VATICAN CITY – Pope Benedict XVI has written a letter to the world’s bishops defending his decision to lift the excommunications of four traditionalist bishops and expressing regret that it gave rise to misunderstandings and polemics, according to Italian newspapers.
The pope said the controversy over Bishop Richard Williamson’s statements denying the extent of the Holocaust was “a misadventure that was for me unforeseeable” and acknowledged that the Vatican should have paid more attention to information easily available on the Internet, the reports said.
The pope said he was particularly saddened at the reaction of some Catholics who seemed willing to believe he was changing direction on Catholic-Jewish relations and were ready to “strike at me with hostility.” He thanked “Jewish friends” who helped clarify the matter and restore a sense of trust.
Excerpts from the letter were published by the Italian daily “Il Foglio” March 11; additional passages were reported on the blog of Andrea Tornielli, who covers the Vatican for the newspaper “Il Giornale.” Vatican sources said the reports were generally accurate; the Vatican press office declined comment, but said the papal text would be released March 12.
According to the reports, the pope said his overture to Bishop Williamson and the other three bishops of the Society of St. Pius X was designed to close a wound and bring unity to the church. Instead, he said, “it suddenly appeared as something completely different: as a repudiation of reconciliation between Christians and Jews.”
He emphasized that improving Catholic-Jewish relations has been a longstanding personal theological priority.
As for the Society of St. Pius X, he said the church cannot ignore a community of believers that has 491 priests, 215 seminarians and thousands of faithful.
He emphasized, however, that to reach full communion in the church, the traditionalist society would have to accept the Second Vatican Council.
“One cannot freeze the church’s teaching authority at the year 1962,” he said, referring to the society’s rejection of many of the council’s teachings.
At the same time, he said, some defenders of Vatican II need to be reminded that being faithful to the council also means being faithful to the church’s entire doctrinal history, without cutting “the roots from which the tree lives.”
The pope also said the lifting of the excommunications was not adequately explained and gave rise to misinterpretations about the society’s status in the church.
The fact that the Society of St. Pius X has no canonical standing in the church is based on doctrinal, not disciplinary, issues, he said. The society’s ministers, even though they have been freed from ecclesial punishment, “do not exercise in a legitimate way any ministry in the church,” he said.
According to the reports, the pope said he recognized that upsetting statements have often come from the society’s leadership, reflecting pride and arrogance. But he said he has also witnessed “an opening of hearts” among some members.
He said the traditionalist society deserves the same kind of tolerance given to other members in the church.
“Sometimes one has the impression that our society needs at least one group that receives no tolerance and which one can calmly attack with hatred. And if someone – in this case the pope – dares to draw close to them, he, too, loses the right to tolerance, and even he can be treated with hatred, without any fear or reserve,” he wrote, according to the reports.