- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 25, 2009

From combined dispatches

Pope Benedict XVI has lifted the excommunications of four traditionalist bishops as part of his efforts to bring the Society of St. Pius X, which opposed some of the Second Vatican Council’s changes, back into the Roman Catholic Church.

The four bishops — two Frenchmen, a Briton and an Argentine — were excommunicated 20 years ago after they were consecrated by the late Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre without papal consent, a move the Vatican declared an act of schism, incurring automatic excommunication.

In a statement Saturday, Bishop Bernard Fellay, head of the society and one of the rehabilitated bishops, expressed his “brotherly gratitude to the Holy Father” and said the decree would help the whole Catholic Church.

“Thanks to this gesture, Catholics attached to tradition throughout the world will no longer be unjustly stigmatized and condemned for having kept the faith of their fathers,” Bishop Fellay said in a letter to his supporters.

Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre founded the Swiss-based SSPX in 1969 over his opposition to the changes made at the 1962-65 Second Vatican Council, particularly its ecumenical outreach and its decision to allow Mass to be celebrated in local languages instead of Latin. The worldwide group has six seminaries, three universities, 70 primary and secondary schools, 463 priests and 160 seminarians, and claims about 150,000 followers worldwide.

Benedict has made clear from the start of his pontificate that he wanted to reintegrate the group back into the Vatican’s fold, meeting within months of his election with Bishop Fellay. In 2007, Benedict answered one of Bishop Fellay’s key demands by relaxing restrictions on celebrating the traditional Latin Mass. In lifting the excommunication, he answered the society’s second condition for theological discussions about relations.

The decree from the Vatican’s Congregation for Bishops said Benedict “remits” the automatic excommunication.

Bishop Kurt Koch, the head of the Swiss bishops’ conference, said the move followed a Dec. 15 letter from Bishop Fellay asking the pope to lift the excommunications and recognizing “the teachings of the Church and the primacy of the pope.”

Bishop Koch also underlined that more steps would be needed before “full unity” could be restored between “the whole of Saint Pius X and the Roman Catholic Church.”

However, the lifting of the excommunications sparked outrage among Jewish groups because one of the four rehabilitated bishops is being investigated for Holocaust denial in Germany, where it is a crime. Some of the words by Bishop Richard Williamson were shown on Swedish state TV last week, including: “I think that 200,000 to 300,000 Jews died in Nazi concentration camps, but none of them in gas chambers.”

Jewish groups warned that the pope’s decision would have serious implications for Catholic-Jewish relations as well as for the pontiff’s planned visit to the Holy Land later this year.

“I do not see how business can proceed as usual,” said Rabbi David Rosen, Jerusalem-based head of interreligious affairs at the American Jewish Committee and a key Vatican-Jewish negotiator. He called for the pope or a senior adviser to issue a “clear condemnation” of all Holocaust denials and deniers.

The Rev. Federico Lombardi, a Vatican spokesman, said Bishop Williamson’s views were “absolutely indefensible,” but not acts of schism or other excommunicable offense under church law.

“They are his personal ideas … that we certainly don’t share but they have nothing to do with the issue of the excommunication and the removal of the excommunication,” Father Lombardi said.

Bishop Fellay also has distanced the society from Bishop Williamson’s remarks about the Holocaust, saying the society has no competence in historical matters and that Bishop Williamson opinions were his own.

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