By Owen Phelps, Ph.D.
Director, Yeshua Catholic International Leadership Institute
A reader who has worked in Catholic ministry for more than 25 years recently wrote: “For your next issue of The Catholic Leader, would you consider doing a follow-up to the article ‘The Role of Humility in Fostering Effective Listening and Leadership Skills’? I’d like to see how you would analyze the pope’s recent letter about the Society of St Pius concerns.”
The reader also said he was impressed that Pope Benedict “listened to what was being said both internally and externally,” and also “responded with humility.” He added that “the admission that they had not explained things well, and that they could have learned things about Bishop Williamson if they had simply done some research on the internet was startling.”
There’s not much we can add to the reader’s own observations, but a few things should be said.
We agree that Pope Benedict’s response to criticism regarding Bishop Richard Williamson’s denial of the Holocaust was remarkable. We were especially struck by his March 10 letter to the world’s bishops — for its content, yes, but even more for the fact that it served as so much more that just a letter to bishops. When it was publicly released in six languages on March 12, it became a very public accounting to the Catholic and world communities.
When the Vatican’s spokesman, Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, called it a "unique, exceptional document," he was absolutely right. In the letter the pope spoke forthrightly and from the heart, and the fact that the letter was released for public consumption made it clear that the Holy Father was listening to criticism from all camps.
Writing for Catholic News Service, veteran Vatican correspondent John Thavis called the pope’s letter “remarkable” for several reasons, including the fact that “he candidly admitted mistakes in the way he and other Vatican officials handled the reconciliation move with the bishops of the Society of St. Pius X.”
At the same time, Pope Benedict didn’t renounce or retract his action. Instead, he defended it in light of the church’s mission to spread the Gospel. “Leading men and women to God, to the God who speaks in the Bible: This is the supreme and fundamental priority of the church and of the successor of Peter at the present time,” he wrote. “A logical consequence of this is that we must have at heart the unity of all believers. Their disunity, their disagreement among themselves, calls into question the credibility of their talk of God.”
Striking a note of urgency, he added: "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."
He also made it clear that the mistakes are serving as a learning experience: "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," he said of the internet.
Some might argue that admitting mistakes — even obvious ones — undermines authority. We fervently disagree and insist that research is one our side. Honest admission of mistakes and taking responsibility for them actually projects integrity and builds trust .
It may not have always been that way, but it certainly is in today’s world.
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