The media and Catholic blogosphere continue to react in the opposing directions of joy or horror, depending on which side of the ecclesial aisle one stands, to the Vatican decree remitting the 20-year excommunications of four illicitly consecrated bishops of the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX). The New York Times adroitly captures the inner turmoil of the Church at this moment:
The decision provided fresh fuel for critics who charge that Benedict’s four-year-old papacy has increasingly moved in line with traditionalists who are hostile to the sweeping reforms of the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s that sought to create a more modern and open church.
But has Pope Benedict XVI really moved so far to the right, in a manner hostile to Vatican II? Is this decision — coupled with Benedict’s derestriction of the old Latin Mass — a sign that “the sweeping reforms” of the council are now being swept out of the Church for good?
While some may think so, closer examination reveals that Benedict’s decision is an ecumenical gesture of the kind that many progressives have valued for decades: Benedict has made a concrete step in order to foster true dialogue that will lead to union within the Church. Such a gesture cannot be scorned or devalued simply because it was made toward a conservative Catholic group rather than a separated Eastern Orthodox or Protestant group, since it has the same aim: healing the rifts of Christendom so that all Christians may again be one.
First of all, the timing of this decree is not an accident: It came in the middle of a week of prayer for Christian unity. In his Angelus address on January 18, Benedict exhorted the faithful to “pray with greater intensity that Christians may walk resolutely towards full communion among themselves.” He continued, “I address particularly Catholics scattered throughout the world so that, united in prayer, they do not tire of working to overcome the obstacles that still impede full communion among all Christ’s disciples.”
The decree lifting the excommunications of the four bishops was preceded by a written expression of pledged cooperation and by 1.7 million rosaries prayed throughout the world for this very intention. As the Society has always considered the excommunications an obstacle to relations with the Holy See, these prayers meet the Holy Father’s stated objective for moving toward full communion. And while the SSPX’s canonical status still remains irregular, and their press release falls far short of calling for immediate communion, this is surely a positive step forward.
By remitting the excommunications, then, Benedict, who on his own initiative has long courted the SSPX to return to the fold, was responding to the Society’s reciprocated good will. In doing so, he was following the ecumenical plan that he announced in his message to the cardinals on the day after his election, which the New York Times described as “a message of openness and reconciliation to his Roman Catholic followers, other churches and other faiths.” He stated,
Peter’s current Successor takes on as his primary task the duty to work tirelessly to rebuild the full and visible unity of all Christ’s followers. This is his ambition, his impelling duty. He is aware that good intentions do not suffice for this. Concrete gestures that enter hearts and stir consciences are essential, inspiring in everyone that inner conversion that is the prerequisite for all ecumenical progress.
Theological dialogue is necessary; the investigation of the historical reasons for the decisions made in the past is also indispensable. But what is most urgently needed is that “purification of memory”, so often recalled by John Paul II, which alone can dispose souls to accept the full truth of Christ . . . .
The current Successor of Peter is allowing himself to be called in the first person by this requirement and is prepared to do everything in his power to promote the fundamental cause of ecumenism (emphasis added).
The lifting of the excommunications is certainly a “concrete gesture” that exceeds all good intentions since it boldly “purifies the memory” of two decades of strained and difficult relations between the Holy See and the SSPX. In light of this message, one can better understand the decree’s intention that “with this act, it is desired to consolidate the reciprocal relations of confidence and to intensify and grant stability to the relationship of the Fraternity of Saint Pius X with this Apostolic See.”
Moreover, this gesture, because it has been earnestly desired for years, has the potential to “enter hearts and stir consciences” of the members of the SSPX, who often have been quite severe in their criticisms of the postconciliar Church. A mutual purification of memory may be the most effective means to Benedict’s hope that “inner conversion” may bring about “the prompt accomplishment of full communion with the Church of the entire Fraternity of Saint Pius X.”
Of course, it is a great irony to view this major step toward reconciliation with the Society in light of ecumenism, since this is one of the facets of Vatican II that the SSPX most contested. Indeed, SSPX members surely would not perceive what has just transpired in this light; as Superior General Bishop Bernard Fellay’s letter makes clear, they see this event as the vindication of Tradition. Nevertheless, since the canonical status of the SSPX has been irregular for decades, in some ways the Society resembles the generic description of a “separated” church as described in Vatican II’s Unitatis Redintegratio (3) and, more specifically, the status of the Eastern Churches (14-18). Thus, from the standpoint of Rome, Benedict has just made his greatest ecumenical gesture to date, even if the SSPX was never formally in schism.
Herein lies the double irony: the objection of Benedict’s gesture by some — including Catholics and others — who normally would be the foremost champions of ecumenism. In fairness, one cannot favor dialogue and meetings of good will with Orthodox and Protestants while rejecting the same with the SSPX. The latter, of course, are Catholic in every sense of the term. Furthermore, we have seen a similar gesture of goodwill made by Pope Paul VI in 1965 when he lifted the excommunication of Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras I. It is a sad indication of how some understand ecumenism when Catholics hold prayer services with other Christian denominations in Catholic parishes, while another Catholic parish in France forces the SSPX to celebrate Mass outside in the streets rather than within its own walls.
Undoubtedly, the SSPX has several serious theological reservations that must be worked out before full communion with the Holy See can be reached. But so do the Orthodox, the Anglicans, the Lutherans, and all the other ecclesial communities in dialogue with Rome, and theirs are more numerous, more complex, and centuries old. Benedict is not moving the Church to the right by gesturing to the SSPX any more than he is bringing the Church to the left when he meets with leaders of other Christian denominations, as he does on nearly every papal trip abroad. Rather, his decree seeks to foster “an interior reconciliation in the heart of the Church” — just as he explained in his opening message to the cardinals; just as Pope John Paul II expressed in Ut Unum Sint; just as Vatican II expressed in Unitatis Redintegratio; just as Jesus Himself expressed at the Last Supper: that they may be one (Jn 17:21).
If we truly value Christian unity, we must rejoice at the progress made between the Holy See and the SSPX and pray for full communion in the future. Let us not allow theological differences and squabbles over which direction the Church is moving to distract us from our Lord’s vision — now carried out courageously by the Roman pontiff — of unity according to the fullness of the Truth that the Church protects and teaches until the end of the age.
Image: Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre /AP Photo