Monday, January 26, 2009

Pope's revocation of excommunication of SSPX bishops may have broader ecumenical/interfaith implications

The NY Times has a report on some reactions within and without the Roman Catholic Church to Pope Benedict's revocation of the excommunication of four bishops. The four were members of the Society of Saint Pius X, which was formed in opposition to Vatican II reforms (I think a big one was the use of the vernacular in the Mass). If Pope Benedict does not take steps to address issues in the wider world, the non-Catholics have significant reason to be worried about him. As it is, Catholic adherents of liberation theology have many reasons to be furious, as discussed in the article - unless he takes steps to reconcile with them also.

That Benedict apparently did not widely discuss a matter that has provoked anger among Jewish groups and liberal Catholics was not out of character, however. It was just the latest example of how the pope is increasingly focused on internal doctrinal issues and seemingly unaware of how they might resonate in the larger world.

As such, it perfectly captured the theological aspirations — and political shortcomings — of his four-year-old papacy.

In 2007, Benedict approved broader use of the Latin Mass, a reform sought by the same traditionalists he has now reinstated, but one seen by many in the church as divisive. The year before, the pope angered Muslims when he cited a medieval scholar who said that Islam brought things “evil and inhuman,” and he was seemingly ill prepared for the repercussions. He later apologized.

Again this weekend, a doctrinal question exploded into a global polemic. Benedict’s decision to extend an olive branch to the four men was apparently born from a deep personal and theological desire to heal the only schism in the Roman Catholic Church in a century.

On Saturday, he said he would welcome back into the fold the four members of a sect founded in opposition to the reforms of the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s. The bishops are members of the St. Pius X Society, which was founded in 1970 by a French archbishop, Marcel Lefebvre, in opposition to Vatican II reforms. They were excommunicated by Pope John Paul II in 1988 after Archbishop Lefebvre consecrated them in unsanctioned ceremonies.

The most contentious of the four is the British-born Bishop Richard Williamson, who in a recent television interview said he thought the “historical evidence” was against six million Jews dying in Nazi gas chambers.

Some saw the pope’s decision as part of a trend, or at least an indication of his priorities.

“There is obviously a theological strategy, but the repercussions on the public opinion field beyond the church are obviously only secondary in priority,” said Mordechay Lewy, the Israeli ambassador to the Vatican.

The move baffled Alberto Melloni, a professor of church history and the director of the liberal Catholic John XXIII Foundation for Religious Science in Bologna, which produced a history of Vatican II. “What is very inexplicable to me is how it’s possible to not calculate the consequences. This is abnormal,” he said.

The Society of St. Pius X does not appear to have issued any public statements on Bishop Williamson’s views on the Holocaust. But the society has never been welcoming toward other faiths.

Jewish leaders said the pope’s decision was a setback. “It’s a very serious situation,” said Riccardo di Segni, the chief rabbi of Rome. He said the tenets of Lefebvrism were as worrisome as Bishop Williamson’s personal views.

Rabbi di Segni said he did not know what the next chapter would bring. “I don’t know what kind of resolution there can be at this point,” he said.

In a public statement, the Vatican said Saturday that the revocation was a step toward full reconciliation with the Lefebvrists and that further talks would seek to resolve the “open questions.”

Other liberal critics said the pope’s decision to welcome the Lefebvrists showed that he was more willing to embrace schismatic conservatives than wayward leftists.

In his days as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Benedict censured many left-leaning prelates, including ones adhering to the Marxist-inflected Liberation Theology movement popular in Latin America.

“I would be happy if the pope would be for reconciliation, especially also for people on the progressive side,” said Hans Küng, a professor of theology at the University of Tübingen, Germany, who has for decades been Benedict’s most formidable critic on the left. A Catholic priest, Father Küng was forbidden by the church to teach theology.

The revocation seemed to move the papacy further toward intellectual concerns rather than the daily lives of Catholics. Under Benedict, the church “risks becoming a Vatican hierarchy disincarnated from faith,” said Ezio Mauro, the editor of the center-left daily La Repubblica, who writes on church-state issues.

Father Küng agreed. Benedict “does not see that he is alienating himself from the larger part of the Catholic Church and Christianity,” he said. “He doesn’t see the real world. He only sees the Vatican world.”

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