From: The Society of St Hugh of Cluny blog
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.
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.
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. 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.
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. 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.
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.
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? Cardinal Ratzinger in any case must have been affected by the death of this man in the state of excommunication. 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. It was not permitted to participate in the discussions of a post-conciliar Church so enamored of discussion. 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.
Even today it is a difficult undertaking to speak of the importance of the liturgy for the Church. 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. It had the same importance for “emancipated Christians” 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; that Church and liturgy are identical. It is the mystic depiction of the whole plenitude of revealed truths. It is the locus of faith, where subjective conviction and feeling become objective contemplation and encounter. 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.
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. 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. 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.
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. 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. 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. 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.
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. 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.
Ultramontane – this word describes perfectly the Catholic mentality: with a small part of one’s consciousness to be not German, not contemporary, not cosmopolitan. 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.
Copyright by Martin Mosebach. The original of this essay appeared in Der Spiegel magazine. Any errors are mine as translator. Special thanks to Ulrike Hagg for providing the article.