The intrepid Andrea Tornielli, who was first to speak in the press of Pope Benedict’s letter to bishops of the workd world about the SSPX excommunications, has a comment on the Holy Father’s gesture.
Damian Thompson posted an English translation. I touch it up here and there and add here my emphases and comments:
It is an articulated, beautiful, humble and at the same time strong text: the Pope wants to create clarity about the controversy raised by the lifting of the excommunication of the four Lefebvrian bishops and by the Williamson case, and comments upon criticism flared up also and especially within the Church. He does so with a letter sent to all Catholic bishops, recalling that the case "has raised inside and outside the Catholic Church a discussion of such vehemence as had not been experienced anymore for a long time." Benedict XVI recalls the "avalanche of protests" and the accusation made against him of wanting to go back on the Council. "A misfortune for me unforeseeable was the fact that the Williamson case has superimposed itself on the remission of the excommunication. The discreet gesture of mercy towards the four bishops ordained validly but not legitimately, suddenly appeared as something entirely different: as a disavowal of the reconciliation between Christians and Jews, and therefore as the revocation of what in this area the Council had clarified for the way for the Church." The invitation to reconciliation with a group which had separated itself has then been presented as a desire to create new divisions between Christians and Jews. In the words of Pope Ratzinger emerges all the pain that this instrumentalisation has caused to him, given that precisely the reconciliation between Christians and Jews "from the outset had been a goal of my personal theological work." Benedict XVI explains that in future the Holy See will have to pay more attention to news disseminated on the Internet [d’ya think?] (the statements of Williamson were in fact circulating on the Web even before the publication of the revocation of the excommunication) and adds: "I was saddened by the fact that even Catholics who ultimately could have known better how things stand, have thought it necessary to strike at me with a hostility ready to attack. [You can feel this palpably from the Pope’s letter.] Precisely for this reason I thank the more the Jewish friends who have helped to promptly clear away the misunderstanding and to restore the atmosphere of friendship and trust." The Pope then deplores the fact that the revocation of the excommunication itself, "the scope and limits of the measure" were not "set out clearly enough at the time of its publication." [read: it was botched] And he specifies that the excommunication affects persons, not institutions: the withdrawal is a disciplinary act, which is quite separate from the doctrinal area: "The fact that the Fraternity of Saint Pius X does not possess a canonical position in the Church is not based ultimately on disciplinary grounds but on doctrinal ones" [It is not merely a matter of obedience to the Roman Pontiff, but also doctrinal. An interesting clarification from the Roman Pontiff.] and its ministers, even if "they were freed from ecclesiastical punishment, do not exercise in a legitimate way any ministry in the Church."
Continuing on this theme, the Pope announces his intention to connect the Ecclesia Dei commission, which deals with the Lefebvrians, with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. [This is interesting. It would have been thought more natural to join it to the Congregation for Divine Worship. But the fact that it is to be associated with the CDF, indicates that in the Pope’s mind the liturgical matter is settled.] And speaking of the Council he says: "The magisterial authority of the Church cannot be frozen in the year 1962 – this should be quite clear to the Fraternity. But to some of those who designate themselves as defenders of the Council it must also be recalled to memory that Vatican II brings with it the the whole doctrinal history of the Church. Who wants to be obedient to the Council must accept the faith professed in the course of the centuries and cannot cut the roots of which the tree lives." [Exactly!]
Benedict XVI – and this is the most moving part of the letter – then answers the critical question that many have asked him in these weeks: was the lifting of the excommunication necessary? Was it really a priority? The Pope replies that his priority as universal pastor "is to make God present in this world and to open to men the access to God. Not to just any god, but to the God who spoke on Mount Sinai, that God whose face we recognise … in Jesus crucified and risen." At a time when God disappears from the horizon of men, we must "have at heart the unity of believers", because their discord and confrontation "calls into question the credibility of their talking about God." [wonderful] Even "small and medium-sized reconciliations" are therefore a part of the priorities for the Church. The "quiet gesture of a hand stretched out" has instead resulted in a great noise, thus becoming "the opposite of a reconciliation." But the Pope explains how on the contrary it is necessary to strive to reintegrate, to prevent further radicalisations, to make efforts to loosen hardenings and to give room to what there is positive. "Can a community leave us totally indifferent" – the Lefebvrians – "in which there are 491 priests, 215 seminarians … 117 brothers, 164 sisters and thousands of the faithful? Should we really leave them to drift away far from the Church?". Benedict XVI does not hide from himself that from the Fraternity for a long time have come "many dissonant things – pride, a patronising know-it-all attitude, unilateralisms etc. For the love of truth I must add that I have also received a series of moving testimonials of gratitude, in which was made perceptible an opening of hearts." But he adds that also in the ecclesial environment dissonances emerged: [Watch this:] "At times – he ends with a pinch of bitterness – one has the impression that our society needs at least one group for which it does not reserve any tolerance; which one can unperturbedly set upon with hatred. And if someone dares to approach them – in this case the Pope – he too loses the right to tolerance and even he may be treated with hatred without fear and restraint." [Very poignant and exactly right.]
Benedict XVI has therefore lifted the excommunication of the Lefebvrian bishops with the eyes of a pastor concerned for the unity of the Church, who stretches out his hand and offers mercy. This quiet gesture does not yet mean full unity, as long as the doctrinal issues are not clarified. The unfortunate negationist interview of Williamson was not known to the Pope when he approved the decree: to read what happened as a change of direction with respect what was determined by the Council in the relations with the Jews was an instrumentalisation, to which even Catholics lent themselves, although the Pope admits that the scope of the measure should have been better clarified. The Church does not go back on Vatican II, but Vatican II does not constitute a fracture, a new beginning, with respect to the two thousand years of Christian history. It is to be wished for that all the bishops, also and especially those who have criticised the Pope, read well the humble and strong words of the Servant of the Servants of God and understand the attitude of a merciful father, which seeks to foster the unity of those who believe in Christ, to bear witness of Him in a world that has made God disappear from its horizon.