The Pope’s Letter

Unofficial translations and excerpts have been net-circulating for a day or two now. There was even a spot on ATC tonight. But I was glad to finally get a chance to read the authentic letter. Lots of pundits have taken their cracks at this, but I’ll confine my comments to these:

Like many I was struck by the deep sharing of this letter. The pope knew this letter would be shared beyond the bishops, so the sharing is as much for the laity at large as for the prelates of the Church. The honesty and vulnerability mean something; the pope wouldn’t add it just for the sake of generating sympathy.

The clarity of thought behind the lifting of excommunication is welcome and way overdue. I don’t know how much lining out the issues of doctrinal separation would have helped the “gesture.” I’m sure the action would have been judged empty by cynics. There is no denial that “extending a hand” was deeply symbolic. If it were truly nothing, there would have been no firestorm. Pope Benedict could not possibly think his gesture to the bishops of the SSPX would be “discreet.” Even without the SSPX embarassing themselves, this episode would have been deeply bothersome to many Catholics.

The problem with harping on relativism is that there’s a tendency to think of things in an all-or-nothing view.

I was saddened by the fact that even Catholics who, after all, might have had a better knowledge of the situation, thought they had to attack me with open hostility.

There are Catholics who take this approach quite often. I don’t know that its helpful to listen too carefully to them. There were also Catholics who did have a fair knowledge of the situation, who were dismayed about the episode, and who openly questioned the pope’s decision. No hostility. No attack. Just questions–serious questions. And until this letter, many of those questions were unanswered. Perhaps a mystery or two remain.

Should not civil society also try to forestall forms of extremism and to incorporate their eventual adherents — to the extent possible — in the great currents shaping social life, and thus avoid their being segregated, with all its consequences? Can it be completely mistaken to work to break down obstinacy and narrowness, and to make space for what is positive and retrievable for the whole?

At times one gets the impression that our society needs to have at least one group to which no tolerance may be shown; which one can easily attack and hate. And should someone dare to approach them — in this case the Pope — he too loses any right to tolerance; he too can be treated hatefully, without misgiving or restraint.

The problem is that genocide is a gravely serious matter. That’s the ground floor on this affair, the original sin, if you will. A genocide that took place three generations ago in the heart of “civilized” Europe, at a time, presumably when the sun of religion was a bit higher in the sky. God may well be disappearing from the human horizon in the West, but the Holocaust still evokes revulsion in Christians and non-believers alike. Regardless of where the culture’s light might be relative to the SSPX, denying a heinous evil like genocide is evidence of darkness, at the very least the personal darkness of Fr Williamson.

Still, I see where the pope is heading on this. He wants to prevent a greater separation, isolation in the Church and in society. Great. If he were more consistent, more widely generous with dissenters, and had been more open in the past, I could take the letter’s point here more seriously. As head of the CDF, the pope dealt very clumsily with both imagined and actual dissenters. One can argue the judgments were often right, but the methods could be and were judged “hateful” by many on the receiving end. A certain brand of relativism, I would say.

I hope people in the Vatican take the opportunity to think long and hard about this fiasco. It can’t be seen as anything but a fiasco.

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About catholicsensibility

Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
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4 Responses to The Pope’s Letter

  1. Tony says:

    As head of the CDF, the pope dealt very clumsily with both imagined and actual dissenters. One can argue the judgments were often right, but the methods could be and were judged “hateful” by many on the receiving end. A certain brand of relativism, I would say.

    As head of the CDF, the pope was the “Chief Inquisitor” of the Inquisition (purposefully using the more ancient and inflammatory titles).

    He is now the pastor of the world and his role is different. I think it’s time to put aside his prior role and concentrate on what he’s doing today.

  2. crystal says:

    I guess I do feel cynical about his letter. The idea of reaching out to those on the margins is good but he only reaches to the right. I don’t know if that’s because the right more closely represents his view or because they would bring more numbers with them but either reason seems to undo his stated altruistic motive.

  3. Jeff Pinyan says:

    Not everyone who is “on the margins” is marginal to the same degree. Nor are they all reconcilable in the same degree. And if the reconciliation attempts with the SSPX are unsuccessful, then there is still a problem.

    The SSPX has to accept Vatican II and the post-V2 magisterium of the Church. The women’s ordination lobby has to accept that the Church cannot and will not ordain women.

    The SSPX has to accept that the Church has developed legitimately since 1962. The women’s ordination lobby has to accept that the Church cannot change how they want her to.

  4. Todd says:

    “(T)he Church cannot and will not ordain women.”

    That’s not an accurate statement. The post-conciliar documents have said that the Church lacks the power to change the practice and ordain women.

    It is not unforeseeable that a future unified Christendom, under the inspiration of God, would change this discipline (not a matter of faith or morals, after all). An all-male priesthood is not essential to the salvific mission of Christ. It is a discipline, not a matter of faith, except in the sense that it derives from a greater principle of Christ instituting the sacraments.

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