Of all the comments about Pope Benedict’s interview with Peter Seewald, hardly any have mentioned his reflections on the Williamson affair. Others have been greatly troubled by his comments on condoms orJudaism; neither of which, I must confess, I find particularly problematic. But the Williamson business bothers me. In the first place, the Pope is a great pains to explain the lifting of the excommunications as a result of the Bishops concerned repenting of their “offence against the primacy [of the Bishop of Rome]”. He says the next step following their acknowledgement of the Roman Primacy “was quite clear from a canonical point of view”. In other words, the excommunication was not as a result of any moral fault in the Bishops, but was a result of a canonical process, or applying the previous Code then in force, to the situation of the illicit ordinations. It was, so to say, a technical excommunication not because of anything the Bishops believed (“their excommunication had nothing to do with Vatican II” the Pope says at least twice), but because of some action they had taken which went against Canon Law and therefore rejected communion with the See of Peter which is the guarantor of that law. So far, so good.
But asked specifically about Williamson’s individual case, when asked if if would have signed the decree lifting the excommunications had he known about Williamson’s aberrant opinions, the Pope replies: “No.” He goes on, “The first step would have been to separate the Williamson case from the others.” Now, it is clear that to some extent by his opinions, which run counter the facts of a history which is still very vividly alive in the minds of the people who suffered at the hands of Nazism, Williamson had to some extent a different position vis-à-vis whether the undoing of his excommunication might cause scandal. But the previous answer of the Pope does not touch on the aspect of whether the remission would cause scandal. It is well known, for example, that all the Bishops of the SSPX hold views about a number of issues which might cause scandal to Catholics who accept whole-heartedly the teaching of the Vatican Council II. Not least on the matter of religious liberty, and the declaration Nostra Aetate, which is credited with changing the direction of thinking on the Church’s relationship to Judaism in a fundamental way. What I am trying to get to is that aberrant opinions abound (if they are aberrant at all, which may be an open question) in the Society, and even among its Bishops; and on very serious matters of faith, some of them. But the Pope is adamant that the excommunications, and their subsequent lifting, had anything to do with “opinions”, but with facts: the Bishops, in agreeing to be consecrated, had severed their communion with Rome, rejecting Papal Primacy; then they had written to the Holy See asserting their filial loyalty to the Pontiff, thus making it possible to restore them to the Church’s communion (without, thereby, giving any licity to their Episcopal ministry).
Yet, if he had known about Williamson’s views on the Shoah, that would have created circumstances so serious to have meant separating his case out, with, presumably, the possibility therefore of making a different assessment as to whether he should be readmitted to communion with the Catholic Church. But surely, if as Seewald asserts, before lifting the excommunications it would be necessary to “scrutinise” and “examine carefully how they conduct their lives”, then the excommunication is removed from its proper context as a disciplinary measure resulting from an undermining of Catholic unity and seen as a result of some action or opinion which undermines the Faith itself. In that case the excommunications could never have been lifted until a theological resolution to the problems of the Vatican Council II, as understood by the SSPX, had been reached. In which case even to this day the Bishops would remain excommunicate.
The Holy Father attempts to get around this dilemma by saying “Williamson is an atypical case” among the Bishops, because he alone of them was a convert to the Catholic faith. Indeed he goes so far as to say Williamson “was never a Catholic in the proper sense” because “he was an Anglican and then went directly over to Lefebvre”. There are three points here. In the first place, Williamson was received into the Church in 1971 and there followed a brief spell at the Brompton Oratory. It was not until 1976 he entered the seminary at Ecône and even though when by that time the tragedy and recriminations of the second half of the 70s had begun to take effect, it is conceivable that the Society was still viewed by him as a true expression of Catholic faith, albeit with some difficulties in its relationship with what was, it must be admitted, a Curia with a particular political vision of the meaning of the Church, her role in the world and her future. In the second place, it is very dangerous territory to get into saying this or that person is or is not a Cahtolic “in the proper sense”. Is Hans Küng a “Catholic in the proper sense”? Or the countless others who have committed some abuse to the Catholic faith, or indeed have lived not in accord with it either deliberately or by misunderstanding? Perhaps: as the Holy Father is fond of quoting Augustine: many who appear to be within are without, and vice versa. But it is another thing to turn this into a legal situation to do with whether or not a person is considered to be excommunicated or not. Thirdly, the fact that Williamson was a convert can hardly explain his failure to understand the reality of the Holocaust.
In short, I am bemused by the Holy Father’s explanation of the Williamson affair. Evidently, from a political point of view, it would have been expedient to know about Williamson’s views before lifting the excommunications. But the Pope is pretty insistent that the remission was nothing to do with anything other than the following through of a canonical process i.e. that in submitting the letter of intent of obedience to the Pope, the bishops demonstrated a renewed commitment to the Primacy, and therefore the excommunication must naturally be remitted. Either the remission was a consequence of the Bishops’ commitment to the Roman Pontiff or it wasn’t. Either it was exclusively to do with the fact that they were illicitly consecrated or it wasn’t. It can’t possibly be one thing for one and another for the others. If Williamson’s opinions and lifestyle ought to have been investigated, so ought that of the other Bishops; if there was no need to investigate them, because the lifting of the excommunications was not about such matters because they were not imposed for any reason of that kind, then surely there was no need to investigate him?
Ultimately, it comes down to a simple question: is being in communion with the Catholic Church predicated on the holding or not holding of certain views of history? If a politician who is a Catholic and yet has voted in favour of acts which the Catholic Church condemns a grave moral evils, and therefore does not only hold an erroneous opinion but is, in effect, at least partially responsible for the carrying out of the reprehensible crimes, can legitimately present himself or herself for Holy Communion, as many argue, how can it be right to wonder whether Williamson should not have been remitted from the excommunication?
I am certainly no fan of Bishop Williamson’s opinions about the Holocaust; but I cannot for the life of me comprehend why one standard should be applied to a person taking views about a particular evil of history and another to those who in other ways pervert Catholicism, whether by denying Our Lord’s divinity, or some other truth of faith, or by permitting or legislating or voting in favour of some moral evil. And, alas! our beloved Holy Father’s comments in this interview shed no light whatsoever on this matter for me.