Staying in Rome at the meeting of bishops - the friends of the Focolare Movement, I very carefully watch the “media war” concerning the lifting of excommunication of four schismatic bishops consecrated 20 years ago. In my opinion much has been said if I should not say that all. I myself provided available information on this site shortly after the publication of the decree on the excommunication lift. This article is meant to continue the previous one and to complete the explanations and add further information on this sensitive matter featuring several aspects. It is necessary to differentiate: (i) the lift of excommunication, (ii) statements on the Holocaust, (iii) the issue of a bishop speaking about political and historical facts, (iv) media failures.
(i) Benedict XVI's basic intention was to make the first step to heal the wound of a schism which was inflicted by Marcel Lefebvre when he, at the end of the council in 1965 and more than 20 years after, refused to recognize documents voted for and signed by the bishops of the whole Church. Lefebvre gained and grew followers for his resistance and therefore the schism expanded within the Church. Although Pope John Paul II was a "peaceful" pope with open arms, having warned Lefebvre he excommunicated him for expanding and deepening the schism and for consecrating four bishops against his will. It means the excommunication of Lefebvre for the forbidden episcopal consecration and the excommunication of others for its acceptance. Lefevbre refused and impeached Pope’s authority. The disruption even grew. The whole issue was observed by Ecclesia Dei, an institution founded in Vatican at that time, today presided by Cardinal Darius Castrillón Hoyos. He has shown several times an effort to find a cheap solution for the issue by the authority of his function. However he was not advised to. It is likely that now it is him who is the main “protagonist” in the matter. Of course the issue concerns particularly the Pope as the highest authority in the Church. He has his assistants who advise him, bring in impulses, inform on serious issues and prepare background documents for important decisions. The issue should have been consulted with Cardinal Walter Kasper who is the chairman of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity and for the relations with the Jews. Unfortunately Cardinal Hoyos did not do so. Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, the prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, is another person competent in the matter. He was not informed in advance either. Surely the decree could have been signed by the Pope but with respect to the fact that the excommunication decree had been signed by Cardinal Bernardin Gantin, the predecessor of Cardinal Re, the lift of excommunication was signed by its successor, Cardinal Re.
In Vatican circles there is an opinion that the confusion was caused by the fact that the whole issue was not properly explained beforehand. The lift of excommunication does not mean that the lefebvrian bishops are outright accepted back to the community of the Church, that the past is annulled and that they are accepted for “free”, without any change in thinking, without any penitence. This “act of mercy” only means that the excommunication as a disciplinary punishment for the forbidden acceptance of episcopal consecration was lifted enabling them to return. Their consecration is valid but unauthorized. The said however stay in the schism which was created by the fact they did not accept the doctrine of the Church! They are outside the Church. This state is similar to the situation which persists in the relation between the Catholic and Orthodox Church after Paul VI and Athenagoras, the patriarch of Constantinople, lifted the mutual excommunication declared by their predecessors. This lift, however, does not mean an enthronement of a church unity and the schism still persists. A deep change in thinking, proper penitence and the full acceptance of the council doctrine must take place before the lefebvrian bishops are accepted to the Church. The person who is responsible for the huge case must be searched in Vatican. It seems to be most probably Cardinal Hoyos who presides over Ecclesia Dei, the institution that is to solve the thing.
The schismatic bishops have not so far expressed any willingness to penitence or recognition of the Church doctrine. Neither during Fellay's visit to the Pope in August 2005, nor in his letter delivered to the Pope by Cardinal Hoyos. The lift of excommunication is a start of a long journey, a long process and we do not know how it will end. There is hope that the Holy Spirit shall enlighten the obstinate schismatics and that they decide to change their thinking and to repent.
It was this disastrous lack of explanation and information which caused much bad blood among bishops and in the Church in Germany, France and Spain.
(ii) The issue of Bishop Williamson’s opinions of the Holocaust published right in the time of the excommunication lift is an “unfortunate” coincidence which, in fact, created and extremely amplified the case due to the lack of appropriate information. If there was only the lift of excommunication there would be surely discussions about various theological aspects of the matter but they would pass soon. I put aside the bizarre speculations whether it was "timed" or it was a "conspiracy" against the Pope which meant to harm him. I only note that the interview is said to be taken already in November last year. And further, Williamson did not hide these and other anti-council opinions long time ago. It is an unforgivable naive mistake and a great irresponsibility that Cardinal Hoyos made no inquiries in Vatican or elsewhere although he should have and easily could have done so. The Vatican media and the Pope himself apologized they did not know about these opinions. I quite believe them but Hoyos should be probably brought to justice. It perhaps is not known in this country that Williamson is an Anglican who left for the Catholic Church during the wave of women’s consecration in the Anglican Church and Lefebvre accepted and consecrated him.
(iii) Bishop Bernard Fellay and other lefebvrists and the whole schismatic Society feel harmed by Williamson's opinions and the whole campaign accompanying them, although a great part of the Society shares such opinions. We saw that on a lefebvrian extremist website even in this country few years ago.
The excuse that if a bishop does not speak about the issues of belief his opinions are private is rather funny and there is no need to discuss it. These and similar opinions of Fellay himself create a picture of his thinking. Unfortunately the lefebvrists do not take into account that these “private” opinions are not only deeply against the Second Vatican Council but also against the "private” belief.
(iv) It is truth that this whole unnecessary wave of sharp criticism was caused partly by the fact that not even the Vatican media were sufficiently informed. However neither the Vatican nor other media are justified by the insufficient amount of information on the issue. Again, it is an illustrative example of what is well known, namely that the media sometimes need to make scandals and bring or create negative issues to be attractive instead of “serving the truth”. Even I was “affected” by the “service” in the article in Lidové noviny titled “Cardinal Vlk assaulted the Pope because of a Holocaust denier” I have no need to apologize or revoke anything. I shall back up everything I wrote. I only considered Lidové noviny to be a more serious newspaper.
Since the beginning of the whole case I have written three articles on my website. The first one was dated January 27, just few days after the lift of excommunication. It is the first thorough information about the formation of the whole problem and its development from the Council to 1988, the year of excommunication. A detail description of the course of the issue followed at the end of January. There I stated doubts whether the lefebvrists deserve the act of mercy. I brought news about reactions of Vatican and Benedict XVI. It was clearly said that the lift "did not close the painful period of lefebvrian schism" but the Pope “prepared a field” and that “the lift of excommunication did not mean full community”. I quoted the Pope who had expressed hope that "the general reconciliation and full community would be reached as soon as possible”. Shortly after, on January 30, I criticized journalists in the article "Misunderstood Act of Mercy” that they had not understood the core of the issue and causally connected this act of mercy with Williamson’s monstrous and unacceptable opinions of the Holocaust, as if the lift of excommunication concerned the Holocaust. In the article I dealt with the reactions of Catholic bishops on the issues, with their denouncements of Williamson’s opinions and I presented an idea that it was a "daring start of a process without knowing how it is going to develop". And finally the article from February 5, titled “Ongoing Discussions” which was referred to by Lidové noviny under the title mentioned above. I spoke positively about the Pope. Lidové noviny did not pay much attention to the sentence “Vatican took the step rather easy” and identified Vatican with the Pope. Who I meant by “Vatican” is obvious from the explanation above. I put aside various professional mistakes which journalists made during the "campaign”.
Cardinal Miloslav Vlk
February 13, 2009