By Genevieve Yep Pollock
LONDON, FEB. 26, 2009 (Zenit.org).- Lefebvrite Bishop Richard Williamson, formerly excommunicated member of the Society of St. Pius X, arrived back to his home nation of England on Wednesday after being asked to leave Argentina.
The British bishops’ conference issued a press release that day in which a spokesman clarified that “[Bishop Williamson] is not able to celebrate any sacraments in a Catholic Church, including Mass, nor is he able to preach.”
This statement echoed a clarification from the Vatican Secretariat of State earlier this month on the status of Bishop Williamson and his three fellow Lefebvrite bishops: “The very grave penalty of ‘latae sententiae’ excommunication, which these bishops incurred on 30 June 1988, and which was formally declared on 1 July 1988, was a consequence of their having been illegitimately ordained by Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre.
“The remission of the excommunication has freed the four bishops from a very serious canonical penalty, but it has not changed the juridical status of the Society of Saint Pius X, which presently does not enjoy any canonical recognition by the Catholic Church. The four bishops, even though they have been released from excommunication, have no canonical function in the Church and do not licitly exercise any ministry within it.”
The bishops had their 20-year excommunication lifted at the end of January, in the framework of Benedict XVI’s continuing efforts to heal the schism between the society and the Church.
Still, Bishop Williamson drew the attention of the media Wednesday morning when he arrived at London’s Heathrow airport from Argentina, the country that expelled him.
The Catholic bishops’ of his native country emphasized: “[Bishop Williamson] is a member of the Society of St. Pius X which is not in full communion with the Catholic Church. His episcopal ordination was illicit and is not recognized by the Catholic Church.”
Pete Vere, canon lawyer and author of several books on the Code of Canon Law, further explained to ZENIT the canonical status of Bishop Williamson and the other Lefebvrite bishops. He noted that the prelates’ ordination was illicit, but nonetheless valid. In other words, it is unlawful because it was against the wishes of the Pope, but effective.
The lawyer explained, “Bishop Williamson is not a Catholic bishop in that his episcopal consecration was carried out without papal mandate. […] However, the episcopal consecration was valid — that is, effective. So he is in fact a bishop with episcopal powers, meaning he can validly — but unlawfully — ordain, confirm, celebrate Mass, and validly — but unlawfully — perform any other episcopal function.”
The lifting of the excommunication, Vere affirmed, does not make the ordination lawful.
Still, the lawyer explained by way of example, priests having been ordained by Bishop Williamson, should they wish to be reconciled with the Church, do not need to be “re-ordained” first.
Public attention has focused its sights on only one of the four Society of St. Pius X bishops who had their excommunication lifted: Bishop Williamson. That is because at about the same time as the decree lifting the penalty was made public, the English prelate was seen on Swedish television making reductionist statements about the Jewish Holocaust.
This led to a series of accusations that the lifting of the excommunication was an affront to Jewish-Catholic relations, despite the Holy Father’s explanation that the move should be seen in the framework of the search for Church unity. The turmoil also led to repeated statements from Church officials, including the Pope, reiterating the Church’s respect for Jews.
The British prelates’ declaration from Wednesday reaffirmed those statements: “[T]he Catholic Church has condemned [Bishop Williamson’s] stated views on the Holocaust. Those views have no place in the Church and run contrary to Catholic teaching.”
Today, the bishop apologized for his statements, saying, “I can truthfully say that I regret having made such remarks, and that if I had known beforehand the full harm and hurt to which they would give rise, especially to the Church, but also to survivors and relatives of victims of injustice under the Third Reich, I would not have made them.”[Karna Swanson contributed to this report]