Wednesday, February 11, 2009

The Vatican Continues To Receive Free Advice

Some free thoughts from Fr. Tom Reese.

Benedict Undermining His Own Legacy
The lifting of the excommunication of Bishop Richard Williamson by Pope Benedict XVI caused a firestorm of protest from Jews and liberal Catholics. Jewish leaders expressed shock and hurt because Bishop Williamson had denied the reality of the Shoah (Holocaust) that exterminated millions of Jews. Catholic liberals complained that Williamson and the three other bishops of the St. Pius X Society have still not accepted the Second Vatican Council.

The complaints against Bishop Williamson are on target. He is a Shoah denier and does not accept Vatican II. His views on women are also anachronistic. He disapproves of women in pants and says women should not go to universities. This is a man who would be happier living in the 19th century, like many members of the Lefebvre movement who have not recovered from the French revolution. Oh yes, he also believes that the World Trade Center was destroyed by explosions, not by airplanes.

Three aspects of this debacle need to be separately examined: the decision to lift the excommunication, how it was made and how it was communicated to the world.

The Decision

The media has described the decision to lift the excommunication of Bishop Williamson as the pope "rehabilitating" him, "returning him to the fold," and "embracing" him. None of this is true.
The four bishops, along with Archbishop Marel Lefebvre, were excommunicated because Lefebvre ordained them as bishops without the approval of the pope. They were not excommunicated because of their beliefs about the Shoah or Vatican II. They were excommunicated because they were ordained bishops. (This point does seem to be getting lost in all verbiage.)

Lifting the excommunication says nothing about their beliefs. It is the ecclesia equivalent of a "cease fire" not a peace treaty. The bishops are still suspended from ministry, they are forbidden to act as bishops or even as priests. Long and difficult negotiations will be needed to bring about any reconciliation between the Vatican and the Society of St. Pius X. There is a very good chance that these negotiations will fail.

As one who believes that the Catholic Church should be a big tent with room for different views, I do not criticize the pope's attempt to reach out to the Lefebvrites. In my view, lifting the excommunications was a judgment call, and I would defend the pope's right to make that decision. My disappointment is that while the Vatican is enthusiastic in wooing the right, it has no patience with the left. Only the right side of the cafeteria is open.
(This is precisely where my frustration lies. It is somewhat hypocritical to throw accusations of secularism, communism and atheism at the left, while ignoring the fascism, anti semitism, misogyny, and homophobia on the right.)

Why is the Vatican putting so much effort into reconciliation with the Society of St. Pius X? The real reason is because these men are bishops. If they were simple priests, the Vatican would not give them the time of day. The Vatican is caught by it own theology that sees these men as validly if not licitly ordained. As a result, these bishops can ordain more bishops and the schism can go on forever. (This is exactly the same situation with Roman Catholic women priests. They followed the example set by SSPX and have a valid if illicit priesthood, in that the original women were ordained by bishops in good standing---even if those bishops are standing in a closet.)

If the bishops ordain more bishops, they will again suffer excommunication. If the bishops refrain from ordaining new bishops, the schism ends when these four bishops die even if they are not reconciled with the pope. If lifting the excommunication is the price for keeping the bishops from ordaining more bishops, then in the view of the Vatican it is a cheap price to pay.

The Decision-Making Process

This latest controversy and others that preceded it (like his Regensburg address) point to a fatal systemic flaw in the Benedict papacy that is destroying his effectiveness as pope: He does not consult experts who might challenge his views and inclinations.
(Probably the result of too many years in the CDF where he was the expert.)

No one disputes the fact that Benedict is a brilliant theologian, but he is surrounded by people who are not as smart as he is and who would never think of questioning him. How do you challenge someone who you think is the smartest man in the world?

A smart person surrounded by less than smart people will always get in more trouble than an average person who consults smart people who are experts in their fields. The fact that Walter Kasper was not consulted on lifting the excommunication is just another in a long line of examples. (And a smart man surrounded by rich sycophants won't bite the hand that feeds him. So much for Benedict the Rottweiler.)

The firestorm that followed the decision should have been foreseen and prepared for. Unnamed sources in the Vatican are saying that they did not know that Williamson was a Shoah denier. Haven't they heard of Google? (I bet someone in the Vatican knows how to use Google now.)

In any other organization, heads would roll after so many disasters, but in the Vatican, loyalty still trumps competence. The pope needs a good chief of staff who would make sure this kind of thing does not happen. (This isn't just a problem for the Vatican. It's a Wall Street Problem and was the foundation on which the Bush presidency was built.)

Communicating the Decision

Finally, the way in which this decision was communicated to the world was a disaster. Benedict still acts like a German professor who can demand the undivided attention of his students. He has little PR sense. He needs people to protect him from himself. (This assumes Benedict thinks he needs to be protected from himself. He's more likely to think he needs protection from the media or any other questioner not named Benedict.)

Special efforts should have been made to communicate the decision to Jewish leaders. For example, after explaining to them that the decision did not represent an endorsement of the bishops' views, the Vatican could have argued that during its dialogue with the Society, it would try to change the Lefebvrites' views on Jews. It could argue that it is better for the Jews if the church acts as a check on the Lefebvrites than if they are simply left to fester by themselves. This argument and other arguments might not have worked, but Jewish leaders would have known that the Vatican takes their feelings seriously.

The Vatican still believes that all it has to do is announce a decision by the pope and everyone will greet it with enthusiasm. One-page press releases will not do it. Most large American universities have more sophisticated media offices than does the Vatican, which is the headquarters for a 1.1-billion member organization. Simply setting up a YouTube channel will not do it either. The Vatican needs a sophisticated and modern communications strategy.

The sad thing is that Pope Benedict is saying and doing many great things, but these media disasters are undermining his papacy. His words about peace, justice, refugees and the economic crisis are not being heard. Benedict wants to be a pastor and teacher, but he needs people who know how to run an organization and communicate in the 21st century, and he does not have them. The Vatican's model for the papacy is still the absolute monarchies and royal courts of the past. That model simply will not work today. (This is true, and it is also true that these media disasters are undercutting the authority of any of his other teachings and make him look like a hypocrite.)


I've always liked Fr. Reese and was really quite angry that his position as editor of America magazine was axed by the Benedict Vatican. In spite of that fact, Fr. Reese gives a pretty even handed assessment of the SSPX fiasco.

This is the story that just won't quit. Fr. Frederico Lombardi went on Vatican radio to recant his throwing Cardinal Hoyos under the bus. According to Fr Lombardi, Cardinal Hoyos knew nothing.

Then there's a quote from Cardinal Hoyos himself that I found really fascinating. When asked by Columbia National Radio if Cardinal Hoyos took Bishop Williamson's view on the Holocaust into account before bringing the SSPX excommunications before the Pope, Hoyos answered:

"I have always had truth as a norm. The Holy Father knows this. We are moving forward, trying to rebuild the unity of the Church, and put an end completely to this schism."

Which looks to me to be a total non answer. But then I guess if Hoyos had said, "yes I did know all about his views", that would have caused an even bigger fire storm. Far better to know nothing while "always having had truth as a norm".

The Maciel story hasn't died either, but there is some serious reflection going on amongst some of the Legion priests. In this letter from Fr. Thomas Berg, there is both a heart felt apology and some deep soul searching. In it Fr. Berg calls for an independent investigation of the Legion and it's leadership. Like many other commenters have suggested, including George Weigel, this independent investigation is sorely needed in order to root out the pathology of Maciel. It wasn't a charism Maciel left the Legion, (many of his writings are taken from Opus Dei) it is his pathology that he left the Legion. This may be one of the only times I have ever agreed with George Weigel.

In the meantime, Fr. Kennedy of St. Mary's Brisbane is going to stage a sit in and force the police to drag him and some of his parishioners out of the parish church. In my estimation this is a mistake. If St. Mary's can't continue it's mission of outreach without the presence of Fr. Kennedy than it isn't a mission at all. It's the vision of one man and St. Mary's verges on being a left wing cult of personality.

I understand that St. Mary's may not find itself with a priest of it's liking or philosophical bent, but a sit in makes it seem as if it is really all about Fr. Kennedy and not St. Mary's vision for the Church. In some respects Archbishop Bathersby is asking the parishioners of St. Mary's to make a serious decision, are you members of the body of Christ with a mission for the greater church, or are you Fr. Kennedy's personal disciples? This is not a whole lot different than what the Legion is facing concerning their allegiance to Maciel. Catholicism is supposed to be about Christ not Catholic priests.
It pains me to make this comparison, but I would be a left wing hypocrite if I didn't. Seems to me there's enough hypocrisy in the air without me adding mine.

One last note of humor. I have desk calendar of Non Sequitur cartoons. Today's shows a Shepherd reading a newspaper with his back to his flock. The caption is "The Meek Decide It's Time To Inherit The Earth." Next to the shepherd is one of the sheep exhorting his fellow sheep. "OK...on the count of three, we turn carnivorous." It may be that the Catholic sheep are turning a little carnivorous when it comes to their Vatican shepherds. I bet the Vatican think so.


  1. Regarding the disarray and behind the times communications and anti-google searching by the Vatican, I recall a priest from Philadelphia who was elevated to Cardinal last year by Benedict, Fr. Foley, I believe his name is. He was born in the same hospital as me and that is how I remember. He is a Communications expert supposedly. I guess he's not involved or invited into the inner circle and he's off somewhere twiddling his thumbs somewhere in Rome.

    Benedict's papacy so reminds me of the Bush Administration who did not listen to real experts about supposed weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, going to War in Iraq, about torture, the economy, etc., etc., etc.

    P.S. Hope you all enjoy the 3 new tunes I just put up on stereofame.

  2. I see the St Marys situation a little differently. As I understand it, St Marys congregation is made up of a majority of those that the Vatican has labeled unwanted in the B16 RCC. A new priest, especially one who is a B16 chosen-one, would essentially mean 'get out and dont come back' to them. From that perspective, the sit-in is both an act of rebellion, and an act of self preservation.

    As we know, B16 really doesnt care about the pastoral needs of the congregation, only about adherance to his version of catholicism. One of his chosen-ones as priest would be charged with "reforming" the church from its Christ centered inclusive of everyone into a more "traditional" - "liberal get lost" version.

    I say go for it, secede from the union if necessary, take their moneys and properties and go as an independant catholic congregation. God knows there are more than enough disaffected catholics who would love to be part of a Christ centered church.

  3. There's a little bit more involved with St. Mary's than just a parish. It's also a multi million dollar state funded hub for all kinds of social services for South Brisbane and employs over forty people. It's not just a matter of a parish leaving the Church, this also involves people's jobs and the people they serve.

    Although I sympathise with Fr. Kennedy and the parish, this is about more than them.

    The rightwing nut job that took his video to the Vatican has threatened quite a bit more than just one priest. This is the kind of thing that has to stop.

  4. So basically then the Vatican is guilty of extortion - do what the Vatican wants, the way the Vatican wants it, or else.


    I agree, it has to stop, and the only way to stop bullies and criminals is to stand up to them.

    The problem here is if they give in to the extortion, all they are doing is insuring more of the same in the future. How long before we say enough is enough.

    History shows us that every postive move forward that has improved our society has come at a sometimes very high price. Ending slavery, womens sufferage, equal rights, etc. All have come at a cost. If this is the cost for breaking the Vatican stranglehold then it has to be paid.

  5. I've been thinking about this sit-in too. I think that such a sit-in will bring in the news reporters and they could potentially shine a huge spotlight on this issue in the international press. I don't think it is a bad idea. It is their parish and it is their right and I think in the process the debate will widen and the Vatican will think twice about retiring or excommunicating priests who are only serving the needs of the parish.

  6. There is also the additional issue of the Tent City being set up by the Australian Indidgenous supporters of Fr. Kennedy. This will have murky legal issues since they signed a treaty with St. Mary's and their point is well taken as far as I'm concerned.

    They maintain a spiritual ceremonial site that has long been in use is the property of the people of the area. That it's sacredness takes it beyond the merely secular.

    That's really true. I mean really true in a quantum sense. In this case they are attempting to protect the sacred energy of the space, not the dogma or authority issues. This is an important distinction in it's own right. It's sort of along the lines of who really owns air space?

    I'm just as interested to see how this plays out as in any thing else.