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Fifty years ago today, Sunday, January 25, 1959, “Good” Pope John XXIII anounced to a small group of cardinals at a prayer service in the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls to close the week of prayer for Christian unity that he would convene an Ecumenical Council–a gathering as rare as it is authoritative, able to shift the direction of the church in a way not even a pope can do. At dotCommonweal, church historian Fr. Joseph Komonchak paints the scene. And at NCR, Jason Petosa provides context for this earthquake in the life of the Church–what Jesuit historian John O’Malley in his new book calls “quite possibly the biggest meeting in the history of the world.” The Second Vatican Council, as it would come to be known, ran from 1962-65, and the aftershocks have continued ever since. The Council fathers–2,400 bishops and thousands of aides an experts from around the world–were able to circumvent initial plans by the conservative Roman curia, or Vatican bureaucracy, to thwart any reform and instead set in motion a council that would upend the church in many ways. Not surprisingly, the backlash has been going on ever since, under John Paul II to some degree, and with a persistence that has begun to attract the notice of a wider public, to an even greater degree by Benedict XVI. That was made clearer than ever this weekend when Pope Benedict lifted the excommunications of four Traditionalist, right-wing bishops who are part of the schismatic Society of Saint Pius X, the brainchild of the late Archbishop Marcel Lefebrve. (The CNS story is here.)[Rorate-caeli has all the relevant documents.] This group vehemently rejects the teachings and reforms of Vatican II–such as on religious freedom, ecumenism, or mass in the vernacular–and apart from viewing popes since Pius XII as heretics, there is a deep strain of anti-Semitism running through their ranks. One of the restored bishops, Richard Williamson, is an outright Holocaust denier, as this video shows: Wait, it gets worse: Williamson has also written that “The Sound of Music”–yes, the musical–is “soul-rotting slush” and that “all the elements of pornography are there, just waiting to break out. One remembers the media sensation when a few years later Julie Andrews appeared topless in another film. That was no sensation, just a natural development for one rolling canine female.” (It gets better; read the whole letter.) UPDATE: As the Daily Dish reminds me, he is also a 9/11 “Truther” who believes the Twin Towers were not brought down by planes, etc.

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They are an odd crew, to be charitable, and Benedict has done everything possible to court them, both as Cardinal Ratzinger and as Pope. That was clear to me as I wrote my book, “The Rule of Benedict,” in which I try to make it clear that Ratzinger did not get a personality transplant when he became pope–just a different job. But these decisions by the pope continue to surprise many. What surprises me is how little Benedict seems to have gotten for all his efforts. Part of the rationale for restoring the old Latin Rite mass was to bring the Lefebvrists into the fold, and yet at every turn they rejected any hint of compromise. Last summer, after the Lefebvrists rejected a four-point “ultimatum” from Rome–giving them most everything they wanted, asking mainly that they refrain from attacking the Pope–Cardinal Castrillon Hoyos, the Vatican official in charge of trying to bring them back into the fold as a priority for his boss got fed up. He called them “insatiable, incredible.” (Castrillon was referring to all those attached to the Latin Mass movement, but his remarks were widely seen in Rome and elsewhere as specifically targeted at the Lefebvrists.) Yet Benedict went ahead and brought them back into the fold, and allowed them to more or less claim victory. Even some conservatives were scratching their heads. As George Weigel told The Times:

“It is not easy to see how the unity of the Church will be enhanced unless the Lefebvrists accept Vatican II’s teaching on the nature of the Church, on religious freedom, and on the evil of anti-Semitism, explicitly and without qualification; otherwise, you get cafeteria Catholicism on the far right, as we already have on the left.”

Well, George is half-right, in that the Catholic right bellied up to the cafeteria hot table a long time ago. And with this decision, Benedict–who was elected as an opponent of “the dictatorship of relativism”–is throwing open the cafeteria line rightward while closing it to the left. Not to mention of course, how this–and many other things–threatens to undo 50 years of Jewish-Catholic dialogue at a time of rising anti-Semitism in the world. More on that another time.What is Benedict doing? Well, as the Italians say, “Quel che un papa puo’ fare, un papa puo’ disfare.” Or, “That which a pope can do, a pope can undo.” The trick will be for the Vatican to show that this is not an arbitrary judgment by Benedict, someting that appears difficult to do, at least so far. The simplest explanation often being the best, I think it’s clear Benedict has much sympathy for the Traditionalists, and hence has always been very solicitous of them. But Benedict is also a realist, and a friend I spoke with this weekend made the astute observation that by bringing the Lefebvrist bishops back into the fold in some capacity, he can hopefully stop the cancer from metasizing (ugly metaphor, sorry) in that these bishops could have gone on to ordain more bishops validly yet illicitly, and they more priests and bishops and so on. If the movement had indeed continued to grow, it could have been impossible to sort it all out. In this way, at least, the Vatican has some say over who they ordain, though they seem happy to let them ordain anyone they want. And of course, they could bolt the fold if Rome says “no” on something.On another level, I think Beendict is using the outreach to the far-right as a way to further his project of retrenchment. By extending the boundaries of what is acceptable to a group that rejects Vatican II, Benedict can legitimize some of those views while moving the goalposts–and thus still keeping himself at “the new center.” This is another strategem in the ongoing battle over the Council. Benedict set out his view of this debate in his first address as Pope to the Roman Curia, in December 2005, when he caricatured those who saw Vatican II as a reforning council as advocating the view that the church was breaking with its past, while those sober, sane souls like himself saw it as in perfect “continuity” with past church teachings–despite the obvious evidence to the contrary on a host of issues. The debate gets almost Orwellian at times, but the damage to the church is all too real. From the begining it was thus. As Notre Dame church historian, Fr. Richard McBrien notes, in his announcement 50 years ago, Pope John (he called his decision, just 100 days after his election as an elderly “transitional” pope, “a little holy madness”) was changed in the official record to reflect a more conservative vision:

His speech to the cardinals on January 25, 1959, mentioned two specific goals of the council: “the enlightenment, edification, and joy of the entire Christian people,” and “a renewed cordial invitation to the faithful of the separated Churches to participate with us in this feast of grace and brotherhood [sic], for which so many souls long in all parts of the world.”Significantly, the pope’s actual words on that occasion were watered down in the official edition of the address. The non-Catholic Churches were reduced to “communities,” and they were not to “participate with us in this feast of grace and brotherhood” but to “follow us in the search for unity and grace.” It has ever been thus that Vatican officials sometimes take it upon themselves to “correct” the words of a reigning pope, without his knowledge or approval. It may be why John XXIII once complained that he was “in a bag,” not always free to act on his own, according to his own best pastoral and theological insights.

Benedict XVI seems to be acting on his own, even though he often chides the rest of us to sentire cum ecclesia, “to think (and act) with the church.” Sources say he took this step–as he did the restoration of the Latin Mass–against the strong and express advice of some of his closest collaborators. Another Italian saying: Roma locuta, causa finita.

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