Thavis of CNS on Pope Benedict’s Letter

John Thavis of CNS reacts to the Holy Father’s Letter to bishops about the lifting of the SSPX excommunications.

My emphases and comments.

Papal letter: Pointed, personal and from the heart
By John Thavis
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) — In one fell swoop, Pope Benedict XVI has taken charge of the much-criticized realm of "Vatican communications" [From your keyboard to God's ear, Mr. Thavis!]  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 March 12, was remarkable on many counts:

– 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.

– 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.

– 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.  [I think much will depend on whether or not there is a still a Cardinal President apart from the sitting Prefect of the CDF.]

– 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 [sigh] 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 [hmmmm] 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 organization 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.   [If it is framed in terms of battle, that may be true.  But this Pope demonstrates that he is at his best when tough questions are directly engaged.  I hold that, for example, the Pope knew exactly what he was doing with the Regensburg Address, which bore fruit.  The Pope is not afraid of what will emerge from even a hard discussion over Vatican II, provided that the truth is sought in humility.]

All this hints that perhaps the pope was not fully prepared for the society’s inflexibility on some of these points.  [I doubt the Pope would be surprised by that.]

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 [NB:] 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 [What if it isn't extremist to have hard questions about the Second Vatican Council?  Perhaps not all members of the SSPX are "extremists".] 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.

A couple of my spies have told me that there was, in fact, a commission put together to look at the question of lifting the excommunication before the fact.  If that is the case, then Card. Castrillon is being scapegoated by someone. 

We will see what actually happens.  Will the PCED’s faculties and mission be dminished or will it simply be redirected?  Remember: the PCED is actually described as an "ad hoc Commission".  It exists for a specific purpose.

I suspect that the Holy Father’s intention about the Commission are less an expression of lack of favor, but rather of the need to prepare the way for deeper talks with the SSPX.  The proper curial context for such preparation would be the CDF.  Putting the PCED under the CDF would be the right move.

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20 Responses to Thavis of CNS on Pope Benedict’s Letter

  1. tertullian says:

    “If that is the case, then Card. Castrillon is being scapegoated by someone.”

    Lest we forget, Machiavelli was an Italian (ok,technically a Tuscan).

  2. chironomo says:

    Once again…

    A commentator (Thavis) who imagines that he knows more about what is going on in the Church than the Pope. I doubt too that the Pope has been “surprised” at the rigidity of the SSPX on certain points. I also doubt that there is such a conspiratorial element to the moving of the PCED to the CDF…as Fr. Z pointed out, it was an ad hoc commission to begin with. If it’s purpose is coming to an end, then it too should come to an end. This is a lesson that our own congress would be wise to learn… when a program no longer serves a purpose, eliminate it!

    Bp. Fellay’s response seems genuinely grateful… there is always the temptation to read into his figures of speech a certain arrogance that we may be expecting, even if it is not really present. At this point we all need to wait and see where the dialogue will go. The Pope has made it clear that the disputes are primarily doctrinal, and we can all hope that there will be some meaningful discussions about these issues… discussions that may benefit not only the SSPX but the Church as a whole.

    At this point, our prayers are needed more than our suggestions or criticisms….

  3. Brian Mershon says:

    CNS and Thavis have always been very explicit in their axe to grind against the PCED and Cardinal Castrillon. His speculation isn’t worth the computer it is typed upon. [And yet you comment...]

    1. PCED with the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith means the Pope will be DIRECTLY INVOLVED in what happens.

    2. Cardinal Levada is NOT the theological brains of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith. The Pope is. Levada carries out the Pope’s orders and intentions.

    3. Far from diminishing the PCED’s role, putting them together with the Congregation increases its visibility and importance.

    Thavis is still in shock, as are CNS reporters and all the rest of the “spirit of Vatican II” Catholics. They still don’t understand what is in store for them.

  4. B Knotts says:

    Missing from this analysis is what I thought was a very important point from the Holy Father:

    “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 life.”

    This point needs to be acknowledged and addressed by those who have been unreasonably critical of the lifting of the excommunications.

  5. TJM says:

    I guess one can never question the interpretation of Vatican Council II as seen by liberals. There are a lot of hard questions I’d like to ask. Question 1, if Sacrosanctum Concilium required the faithful to learn to sing in Latin the parts of the Mass appropriate to them, why hasn’t that
    happened throughout the world. I think what we have had is very much a cafeteria approach to Vatican II. Liberals, in particular, take the parts they like and
    reject the ones they don’t. That is why His Holiness is so right when he interprets Vatican II, just like we should interpret any Council, in light
    of the whole Catholic tradition. Liberals want the faithful to believe that a new faith was created at the Council. It wasn’t. Tom

  6. Irish says:

    Do people often send over bouquets (in this case, a spiritual bouquet of 1.7 million rosaries) prior to “battle”? It’s sad that the author feels it is necessary to interject a note of hostility when the Holy Father specifically addressed the issue of acrimony in his letter.

  7. Brian: Mr. Thavis works for CNS, which has had its own point of view for a long time.  It is hard to bring an editorial position around.

    I know John Thavis.  We have had good conversations.  We don’t always agree on some issues, but he thinks about what he sees and hears.  And among those who write on Roman issues for CNS he is the clearest and best balanced.

    The idea that Thavis is “in shock” amuses you, I am sure, but I don’t think he is at in shock at all.  He level-headed and works in a methodical way in the direction his agency has been working toward for years.

  8. William Tighe says:

    I wonder if this report:

    http://faithfulrebel.blogspot.com/2009/03/major-news-to-come-soon-from-vatican.html

    is related to these matters. It seems to come from the purlieux of the CDF.

  9. Irish: interject a note of hostility

    I don’t really sense much hostility in Thavis’ piece. Perhaps he is sticking with the standard position of most left-leaving Catholic media organs. At a certain point the language is nearly like automatic writing.

  10. John is good people.

    C.

  11. PMcGrath says:

    Apart from everything else in the Pope’s letter, this part struck me particularly:

    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?

    German intellectuals do not quote exact figures like that casually. That was some purposeful “drilling down” for information.

    For one thing, every bishop in the world — particularly those of a Rupturist bent — will look at those numbers and say, “My goodness! That’s twice the size of my diocese! … ” Or: “That’s the same size as my diocese! …” Or: “That’s half the size of my diocese — you mean it’s more than just the four bishops and some priests up in a chalet in Switzerland? What am I doing wrong?”

    And some of them might even say, “I wish I could get some of those guys here — I’m going to pray that the doctrinal disagreements get hammered out a-s-a-p.”

  12. Perhaps their “positive energies” are the fruit of their rigidity, or perhaps militancy would be a better description.

    And why is the Pope using language like “positive energies” which sounds like it comes from a new age naturopath?

  13. Irish says:

    Dear Father: I interpreted, perhaps wrongly, the use of the word “battle” as somewhat hostile. To me, it implies a fight, combat, warfare. etc., which is intrinsically hostile. A smackdown, if you will.

    “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.”

    If the writer is in hurry, under a deadline, perhaps using the word battle (twice) might be a way of short-handing the fact that the Pope and the SSPX might be on different sides of the issue–which I’m not sure is completely true. In a way, it reminded me of tabloid writing that always looks and strives for a confrontation between two entities, and seemed an unnecessary introduction of conflict and, perhaps, angst, given the Holy Father’s letter, which spoke to Doctrinal discussions, not battles. Perhaps the Holy Father is looking to the Society to present the case for Tradition, that can accept the good (dialogue) while rejecting the bad (relativism) generated by the ecumenical efforts of the Vatican since 1962.

  14. pinoycatholic says:

    Pontifical Council for Social Communications… Produces nothing but paper. And the word became paper and gathered dust.

  15. Daniel says:

    Regarding the Holy Father’s letter in question…His Holiness wrote the following:

    “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.”

    Is Rabbi Irwin Kula one of the Jewish friends the Holy Father mentioned?

  16. Luigi says:

    “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.’”

    I found this sentence interesting. What is a “mainstream Catholic?” I guess you could define that any number of ways, but one of them it seems to me (not to be cynical) is a Catholic who has barely given the Council documents a glance, and is interested in the topic only insofar as it could potentially impact their comfort zone which is built around a likable pastor, a warm parish and a liturgy that feels good.

    “Rigidity” can reside among the “mainstream” too in the form of a rigid complacency that is content with the status quo regardless of whether or not it reflects the authentic faith.

    The positive energy I hope to see injeccted into the Church at large is the positive energy that will move ordinary Catholics to engage the content of the Council, to get on with an authentic interpretation of VII and an implementation of same. Also, the positiive energy necessary to move Rome to remove from positions of power those who are off the mark and leading others astray – whether bishop, priest, theologian, whomever.

  17. Steve says:

    I think the placing of the PCED under the CDF puts the emphesis where it needs to be. After all the Lex Orandi and the Lex Credendi go together. This is another way for the Holy Father to remind all Catholics that the faith of yesterday is the faith of today. Our Holy Father is as sly as a serpent and innocent as a dove.

  18. Daniel says:

    “I guess one can never question the interpretation of Vatican Council II as seen by liberals. There are a lot of hard questions I’d like to ask. Question 1, if Sacrosanctum Concilium required the faithful to learn to sing in Latin the parts of the Mass appropriate to them, why hasn’t that happened throughout the world. I think what we have had is very much a cafeteria approach to Vatican II. Liberals, in particular, take the parts they like and reject the ones they don’t.”

    In my diocese, conservative priests have opposed to the use of Latin in the liturgy. My parish, for example, is conservative. I have pleaded the case at my parish for Summorum Pontificum. Forget about it.

    The incorporation of Latin into my parish’s Novus Ordo Mass has also been rejected. The same attitudes exist at conservative parishes throughout my diocese.

    Let us not pin upon liberals alone the anti-Latin badge that many bishops and priests have worn throughout the post-Vatican II years.

    Many conservative parishes refuse to offer even Novus Ordo Masses in Latin. Gregorian Chant remains in virtual hiding throughout the Latin Church.

    The “let’s blame liberals” for the putrid state of Latin Church liturgy is old hat.

    In one “conservative” diocese after another, Latin Masses are few and far between. With few exceptions, Latin Church bishops and priests have little use for Masses offered in Latin. Period.

    Pope Benedict XVI would have to replace virtually the entire Latin Church hierarchy with pro-Latin Mass bishops before we could begin to restore the Latin liturgical tradition to the Western Church.

  19. Daniel says:

    “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.”

    The important words above are “some Catholics.”

    Translation…bishops and priests (for the most part) attacked the Holy Father.

    In reality, few “Catholics” attacked the Holy Father.

    Overall, 80 to 85 percent of Catholics have walked away from the Ordinary Form of Mass. They assist at Mass irregularly and have little desire to practice their Catholic religion. They couldn’t care less about the daily workings of the Church.

    Of the 15 to 20 percent of Catholics who assist at Mass regularly, I doubt that the majority have little knowledge and interest regarding the decades-old Rome-SSPX controversy.

    The SSPX controversy is far from their minds. They would have little interest in attacking the Holy Father his having lifted the SSPX excommunications.

    At the very least, in the many parishes I have visited within my diocese, I have not encountered any…any…talk regarding the lifting of the SSPX excommunications.

    The attacks were generated for the most part by Jews who already despised the Holy Catholic Church (some of whom, incredibly, Rome has long attempted to appease) and high-ranking Catholic Churchmen (particularly ecumenists and “interreligious dialogue” types) who fear the restoration of the Latin Church’s liturgical tradition. Some neo-conservative Catholics who had long despised the SSPX found subtle ways to attack the Pope.

    Other than said folks, the “average” Catholic did not attack Pope Benedict XVI. That is, at least, what I believe.

  20. Daniel says:

    “There are a lot of hard questions I’d like to ask. Question 1, if Sacrosanctum Concilium required the faithful to learn to sing in Latin the parts of the Mass appropriate to them, why hasn’t that happened throughout the world. I think what we have had is very much a cafeteria approach to Vatican II. Liberals, in particular, take the parts they like and reject the ones they don’t.”

    It would be interesting to explore whether “conservative” bishops have implemented the above teaching.

    I don’t know the answers to the following questions. Therefore, I hope that somebody is able to answer the following questions.

    I believe, for example, that many conservative Catholics present Bishop Bruskewitz of Lincoln, Nebraska, as a “conservative” bishop.

    Do the Faithful in his diocese sing or say in Latin the Ordinary of the Mass? Is Gregorian Chant given “pride of place” at each Latin Rite Mass in Lincoln, Nebraska? How many Lincoln, Nebraska, parishes offer the TLM?

    Cardinal DiNardo has been presented on this blog as conservative. Has he taken steps (or does he plan) to ensure that the Latin Rite Catholics in Galveston-Houston, Texas, sing or say the Ordinary of the Mass in Latin? Is Gregorian Chant given “pride of place” at each Mass in his diocese?

    Throughout Rome, for example, is Latin featured at each Mass? Is Gregorian Chant given “pride of place” at Masses offered throughout Rome?