The author of the fine The Heresy of Formlessness, Martin Mosebach, has published in Der Spiegel an essay about the lifting of the excommunications of the SSPX Bishops.
Let’s see what Mosebach has to say with my emphases and comments.
The Body of the Church
Why the Pope Had to Do What He Did.
By Martin Mosebach
The Catholic Church is experiencing an unprecedented moment in her recent history. A sacerdotal act of the Pope – the removal of the excommunication of four bishops who had been consecrated contrary to the prohibition of his predecessor in the Petrine office – encounters an outraged lack of understanding not only of the non-Catholic public but also of many Catholics and even bishops, who have openly renounced their loyalty to the pope. Forty years after the Second Vatican Council, which attempted an “opening of the Church to the World”, the Catholic Church has been struck dumb – as if she does not recognize any more her own institutions.
What is a Catholic Bishop? Is he a senior administrative official of the Church? Is he a high-ranking politician, who can be subjected to party discipline? This is how non-Catholics (certainly contemporary ones) view the bishop, because they never have been told anything else. For Catholics, the bishop embodies the highest form of the priesthood, connected with the capacity to represent Jesus Christ himself in the giving of the Sacraments. He receives this capacity irrevocably upon his consecration and no pope or council can take it from him. That is the disturbing thing about the episcopal office: even the most unworthy and scandalous bishop always remains a bishop, capable until his last breath of adding new bishops to the line of apostolic succession.
What is excommunication? Exclusion from a political party? That’s how non-Catholics understand it – they like to call exclusion from the communist party “excommunication.” Catholics should know that a complete exclusion from their Church is absolutely impossible. For the Church, a baptized Christian cannot become an untouchable by any deed, however terrible it may be. If the Church, as the most extreme punishment, forbids a baptized Christian from confessing his sins, from receiving the Eucharistic Christ at Mass and from receiving the sacraments at death, she does so always in the hope of soon lifting the excommunication. Ultimately, no spiritual authority wants to accept the responsibility of letting a man die uncomforted. Strictly speaking, he who offends against the unity of the Church excommunicates himself. The cancellation of the excommunication cannot be denied him if he honestly desires to return to this unity.
The use of excommunication as a means of political pressure ( as it was often done in the Middle Ages) has been justly condemned. The Jewish philosopher Simone Weil called such excommunications a mortal sin of the Church. The fact that murderers and child molesters are not automatically excommunicated shows how little excommunication has to do with moral approval. The community that receives again an excommunicated person is a community of sinners. [Exactly. We have a Church not of the pure and for the pure alone, but of sinners and those who are in need of purification.]
These are likely to have been the principal considerations of Pope Benedict when he lifted the excommunication of the four bishops who had been consecrated in a manner sacramentally valid but contrary to canon law. For the pope, it must have been a tormenting thought that these bishops, in isolation, could have succumbed to the temptation to perpetuate the schism and consecrate additional bishops. The sacraments form the heart of the Church. The danger that they could be permanently dispensed while in breach of unity must have troubled the pope exceedingly. [Especially a Pope who in early years had been steeped in St. Augustine and St. Bonaventure.]
Now, in the meantime, the whole world has had the opportunity of hearing on television one of the four bishops, the Briton Williamson, utter the most revolting theses regarding the persecution of the Jews at the time of Hitler. Behind the seemingly dispassionate poker face of the prelate there was revealed a paranoia bordering on madness. This was linked, as had been long known in the Fraternity, to a complete, insane, system composed of similar “secret knowledge.” It is understandable that a general horror prevailed, on seeing that such a man might exercise his office as an official Bishop, reconciled with the pope.
Why, however, did the general public not notice that bishop Williamson specifically cannot exercise his office, because the lifting of the excommunication did not affect his suspension from the office of bishop. [Yes. All it means is that they are now no longer forbidden to receive those sacraments they can receive. It doesn’t mean they can dispense the sacraments in the name of the Church.] Instead, they indulged in conjectures as to whether the Pope after all had a secret inclination to anti-Semitism. This, regarding a Pope, who, leaving aside his addresses in Auschwitz and in the synagogue in Cologne, has tried in his theology – one could say, like no other pope since Peter – to read and understand the Gospel as the work of the Jews. It even extended as far as the laughable report that the pope had set the conditions for the lifting of the suspension of the bishops only under the pressure of public opinion.
No one should deceive himself: this pope does nothing under the pressure of public opinion. [Really? I think he made statements after the Regensburg Address and after this flap in reaction to public opinion. But he did NOT give the Regensburg Address of lift the excomm’s because of public pressure to do so. On the contrary!]
The question was posed whether Benedict XVI knew of Williamson’s speeches. To be sure, he can’t help but have noticed the spiritual atmosphere in the SSPX. [The Holy Father has been involved as long as anyone in the Church’s hierarchy in the reconciliation of this group. I think he must understand them very well. That is one of the reasons why I think he considered it necessary to move forward in this way.] Unreality and fanaticism resounded from the many attacks that the bishops of the Fraternity directed against Benedict. And it is very well possible that the knowledge of a growing pathological narrowing of the minds drove the pope to act. [Hmm… hard language. I tend to think of hardening of positions and the passage of time. Mosebach sees not just a hardening, but a deepening of a spirit contrary to the Roman Pontiff, etc. Could be. If anything, the subsequent actions of at least Bp. Fellay would perhaps somewhat ease one’s conscience in that regard.]
Twenty years ago, as Cardinal and prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, he had already labored with all his strength for a reconciliation with the SSPX. At the time their founder, the legendary Archbishop Lefebvre, still lived. He had participated in the Council and had only become an opponent when the “movement of ‘68” made inroads in the Church and made a revolution out of the reform. Lefebvre refused to give up the traditional, ancient mass rite and Paul VI responded by suspending him. [Lefebvre also ordained priests without permission back when.]
Cardinal Ratzinger attempted to win over the old man and promised that the pope would name a bishop faithful to tradition for the community. Then Lefebvre’s distrust was aroused – he felt he was being strung along. He broke off the negotiations and consecrated four bishops with whom he was excommunicated immediately thereafter. Had Lefebvre acted rightly by following his hunch? [We shall perhaps never know. Certainly many in the Curia would have tried to hose the SSPX in the context of that concordat. But they would have had defenders as well. God knows. We don’t.] Cardinal Ratzinger in any case must have been affected by the death of this man in the state of excommunication. [I have a story about that. One morning I was into the offices of the Pont. Comm. Ecclesia Dei quite early. I worked there. I was getting everything turned on and opened. The doorbell rang. I thought it was the secretary digging for her keys. I opened the door to find Card. Ratzinger. With a sad expression he told me he had received a call that Lefebvre had died and wanted to let us know as soon as possible. He himself had come in early. So, I got on the phone and let the Secretary and Cardinal know. I can attest from how he said it and his expression that Papa was not pleased at the news of L’s death.] For, unlike most bishops of this time, it was impossible for him to deny any justification to Lefebvre’s struggle. “Whomever these teachings do not please he does not deserve to be a man.” This hymn of liberalism from Mozart’s “Magic Flute” became the maxim of the Church that had become liberal. The SSPX was hermetically sealed off. [And many also hermeneutically sealed themselves off.] It was not permitted to participate in the discussions of a post-conciliar Church so enamored of discussion. [And that is something I sadly fault them for. They abandoned many of us still fighting and taking wounds in the trenches.] Its young priests celebrated in basements and garages. One could say that the Fraternity had circled the wagons but around these wagons yawned a void – nobody cared about that.
Every sociologist knows what quickly becomes of small oppositional groups cut off from interaction with reality. That this group was endangered would have been sufficient for a responsible priest to care for it. But more was at stake here: as misfortune would have it, exactly this group had made its mission the preservation of the greatest treasure of the Church. [Quite a phrase: "the greatest treasure of the Church". WDTPRSers know what that is!]
Even today it is a difficult undertaking to speak of the importance of the liturgy for the Church. [There it is.] Twenty years ago it was almost hopeless finding a sympathetic ear. It was a foregone conclusion for many clerics that the traditional, over 1500-year old liturgy of the Church was decorative mumbo-jumbo for the nostalgic and for aesthetes. [Today we hear talk of "elitism".] It had the same importance for “emancipated Christians” [not just emancipated… but evolved… superior… mature...] as the string quartets played on occasions of state have for politics. What had been true throughout the entire history of the Latin Church had been forgotten: that liturgy is the visible body of the Church; [GET THAT? "liturgy is the visible body of the Church"] that Church and liturgy are identical. It is the mystic depiction of the whole plenitude of revealed truths. [It is encounter with MYSTERY. Sound familiar? ] It is the locus of faith, where subjective conviction and feeling become objective contemplation and encounter. [YES!] It is this liturgy which carried the Christian faith through the centuries. The success of the mission in the entire world was owed to its sacrality in liturgical language and chant.
The liturgy had soared above the deep divides of European history because it was equally removed from every epoch into which it entered. It is always unseasonable and therefore always an image of the other reality which awaits man. This great form of the liturgy had been softened up by Paul VI’s radical reform of the mass – an intervention unheard of in the entire history of the Church. It splintered into a thousand improvisations. [And put the whole of Western Civilisation in peril. Save the Liturgy – Save the World. Change how we pray as a Church and you change the belief and identity of her members. Those members them behave differently in their own spheres, in the public square.]
But why was Archbishop Lefebvre the only bishop in the entire world who uncompromisingly rejected this attack against the liturgy and thus against the Church? With this no to a process of decomposition so highly dangerous to the Church, Lefebvre entered ecclesiastical history. [NB: Mosebach is not delving into the other issues of difficulty, more purely theological. But he doesn’t need to. The Church’s liturgy is more important in these sense, in theis examination.]What gave him the strength was the milieu, only found in France, of a Catholic laity which had acquired its world view in the struggle against aggressive republican secularism. This was the tragedy of Lefebvre and his movement: they rescued the ancient liturgy but linked it to the struggle of political parties in recent French history. [As the SSPX Williamson thing started to heat up, and journalists were calling me for background, I reminded them on the French dimension to this and past and contemporary political overtones.] The only refuge that the traditional liturgy had found threatened to become its prison. Pope Benedict had already freed it from this prison with his Motu Proprio and had given it back with its universal claim to the entire Church.
Must he not, however, have felt a sense obligation to the SSPX; that, for all its faults, it had become an instrument for preserving the Holy of Holies of the Church in a time of crisis? Whether the SSPX succeeds in finding a place in the multiplicity of the present day Church remains to be seen. Its historic mission, in any case, has been concluded. [Perhaps this is overstated. In the time after the Motu Proprio there has been progress, and it is accelerating. There is a long way to go.]
In the last few days it could be heard again and again that the Vatican is incapable of conveying its concerns to the public. It is certainly true that there would have been less excitement among those of good will if, for instance, one had emphasized at the lifting of the excommunications that Bishop Williamson remained suspended until further notice. [All four are still suspended until further notice.] But one cannot underestimate what black holes of ignorance have been created even in believing Catholics by more than thirty years of neglected religious instruction. These cannot be closed even by the cleverest public relations work. [In other words, you cannot make up for 30 years of devastation of catechesis and liturgical experience by means of a press release. Or a number of releases or conferences. Agreed.] Regarding the pope, broad circles know only that he is for human rights and against condoms. It is happily declared that “the Church can’t return to before the Second Vatican Council.” Few, however, think about the contradictions and need for interpretation of the most important texts of this council.
Does anybody notice that the pope has acted exactly in accordance with the theology of the council in his magnanimous lifting of the excommunications? The restoration of the sacral visage of the church must remain for the majority of “worldly” observers foreign and incomprehensible. [Let us not forget frightening.] Probably only later generations will grasp that the restoration of liturgical identity was worth a great sacrifice. Building up is, after all, slower than tearing down. [Brick by brick, friends.]
Naturally, things could reach a point that the state and society lose the taste for tolerating within their borders a corporation, which visibly stands under a different law and defends values other than those of the secular majority. [and maybe soon] The coarseness of a chancellor in an election campaign gives us a foretaste. As was done under Bismarck, the accusation could be made against the Catholics that they are bad citizens of the state because their heart is ultramontane; it clings “over the mountains” to the pope and his authority. [Culture War with higher tech weapons and wider battlefields.]
Ultramontane – this word describes perfectly the Catholic mentality: with a small part of one’s consciousness to be not German, [or American, or English, etc.] not contemporary, [in continuity, not rupture] not cosmopolitan. [not mired in the city of man, but facing toward the city of God.] Despite all distrust, the commonwealth does not have to fare ill with such members – the result of the constant tension between the Pope and the Emperor in the Middle Ages was nothing less than the European idea of freedom.
Exquisite points. Truly thought provoking.
I call your attention back to the core: the connection of liturgy and the Church, our identity.
This is one reason why some people so violently resist the idea of the SSPX reentering the mainstream of the Church.