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POPE-SSPX (THIRD UPDATE) Jan-27-2009 (1,180 words) With photos posted Jan. 23 and 26 and graphic Jan. 26. xxxi

Pope lifts excommunications of Lefebvrite bishops

By John Thavis
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Pope Benedict XVI has lifted the excommunication of four bishops ordained against papal orders in 1988 by the late French Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre. The move was considered a major concession to the archbishop's traditionalist followers.

The Vatican said the decree removing the excommunication, signed Jan. 21 and made public three days later, marked an important step toward full communion with the Society of St. Pius X, founded by Archbishop Lefebvre in 1970.

It said some questions remain unresolved with the society, including its future status and that of its priests, and that these issues would be the subject of further talks.

"The Holy Father was motivated in this decision by the hope that complete reconciliation and full communion may be reached as soon as possible," a Vatican statement said.

The head of the Swiss-based society, Bishop Bernard Fellay, had requested the removal of the excommunication in a letter Dec. 15. Bishop Fellay wrote that he and the three other bishops illicitly ordained in 1988 were determined to remain Catholic and accepted the teachings of Pope Benedict "with filial spirit."

The Vatican said the pope had responded positively to the request in order to promote "the unity in charity of the universal church and succeed in removing the scandal of division."

In a letter published after the Vatican announcement, Bishop Fellay said his society was eager to begin talks with the Vatican about the causes of the "unprecedented crisis" shaking the church.

"During these discussions with the Roman authorities we want to examine the deep causes of the present situation and, by bringing the appropriate remedy, achieve a lasting restoration of the church," he said.

The decree removing the excommunications, issued by the Congregation for Bishops, underlined the hope that this step would be followed by full communion and that all members of the Society of St. Pius X would demonstrate "true fidelity and true acknowledgment of the magisterium and the authority of the pope."

The move came after one of the illicitly ordained bishops, British-born Bishop Richard Williamson, provoked Jewish protests with assertions that the Holocaust was exaggerated and that no Jews died in Nazi gas chambers. He spoke in a TV interview recorded last November but aired in mid-January.

The Vatican spokesman, Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, said emphatically that the Vatican did not share Bishop Williamson's views, but that it was a completely separate issue from the lifting of the excommunication.

"Saying a person is not excommunicated is not the same as saying one shares all his ideas or statements," Father Lombardi said.

The removal of the excommunication was a key condition of the Society of St. Pius X in its on-again, off-again talks with the Vatican over reconciliation. In 2007 the pope granted another of the society's requests, widening the possibility for use of the Tridentine rite, the form of the Mass used before the Second Vatican Council.

Archbishop Lefebvre rejected several important teachings of the Second Vatican Council, including those related to religious liberty, ecumenism and liturgy. The Vatican statements did not mention the council's teachings, and Father Lombardi had no comment on whether the society was asked to adhere to them.

The Vatican action came the day before the 50th anniversary of Pope John XXIII's announcement of the Second Vatican Council. Father Lombardi said it would be wrong to see the lifting of the excommunication as a rejection of Vatican II.

"On the contrary, I think it is a beautiful thing that the council is no longer considered an element of division, but as an element in which every member of the church can meet," he said.

In addition to Bishops Fellay and Williamson, the decree removed the excommunication of French Bishop Bernard Tissier de Mallerais and Argentine Bishop Alphonso de Galarreta. The Vatican said in 1988 that Archbishop Lefebvre and the bishops he ordained had incurred automatic excommunication for defying papal orders against the ordination.

Bishop Fellay called the pope's action a "unilateral, benevolent and courageous act" and described it as a victory for Catholic traditionalists worldwide. But he said he had made clear to the Vatican that the society still has problems with Vatican II.

He said, quoting from his Dec. 15 letter: "We are ready to write the creed with our own blood, to sign the anti-modernist oath, the profession of faith of Pius IV, we accept and make our own all the councils up to the Second Vatican Council, about which we express some reservations."

Bishop Fellay added in his communique that "we are convinced that we remain faithful to the line of conduct initiated by our founder, Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, whose reputation we hope to soon see restored."

In a separate letter written Jan. 21, Bishop Fellay commented on Bishop Williamson's comments about the Holocaust, saying the bishop had spoken for himself, not the society. Bishop Fellay complained that the interviewer had introduced the topic "with the obvious intention of misrepresenting and maligning the activity of our religious society."

Cardinal Andre Vingt-Trois of Paris, president of the French bishops' conference, welcomed Pope Benedict's action as a "gesture of mercy and openness for strengthening church unity." France is home to nearly half of the 200,000 members of the Society of St. Pius X.

However, the cardinal rejected suggestions the move would make it easier for Catholics "to be Catholic while making selections in church teaching, doctrine and church tradition."

"I rejoice every time the church is able to suspend a penalty -- it's an opportunity, an open door allowing Christians to rediscover the fullness of communion with the church," he told the archdiocesan Notre Dame Radio Jan. 24. "People who, for the most part, present themselves sincerely as defenders of tradition also give themselves a magisterial power to distinguish good from bad tradition. But such an act of discernment can only be an act of the church, not of some particular group within the church."

French Cardinal Jean-Pierre Ricard of Bourdeaux said Pope Benedict knew "the drama a schism represents in the church" and wished to "go as far as he could in extending his hand." Cardinal Ricard is a member of the Pontifical Commission "Ecclesia Dei," which oversees the reconciliation of Lefebvrite Catholics with the church.

"The lifting of the excommunication isn't the end but the beginning of a process of dialogue," Cardinal Ricard said in a Jan. 24 statement. "It doesn't regulate two fundamental questions: the juridical structure of the St. Pius X fraternity in the church and an agreement on dogmatic and ecclesiological questions. But it opens a path to travel together, which will doubtless be long and demand better mutual knowledge and esteem."

Some French Catholics have criticized Vatican policy toward the society. In 2006, Catholics and bishops from eastern France protested the creation of the Good Shepherd Institute in the Archdiocese of Bourdeaux for receiving traditionalists. Protesters also said they feared church unity could be damaged by relaxing restrictions on the Tridentine Mass.

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Contributing to this story was Jonathan Luxmoore in Poland.


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