WASHINGTON, D.C., FEB. 3, 2009 (Zenit.org).- If Lefebvrite bishops are to exercise ministry in the Catholic Church, they must meet the expectation set upon any bishop: assenting to the teachings of the Church, including Vatican II.
This affirmation is sounding from various parts of the world as Catholic bishops respond to the Jan. 21 papal decision to remove the penalty of excommunication from four bishops of the Society of St. Pius X, including the society’s superior-general.
The foursome had incurred excommunication because they were ordained to the episcopacy without papal approval by the founder of the Society of St. Pius X, Marcel Lefebvre.
One of the prelates involved, Bishop Richard Williamson, has caused scandal as well as a series of clarifications — including from the Pope — because he claimed in an interview that 6 million Jews were not gassed during the Holocaust. The interview, filmed in November, happened to air shortly before the lifting of the excommunication was made public.
The president of the U.S. episcopal conference, Chicago’s Cardinal Francis George, called the Holy Father’s gesture to lift the excommunications “an act of mercy and personal concern for the ordained and lay members of this Society” — an analysis coinciding with Benedict XVI’s own explanation that the decision aimed to heal a rift in Church unity.
Cardinal George added: “The Holy Father’s lifting of the excommunications is but a first step toward receiving these four bishops, and the priests who serve under them, back into full communion with the Catholic Church. If these bishops are to exercise their ministry as true teachers and pastors of the Catholic Church, they, like all Catholic bishops, will have to give their assent to all that the Church professes, including the teachings of the Second Vatican Council.”
The cardinal called Bishop Williamson’s comments “deeply offensive and utterly false,” and said they have “evoked understandable outrage from within the Jewish community and also from among our own Catholic people.”
“No Catholic,” he said, “whether layperson, priest or bishop can ever negate the memory of the Shoah, just as no Catholic should ever tolerate expressions of anti-Semitism and religious bigotry.”
Cardinal George’s brother bishops from the north responded to questions from the faithful regarding the Lefebvrite’s comments.
With five points, the Canadian bishops highlighted that their episcopal conference joins with the Holy Father in decrying the Holocaust, and with the Holy See in rejecting the comments made by Bishop Williamson.
They also clarified: “It is only the declared excommunication of the four bishops who are members of the Society of St. Pius X, including Bishop Williamson, that has been lifted for the offense of their having received episcopal ordination without pontifical mandate. The lifting of the excommunication does not affect penalties for other offenses.
“The decree […] does not allow Bishop Williamson or the other bishops to exercise sacred ministry licitly or to exercise any office or act of governance in the Catholic Church. It simply opens the possibility of restoring them to full communion with the Catholic Church.”
Germany and Switzerland
Meanwhile in Europe, bishops from the site of the Shoah were particularly forthcoming in their criticism of Bishop Williamson’s comments. They invited the four Lefebvrists to publicly declare their acceptance of Vatican II, and particularly the declaration “Nostra Aetate,” which deals with the Church’s relationship with the Jews and other non-Christians.
They affirmed their support for Benedict XVI’s search for Church unity.
And, they expressed their “most decided” opposition to Bishop Williamson’s negation of the Holocaust, noting that German civil authorities are already investigating the case, given that the denial of the Holocaust in Germany is a criminal offense.
The archbishop of Freiburg and president of the German episcopal conference, Bishop Robert Zollitsch, affirmed: “In the Catholic Church there is room neither for anti-Semitism nor for the negation of the Holocaust.”
In Switzerland, where Lefebvre established the formation center for the Society of St. Pius X, the bishops clarified that the four Lefebvrite bishops continue under suspension, even with the removal of their excommunication.
“It is necessary,” they wrote, “to avoid misunderstandings: In the doctrine of the Church, the lifting of the excommunication is not reconciliation nor rehabilitation, but rather the opening of the path toward reconciliation. This act is not an arrival point, but rather a departure point for necessary dialogue about the reasons for the dissent.”