Reconciliation botched

By  Michael Higgins
  • February 13, 2009
{mosimage}The first weekend of February found me, like scores of other North American presidents of Catholic universities, in Washington, D.C., for the annual conference of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities and because I sit on the board I arrived a day earlier. Just in time to get the very beginning of the Williamson imbroglio.

Bishop Richard Williamson is the controversial British bishop whose excommunication along with three other schismatic bishops has been lifted by Rome. A member of the traditionalist Society of St.  Pius X ,  he was excommunicated because of his illicit ordination by a presiding bishop who was warned by Rome not to proceed with his intended act of defiance. The followers of Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre are nothing if not obdurate. No doubt they preferred to call it holy stubbornness. The end result was the same: schism.

Williamson’s views on many things — ecumenism, religious freedom, collegial authority, liturgical change and other matters — are to the far right of the spectrum. His position regarding the Jewish community, the Holocaust and the magnitude of the Nazi atrocities is dangerously at variance with Catholic teaching and in open contradiction to the positions taken by Popes John XXIII, Paul VI, John Paul I, John Paul II and Benedict XVI. One would have thought that Williamson might think twice before publicly distancing himself from such a pedigree of authority. But no.

His interview with a Swedish television station made clear for any who harboured doubts that the bishop was not all that repentant. Turmoil followed. Instant opprobrium was generously heaped on Williamson; French and German bishops were immediately dispatched to the Vatican to communicate their horror at this development; theologians, nuncios, dicasterial heads, specialists in Catholic-Jewish relations and prominent members of the Jewish world — rabbis, authors, historians and interfaith scholars — all entered the fray in a desperate effort to salvage what they could from a perfect storm of error, misjudgment, incompetence and callousness. There has been some success.

Bishop Bernard Fellay, head of the Society of St. Pius X, distanced himself from Williamson, Cardinal Walter Kasper, the esteemed president of the Pontifical Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, vigourously denied the church had shifted from the position it had taken at the Second Vatican Council and sensitively developed since, and many in and outside the Vatican moved quickly if not in some bewilderment to shield Benedict himself from the rising tide of criticism being levelled at the highest authority. It was quite the ugly scene. And, like the Regensberg affair of a few years past, utterly unnecessary.

Benedict was tarred unfairly for courting union with an unrehabilitated anti-Semite, for failing to do due diligence when reviewing the dossiers of these controversial bishops, for choosing to reconcile the schismatics with the church at all costs and for neglecting the Catholic-Jewish agenda which has had a bit of a tough time of late.

Benedict was undoubtedly caught off guard. His track record regarding Catholic-Jewish dialogue is impressive — irrespective the fallout over the re-introduction of the Good Friday prayer, the progress on the Pius XII cause for canonization and some longstanding disputes over the 1993 accord between the Vatican and the State of Israel — as you see attested by his frequent visits to synagogues when travelling, his praying the psalms in public in Hebrew, his depth of understanding and feeling for the Shoah (especially important for a Bavarian Catholic) and the speed with which he formally repudiated Williamson’s views.

So, what happened? Undoubtedly there will be much soul-searching in the Vatican over the debacle, serious efforts to make amends, various “clarifications” and new initiatives to bridge again what has been sundered.

Some will mistakenly blame the Press Office of the Holy See. Its head, Jesuit Fr. Federico Lombardi, has been the consummate professional and seems to me above reproach on this matter. Others will seek to allocate responsibility to a gaggle of undersecretaries, a coven of anti-clerical conspirators, a cohort of anti-Ratzinger curialists or a la Dan Brown a pack of Opus Dei “monks” hellbent on bringing down the Ratzinger papacy and installing one of their own. All kinds of fantasy-making will flourish in the vacuum that needs to be filled not with mad concoctions but with the simple truth. Remember the death of Albino Luciani. (Pope John Paul I).

In my view, it is a simple matter of ascertaining responsibility and then holding the individual or body of individuals to account — public, transparent account. Those who were responsible, the Ecclesia Dei Commission and its president, Cardinal Dario Castrillon-Hoyos, must accept responsibility for this astonishing blunder, clear Benedict’s name, display appropriate contrition and then move on. They had the task of effecting the reconciliation with the Lefebvrists, knew all the players and put in place the protocols of reunion. It was their job. Otherwise the embers will smoulder.

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