Benedict XVI’s letter to the world’s bishops (official text released today) was a good idea and probably inevitable, as no one was happy and the furor was not going away, inside the church from the highest echelons to the lowest. Did the pontiff’s letter help matters? Maybe it will reinforce the “move on” mantra, but the long-term answer is “no.” The problems are manifold.

ONE, from the outset the pope strikes the tone of the wronged victim, and in doing so points the finger at his list of usual suspects–namely the “great defenders of the [Second Vatican] Council”–as if promoting Vatican II were a bad thing. And the schismatics of the right-wing traditionalists SSPX sect do see Vatican II as a bad thing, though Benedict seems to minimize their views: He was pleased they had “expressed their recognition in principle of the Pope and his authority as Pastor, albeit with some reservations in the area of obedience to his doctrinal authority and to the authority of the Council.” Some reservations? Umm, it’s a bit more than that.

Instead, the pope chides those who are NOT schismatics but are faithful to the Church: “But some of those who put themselves forward as great defenders of the Council also need to be reminded that Vatican II embraces the entire doctrinal history of the Church. Anyone who wishes to be obedient to the Council has to accept the faith professed over the centuries, and cannot sever the roots from which the tree draws its life.” Why does he continue to beat that dead horse in a letter that should address his own mistakes and to explain better his outreach to a group that does NOT accept that which the rest of us do?

TWO, as the letter goes it becomes uncomfortable to read. At first it is thus: “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.” Then he goes on to take sides as a victim WITH the schismatics and against those who raised legitimate questions about his actions: “At times one gets the impression that our society needs to have at least one group to which no tolerance may be shown [he is referring to the SSPX]; 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.” Okay, now back to the point… 

THREE, Benedict still asserts that he didn’t know of Bishop Williamson’s Holocaust denials and by implication the entire ethos of anti-Semitism that pervades the Society: “I have been told that consulting the information available on the internet would have made it possible to perceive the problem early on. I have learned the lesson that in the future in the Holy See we will have to pay greater attention to that source of news.” So no one at the Holy See knew how to Google and that was the problem. This is at best disingenous. Joseph Ratzinger was intimately involved with this group since before the 1988 schism, and since then. He knows what they are about. None of this could have been a surprise. It also undercuts Benedict’s efforts to cast himself at the “sensible center,” which is a where a pope should be.

FOUR, Benedict’s defensive approach also undermines his patent tactic of trying to put himself in the place of the Apostle Paul, chiding everyone else for “biting and devouring one another,” as Paul writes in Galatians. He critiques others for apparently trying to undermine his Christ-mandated quest for unity, yet does not explain why that campaign only moves in a rightward direction.

He writes: “That the quiet gesture of extending a hand gave rise to a huge uproar, and thus became exactly the opposite of a gesture of reconciliation, is a fact which we must accept. But I ask now: Was it, and is it, truly wrong in this case to meet half-way the brother who “has something against you” (cf. Mt 5:23ff.) and to seek reconciliation? 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?”

Okay, but what of all those from the center leftward who Benedict has alienated? Yes, Deus Caritas Est, God is Love–that is the title of his first encyclical, which he cites again. But the pope should also reflect that love, or try to.

FIVE, Benedict unwisely, I think, tries out the pragmatic argument for his efforts to rehabilitate the SSPX: “Can we be totally indifferent about a community which has 491 priests, 215 seminarians, 6 seminaries, 88 schools, 2 university-level institutes, 117 religious brothers, 164 religious sisters and thousands of lay faithful? Should we casually let them drift farther from the Church? I think for example of the 491 priests. We cannot know how mixed their motives may be. All the same, I do not think that they would have chosen the priesthood if, alongside various distorted and unhealthy elements, they did not have a love for Christ and a desire to proclaim him and, with him, the living God. Can we simply exclude them, as representatives of a radical fringe, from our pursuit of reconciliation and unity? What would then become of them?”

But Holy Father…What about the tens of thousands of priests and religious, the millions of lay people, who have chosen Christ yet have felt no similar love from Rome? Benedict has always made something of a fetish of saying size doesn’t matter, that smaller but purer can be better. It is fidelity, not numbers, that matter. Now he’s all about numbers. Well, caveat: the numbers sword cuts two ways.

SIX, how about a word of his own experience of the Third Reich and how that could have–should have–made him especially sensitive to the Jewish reactions that would obviously proceed from this action? Faith is not solely theology. It is also about human beings. For a pope who likes to invoke Holocaust analogies on everything else, how about keeping in mind the actual Holocaust? He could have so much to say, and be an amazing example.

SEVEN, finally, he wants us to remember that the real enemy, as always, is secularism, unbelief, the “dictatorship of relativism.” Not the SSPX and their ilk. “The real problem at this moment of our history is that God is disappearing from the human horizon, and, with the dimming of the light which comes from God, humanity is losing its bearings, with increasingly evident destructive effects.”

Well, humanity might be drawn to a Church, and find its bearings there, if the Church were more open to its failings, and its leaders likewise. Especially during this period of Lent, honest examinations of conscience are the Christian mandate, and true changes in our behavior the result we hope for. We’re still hoping, but with this letter, Benedict has confirmed his longstanding character traits, rather than overcome them.

Are we watching “The Incredible Shrinking Papacy”? The May trip to Israel will offer another opportunity, and could be the defining answer.

BTW: For the more benificent reading of Benedict’s letter–and links to some of the predictably angry talk on the Trad right–see Amy Welborn’s post.

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