His Excellency John Vlazny of Portland, Oregon, has made comments about the lifting of the excommunications of the four SSPX bishops.
Let’s have a look with my emphases and comments.
All in the family
By Archbishop John Vlazny
The first two weekends of Lent here in the Archdiocese of Portland each year draw our attention to growth in the family of believers. [a good way to start] Bishop Steiner and I travel around the archdiocese to celebrate what we describe as the Rite of Election. The catechumens who are preparing for Baptism become our elect, those chosen for the Easter sacraments. Those already baptized in other Christian families are welcomed as candidates for continuing conversion on the road to receiving Confirmation and Eucharist with the catechumens at the Easter Vigil. If nothing else happens, at least the elect and candidates are much more mindful of the fact that the Catholic family is much larger than the parish venue with which they have become familiar thus far in the process of initiation.
Church membership is a privilege and a gift, not an accomplishment or entitlement. No one is perfect. We all sin. From time to time we need to seek healing and forgiveness through the sacrament of Reconciliation. The season of Lent reminds all of us that our conversion to Christ is lifelong and ongoing, one that requires our attention, something we can never take for granted.
Church membership brings with it certain expectations in terms of our beliefs, values and behaviors. Serious sin, we know, excludes us from the full participation in the celebration of the Eucharist. We all learned as children that we must confess mortal sins before approaching the Lord in the sacrament of the Eucharist. We can also choose to walk away from the church, disassociate ourselves from the family’s activities, halt our support for its mission. But once baptized, always baptized. Even when you or I might choose to walk away from the church, the church can’t walk away from us, even though it might penalize us in some way.
A penalty we hear a lot about is excommunication. Excommunication was a word that was bantered about a lot during recent elections because of unseemly behavior on the part of some rather well known Catholic politicians. Should they be excommunicated for supporting abortion rights? If not excommunicated, does that mean they are still welcome at the table of the Lord?
The Catechism of the Catholic Church informs us, “Certain particularly grave sins incur excommunication, the most severe ecclesiastical penalty, which impedes the reception of the sacraments and the exercise of certain ecclesiastical acts, and for which absolution consequently cannot be granted, according to canon law, except by the Pope, the bishop of the place or priests authorized by them.” That’s tough talk.
When a person is excommunicated, he or she may no longer participate in the liturgy in any ministerial capacity and certainly is not allowed to receive the Eucharist or the other sacraments. He or she may be present for the celebration of Mass, [As a matter of fact, the excommunicate still is obliged to attend Mass on Sundays and Holy Days.] for example, because the excommunication is primarily intended to signal the gravity of the offense and lead the person to conversion from behaviors or statements which are seriously at odds with Catholic values and teachings. A person who has been excommunicated is still considered Christian and a Catholic because the seal of Baptism is indelible. Excommunications are sometimes automatic and at other times they must be declared in a more public way. However the excommunication takes place, it may be lifted by legitimate authority for a good reason.
As most of us are now aware, Pope Benedict XVI recently lifted the excommunication on four bishops of the St. Pius X Society who were ordained by Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre. This took place during Christian Unity Week in January, a gesture described by Pope Benedict XVI as “paternal.” It is the Holy Father’s hope that this will be the first step toward reconciliation with these bishops and their followers and their eventual restoration as full members of our Catholic family. But it is only a first step, a reaching out of one hand to another with the hope that beliefs and behaviors will be brought in line with those of our Catholic family.
Reaction to the Holy Father’s “paternal gesture” have been mixed, some quite hostile. Recently I received a letter from an irate couple in the archdiocese who expressed their great disappointment with the Holy Father in this regard and, as a result of this action and others, were strongly considering leaving the church as a protest to this “lack of moral leadership.” [Puhlese… there is more to such a threat than this event.] We also learned that Israel’s rabbinate severed ties with the Vatican as a protest to this decision of the Pope.
Why all this hostility? After news of the lifting of the excommunication was made public, it was learned that one of the four bishops, Richard Williamson, who resides in the United States, [Ummm… not for years. Is Argentina a type of "United States" also?] had publicly expressed serious doubts about the killing of six million Jews through the Holocaust. Lifting the excommunication was considered a grave violation of the mutual understanding that has grown between the Jewish and Catholic communities during respectful dialogue in recent years. The reaction here in Portland wasn’t so strong but many questions were raised by our Jewish friends.
Back on February 3, the President of our United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Cardinal Francis George, acknowledged publicly that Bishop Williamson’s denial of the Holocaust was “deeply offensive and utterly false.” The Pope’s gesture, he explained, was “an act of mercy and personal concern for the ordained and lay members” of the Priestly Society of St. Pius X.
Pope Benedict, like all pastors of the church, works and prays that one day all Christians will once again be one. Like his predecessor, Pope John Paul II, he is hopeful that the full communion with the Catholic Church of these bishops and their priests will be reestablished. Of course these bishops, like the rest of us, will have to give their assent to all that our church professes, including the teachings of the Second Vatican Council, which is a very neuralgic matter for them. [I would say!]
The outrage over the remarks of Bishop Williamson is certainly understandable. None of us can erase the memory of the Shoah. No Catholic may tolerate expressions of anti-Semitism and religious bigotry. In fact, subsequent to the lifting of the excommunications, the Holy Father himself has said, “May the Shoah show both old and new generations that only the arduous path of listening and dialogue, of love and forgiveness, can lead peoples, cultures and religions of the world to the longed-for goal of fraternity and peace, in truth. May violence never again humiliate man’s dignity.” Undoubtedly it is much easier to welcome the elect and the candidates to the Sacraments of Initiation this coming Easter than it will be to welcome back those who were separated by their denial of fundamental church teachings, like the four bishops of the St. Pius X Society and their followers. [You know… this is a pretty good point. However, what "fundamental church teaching" have the leadership of the SSPX denied? I can think of a lot of progressivists who] Lifting an excommunication is not a signal that they have returned home. But it opens the door to the possibility of their return.
In the parable of the prodigal son, Jesus tells us the father rushes out to greet his wayward son long before he reaches home. I see the Pope’s gesture somewhat akin to that one, even though the Pope has done no more than open the door. In no way has he rushed out to welcome these wayward bishops home. [Not a bad analogy. We should remember that the father stood watching, waiting for his son to return.] We Catholics pledge to continue doing our best to build bonds of trust and understanding with our elder brothers and sisters in faith, the Jewish people, God’s own people who uniquely journey with us on the road to salvation.
Pretty good, actually!