Mistakes made, lessons learned at the Vatican

By  Michael Higgins
  • April 16, 2009
{mosimage}In an address to the students at the Collegio Romano in mid-February Pope Benedict XVI spoke of St. Paul’s warning in the Letter to the Galatians that Christians should not “go on biting and devouring one another.” That was not the last time the Pope invoked this Pauline admonition. He did so again in his letter to the universal episcopate (released March 12) following the imbroglio occasioned by what is now sadly dubbed the Williamson Affair.

It was a vibrating jolt emitted by my BlackBerry that stirred me back into consciousness. I had been lulled into a semi-comatose state following four hours of unremitting speechifying by various representatives of the Italian Foreign Ministry and Department of Economic Development at a specially convened summit in Rome. The intrusive e-mail was from a distinguished Rome-based journalist who forwarded a pirated and unpolished translation of a letter written by Benedict to his fellow bishops, a letter formally released the next day.

It is not surprising that the pontiff wrote this letter — and indeed it’s much welcome that he did — given that something needed to be done to calm the turbulent seas threatening Peter’s Barque. But it is unprecedented for all that.

Pope Benedict was certainly overwhelmed by what he did not see coming. Rescinding the excommunications of four Lefebvrist bishops that followed their ordination in defiance of Rome is one thing, validating them as a canonical body worthy of exercising a ministry is quite another.  But the world — Catholic and otherwise — missed the distinction.

The Pope insists there are distinctions to be respected between the individual and the institutional, between the disciplinary and the doctrinal, but he concedes and regrets “that the extent and limits (of the notice authorizing the lifting of the excommunications) were not clearly and adequately explained at the moment of its publication.”

Benedict also allows, in the full glare of the media’s unforgiving gaze, that his failure to know all the nefarious details of the anti-Semitic Bishop Richard Williamson underscores the need for the Holy See “to pay greater attention” to the Internet.

Lessons have been learned and changes will be made. As a result of the staggering incompetence of the papal body Ecclesia Dei Commission in negotiating the reunion of the traditionalist, anti-conciliar Society of St. Pius X with the church, Benedict decided to link the Commission with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, a dicastery with which he has more than a passing familiarity.

On two key points, then, Benedict’s letter has acknowledged that serious mistakes were made. But the letter is more than a public recognition that errors were made — in oversight and communications — for it is also a testament to his personal vulnerability: “an avalanche of protests was unleashed, whose bitterness laid bare wounds deeper than those of the present moment. . . . even Catholics who, after all, might have had a better knowledge of the situation, thought they had to attack me with open hostility.”

Benedict finds uncomprehending the fact that many — Catholics in particular — seem skeptical when it comes to his commitment to the Second Vatican Council, and they remember his two decades as the church’s primary orthodoxy invigilator with some apprehension. For his part, the Pope understands his overtures to the schismatic Catholics as grounded in the very nature of the Petrine ministry, commanding attention to unity and  love for the outliers, and all in the spirit of reconciliation and forgiveness. He writes in his letter that the Pope appears to have lost any right to tolerance, that “he too can be treated hatefully without misgiving or restraint.”

The “biting and devouring” allusion he used at the Collegio Romano re-surfaces in the letter and there are few who would disagree with his judgment that it is a deplorable reality of Catholic life.

But where do we go from here? Mutual recriminations, summary dismissals and deep suspicion are hardly the medicine of choice. Humility — institutional and personal — must be a key component of any pastoral strategy that has a hope of succeeding. It is vital to keep in mind the Augustinian counsel: In necesariis unitas, in dubiis libertas, in omnibus caritas (in essential things single-mindedness, in doubtful things freedom to investigate, in all things charity).

It is a noble starting point. Biting and devouring isn’t an option.

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