Some people think that being pope means "never having to say you're sorry," or "never having to say you made a mistake," or even "never having to explain." Pope Benedict XVI has displayed refreshing candor in admitting mistakes, apologizing and explaining.
Most recently, he wrote a letter to all the bishops in the world to explain the lifting of the excommunication of the four bishops of the Society of St. Pius X who were illegitimately ordained by Archbishop Lefebvre in 1988. He acknowledges that his decision "caused, both within and beyond the Catholic Church, a discussion more heated than any we have seen for a long time." Even "many bishops felt perplexed" by the decision, he wrote.
He acknowledges that the lifting of the excommunication of Bishop Richard Williamson appeared as "as the repudiation of reconciliation between Christians and Jews, and thus as the reversal of what the [Second Vatican] Council had laid down in this regard to guide the Church's path." This was not his intention.
At the time he lifted the excommunication, the pope did not know that Williamson was a Shoah denier. He acknowledges that "this unforeseen mishap" could have been prevented if his staff had consulted sources easily available on the Internet. "I have learned the lesson that in the future in the Holy See we will have to pay greater attention to that source of news."
The pope was clearly unhappy with the work done by the Pontifical Commission "Ecclesia Dei," which has been the lead Vatican agency for dealing with the schismatic Society of St. Pius X. They were the ones who did not warn him of possible problems. They did not do their homework.
As a result, the pope clipped the commission's wings and put it under the control of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith where Cardinal William Levada, an American, will supervise its work and "ensure the involvement of the prefects of the different Roman congregations and representatives from the world's bishops in the process of decision-making." This demotion and reining in of the "Ecclesia Dei" commission will please many bishops who have long considered it a loose canon staffed by arch-conservatives in the Vatican curia.
"Another mistake," acknowledged by the pope, "which I deeply regret," was that the lifting of the excommunication was "not clearly and adequately explained at the moment of its publication." He attempts to explain that an excommunication is a punishment aimed at "calling those thus punished to repent and to return to unity." After 20 years, that has obviously failed, so he was willing to try something else after the bishops "had expressed their recognition in principle of the Pope and his authority as Pastor, albeit with some reservations in the area of obedience to his doctrinal authority and to the authority of the council." He then explains that excommunication has to do with ecclesiastical discipline not doctrine, and that it applies to individuals not institutions.
Whether anyone except canon lawyers can understand these legitimate but technical distinctions is an open question. But the bottom line is clear: "until the doctrinal questions are clarified, the Society has no canonical status in the Church, and its ministers - even though they have been freed of the ecclesiastical penalty - do not legitimately exercise any ministry in the Church." Such as clear statement could have avoided false headlines using words like "welcomes back," "embraces," "rehabilitates," etc.
In explaining the lifting of the excommunication, I have compared it to a "ceasefire." A ceasefire is not a peace treaty, even less an alliance. It allows for negotiations, it is not the end of negotiations. Whether these negotiations will succeed, is uncertain.
While admitting that the staffing and communication of the decision was flawed, the pope defends the decision itself. "Can we be totally indifferent about a community which has 491 priests, 215 seminarians, 6 seminaries, 88 schools, 2 university-level institutes, 117 religious brothers, 164 religious sisters and thousands of lay faithful? Should we casually let them drift farther from the Church?" "Can we simply exclude them, as representatives of a radical fringe, from our pursuit of reconciliation and unity? What would then become of them?" "Was it, and is it, truly wrong in this case to meet half-way the brother who 'has something against you' (cf. Mt 5:23ff.) and to seek reconciliation?"
I agree with the pope's analysis of the Williamson crisis. The decision making process was flawed and the roll out of the decision was a disaster. As I said earlier, lifting the excommunication was a prudential decision which the pope had every right to make and it did not mean an endorsement of the views of Williamson or of the Society of St. Pius X.
The one criticism that the pope does not answer in his letter is from those who feel he reaches out to dissenters on the right but not on the left. Could we take the same conciliatory language and apply it to those who reject the church's teaching on birth control, married clergy and women priests? Can there be another commission whose responsibility is to reach out and negotiate with these factions in the church? "Can we simply exclude them, as representatives of a radical fringe, from our pursuit of reconciliation and unity?"
What is encouraging is that the pope acknowledges to his critics that "Of course there are more important and urgent matters" facing the church than the Society of St. Pius X. "In our days, when in vast areas of the world the faith is in danger of dying out like a flame which no longer has fuel, the overriding priority is to make God present in this world and to show men and women the way to God. Not just any god, but the God who spoke on Sinai; to that God whose face we recognize in a love which presses 'to the end' (cf. Jn 13:1) - in Jesus Christ, crucified and risen. The real problem at this moment of our history is that God is disappearing from the human horizon, and, with the dimming of the light which comes from God, humanity is losing its bearings, with increasingly evident destructive effects."
A consequence of this, the pope writes, is the need for unity of all Christians, with which the pope is especially charged as the successor of Peter. "Added to this is the need for all those who believe in God to join in seeking peace, to attempt to draw closer to one another, and to journey together, even with their differing images of God, towards the source of Light - this is interreligious dialogue."
These have been priorities of the pope since the beginning of his papacy. Hopefully, the Vatican has learned from this crisis that different views need to be part of the decision making process and a communication's strategy has to be part of every decision. Otherwise the real priorities of the pope will continue to be buried in bad headlines.