Pope Expresses Sadness at Attacks over Lifting of Traditionalist Excommunications

Thu Mar 12, 2009 - 12:15 pm EST

By Hilary White and John Jalsevac

ROME, March 12, 2009 ( - In a letter issued today, Pope Benedict expresses his sadness at the recent spate of criticism that has come in the wake of the lifting of the excommunications of four "traditionalist" bishops, and calls for unity within the Church. (To read the complete text of the letter, see:

Addressed to the Catholic bishops of the world, the pope’s letter notes that the reaction to the decision to try to reconcile with the traditionalist Society of St. Pius X (SSPX), was "more heated than any we have seen for a long time."

The decision to lift the excommunications started to make headlines around the world when an interview with one of the four bishops, Richard Williamson, was aired on Swedish television. In the interview Williamson said he did not believe that six million Jews had been killed by the Nazi regime during World War II. The result was a global controversy in which the mainstream media and many in the left wing of the Church accused Pope Benedict of appeasing Holocaust deniers and hijacking ecumenical efforts between Jews and Christians.

However, many faithful Catholics responded in turn by accusing liberal Catholic groups and the media of stoking the fires of the controversy in a bid to attack the pope, and to discredit the SSPX. The SSPX is unpopular in liberal and "progressive" circles due to the fact that its priests and lay members are almost unanimously faithful to Church teaching on core moral issues, including on the life and family issues such as marriage, abortion and contraception.

In today’s letter the pope acknowledges that mistakes were made on his part and the part of the Vatican in handling the affair. In particular he observes that the Vatican should have researched the views of the four bishops more thoroughly, and should have explained better at the time of publication the "extent and limits" of the order lifting the excommunications.

The pope also laments that while many "were disposed in principle to take a positive view of the Pope’s concern for reconciliation," others, "openly accused the Pope of wanting to turn back the clock to before the [Second Vatican] Council."

"As a result, an avalanche of protests was unleashed, whose bitterness laid bare wounds deeper than those of the present moment." The result, writes the pope, was that a well-intentioned "gesture of reconciliation with an ecclesial group engaged in a process of separation thus turned into its very antithesis: an apparent step backwards with regard to all the steps of reconciliation between Christians and Jews taken since the Council."

However, Benedict XVI explains that, far from turning the clock back, the attempt at reconciliation was part a much wider effort to address the larger problems plaguing the Church across the globe.

"In our days," he wrote, "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.

"The real problem at this moment of our history is that God is disappearing from the human horizon, and, with the dimming of the light which comes from God, humanity is losing its bearings, with increasingly evident destructive effects."

To address this larger problem, he said, the Holy See extended a hand to bring back into the Church the "491 priests, 215 seminarians, 6 seminaries, 88 schools, 2 university-level institutes, 117 religious brothers, 164 religious sisters and thousands of lay faithful" of the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX). While the SSPX remains in an "irregular" canonical state, it is widely understood that a full reconciliation would reinvigorate faithful segments of the Church, and seriously undermine liberal forces within it.

While the SSPX must accept the validity of Vatican II, the pope wrote, "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."

Monsignore Ignacio Barreiro, a long-time Vatican observer and the head of the Rome office of Human Life International, told LifeSiteNews that the pope’s letter is a "strong document" that is a call to unity for those who have been disobedient.

Msgr. Barreiro said that the letter indicates that both the SSPX and those who oppose their reconciliation must accept the fullness of the Church’s teaching. Vatican II must be interpreted in continuation with the traditional teachings of the Church, and "all the magisterium" must be accepted: this includes hotly contested modern documents such as Humanae Vitae, on artificial birth control, and Evangelium Vitae, on the sanctity of human life, he said. 

The pope, Msgr. Barreiro said, is calling all the Church to obedience to the teaching of the Church. "It is an excellent document," Msgr. Barreiro said. "It shows the lamentable divisions in the Church which forced him to write this letter. And the lack of obedience to the Holy Father of many persons in the Church who should be obedient."

"It contains a plea to unity," but it also shows, he said, "the firm commitment of the Holy Father to reach an agreement with the SSPX. He is not backing down at all."

See related coverage:

Left Wing of the Catholic Church Destroying the Faith Says Orthodox Rabbi

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