Double Disaster at the Vatican: Of Governance, and of Communication
This is the upshot of the lifting of the excommunication for four Lefebvrist bishops. The isolation of Pope Benedict, the ineptitude of the curia, and the misfires of the secretariat of state
by Sandro Magister
ROMA, February 4, 2009 - A few days after the events, the lifting of excommunication from the four Lefebvrist bishops is increasingly manifesting itself at the Vatican as a double disaster, of governance and of communication.
In the disaster, Pope Benedict XVI found himself to be the one most exposed, and practically alone.
Both within and outside of the curia, many are blaming the pope for everything. In effect, it was his decision to offer the Lefebvrist bishops a gesture of benevolence. The lifting of excommunication followed other previous gestures of openness, also decided personally by the pope, the last of which was the motu proprio "Summorum Pontificum," dated July 7, 2007, with the liberalization of the ancient rite of the Mass.
As he had done before, this time as well Benedict XVI did not demand in advance anything from the Lefebvrists in return. So far, all of his acts of openness have been unilateral. The pope's critics have seized upon this in order to accuse him of naivety, or appeasement, or even of wanting to take the Church back to before Vatican Council II.
In reality, Benedict XVI has explained his intention absolutely clearly, in one of the key addresses of his pontificate, the one delivered to the Roman curia on December 22, 2005. In that speech, pope Ratzinger maintained that Vatican II did not mark any rupture with the Church's tradition, but in fact it was in continuity with tradition even where it seemed to mark a clear break with the past, for example when it recognized religious freedom as an inalienable right of every person.
In that speech, Benedict XVI was speaking to the entire Catholic universe. But at the same time, he was also addressing the Lefebvrists, to whom he pointed out the direct route for healing the schism and returning to unity with the Church on the points that they oppose most vigorously: not only religious freedom, but also the liturgy, ecumenism, relations with Judaism and the other religions.
On all of these points, after Vatican Council II the Lefebvrists had gradually separated from the Catholic Church. In 1975, the Priestly Fraternity of St. Pius X - their organizational structure - did not obey an order to disband, and formed a parallel Church, with its own bishops, priests, seminaries. In 1976, its founder, Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, was suspended "a divinis." In 1988, the excommunication of Lefebvre and of four new bishops he had ordained without papal authorization - who were in turn suspended "a divinis" - was the culminating action of a schism that had been underway for years.
The lifting of this excommunication therefore did not by any means heal the schism between Rome and the Lefebvrists, just as the lifting of the excommunications between Rome and patriarchate of Constantinople - agreed on December 7, 1965, by Paul VI and Athenagoras - did not by any means mark a return to unity between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Churches of the East. In both cases, the dropping of the excommunication was intended to be simply a first step toward reversing the schism, which remains.
Confirming this is a note from the pontifical council for legislative texts, issued on August 24, 1996. It says that the excommunication issued in 1988 against the Lefebvrist bishops "constituted the consummation of a gradual, overall situation of a schismatic tendency," and that "until there are changes leading to the reestablishment of the necessary 'communio hierarchica', all of the Lefebvrist movement is to be viewed as schismatic."
This was the state of affairs surrounding Benedict XVI's decision to lift the excommunication of the four Lefebvrist bishops.
But little or nothing of this was stated in the decree issued on January 24 by the Holy See.
In the "vulgata" diffused by the media, with this decree the Church of Rome was simply clasping the Lefebvrists to its bosom.
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Then, to make the misunderstanding worse, there came the uproar over an interview with one of the four bishops granted clemency, Richard Williamson of England, in which he supported ideas denying the Holocaust.
The interview was recorded by a Swedish television station on November 1, 2008, but it was broadcast on January 21 - the same day on which, at the Vatican, the decree was signed revoking the excommunication of Williamson, and of the three other Lefebvrist bishops.
In the media all over the world, the news read as follows: the pope clears a Holocaust denier bishop from excommunication, and welcomes him into the Church.
The tempest that erupted was tremendous. The protests from the Jewish world - but not only from this - were too many to be counted. The Vatican went scrambling for cover, with statements and articles in "L'Osservatore Romano." The controversy calmed down only after Benedict XVI intervened in person, with two clarifications read at the end of the general audience on Wednesday, January 28: one about the Lefebvrists and their duty of "recognition of the magisterium and authority of the pope and of Vatican Council II," and the other about the Holocaust.
The question comes naturally: was all of this really inevitable, once the pope had decided to lift the excommunication of the Lefebvrist bishops? Or was the disaster produced by the errors and omissions of the men who are supposed to implement the pope's decisions? The facts point to the second hypothesis.
The decree revoking the excommunication bears the signature of Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, prefect of the congregation for bishops. Another cardinal, Darío Castrillón Hoyos, is the president of the pontifical commission "Ecclesia Dei," which, ever since its creation in 1988, has dealt with the followers of Lefebvre. Both of these cardinals have said that they were taken by surprise, after the fact, by the interview with Bishop Williamson, and that they were never aware that he was a Holocaust denier.
But wasn't it the primary responsibility of these two cardinals to carry out an in-depth examination of Williamson's personal profile, and of the three other bishops? The fact that they did not do so seems inexcusable. Such an examination wasn't even difficult. Williamson has never concealed his distaste for Judaism. He has publicly defended the authenticity of the "Protocols of the Elders of Zion." In 1989, in Canada, he risked being taken to court for praising the books written by Holocaust denier Ernst Zundel. After September 11, 2001, he supported conspiracy theories to explain the collapse of the Twin Towers. Just a click on Google would have turned up all of this background material.
Another serious lapse concerned the pontifical council for the promotion of Christian unity. Reversing the schism with the Lefebvrists is logically part of its competencies, which also include relations between the Church and Judaism. But the cardinal who heads the council, Walter Kasper, says that he was kept out of the deliberations: this is all the more surprising in that the issuing of the decree lifting the excommunication took place during the annual week of prayer for Christian unity, and a few days before International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
That's not all.The media release of the decision also seems to have been entirely negligent. The Vatican press office limited itself, on Saturday, January 24, to distributing the text of the decree, in spite of the fact that the news had already leaked out a few days earlier, and a fiery controversy was already growing around the statements denying the Holocaust made by Williamson.
There is an illuminating comparison to be made. The previous day, on January 23, the same press office had organized, with great pomp, the launching of the Vatican channel on YouTube. And a few days later, on January 29, it announced, again with a great deployment of persons and resources, an international conference on Galileo Galilei, scheduled for the end of May. In each case, the objective was to transmit the authentic meaning of the initiative to the media.
But nothing of the sort was done for the decree concerning the Lefebvrist bishops. And yet all of the elements necessary for an appropriate announcement were there. Even the timing was right. The week of prayer for Christian unity was underway; Holocaust remembrance day was just around the corner; in Italy just a few days earlier, on January 17, there had been the day for dialogue between Catholics and Jews. Cardinal Kasper, the leading curia official in both areas, would have been the ideal person to present the decree, situate it within the persistent situation of schism, explain the purpose of lifting the excommunication, and summarize the points on which the Lefebvrists were being asked to reconsider their positions, from full acceptance of Vatican Council II to the overcoming of their anti-Judaism. As for Williamson, it would not have been difficult to clearly delineate his situation: if he were to remain firm on his aberrant ideas denying the Holocaust, he would exclude himself from the pope's gesture of "mercy."
And yet, if nothing of this was done, it was not the fault of the Vatican press office and its director, Jesuit Fr. Federico Lombardi, but of the offices of the curia from which they receive their orders.
These offices of the curia converge in the secretariat of state.
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Since Paul VI on, the secretariat of state has been the apex and the engine of the curia machine. It has direct access to the pope, and governs the implementation of every one of his decisions. It entrusts this to the competent offices, and coordinates their work.
So then, throughout the entire affair of the lifting of the excommunications for the Lefebvrist bishops, the secretary of state, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, despite his highly active and outspoken nature, distinguished himself by his absence.
His first public comment on the question came on January 28, during a conference in Rome at which he was speaking.
But more than words, what were lacking from him were actions equal to the gravity of the situation. Before, during, and after the issuing of the decree.
Benedict XVI was left practically alone, and the curia was abandoned to disorder.
The fact that Benedict XVI has given up on reforming the curia is now before the eyes of all. But it is conjectured that he compensated for this non-decision by entrusting the leadership of the offices to a tough, dynamic secretary of state, Bertone.
Now this conjecture has also been shown to be lacking. With Bertone, the curia seems even more disorganized than before, perhaps in part because he has never completely dedicated himself to fixing its problems. Bertone does most of his work not inside the walls of the Vatican, but on the outside, in an endless round of conferences, celebrations, inaugurations. His visits abroad are as frequents and as packed with meetings and speeches as those of a John Paul II in vigorous health: he was in Mexico from January 15-19, and is now visiting Spain. As a result, all of the work that the offices of the secretariat of state dedicate to his external activities leaves that much less work available for the pope. Or sometimes, it is a wasted double effort: for example, when Bertone gives a speech on the same topic and to the same audience to which the pope will speak a short time later, with journalists on the lookout for differences between the two.
Bertone's personal devotion to Benedict XVI is beyond all doubt. Not so that of the other curia officials, who continue to have free rein. It is possible that some of them deliberately oppose this pontificate. It is certain that most of them simply do not understand it, do not measure up to it.