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The Williamson recantation and freedom of conscience

February 5, 2009

Within the (unsigned, grrr) Note of the Secretariat of State on the remission of excommunication against four SSPX bishops, Point Three thereof is causing some concerns among the faithful regarding liberty of thought and/or speech in the Church:

3. Declarations on the Shoah . . . Bishop Williamson, in order to claim admission to episcopal functions in the church, must distance himself in absolutely unequivocal and public fashion from his positions regarding the Shoah, which were not known by the Holy Father when the excommunication was lifted.

How, some are asking, can the pope order someone, even a bishop, to retract assertions (however stupid) concerning, not Catholic faith or morals, but points of history?

I think here’s how: (1) The pope is demanding a retraction from Williamson not as a pre-condition to full communion, but rather, as a pre-condition to higher function in the Church. Verifying that someone, however ‘orthodox’ he might be, is not also a nut-case before allowing him to function in higher office within the Church seems to me entirely within a pope’s authority. (2) Williamson, though a bishop, ‘stole’ episcopal orders in the first place and has never been in full communion with the Church since that day; therefore, given his track-record of canonically illegal actions, a higher level papal scrutiny may be applied to him than might otherwise be appropriate for a bishop who has always been in full communion with Holy Mother Church. (3) Notwithstanding the legal anomalies surrounding hate-crime legislation, Williamson’s inane espousals seem to set him afoul of [German]* law. At the risk of setting out on slippery slope here, the pope’s special demand of Williamson may be seen as a papal directive to “Stop breaking local civil law, if you ever hope to exercise a legitimate role in the Church.”

I leave to others to decide whether a single retractive statement by Williamson would, in fact, demonstrate his suitability for ecclesiastical office down the road, but such a statement would certainly seem to be a prerequisite.

PS: While we’re at it, I think Williamson should also recant his fringy statements that 9/11 was an inside American job. In short, the man needs a complete vetting.

* I could have the foreign law reference here wrong, as in, I’m not sure which nation (with relevance to Williamson) regards Holocaust denial as a crime. I claim no expertise there. A reader tells me that Williamson’s comments are at odds with German (not English) law. Thanks! But if I am wrong about civil law concerns for Holocaust denial, it just reduces the possible defenses I suggest for the pope’s actions from three, to two. I think defense no. three is the weakest of the trio, certainly.

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