The Archbishop of Toronto, Thomas Collins has contributed the following to the Archdiocesan Blog. The Archbishop reflects on the nature of excommunication… what it is and what it is not. He also makes it clear that the Pope was not in any way embracing a holocaust denier. The Archbishop’s intervention is most welcomed. However, it still leaves us wondering why the Holy See, which is excellent at making distinctions, didn’t make it clear in the letter lifting the excommunication that the Bishops of that community still were in need of reconciliation with the Church and that there were many topics with which the Holy See took issue with these bishops. It would have saved everyone a lot of aggravation. Even more profoundly vexing is that the Holy See is seeking reconciliation with a group for whom anti-semitism does not seem to the lunacy of a minority. Read up on the SSPX’s views of Judaism.
There is a dramatic scene in a movie about one of the English kings of the middle ages. The Catholic Church is excommunicating him: hooded monks solemnly enter the cathedral, while denunciations of the offender ring out, and large candles are smashed into the floor. On the basis of Hollywood scenes like that, many people take it for granted that they know perfectly well what the Catholic Church is doing when it excommunicates someone, and what it is doing when it lifts an excommunication: the former is a spectacular official Catholic condemnation of a person, while the latter is a restored approval of the one who was once condemned. Once rejected, now he is embraced.
As Mark Twain noted, in life the real problem is not with what we don’t know, but with what we know that isn’t so.
It should not be surprising that when it comes to excommunication, the Pope himself deals with what it is, not with what people imagine it to be. Excommunication is, in fact, a very limited and narrow response in Church law to certain specific problems. It is quite possible, for example, for a Catholic to break every one of the ten Commandments, and commit every one of the seven deadly sins, and hold every bizarre and evil opinion imaginable, and not incur excommunication, though he or she may well be guilty of grievous moral wrong and face eternal damnation.
If, however, a Bishop ordains someone as a Bishop, in defiance of the Pope, thus destroying the unity of the Catholic community of faith, and setting up his own private Church, he and the one he ordains are excommunicated. They may not receive the sacraments, including confession, until the excommunication is lifted. The excommunication is not some kind of all purpose punishment; it is an instrument designed to bring about a change in the specific situation that led to it.
One important step in an effort to lead excommunicated bishops and especially their followers to end the division and return to the Church is to lift the excommunication that was imposed because of the unlawful ordination, and that has just recently happened as the Pope has made one more attempt to open the pathway for hundreds of thousands of followers of Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre to come back to the Church. The four bishops he ordained when he broke away were automatically excommunicated because they split the Church; now that excommunication of the four bishops has been lifted in an effort to heal the wound of that division. This is the most recent of several actions in years of patient work by Pope John Paul, Pope Benedict and others to try to bring home hundreds of thousands of Catholics.
Apart from the fact that Pope Benedict is not known to be a fan of Swedish television interviews, in which one of the four bishops has revealed that he holds bizarre and evil opinions, it should be noted that the lifting of the excommunication is simply an important but limited step to help bring about the reversal of a move made years ago to destroy the unity the Church.
Williamson has clearly revealed himself to be a holocaust denier, but the Pope has not “embraced a Holocaust denier”. Lifting the excommunications of the four bishops ordained by Lefebvre in an effort to repair the damage he caused is not in any way an award, nor a sign of approval, nor a blessing, nor an endorsement of the opinions or behaviour of any of the four Lefebvre bishops. In any case, they are still suspended from priestly ministry, and it is now up to them and their numerous followers to respond to Pope Benedict’s action by taking the initiative to complete the restoration of unity. A hopeful sign is that the leader of the four bishops and their break-away church has now strongly condemned Williamson.
Pope Benedict’s total opposition to anti-semitism and Holocaust denial has been made clear over the years. As recently as last week he stated: “I hope that the memory of the Holocaust may induce humanity to reflect on the unpredictable power of evil when it conquers the heart of man. May the Holocaust be for all an admonition against forgetting, against denial or reductionism, because violence against a single human being is violence against all.” The Vatican’s official newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, last week ran an article denouncing those who deny the Holocaust. You can find the text here. To suggest that the Pope in any way approves of those who deny the Holocaust is utterly unjust.
Bishop Sheen once said that there are not ten people in the country who hate the Catholic Church, but there are millions who hate the image of the Catholic Church that they have created out of misunderstanding. Before people jump to conclusions and launch into impassioned condemnations of the actions of the Pope, simple decency and fairness dictate that they understand what they think they are disagreeing with, and not construct great castles of indignation upon the sandy foundations of mistaken information.
Archbishop Thomas Collins
January 30, 2009