LONDON, JAN. 27, 2009 (Zenit.org).- Here is an explanation prepared by the episcopal conference of England and Wales on the lifting of the excommunication of four bishops of the Society of St. Pius X.
A statement released by the conference said the bishops are in harmony with Benedict XVI’s decision, and expressed their “hope that this act will consolidate reciprocal relations of trust and to intensify and stabilize the relations” between the society and the Holy See.
* * *
Q: Why were the Society of St. Pius X bishops excommunicated?
A: Canon 1013 of the 1983 Code of Canon Law provides that no bishop may consecrate anyone as bishop unless it is first established that a pontifical mandate has been issued. Canon 1382 goes on to provide that where a bishop consecrates a bishop without a pontifical mandate both the consecrating bishop and the bishop who receives consecration incur a “latae sententiae” excommunication. A “latae sententiae” penalty is one that is incurred automatically as soon as one commits an offence, without the need for any process to impose it. As there is no need for a process, an ecclesiastical authority will sometimes declare the penalty, which means that a formal declaration is issued stating that this penalty has taken effect.
When Archbishop Lefebvre consecrated these four as bishops on June 30, 1988, he did so without a pontifical mandate. Therefore, by the very act of carrying out this consecration, both Archbishop Lefebvre and the four bishops being consecrated incurred an automatic excommunication. On July 1, 1988, the prefect of the Congregation for Bishops declared the penalty to have taken effect.
Q: What was their status when they were excommunicated?
A: The fact that this consecration was prohibited by the law of the Church and that the penalty of excommunication applied does not affect the sacramental validity of the consecration. Therefore, they were and are validly ordained bishops. Excommunication is a censure which, it is hoped, leads to the rehabilitation of the offender. The effects of it, according to Canon 1331 are to forbid a person to have any ministerial part in the Eucharist or other ceremonies of public worship, to celebrate the sacraments or sacramentals or to receive the sacraments or to exercise any ecclesiastical offices, ministries, functions or acts of governance.
Q: What does the lifting of the excommunication mean?
A: Censures can be remitted as their purpose is to bring about contrition. In fact, according to Canon 1358, when the contempt has been purged, remission of the censure cannot be refused. The Holy Father has taken the view that Bishop Fellay’s letter of Dec. 15, 2008, to Cardinal Castrillón Hoyos shows a suitable commitment to reach a resolution of the original problem. He also considered that this would improve relations with the Society of St. Pius X and consolidate reciprocal trust. The lifting of the excommunications has not restored full communion with the Society of St. Pius X, but it is a first step that it is hoped will lead to a restoration of full communion by the whole Society of St. Pius X.
Q: Does this lift the suspension on them practicing as bishops or priests in full communion?
A: As full communion has not yet been restored, it follows that members of the Society of St. Pius X who are priests or bishops cannot exercise their ministry as priests or bishops in full communion. Part of the dialogue between the Holy See and the Society of St. Pius X will include looking at how its bishops and priests could exercise their ministry in the Catholic Church were that hope to be realized.
Q: Has the Pope’s action changed the relationship between the Catholic Church and the Society of St. Pius X?
A: From the point of view of full communion, the relationship has not changed. Furthermore, the Catholic Church has as a very important goal the restoration of full communion with all Christians and this has not changed either. The lifting of the excommunications is an important step of furthering that goal with regard to the Society of St. Pius X.
Q: What are the next steps in the process?
A: The decree from the Congregation for Bishops lifting the excommunications refers to the Holy Father’s trust in the commitment of the Society of St. Pius X to spare no efforts in examining the outstanding questions in its discussions with the Holy See. The next step is continuing dialogue with a view to deepening the relations between the Catholic Church and the Society of St. Pius X, in the hope that there can be a return to full communion. How that dialogue unfolds is a matter for the Holy See and the authorities of the Society of St. Pius X.
The complete text of the decree (Jan. 21, 2009) is given below:
“In a letter of Dec. 15, 2008, addressed to Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyos, president of the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei, Bishop Bernard Fellay once again requested — also in the name of the other three bishops consecrated on 30 June 1988 — the removal of the excommunication ‘latae sententiae’ formally pronounced by a decree of the prefect of this Congregation for Bishops on July 1, 1988. In that letter Bishop Fellay affirmed, among other things, that ‘we continue firmly resolute in our desire to remain Catholics and to put all our strength at the service of the Church of Our Lord Jesus Christ, which is the Roman Catholic Church. We accept her teachings in a filial spirit. We firmly believe in the Primacy of Peter and in its prerogatives, and for this reason the current situation causes us much suffering.’
“His Holiness Benedict XVI — in his paternal compassion for the spiritual discomfort expressed by the parties concerned, because of the excommunication, and trusting in the commitment they expressed in the aforesaid letter to spare no efforts in examining outstanding questions through the requisite discussions with the authorities of the Holy See in order to reach a prompt, full and satisfactory solution to the original problem — has decided to reconsider the canonical position of Bishops Bernard Fellay, Bernard Tissier de Mallerais, Richard Williamson and Alfonso de Galarreta, which arose following their episcopal consecration.
“With this act it is hoped to consolidate reciprocal relations of trust, and to intensify and stabilize the relations of the Fraternity of St. Pius X with this Holy See. This gift of peace, coming at the end of the Christmas celebrations, also wishes to be a sign to promote the universal Church’s unity in charity, and to remove the scandal of division.
“It is hoped that this step will be followed by the prompt attainment of full communion with the Church by the entire Fraternity of St. Pius X, thus demonstrating true faithfulness and true recognition of the magisterium and authority of Pope with the sign of visible unity.
“On the basis of the powers expressly granted to me by the Holy Father Benedict XVI, and by virtue of this decree, I remit the sentence of excommunication ‘latae sententiae’ declared by this congregation on July 1, 1988, against Bishops Bernard Fellay, Bernard Tissier de Mallerais, Richard Williamson and Alfonso de Galarreta. At the same time I declare that, as of today’s date, the decree then issued is devoid of juridical effect.”