By Susan Brinkmann, OCDS
The Congregation for Bishops published a decree on Jan. 21 reversing the excommunication pronounced on four bishops consecrated by Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre in 1988. The decree is causing controversy in Jewish quarters because of statements made by one of the bishops that questioned the Holocaust.
Arbishop Lefebvre (1905-1991) founded the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX), the world’s largest Traditionalist Catholic priestly society. The SSPX was founded in opposition to the changes within the Church associated with the Second Vatican Council. In 1988, Lefebvre consecrated four bishops without papal consent, a move considered to be an act of schism which incurred automatic excommunication under canon law.
However, the four bishops, Bishops Bernard Fellay, Bernard Tissier de Mallerais, Richard Williamson and Alfonso de Galarreta, sent a letter on Dec. 15, 2008 once again requesting the removal of the excommunication.
According to the Vatican decree, their letter affirmed that they are “firmly resolute in our desire to remain Catholics and to put all our strength at the service of the Church of Our Lord Jesus Christ, which is the Roman Catholic Church. We accept her teachings in a filial spirit. We firmly believe in the Primacy of Peter and in its prerogatives, and for this reason the current situation causes us much suffering.’”
The decree states that Pope Benedict XVI, trusting in the bishops’ commitment to remain loyal to the Church and to continue discussions to resolve their differences, “has decided to reconsider the canonical position of which arose following their episcopal consecration.” As of Jan. 21, 2009, ”the decree then issued is devoid of juridical effect.”
The decree goes on to say: “It is hoped that this step will be followed by the prompt attainment of full communion with the Church by the entire Fraternity of St. Pius X, thus demonstrating true faithfulness and true recognition of the Magisterium and authority of Pope with the sign of visible unity.”
However, not everyone is pleased with the healing of the 20 year old schism. One of the four bishops, British-born Richard Williamson, has made numerous public statements denying the full extent of the Nazi Holocaust.
Only days before the Decree was issued, Williamson said on a Swedish television broadcast that he believes “there were no gas chambers” and only up to 300,000 Jews perished in Nazi concentration camps, instead of 6 million.
Williamson said: “I believe that the historical evidence is hugely against six million having been deliberately gassed in gas chambers as a deliberate policy of Adolf Hitler.”
Israel-based Rabbi David Rosen, head of inter-religious affairs for the American Jewish Committee, told Reuters: “The late Pope John Paul II called anti-Semitism a sin against God and man. The denial of the overwhelmingly detailed documentation of the Shoah is anti-Semitism at its most blatant.
“In welcoming an open Holocaust denier into the Catholic Church without any recantation on his part, the Vatican has made a mockery of John Paul II’s moving and impressive repudiation and condemnation of anti-Semitism,” he said.
When asked about the bishop’s comments, however, chief Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said they were “totally extraneous” to the lifting of the excommunications.
“This act regards the lifting of the excommunications, period,” Lombardi told reporters. “It has nothing to do with the personal opinions of a person, which are open to criticism, but are not pertinent to this decree.”
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