Benedict the Crafty Liberal

Benedict the Crafty Liberal June 30, 2011

Readers may be aware of James Alison’s interesting, to say the least, interpretation of Benedict XVI’s views on homosexuality.  I recently noted, in response to my co-blogger David’s post, Loving Latin for all the Wrong Reasons, that Benedict XVI is the Pope of liturgical pluralism.  And we all know the fuss he caused with Caritas in Veritate.  Canada’s news weekly even asked, rhetorically, “Is the Pope Catholic?” considering his views on evolution and condoms, among other things.  (Shows what they know about Catholicism, but that’s another post.)

To this somewhat surprising list, I want to add one more example of Benedict, the supposed arch-conservative, quietly advancing a less-than-reactionary agenda:  the lifting of the excommunications of the SSPX bishops.

This move, seen as perhaps Benedict’s most reactionary move, actually strikes me as a brilliant strategy for promoting the teachings of Vatican II.  Bishop Williamson aside – and everyone, including the Pope, admits this was a gaffe – it’s hard to imagine a better way to handle this situation.   Though it was presented in the media as an attempt to pitch starboard, what happened was exactly the opposite, and I think Benedict intended this.

When Benedict inherited the situation, the SSPX could hide their real agenda behind the excommunications.  They could pretend that the schism was canonical rather than theological.  The lifting of the excommunications brought the real issue, the acceptance of the Second Vatican Council’s teaching on issues like religious freedom and ecumenism, out into the light.  It didn’t take long for it to become clear where the SSPX stood.  Benedict hasn’t incorporated the hard-right.  He has marginalized them.  Crafty liberal!

Brett Salkeld is a doctoral student in theology at Regis College in Toronto. He is a father of two (so far) and husband of one.

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  • Kurt

    …of Benedict, the supposed arch-conservative,…

    Always a silly presumption. If the Pope is to be summarized in such one line semi-political descriptions, the matter most to be remembered is that Benedict XVI is a former liberal (or “neo-conservative”, if you can divorce that from some of its hawkish political connotations).

    On the other thread, I guess I raised the ire of some conservatives of reminding them of their political movement’s historical baggage (support for laws to jail homosexuals, opposition to the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act, and their isolationism and anti-war stance in response to the great world challenge of the 1930s). For whatever their other faults, our American political neo-cons (Jeanne Kilpatrick, Irving Kristol, Midge Decker, Ben Wattenberg, etc), have none of that historical baggage.

    [Just a note: we’re not going to be discussing the above paragraph in this thread. I fear it could lead us far afield. BS]

    So too with the current Pope. As a boy, he and his family were progressive Catholics who were very aware of the evils of the right-wing regime they lived under. As a young priest he was an intellectual giant among liberal Catholics. At the Council, he worked tirelessly for many of the causes treasured by the Council progressives. Okay, in the late 1960s he made what some consider a break with his past and which I imagine he considers a continuation (sorta like the old “I didn’t leave the Democratic Party. The Democratic Party left me” line).

    But he comes to the table today without the historical right wing baggage. He has an understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of the liberal Catholic vision that only an insider can have, and an acceptance and even promotion of some foundational principles of liberal Catholicism, even if he makes different applications of them.

  • ajb

    Interesting theory. However, is it possible that the Pope simply wants to ally with the SSPXers in undoing VII (“deforming the reforms”) and finds it easier to do so with allies who aren’t currently excommunicated?

    As with Church “progress” in general, I think Pope Benedict is playing a long-game here. When you consider the SSPX move alongside the opening for the most conservative Anglicans’ entry into the Church, it’s possible that Benedict’s vision is that the “left” side of the Church tree will either be pruned, or die on the vine for neglect, while the “right” side has more and more branches grafted onto it.

  • AJB,

    I don’t think that work considering the role Ratzinger himself played in the Council. His thought and approach are far more complex and do not fit neatly into “left” and “right” schemas. This Pope does not want to undo VCII at all. He, like JPII did in retrospect, felt Gaudium et Spes might have been too optimistic, but he has never been an “ally” of SSPX.

    • Julian Barkin

      And that’s the true sign of an intellectual or theologian. They research, write, cite, and study all principles and sides to the issue and find what is the best possible outcome, albeit within the appropriate boundaries of the Church.

  • David Elton

    I have read many of Pope Benedict’s books, and one thing that strikes me is that he is not afraid of anything – not even of appearing to be “liberal” or ambiguous on certain Catholic principles. I think he likes to nudge the Church away from the various ideologies, and towards a more charitable stance.

  • We’ll have to see if they get reintegrated or not. Rumors have it that they may be fully regularized soon enough.

    I would be wary of speaking of Vatican II’s “teachings” on issues like religious liberty and ecumenism as if these are some sort of dogma rather than prudential questions.

    And, thus, I would also be wary of attempts to “enforce” their acceptance on anyone, which really amounts to just the same sort of doctrinal authoritarianism that the Left allegedly disagrees with (except when it comes to enforcing THEIR favorite “teachings”)

    • SSPX has denied these rumors of regularization and insisted that the doctrinal issues are still the impediment. Go see on

      • We shall see. I wouldn’t be surprised if Benedict’s Vatican basically said to the SSPX “Given that you hold positions mainstream at various points before the Council, and given that the Council itself defined no new dogma, you’re certainly not teaching any heresies. Therefore, you have full permission to continue arguing for your ‘traditional’ interpretation of doctrine…as long as you don’t accuse the more ‘liberal’ interpretations of being strictly-speaking heresy either, even if you find them gravely imprudent.”

        This is basically the agreement Ratzinger reached with several Feeneyite groups when he was head of the CDF: they could continue holding promoting their “rigorist” interpretation regarding the necessity of water baptism (ie, this was conceded as compatible with Revelation) as long as they recognized that less rigorist interpretations were not heresy (ie, that they were ALSO compatible with the data of Revelation).

        I wouldn’t be surprised to see something like this be the “solution” offered the SSPX. Not the Vatican coming around, in its current official line, to the SSPX interpretations, but at least officially recognizing the tolerability of such interpretations and giving the SSPX free reign to hold and promote them.

  • Kurt


    There is no one more than me that welcomes the opportunity to give SSPX a platform to present their views on religious liberty. I would like to see it broadcast on all three major networks, unfiltered.

    • They’d be crazy to implement today. But they aren’t heresy or anything. If they’re no real threat, why not let the babies have their bottle?

  • brettsalkeld
    • Well, let me try. They–Lifesitenews, big pro-life organization– quote Fellay (SSPX superior general)saying the Church says in some of its official organs and spokespersons that everything is full of heresies–the universities, the religious orders, and so forth. And then, officially, when anyone wants to clarify some of the issues as they are enunciated in Vatican II (regarding ecumenism, the false version from which the topic of this post stems; or regarding collegiality, or religious freedom), that there’s no problem at all, that everything is fine there, fully contiguous with tradition.

      But to me, the real ‘what to make of it’ question is why does Lifesitenews find that so interesting?

      Because here’s how it is: you’re out on the street on Saturday morning trying to stop the bleeding at the local Planned Parenthood–Saturday morning is the busy day–and between clients reading your diocesan newspaper that says that the pope welcomed the new US ambassador to the Vatican with praise (you happen to know he contributed generously to the Obama campaign), sent his thanks to that wonderful President Obama in that wonderful country, the United States, and commends the wonderful example of liberty and democracy enjoyed there.

      It hits you like a blow to the gut.

      But that’s the Vatican II ideal, dear hearts. You have it on the Vox Nova masthead, don’t you? I’m paraphrasing: we are to form consciences. (But not what? Pass laws, dummy!) We are to so influence the public debate, that the country just acts Catholic, without even knowing it. Doesn’t need laws to prevent abortion or homosexual marriage or cohabitation for that matter–in fact, must have laws to protect the ‘rights’ of all to sin as much as they want to, to be as free as our democracy can sell them on, and our job is to be out there every single stinking Saturday morning for the rest of our lives. Forming consciences in our democracy that the Holy Father (and Vatican II) loves so much. He really does. Lifesitenews, not so much. Me neither.

      You can’t say everything is rosy, you can’t say mankind is good enough to enjoy total religious freedom, and then say, but abortion not so much. You can’t just fix abortion. Abortion starts with all kinds of other liberties we look the other way on. You have to agree to take on the job to fix it all and to limit freedom. Then you do not have the secular state as the ideal, you have a religious state, with Catholic assumptions (sexual behavior is a choice, overeating is a choice for that matter, etc. etc.). Which is what we need. We don’t need to form consciences anew every Saturday, we need laws to protect babies, and women, and children, and men, and marriage, and control profits, too. Vatican II and Benedict both say dignity demands people are allowed to act as they see fit in personal matters–except for a few itsy bitsy things that don’t stand in the way of friendship and praise. Or good digestion.

  • I didn’t even get to read all the comments on this post and will try to make that up today, but I just wanted to say, hoping not to repeat something already said, that Benedict is actually just about the sole author of the Vatican’s present policy regarding homosexuality and homosexual individuals, because, as Prefect, he wrote two of the three documents that govern administrative procedures and pastoral best practices. The first one, post-Council, was written by a priest named Seper, and it opened the door to very many innovative approaches to human sexuality in general, and Ratzinger’s two subsequent directives were bounces. And they do bounce! They take it for granted that homosexuality–all human sexuality– is not a choice but an inborn trait, and Ratzinger calls for Catholics to vote for and even initiate legislation in their countries protective of a list of ‘rights’ held by homosexuals. He exempted four jobs only in which it would be licit to discriminate against open homosexuals–teacher, parent, priest, and soldier, and as I recall also explicitly exempting gay marriage. But all other jobs could not be refused to open homosexuals without committing unjust discrimination, forbidden to Catholics.

    And thus we got today. All in the name of ‘Dignity,’ the Council’s code word for a new religious freedom: the freedom not only to think what one wishes, but to behave as one thinks. And thus we got today. All of it, from the destruction of marriage to the destruction of womanhood itself, is one kind of ‘freedom’ or another. It is so very much enough to wish Rosa would have waited to be invited to the front of the damn bus and then turned them down due to the bad company. (It is particularly galling to me, an active militant in the civil rights movement, to have it come to this, the today we got out of it.)

    The documents are still on the Vatican website–they are still in effect, in fact. It is a most brazen defense of sin, stemming from Seper’s first apologetic for all forms of deviant sexuality, not just homosexuality. I have the actual links in my Holy Smoking Gun, if you google that title I think you’ll get the whitelily blog’s post on it and get the links.

    • Julian Barkin

      Okay Whitelily, Glad to hear you are pro-life and follow the Magisterium on that, but the real issue here is the SSPX and the Vatican’s handling of them. I feel you’ve gone way off topic and/or this would have made a better contribution to a pro-life/abortion posting on Vox Nova. How does the pro-life issue relate to the Vatican and the SSPX?

  • Julian Barkin

    Now as for my 2 cents on the issue: Great of Benedict to do what he has done with them. He’s also killed 3 birds with one stone: regarding the SSPX and their status, the restoration of the Tridentine Latin Mass, and preventing wayward bishops in a small sense from abusing their power to crush traditional clergy and laity by manipulating Church law to say “No Latin Mass.” (as part of their whole liberal shenanigan crusade).

    Furthermore, Benedict has done the two key conditions in his handling that led to the doctrinal talks that have concluded: Restoration of the Latin Mass and the release of the excommunicated SSPX bishops from that penalty.

    As a final note this is putting the Society out in the open a lot more and getting them out of their closed doors, because there is a lot going on via their websites, publications, and other former priests and adherents who have exposed the society on their websites, to say this society is going off the rails and not very good for the Catholic faith in its current non-canonical incarnation. I’m sure B16 has done what he did to try and convince the Society to knuckle up and cut out the garbage of bashing the Church via Vatican II and some of their questionable practices in their communities, and to either a) resolve themselves and become in full communion with Rome canonically, or b) that they finally come out publically and perform a full schismatic act so that we see who they truly are and the Vatican can move onto other Christians who want to be in full communion with Rome and not waste our Holy Father’s time.

    So yes,Brett: I am in 100% agreement with your stance on the issue. BTW, I’m suprized Vox Nova is touching something like this (via you) as this is something that is usually covered in traditional circles/traditional Catholic blogospheres and not in neutral/mainstream catholic blogs. In fact, I’d wager my life savings that many an average pewgoer doesn’t even know who the SSPX are.