Benedict Undermining His Own Legacy

By Fr. Thomas Reese, SJ

Fr. Thomas Reese, SJ
Fr. Thomas Reese, SJ

The lifting of the excommunication of Bishop Richard Williamson by Pope Benedict XVI caused a firestorm of protest from Jews and liberal Catholics. Jewish leaders expressed shock and hurt because Bishop Williamson had denied the reality of the Shoah (Holocaust) that exterminated millions of Jews. Catholic liberals complained that Williamson and the three other bishops of the St. Pius X Society have still not accepted the Second Vatican Council.

The complaints against Bishop Williamson are on target. He is a Shoah denier and does not accept Vatican II. His views on women are also anachronistic. He disapproves of women in pants and says women should not go to universities. This is a man who would be happier living in the 19th century, like many members of the Lefebvre movement who have not recovered from the French revolution. He also believes that the World Trade Center was destroyed by explosions, not by airplanes.

Three aspects of this debacle need to be separately examined: the decision to lift the excommunication, how it was made and how it was communicated to the world.

The Decision

The media has described the decision to lift the excommunication of Bishop Williamson as the pope “rehabilitating” him, “returning him to the fold,” and “embracing” him. None of this is true. The four bishops, along with Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, were excommunicated because Lefebvre ordained them as bishops without the approval of the pope. They were not excommunicated because of their beliefs about the Shoah or Vatican II.

Lifting the excommunication is the ecclesia equivalent of a “cease fire” not a peace treaty. The bishops are still suspended from ministry, forbidden to act as bishops or even as priests. As one who believes that the Catholic Church should be a big tent with room for different views, I do not criticize the pope’s attempt to reach out to the Lefebvrites. In my view, lifting the excommunications was a judgment call, and I would defend the pope’s right to make that decision. My disappointment is that while the Vatican is enthusiastic in wooing the right, it has no patience with the left. Only the right side of the cafeteria is open.

Why is the Vatican putting so much effort into reconciliation with the Society of St. Pius X? The real reason is because these men are bishops. If they were simple priests, the Vatican would not give them the time of day. The Vatican is caught by it own theology that sees these men as validly if not licitly ordained. They can ordain more bishops and the schism can go on forever. If lifting the excommunication is the price for keeping the bishops from ordaining more bishops, then in the view of the Vatican it is a cheap price to pay.

The Decision-Making Process

This latest controversy and others that preceded it (like his Regensburg address) point to a fatal systemic flaw in the Benedict papacy that is destroying his effectiveness as pope: He does not consult experts who might challenge his views and inclinations.
No one disputes the fact that Benedict is a brilliant theologian, but he is surrounded by people who are not as smart as he is. They would never question someone they think is the smartest man in the world.

The firestorm that followed the decision should have been foreseen and prepared for. Unnamed sources in the Vatican claim they did not know that Williamson was a Shoah denier. Haven’t they heard of Google?

In any other organization, heads would roll after so many disasters, but in the Vatican, loyalty still trumps competence. The pope needs a good chief of staff to assure this kind of thing does not happen.

Communicating the Decision

Finally, the way this decision was communicated to the world was a disaster. Special efforts should have been made to communicate with Jewish leaders, explaining the decision did not represent endorsement of the bishops’ views.

The Vatican still believes that all it has to do is announce a decision by the pope and everyone will greet it with enthusiasm. One-page press releases will not do it. The Vatican is headquarters for a 1.1-billion member organization and it needs a sophisticated 21st century communications strategy.

Pope Benedict is saying and doing many great things, but these media disasters are undermining his papacy. His words about peace, justice, refugees and the economic crisis are not being heard.  The Vatican’s model for the papacy is still the absolute monarchies and royal courts of the past. That model simply will not work today.

Fr. Thomas Reese will be the featured speaker at FutureChurch’s annual benefit on October 8 in Cleveland. He has a doctorate in political science from the University of California, Berkeley and is the author of Inside the Vatican: The Policis and organization of the Catholic Church.  Reprinted with permission from Fr. Reese’s online blog On Faith, at


Focus on FutureChurch

Winter 2009


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