Archbishop Lefebvre was unhappy with the Second Vatican Council and with the way the Church was going. He established the Society of Saint Pius X, which had some success (600,000 members, 500 priests) and became increasingly alienated from Rome. One cannot have sacraments without bishops, so to assure that the Society would have a line of bishops to consecrate priests, Lefebvre consecrated bishops without the permission of the pope. This entailed automatic excommunication for both Lefebvre and for the bishops he had consecrated.
A similar situation exists in China. Chinese bishops have consecrated bishops chosen by the Communist government without first getting permission of the pope. These bishops also are excommunicated. (p. 22)
But “when such a bishop professes his acknowledgment both of the primacy in general and also that of the currently reigning pope in particular, his excommunication is revoked, because there is no more reason for it.” (p. 22)
The Vatican is trying to regularize the situation in China and unify the two factions of the Church – those who acknowledge the primacy of the pope and those who by their action have rejected it.
The bishops in the Society of Saint Pius X were not excommunicate because of their views on Vatican II but because of their action in the irregular consecration. Once they acknowledged the primacy, they “had to be absolved form excommunication.”
When the Vatican revoked the excommunications of four bishops in the Society of Pius X, it soon discovered that one of them, Williamson, was a Holocaust denier. He in fact had never been a member of the Catholic Church, but had gone straight from Anglicanism to the Society of Saint Pius X (this is another complication which Benedict did not address – how do you lift the excommunication of someone who was never a member of the Church?).
It would have taken about three minutes on Google to discover Williamson’s bizarre views, but Benedict admitted “none of us went on the Internet to find out what sort of person we were dealing with.” (p. 121)
Napoleon said that one should never ascribe to conspiracy what can be explained by incompetence.
This failure let the tabloid press have a field day: “Nazi Pope Welcomes Holocaust Denier.” etc. Yes, quite unfair, as Benedict complained, but incompetence has consequences.
However, Benedict says that if he know about Williamson’s views he would have handled the matter differently, “the first step would have been to separate the Williamson case form the others.” (p. 121)
This calls for follow up questions. Why would Benedict have handled it differently? How would he have handled it? He said that excommunication “had” to be lifted once the bishops acknowledged the primacy. Where in canon law does it say the bishop’s views can be taken into consideration in deciding whether to lift an excommunication?
Williamson was not accused of heresy, but of holding an erroneous opinion about an historical event (no doubt from the worst of motives – but some people can’t believe the Holocaust happened because they can’t believe that human beings would do such terrible things).
Are some views so irrational as to be beyond the pale? Which ones? — Holocaust denial, Flat Worlder, Extra Terrestrial Abduction, or the belief that the the 2001 attacks in the U.S were carried out by U.S. and Israeli intelligence (a significant part of German population believes this). How about the Central American cardinal who thought the media stories on sexual abuse were a Jewish plot?
Seewald should have asked follow-up questions, but on this issue, as on many others, he did not really ask hard questions.
This is not to excuse Pope Benedict but one of his subordinates should have been searching the Internet for information on Williamson, once rumors of his views became known.
As far as Seewald goes, most people (especially Catholics) believe that the hierarchy (let alone the Pope) cannot have feet of clay, that their episcopal office alone makes them impervious to human error (this is not the same as the formal theological definition of “infallibility” but one of those incidents of popular piety within the Church). It reflects the fact that the hierarchy has succeed in impressing the faithful with a pretentious monarchistic facade, an attitude that completely negates any sense of personal responsibility, let alone accountability to God. Why should Seewald ask hard questions?
Father Michael Koening
I fear the Roman hierarchy is incompetent to govern in a manner that will make the Church and her message credible to the larger world, or even to many of her own members.
It’s sad that “secular humanist” countries like Denmark seem to be governed in a more moral manner than the Church of Christ.