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Pope Benedict answers critics on SSPX excommunications March 11, 2009

In an extraordinary effort to resolve a painful and divisive dispute, Pope Benedict XVI has written to all the world's Catholic bishops, explaining his decision to lift the excommunications of four bishops for the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX) and pleading for support in his effort to achieve reconciliation within the Church.

The Pope's letter is scheduled for official release on March 12. But the German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung has obtained a full copy of the text; informed Vatican officials confirm that it is an accurate copy. A translation of that German text has been posted on the New Liturgical Movement web site. (This English translation is unofficial, and the Vatican document scheduled for release tomorrow may differ in its wording. The quotations below are taken from the New Liturgical Movement translation.)

Clearly stung by the "vehemence" and "bitterness" of the public responses to his gesture, the Pope writes to set the record straight and to defend himself against critics who "accused the Pope openly of wanting to return behind the Council." The Holy Father does not say-- because he does not need to say-- that some of the bitter criticism came from prominent Catholics, including more than a few bishops. As a result, an initiative that the Pope took to bring unity to the Catholic Church has brought the opposite result.

The Pope reports that when he lifted the excommunications, he could not foresee that the status of Bishop Richard Williamson would soon become the subject of a huge international controversy, drowning out interest in the intended significance of his gesture. He admits that the resulting debate "has disturbed for a moment the peace between Christians and Jews as well as the peace in the Church," and said that this was an outcome "I can only deeply regret."

The Pope humbly acknowledges that-- as he has now learned from painful experience-- the special troubles caused by Bishop Williamson's public remarks could have been anticipated by anyone who researched the SSPX bishop's background on the internet. "I learn from this that we at the Holy See have to pay more careful attention to this news source in the future," the Pope writes. Nevertheless the Pontiff expresses dismay that so many people were unwilling to give him the benefit of the doubt, and ready "to strike at me with hostility" for this mistake.

The Holy Father goes on to concede that the announcement of his gesture toward the SSPX should have been accompanied by a clear explanation of its effects. He expresses regret "that the scope and limits of the measure of 21 January 2009 have not been set out clearly enough at the time of the publication of the procedure." He underlines the point that was made in a Vatican clarification released nearly two weeks after the original announcement, noting that the SSPX bishops remain suspended. "As long as the Fraternity does not possess a canonical position in the Church," the Pope emphasizes, "its officials do not exercise legitimate offices in the Church."

Expanding on that essential point, Pope Benedict reports that the SSPX remains at odds with the Holy See on critical issues of Church doctrine. "As long as the doctrinal issues are not resolved, the Fraternity has no canonical status in the Church and its ministers, even if they are free from ecclesiastical censure, do not exercise in a legitimate way any ministry in the Church," he writes.

Addressing those doctrinal issues, the Pope says that the SSPX must come to realize that they cannot dismiss the authority of Vatican II. "One cannot freeze the magisterial authority of the Church in 1962," he argues. At the same time, he cautions that liberal Catholics must also recognize the authority of the Council-- and not some spurious "spirit of Vatican II" that breaks with previous Church tradition. The teaching of the Council, the Pope says, "contains within itself the whole doctrinal history of the Church." Thus anyone who truly adheres to Vatican II "must not cut the roots off which the tree lives."

Some of the Pope's critics wondered aloud why, when so many other pressing issues confront him, the Holy Father chose to address the problems of the SSPX. He answers that question directly in his letter to the world's bishops, reminding them that Jesus asked St. Peter to "strengthen your brethren." The Petrine ministry, he explains, is a ministry of unity, and when a group like the SSPX petitions for a restoration of communion with the universal Church, the Pope must respond.

Moreover, Pope Benedict continues, the restoration of communion with groups that have been separated from the Church has a powerful positive effect. Referring to the successful reconciliation of other traditionalist groups in past years, he reports:

I myself, in the years after 1988, have experienced how by the return of communities previously separating themselves from Rome the interior climate there has changed, how the return to the great, wide and common Church overcame onesided-ness and lessened tensions, so that now they have become positive forces for the whole.

As he nears the conclusion of his letter, having defended himself at length against his critics, Pope Benedict asks his critics to examine their own consciences, and ask themselves whether they have allowed themselves to write off some people are irredeemably bad. "Sometimes," he writes, "one has the impression that our society needs at least one group for which there need not be any tolerance; which one can unperturbedly set upon with hatred." He questions implicitly whether some Catholics have unthinkingly taken the position that the SSPX deserves no tolerance, and consequently anyone who extends tolerance to them-- even the Pope-- is deprived of tolerance as well.

Throughout a letter, the Pope shows that he has been hurt by critics who have used the SSPX excommunications as an opportunity to launch intemperate attacks on the Vatican and on him personally. He also makes it clear that the most hurtful attacks have come from within the Church.