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The Velvet Hand In The Iron Glove

Renée Rauchalles. The Lie.
(Renée Rauchalles. The Lie. Source)

Table of contents

1) Introduction
2) The Decree of the Congregation for Bishops
3) A few reactions of others to this Decree
4) My reaction: Any confusion about the nature of excommunication leads to doctrinal confusion
5) Let's try again to assume the Pope didn't make a mistake
6) The cause of the problem, and some possible solutions
7) Three big losers: the FSSP, John Paul II, the dignity of the Magisterium
8) Triple conclusion

1) Introduction

I have been asked for my reaction to the lifting of the excommunication of four Bishops of the FSSPX on 2009-Jan-21. The FSSPX is the "Priestly Society of Saint Pius X", a group formed by Bishop Marcel Lefebvre, who was excommunicated latae sententiae in 1988, as well as the Bishops he consecrated without Rome's permission. The Media normally associate them with "traditionalism", the Mass said in Latin, rejection of the Vatican II Council, etc.

A few usual disclaimers:

- should there ever be a disagreement between the Pope and me, the Pope is right;
- I consider myself to be a very traditionalist Catholic because I accept Vatican II;
- of course I'd love to see the FSSPX come back into the Catholic Church (as well as everybody else on this planet!);
- I tend to see effeminate Bishops everywhere! And you know what Saint Augustine says about people who always see the same fault in everybody!
;-)

2) The Decree of the Congregation for Bishops

[Source: Unofficial English translation of the Italian original.]

By way of a letter of December 15, 2008 addressed to His Eminence Cardinal Dario Castrillón Hoyos, President of the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei, Mons. Bernard Fellay, also in the name of the other three Bishops consecrated on June 30, 1988, requested anew the removal of the latae sententiae excommunication formally declared with the Decree of the Prefect of this Congregation on July 1, 1988. In the aforementioned letter, Mons. Fellay affirms, among other things: "We are always firmly determined in our will to remain Catholic and to place all our efforts at the service of the Church of Our Lord Jesus Christ, which is the Roman Catholic Church. We accept its teachings with filial disposition. We believe firmly in the Primacy of Peter and in its prerogatives, and for this the current situation makes us suffer so much."

His Holiness Benedict XVI - paternally sensitive to the spiritual unease manifested by the interested party due to the sanction of excommunication and trusting in the effort expressed by them in the aforementioned letter of not sparing any effort to deepen the necessary discussions with the Authority of the Holy See in the still open matters, so as to achieve shortly a full and satisfactory solution of the problem posed in the origin - decided to reconsider the canonical situation of Bishops Bernard Fellay, Bernard Tissier de Mallerais, Richard Williamson, and Alfonso de Galarreta, arisen with their episcopal consecration.

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. This gift of peace, at the end of the Christmas celebrations, is also intended to be a sign to promote unity in the charity of the universal Church and to try to vanquish the scandal of division.

It is hoped that this step be followed by the prompt accomplishment of full communion with the Church of the entire Fraternity of Saint Pius X, thus testifying true fidelity and true recognition of the Magisterium and of the authority of the Pope with the proof of visible unity.

Based on the faculties expressly granted to me by the Holy Father Benedict XVI, in virtue of the present Decree, I remit from Bishops Bernard Fellay, Bernard Tissier de Mallerais, Richard Williamson, and Alfonso de Galarreta the censure of latae sententiae excommunication declared by this Congregation on July 1, 1988, while I declare deprived of any juridical effect, from the present date, the Decree emanated at that time.

Rome, from the Congregation for Bishops, January 21, 2009.

Card. Giovanni Battista Re
Prefect of the Congregation for Bishops

3) A few reactions of others to this Decree

This decision by Pope Benedict XVI has caused many reactions around the world. Before presenting my personal reactions, I'll try to give a few representative samples of other's reactions, as a kind of "bush-clearing", in order to see the problem more clearly. Also, I've tried to roughly sort those reactions in increasing order of importance:

3.1) "One of the dis-excommunicated Bishops claims Jews were not exterminated by Nazis, therefore the Pope is an anti-Semite!"

Richard Williamson, one of the four "dis-excommunicated" FSSPX Bishops, apparently claims "only between 200 000 and 300 000 Jews died before and during World War II, and none in gas chambers" [AFP].

The leader of the FSSPX said:

[In an interview on Swedish TV, Williamson] comments on historical questions, particularly the question of the genocide of Jews by the National Socialists [...]

Bishop Williamson's statements do not in any way reflect the position of our Society. [...] We ask forgiveness of the Sovereign Pontiff and of all people of good will for the dramatic consequences of such an act. [...]
[Press Release from Bishop Fellay Concerning Bishop Williamson's Interview, 2009-Jan-27]

Pope Benedict XVI said:

May the Shoah be for everyone an admonition against oblivion, negation and reductionism, because violence against a single human being is violence against all [...]

[the Pope highlighted how at Auschwitz] millions of Jews were cruelly massacred, innocent victims of blind racial and religious hatred. [...]

As I once again affectionately express my full and indisputable solidarity with our Brothers and Sisters who received the First Covenant, I trust that the memory of the Shoah will induce humankind to reflect upon the unpredictable power of evil when it conquers the heart of man.
[weekly general audience, 2009-Jan-28]

The Vatican Secretariat of State said:

The positions of Mons. Williamson on the Shoah are absolutely unacceptable and firmly rejected by the Holy Father [..., and they were] unknown to the Holy Father in the moment of the remission of the excommunication.
[Note of the Secretariat of State, 2009-Feb-04]

The number of journalists who claim Pope Benedict XVI is anti-Semitic, seems inversely proportional to the number of journalists who actually quote their sources and give good hyperlinks!

That being said, somebody should have seen this coming. From what I know, Williamson has never hidden his opinions. Moreover, anybody who chats with members of the FSSPX quickly finds out that some of them have "very strange opinions" (to say the least) about Jews.

But let's be charitable, and let's assume nobody could predict this mess. Even in that case, the reaction was slow and bad. The disclaimer that the Pope added seven days later was just a vague reminder of the horror of the Holocaust, without naming Williamson. We had to wait thirteen days for the Secretariat of State to denounce Williamson's declarations. But even this denounciation was not particularly well-made. It seemed very anxious to please anti-Catholic journalists, and poorly grounded in theology and canon Law. (And I won't even mention ignorance about the most basic requirements of justice for the accused.)

I wish the Vatican would hire some kind of communications manager, somebody who would take the Pope's declarations before they were made public, then ask the question: "How will the anti-Catholic media attack this?" We all know corrupt journalists will throw any dirt they can find. Shouldn't we avoid making their job easier? The task of defending the teachings of the Catholic Church is hard enough as it is, without having to overcome yet another barrier of prejudice...

3.2) "We must not be like the jealous brother of the Prodigal Son, and be angry that our Father forgives him!"

Nice Biblical reference, Monsignor Hippolyte Simon, but in [Lc 15:11-32], first the Prodigal Son repents, and only after he repents does the Father forgive him!

3.3) "The FSSPX Bishops accepted Vatican II before they were dis-excommunicated!"

Yes, that would be nice, Cardinal Dario Castrillón Hoyos, except apparently both the leader of the FSSPX and Pope Benedict XVI contradict you.

3.4) "Pope Benedict XVI was just trying to prevent a schism and promote unity!"

We must distinguish two things here: the intention, and the means used. As I've already said in the Introduction, I totally agree with any intention to prevent (or heal) a schism and to promote unity. I absolutely don't accuse Benedict XVI's intentions! On the contrary, I'm sure his heart was full of warm and fuzzy intentions, while he was "dis-excommunicating" these FSSPX Bishops.

Except a good intention isn't enough for the goodness of an act. It's an excellent start, but it's not enough. For the act to be good, all the components of the act must be good.

3.5) "These dis-excommunications have not granted canonical recognition to the FSSPX, nor given a canonical function to its four Bishops!"

OK, the Vatican Secretariat of State is trying to find some kind of distance between the Church and the FSSPX. Has it found any?

The neighborhood french fry stand has no "canonical recognition". Moreover, its employees are neither Priests, nor Bishops, therefore its employees have no "canonical function". So what? That doesn't prevent those people from being 100% members of the Catholic Church!

Whether a person is Catholic or not, has no relation whatsoever with the presence or absence of a canonical role in the Church (either of this person, or of the organization that person is a member of). The primary question is: Are these freshly "dis-excommunicated" four members of the FSSPX inside, or outside the Church? And if they're outside, why have they been "dis-excommunicated"? And if they're inside, why are they being refused any role in the Church, and how come we're asking them to start accepting the authority of the Pope and Vatican II?

3.6) "These dis-excommunications are just the beginning of the process! They don't mean full communion has been attained!"

I've heard several variations on this theme:

[...] the negotiations are just beginning. The serious theological disagreements that separated Archbishop Lefebvre from the Vatican in 1988 still exist today. By lifting the excommunications, the Pope was opening the way for a frank discussion of those theological issues.
[Phil Lawler, 2009-Jan-28]

[...] we must say, repeat and emphasize that these four Bishops have not been reintegrated. And therefore, Mons. Williamson [...] still has not come back into the fold of the Catholic Church and still doesn't report to the authority of the Pope. Informations which talk about reintegration are based on a grave confusion between lifting the excommunications and complete reintegration.
[Mons. Hippolyte Simon, 2009-Jan-29]

I hope that this gesture of mine will be followed by a prompt commitment on their part to take the further steps necessary to achieve full communion with the Church, thus showing true faithfulness to, and true recognition of, the Magisterium and authority of the Pope and of Vatican Council II.
[Pope Benedict XVI, 2009-Jan-28]

The problem with those assertions is that I simply cannot find any basis for them in Canon Law, and all authors quoted above (including the Pope) carefully avoid saying where we could find this basis. I cannot find, either in common sense or in Canon Law, a "third state" in between "outside the Church" and "not outside the Church". If you are not outside, aren't you inside?

4) My reaction: Any confusion about the nature of excommunication leads to doctrinal confusion

What do I think of this Decree? The best answer is to listen to the typical reaction of extreme "traditionalists":

"The Church has finally admitted that the FSSPX was right, that the Church has abandoned the Tradition, that Vatican II was wrong, that the Vatican II Mass is invalid, that His Grace Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre was right all along."

Can we blame them for thinking so? No. Think about it. You are either in communion with the Church, or you are not. "Partially in communion" is not being in communion with the Church, otherwise Protestants, Jews and Muslims would be Catholics (they all agree partially with the teachings of the Catholic Church). If you reject something taught by the Catholic Church, what you reject is either essential, or accessory. If it's accessory, then it's a matter of taste, and you can go on believing it if you feel like it. If it's essential, then you are excommunicated.

I insist:

If you reject even so much as one single dogma of Faith, or one single moral truth, you are automatically excommunicated. Because of an annoying little impediment called "Logic", that means that if you are "dis-excommunicated", that necessarily means you believe everything that a Catholic must believe!

If you are excommunicated, then for the excommunication to be lifted, you need to publicly repent, and reject those errors which you used to adhere to. After that is done, the excommunication can be lifted. (Canon 1358, §1: "Remission of a censure cannot be granted unless the offender has withdrawn from contumacy according to the norm of Canon 1347, §2 [...]")

If you are not excommunicated, then you don't need to have "negociations" with Rome! There is no need to work for "the next step". But the Decree says: "It is hoped that this step be followed by the prompt accomplishment of full communion with the Church" (my italics).

If you are not excommunicated, then any call for "talks" with Rome will mean that you are OK, and that you don't need to repent or change anything you are doing! Apparently, this is exactly the interpretation of this Decree made by the leader of the FSSPX, a few days later!

[...] we accept and we make our own all the Councils up to the First Vatican Council. Yet we can but express reservations concerning the Second Vatican Council [... we] remain faithful to the line of conduct indicated by our founder, Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, whose reputation we hope to soon see restored. Consequently, we wish to begin these "talks" -- which the Decree acknowledges to be "necessary" -- about the doctrinal issues which are opposed to the Magisterium of all times.
[Mons. Bernard Fellay, 2009-Jan-24]

5) Let's try again to assume the Pope didn't make a mistake

Claiming a Pope made a mistake is very hazardous. The Church's History is, in a way, the history of bad theologians who thought they were smarter than the Pope, and who ended up being wrong. Let's therefore try to assume the Pope didn't make a mistake.

For example, we could put forth that the initial excommunication of the FSSPX's Bishops was only a disciplinary sanction imposed following formal disobedience to the Pope. Therefore, the "dis-excommunication" would not be a ruling on the substance of the debate concerning the refusal of the Vatican II Council. If this hypothesis is true, then Pope Benedict XVI is perfectly right, and I'm perfectly wrong.

Let's illustrate with a metaphor: a bad driver drives under the influence of alcohool, AND on top of that he gets a speeding ticket. The driver challenges his ticket, saying he was respecting the limit, and that the police radar must have been wrong. The judge examines the case, observes that the radar was broken, and quashes the speeding ticket, declaring that the driver wasn't guilty of violating the speed limit.

Journalists pounce on the story, flag a video on YouTube showing this driver totally drunk on the night he got the speeding ticket, and declare that the judge has "legalized" drinking and driving.

In this metaphor, it's clear the judge doesn't approve of drinking under the influence, even if he quashes the speeding ticket. But can this metaphor be compared to the FSSPX's case? In my opinion, the situation for ticket offenses looks like this:

Tickets

On the other hand, the situation for excommunications would look rather like this:

Excommunications

The Code of Canon Law doesn't distinguish between "flavors of excommunications". (We could say that there are "ferendae sententiae" and "latae sententiae" excommunications, i.e. "non-automatic" and "automatic", but in the case before us, excommunication for ordaining Bishops without the Pope's permission, and the one for heresy, are both "latae sententiae".)

As I constantly repeat, who cares why you ended up in the part of the drawing called "Excommunicated"? If you're no longer in the part of the drawing called "Excommunicated", you're inside the Church!

Confronted with this logical obstacle, if we want to continue to maintain that Pope Benedict XVI didn't make a mistake, we have the following options:

5.1) They are still excommunicated. The excommunication for ordaining Bishops without the Pope's permission is lifted, but the other excommunication, the top-secret excommunication (that nobody is aware of except the Pope), the excommunication for having rejected a Council and the authority of Pope Paul VI and friends, that excommunication is not lifted. It's just mentioned neither in the Decree, nor elsewhere.

Planet Earth is therefore plunged into a colossal doctrinal confusion, since apparently we can reject a legitimate Council, and the authority of Pope Paul VI and friends, without being excommunicated.

5.2) They are not excommunicated. The excommunication for ordaining Bishops without the Pope's permission is lifted, and there is no other excommunication to lift after that one.

Planet Earth is therefore plunged into a colossal doctrinal confusion, since apparently we can reject a legitimate Council, and the authority of Pope Paul VI and friends, without being excommunicated.

5.3) They have rejected their errors. The excommunication for ordaining Bishops without the Pope's permission is lifted, and the FSSPX accepts with all its heart Vatican II as well as the authority of Pope Paul VI and friends, therefore there is no other excommunication to lift. This acceptation (of Vatican II as well as the authority of Pope Paul VI and friends) is top-secret, known only of a few bigwigs in the FSSPX and Rome.

Planet Earth is therefore plunged into a colossal doctrinal confusion, since apparently we can reject a legitimate Council, and the authority of Pope Paul VI and friends, without being excommunicated.

5.4) They didn't have any errors to reject. The excommunication for ordaining Bishops without the Pope's permission is lifted, and Vatican II is not a legitimate Council, or anyway Vatican II doesn't teach anything essential to the Catholic Faith, therefore we can reject it. Moreover, Pope Paul VI and friends haven't taught anything essential to the Catholic Faith. Therefore there is no other excommunication to lift.

Planet Earth is therefore plunged into a colossal doctrinal confusion, since apparently we can reject a legitimate Council, and the authority of Pope Paul VI and friends, without being excommunicated.

6) The cause of the problem, and some possible solutions

In my opinion, none of the scenarios described here above occured. Here is, in my opinion, what really happened:

6.1) Many famous pseudo-Catholic clowns constantly prance around the Media, while promoting abortion, sodomy, Protestantism, etc. The Pope doesn't dare declare these clowns are excommunicated, for fear of being blamed for a global schism (even though this schism already exists). Members of the FSSPX are a thousand times less heretical than these clowns, and they are officially excommunicated. In an attempt to correct this injustice, without having to use any manliness, the Pope "dis-excommunicates" the four FSSPX Bishops, while encouraging a doctrinal unclarity concerning the relationship between the FSSPX and Vatican II.

Planet Earth is therefore plunged into a colossal doctrinal confusion, since apparently we can reject a legitimate Council, and the authority of Pope Paul VI and friends, without being excommunicated.

This whole confusion is easy to understand. Re-read the very beginning of the Decree here above, i.e. the FSSPX's "mini-Profession of Faith": "We are always firmly determined in our will to remain Catholic [...]. We believe firmly in the Primacy of Peter and in its prerogatives".

It's an excellent start, but unfortunately, it's still too ambiguous, as usual. For example, I can show you several heretics who endlessly proclaim their "total faithfulness to the Pope", except for when they disagree with him!

To know on which foot they are dancing, you must ask them a precise question. In the FSSPX's case, I'd suggest the following question:

"Who alone has the divine authority to correctly interpret the teachings of Vatican II, and those following that Council?"

The only acceptable answer is: "Not Marcel Lefebvre nor Bernard Fellay, but the Pope, and the Bishops in communion with the Pope".

Generally, before lifting an excommunication, I recommend to make them sign publicly a Profession of Faith that is very explicit, a Profession which precisely attacks the very errors which caused the excommunication in the first place.

Moreover, in my opinion, the best way of bridging the gap between the FSSPX and the Catholic Church is to increase excommunications, not decrease them! There are wolves in the sheepfold, and in industrial quantities! If the Pope excommunicated a few dozen famous pseudo-Catholic clowns who incessantly prance around the Media, promoting abortion, sodomy, Protestantism, etc., that would deprive the FSSPX of its strongest argument.

7) Three big losers: the FSSP, John Paul II, the dignity of the Magisterium

7.1) First loser: the FSSP

As usual, when bad students are rewarded, good students are automatically punished. If you can get good grades by drinking beer, skipping classes and insulting the teacher, why bother arriving on time for every course, listening intently, taking good notes, and studying hard?

How does this Decree make the FSSP look? The FSSP is exactly the same thing as the FSSPX, except for the stuff that is incompatible with Catholicism! If you really love old-fashioned liturgy, without rejecting the authority of the Pope, then you don't need to have your Bishops "dis-excommunicated", you need to cross the street from the local FSSPX church to the local FSSP church! The FSSP suffered all these years, holding both ends of the "chain": hanging on to the Pope in one hand, and to the old-fashioned liturgy in the other. They did what was right. They didn't tell the Pope to take a hike, they didn't violate Church Law in grave matters, etc. They were good students. And now, the bad students have just obtained a grade just as good as theirs, but by insulting the teacher instead of studying hard!

7.2) Second loser: Pope John Paul II

In a way, this Decree says: "Pope John Paul II had an iron hand in an iron glove. He knew nothing about negociation. He didn't have the patience to listen to what the FSSPX had to say. He didn't have the loving heart of a good father. We just need to lift those nasty excommunications, and everybody will see just how nice these FSSPX people are, and how much they want to agree with the Pope."

7.3) Third and most serious loser: the dignity of the Magisterium

You've been recently excommunicated? Don't worry! Be happy! Wait until the current Pope dies (and he's very old anyway!), and the next Pope will change the Church's mind!

Seriously, assuming a naive interpretation of the ambiguous statement flagged here above, this Decree can be defended. Moreover, such pastoral decisions are not protected by Papal infallibility anyway, so the Magisterium did not err. But these fancy theological distinctions will be totally ignored by the average person, who will mistrust the Magisterium even more.

8) Triple conclusion

8.1) Reductio ad absurdum

In a way, this whole affair is hilarious. The FSSPX accepts all official teachings of the Catholic Church, up until 1962 (the Vatican II Council). From that point on, they consider the Magisterium to be like a cafeteria, where they can pick and choose what they want. The Pope has just declared them to be "dis-excommunicated", even as they are "cafeteria Catholics". Hence, the Pope implies that such "cafeteria Catholicism" is acceptable, right?

Now, either this statement of the Pope is ex cathedra, or not. If the Pope was not speaking ex cathedra, then I have a right to disagree with him (which I hereby exercise).

But if the Pope was speaking ex cathedra, then as a Catholic I must submit myself and agree with him! In that case, I hereby accept all the official teachings of the Magisterium, not up until Vatican II, but up until January 21, 2009!
;-)

8.2) Blindness caused by the feminist revolution

The feminist revolution has brainwashed us, and prevents us from seeing that a father's love is totally compatible with a father's manhood.

Indeed, I feel like comparing this situation with a father who forbids his son to borrow the car, because the son regularly gets drunk, and the father caught him drinking and driving the night before. "You need to start going to meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous before I'll consider lending you the car again", says the father. What would you do if the son said: "I don't have a drinking problem. So first you start lending me the car again, then we'll talk about the mistakes you are making as a father, which cause all your problems"?

I don't know about you, but I think a father with a velvet hand in an iron glove would say: "OK, as a gift of peace, I'll let you borrow the car again, so as to achieve shortly a full and satisfactory solution of the problem posed in the origin".

8.3) My suggestion to Pope Benedict XVI

I hereby officially and humbly suggest that Pope Benedict XVI re-excommunicate the four Bishops of the FSSPX, until a more solid theological and canonical foundation can be found for their re-admission into the Church.

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