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With the Lefebvrists, Ecumenism Doesnt Come Cheap

ROME, June 2, 2010 – In two days, Benedict XVI will travel to Cyprus. It will be the first time that a pope has visited the island, invited and welcomed by the local Orthodox Church. Not even John Paul II was able to do so. But Benedict XVI is engaged on another ecumenical front.

It’s with the followers of Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, who are still in a state of schism with the Church of Rome because of their rejection of the authenticity of Vatican Council II.

At the beginning of 2009, the pope’s decision to lift the excommunication of four bishops ordained illicitly by Lefebvre (in the photo) – a decision poorly communicated and poorly understood inside and outside of the Church – caused a storm of confusion and criticism.

In order to clarify the meaning of his action, Benedict XVI sent a letter to the bishops on March 10 of last year. In it, he explained that the lifting of the excommunication was intended to call “those thus punished to repent and to return to unity.” And he stressed that the journey of reconciliation had yet to be undertaken, because the dispute was of a doctrinal nature and concerned the acceptance of Vatican Council II and the post-conciliar magisterium of the popes.

In confirmation of this doctrinal nature of the dispute, the pope closely joined the pontifical commission “Ecclesia Dei” – charged with dialoguing with the Lefebvrists and with other similar groups – with the congregation for the doctrine of the faith.

In the same letter to the bishops, Benedict XVI explained that the call to the unity of faith must apply to all Christians. And therefore it is senseless to “casually let drift farther from the Church” the 491 seminarians, 6 seminaries, 88 schools, 2 university institutes, 117 brothers, 164 sisters, and thousands of faithful who make up the Lefebvrist community.

But the pope also noted, with regret, that there is an intolerance in the Church aimed both at the Lefebvrists and at those who “dare to approach them.”

Benedict XVI himself is a target of this intolerance. He wrote to the bishops that because of his efforts to reconcile the Lefebvrists with the Church, “some groups openly accused the pope of wanting to turn back the clock to before [Vatican Council II].”

These criticisms have recently reappeared, even in theologically sophisticated forms. For example, in a cerebral commentary written by Eberhard Schockenhoff, professor of moral theology at the University of Freiburg, in the April 2010 issue of the German Jesuit magazine “Stimmen der Zeit,” reproduced in its entirety, in Italian, in the latest issue of “Il Regno.”

Schockenhoff is a professor of moral theology at the University of Freigburg, and was a disciple and assistant of Walter Kasper, now a cardinal and president of the pontifical council for Christian unity.

In his commentary, Schockenhoff correctly writes that the real disagreement between the Church of Rome and the Lefebvrists does not concern the Mass in Latin, but the teaching of Vatican II, especially on ecclesiology and on freedom of conscience and religion.

But he also writes that Rome is wrong to whip up restrictive interpretations of the conciliar texts to offer to the Lefebvrists in the hope that these will be accepted by them. Because in Schockenhoff’s view, this is exactly what is happening in the closed-door meetings organized by “Ecclesia Dei.”

Rome – Schockenhoff writes – wants to extract a verbal acknowledgment of the freedom of conscience and religion, the cornerstones of modern culture, from no less than the Lefebvrists, the most dogged enemies of modernity. But doing this is like trying to “square the circle,” impossible. No one would ever believe in the sincerity of such a reconciliation, even if it were signed.

In condemning the “hermeneutic tightrope walk” by which the Church of Rome wants to reconcile the Lefebvrists to itself, with grave harm to the correct interpretation of the Council, Schockenhoff repeatedly cites Ratzinger the theologian and his “Platonist-Augustinian conception of conscience”: a conception “too different” – he writes – from that of the conciliar declaration “Dignitatis Humanae” on religious freedom.

The work by Ratzinger that is cited is from 1992. Inexplicably, however, Schockenhoff does not cite a much more pertinent and recent text by Ratzinger, after he became pope.

This key text is the final part of the memorable speech that Benedict XVI gave to the Roman curia on December 22, 2005, on the interpretation of Vatican Council II.

In explaining how to interpret the Council correctly, Benedict XVI shows how it did in fact introduce new developments with respect to the past, but always in continuity with “the deepest patrimony of the Church.”

And as an example of this interplay between newness and continuity, the pope illustrates precisely the conciliar ideas on freedom of religion: the main point of division between the Church and the Lefebvrists.

From this speech onward, it becomes clear that for Benedict XVI, the Lefebvrists can reconcile with the Church only if they accept everything written in “Dignitatis Humanae” according to the interpretation of it made by the pope, and not according to another more restrictive, or “Platonist-Augustinian,” interpretation.

SANDRO MAGISTER was born on the feast of the Guardian Angels in 1943, in the town of Busto Arsizio in the archdiocese of Milan. The following day he was baptized into the Catholic Church. His wife’s name is Anna, and he has two daughters, Sara and Marta. He lives in Rome.

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