Unnerving, yes, but Pope seizes initiative to confront criticisms head-on

18 Mar 2009

By The Record

Papal letter on criticisms: Pointed, personal and from the heart.

John Thavis

VATICAN CITY (CNS) – In one fell swoop, Pope Benedict XVI has taken charge of the much-criticised realm of “Vatican communications” following his lifting of the excommunication of four traditionalist bishops, including one who denied the extent of the Holocaust.
The Pope’s letter to the world’s bishops, made public on March 12, was remarkable on many counts:
l First, he candidly admitted mistakes in the way he and other Vatican officials handled the reconciliation move with the bishops of the Society of St Pius X. Most specifically, he said they should have used the Internet to find out what millions of others already knew: that one of the four, Bishop Richard Williamson, was known for his radical views on the Holocaust.
l Second, the Pope revealed how deeply stung he was by the criticism of those who felt he was “turning back the clock” or repudiating Catholic-Jewish dialogue. His line about even some Catholics attacking him “with open hostility” showed that even in his supposed isolation as supreme pontiff this is a man who cares deeply about the reaction among the faithful.
l Third, he put the Pontifical Commission “Ecclesia Dei” on a shorter leash. By placing it under the control of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Pope effectively limited the commission’s ability to freelance agreements with traditionalist groups without proper attention to doctrinal differences.
l Fourth, he strongly defended his outreach to the Society of St Pius X to those in the Church who consider the group marginal and unimportant. He described his task as preserving unity so that witness to the Gospel is credible, and warned that divisions in the Church – the “biting and devouring” described by St Paul in the Church’s first century – are always counterproductive.
The 2,500-word papal letter was unusually pointed and direct, and showed Pope Benedict’s own skills as a communicator once he puts pen to paper. His acknowledgment of mistakes in communications and Vatican ignorance of the Internet was unprecedented.
“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,” he said.
Coincidentally, his letter came as the Pontifical Council for Social Communications was hosting a weeklong seminar on the Church and “new media,” with the idea that a new document may be needed to promote effective Church use of online opportunities.
To many observers, the realignment of the “Ecclesia Dei” commission was a sign of disapproval of how the commission’s president, Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyos, managed this phase of talks with the Society of St Pius X. Cardinal Castrillon, who turns 80 in July, will probably leave his post soon.
Vatican officials have pointed to Cardinal Castrillon as the man who should have briefed the Pope more fully on Bishop Williamson ahead of time. But the Pope’s dissatisfaction may run deeper than that.
Since the excommunications were lifted, the society’s superior, Bishop Bernard Fellay, has insisted that his organisation is far from ready to accept some teachings of the Second Vatican Council. In fact, Bishop Fellay has suggested that removal of the excommunications merely sets the stage for the real battle over Vatican II – a battle the Pope has no interest in fighting.
All this hints that perhaps the Pope was not fully prepared for the society’s inflexibility on some of these points.
Placing “Ecclesia Dei” under the doctrinal congregation also ensures that other Vatican agencies will be consulted on such reconciliation moves in the future, the Pope said in his letter. That answered a specific complaint from Cardinal Walter Kasper, who coordinates dialogue with the Jews and who said his agency was never consulted on the latest concessions to the Society of St Pius X.
The Pope’s message to the wider Catholic world was just as direct and just as heartfelt. He said his overture to the traditionalists had a strategic purpose, that of building Church unity in an age when the world seems to be rejecting the Christian message.
In three or four sentences, he summed up what he views as the challenges and the primary objectives of his pontificate:
“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,” he said.
As God disappears from the human horizon, he said, 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,” he said.
The Pope’s plea was for mainstream Catholics to see outreach to the traditionalists not as a step backward but as an attempt to incorporate the adherents of extremism in a way that helps break down their rigidity and releases their “positive energies.”
The Pope said the Church should “allow herself to be generous” and “be capable of overlooking various faults and making every effort to open up broader vistas” in order to promote this unity. Those are words that will likely be quoted in the future, and not only by Catholic traditionalists.