Father Tom Reese is a well-spoken man and well trained in theology, but an objective critic he is not. His first loyalty to the Roman Catholic Church has blinded him to the atrocious behavior that is being condoned by lifting the excommunication of neo-Nazi Bishop Richard Williamson of the Society of Pius X. He states the problem with Benedict’s papacy is that his organization does not have a modern PR office that would break the news of rehabilitating four Pius X bishops, including Williamson, to the world, the liberals in his own church and the worldwide Jewish community. No PR Vatican Secretariat, no matter how up to date and informed, could ever make a case for this blunder.
Any self-respecting PR person would say, Benedict, you are the Pope, damn-it, and you have chosen the wrong issue and the wrong message. Emphasize the core mission of your organization and make that the centerpiece of your actions. The backward looking vision of the Society of Pius X has a man like Williamson in charge of their priestly formation. It is a distorted faith that does real harm to people who struggle to alleviate the suffering in the world. Jesus did not say, go to the Pharisee and try to make peace before he goes off and starts a rival sect. He began condemnations of their theology with the words: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees!”
I understand the awkward position in which Benedict finds himself, perhaps not to the extent that Reese understands it, but I can follow an argument. The Roman Catholic has argued that it is the form of the consecration that insures that its bishops inherit their authority from the original 12 Apostles of Jesus. And by “form” Roman Catholics mean that the correct words, prayers, and ritual actions for consecrating a new bishop are uttered and performed by a bishop who has been initiated, or ordained, in the same manner. So the Pius X bishops are really bishops according to the doctrine, as are, I might add all of the bishops of the old Catholic Church who are still quite numerous in Germany and have at least four bishops in the US. I met one. The problem, according Reese, is what is Benedict to do with these bishops so that they do not become loose cannons (my words).
I would bet pennies to dollars that not one in a thousand Catholics knows or cares about the doctrine of the apostolic succession as understood by the hierarchy, and by extension only one in thousand would pay any attention to the Pius X bishops when they opened their mouths. These intricacies only interest an extremely small group of scholars, liturgists, linguists and cannon lawyers, and are absolute trivia to most faithful Christians who look to their bishops, and especially the bishop of Rome, to be faithful servants of the Word of God and the Teaching of Jesus. For example, according the rite that was composed under Pius XII, the consecrating bishop has to use these words, “Complete in Your priest the fullness of Your ministry, and adorned in the raiment of all glory, sanctify him with the dew of heavenly anointing.” I am not going to dispute the beauty of the language, but the fact that this prayer was uttered when the excommunicated bishops were consecrated somehow necessitated a bow to the position that the Nazis did not murder more than 6 million Jews, dissidents, gypsies, homosexuals and disabled is a horrendous distortion of the values that people should expect from any religious authority.
Is there a way that Benedict could have rid himself and the Church of these troublesome bishops? Of course. He could have simply let their movement die off or become a small fringe group of fanatics—a sensible option. Or if he felt that he had to take some action, following Fr. Reese’s argument, he could have declared them heretics and schismatics. But I fear that he has far too much sympathy for their position. And that is the danger. The conditions on our small planet are far too fragile to allow any hate mongers the publicity they crave.
And so I am still left with the question: where did Benedict get this dumb idea in the first place? I say it is because the leadership of the Church has lost sight of its mission. It has become so remote and isolated that its main concern has become defending and legitimizing its authority, and not spreading the message that Jesus taught. Sadly this is the result of Benedict’s looking back to Pius IX and the 1st Vatican Council, and burdening the message of the Gospel with distracting arguments about liturgical propriety, the validity of holy orders, and ordination of bishops. That view will just focus our attention on the human weaknesses and failings of the followers of Jesus rather than the simple and direct way that He spoke to us.