In Healing One Schism, Pope Benedict Creates More

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Tony Gentile / Reuters

Pope Benedict XVI looks on during his Wednesday general audience in Paul VI hall at the Vatican January 28, 2009.

Controversy burns on a week after Pope Benedict XVI reversed the excommunication of the four bishops of the breakaway Lefebvrite movement, including a vocal Holocaust denier. Developments over just two days include: an Italian priest of the same arch-traditionalist group added his own doubts about Nazi gas chambers to those expressed last week by British-born Bishop Richard Williamson; another cleric from the splinter faction publicly criticized the Pope and condemned his 2006 visit to Istanbul's Blue Mosque; Israel's chief Rabbinic council said inter-faith talks with the Vatican should be put on hold, while others have questioned whether a slated papal Holy Land trip in May should be called off over the episode. Meanwhile, Catholic progressives around the world have taken the Pope's actions as a deliberate slap because the followers of French Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre reject the reforms of the Second Vatican Council.

In other words, Benedict's surprise, unilateral gesture to the group also known as the Society of St. Pius X has kicked up a storm rivaled in this four-year old pontificate only by his provocative 2006 Regensburg speech about faith and violence that offended so many Muslims. Indeed, this may very well turn out worse. The Pope's biggest problem will be neither Jewish leaders' hurt feelings (which he has already begun to heal) nor the outrage of liberal Catholics (with whom Benedict was never going to be truly simpatico). Instead, for the first time in his papacy, Benedict has risked alienating his own base. (See a graphic of Pope Benedict's spheres of influence.)

In the most immediate and practical sense, the disaffection can already be measured in Rome. A generally supportive Vatican hierarchy was caught off guard by both the timing and substance of the boss's unilateral olive branch to a group that has shown little good will toward Rome ever since the four bishops were consecrated in open defiance of Pope John Paul II, the act that had prompted their 1988 excommunication. Among several loyal Pope backers inside the Roman Curia, none of whom wanted to be identified, there was widespread consternation about the entire episode — and major uncertainty about what happens next. "The way it was just dropped on the public, is the same way it dropped on us," says one well-placed Vatican source.

Making matters worse was the timing and handling of the publication of the papal decree, which was released just three days after the airing of a Swedish television interview of Williamson, where the British-born Bishop declared that Nazi gas chambers didn't exist and Jewish deaths during World War II did not exceed 300,000. The Pope and several of his deputies have spent the past week reiterating the Vatican's clear, longstanding line on both the historical facts of the Holocaust and the warm papal sentiments toward and theological connection with the Jewish people. There is little doubt that the repair work, like that done with Muslims after the Regensburg speech, will eventually help put inter-faith dialogue back on track.

But the fallout inside the Catholic hierarchy could be more lasting. Regensburg was a question of a speech largely directed toward the outside world; and while some still criticize the poorly chosen language, others believe it gave much needed impetus to a more frank discussion about Islam. It was, in any case, the "professor Pope" playing to his strengths.

But, undoing the excommunication of an unrepentant group that was long considered in schism with Rome is troubling in ecclesiastical terms. The Pope has shaken the foundations of his own Church, apparently without much consultation from those who run its day-to-day affairs (both in Rome and around the world). Indeed, Benedict made an end-run around the famously imposing Vatican bureaucracy, including the key offices of liturgy, doctrine and inter-faith relations that would have wanted to weigh in with their concerns under normal procedures. Several top Curia officials contacted by TIME this week declined comment, and there has been a notable dearth of vigorous defenses of the embattled Pope.

What comes next may be even more troubling. Since the lifting of the excommunication is just a first step in what would be a long process of reconciliation — including the thorny issue of the Lefebvrites' recognition of Vatican II (interfaith dialogue, religious freedom, et al.). It will ultimately fall to these same Vatican offices shut out from the original decision to work out the details. It may turn out that the Pope has introduced into the already difficult work of Church unity a problem that simply cannot be resolved.

Don Pierpaolo Petrucci, a St. Pius X priest from Rimini, told the Italian newswire Adnkronos that the Pope's gesture was unilateral. "The excommunication was lifted without any condition being imposed on us," he said. The traditionalist priest, however, then went on to insist the group was opposed to the Pope's dialogue with other religions, and said he was "scandalized" by Benedict's prayer at the Blue Mosque in Istanbul. Earlier in the week, a Lefebvrist priest in Treviso Floriano Abrahamowicz, reportedly rekindled the holocaust-denial controversy when he was quoted as saying, "I know gas chambers existed at least to disinfect, I can't say if anybody was killed in them or not." (On Friday, Williamson posted a letter online apologizing to the Pope for his "imprudent phrases." The Vatican offered no offical response.)

"You stand back and you realize it isn't just a matter of bad timing," one Vatican insider said, referring to the coincidental Williamson interview. "You scratch the surface and you quickly see [the Lefebvrites'] attitudes are not quite right. You're making a most important gesture, and at what end? They're just not ready."

The Pope no doubt understands that too, and is simply praying that the process of reconciliation takes on a life of its own. But Benedict's momentous leap of faith runs a high risk of running head on into the realities of a modern Church and the powers of its ancient bureaucracy.