Pope: “I Deeply Regret….”

THIS CATHOLIC’S VIEW By Thomas J. Reese Some people think that being pope means “never having to say you’re sorry,” … Continued


By Thomas J. Reese

Some people think that being pope means “never having to say you’re sorry,” or “never having to say you made a mistake,” or even “never having to explain.” Pope Benedict XVI has displayed refreshing candor in admitting mistakes, apologizing and explaining.

Most recently, he wrote a letter to all the bishops in the world to explain the lifting of the excommunication of the four bishops of the Society of St. Pius X who were illegitimately ordained by Archbishop Lefebvre in 1988. He acknowledges that his decision “caused, both within and beyond the Catholic Church, a discussion more heated than any we have seen for a long time.” Even “many bishops felt perplexed” by the decision, he wrote.

He acknowledges that the lifting of the excommunication of Bishop Richard Williamson appeared as “as the repudiation of reconciliation between Christians and Jews, and thus as the reversal of what the [Second Vatican] Council had laid down in this regard to guide the Church’s path.” This was not his intention.

At the time he lifted the excommunication, the pope did not know that Williamson was a Shoah denier. He acknowledges that “this unforeseen mishap” could have been prevented if his staff had consulted sources easily available on the Internet. “I have learned the lesson that in the future in the Holy See we will have to pay greater attention to that source of news.”

The pope was clearly unhappy with the work done by the Pontifical Commission “Ecclesia Dei,” which has been the lead Vatican agency for dealing with the schismatic Society of St. Pius X. They were the ones who did not warn him of possible problems. They did not do their homework.

As a result, the pope clipped the commission’s wings and put it under the control of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith where Cardinal William Levada, an American, will supervise its work and “ensure the involvement of the prefects of the different Roman congregations and representatives from the world’s bishops in the process of decision-making.” This demotion and reining in of the “Ecclesia Dei” commission will please many bishops who have long considered it a loose canon staffed by arch-conservatives in the Vatican curia.

“Another mistake,” acknowledged by the pope, “which I deeply regret,” was that the lifting of the excommunication was “not clearly and adequately explained at the moment of its publication.” He attempts to explain that an excommunication is a punishment aimed at “calling those thus punished to repent and to return to unity.” After 20 years, that has obviously failed, so he was willing to try something else after the bishops “had expressed their recognition in principle of the Pope and his authority as Pastor, albeit with some reservations in the area of obedience to his doctrinal authority and to the authority of the council.” He then explains that excommunication has to do with ecclesiastical discipline not doctrine, and that it applies to individuals not institutions.

Whether anyone except canon lawyers can understand these legitimate but technical distinctions is an open question. But the bottom line is clear: “until the doctrinal questions are clarified, the Society has no canonical status in the Church, and its ministers – even though they have been freed of the ecclesiastical penalty – do not legitimately exercise any ministry in the Church.” Such as clear statement could have avoided false headlines using words like “welcomes back,” “embraces,” “rehabilitates,” etc.

In explaining the lifting of the excommunication, I have compared it to a “ceasefire.” A ceasefire is not a peace treaty, even less an alliance. It allows for negotiations, it is not the end of negotiations. Whether these negotiations will succeed, is uncertain.

While admitting that the staffing and communication of the decision was flawed, the pope defends the decision itself. “Can we be totally indifferent about a community which has 491 priests, 215 seminarians, 6 seminaries, 88 schools, 2 university-level institutes, 117 religious brothers, 164 religious sisters and thousands of lay faithful? Should we casually let them drift farther from the Church?” “Can we simply exclude them, as representatives of a radical fringe, from our pursuit of reconciliation and unity? What would then become of them?” “Was it, and is it, truly wrong in this case to meet half-way the brother who ‘has something against you’ (cf. Mt 5:23ff.) and to seek reconciliation?”

I agree with the pope’s analysis of the Williamson crisis. The decision making process was flawed and the roll out of the decision was a disaster. As I said earlier, lifting the excommunication was a prudential decision which the pope had every right to make and it did not mean an endorsement of the views of Williamson or of the Society of St. Pius X.

The one criticism that the pope does not answer in his letter is from those who feel he reaches out to dissenters on the right but not on the left. Could we take the same conciliatory language and apply it to those who reject the church’s teaching on birth control, married clergy and women priests? Can there be another commission whose responsibility is to reach out and negotiate with these factions in the church? “Can we simply exclude them, as representatives of a radical fringe, from our pursuit of reconciliation and unity?”

What is encouraging is that the pope acknowledges to his critics that “Of course there are more important and urgent matters” facing the church than the Society of St. Pius X. “In our days, when in vast areas of the world the faith is in danger of dying out like a flame which no longer has fuel, the overriding priority is to make God present in this world and to show men and women the way to God. Not just any god, but the God who spoke on Sinai; to that God whose face we recognize in a love which presses ‘to the end’ (cf. Jn 13:1) – in Jesus Christ, crucified and risen. The real problem at this moment of our history is that God is disappearing from the human horizon, and, with the dimming of the light which comes from God, humanity is losing its bearings, with increasingly evident destructive effects.”

A consequence of this, the pope writes, is the need for unity of all Christians, with which the pope is especially charged as the successor of Peter. “Added to this is the need for all those who believe in God to join in seeking peace, to attempt to draw closer to one another, and to journey together, even with their differing images of God, towards the source of Light – this is interreligious dialogue.”

These have been priorities of the pope since the beginning of his papacy. Hopefully, the Vatican has learned from this crisis that different views need to be part of the decision making process and a communication’s strategy has to be part of every decision. Otherwise the real priorities of the pope will continue to be buried in bad headlines.

Thomas J. Reese, S.J., is Senior Fellow at Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University.

By Thomas J. Reese | 
March 17, 2009; 11:16 AM ET

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  • coloradodog

    Meanwhile,the delusional Benedict said that the Roman Catholic Church is in the forefront of the battle against AIDS.”You can’t resolve it with the distribution of condoms,” the pope told reporters aboard the Alitalia plane headed to Yaounde. “On the contrary, it increases the problem.”Kind of like life boats on cruise ships don’t save people, they only increase the problem. Ask Grandma Sarah Palin if Abstinence Education works. If Benedict believes Holy sacred sperm should not be wasted in the tip of a condom, he should also excommunicate every man or young boy who has masturbated to ejaculation now. But that would have a severe economic impact on “Christ’s Church” wouldn’t it.

  • CCNL

    And then there are the other historical and theological flaws and errors Pope Benedict needs to be candid about.To wit: (for those eyes that have not seen). Jesus was an illiterate Jewish peasant/carpenter/simple preacher man who suffered from hallucinations and who has been characterized anywhere from the Messiah from Nazareth to a mythical character from mythical Nazareth to a mamzer from Nazareth (Professor Bruce Chilton, in his book Rabbi Jesus). Analyses of Jesus’ life by many contemporary NT scholars (e.g. Professors Crossan, Borg and Fredriksen, On Faith panelists) via the NT and related documents have concluded that only about 30% of Jesus’ sayings and ways noted in the NT were authentic. The rest being embellishments (e.g. miracles)/hallucinations made/had by the NT authors to impress various Christian, Jewish and Pagan sects. The 30% of the NT that is “authentic Jesus” like everything in life was borrowed/plagiarized and/or improved from those who came before. In Jesus’ case, it was the ways and sayings of the Babylonians, Greeks, Persians, Egyptians, Hittites, Canaanites, OT, John the Baptizer and possibly the ways and sayings of traveling Greek Cynics. Current crises:Pedophiliac priests, atonement theology and original sin!!!!Luther, Calvin, Smith, Henry VIII, Wesley, Roger Williams et al, founders of Christian-based religions, also suffered from the belief in/hallucinations of “pretty wingie thingie” visits and “prophecies” for profits analogous to the myths of Catholicism (resurrections, apparitions, ascensions and immaculate conceptions).Current crises: Adulterous preachers, “propheteering/ profiteering” evangelicals and atonement theology. .

  • ashleybone

    So Ratzinger lets a Holocaust-denier back into his church while allowing a nine-year old rape victim to be excommunicated (along with her mother and doctors) because she needed an abortion to save her life.Yea, he’s a real bang-up fellow.

  • Skowronek

    We know how the Vatican and the pope feel about the 9 yo incest victim in Brazil, and her mother and doctors; what does the Vatican say about Josef Fritzl? I note that he was raised Roman Catholic, and that the Christian faith declares that once you have been baptized you are theirs for life. (Which is why the forced baptism of Jewish children was such a contentious issue.)

  • Paganplace

    Well, now maybe he can consult the Internet and find out he’s not telling the truth about AIDS and condoms.

  • elife1975

    I thought that the pope delivered god’s spoken word? Is god making this apology? I guess he/she/it isn’t quite as infallable as we’ve been lead to believe.

  • ravitchn

    Despite goodwill from time to time by bishops and even popes towards the world at large, there is a group in the Vatican which really controls things and it is still living in the 16th century, if not earlier. They hate Protestants, Jews, liberals, socialists and anyone challenging their out-of-date beliefs.

  • asoders22

    The Pope has some direct line to God, but knows less about the Internet than your average eight-year-old? If the Pope believes no sperms should be wasted, he should first blame Good who inevitably lets 400 million of them or so die at every ejaculation, and next he should blame every fertile man on earth who regardless of masturbation or having sex when the wife is not fertile, have natural, involuntary ejaculations. The Pope is rigid and uneducated.

  • michael_from_sydney

    elife1975 – in the Catholic Church, papal decrees are only infallible when the Pope explicitly decrees a teaching on a matter of fiath or morals and expressly declares it to be infallible. The proper term for this is “ex cathedra”, or “from the chair”, the chair here meaning the Chair of St Peter. The Popes claim to be the successors of St Peter, and therefore heirs to this apostle’s teaching authority. The Catholic Church, and its Popes, do not claim (and have never claimed) that every word uttered out of the mouth of the Pope is infallible. I hope this has corrected your misunderstanding of the meaning of papal infallibility.

  • ThishowIseeit

    T. J. Reese, you ask: could we take the same conciliatory language and apply it to those who reject the church’s teaching on birth control ? It will never happen; no future Pope or Pope’s advisor want to go down in history as to be one that caused the nomerical shrinking of the catholic population. Ban on artificial birth control is the reason for large catholic families in South America and other countries. There is strength in large numbers.

  • fangorina

    The Pope offers only non-apology apolgies, and unregretful ‘regrets’. Why doesn’t he apologize for lying about condoms protecting people from HIV/AIDS? Moreover, his ‘regrets’ about reinstating apostate, fundamamentalist clergy from the Society of St. Pius X involve only regret that the reinstatements were negatively perceived by the public. He ‘didn’t realize’ that Williamson was a Shoah denier. Please. A German pope didn’t “know” about this. Benedict was Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and was Dean of the College of Cardinals He “knows” about everything. Your piece demonstrates a real lack of understanding of facts, church history and judgment.

  • El_Pajaro

    I see very little refreshing about Pope Benedict XVI. I miss John Paul. Though I disagreed with him on many political issues, he was a holy man and a worthy head of his church. I am not sure about the new pope. But maybe he will learn over time.

  • RealCalGal

    Wait a minute.Wait just a g-d damned minute.How can someone who is infallible make a mistake?Maybe he’s making a mistake about condoms not preventing AIDS, too?Or about women not being “worthy” enough to be priests?Crikey, how’s a person to know when one of his pronouncements is infallible or is a “mistake”?

  • RealCalGal

    “papal decrees are only infallible when the Pope explicitly decrees a teaching on a matter of fiath or morals and expressly declares it to be infallible. The proper term for this is “ex cathedra”, or “from the chair”, the chair here meaning the Chair of St Peter.”Oh, I am SO sorry. The Pope is only infallible when he says “THIS is infallible”LOL

  • info22

    The pope’s choices are very questionable. How posing with dictators such as Paul Biya of Cameroon really help promote peace? This crook has been in power since 1982, after agreeing to a two-term limit, he changed the constitution to run again in 2011. Chavez did the same thing but got a different reaction in the US. AIDS, and condoms are just a distraction, the pope’s visit main purpose is to get new recruits since the catholic church is losing itss grip in the west. How many poor people will he meet? The answer is a fat zero. He will spend all his time with the same people who are destroying human life. Jesus whom he represents never collaborated with the Romans, the pope only knows the dictators to whom he lends credibility so they can continue the oppression. So much for advancing the cause of the little man! The pope is just another enabler.

  • usapdx


  • RichardKefalos

    A “loose canon.” So even Jesuits can have a sense of humor. Other than that, what the Pope opines is utterly irrelevant in our world, as he takes his religion further into irrelevance and oblivion.

  • rick10

    I think it ironic that on the same day as the “I deeply regret”article appears in the Washington Post there is another article about the Pope telling the world that condums will not cure the epidemic of Aids but rather abstinence.

  • wardropper

    “Benedict has displayed refreshing candor in admitting mistakes, apologizing . . .”Good – now tell me how this ties in with the notion of papal infallibility.

  • wardropper

    If only the Vatican would remember and try to understand: “My Kingdom is not of this world”.It would clear up a lot of confusion.

  • larmoecurl

    The Pope represents the middle ages. He’s about as relevant as a hula hoop. He’s the leader of a religion that still persists in believing that women are not equal to men. Anyone who condones this is a lunatic. Seriously, a lunatic.

  • jjedif

    Scientists say Neanderthal man became extinct about 30,000 years ago. But DNA shows that humans and Neanderthals are related, so Neanderthanl man also probably had the ability to regret. Benedict’s ability to regret doesn’t make him less of a Neanderthal in his belief system.

  • ashleybone

    asoders22 wrote:”The Pope has some direct line to God, but knows less about the Internet than your average eight-year-old?”LOL! Seriously, couldn’t god hook his main man up with some Video Professor? They advertise that stuff like every five minutes during Law & Order, which is on so frequently even gods can’t avoid it.

  • jimwalters1

    Wardropper wrote:Good – now tell me how this ties in with the notion of papal infallibility.”No matter how many times it it is explained, there always seem to be people who missed it or who choose to ignore it. Papal infallibility does not mean and has never meant that the pope is never wrong about anything ever. Only statements made under certain narrowly defined criteria are considered infallible. The last two times this was done were in 1950 and in 1854.

  • pietromeli

    I am baffled at the deep ignorance of most of the sarcastic comments posted. This ignorance is both in regards to Church structure, theology, as well as just plain and simple politics. The Pope apologized and admitted making mistakes. This is huge. The mistake(s) was(were) brought about by a lack of doing homework from his “cabinet” (hmmm, kind of like the US government throughout history..). The Pope, as head of state and religious leader as well expressed an aknowledgement of his making a bad decision. I wish a lot of leaders would have the ….. to do the same. Lastly, the papal infallibility is called into play only when the Pope speaks “ex-cattedra” (that’s latin for all the ignorant people out there). Look up its meaning and please get your fill of theology and history/knowledge of beliefs of other religions before you feel like comenting prior to using your brains. Have a good day. Thanks for reading.

  • wiatrol

    This Nazi is encouraging Sub-Saharan Africans not to use condoms. Only when priests start contracting AIDS from having sex with little boys will the Catholic church support the use of condoms.

  • mharwick

    Some people think that being pope means “never having to say you’re sorry,” or “never having to say you made a mistake,” or even “never having to explain.” Pope Benedict XVI has displayed refreshing candor in admitting mistakes, apologizing and explaining.Our President seems on the other hand to ooze hubris and will not say he has made mistake after mistake after mistake. He just does his Razzle Dazzle em routine, hops on Air Force One and goes on Jay Leno.

  • wiatrol

    Having sex with a little boy will result in the Priest getting transferred to another parish. Having sex with a little boy using a condom will result in excommunicion.

  • hyjanks

    It looks like the day is coming sooner rather than later: The little guy in his pristine, white gown and little red shoes and ornate gold brocade will no longer be taken seriously, even by some if not most of his minions.

  • DanielintheLionsDen

    The Catholic Church is very intrusive in society and politial affairs. I think that gives us non-Catholics a right to express our contrary opinions. So much for the Catholic “attitude” of “mind your own business.”I think that it would be a very great improvement in the politics of the Catholic Church, and would put it more in step with the modern world, to transform the Papal Monarchy into a republican democracy.

  • arosscpa

    1. Seems most of you are not up to more than cut and pasting your same old BS.2. The Church’s teaching on condoms, reflects its theology of the body and sexuality. That most people reject that theology at this moment in history does not make the teaching wrong and irrelevant. The Church has every right and obligation in the midst of so much human misery arising by the misuse of human sexuality to point to another way that integrates physical love as a component of holistic human happiness.3. The case in Brazil was not necessarily rendered with the knowledge of the Pope or any of the Roman curia. It is likely, however, that appeals to Rome of the penalty on behalf of the mother would render a different decision.

  • wiatrol

    Catholic priests have brutally raped little boys for centuries, with impunity. Enough said!!

  • twmatthews

    We are speaking about science and religion my point being that science is based on evidence and facts. When new evidence emerges, science quickly alters its thinking based on the new evidence. All scientific theories are peer reviewed, tested and when the results don’t match the expected results, must be explained or the theory is discarded.Religion is just the opposite. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan once said, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion but not his own facts.” Religion is best portrayed as people who hold opinion to be at the same level of certainty as evidence-based beliefs. The Pope illustrated this beautifully over the last couple of days. (By the way, I’m not picking on just one religion. The timing of the Pope’s statements just happens to illustrate my point).While on a flight to Cameroon on Tuesday to begin a trip through Africa, Pope Benedict said, “You can’t resolve [the AIDS epidemic] with the distribution of condoms. On the contrary, it increases the problem.”In the eyes of the church and in a perfect world where people’s inclinations toward sex are overpowered by their faith and adherence to church beliefs, HIV infection rates should be reduced. But we don’t live in a perfect world and people do not abstain. As Sarah Palin.But what really bugs me is to say that the use of condoms in the real world increases the problem – the spread of HIV. This is the perfect example of religion ignoring evidence, testing and facts in order to continue an outdated belief. This simple statement by the pope illustrates that what people want to believe interferes or contradicts, reason and those issues are the most difficult to combat. How do you fight a belief when evidence and facts can be ignored?Doctors on the front lines of the fight against AIDS established long ago that the use of condoms greatly diminishes the transmission of HIV. That the pope chose to question the value of condoms in fighting this scourge while heading to the continent whose people are most affected, is exactly what I find most troubling about religion. This is no different than jailing Galileo or Copernicus or any of the other early scientists whose theories contradicted established, religious beliefs. Today, we have a Pope who would rather see millions more die from a disease rather than abandon an outdated belief. Is religion dangerous? You bet it is.

  • Alphysicist

    This is a nice article. Many opponents of the Catholic Church claim or insinuate that the Pope knew about Williamson’s views, or even worse, he is supportive of them. These are very severe accusations to throw around, especially since even in the beginning of the affair there was no proof for them, and now all evidence is to the contrary. I am not sure about not being open enough towards the left though. One counterexample may be the recent conference on the theory of evolution in the Vatican, where creationism was rejected, along with the design argument. It was however stated that based on the theory of evolution one cannot form a decision between atheism, deism or theism, and my understanding is that the Church is mostly pro the latter.It may also be a shaky comparison. Traditionalist Catholics (who are considered right) are groups who have a history of being affiliated with the Church, and their claim is that they guard “genuine” Catholicism. It may be that the differences in this case are often less significant than the similarities. The so called left often embraces ideas which are not really Catholic, not even with Vatican II. I think bringing back (an updated version of) the Latin Mass (which I believe was a great step from a cultural perspective) is not a serious break Catholic theology, whereas some of the left issues (married priests, abortion) are.BTW, condom use has not been proven to be sufficient defense against the spread of HIV. This is likely not due to the condoms themselves, but the change of lifestyles that often accompany their aggressive introduction. And while science may be able to decide whether the condom is safe (within some error bars), this is certainly not the whole story. (Actually, quantitatively the most reliable theory in science is quantum mechanics, which only provides exact solutions in very idealized cases, such as the harmonic oscillator, hydrogen atom, free particle(s), and a few others.)

  • congratulations

    greetings to You, too.

  • congratulations

    i deeply re-greet.

  • coloradodog

    Benedict is right in reminding us condoms cause AIDS, life jackets cause drownings, there was no Holocaust, Protestants are “wounded”, celibacy in the priesthood doesn’t give pedophiles an excuse for not being married, the world is flat, and it’s OK for Cardinals Mahony and Rivera to hide “Father-come-here-little-boy” Aguilar from US justice in the Mexican state of Puebla where he continues to give mass.A combination of being raised in the strict, intolerant ideologies of both Nazism and the Catholic Church has made this old man the poster boy for all that is evil done in the name of poor old Jesus.

  • jimfilyaw

    the popes maladroitness with common sense would be funny, if it didn’t involve the unnecessary horrible death of millions. but i guess, once a nazi…, it reminds of the old saw, ‘if the pope knows anything about sex, well, he shouldn’t.’

  • US-conscience

    Just like the Mormons and the J.W.’s, the Catholic church is a cult with false doctrines, false priests and a false Gospel leading millions to a false assurance of salvation and a one way ticket to the wide gate. I pray that one day the pope would get saved and then denounce all the heretical and anti biblical teaching of the Catholic Church.