How is Bishop Williamson the issue?
Pope Benedict XVI has already stated in his book Light of the World as follows:
The Williamson Affair
For .the first four years, the Pope had been doing a “good job”, to put it colloquially. His opponents had literally been silenced. But things changed in January 2009, and all at once the vicious attacks started up again as well. A certain portion of the press resurrected the charge that Pope Benedict is an ice-cold technocrat. We touched on the event that triggered this reaction at the beginning of the interview: the lifting of the excommunication of four bishops of the Society of Saint Pius X, which had broken off from Rome under the French Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre. At the present time, the Society comprises, according to its own account, around 600,000 members, 500 priests, over 200 seminarians, 86 schools, and two institutions of higher education.
To start with: You must also have assumed that this step would bring you anything but approval in the world of public opinion, is that not right? The advantage to be gained was actually rather slight, whereas the risk of damage was considerable.
That is correct. I have already explained that this step is to a large extent parallel to what we are doing in China. When bishops who are under excommunication because they have offended against the primacy later acknowledge the primacy, they are justly freed from the excommunication. In other words, their excommunication had nothing to do with Vatican II, as I have already said, but had been pronounced on account of an offense against the primacy. But now they had written a letter declaring their Yes to the primacy, and the next step was therefore quite clear from a canonical point of view.
Incidentally, already under John Paul II an assembly of all the heads of the dicasteries, that is, all those in charge of Vatican bureaus, had decided to lift the excommunication in the event a letter of this kind was sent. Unfortunately, the public relations work was not done well from our side, so that the real, canonical substance and the limits of this process were never made clear. Then, to top it all off, there was the total meltdown with Williamson, which we had unfortunately not foreseen, and that is a particularly distressing circumstance.
Benedict XVI, Pope; Peter Seewald (2010-11-23). Light Of The World (Kindle Locations 1614-1622). Ignatius Press. Kindle Edition.
Would. you have signed the decree lifting the excommunication if you had known that among the four bishops there was a person who denied the existence of the Nazi gas chambers?
No. If I had known, the first step would have been to separate the Williamson case from the others. Unfortunately, though, none of us went on the Internet to find out what sort of person we were dealing with.
Shouldn't the very first step before lifting an excommunication have been to scrutinize the excommunicated persons and to examine carefully how they conducted their lives—especially when you were dealing with a community whose isolation had skewed its development in a direction that was both theologically and politically dubious?
It is correct that Williamson is an atypical case in that he was, when you think about, never Catholic in the proper sense. He was an Anglican and then went over directly to Lefebvre. This means that he has never lived in the great Church, that he has never lived with the Pope. Our offices that are in charge of dealing with these matters assured us that all four of the bishops were unreservedly ready to accept the primacy. But of course one is always more intelligent in hindsight.
Today one cannot help suspecting that the affair might have involved a plot aimed at inflicting the maximum possible damage on the Pope. The timing alone makes one suspect concerted action.1 In any case, the damage was massive. For weeks there was a hailstorm of negative headlines. And yet precisely one of the factors that made the affair possible in the first place was the hushing up of the facts. The Vatican press agency may not have done the best job, but the journalists in the employ of the major secular media did an even poorer one. One or two inquiries would have sufficed to clear things up. But no one wanted to spoil his own headlines about the scandal. As a matter of fact, the decree clearly explained that the Pope had decided only to “rethink” the canonical situation of the four bishops. It was clear that the four bishops would remain canonically suspended. They were forbidden to exercise their office. The step that had been taken did not mean a reconciliation, and it certainly did not mean a rehabilitation. And yet German’s Süddeutsche Zeitung published the devastating headline “Pope Rehabilitates Holocaust-Denier”. Which the paper went on to call a shameful signal, indeed, a sinful lapse. How was it possible for your gesture to be understood as in any way a disavowal of reconciliation between Jews and Christians?
As I wrote in my letter afterward, we seem to be dealing here with a hostility, a readiness to pounce, that waits for these kinds of things to happen in order to strike a well-aimed blow. On our side, it was a mistake not to have studied and prepared the case more carefully. On the other hand, though, there was precisely, shall we say, a readiness for aggression, which was lying in wait for its victim.