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Dissident bishops and the case for church unity

Bishop Richard WilliamsonPope Benedict's decision to lift the excommunication of four dissident Bishops has caused controversy. It has largely focused on the anti-Semitic statements made by of one of the four Bishops, Richard Williamson (pictured). Church authorities on all sides have since scrambled to disown Williamson's attitudes.

But the Pope's decision also raises wider questions about the unity of the Catholic Church. These bear on a current conflict within the Catholic Church in Brisbane.

It is a challenge for any church to ensure that its faith and life remain authentically Christian. The life of the church includes its liturgical practices, moral convictions and relationships with other groups. It is an even greater challenge to see that this faith and life are shared across the church.

In Catholic theology the controlling image of unity is that of the Apostles gathered with Peter. In the continuing church, the Bishops represent the Apostles, and the Bishop of Rome represents Peter. The Bishops ensure that there is unity in the faith and life of their local church and its congregations. The Pope is responsible for serving the unity in faith and life of the universal church in its various manifestations.

Both the excommunication of the four bishops and its lifting should be seen against this background. They were ordained in 1988 by Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, a noted missionary. He was disaffected by the Second Vatican Council. In particular he saw its opening to other churches and religions, as well as the changes it introduced in liturgy, as not truly Catholic.

He opened a seminary for like minded candidates, and in 1970 formed the Society of Saint Pius X for priests. His local Bishop saw this as divisive, and ordered the seminary closed. This decision was ratified by Pope Paul VI.

When Archbishop Lefebvre continued to ordain priests, despite being forbidden by the Vatican, he was suspended from celebrating the Sacraments. In 1987 he decided to ordain bishops to maintain the Society after his death. In the Western church this requires the permission of the Pope. Its breach led automatically to excommunication.

The disciplines that Archbishop Lefebvre ignored and the excommunication of the bishops were designed to safeguard the unity of the church in its faith and life. The decision of the Pope to lift the excommunication reflects a desire to restore unity. From his perspective it is a generous initiative, a circuit breaker, to heal division.

The gesture does not re-establish the unity in faith and in life between the Catholic Church and the followers of Archbishop Lefebvre. That was damaged before the 1988 ordinations. But it opens the way for conversation about what restoration of unity might involve.

Pope Benedict's initiative raises questions about what unity in faith and life involves in practical terms. If the congregations under their bishops are received back, will an anti-Semitic bishop be permitted to head a local church? May they deny that the liturgical practice of other congregations is really Catholic?

Will acceptance of some documents of Vatican II be optional? If so, the unity of the Church would accommodate much more divergence than has hitherto been understood.

That would also affect what Bishops could expect of groups within their own churches. In Brisbane Archbishop John Bathersby has been in conflict with the clergy and congregation of St Mary's, South Brisbane. It houses a very active and committed congregation, many of whom do not feel at home in other congregations.

The overt causes of conflict between the Archbishop and the parish are liturgical practices and formulae that are not approved and the promotion of a book that the Archbishop believes to be unorthodox. The conflict has been inflamed by the ill-disposed who attend the church in order to complain to Rome about it.

Underlying these issues is the responsibility of the Bishop to intervene where he believes that unity in faith and life within the diocese and with the universal church are at stake. The Archbishop does not believe that this principle has been accepted in practice

Archbishop Bathersby's task will certainly be much more difficult if the universal church receives into communion groups that do not accept as legitimate the liturgical practices and attitudes to non-Catholics that a Council has endorsed. It will be even more difficult if denigration of Jews is seen as compatible with acting as bishop.

The opposing claims of unity, identity and local autonomy in churches, as in societies, always need to be negotiated. The negotiation is always delicate, because in any dispute what each side prizes is precious. Pope Benedict's generous gesture, together with the projected acceptance of dissident Anglican congregations, has put into play the understanding of what unity entails.

St Mary's South Brisbane

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is the consulting editor for Eureka Street. He also teaches at the United Faculty of Theology in Melbourne.

Topic tags: andrew hamilton, dissident bishops, Richard Williamson, Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, Society of St Pius



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Existing comments

Andrew Hamilton avoids the main issue the public, Church or otherwise, with the Pope seeing fit to acknowledge his role of a pastoral leader, of the anti-Semitic and mentally unsuitable English Lebebrist bishop, as worthy of being a bishop within the full rites of the Church. Come on Andrew; have the moral fortitude to say the Pope has erred.

philip herringer | 02 February 2009  

Sound comment.

Fr John Hill | 02 February 2009  

Thanks Andrew for your many contributions to Eureka - I always find your comments moderate and fair-minded.

I feel very sad about the St Mary's situation. I know many of the people involved and although there are certainly some issues of church order. My occasional visits to St Mary's reinforces my view that the liturgical experiences and extensive social services to the poor is one of the most Jesus centered places I have ever experienced.

There is the bigger question of credibility for church authority - no far away from St Mary's is a parish where the priest does not allow women to read or give communion - nothing is said about this breach of church order.

For almost 30 years in Boston (and other dioceses) priests engaged in sexual abuse with massive systems cover up etc etc. The question of selected Roman agenda is a real concern for the credibility of church authority.

Kevin Treston | 02 February 2009  

As I understand the Pope's decision to lift the excommunication on these bishops and their congregation, it does not mean that they are recognised as Bishops in the Church. Rather it encourages them to enter into discussion with the Church with a view to establishing whether or not they will accept the obligations which membership of the Church entails and whether the Church will accept them into its membership. It seems to me analogous to Barack Obama's decision to communicate with the Iranians and Hamas! Am I wrong?

Graham Holmes | 02 February 2009  

I am tired of this propaganda related to the so-called "antisemitism" or "denigration of Jews".

Bishop Williamson merely observed that he "believes" no gas chambers were used in KLs and that he also "believes" 200,000 to 300,000 Jews perished in those KLs.

In Poland the official number of killed in Warsaw-Uprising (1944) might have been lower than believed previosly (200,000) and might be around 100 000. Are the Poles "denigrating" themselves?

Mr Hamilton is very eager to denounce bishop Williamson for his beliefs on an historical event. But he does not see that some of the better known rabbis like Yitzhak Ginsburgh or the late Menachem Mendel Schneerson were freely expressing themselves (also in writing!) about their views on Jews and "Goyim" like that the blood of a Jew and blood of a Goy "are not one and the same thing" (Ginsburgh) and that the whole Creation, including earth, heavens and Goyim came to being only "to serve the Jews" (Schneerson).

Indeed bishop Williamson's remarks are quite harmless by comparison.

Michael Monikowski | 02 February 2009  

Whatever the difficulties of "Archbishop Battersby's task", we feel for the difficulties of the members of a community which suffers such recurrent threats.

St Mary's has welcomed and served our family and others.

We value our participation in St Mary's Eucharists during visits to Brisbane, and admire the community's commitment to people in need.

Chris & Jan Watson | 02 February 2009  

I regard myself as amoderate liberal in matters of the Church and hold no brief for Lefabre et al but I thought the anti-holocaust "bishop" had now withdrawn his denial of the Holocaust.

Phil Smith | 02 February 2009  

I may misunderstand what the Pope is doing, but there are thousands of Catholics with objectionable factual or political beliefs. This is not generally matter for excommunication, nor is it to endorse their views to allow them the sacraments. Moves towards making the Roman Communion a broader church is always going to let a few more ratbags say in, but there are huge advantages to breadth, and I think it's worth living with. Credit to Benedict - perhaps.

john fox | 02 February 2009  

It may well be indeed that(at least in Andrew's view) 'In Catholic theology the controlling image of unity is "of the Apostles gathered with Peter..' but there the analogy fades away.....where is the evident collegiality today between the bishops and the Bishop of Rome? There is little or no worthwhile consultation in terms of what really matters.Let's be quite honest and open about that.

Have regard to Andrews's statements: "The bishops ensure that there is unity in the faith and life in their local
church(es)'..and" The Pope is responsible for..'

There is something missing in both cases. What's missing are the key words...in both cases...'are meant to'.

The gulf between practice and reality remains wide. Let's not add to it through a careless presumption as well.

But the overwhelming question that stands out is: why were the excommunications overturned given that there were no undertakings given to reverse the original faults?

Or, more bluntly, can the folk of South Brisbane look to a personal prelature to enshrine and safeguard their special needs? And, if not, why not...given this papal judgment.

One could also ponder the deliberate though poor timing of the decision in the context of the 50th anniversary of Vatican 2

bhaill@bigpond.net.au | 02 February 2009  

Thanks for the comments, and the chance to take the conversation further.

The question I raised was less about the propriety of lifting the excommunication of Bishop Williamson, than about the kind of church unity to which the Pope's action might lead and the broader implications of that.

I do think that Bishop Williamson's remarks, if quoted righly in internet discussion, do more than deny the Holocaust, but can be fairly described as anti-Semitic. I agree that it would not be appropriate to excommunicate someone for holding those views, but I believe it might be appropriate to exclude that person from responsibility for a local church as Bishop.Apartheid raised the same question.

I agree that the way in which the responsibility for local and universal church is exercised is as important as the Catholic principle of episcopal and papal responsibility. But the latter remains important even if it is often abused.

I also believe that institutional unity in faith and life is very important and that it will always stand in conflict with diversity. In our culture, though, it is harder to defend the claims of unity than of diversity.

Andy Hamilton | 03 February 2009  

Thanks, Andrew Hamilton, for thoughtful and well reasoned comments on the Pope's overture to the dissident Tridentine fixated Bishops and the dilemma confronting the Archbishop of Brisbane.

That there is a vibrant Christian Community led by the Administrator of Saint Mary's Catholic Parish in Brisbane is evident. It is not so clear that this Priest and this group of Christians are entitled to be regarded as in communion with the same Roman Catholic Church to which I give my allegiance. It may be that there is some onus on the Administrator to show that his conduct in this matter is compatible with the responsibility he took on when he accepted priestly ordination.

Denis O'Leary | 03 February 2009  

If the church accepts those of tenuous practice and belief on the
conservative and reactionary side, wouldn't it make Archbishop
Bathersby's task easier, on the grounds of tolerance of the fringes?

Rome may not see it that way, but the Archbishop could exploit the logic.

Jack | 03 February 2009  

Thanks, Andy, for an excellent commentary, which goes beyond the fluff over Holocaust.

Simon Smith sj | 06 February 2009  

Andrew I think you have done a good job trying to find a balance but...

My understanding is that the "bishops" of the Lefebrist group have simply had an excommunication lifted and they are not recognised as bishops or priests, let alone Catholic ones. The lifting of the excommunications simply allows them to seek the sacraments from a Catholic priest if they wish. I think it unlikely that they will.

As the only formal schism resulting from the Council the Holy See hopes for its healing but again it could not possibly be at the cost of allowing denial of key documents and doctrines of Vatican II. I think there is a long way to go before they are likely to accept Vatican II.

Ironically that is exactly the same position in which Peter Kenedy is in, and he too seems unlikely to accept key documents or doctrines of Vatican II.

For all Catholics there is no other way to express what it is to be Catholic except via Vatican II and it is not the rejection of Catholic doctrine as some Lefebrists imagine nor is it permission to invent a new teaching as some at St Mary's believe.

Peter | 17 February 2009  

If we allow the point that Church Unity is not compromised when members hold erroneous or questionable views on topics that have not been infallibly defined, we may perhaps be tempted to move on to actions performed as a result of those "erroneous"/questionable views.

Which brings me back to the "excommunication" of Fr Roy Bourgeois. He believes that women can be ordained as priests; "Rome" declares this is simply impossible - that women cannot be ordained as priests. Yet Fr Bourgeois is threatened for acting in accord with his "erroneous" beliefs. Since the ordination of a woman as a priest is declared by "Rome" to be impossible, it is in their terms a non-event, something that has not occurred. How can Fr Bourgeois be excommunicated for doing something that hasn't happened?

As to St Mary's Brisbane, at this late stage - Saturday evening - Archbishop Bathersby is reported as saying that professional mediation may need to be called upon. It was not used before this? Why ever not?

Mary Clare | 21 February 2009  

Last year I concluded a 10 year legal battle against a Qld pedophile priest, who abused me as an 11 year old altar boy. The legal process involved a conciliation process with his bishop, who has seen fit not to defrock him. It seems an arbitrary process to me that a serial offender can remain unpunished while a priest whose pastoral duties seem enthusiastically fulfilled can be so severely punished. A wry state of affairs.

anton veenstra | 25 February 2009  

I was amazed to read "In Catholic theology the controlling image of unity is that of the Apostles gathered with Peter. In the continuing church, the Bishops represent the Apostles, and the Bishop of Rome represents Peter." the only time that we hear of the apostle gathered after the Resurrection is thee council in Acts 15 and Peter was on the wrong side. Moreover, a bishop cannot represent Peter. Apostles were chosen by Jesus - even Paul had an encounter on the Damascus Road - and the office of episcopos and presbyteros (alternatives for the one office) seem to have been chosen by the people or the apostles. They were NOT the successors or representatives of apostles. Pax vobiscum!

John Stanley Martin | 28 March 2009  

This article about Church unity suggests to me several questions which seem unanswered: ‘In what does real unity, on the ground, consist?’ ‘What unity does the Pope seek? Mere uniformity in public liturgy and sacramental form? Or every single person in the world agreeing with every papal pronouncement or curial ruling, obeying and saying nothing beyond or differently?' ‘Should we presume unity is always a good thing?’

The ‘disunity’ of SSPX and St Mary’s is easy-to-spot: but if what is sought, required or proclaimed is the unity of minds in passive, total and unquestioning compliance then the ‘unity’ of the many parishes and many individuals (even the traditionalist ones) throughout the Church must be a chimera. Many dutifully recite the Nicene Creed (many more don’t), but hugely vary in their understanding of what they say they believe and disagree on myriad moral and philosophical issues, even ones they have not thought through. If the Church had real unity, we would love each other, but we clearly don’t. Perhaps we ought to focus on love and leave unity to grow, or not, as it can.

Stephen Kellett | 25 March 2010  

"Archbishop Bathersby's task will certainly be much more difficult if the universal church receives into communion groups that do not accept as legitimate the liturgical practices and attitudes to non-Catholics that a Council has endorsed. It will be even more difficult if denigration of Jews is seen as compatible with acting as bishop."

Firstly the Society of St Pius X has far more members than the heretical congregation of St Mary's, South Brisbane. Secondly, Bishop Richard Williamson of said Society has been censured by the Superior General and threatened with expulsion for his anti-Jewish sentiments. The Jesuits aren't perfect, either.

Phil | 01 March 2011  

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