.- The diocesan bishops of Austria have published a pastoral letter responding to the two controversies roiling the local Church over the past several weeks: the scandal surrounding Bishop Richard Williamson and the appointment of Fr. Gerhard Maria Wagner as an auxiliary bishop of the Diocese of Linz.
The first issue address by the 10 Catholic bishops of Austria is the situation concerning the rehabilitation of four bishops from the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX).
Bishop Richard Williamson, one of four bishops leading the SSPX, made comments diminishing the extent of the Holocaust prior to having his excommunication lifted by the Pope at the end of January.
In their pastoral letter, the Austrian bishops call on the SSPX to send a âclear signalâ that it will seek reconciliation and unconditionally accept the Second Vatican Council.
Summing up the local Churchâs reaction to the recent events, the 10 bishops, led by Cardinal Christoph SchÃ¶nborn, wrote that recent events have caused âworry and anger inside and outside the Church.â
âWe owe to the people a word of clarification, but also want to express the hope that as with every crisis there are opportunities,â they said, exhorting readers to focus on Christ.
The bishops said that Pope Benedict XVI âhas unequivocally stated that the Lefebvrist Bishop Richard Williamson has disqualified himself by the denial of the Shoah and that he must clearly take back in public his untenable denial of mass murder of the Jewish people.â
Members of the SSPX are sometimes called âLefebvristsâ after their groupâs founder, Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre.
Characterizing Pope Benedictâs lifting of the excommunications as âa hand outstretched to those who are separated from the Church,â they noted that the SSPX bishops cannot automatically hold office in the Church.
âRather, the Lefebvrist community must give a clear signal on their part that they take this outstretched hand, and actually seek reconciliation. The prerequisite is of course, the unconditional acceptance of the Second Vatican Council. â
Echoing other commentators who blame poor communications for the controversy, the Austrian bishops added:
âWe hope that the inadequate communication processes in the Vatican will also be successfully improved so that the worldwide service of the Pope does not suffer damage.â
The bishops also addressed Fr. Gerhard Maria Wagnerâs request that his appointment as auxiliary bishop of the Diocese of Linz be rescinded. They said the appointment had caused âsignificant tensionâ in the diocese.
Fr. Wagnerâs selection provoked his detractors to highlight his comments about Hurricane Katrina being Godâs punishment on New Orleans for its sins. However, some analysts believe that the opposition to Fr. Wagner was due to his orthodox liturgical and doctrinal stances.
âIt is not just about differences of opinion in terms of structures and methods, but ultimately the question of sacramental identity of the Catholic Church,â the bishops wrote. âThis especially concerns the ordination for priests and deacons in relation to the general priesthood of all the baptized.â
They emphasized that the local churchâs conversation with the Universal Church should be undertaken âon the basis of the Second Vatican Council.â
They also gave more background about the controversy over Fr. Wagnerâs initial appointment.
âThe theme of episcopal appointments is therefore important because since the mid-eighties in Austria it has been associated with a number of problems,â they said. âFor many, the controversy over episcopal appointments led to the painful conflict, and they have triggered splits in the church. It is precisely in this area sensitivity is most appropriate.â
The bishops reaffirmed their support for bishop selection procedures âif this procedure is really followed.â
Before the Pope makes any final decision on an episcopal appointment, âreliable and thoroughly tested basic information must be provided on which he can rely.â
Noting that a number of bishops will be appointed in Austria in upcoming years, the Austrian bishops wrote that the faithful are âlegitimately concernedâ that the candidate search and selection be âcarefully undertaken and with pastoral sensitivity.â
âThis can ensure that bishops are appointed who are not âagainstâ but âforâ a local church. We bishops will make every possible effort to support the forthcoming episcopal appointments in the sense of monitoring these procedures in close cooperation with the relevant Vatican offices.ââTrusting in God's help, we will overcome the crisis of recent weeks,â the bishopsâ pastoral letter affirmed. Saying mistakes should be learned from, the bishops exhorted drawing near to the center of faith by beholding Christ, âwho does not desert his church and whose word and deeds must be a measure of our words and our deeds.â