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Scott P. Richert

"Will No One Rid Me of This Meddlesome Priest?"

By February 2, 2009

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In the winter of 1170, Henry II, king of England, uttered those words (or other words very much like them), and set into motion a chain of events that would result in the martyrdom of St. Thomas Becket. Almost 840 years later, the words can be heard again; but will the rest of this tragic episode repeat itself?

No, these words have not been uttered by Pope Benedict XVI in reference to Richard Williamson, the bishop of the Society of Saint Pius X who, at the very moment when the Holy Father lifted his excommunication and that of his three brother bishops in the SSPX, chose to give an interview to Swedish television in which he absurdly denied that a single Jew died in Nazi gas chambers during World War II.

Rather, they (or other words very much like them) have been uttered by Robert Mickens, the Rome correspondent for The Tablet, London's ultraliberal Catholic newsweekly. Apparently not satisfied with having the feature article ("Benedict's high risk strategy") in this week's edition, Mr. Mickens sent a note to America, a U.S. Catholic weekly. Fr. James Martin, S.J., posted the note, which he described as a "much more personal reflection" than the article, on America's blog.

Mr. Mickens is upset with the Holy Father because Pope Benedict's understanding of the Second Vatican Council does not square with his. In his note to America, he lambastes the pontiff for believing that "we have the same doctrine after Vatican II as we had before." Indeed, Pope Benedict has long argued, even before he was elevated to the Chair of Peter, "that much of the Council was badly misinterpreted by theologians and bishops in the post-conciliar period." In a now-famous address to the Roman Curia on December 22, 2005, Pope Benedict declared that much of what is often called "the spirit of Vatican II" was part of a "hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture," whereas the council, in order to be properly understood, has to be interpreted through a "hermeneutic of reform."

Enough! Mr. Mickens cries:

All of this should be a cause of great alarm to those of us who still believe that something monumental happened at Vatican II, that there were developments, reforms and--yes--points of rupture with the past (despite the Pope's unconvincing arguments to the contrary).

It is astonishing to see Mr. Mickens adopt a line that has long been associated with the Society of Saint Pius X, whose coming reintegration into full communion with Rome prompted Mr. Mickens' outburst. And the irony deepens when one reads reports that the bishops of SSPX are finally prepared to accept the Council, now that Pope Benedict has shown the way to interpret it through the "hermeneutics of reform."

Of course, Pope Benedict, like his 264 predecessors, understands that the fourth mark of the Church--its apostolicity--means that any actual rupture would imply that the Church today is no longer the Church founded by Jesus Christ. The idea that Vatican II represented such a rupture was wrong when the errant bishops of SSPX held it, and it remains wrong now, when Mr. Mickens has made it his own.

Perhaps Mr. Mickens never properly learned his catechism, or perhaps he is fine with the Church no longer being the Church. Sadly, I suspect it's the latter.

Mr. Mickens ends his note to America with a strange reference to Joseph Ratzinger, rather than Pope Benedict XVI--again, mirroring certain traditionalists who refused to call Pope John Paul II anything other than his given name, Karol Wojtyla. But it is the final line of this final paragraph that calls to mind Henry II and St. Thomas Becket (emphasis mine):

Joseph Ratzinger is completing, as pope, the work he began more than twenty-five years ago as prefect of the CDF. It is no less ambitious than the wholesale reinterpretation of the Second Vatican Council. And no one seems willing or able to stop him.
Does Mr. Mickens really mean harm to the Holy Father? Almost certainly not. But eight-and-a-half centuries later, scholars still debate whether Henry II intended the death of St. Thomas Becket. What they do not debate is that the result clearly followed from his words.
February 3, 2009 at 12:43 am
(1) Michael says:

Dear Scott,
Fascinating article.
The wolves are indeed at the door;
will no one rid me of this meddlesome Mickens?

February 3, 2009 at 9:56 am
(2) Jim Wolf says:

This Wolf is not at the door, I am standing firmly with Pope Benedict XVI. Vatican II was a tug on the rudder to make a slight correction back on course. A bunch of mutineers grabbed the rudder and gave it a yank. It’s time to turn the ship back over to the captain

February 3, 2009 at 10:01 am
(3) Maisey says:

It just makes me mourn all the more the recent passing of our great theologians Neuhaus and Dulles who would have responded so much more eloquently than I could.

February 3, 2009 at 10:02 am
(4) Tom Piatak says:

An excellent analysis of Mickens’ absurd and contemptuous attack on the Holy Father. I wish I could say that I am shocked that America chose to publish it.

February 3, 2009 at 11:09 am
(5) Jeffrey Mark says:

I stand with Our Holy Father,We must Pray For Him Daily and for all of Our Church Leaders.

February 3, 2009 at 3:07 pm
(6) Stephen says:

Sancta Mater Dei, ora pro nobis peccatoribus!

February 3, 2009 at 5:15 pm
(7) Jacques says:

Don’t you thing the nickname ‘the Great” fits better Benedict XVY than JPII?
My opinion is that although the mediatic JPII often said “don’t be afraid” he was not able to accomplish the long waited job his successor is now endeavouring.
Benedict asked our prayers in 2005: “Pray for me, that I may not flee for fear of the wolves”. Don’t you hear them howling today, those who are in the sheepfold?

February 3, 2009 at 11:14 pm
(8) robert says:

Thanks for writing this Apologia on behalf of the Holy Father. One important item is that this rediculous Williamson interview was given back in Novemeber not at the very moment the Pope was to lift the excommunication. Rorate Coeli blog has a good analysis of how and why this came out when it did. A current dosier circulating through the Vatican outlines the anatomy of this contract hit designed to weaken and circumvent this long awaited reconciliation. It is worth taking a look at. Thanks again for this defense of the Pope Benedict during a very difficult period of a very complicated case.

February 4, 2009 at 8:11 am
(9) brandon says:

Mr. R: Nice article. I read your Chronicles pieces too. I’m a Catholic trying to explain the controversy to my non-Christian and Jewish friends. I’ve read a bunch of articles on the Williamson problem. One thing I can’t figure out: Is he now a “Catholic bishop”? If his ordination was unauthorized, I would say no, but everywhere I read “bishop” Williamson. Can someone please shed light on this?

February 4, 2009 at 8:20 am
(10) Scott P. Richert says:

Brandon, his episcopal ordination, and that of the other three bishops whose excommunications were lifted, was valid but illicit. Validity means that he is, indeed, a bishop; the question of licitness goes to how the ordinations were carried out (in contravention of canon law, without the permission of Pope John Paul II).

So, yes, it is proper to refer to all four men as “Bishop” so-and-so.

February 4, 2009 at 8:58 am
(11) brandon says:

Thank you. I was hoping that wasn’t so, because it’s harder to explain this way. Catholicism is necessarily technical; alas, the details don’t always fit easily into media soundbites.

February 5, 2009 at 6:14 am
(12) Scott P. Richert says:

Robert, thanks for the kind words. You’re absolutely right about the date of the Williamson interview. The first time I saw any reference to it having been taped back in November was when I read that same report on Rorate Coeli that you mention, a couple days after I had written this.

February 5, 2009 at 6:19 am
(13) Scott P. Richert says:

Brandon, actually, it’s a good thing that it is so, because the reason that Bishop Williamson is a bishop goes to the very heart of the Catholic understanding of ordination. In fact, this controversy opens up a “teachable moment,” as they say, because it allows us to explain why the Church teaches that ordination isn’t simply the conferring of a title but a sacrament that puts an indelible mark on a man’s soul.

I’m going to use your question as the basis for this week’s Reader Question.

February 5, 2009 at 8:08 am
(14) brandon says:

Good point.

October 24, 2011 at 2:28 pm
(15) Mark Boyles says:

This Pope is a travesty who has no regard for the limits of his purview. His latest is to inform the world that we need a central world bank. This would provide the foundation of a world government and far from is anything a responsible christian would desire.

May I assume that this Pope has no understanding of the evil perpetrated by govenments and proposes more with apparent innocense of the evil to be unleashed thereby. Or, should I assume that he looks with anticipation to the descent of the world into totaltarian hell?


July 9, 2012 at 2:49 pm
(16) EA says:

I’m glad to stumble onto some discussion of Vatican II. I’m not a very high-brow Catholic, but have always been educated in Catholic schools, and always have considered myself fairly devout.

So when the wording changes came out for English speaking countries — and let’s be real, that wasn’t for the Wimbledon crowd or the koala lovers; it was aimed at the US — it was a major shock to me. I always understood a major part of Vatican II to permitting changes to the mass in order to embrace the community and secondarily, to facilitate evangelical work and bring non-Catholics into the fold. The new verbiage adopted dumps that understanding in the toilet. Simply put, nobody talks like that. I have particular issues with the changes to the Nicene Creed, which seems like major theology changes to me (“I” vs. “We”; “suffered death” vs. “suffered, died, and was buried). But on those handful of occasions I’ve been able to introduce someone to Catholicism, the Nicene Creed was my concise document. Is this really what the Holy Father and underlying Holy See had in mind? Can we have masses in the former wording, a la the Latin masses now celebrated?

(And then, concurrent to that shock, the Church seems to tell the nuns they’re not political enough, denounces the first black President speaking at Notre Dame (a no-brainer of an invite, in my humble opinion), and makes major political pushes. Atheists are having a field-day with me.)

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