This post was for Called to Communion cross-posted here.
I’m sure much of our readership is aware of the recent lifting of the excommunications of the four bishops ordained by Archbishop Marcelle Lefebvre under the auspices of the Society of St. Pius the Tenth (SSPX). For those totally unfamiliar, I believe the Pope’s letter on the subject explains the situation quite adequately.
These bishops were ordained in the SSPX to serve the Traditional Latin Mass at a time when it seemed that rite might be dying out after the Second Vatican Council.
The problem was that they were ordained without the approval of Rome, which incurred on Archbishop Lefebvre and the Bishops he was ordaining a latae sententiae excommunication. The SSPX remained Catholic and believes all Catholic dogma, but they were operating illicitly without Rome’s permission and thus had no official authority or standing in the Church.
But now, in a move toward reconciliation with the hundreds of thousands of Catholics in this awkward position, the Church has decided to lift the excommunications from these bishops. This does not regularize the SSPX, nor does it give these bishops any jurisdiction within the Church.
It merely makes them able to come to communion with the rest of the Church and opens the door to receiving the SSPX into full communion with the Catholic Church.
Of course, there was also the wrinkle of Bishop Williamson, one of the four bishops who only weeks before the Pope’s announcement was filmed making comments questioning the accepted number of methods by which Jews were killed by Hitler during WWII.
This led a number of liberal Catholics, Jews and other groups to criticize the Pope’s action. In their opinion the Pope’s act of reaching out to what they perceive to be right-wing nut jobs was an insult to them. I believe there is more to it than that, and we’ll get into why below.
With that in mind, there are four issues I think are pertinent to the discussion between Reformed Protestants and Catholics that are made apparent by this move on Rome’s part.
The Church Has a Passionate Heart for Reunion
The Catholic Church loves all her separated children, just like any parent cares for their children who stray. As Pope John Paul II, may his memory be eternal, put it, the Church is “irrevocably committed” to the union of all Christians.
In like manner, Pope Benedict has chosen to go find the lost sheep of the SSPX even at the expense of losing favor in the minds of liberal Catholics, Jews and the secular world.
His highest priority is the unification of the Church and he doesn’t care if he looks as crazy as a man scouring the wilderness trying to find a lost sheep. He must find his children and bring them back, and God help him, he will.
This hits home with our protestant brothers because this is a unique feature of the Catholic Church. As the history of the Presbyterian communions in America plainly attests, dividing is almost part of the essence of protestantism.
The Orthodox Presbyterians is not seeking to reunite with the Presbyterian Church of America, nor is there a reunion afoot between the Presbyterian Church of America and the Presbyterian Church USA. These divisions are almost a comfortable part of their identities.
But the Catholic Church cannot remain divided. It is a critical part of her mission to foster unity between all Christians. Reaching out to the SSPX is just one example of how the Church is unwilling that any Christians should remain separated, even if those Christians were in the wrong when they separated.
Similar efforts can be seen in the communication between Rome and the Orthodox in recent years, which has been very fruitful. Our last two Pope’s have also made great progress in understanding and entering into dialog with protestants. I know of no reformed denomination that is actively seeking to reunite with Rome in any serious fashion.
The Church Pursues a Practical and Humble Path to Reunion
The Catholic Church realizes that she must pursue the nearest and most expedient paths to reunion before attempting to bridge gaps that will take centuries to heal.
It is a very practical concern to heal divisions within the Catholic Church before we go trying to bring Christians who repudiate Rome’s authority into communion.
I believe the Pope chose to work for reunion with the SSPX because they are a low-lying fruit. They love the Catholic Church, it’s history and liturgy, it’s structure and it’s source.
They want to be Catholic, so it’s naturally easier to reconcile them than it is to reconcile groups that believe the Catholic Church to be heretical.
The fact that the Pope was willing to make this gesture even in light of the SSPX’s continued and recent criticisms of the post Vatican II Church and recent Popes reveals a striking degree of humility.
The SSPX was in the wrong from the beginning and is still wrong on some issues, but the Pope realizes that the way to reunion is not the proud posturing of being “in the right”, but rather the spirit of humble fatherly love that will bring them back into full communion.
The Church has a Fundamental Concern for the Reformation of the Liturgy
The purpose of the SSPX from the beginning was the preservation of a reverent liturgy. It is no mistake that this Pope, who has such a love for true reverence and propriety in the Liturgy has held out the olive branch to a group whose whole existence rests in respect for these very issues.
In fact, one of the significant barriers to full communion was removed when Pope Benedict removed all restrictions on the celebration of the Traditional Latin Mass a few years ago.
Pope Benedict is seeking to bring the excesses committed in the name of the Second Vatican Council into balance. He has restored the practices of kneeling for Holy Communion and receiving on the tongue in his own liturgies and is making an example of what a reverent liturgy looks like in the way he celebrates Mass.
The pursuit of the SSPX clearly displays that this Pope is very concerned with restoring such reverent worship to the high place of honor where it belongs.
Again, this is of particular interest to our reformed brothers who do hold proper, reverent worship in very high regard.
I have spoken with many reformed folk who feel that, based on their experience of Catholic liturgy in the <i>Novus Ordo Missae</i>, their own community worships God more reverently and beautifully, so what interest would they have in becoming Catholic?
This is unfortunately often an apt criticism, but the state of liturgy in the Catholic Church in America is not historically how it has been, nor it seems will it remain as it is now.
I hope our reformed brothers are compelled by the Pope’s concern for right worship and his efforts to promote it in the Catholic Church.
It is the fervent hope of all Catholics, and especially former protestants like the authors of Called to Communion, that one day we will be fully reunited with our protestant brothers. I pray that this small example of the Catholic Church’s heart for reconciliation among Christians will be the impetus for further growth in the unity of the Body of Christ.