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Pope Benedict’s Tightrope Act

Pope Benedict XVI is no stranger to controversy. His recent decision to lift the excommunications of four traditionalist bishops has sent shockwaves reaching far beyond Christendom. This controversy may prove the greatest challenge of his pontificate to date — for more reasons than one.

Benedict’s watershed move was a follow-up to Summorum Pontificum, his July 7, 2007, motu proprio that opened a path to wider use of the Tridentine Latin Mass — an incredible act of openness and courage considering the amount of resistance the idea received even at the highest levels of the Vatican. The Pope’s motu proprio was not only addressed to the Catholic Church as a whole; his intention was also to work toward healing the decades-long rift with the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX). With more than 700 chapels and six seminaries spread across the world, the SSPX’s following is not insignificant. On January 21, the Holy Father took this reconciliation process one step further: Benedict unilaterally lifted the excommunications of the four bishops illicitly consecrated by French Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre in 1988. Bernard Fellay, Bernard Tissier de Mallerais, Richard Williamson, and Alphonso de Galerreta — along with Lefebvre — had incurred excommunication latae sententiae, meaning that it was activated automatically by the very act of the illicit consecration.

The Pope’s January decision marks the close of years of dashed hopes on the part of the Vatican. Benedict’s repeated “magnanimous gestures of peace” made toward the Lefebvrists have not been followed, so far, by any significant step of reconsideration and reconciliation on their part. The Pope’s previous effort at reconciliation fell apart just last year when the SSPX failed to respond to a set of conditions laid out by the Holy See, most notably that the Society would avoid “the pretext of a Magisterium superior to that of the Holy Father.” Of all the concerns, this one likely remains the most problematic. The Lefebvrists have long given the distinct impression that they have set up a parallel Magisterium — yes, one they seem to consider superior to that of the See of Peter.

Pope Benedict purposefully performed his act of mercy on the 50th anniversary of Pope John XXIII’s decision to summon what would later become known as the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). Benedict’s timing is both significant and controversial considering that Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre founded his priestly fraternity as a wholesale rejection of Vatican II. The SSPX has been specifically critical through the decades of the Council’s teachings on the liturgy (which led to the New Mass), religious liberty, ecumenism, and the Church’s stance toward the Jews. Bishop Tissier de Mallerais has even gone so far as to call for the Second Vatican Council to be erased and all of its teachings and recommendations abolished. In a 2007 interview with The Remnant, the Lefebvrite bishop confidently proclaimed, “You cannot read Vatican II as a Catholic work.”

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Pope Benedict's Tightrope Act

The Pope's recent decision to lift the excommunications of four traditionalist bishops has sent shockwaves reaching far beyond Christendom.