Society of St Pius X & Vatican II

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New Information about the SSPX episode

The following is an excerpt from John Allen's column in the National Catholic Reporter entitled, "'Attack on Ratzinger': Italian book assesses Benedict's papacy." The article reviews a new Italian book about Pope Benedict XVI, Attacco a Ratzinger: Accuse e scandali, profezie e complotti ("Attack on Ratzinger: Accusations and Scandals, Prophecies and Plots") by Andrea Tornielli and Paolo Rodari. This excerpt provides some details about the announcement of the lifting of the excommunications of four SSPX bishops in January 2009.

Now for one of those revelations from the book -- a nugget which captures the Vatican's PR tone-deafness so perfectly that it just takes your breath away.

It concerns the affair of Bishop Richard Williamson, one of four traditionalist prelates whose excommunications were lifted by Pope Benedict XVI in January 2009. Williamson infamously gave an interview to Swedish television in November 2008, repeating statements he had made two decades earlier in Canada, to the effect that Nazis did not use gas chambers and that only 200,000 to 300,000 Jews had died in Nazi camps during the Second World War. The interview was not broadcast in Sweden until Jan. 21, 2009, but its contents were anticipated in a piece in the German weekly Der Spiegel the day before, on Jan. 20.

By that stage, Benedict XVI had already decided (sometime in late 2008) to lift the excommunications of the four bishops -- seeing it, he would later insist, as the beginning of a process of reconciliation, not the end. A formal decree was presented to Bishop Bernard Fellay, leader of the traditionalist Society of St. Pius X, on Jan. 17, 2009, and it took effect on Jan. 21. The decree was not made public by the Vatican, however, until noon Rome time on Jan. 24, when it was published in that day's news bulletin.

Once that happened, headlines about the pope "rehabilitating a Holocaust denier" became the shot heard round the world. After weeks of controversy, Benedict XVI would eventually issue an agonizing letter to the world's bishops apologizing for the hurt caused by the affair.

All that, of course, is a matter of record. What Tornielli and Rodari add is that on Jan. 22, 2009 -- two days after Der Spiegel broke the story of Williams' interview, and two days before the Vatican formally announced the lifting of the excommunications -- a high-level meeting took place in the Vatican to discuss the presentation of the pope's decree. The meeting was convened by Italian Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican secretary of state. Also present were:

  • Cardinal Darío Castrillón Hoyos, then president of the Ecclesia Dei Commission for relations with the traditionalists;
  • Cardinal William Levada, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith;
  • Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, then prefect of the Congregation for Bishops;
  • Cardinal Claudio Hummes, prefect of the Congregation for Clergy;
  • Archbishop Francesco Coccopalmerio, president of the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts;
  • Archbishop Fernando Filoni, substitute in the Secretariat of State.

The gathering, in other words, brought together the Vatican's most senior brain trust. Tornielli and Rodario reconstruct the meeting on the basis of a previously unpublished set of confidential Vatican minutes.

Here's the mind-blowing point: During the meeting, there was no mention whatsoever of Williamson's explosive comments on the Holocaust, despite the fact that they had been in circulation for two full days. The minutes reflect a detailed discussion about whether, and how, the lifting of the excommunications applied to other clergy of the Society of St. Pius X, but there was apparently no consideration of how this move might go down in the broader court of public opinion.

Two key figures were not on the guest list for the Jan. 22 meeting: Lombardi, who had to explain the decision to the world's media, and Cardinal Walter Kasper, who had to explain it to the Jews. Instead, Filoni led a brief discussion about a proposed statement to the press, and the minutes reflect general agreement not to grant any media interviews. Coccopalmerio was commissioned to publish an article in L'Osservatore Romano explaining the decree, but only "after a few days."

The lack of any sense of urgency, or alarm, about public reaction is astonishing. The impression one gets is that the Vatican's best and brightest were acutely sensitive to the kinds of questions canon lawyers might ask, but either unaware of -- or, even more troubling, indifferent to -- how the decree might strike the rest of the world.

The rest is history. After being whipped around by a global tsunami for 10 full days, the Vatican's Secretariat of State finally released a statement on Feb. 4, calling Williamson's statements on the Holocaust "unacceptable." It clarified that by lifting the excommunications, Benedict XVI only opened a door to dialogue, and it's now up to the traditionalists to prove their "adherence to the doctrine and discipline of the church." The four prelates still have no authority to act as Catholic bishops, and their movement is still not recognized. If they want to be fully reintegrated into the church, they will have to accept the teaching of the Second Vatican Council.

Looking back, here's the thing.

Even if Williamson had never given his interview to Swedish TV, anyone looking at the situation from a PR point of view should have anticipated that once the Vatican announced these four bishops were no longer excommunicated, reporters would look into their backgrounds. Had anyone in the Vatican spent even five minutes on Google searching under the name "Richard Williamson," his troubling history on the Holocaust would have leapt off the screen, which was a matter of public record long before he spoke to the Swedes. (Indeed, all the Swedish journalist did was ask Williamson to repeat stuff he had already said.)

Armed with that information, the Vatican could have issued its detailed Feb. 4 statement along with the decree itself, to explain from the outset that these guys have not been "rehabilitated," but rather given an opportunity to clean up their act. They could also have organized a press conference, so there would be TV sound bites assuring the world that this decision in no way signified a rollback on Catholic/Jewish relations or anything else.

Under any set of circumstances, failure to take such common sense steps is hard to explain.

Yet Williamson did give that interview to Swedish TV, and in that light, the revelation that the pope's top aides assembled two days after it went public and still seemed oblivious to the train wreck hurtling towards them -- well, you'll never need additional proof that the Vatican has a PR problem.