists around – but there is nothing that a well-meaning journalist could have done to avoid the scandal except for not reporting.

    This time it is not the journalists’ fault.

    I don’t think anyone was expecting to the Press not to report it. But well sourced reportes were going on record as early as Tuesday this would be going down. Needess to say that gave many reporters time to research the whole affair and at least get their terms correct/ In many cases that did happen

  • http://www.opinionatedcatholic.blogspot.com jh

    Does the hair splitting over what lifting of ex-communication versus reinstatement *really* change the news here: the stunning lack of regard this represents for inter-religious relations? John Allen was spot on, and I’m sure his marriage to a Jewish woman played some part in his ability to keep perspective.

    Ben I think that hairsplitting as some may call it is important on several levels

    First I am afraid the Catholic in the pews might be under the false impression that it is ok to go to SPPX chapels and that now the SSPX is in communion with Rome. It is not

    That first point is very important and for those that have concerns about this and some of the teaching going around in certain quarters of SSPX should also be a concern to them.

    I think people are seeing the Forest for the trees here and realize this is a very complicated business with a ton of side issues

  • John Cox

    E.E. Evans:

    I only meant by my reference to Douthat that (in my opinion) your overall point was similar to the one another commentator had made — to my mind suggesting that this critique or observation or comment was not new, and was fairly widely shared; NOT that you’d copied or plagarized him. I’m sorry if my comment gave that impression.

    In my experience, “what was he thinking” is usually not meant as a real question. It usually means “he wasn’t thinking because if he was, he wouldn’t have said it.” That’s why it seemed to be a critique.

    And there’s nothing wrong with critiquing the Pope about PR or anything else, by the way.

    I quite agree with your point “that many times we don’t have access to his thinking —and so we fill in the blanks.” In Benedict’s case, his thinking about almost any issue extends back over decades: from what I can see, nearly all his own public statements, whether formal or informal are extremely thoughtful. But they’re also rooted in years of prayerful study and reflection.

    And the latest SSPX news is a good example. I recall reading at least a year ago, a transcript of part of then-Cardinal Ratzinger’s talk with group of South American bishops (as I recall), the part dealing with the SSPX. It was noteworthy because in those remarks, Ratzinger noticed that the rise of such movements is in a sense a judgement: it illuminates areas of weakness in the Church, inviting the Church to reflect and to reform.

    I mention this because in a real sense, Benedict’s thinking is, almost literally, an open book: a wealth of essays, sermons, scholarly works, speeches, interviews, official pronouncements, etc etc.

    But one has READ the book.

    With regard to your question — “How would you like the press to cover the Pope, if you believe, as apparently you do, that they so often get him wrong?” — two things occur to me.

    First, the press could “read” his mind. Literally, read what he’s written and said. All by itself, that would improve coverage.

    Second, they could do a better job of simply being reporters: if they did a better job of covering their beat, their writing would improve. They get him “wrong” because all too often they’re simply lazy as reporters, relying uncritically on anonymous Vatican sources or sources close the Vatican, and on all the multitude of reporting sins that “Get Religion” routinely categorizes.

    Thirdly, I don’t expect them to get religion.

    Your last point — does our denomination influence how we see these matters; would a practicing Catholic covering the Pope have a better understanding of the nuances? — I assume denominational committments can affect how one sees these things. Though that seems moot with regard to most reporters. My impression is that as a group reporters are much less likely to describe themselves as religious, whatever nominal background or affiliation they may have.

    With regard to a practicing Catholic…Gary Wills is a practicing Catholic. I’m not too impressed by his grasp of Benedict’s nances.

  • Brian Walden

    I was wondering last night, how would this issue have been reported if Bishop Williamson were not the Terrell Owens of bishops? From a legal standpoint, all that has changed is 4 people have had their excommunications lifted and are now able to receive the sacraments. The SSPX clergy are still suspended and in an irregular relationship with Rome. Catholics are still prevented from participating in their illicit sacraments except when there is a grave necessity. I don’t see how that makes for a story that the general public would be interested in.

    As jh, said there’s a lot of very complicated story lines here if someone is willing to dig (for example George Wiegel wrote an interesting Newsweek article that opens up by showing how the French Revolution framed Archbishop Lefebvre’s mindset http://www.newsweek.com/id/181721/). But on the surface level the only real stories might be either a very mundane article that’s barely worth the effort needed to write it or a sensationalist headline about the Bishop Williamson. If anything, the excommunications were lifted in spite of his comments – I get the impression that the Pope does not want to let one man harm so many other souls.

  • http://www.getreligion.org/?p=3978 E.E. Evans

    I have no way of knowing for sure (grin) but from the erudite nature of some of the responses, knowledge of internal church matters, I would guess that many, if not most of the commenters so far are Catholics or from a Catholic-aligned faith tradition.

    Keep those cards and letters coming! It would also be GREAT to hear from some non-Catholics–and perhaps some of our Jewish readers?

  • Martha

    Just saw this on Amy Welborn’s blog: Bishop Williamson has been smacked on the nose with a rolled-up newspaper by Bishop Fellay

    http://rorate-caeli.blogspot.com/2009/01/superior-general-of-sspx-bishop.html

    Tuesday, January 27, 2009

    Communiqué of the Superior General of the Society of St. Pius X,

    Bishop Bernard Fellay

    It has come to our attention that Bishop Richard Williamson, a member of our Society, granted an interview to a Swedish network. In this interview, he also commented on historical issues, especially on the genocide of Jews by the National-Socialist regime. It is obvious that a bishop speaks with religious authority solely on matters of faith and morals. Our Society claims no authority over historical or other secular matters.

    The mission of the Society is the offering and restoration of authentic Catholic teaching, as handed down in the dogmas. We are known, accepted, and appreciated worldwide for this.

    We view this matter with great concern, as this exorbitance has caused severe damage to our religious mission. We apologize to the Holy Father and to all people of good will for the trouble it has caused.

    It must remain clear that those comments do not reflect in any way the attitude of our community. That is why I have forbidden Bishop Williamson to issue any public opinion on any political or historical matter until further notice.

    The constant accusations against the Society have also apparently served the purpose of discrediting our mission. We will not allow this, but will continue to preach Catholic doctrine and to offer the Sacraments in the ancient rite.

    Menzingen, January 27, 2009

    + Bishop Bernard Fellay

    Superior General

    So already we see some fruit of this Vatican action; while the SSPX were out in the cold, Williamson could run about talking trash to whomever he pleased and nothing was done about it. The Pope makes a gesture, light suddenly is shining in on the SSPX, et voilá!

    Ben, I think this might do something more for inter-religious dialogue than merely parroting the approved lines; now that Williamson has become a public embarrassment for them, his superiors and fellows in the SSPX seem to be finally getting off their backsides and doing something about it – and, it is to be hoped, any more of this kind of toxic attitude and anti-Semitism in their ranks.

  • http://www.followingthelede.blogspot.com Sabrina

    I’ll just excerpt from the most recent updates to the story by Catholic News Service:

    VATICAN CITY (CNS) — Remarks made by a traditionalist bishop who denied that millions of Jews were murdered during World War II are unacceptable, “foolish,” and in no way reflect the position of the Catholic Church, said the Vatican’s top ecumenist and major dialogue partner with the Jews.
    “Such gibberish is unacceptable,” said German Cardinal Walter Kasper, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity and the Pontifical Commission for Religious Relations With the Jews in an interview with the Italian daily La Repubblica Jan. 26.
    […]
    The Vatican released a statement Jan. 27 from the head of the Swiss-based society, Bishop Bernard Fellay, who apologized for the damage caused by Bishop Williamson’s remarks and said they in no way reflect the society’s positions.
    “We ask forgiveness of the pontiff and of all people of good will for the dramatic consequences of this act,” Bishop Fellay wrote. He said he had prohibited Bishop Williamson from speaking publicly on political or historical questions “until further orders
    […]
    Cardinal Kasper, who is co-chairman with Rabbi Rosen of the International Catholic-Jewish Liaison Committee, told La Repubblica he could see how Bishop Williamson’s opinions could “cast a shadow over (Vatican) relations with Jews, but I am convinced dialogue will continue.”
    [...]
    A front-page article in the Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, called Bishop Williamson’s remarks on the Holocaust unacceptable, “very serious and regrettable.”
    The paper underlined the church’s teachings against anti-Semitism, which are clearly outlined in the declaration “Nostra Aetate.” The Jan. 27 article said these teachings were “not debatable” within the Catholic Church.
    […]
    The Swiss bishops’ conference said the traditionalist bishop’s remarks “worsened concerns” over the “deep divergences” between the society and the Catholic Church.
    The Swiss bishops condemned Bishop Williamson’s comments and apologized to the Jewish community in Switzerland for the upsetting episode.

  • Ben

    Martha, jh, Ken,

    Good points and good discussion. Ken, forgive me for not wanting to engage your two sets of final questions. I’m burned out on discussions of bias because it often devolves into discussions of authorial motives that are unknowable.

  • http://blogs.reuters.com/faithworld Tom Heneghan

    The lifting of the excommunications of the SSPX bishops was a major event in Pope Benedict’s papacy and one you would think they would present in a way that it could be widely understood. It is a complex and controversial issue and everyone involved knows that. The Vatican holds news conferences for far less important issues and brings several senior clergy over to the press room to explain them to text, radio and television journalists there. This announcement was issued in the daily bulletin last Saturday as if it were a routine event.

    News happens in a context. Williamson’s remarks were broadcast in Sweden last Wednesday and were widely known by Friday. Strictly speaking, they were not relevant to the excommunication issue. But the Vatican made no effort to take this context into account. For those of us watching this unfold, it was a train crash waiting to happen and the Vatican made no effort to avoid it. Instead, it reacted slowly and defensively. As the Reuters Vatican correspondent Phil Pullella reported, part of the reason is that Vatican departments often don’t talk to each other. This is reminiscent of the procedure leading up to the Regensburg speech, which also sparked a reaction the Vatican was unprepared for. Pope Benedict and a small group of advisors decided this SSPX issue without telling Cardinal Walter Kasper, who has to deal with its effects because he is in charge of relations with Jews.

    This is not to say that the Vatican should have delayed or called off the lifting of the excommunications just because one of the bishops holds unacceptable political views. The Church has the right to discipline its members as it sees fit. But the Church operates in the world and cannot expect such a major event to go unnoticed, especially by those who do not agree with it. The best way to avoid these surprising reactions is to openly present the case for the decision that’s been made.

    John Cox shows how little he understands of this process when he writes:

    Those same cliched headlines and knee-jerk ledes would have been written if B16 had wandered into the Vatican equivalent of the White House Press Room and chatted away for a couple of hours, or all day, with reporters, patiently answering, and explaining, and patiently answering the same questions again, and explaining the same points again. And again.

    As religion editor for Reuters, I work closely with our Vatican correspondent and have been to Rome many times to report on the Church. The Vatican knows how to get its message across in a hostile context — just look at the way Pope Benedict condemned the U.S. clergy sex abuse scandal during his flight to Washington last April, thereby defusing a difficult issue bound to come up during his visit. The reporters on board all reported what he had to say. The Vatican also understands the value of using the media — it’s just gone YouTube. If the pope had explained his SSPX decision in more detail and with some reference to the obvious context, the reporting would have been quite different.

  • FW Ken

    Ben,

    I know the feeling!

    Reading back over my comments, I’m not sure I was clear: the Bp. Williamson issue is a legitimate part of the story. Including it does NOT constitute bias, and certainly not anti-Catholicism. In my opinion, the reporter overplayed it, to an inflammatory effect.

    Best wishes.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    That’s some excellent perspective on the issue, Mr. Heneghan.

  • Tom Heneghan

    Thanks, Mollie!

  • Julia

    What a lot of people are missing is the other context in which this action was taken. When delicate negotiations are going on, being too clear about what’s going on to others can blow the ability to get an agreement. Ask any diplomat. Ask any lawyer trying to resolve a case without going to court. Unfortunately, it was necessary to make the lifting of the excommunications public so that the 600,000 or so SSPX lay people would know about it.

    I do agree it might have helped to give Kaspar a heads-up, but if he had then alerted his Jewish dialogue-partners, don’t you think they would have denounced the measure in the press anyway, no matter what Benedict’s motives?

  • Tom Heneghan

    Julia, your scenario might apply in diplomatic or legal negotiations, but the timing here shows quite a different context from what you imagine. The decree lifting the excommunications was signed on Wednesday Jan 21. That means all the negotiations were finished, the Vatican had the agreement with the SSPX and nobody had interfered. But the Vatican then waited until Saturday the 24th to announce this. In the meantime, Williamson’s comments were broadcast on Swedish TV on Wednesday evening. On Thursday morning, a well-informed Italian newspaper reported the decree had been signed. By late Thursday, news of the Williamson interview was all over the internet. On Friday, Jewish groups appealed to the Vatican not to lift the ban on Williamson, something it had already done. The Vatican then announced the decision on Saturday.

    It is standard Vatican procedure to sign something in secret and announce it days or even weeks later. The Vatican likes to time announcements to special events in the Church calendar, in this case the end of the week of prayer for Christian unity. So the pope and the few advisors he took into confidence on this knew days in advance that they were going to announce this on Saturday. Once it was signed, they could have informed Kasper that this was now a done deal and he might want to contact his Jewish dialogue partners to cushion the effect. Although it would be highly unlikely for the pope himself to give a news briefing, they could have had the cardinal involved and maybe another senior official or two go down to the Sala Stampa (Vatican press room) and explain it to the media.

    Your comment also assumes this was a delicate negotiation that only ended at the last minute. The key letter from the SSPX side was sent to the Vatican on Dec 15, a fact we only learned after the decision was announced. If the Congregation for Bishops signed the official decree on Jan 21, the actual deal must have come sometime before that. So nobody else could have tripped up the agreement because nobody else had any idea of it until long after it was already reached.

  • Julia

    Tom:

    You are assuming that the negotiations with SSPX are over. They are not reconciled; their faculties are still suspended; they still have churches unbeholden to the local official bishops; much remains to be done.

    These are a type of diplomatic and legal negotiations. The talks are only beginning and will probably last for years.

    You really think the Pope is going to outline his strategy vis a vis the SSPX for the press? Hey folks, I’m lifting the excommunications to force the SSPX to do X and Y? Not likely. Would our Secretary of State do that?

    That’s what I was talking about.

  • http://blogs.reuters.com/faithworld Tom Heneghan

    Julia,
    I understood your first post to be focused on the negotiations leading up to the lifting of the excommunications. The Jewish critics you mention did ask the pope not to lift them once they had learned about the deal. In fact, many at the Vatican suspect that Williamson’s interview, which was taped in November, was broadcast last Wednesday in a bid to shame the Vatican into not announcing the decision. That did not happen.

    Once the excommunications were lifted, there was no way they would or could be kept secret for very long, so that context simply did not exist. The original excommunications were officially announced by Pope John Paul and are available on the Vatican website for all to see. The Congregation for Bishops had to issue a decree to reverse this. The Vatican didn’t want to keep it secret — it even picked last Saturday, the end of the week of prayers for Christian unity, as the day to announce it so the decision could be presented as a step towards greater unity in the Church.

    Even if the Vatican had wanted to keep this secret during the coming negotiations, the SSPX would have trumpeted it from the rooftops. This proudly defiant little group has forced the mighty Vatican to make a major concession. And even if the SSPX didn’t let the cat out of the bag, what would happen when the bishops start to turn up in Rome for the negotiations on their reintegration? The vaticanisti would surely find out and report it (remember Il Giornale learned about the decree on the day it was signed). And the SSPX would have to publicise the negotiations at some point, if nothing else to inform its followers, some (maybe many?) of whom are suspicious of any accomodation with the Vatican. Bishop Williamson has already addressed that on his blog and reassured his followers the SSPX would not buckle during the negotiations.

    These negotiations are needed to reintegrate them, as you say, and they will take a long time. We’ve written all about that. The actual negotiating will be secret, of course, but part of it will be played out in the media. That’s the way the SSPX played it last year when it rejected the Vatican’s ultimatum to swear loyalty to the pope and Magisterium by the end of June. There’s little reason to expect them to act much differently. In fact, we may be surprised by what comes out if the SSPX bishops, who are not a monolithic bloc, start squabbling among themselves and airing their differences on their websites and blogs.

    The assumption that these are like diplomatic or legal negotiations has a flaw, the same one that some journalists have when they use only the criteria and logic of political reporting when writing about religion. What makes a religious dispute like this different is that the two sides disagree on what they see is the absolute Truth. That makes certain points non-negotiable. No amount of diplomatic or legal sophistry is ever going to get a pope to say that Jesus was not the son of God or an ayatollah to say Mohammad was not the prophet of Allah.

    In this case, the SSPX has said up until now that the reforms of the Second Vatican Council were absolutely false and could not be accepted. This is their conviction and if, in the negotiations, they sign on to these reforms, they’ve caved. The Vatican has long said that Vatican II and the authority of the pope were non-negotiable. The decree lifting the excommunications caused concern among many Catholics, prompting veiled protests from the bishops’ conferences in France, Germany and Switzerland, because it said the SSPX should accept the Magisterium and the authority of the pope but did not specify Vatican II.

    After the PR disaster with Williamson and these statements from the bishops’ conferences calling on him to specify Vatican II as a condition, Benedict used his weekly audience on Wednesday to announce publicly that the SSPX would have to show “true loyalty and true recognition of the Magisterium and the authority of the pope and of the Second Vatican Council.”

    So he’s just gone and done what was supposedly “not likely.” The conclusion that he wouldn’t do that is based on this flawed analogy between diplomatic or legal negotiations and negotiations at the Vatican. There are some similarities, for sure, but also some important differences. Writing about the pope and asking “would our Secretary of State do that?” is like asking whether a baseball pitcher would throw a Hail Mary pass.

  • FW Ken

    Mr. Heneghan,

    Your posts are very helpful, as was your blog entry. Thank you.

    You know, papal infallibility doesn’t extend to public relations, and there has been a lot of talk over the past 4 years about PR limitations in the Vatican. I appreciate that your comments don’t focus on the process problem as the essential problem. You quote Bp. Williamson at length on your blog, making clear just what a problem the man has, far beyond holocaust denial.

  • http://blogs.reuters.com/faithworld Tom Heneghan

    FW Ken, now that’s an interesting idea… If infallibility did extend to public relations, this papacy’s performance would have undermined the doctrine far more effectively than any Hans Küng could!