Proportional Ecumenism

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

By

David G. Bonagura, Jr. teaches theology at the Seminary of the Immaculate Conception, Huntington, New York.

  • Chris

    The attitudes of those who criticize this gesture of reconciliation because of its object (the SSPX) go beyond the pale. Sure the SSPX leadership can be arrogant and even loopy at times. All the more reason to get them within the Church so as to be subject to Her discipline. Moreover, their questioning of the Vatican II more closely resembles the Protestant principle that they claim to decry. But they are pro-life — a fact that cannot be asserted about any of the mainline Protestant church corporate bodies with whom the Church seeks ecumenical reconciliation. They are deeply Catholic in their sensibilities. And the more I read about it, the more I conclude that their objections to Vatican II are more about the deeply flawed way in which the Council’s teachings have been implemented (and often ignored) rather than the actual teachings of the Council (which are all cemented in Tradition).

    Simply compare the level of obedience to Vatican II offered by the average American parish. When was the last time Gregorian Chant was offered “pride of place” in the liturgy at your parish? How often have you seen the “use of Latin language… preserved the Latin rites?” The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy requires both. Gaudium et spes speaks of “married Christians [who] glorify the Creator and strive toward fulfillment in Christ when with a generous human and Christian sense of responsibility they acquit themselves of the duty to procreate. Among the couples who fulfill their God-given task in this way, those merit special mention who with a gallant heart and with wise and common deliberation, undertake to bring up suitably even a relatively large family.” How often is this respected within the Church? How often is it even taught in marriage preparation?

    I could go on. But anyone who thinks that the SSPX has been more egregious than the average Catholic parish in their dismissal of Vatican II ought to look first in the mirror.

  • SWP

    This is an exceptionally clarifying article that I pray ends up in the hands of more discriminating journalists. Thank you!

  • Will

    The secular media is making a big deal of the lifting of the Excommunication of SSPX Bishop Williamson [and 3 other SSPX bishops] largely due to his rather odd views of the Holocaust.
    We keep hearing about those four SSPX bishops, however, I think the real focus of Benedict is the approx. one million lay members of SSPX. Pope Benedict wants to bring them back into the Church and the fact that this Williamson fellow is something of an odd duck should not stand in the way of the Spiritual welfare of one million people. Benedict is going to appoint his own men to be their bishops from now on, so a few years from now, this whole flap about Williamson will be irrelevent. Benedict is thinking long term and more concerned with the million lay people than with one man.

  • Deal Hudson

    David, thanks for saying what had to be said, by someone. Ecumenism is celebrated in many circles for its openness to Protestants, Jews, Muslims, etc., but reach out to some nasty traditionalists, and a collective groan arises from the same crowd. Point of fact: these fans of ecumenism use it as a tool to chip away at the core of Catholic teaching pronounced in documents like Dominus Jesu.

  • Sam

    The attitudes of those who criticize this gesture of reconciliation because of its object (the SSPX) go beyond the pale. Sure the SSPX leadership can be arrogant and even loopy at times. All the more reason to get them within the Church so as to be subject to Her discipline. Moreover, their questioning of the Vatican II more closely resembles the Protestant principle that they claim to decry. But they are pro-life — a fact that cannot be asserted about any of the mainline Protestant church corporate bodies with whom the Church seeks ecumenical reconciliation. They are deeply Catholic in their sensibilities. And the more I read about it, the more I conclude that their objections to Vatican II are more about the deeply flawed way in which the Council’s teachings have been implemented (and often ignored) rather than the actual teachings of the Council (which are all cemented in Tradition).

    Simply compare the level of obedience to Vatican II offered by the average American parish. When was the last time Gregorian Chant was offered “pride of place” in the liturgy at your parish? How often have you seen the “use of Latin language… preserved the Latin rites?” The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy requires both. Gaudium et spes speaks of “married Christians [who] glorify the Creator and strive toward fulfillment in Christ when with a generous human and Christian sense of responsibility they acquit themselves of the duty to procreate. Among the couples who fulfill their God-given task in this way, those merit special mention who with a gallant heart and with wise and common deliberation, undertake to bring up suitably even a relatively large family.” How often is this respected within the Church? How often is it even taught in marriage preparation?

    I could go on. But anyone who thinks that the SSPX has been more egregious than the average Catholic parish in their dismissal of Vatican II ought to look first in the mirror.

    As you and Mr Hudson have pointed out, this gesture at true ecumenical reconciliation with the SSPX is a very clever way of exposing to the Church the real agenda behind the modernist ecumenical establishment: the desire to make the Catholic Church less Catholic and more Protestant through so-called dialogue. The modernists are the ones howling in outrage over the reconciliation reached with the SSPX because bringing the SSPX back into the fold ecumenically and charitably will make the Church stronger, more solidly Catholic, and therefore less Protestant. The only way home is to Rome, and by making Catholicism stronger we make her more attractive to our separated brethren. Hopefully the Orthodox and the Protestants will come home soon.

  • Will

    With regards to Ecumenism and the Anglicans or Episcopalians, we are already absorbing quite a few of them anyway, due to their odaining women and gays, thus traditional Anglicans see that the only way to go, is to go Roman anyway. The Anglicans are fracturing and many of the more orthodox will become Catholics, as the more “unorthodox” become crazier and crazier. The more radical Anglicans are the best recruiters we have, as Pope Benedict looks more and more sensible to the Orthodox Anglicans.

  • James Pawlak
  • Ken

    I disagree that the lifting of the SSPX excommunications was merely a gesture of good will or some sort of ecumenism. The fact is that the current pope has — rightfully, in my opinion — reversed several of the liberalizations or errors of the last pope.

    Look no further than the liturgy at the Vatican — communicants must kneel and receive communion on the tongue from Benedict; vestments from before the 1960s (there was a Catholic Church before the 1960s?) have been dusted off and worn, including Roman-style ones not seen in years; Latin is used much, much more; the Paul VI papal crucifix has been retired with Pius IX’s cross back in action; liturgies using the original altars facing ad orientem are said again; the traditional arrangement of the altar crucifix and candles is the norm; and on and on.

    All failure in the past forty years has been a result of liberalizations; all successes, most notably with certain religious orders and dioceses, has been a result of returns to tradition and/or conservatism. We should not discount the latest action by this pope as without a larger message.

  • Will

    When Pope Benedict was elected a few years ago, many people assumed that he was just a “caretaker pope” following the long and vibrant pontificate of John Paul II, biding his time for a few years until a stronger Pope would arrive. I think those people were wrong. More and more, Pope Benedict is his own man, not just JP II’s “right hand man.” Benedict is not as into crowds as JP II, as he likes to work through traditional channels, however, he has a powerful intellect and knows where he is going. Although 81 years old, he seems to be going very strong and I think his pontificate will be longer than people originally thought. I think his impact will be more than originally thought too.

  • Londoner

    Have no illusions. The problem essentially is that Lefebvrists still maintain that they were not excommunicated in the first place. The statement from their Superior does not thank the Pope, much less express any sorrow for being in schism. It refers, in a rather distant way, to the Holy Father’s “courageous and benevolent gesture” but the rest of the statement is essentially an affirmation that the group will go on saying what it has always done. It has a curious way of referring to something it simply calls Tradition, which seems to be its guiding principle – but Catholics do not follow an anonymous thing called Tradition. We follow Jesus Christ, in his holy Catholic Church. I am afraid that the best that can be expected is that some of the lay people who currently go to Lefebvrist Masses will feel warmer towards the Pope and may come back to the Church in some formal arrangement, but many of the leading clergy will remain in schism and retain some followers with them, and the situation will remain confused. But the Holy Father will have done his best. George Weigel’s current feature on this topic in Newsweek is a good read on the subject.

  • Will

    Londoner, yes you are correct. The next move is up to SSPX. Very good article by George Weigel in Newsweek. Pope Benedict stuck out his neck lifting the Excommunications, especially with Williamson, now it’s up to them to make a favorable gesture towards Rome. Benedict wants them back, the question now is do they [SSPX] want to come back?

  • D.B.

    I applaud the Holy Father for his efforts to bring SSPX back into the fold. I sympathize with their views although I condemn in the strongest terms their belligerence and disobedience…which made them no better than womanpriests. It is up to them to decide whether or not they wish to be reconciled. I am decidedly un-ecumenical…at least in the hazy general usage of the word that is popular. The goal of Ecumenism is reconciliation to Rome…it isn’t the watering down of Catholic belief. Sure we may have put words like “heretic” in mothballs so as not to “offend,” but that doesn’t change that the Catholic Church is THE Church Christ founded…I think we could do with abit more of the Triumphalism of old and less of this clucking about over “sensitivities.” In the decades of the Ecumenical movement, what has truly been accomplished besides a few “Statements of Understanding” and photo ops with multiple clergy?

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