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Professor defends pope on disputed bishop issue

Robert Singer | Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Pope Benedict XVI’s recent decision to lift an excommunication order on four radical bishops, one of whom denied the Holocaust, has focused worldwide criticism on the Vatican.

But Lawrence Cunningham, professor of Theology, supported the pope’s decision, helping to clarify the reasons for the action amid criticism from Jewish groups and liberal Catholics.

“The pope’s desire to reconcile these people was good but it was handled very badly from a public relations stand point,” he said.

According to Cunningham, the four men reinstated by the pope were part of a rogue sect – the Society of St. Pius X – that had been operating without the church’s permission. Radically traditional in their views, members of this group reject religious liberty and have supported authoritarian political rulers in the past, such as General Franco in Spain and Augusto Pinochet in Chile, he said.

“The Vatican is in a tough situation,” Cunningham said. “They want these people back under the authority of the church, because they don’t want this schismatic group spreading.”

Since excommunication does not deny clergy the capacity to perform sacraments – it only withholds the church’s consent – the Vatican was concerned these four bishops would continue to ordain other bishops outside of the Catholic Church’s unity. Restoring them to the church would prevent schisms from developing along traditionalist lines, according to Cunningham.

“The pope’s motivation was to get these people back under papal authority, so they’re not consecrating more bishops outside the authority of the church,” he said.

Some critics have highlighted the decision as an example of the pope’s conservative leanings, arguing that he would not be so willing to reconcile with fringe religious groups on the left. But Cunningham denied that point and also noted that the pope’s next encyclical will be about social justice.

“The difference is that these liberal groups don’t have bishops who are ordaining other bishops,” he said. “In some ways, he does reach out to liberals.”

Cunningham explained the pope’s role in decision-making.

“[Pope Benedict XVI] is one of the greatest theologians ever to become pope, but he is very traditional.

“It’s not of the job to be liberal,” he said. “It’s the job of the pope to keep unity.”

Concerns have also been raised that the pope’s decision will drive people away from the church, especially moderates and those close to the Jewish community. However, Cunningham disagrees.

“Something like this is so arcane and so local, and this group is relatively small, that it’s not going to have much of an influence,” he said.

Cunningham said that the Vatican had been planning to take action to prevent schisms for some time.

“I guess he wanted to get this done and maybe hadn’t fully realized how much of a clamor it was going to cause,” he said. “He’ll probably make some kind of amends about it.”

According to Cunningham, the pope must be careful about the image of the Catholic Church he projects to the rest of the world.

“He has to think not only think of his position in the church,” Cunningham said. “He has to think of himself as a symbol to the larger world.”