PARIS Pope Benedict has lifted the excommunication of four ultra-conservative bishops shut out of the Roman Catholic Church in 1988 for being ordained without Vatican permission.
The move marked a major step toward traditionalists in the Church who refused to accept the modernizing reforms of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). It has also angered Jews because one of the prelates denies the Holocaust occurred.
WHAT DOES EXCOMMUNICATION MEAN?
Excommunication shut the four men out of the Church because they accepted ordination as bishops by the late traditionalist Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre against the will of the late Pope John Paul. That meant they could not officiate at Catholic services or receive the sacraments. The four -- Bernard Fellay of Switzerland, British-born Richard Williamson, Alfonso de Galarreta and French-born Bernard Tissier de Mallerais -- head an independent network of churches run by the Society of Saint Pius X (SSPX) that Lefebvre founded.
DOES THIS AMOUNT TO A FULL REHABILITATION?
No. They have only been allowed back into the Church, but they have no legal status in it yet. They must now hold talks with the Vatican to determine what they might do. The SSPX might be made a personal prelature, a global diocese answerable to the pope, and the four could work in that structure.
WHAT ABOUT THE BISHOP WHO DENIES THE HOLOCAUST?
Bishop Williamson angered Jewish groups by denying the Holocaust in a television interview only days before the lifting of his ban. His comments strained Vatican ties with Jews badly but had nothing to do with the excommunications, so the Vatican went ahead with all four cases. They may hurt his chances for future jobs within the Church, however.
WHY IS THIS STEP IMPORTANT FOR THE CATHOLIC CHURCH?
The SSPX is Catholicism's only modern schism and its most adamant opposition to the Second Vatican Council. It clings to the traditional Latin Mass, against the modern liturgy in local languages, and rejects Council decisions that the Church should respect and work with other religions, especially Judaism. After the 1960s reforms, the Church has become more conservative and interpreted Council documents more narrowly. Welcoming back the SSPX is a major step in that direction and raises questions about how many other changes might be rolled back.
WHY DID BENEDICT WELCOME THEM BACK?
Benedict believes modernization went too far and the Church should bring back traditions such as Latin, Gregorian chant and a more formal liturgy. He is concerned about the unity of the Church and believes schisms can be overcome if not left to deepen over time. He may also have been influenced by the SSPX's small but dedicated following at a time when the Church faces falling numbers of priests and worshippers in many countries.
WHY HAS THIS SPLIT LASTED 2O YEARS?
The SSPX insists it is the only true defender of the faith and the Vatican is in error. Many Catholic prelates consider it arrogant because it has openly criticized the popes and demanded to be taken back without prior concessions. Rome long insisted the SSPX accept Vatican II before it could lift the bans.
WHAT CHANGED TO ALLOW THEM BACK?
The conditions of their return are not known, but it seems Benedict finally agreed to the SSPX timetable to lift the bans first and discuss doctrinal differences afterward. SSPX leader Bishop Fellay told his followers the bishops remain opposed to some Vatican II reforms, so it is not sure they will agree to them in negotiations that could take several years.
HOW BIG IS THE SSPX?
The SSPX has 481 priests and about 600,000 followers, compared to about 406,000 priests and 1.1 billion believers in the Church. Like other conservative Catholic groups, it has proportionately more success than the wider Church in attracting young men to the priesthood and filling its pews on Sundays.
IS THIS A RISK FOR BENEDICT?
The SSPX means nothing for the overwhelming majority of mainstream Catholics attending modern Masses. A liberal minority sees its return as a worrying sign of retreat from reform. The Church could see tensions between clergy who have remained loyal to the Vatican and those who say that obedience was all wrong. Benedict thinks the long-term benefit of boosting Catholic tradition outweighs short and medium-term problems in the Church and with the Jews.
(Reporting by Tom Heneghan; Editing by Charles Dick)