Let me make this clear

To those sending me obtuse e-mail filled with indignation that the POPE would rehabilitate a HOLOCAUST DENIER!, I offer these comments. 

To those journalists and columnists out there who are grinding their gears over this issue, please pay attention.

Please read what I and others have written about SSPX Bishop Williamson and try to get the facts clear in your head.

The Pope does not approve of hatred of the Jews or denial of the Holocaust simply because he lifted a man’s  excommunication, incurred for entirely different reasons, reasons entirely internal to the good ordering of the Church herself.

The Pope’s merciful act is not a sign of approval of anything.

When his excommunication was lifted Bp. Williamson did not automatically become thereby a fully functioning and approved bishop of the Catholic Church. 

He was validly consecrated in 1988, but he is forbidden, as are the other three bishops, to function as a bishop or as a priest in and for the Church.  Forbidden. Still.  That hasn’t changed.

Let’s try to keep this simple.

They can now go into a church and go to confession.

When the excommunication was lifted, those four men were from that moment permitted to confess their sins and receive absolution, receive Communion if they are in the state of grace, and receive Last Rites if they are about to die. 

Get it now? 

Don’t let their clothing and titles confuse you.

Lifting the excommunication was a single step in a process of reconciling a wound in the Church’s unity.  It isn’t more than that.  It isn’t a political statement or a judgment on debates or settled matters of history. 

It was an act of kindness for a matter internal to the Church’s unity.

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About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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48 Responses to Let me make this clear

  1. Bobby Bambino says:

    Preach it, Father!

  2. Jason says:

    Bravo! Well stated Father! thank you.

  3. Ken STL says:

    If only the Vatican press office could explain it this simply, so much ink could have been saved!

  4. Padre Steve says:

    Well done Fr. Z! I agree with what Ken STL said…. they should give you a job as press secretary!

  5. RANCHER says:

    Best explanation offered to date. Wish it could receive widespread publication in both Church and secular media

  6. TomB says:

    Thank you Father. I have read as much as I can find time for about this, and your comments distill the whole matter quite precisely.

  7. RichR says:

    Thank you for this concise explanation. May it help clear up much of this silly confusion.

  8. veritas says:

    The media find it difficult to understand a nuamced statement, they need things put in clear simple terms. Thank you for having done so admirably. There has been so much confusion which could have been prevented by simple exposition.

  9. Are you going back to Rome anytime soon?

  10. Jacques says:

    The lifting of the excommunication of the Lefebvrites bishops has nothing to do with the personal and controversial opinions on the Holocaust of a stubborn, blind and provocative bishop. In doing so this poor man undermined the Church a little more while he felt his ego was inflated.
    But there are non Lefebvrites Catholic faithfuls in full communion with Rome who are intrinsically antisemites too. Among them some even are deying the Holocaust.
    What if our Pope had blocked Bp Williamson\’s excommunication lifting for that unique reason?
    Is denying an historical fact a ground for an excommunication? That would be a power abuse.
    I know people who are denying Stalin\’s crimes (they are as numerous as those of Hitler)… A number of leftists Catholic clerics and faithfuls are denying that the Spanish Republicans killed priests, nuns and catholic lay people by the thousands during the Civil War. Who cares?

  11. JM says:

    Fr. Z,
    I was reading an excommunication from Archbishop Burke from when he was in St. Louis and as I understand it, it isn’t just that an excommunicated individual can’t receive the sacraments, but they aren’t even allowed to use sacramentals such as holy water, etc. Is this true or not? Please correct me if I am wrong.

  12. Brian Mershon says:

    Well, here we go again. Reuters is going to make a big deal about this interview that just landed because, horror of horrors, Bishop Fellay repeated what the Pope has said in a General Audeince, that Christ is for the conversion of all People to His Church, even the Jews. Wathc this whilrwind now.


    And for any journalists reading this, again, Bishop Williamson did not deny the holocaust. He did not deny Jews died. His assumption is a historical opinion. Historians today vary between 4 and 6 million Jews who died. What no one seems to be incenses about is the 6 million others who died, many of whom were Catholics, Poles and priests.

    Horror of horrors, Reuters and AP will say, Bishop Fellay (ultra-traditionalist) believes that the Jews must convert to be saved! What a travesty.

    Shows how unclear Nostra Aetate is for the general population. Mos of them probably thingk this Catholic dogma, by the way, violates Nostra Aetate. Then again, most Catholics and probably most priests and bishops think the Jews don’t need the Church to be saved either.

    So much for “dialogue” and sweet, kind discussions for 40 years that ignore clear Catholic dogma.

    [The Pope didn’t approve of anyones ideas about history, right or wrong.]

  13. Jacques says:

    There was a time when the Pope had the power to send such bishops straight to a remote monastery spending the rest of their life in contrition and penance. Sure this was more dissuasive to prevent them saying silly stuffs of this kind than any excommunication

  14. Michael J says:

    In all fairness, there is another side to this issue as well. I know there are many who have an intimate dislike of Bishop Williamson, but as I understand it he has been *falsely accused* of being a “Holocaust denier” (whatever that means).

    From what I have read:
    1. He did not deny that the Holocaust happened.
    2. He did not deny that many Jews were killed or suffered
    3. He did not even deny the total number

    His only “crime” as far as I know (regarding this issue) was to question the number of Jews killed *in the gas chambers*.

    [This is the trap. It is entirely irrelevant whether W. was right or wrong. The lifting of the excomms addressed precisely NOTHING to do with any historical matter other than what happened in June 1988 at a place called Econe.]

  15. Jacques says:

    Michael, nobody should enter in that controversy: In what does the opinion of Bp Williamson about the gas chambers help his flock and ourselves to grow in the Faith?
    Is he a pundit in that matter? Then shut up.
    Let the pundits talk with the pundits regarding history and the bishops teach the faithfuls in the Faith. Their opinions in profane issues are only blah blah.

  16. John Enright says:

    Well said, Father!

  17. We are NOT going to talk about whether Williamson was rightly or wrongly accused, or what he really said. That is not relevant here.

  18. Michael J says:


    I do not disagree with what you write, but you are missing the point. Does it not bother you that you are angry with Bishop Williamson (to the point that you desire he “spend the rest of his life in contrition and penance”) for saying something *that he did not say*? Where is the Justice in that?

  19. william says:

    Are there really people who are so slow on the uptake as not to have grasped this yet (as opposed to those who understand it quite well but keep the public misrepresentation going for propaganda purposes of their own)?

    I’m not a Catholic, but I can perfectly well appreciate the Pope’s reasons for acting as he has, and that is has nothing to do with either approving or disapproving of +Williamson’s eccentric (and indeed offensive) historical opinions. Why are your correspondents so wilfully obtuse?

  20. JoyfulMom7 says:

    Father Z for Vatican press secretary!

    Truly, Father, God has given you such a gift for clear communication. Thank you for your time and labor on this blog!

  21. Michael J says:

    With all due respect, the two issues cannot be so easily separated. I have yet to see anyone acknowledge His Holiness’ merciful act without also (as william above so perfectly illistrates) accusing the object of that mercy with further sins.

  22. Roland de Chanson says:

    Fr. Zuhlsdorf: … and receive Last Rites if they are about to die.

    A schismatic cannot receive Extreme Unction? Even if he renounces his schismatic act in a deathbed confession? Even a schismatic priest may administer the Last Rites to a dying Catholic. Dura lex, sed lex I guess.

  23. william says:

    Michael J: I am not “accusing” +Williamson of “sins”. It would be grossly presumptuous of me to do so. To hold “eccentric” opinions, and even ones which many people evidently (and in my view justifiably) find “offensive”, does not in itself constitute a moral failing, and I do not allege that it does in this case.

  24. Maggie says:

    thank you Father!

  25. roman crusader says:

    amen Father!

  26. Jerry says:

    Anyone who wants the Pope to do what they want only has to follow a simple process. Have 1 million 7 hundred thousand Rosaries said for your cause and petition the Holy Father.

  27. John Enright says:

    It seems that you, Father, are the only blogger to recognize that the Holy Father’s lifting of the excommunication of the SSPX bishops was essentially an act of mercy. I wish other people recognized that the removal of the excommunication does not regularize any of the bishops, and that there is still more work to be done. I’ll pray for continued progress in the hope that someday SSPX will be regularized.

  28. Matt Q says:

    Good job, Father Z. :)

    This all the more helps one realize the idiocy The Lord Himself dealt with while He walked this earth. We can meditate more clearly on His statement, “My ways are not man’s ways, and man’s ways are not My ways.”

  29. John F. says:

    Thank you Father.

  30. jacques says:

    Bp Williamson is not guilty for what he said or didn’t say: He is guilty for having initiated by his
    imprudent, clumsy and groundless speech publicly displayed a hate campaign against the Church
    mainly aiming to the Pope outside AND inside the Church.
    Moreover he confirmed his words in a second interview: Other Popes who were not so gentle and loving men
    as Benedict would have taken anger to him and banished him. “Perseverare diabolicum”, isn’t it?

  31. Andrew says:

    All power to Fr Z.

    Over the years I have read articles in journals like the Latin Mass Magazine, which have indicated anomalies in the 1988 decree of Cardinal Gantin, at that time Prefect of the Congregation of Bishops, excommunicating the four bishops.

    As I have no training in canon law, I am not in any position to judge whether this was an unfair sentence. I take it on its merits, in that Canon 1382 of the Code of Canon Law stipulates: “A bishop who consecrates some one a bishop without a pontifical mandate and the person who receives the consecration from him incur a latae sententiae excommunication reserved to the Apostolic See”.

    That doesn’t sound ambiguous to me.

    However, whatever the strength of the former argument, Fr Z is correct in that the excommunications were lifted as an act of mercy to the people concerned to assist them in finding the road back to full communion, impaired as it is now.

    They are no approval of the currently irregular canonical status of the Society of St Pius X, as all the bishops who have had their excommunications lifted, still remains suspended from all diaconal, priestly and episcopal functions, and are carrying out these roles illicitly, maintaining the scenario of impaired communion, if not formal schism.

    This would indicate there is quite a road to be travelled on to fix this problem.

    One fact that has not been mentioned in this debate is that Archbishop Lefebvre’s staunch ally during Vatican II in the International Council of Fathers who shared his concerns about the reforms, Cardinal Giuseppe Siri of Genoa said in response to the Econe consecrations in 1988 that the Holy See had no alternative but to excommunicate him.

    But we certainly pray for the full healing of this rupture, and that Summorum Pontificum, and now the lifting of the excommunications are important steps towards this goal.

  32. Andrew says:

    I meant to say in the first paragraph, the excommunication of the six bishops.

    Only the four who have been consecrated have had this lifted.

  33. Guadalupe Guard says:

    So because of the lifting of the excommunications the SSPX bishops can go to confession but gravely sin when they hear confessions (or witness marriages)? This is too simplistic and legalistic.

    I think the Vatican is avoiding any statement in this regard to facilitate full reconciliation and for pastoral reasons. In short, because in practice the Vatican is not enforcing the law that would require local faculties for SSPX priests from a bishop that law is in abeyance. So too, because there is still an overall state of emergency at the diocesan level jurisdiction is supplied for those who bypass their ordinaries in accord with informed Catholic conscience.

  34. Brian Mershon says:

    Guadalupe and Dr. Alcuin Reid seem to be the only ones who actually get this. Going aroudn telling everyone an opinion of the current canonical state of the SSPX is not helpful to the current situation. Since the 1983 Code of Canon Law has so many ambiguities (as many notable canonists have acknowledged), personally, I think canonical arguments, in many cases, are nearly laughable.

    Look, as Dr. Reid noted in his article: the Holy Father did not lift the excommunications so that everyone can then discuss the current canonical state of the SSPX. Did anyone discuss the “canonical state” of Orthodox priests and bishops who have no canonical mandate from the Church when those excommunications were lifted by Pope Paul VI. The Orthodox call themselves Catholic. How about we go around publicly labeling them as schismatics and telling them they are disobeying the Vicar of Christ? That would surely be a new way of conducting “ecumenical relations.”

    The more I come to understand the Church’s views on ecumenism, the more I realieze that it is perhaps a suspension of supernatural understanding to use natural (only)virtues to try to persuade those congregations outside the Church’s visible confines to…? To do what? I’m not quite sure? To rejoin the Church? If not, then what? What is the point?

    We avoid labeling people as heretics and schismatics and instead call them “separated brethren” except in the case with the SSPX. In that case, and in that one alone, it is OK to call them “schismatics” even though the PCED has repeatedly said they are not.

  35. Prof. Basto says:

    Fr. Z for Director of the Holy See Press Office!

  36. lisa says:

    Fr, Z, you said: “We are NOT going to talk about whether Williamson was rightly or wrongly accused, or what he really said. That is not relevant here.”

    Excuse me. I’m nothing but a sidelines observer here…. And I know that you are trying to clear up misunderstanding of procedure here. But you underestimate the emotional need for justice in this case ~ on both sides of the issue. [No, I don’t underestimate it at all. Nor do I misunderestimate it!]

    How, in the name of all that is good and holy, are these things not relevent? [Because rational human beings ought to be capable of reason, making distinctions, clear thought.]No matter whose side you’re on?

    I frankly believe that in this matter, there will only be Divine Justice served.

    Please pardon my ignorance.

  37. craig says:

    “The more I come to understand the Church’s views on ecumenism, the more I realieze that it is perhaps a suspension of supernatural understanding to use natural (only)virtues to try to persuade those congregations outside the Church’s visible confines to…? To do what? I’m not quite sure? To rejoin the Church? If not, then what? What is the point?”

    The point, which has been missed by liberals and conservatives alike, is to persuade them to rejoin the Church as fellow Christians, correcting their education as necessary but without requiring them to hate everything about their prior path to Christ. Liberals wish ecumenism would mean “I’m OK, you’re OK” and nobody needs to care what anybody else believes, as long as they all vote Democrat. Conservatives would like for converts from heretical communities to be stripped naked of all past devotions and small-t traditions that led them to Christ, forced to denounce their parents (or even their entire nation of ancestry) as damned to hell, hazed into professing that God hears only Latin and not your silly little language, and kept in permanent second-class status thereafter.

  38. Brian Mershon says:

    Craig said: “The point, which has been missed by liberals and conservatives alike, is to persuade them to rejoin the Church as fellow Christians, correcting their education as necessary but without requiring them to hate everything about their prior path to Christ.”

    Craig, I do wish that were true. However, Cardinal Kasper, who has been in charge of this office for two pontificates, has repeatedly said the Church no longer practices a unity of “return.” I believe our current Pope has basically said the same thing in different ways.

    The Decree on Ecumenism itself says many things, but it has been explicitly expalined that Ecuemnism is different than Mission. Mission apparently is about seeking conversions. Ecuemnism apparently is not. Otherwise, ecumenism would be nothing more than a special “technique” we use with people to get them to convert and would thus be a subset of Mission. The Church’s own documents state this.

    Now again, the Decree on Ecumenism does also say that “the fullness of Catholic teaching should be presented” during ecumenical dialogues.

    I would venture to say that this HAS NEVER HAPPENED in any of the ecumenical dialogues that have happened at an official level since Vatican II. It certainly would take quite a long time to present the entire Deposit of Faith and would end up being more of a monologue than a dialgouge.

    I’m not trying to be coy, but I have read and studied this for a long time and it si still not clear to me what true ecumenism is all about. If it is about getting non-Catholics to become Catholic, then why doesn’t the Church just say so?

    It seems a certain inauthenticity comes about (which the Jews are experiencing) when you dialouge with them for 40 years but don’t ever come out and say “Embrace Jesus Christ for your own salvation.” Now they are mystified to find that some in the Church still believe this. It is what the Church dogmatically teaches, but very few prelates would say it out loud.

  39. craig says:

    I won’t dispute that the Church has mangled ecumenism due to those who elevated a phony “spirit of Vatican II” above the real thing. But the fact that Kasper botched it for 20+ years doesn’t mean genuine ecumenism isn’t a teaching of the magisterium, any more than slavery and torture were doctrine when certain popes winked at them approvingly.

    It seems to me that ecumenism is the counterpart to evangelism, in which fellow Christians are the proper subjects of the former, and non-Christians of the latter. The goal of evangelism is to lead others to Christ, while the goal of ecumenism is to lead others to the Church. That paradigm was the basis for my comment above.

    Jews are a hard case, because of their straddling the fence: they worship the one God and accept the Old Testament as divine revelation, but they do not know Jesus as the Christ. For this reason, they should not be the test case for ecumenism. They need to be approached singularly, neither as merely “separated brethren” nor as heathens (much less “Christ-killers”).

  40. libhomo says:

    Ratzinger is famous for protecting child raping priests. Is it surprising that this former Hitler Youth was in favor of Holocaust denial until it created too much negative publicity?

    Ratzinger always has been an incredibly nasty person.

    [I think I will leave this iconic comment in place. This poor soul is the perfect example of where true hatred is embraced. A useful idiot.]

  41. Jacques says:

    “It seems a certain inauthenticity comes about (which the Jews are experiencing) when you dialouge with them for 40 years but don’t ever come out and say “Embrace Jesus Christ for your own salvation.” Now they are mystified to find that some in the Church still believe this. It is what the Church dogmatically teaches, but very few prelates would say it out loud.\”

    Brian, that is the question:
    Why the purported \”dialogue\” (that in my opinion looks like a sterile blah blah) we had for 40 years with the Jews was not clearer and franker? Instead the Jews are shocked when the Pope says that we must pray for their conversion, that however is the same teaching the Church had for 20 centuries. They believed that VatII had changed this point. I wonder who and what led them understanding so if not the modernists and their twisted speeches: They told the Jews what they wanted to hear never minding if this contradicted the Truth.
    In the meantime while we spent our energy in a cause that was lost beforehand, we gave up the Mission grounds in the Catholic countries (in Europe and in America first) to find 40 years later that the flock had squeezed by the 90 p.c.
    The balance sheet now is harsh: How many Jews have converted, how many Catholics have left during these years?

  42. michael r. says:

    Thank you, Father! Those last six lines are beautifully succinct!

  43. irishgirl says:

    Thank you Fr. Z for that post!

    I’m in agreement with several posters here-you should be the press representative in the Vatican!

    Clear…concise…no gobbledegook!

  44. RBrown says:

    I think it’s important to realize that the media is more interested in a headline or sound bite than it is in an honest reporting of the news.

  45. RBrown says:

    Ratzinger is famous for protecting child raping priests. Is it surprising that this former Hitler Youth was in favor of Holocaust denial until it created too much negative publicity?
    Ratzinger always has been an incredibly nasty person.
    Comment by libhomo

    Not only incorrect but cowardly so.

    As Prefect of the SCDF Cardinal Ratzinger had no authority over any priest. Every priest who worked for him was incardinated somewhere else.

    BTW, the Ratzinger family was were known for being anti-Nazi.

  46. Peter says:

    I just wanted to add my own “thank you” to the crowd. We often get tripped up trying to explain the fine nuances to people who want only sound bytes. It’s like giving a Suma Theologica response when a Baltimore Catechism response would suffice. A confused writer is never a good thing.

  47. Andrew says:

    In discussing the canonical status of the Society of St Pius X what is also pertinent here is canon 1383 “A bishop who, contrary to the prescript canon 1015, ordains without legitimate dimissorial letters someone who is not his subject is prohibited for a year from conferring the order. The person who has received the ordination, however, is ipso facto suspended from the order received.

    In reviewing the history of the Priestly Fraternity of St Pius X, it was established canonically on November 1, 1970 in the diocese of Lausanne, Geneva & Fribourg, in Switzerland.

    The first priestly ordinations of this group were in 1975, and were performed according to church law. (Shortly before this, the group had been dissolved of its canonical status, and had appealed to the Apostolic Signatura, the decision being upheld).

    In 1976, Archbishop Lefebvre was ordered by Cardinal Giovanni Benelli, at that time the Deputy Secretary of State not to proceed with planned ordinations on June 29 of that year. He disregarded the notice and went ahead with them. After being requested by Cardinal Baggio, head of the Congregation of Bishops to apologize for the action, Lefebvre refused to do so, and was suspended a divinis on 22 July.

    This legal situation has not changed to the present moment, and the priests of the Fraternity having received illicit orders, since that time share in the suspension, as stipulated by canon 1383.

    The imposition of the latae sentetiae excommunications of the 6 bishops in 1988, and the lifting of this sentence to the 4 consecrated ones in 2009, do not impinge on the former penalties.

    The Society of St Pius X had put out a pamphlet subsequent to the lifting of the excommunications, outlining why they believed these to be invalid. In their pilgrimage to Lourdes last October, their prayer campaign was not only for the lifting of the excommunications of the 4 consecrated bishops, but also that they be posthumously lifted for Archbishop Lefebvre and Archbishop Castro de Mayer, the consecrators.

    This however did not happen, indicating that Rome believes the original decree was promulgated correctly, this being confirmed by Pope Benedict in saying that the lifting of these excommunications is an “act of mercy”.

    Because ordinations to the diaconate and priesthood in the Society have been done without the legal requirement of dimissorial letters, the suspensions remain in force, indicating the group is in a state of impaired communion with the Church of Rome, as these functions are still being performed, in spite of these penalties, in addition to its being deprived of its original canonical status, being dissolved as a pious union on 6 May 1975, by Bishop Mamie of Fribourg.

    Obviously, the Holy See though is working on giving the SSPX a new juridical structure, (based on correspondence to them by Cardinal Castrillon Hoyos) and has the power to lift these suspensions, as it did the excommunications.

    We can only pray this will be accomplished soon.

  48. Colleen says:

    Father, Thank you for your post. I was confused by some of the reactions to the lifting of the excommunication. Now I can intelligently and correctly explain it to others. God bless.

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