Last week, Pope Benedict XVI lifted the decree of automatic excommunication against a group of right-wing bishops who were ordained without papal approval, an act of schism, in 1988. Most of the publicity surrounding this intra-ecclesial move has focused on its effect on Jewish-Catholic relations, because one of the bishops, Richard Williamson, has recently and publicly denied the Holocaust. In protest of the decision to remove the excommunication, the chief rabbi of Jerusalem severed relations with the Vatican, and the Pope’s planned trip to the Holy Land later this year is now in doubt.
Just because the decree was lifted does not mean the bishops are within the Catholic fold: To achieve full communion with Rome, you must accept all the teachings of the Second Vatican Council. But the bishops belong to the conservative Society of St. Pius X, a group founded in 1970 by French Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre because they rejected Vatican II. Since he took office in 2005, Pope Benedict has made no secret of his desire to end the schism. Holocaust deniers, of course, are crazy. But for a Catholic to deny the teachings, and even the validity, of the Second Vatican Council is pretty insane, too.
An ecumenical council is the most authoritative form of church teaching. The first council, at Nicaea in 325, issued the creed that is still recited at Sunday Mass. Other early councils defined the divinity of Christ and the doctrine of the Trinity. In the 16th century, the Council of Trent represented Catholicism’s response to the Reformation.
Rejecting the teachings of a council is a bit like being a Republican in favor of higher taxes: You have to wonder why you’re still a member of the club. Lefebvre and his ilk decided to leave the club rather than accept the teachings of Vatican II. They were especially alarmed by the abandonment of the Latin Mass and the Decree on Religious Liberty, which recognized the separation of church and state as a valid form of constitutional arrangement. “The Second Vatican Council is the religion of man, of man put in the place of God,” the British Williamson told a U.K. paper. “Deep down what it means is that it’s a new religion, dressed up to look like the Catholic religion, but it’s not the Catholic religion.” While the leader of the Society of St. Pius X, Bishop Barnard Fellay, has forbidden Williamson from speaking about the Holocaust and apologized for the controversy, he actually echoed Williamson’s objection to Vatican II. (And at least one society member has spoken out in support of Williamson’s beliefs about the Holocaust.)
Pope Benedict’s decision to try to bring the Lefebvrists back into the fold was entirely his own. The pope believes he has a special responsibility to promote unity among Catholics—including those who have fallen away from the church. In a rare show of public dissatisfaction with his superior, Cardinal Walter Kasper said tersely, “It was the decision of the pope.” Kasper called Williamson’s remarks “gibberish” and emphasized that lifting the automatic excommunication was the start of a long process that could come to fruition only if the Lefebvrists accept the teachings of Vatican II. Other Vatican officials have expressed dismay at the pope’s move off the record.
Benedict’s decision is especially difficult to understand when the Vatican is proceeding against two priests for their disagreement with the magisterium of the church. American theologian Roger Haight was recently silenced and forbidden to teach because of concerns about his writings, which the Vatican thought misunderstood the nature of Christ. Rev. Roy Bourgeois, of the Maryknoll order, has been threatened with excommunication because he participated in a ceremony at which women were ordained to the priesthood. Indeed, the similarities between Bourgeois’ case and that of the Lefebvrists are uncanny: Both set themselves up in judgment over the magisterial authority of the pope and council; both are implicated in illicit and invalid ordination ceremonies.
Progressive Catholics are accustomed to being called “cafeteria Catholics” because of the perception that they pick and choose among Catholic teachings, accepting some while ignoring others. But here it is the progressives who are claiming foul and the right wing that is charged with its own bizarre brand of cafeteria Catholicism. Some wish to deny the church’s ban on ordaining women; others wish to deny Vatican II’s teachings on separation of church and state.
When the Vatican moves against a renegade theologian, it is easy enough to acknowledge that the church has a right to decide who does and does not speak in its name. No pastor can be indifferent to the possibility of his flock being led astray. But it will be curious to see if the Lefebvrists will reconcile themselves to Vatican II and how much wiggle room the Vatican will allow them in interpreting the documents of that council. The smart money says they will end up biting the papal hand that has just tried to feed them, and Benedict will regret his decision. After all, they are crazy, and crazy people can draw outsiders into their world of mirrors, leaving onlookers to figure out who is sane and who is not. If Benedict wants to make some room for the crazies on the right, I just hope he will give similar latitude to those on the left. We all may be cafeteria Catholics in one way or another.