A friend asked me about my reaction to the Pope's letter, and started off a train of thought, and so I thought writing it down was probably more productive than what I was doing! So here are a few of my thoughts to start the ball rolling as we digest and reflect on it.
Some in comment boxes on other blogs and forums are lamenting the Pope's apologies, his humility and gesture at conciliation. They see this as further undermining the Pope's authority. They are concerned that some of his tough talk on the SSPX will antagonise the Society's members and set back the process of reconciliation. And a third group are concerned at the fate of the Ecclesia Dei Commission (PCED) given some of its unfinished business on the liturgical front.
Personally I think this is a very clever, very strategic - as well as very beautiful - letter for a number of reasons. Remember that it is a letter to the bishops, not to the SSPX. It has some specific purposes and an audience that is important to keep in mind.
1. It short-circuits the criticism of the handling of the lifting of the excommunications
Every neo-con out there (and let's not even talk about the liberals) was getting on the bandwagon, with veiled criticisms of the Pope's decision to lift the excommunications dressed up under the guise of criticising the handling of the decision.
And this was pretty hard to counter, because truly, the announcement was badly managed. The Holy See is a government, and just like any other government it needs to explain to its members - and especially to its officeholders - just what the effect of its decisions are and give them the material they need to explain and defend them to others. The Pope has acknowledged that, and hopefully the shake up of papal communications that seems to have started will now gather momentum.
I, like other bloggers, was very encouraged by the acknowledgement of the importance of the internet. I second Fr Finigan's wise comments and offer on his blog:
"Many of us, I think, would want to be at the service of the Holy See, promoting the teaching of the magisterium, defending the work of the Holy Father when it is unjustly attacked, and furthering the mission of the Church in general."
2. It cuts off at the knees the argument about relationships with the Jews
As the Pope has made clear, the whole anti-semitism thing was a total red herring. And yet it went on and on and on. And threatened to derail the Pope's visit to the Holy Land next month (and while I have mixed views about a visit to Israel, I do want to see pictures of the Pope in our holy places).
If you look at each of the comments on this topic in the letter separately you might be tempted to think that the Pope's hand has been twisted behind his back. Take for example his lead in:
"The discreet gesture of mercy...suddenly appeared as something completely different: as the repudiation of reconciliation between Christians and Jews, and thus as the reversal of what the Council had laid down in this regard to guide the Church’s path...an apparent step backwards with regard to all the steps of reconciliation between Christians and Jews taken since the Council..."
But if you read all of his comments carefully, I think the message is much more subtle than it appears at first glance. Some have reacted to the image of journeying towards the sources of Light image for example. Two key points though. First remember that this is the Jewish religion we are talking about here - and though the Jews have rejected Christ, we can hardly doubt that we both believe in and worship the same God (indeed this question was settled firmly in the first centuries of the Church's life). How effectual Jewish worship might be (remember Esau) is a different question.
Secondly, I think the following passage read carefully is actually a reiteration of the redirection of inter-religious dialogue to a focus not on common understanding of our differing theologies, but on how to co-exist as civilisations:
"Added to this is the need for all those who believe in God to join in seeking peace, to attempt to draw closer to one another, and to journey together, even with their differing images of God, towards the source of Light – this is inter-religious dialogue. Whoever proclaims that God is Love "to the end" has to bear witness to love: in loving devotion to the suffering, in the rejection of hatred and enmity – this is the social dimension of the Christian faith, of which I spoke in the Encyclical Deus Caritas Est."
The Pope also makes it clear that the Church does not resile in any way from the importance of acknowledging Christ as our saviour, even for the Jews:
"In our days, when in vast areas of the world the faith is in danger of dying out like a flame which no longer has fuel, the overriding priority is to make God present in this world and to show men and women the way to God. Not just any god, but the God who spoke on Sinai; to that God whose face we recognize in a love which presses "to the end" (cf. Jn 13:1) – in Jesus Christ, crucified and risen. 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. Leading men and women to God, to the God who speaks in the Bible: this is the supreme and fundamental priority of the Church and of the Successor of Peter at the present time."
3. It makes critics of reconciliation look like the hypocrites that they are
The Liberals and others urge the rejection of the SSPX because of their opposition to ecumenism. The Pope turns the argument on its head by pointing out that the Church's very commitment to ecumenism correctly understood is why the process of reconciliation is so urgent.
We live in an age when Christianity - indeed belief in God in any form - is under threat, the Pope points out, yet spreading the faith is the primary mission of the Church. He goes on to point out that disunity is a grave impediment to our efforts on this front. Then comes his crunch line:
"A logical consequence of this is that we must have at heart the unity of all believers. Their disunity, their disagreement among themselves, calls into question the credibility of their talk of God. Hence the effort to promote a common witness by Christians to their faith – ecumenism – is part of the supreme priority."
Now many of us suspect that most committed 'ecumenists' don't actually want those outside the Church to be reconciled, they want some kind of waffly pluralism to prevail that recognises all forms of Christianity (or even all faiths) as equally valid. But they will rarely come out and actually say something so clearly erroneous, so the Pope hoists them on their own petard.
Even worse (from their perspective), the Pope then joins this message about real ecumenism to the need for genuine resolution of theological issues - something that has been utterly absent from much ecumenical dialogue and most ecumenical initiatives at the local level to date (such as joint Lenten reading notes), which typically have focused on what we (possibly) agree on rather than on what we don't.
4. It provides a mechanism for addressing the problem of modernism
The letter once again reiterates the Pope's central message about the hermeneutic of continuity - and points out it applies to both ends of the spectrum:
"The Church’s teaching authority cannot be frozen in the year 1962 – this must be quite clear to the Society. 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."
One of the most important moves on this front is the decision to bring the PCED under the aegis of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith to facilitate resolution of the doctrinal issues that need to be resolved.
I think this is a big and positive step forward. Under the current papacy we've already had clarifying statements from the Congregation on a couple of very important issues - stating that the need for evangelization doesn't disappear because of ecumenism, for example, and reasserting doctrine on the nature of the Church. The Pope himself has also said a lot, for example clarifying the purpose of ecumenism and inter-religious dialogue. This provides an opportunity to work through the rest of the list of contested doctrinal issues - and I suspect that the Pope has in his mind that even if it doesn't lead to the reconciliation of the SSPX, it will serve a valuable purpose for the wider Church.
5. By appealing with humility for fraternal support rather than imposing, he undermines yet another critique of his style.
The other reason I think this letter had to go out was that the Church was rapidly on a path to becoming ungovernable. The Linz debacle and open rebellion by the Austrian and German bishops for example could readily have been repeated across the world (including in Australia) and any attempts to simply impose the right answer would I think have risked outright schism.
Instead, the Pope cuts the ground out from underneath them with his Christlike appeals for support and understanding, making any further rebellion looks like exactly what it is. It will make it much harder for those concerned to argue when harsher measures are taken - and let's face it, they are being even as we speak, with for example the laicization of the rebel polish priest in the States (look out Fr Kennedy!), and one assumes, quite a few more to come in Austria...
How will it all play out from here?
It is an open question how all this will play out now with the bishops. Already for example, the English bishops have put out a summary of the letter which completely ignores the main point of it!
The comments on the SSPX itself are fairly tough - but I think accurate. Indeed, the comboxes are really proving the Pope's point about inflexibility and arrogance in many cases. But on the plus side, Bishop Fellay of the SSPX has put out a very positive response, seeing the letter as a step toward the reconciliation process being able to proceed. It will take a few days for everyone to get top of head reactions off their chests and come to a more reflective view I suspect, but I'm optimistic.
And for traditionalists within the Church, I think there are still some open questions - such as whether EF liturgical matters will now be dealt with by the Congregation for Divine Worship (personally I think they should be; there is no evidence that the PCED was being particularly helpful to the traddie cause in this area!), and where matters relating to individual traditional religious institutes should now sit. I guess it is a matter of wait and see...
So what can we do?
It seems to me there are a few things.
It would be nice if at least some (or all, but I'm not holding my breath!) Australian bishops came out in support of the Pope's initiative to reconcile the SSPX (and others) given that he has made clear that souls are at stake, as well as the mission of the Church.
So if you think your bishop might be potentially sympathetic (and there are a few who might be I think), why not email and ask him (with appropriate deference and politesse!)?
Perhaps our bishops could even consider some particular initiatives aimed at facilitating reconciliation, such as tasking the traditional communities, and/or religious in their dioceses to pray for the cause of unity in general, or specific SSPX priests and communities in particular. Offering votive masses for unity (once Lent is over!). Or even more direct gestures.
And of course traditional communities could consider undertaking such initiatives off their own bat in any case.
Secondly, whenever we see examples of traddie bashing going on, we should attempt to divert or subvert such actions, or gently remind those concerned of the Pope's invocation of that brilliant passage from Galatians:
"Do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love be servants of one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself’. But if you bite and devour one another, take heed that you are not consumed by one another."
Of course, it is a passage we all (bloggers such as myself especially!), should keep in mind as well! There is sometimes a need for forthright comment. But we need to consider how best to return people to the truth, not just condemn them or whinge about the state of the Church.
Finally, we must surely keep up our prayers and sacrifices for the Pope.