Schism with Lefebvrites Not Healed Yet, Says Vatican

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Dario Pignatelli / Polaris

Cardinal William Joseph Levada

When the Pope lifted the excommunication of four ultra-conservative Roman Catholic bishops earlier this year, he was plunged into one of the worst controversies of his pontificate. Since then, the Vatican has been trying — not always with success — to explain that the group isn't fully back in Rome's embrace at all.

The man tapped by Pope Benedict XVI to lead Vatican negotiations with the Lefebvrite movement says the controversial group remains in schism with the Catholic Church and that only its acceptance of the Second Vatican Council and obedience to the Pope can bring it fully back into the fold. In his first public comments since Benedict lifted the excommunication of the four bishops in January, Vatican doctrinal chief Cardinal William Levada tells TIME that important, and potentially insurmountable, differences still separate the Vatican and the group known as the Society of St. Pius X. Pointing to the Pope's letter last month to the world's bishops that addressed the controversy, Levada says the removal of the excommunication was a "gesture of mercy ... [and] invitation to a dialogue." But as matters currently stand, Levada says, "the Society lacks canonical status to exercise ministry in the Church." (See pictures of Pope Benedict XVI.)

Founded by the late French Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre to oppose the 1960s reforms of the Second Vatican Council, the Society became a breakaway movement when four bishops were ordained in 1988 in defiance of Pope John Paul II, and Lefebvre and his four new bishops were promptly excommunicated. The already thorny decision in January to lift the surviving bishops' excommunication became one of the lowest moments in Benedict's papacy when it coincided with a shocking television interview with one of the bishops. Questioned on his views of the Holocaust, British-born Bishop Richard Williamson told a Swedish TV reporter that no one was killed in Nazi gas chambers and that no more than 300,000 Jews died in concentration camps, rather than the widely accepted figure of 6 million Jews exterminated. (See a graphic on the philosophical influences of the Pope.)

Levada says he still has not met with the Society's top officials but expects that a dialogue will go forward with its bishops and top theological advisers. Unless Bishop Williamson fully recants his position denying the Holocaust, he cannot take part in the negotiations, says Levada, the U.S.-born head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the job the current Pope used to hold.

Benedict's decision in 2007 to allow wider access to the traditional Tridentine Mass — said in Latin with the priest facing the altar rather than his flock — means that liturgical disputes with the Lefebvre followers have basically been resolved. "What remain are doctrinal questions that can only be clarified through further patient dialogue," Levada says.

To give a sense of just how much "patience" might be needed, Levada compares the gesture toward the four bishops with the mutual decision in 1965 by Pope Paul VI and Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras to lift their 900-year-old reciprocal excommunications between leaders of Christianity's two oldest churches. "We rejoiced at this gesture aimed at Christian unity," Levada says during a 45-min. interview in his Vatican office. "But the removal of these excommunications did not end the schism that continues to exist between Catholicism and Orthodoxy."

The outstanding points of contention with the Lefebvre followers center on what Levada calls "obedience to the magisterium," or teaching authority, of the Pope, and specific decrees of the Second Vatican Council. "The Council is vast, and not all decrees are on the same level," Levada says. "The decree on religious liberty is one of the key issues that the Society has problems with." Lefebvre always opposed the reforms aimed at reaching out to other faiths. Levada insists there is much ground to cover in order to find out if the breakaway group is ready to rejoin the fold. "We will want to review the entire catechism of the Church with them," Levada adds, referring to the far-reaching document approved under the reign of Pope John Paul II that outlines fundamental Catholic teaching.

As the man in charge of Church orthodoxy, Levada will take over the reins of the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei, which has for nearly two decades been responsible for dealing with the Lefebvre followers. The Cardinal says the process will benefit from his congregation's body of some 30 theological advisers as well as from regular consultations with other key Vatican offices.

Levada will replace Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyos, who had spearheaded the talks that led to the lifting of the excommunications. Castrillon has been criticized by many inside and outside Rome, including Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi, who said the Colombian Cardinal should have known about Bishop Williamson's troubling views on the Holocaust. Levada does not take sides in the dispute but concedes that the Vatican was "a human structure, with its limitations and possibilities for improvement." Levada is quick to add that his own congregation, which was run for 24 years by the future Pope, was functioning like clockwork when he took over.