What was Pope Benedict's intent when he revoked the excommunications of four bishops (one of whom is a Holocaust-denier) from a movement that broke away from the Roman Catholic Church twenty years ago? Do his conciliatory actions reveal an intent to privilege internal unity over external relationships between Catholics, Jews, and various Christian bodies?
Is he trying to move the Catholic Church away from the reforms (now almost half a century old) of Vatican II? Did he foresee the controversy? What of his previous attempts to build bridges between Jews and Catholics?
To my mind, these are all very legitimate questions.
But when what we have are the terse words of a spokesman, or the words of an anonymous "Vatican insider", the media are left to piece together the evidence in a detective-story way that inevitably has an element of speculation.
Take the lede of this article from the New York Times:
Pope Benedict XVI, reaching out to the far-right of the Roman Catholic Church, revoked the excommunications of four schismatic bishops on Saturday, including one whose comments denying the Holocaust have provoked outrage.
The decision provided fresh fuel for critics who charge that Benedict's four-year-old papacy has increasingly moved in line with traditionalists who are hostile to the sweeping reforms of the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s that sought to create a more modern and open church.
A theologian who has grappled with the church's diminished status in a secular world, Benedict has sought to foster a more ardent, if smaller, church over one with looser faith.
But while the revocation may heal one internal rift, it may also open a broader wound, alienating the church's more liberal adherents and jeopardizing 50 years of Vatican efforts to ease tensions with Jewish groups.
The writer makes a few assumptions. It isn't clear whether the Pope intended to reach out to the "far-right" within the church as much as to traditionalists outside it (insiders who aren't identified).
I sincerely doubt that the Pope wants a "smaller" church.
And while some of the Pontiff's actions have stirred controversy among Jewish leaders and more liberal elements in the Catholic church, he has also made attempts to reach out to Jews.
Let me go out on the proverbial limb here and confess that I like the way Time handled this hot potato.
Here's the lede:
Pope Benedict XVI has reinstated four bishops from an archconservative breakaway wing of the Roman Catholic Church, a decision that is bound to stir controversy within his own flock. But Saturday's announcement that the Vatican will undo the 20-year schism between the Vatican and the so-called Lefebvrian movement is all the more sensitive because it comes only days after the broadcast of an interview in which British-born Bishop Richard Williamson, one of those Benedict is bringing back into the fold, denies that the Nazi Holocaust ever happened.
"I believe there were no gas chambers," Williamson said. The bishop, who has been accused of anti-Semitism in the past, declared that the historical evidence was "hugely against" the accepted belief that close to 6 million Jews were systematically exterminated as part of Adolf Hitler's Final Solution. Williamson claims that no more than 300,000 Jews died during World War II.
The Vatican made no mention of those remarks in the communique that announced the papal decree that revokes the 1988 excommunication of Williamson and his three fellow bishops. Papal spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said the decree in no way means the Pope, a German, shares Williamson's views on the Holocaust.
Basically, the writer's lede avoids inflated adjectives and lets the facts speak for themselves. But he also got some revealing quotes from a few Vatican (unnamed, of course) officials that open up the possibility that the Pope's decision met with some questions even within the walls of the Vatican.
According to the Vatican official, Benedict circumvented standing procedure "in cases of schism and heresy" that calls for consultation with the doctrinal Congregation office that he himself used to lead. "There wasn't the consultation as there normally is in these cases," the official says. "There was much perplexity in the Congregation." He added that in cases of revoking an excommunication there must be a "concrete act of faith" to demonstrate obedience to the Church's teachings and authority. The official Vatican statement cited a letter by Lefebvre's successor, Bishop Bernard Fellay, stating that the group has always considered themselves obedient Catholics.
Here's another perspective from Catholic World News -- one which doesn't mention the views of Bishop Williamson.
And from across the pond at the Guardian.co.uk, we get a more incendiary point of view, helpful for its quotes from British groups--Williamson is British.
Listen to this brief interview with veteran Vatican tea-leaf-reader, National Catholic Reporter senior correspondent John Allen on National Public Radio last night.
Short-term, at least, Allen describes the Pope's reinstatement of the four schismatic bishops as a "catastrophe" for Catholic-Jewish relationships.
There are undoubtedly tons of other news links on this unfolding story. Please send us some.
The firestorm has, predictably, already aroused strong reactions from some of our readers.
As in a forensic investigation, reporters will continue to try to pull together the facts to make a coherent and logical whole--but it is almost guaranteed that major questions will remain.
Picture of Pope Benedict XVI is from Wikimedia Commons.