The Removal of Excommunications for "Lefebvrist" Bishops: What it DOES NOT mean

After seeing on last night’s news some misreporting on this event, I prepared the following statement for our Ecumenical and Interfaith Newsblog and our Commission mailing list. I was ably assisted in this by Andrew Rabel’s column in Inside the Vatican.

On 1 July 1988, Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, who had been suspended from episcopal duties largely due to his refusal to accept the authority of the Second Vatican Council, received latae sententiae excommunication for ordaining four bishops for the Society of Saint Pius X without permission from the Holy See.

Archbishop Lefebvre died in 1991, but the excommunication continued to apply to the four bishops. On January 24th, with the approval of Pope Benedict XVI, Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, Prefect of the Congregation of Bishops, issued a decree removing the excommunication of these four bishops.

The removal of these excommunications has caused a great deal of confusion and controversy, especially owing to the fact that one of the four, Bishop Williamson, has publicly and strongly expressed opinions of “Holocaust-denial”. Some have seen the lifting of the excommunications as a papal endorsement of these extreme and anti-Semitic views.

It must therefore be made quite clear that the removal of excommunication does not mean that these four bishops have been received back into communion with the Catholic Church. In his decree, Cardinal Battista Re made it quite clear that this act is only the first “step” toward the “accomplishment of full communion with the Church of the entire Society of Saint Pius X”.

The excommunications were lifted because the bishops fulfilled the five conditions the Congregation required of. All five of these conditions concern the acceptance of the authority of the Bishop of Rome.

Many other serious issues remain between the Catholic Church and the Society of Saint Pius X. The chief among these is alluded to by Bishop Bernard Fellay, the bishop who currently heads the Society, in his response to the decree. He writes: “We accept and make our own all the councils up to the Second Vatican Council about which we express some reservations.” Those reservations are very serious, and include the Council’s decrees on ecumenism, interfaith relations and religious freedom.

At this stage, the relationship between the Catholic Church and the bishops of the Society have returned to what they were before the 1988 excommunications, that is, when Archbishop Lefebvre had been suspended from his episcopal duties (‘a divinis’) and could not legally celebrate any of the Catholic sacraments.

Cardinal Kasper, the President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity and Chair of the Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews has explained the lifting of the excommunications as: “a gesture to favour the reconstitution of the unity of the Church. It is only a first step, because a series of themes must still be discussed. It is necessary to see in what way they accept the Council. It remains to be seem what will be the status of the SSPX. … Benedict XVI expressed himself about this problems with extreme clarity. I understand that the opinions of Williamson can cast a shadow on relations with Judaism, but I am convinced that the dialogue will continue. We have good relations with them.”

A dialogue will now begin between the Society of Saint Pius X and the Holy See. Before full communion can be restored, all of the bishops of the Society will need to accept, among other things, the Catholic Church’s teaching on the relationship with the Jewish people.

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0 Responses to The Removal of Excommunications for "Lefebvrist" Bishops: What it DOES NOT mean

  1. Anonymous says:

    “On 1 July 1988, Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, who had been suspended from episcopal duties largely due to his refusal to accept the authority of the Second Vatican Council…”

    Che? Is there something I’ve missed: he was fine until he was excommunicated. This particular wording suggests – regrettably – that his differences of opinion on theological issues, the Mass and the Novus Ordo were the real cause of his excommunication. Of course, that’s simply not true.

    I suspect the Good Bishop Lefevbre might just be proved largely (though not wholly) correct in the end.

    By the way, this will be a fascinating process. Personally, I think it’s going to be a cracker: finally we’re going to be able to have the discussion that we’ve needed to have for 40 years: why a blind acceptance of “The Council” whatever that means, is as mindless as its blind rejection.

    As for Williamson, he’ll probably get arrested when he appears at the SSPX seminary in Bavaria, and that will deal with one of the 3 bishops.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Hold on, my fellow anonymous. Lefebvre was a stickler for the letter of canon law before the council and would – or at least should – have known exactly what he was letting himself in for when he consecrated bishops without papal authority.

  3. Schütz says:

    Anon #1, my point was that his “suspension a divinis” was largely because he refused to accept the authority of VatII. His excommunication was for unlawfully consecrating the four bishops. In other words, it is not as if all was honky dory before his excommunication. Just as now, after the period of excommunicatoin, all is still not honky dory.

  4. Mike says:

    And just to emphasise your point Dave – I think what Anonymous1 is missing is that long before the excommunications, Archbishop Lefebvre and all the priests ordained by him were *suspended*. Also, the SSPX was suppressed. They were already operating in major disobedience.

    I’m speaking from memory in a hurry, and I may have missed something. But I once found this document useful

  5. marcel w says:

    + Lefebvre was suspended for ordaining priests. Not because of his views regarding Vatican II. Lefebvre opened a seminary with the approval of the local diocese. After pressure from the flagrant modernist +Villot and the French Bishops conference Lefebvre had permission for his seminary revoked, after training many men to the eve of ordination. He went ahead with the ordinations (thank God) and was thus suspended. One of the justifications for the persecution was the ‘abrogation’ of the Old Rite… The SP MP has proven the 1970s authorities wrong on that. The suspension a divinis was an injustice (see Michael Davies online book for an excellent review)…

  6. Schütz says:

    Good point, Marcel W – technically you are correct. That was the occasion for the suspension a divinis. I think in philosophy they would call that the “proximate cause”. Whereas his views regarding Vatican II could be said to be the “ultimate cause”. Cf.

    As for the rest of it – an injustice was not done if the Archbishop conducted ordinations without proper authority. The evidence appears that, whatever justification he may have had in his own mind for these actions, this is exactly what he did.

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