Pope’s letter regarding Pius X Society

18 Mar 2009

By The Record

Here is the letter written by Benedict XVI concerning the remission
of the excommunication of the four bishops of the Society of St Pius X
that were ordained by Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre in 1988.


French Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre


Dear Brothers in the Episcopal Ministry.

remission of the excommunication of the four Bishops consecrated in
1988 by Archbishop Lefebvre without a mandate of the Holy See has for
many reasons caused, both within and beyond the Catholic Church, a
discussion more heated than any we have seen for a long time. Many
Bishops felt perplexed by an event which came about unexpectedly and
was difficult to view positively in the light of the issues and tasks
facing the Church today. Even though many Bishops and members of the
faithful were disposed in principle to take a positive view of the
Pope’s concern for reconciliation, the question remained whether such a
gesture was fitting in view of the genuinely urgent demands of the life
of faith in our time. Some groups, on the other hand, openly accused
the Pope of wanting to turn back the clock to before the Council: as a
result, an avalanche of protests was unleashed, whose bitterness laid
bare wounds deeper than those of the present moment. I therefore feel
obliged to offer you, dear Brothers, a word of clarification, which
ought to help you understand the concerns which led me and the
competent offices of the Holy See to take this step. In this way I hope
to contribute to peace in the Church.

An unforeseen mishap for
me was the fact that the Williamson case came on top of the remission
of the excommunication. The discreet gesture of mercy towards four
Bishops ordained validly but not legitimately suddenly appeared as
something completely different: as the repudiation of reconciliation
between Christians and Jews, and thus as the reversal of what the
Council had laid down in this regard to guide the Church’s path. A
gesture of reconciliation with an ecclesial group engaged in a process
of separation thus turned into its very antithesis: an apparent step
backwards with regard to all the steps of reconciliation between
Christians and Jews taken since the Council — steps which my own work
as a theologian had sought from the beginning to take part in and
support. That this overlapping of two opposed processes took place and
momentarily upset peace between Christians and Jews, as well as peace
within the Church, is something which I can only deeply deplore. I have
been told that consulting the information available on the internet
would have made it possible to perceive the problem early on. 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. I was saddened by the
fact that even Catholics who, after all, might have had a better
knowledge of the situation, thought they had to attack me with open
hostility. Precisely for this reason I thank all the more our Jewish
friends, who quickly helped to clear up the misunderstanding and to
restore the atmosphere of friendship and trust which — as in the days
of Pope John Paul II — has also existed throughout my pontificate and,
thank God, continues to exist.

Another mistake, which I deeply
regret, is the fact that the extent and limits of the provision of 21
January 2009 were not clearly and adequately explained at the moment of
its publication. The excommunication affects individuals, not
institutions. An episcopal ordination lacking a pontifical mandate
raises the danger of a schism, since it jeopardizes the unity of the
College of Bishops with the Pope. Consequently the Church must react by
employing her most severe punishment — excommunication — with the aim
of calling those thus punished to repent and to return to unity. Twenty
years after the ordinations, this goal has sadly not yet been attained.
The remission of the excommunication has the same aim as that of the
punishment: namely, to invite the four Bishops once more to return.
This gesture was possible once the interested parties 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. Here I return to the
distinction between individuals and institutions. The remission of the
excommunication was a measure taken in the field of ecclesiastical
discipline: the individuals were freed from the burden of conscience
constituted by the most serious of ecclesiastical penalties. This
disciplinary level needs to be distinguished from the doctrinal level.
The fact that the Society of Saint Pius X does not possess a canonical
status in the Church is not, in the end, based on disciplinary but on
doctrinal reasons. As long as the Society does not have a canonical
status in the Church, its ministers do not exercise legitimate
ministries in the Church. There needs to be a distinction, then,
between the disciplinary level, which deals with individuals as such,
and the doctrinal level, at which ministry and institution are
involved. In order to make this clear once again: 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.

In light of this situation, it is my intention
henceforth to join the Pontifical Commission "Ecclesia Dei" — the body
which has been competent since 1988 for those communities and persons
who, coming from the Society of Saint Pius X or from similar groups,
wish to return to full communion with the Pope — to the Congregation
for the Doctrine of the Faith. This will make it clear that the
problems now to be addressed are essentially doctrinal in nature and
concern primarily the acceptance of the Second Vatican Council and the
post-conciliar magisterium of the Popes. The collegial bodies with
which the Congregation studies questions which arise (especially the
ordinary Wednesday meeting of Cardinals and the annual or biennial
Plenary Session) ensure the involvement of the Prefects of the
different Roman Congregations and representatives from the world’s
Bishops in the process of decision-making. The Church’s teaching
authority cannot be frozen in the year 1962 — this must be quite clear
to the Society. But some of those who put themselves forward as great
defenders of the Council also need to be reminded that Vatican II
embraces the entire doctrinal history of the Church. Anyone who wishes
to be obedient to the Council has to accept the faith professed over
the centuries, and cannot sever the roots from which the tree draws its

I hope, dear Brothers, that this serves to clarify the
positive significance and also the limits of the provision of 21
January 2009. But the question still remains: Was this measure needed?
Was it really a priority? Aren’t other things perhaps more important?
Of course there are more important and urgent matters. I believe that I
set forth clearly the priorities of my pontificate in the addresses
which I gave at its beginning. Everything that I said then continues
unchanged as my plan of action. The first priority for the Successor of
Peter was laid down by the Lord in the Upper Room in the clearest of
terms: "You… strengthen your brothers" (Lk 22:32). Peter himself
formulated this priority anew in his first Letter: "Always be prepared
to make a defence to anyone who calls you to account for the hope that
is in you" (1 Pet 3:15). 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.

Leading men and women
to God, to the God who speaks in the Bible: this is the supreme and
fundamental priority of the Church and of the Successor of Peter at the
present time. A logical consequence of this is that we must have at
heart the unity of all believers. Their disunity, their disagreement
among themselves, calls into question the credibility of their talk of
God. Hence the effort to promote a common witness by Christians to
their faith — ecumenism — is part of the supreme priority. 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. Whoever proclaims that God
is Love "to the end" has to bear witness to love: in loving devotion to
the suffering, in the rejection of hatred and enmity — this is the
social dimension of the Christian faith, of which I spoke in the
Encyclical Deus Caritas Est.

So if the arduous task of working
for faith, hope and love in the world is presently (and, in various
ways, always) the Church’s real priority, then part of this is also
made up of acts of reconciliation, small and not so small. That the
quiet gesture of extending a hand gave rise to a huge uproar, and thus
became exactly the opposite of a gesture of reconciliation, is a fact
which we must accept. But I ask now: 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? Should not civil society
also try to forestall forms of extremism and to incorporate their
eventual adherents — to the extent possible — in the great currents
shaping social life, and thus avoid their being segregated, with all
its consequences? Can it be completely mistaken to work to break down
obstinacy and narrowness, and to make space for what is positive and
retrievable for the whole? I myself saw, in the years after 1988, how
the return of communities which had been separated from Rome changed
their interior attitudes; I saw how returning to the bigger and broader
Church enabled them to move beyond one-sided positions and broke down
rigidity so that positive energies could emerge for the whole. 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? I
think for example of the 491 priests. We cannot know how mixed their
motives may be. All the same, I do not think that they would have
chosen the priesthood if, alongside various distorted and unhealthy
elements, they did not have a love for Christ and a desire to proclaim
him and, with him, the living God. Can we simply exclude them, as
representatives of a radical fringe, from our pursuit of reconciliation
and unity? What would then become of them?

Certainly, for some
time now, and once again on this specific occasion, we have heard from
some representatives of that community many unpleasant things —
arrogance and presumptuousness, an obsession with one-sided positions,
etc. Yet to tell the truth, I must add that I have also received a
number of touching testimonials of gratitude which clearly showed an
openness of heart. But should not the great Church also allow herself
to be generous in the knowledge of her great breadth, in the knowledge
of the promise made to her? Should not we, as good educators, also be
capable of overlooking various faults and making every effort to open
up broader vistas? And should we not admit that some unpleasant things
have also emerged in Church circles? At times one gets the impression
that our society needs to have at least one group to which no tolerance
may be shown; which one can easily attack and hate. And should someone
dare to approach them — in this case the Pope — he too loses any
right to tolerance; he too can be treated hatefully, without misgiving
or restraint.

Dear Brothers, during the days when I first had
the idea of writing this letter, by chance, during a visit to the Roman
Seminary, I had to interpret and comment on Galatians 5:13-15. I was
surprised at the directness with which that passage speaks to us about
the present moment: "Do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the
flesh, but through love be servants of one another. For the whole law
is fulfilled in one word: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself’.
But if you bite and devour one another, take heed that you are not
consumed by one another." I am always tempted to see these words as
another of the rhetorical excesses which we occasionally find in Saint
Paul. To some extent that may also be the case. But sad to say, this
"biting and devouring" also exists in the Church today, as expression
of a poorly understood freedom. Should we be surprised that we too are
no better than the Galatians? That at the very least we are threatened
by the same temptations? That we must always learn anew the proper use
of freedom? And that we must always learn anew the supreme priority,
which is love? The day I spoke about this at the Major Seminary, the
feast of Our Lady of Trust was being celebrated in Rome. And so it is:
Mary teaches us trust. She leads us to her Son, in whom all of us can
put our trust. He will be our guide — even in turbulent times. And so
I would like to offer heartfelt thanks to all the many Bishops who have
lately offered me touching tokens of trust and affection, and above all
assured me of their prayers. My thanks also go to all the faithful who
in these days have given me testimony of their constant fidelity to the
Successor of Saint Peter. May the Lord protect all of us and guide our
steps along the way of peace. This is the prayer that rises up
instinctively from my heart at the beginning of this Lent, a liturgical
season particularly suited to interior purification, one which invites
all of us to look with renewed hope to the light which awaits us at

With a special Apostolic Blessing, I remain

Yours in the Lord,


From the Vatican, 10 March 2009