One afternoon in Winona - probably around spring 1993 - shortly after the 4pm coffee break I was passing Bishop Williamson's office when he materialised from nowhere and ushered me in. 'Sit down' he began, settling himself into the comfortable rector's chair behind a rather splendid desk.
"I have seen the stars from heaven fall," he said looking at me intently, before sitting back and running his hand, as he habitually did, through his wirey, greying hair. That was typical of him. No ceremony, no preparation; just in at the deep end, wrong footing you, disarming you before you had the chance to know what he was even talking about. "You know, the best kind of priests I've known are not what you'd expect," he continued. "You look at their cassock and you see some drips of egg from their breakfast. You spend enough time with them and you'll find their language a little colourful, even vulgar... But they've got the Faith," he said forcefully, clenching his hand towards his stomach, "they've got the Faith in their bellies."
Bishop Williamson was concerned. He'd seen something no doubt in the chapel, in my demeanour, in my nervousness, my overly careful and scrupulous conduct. He had recently lost a priest, a man cut very much from a lofty, high-minded cloth, who descended from the heights of mystical refinement and Jansenist-like discipline only to disappear with a mother of eight children. But what was he trying to tell me?
Bishop Williamson, as many know by now, has been kicked out of the Society of St Pius X. He doesn't think he has been, of course.
He has written an open letter telling Bishop Fellay to resign, and - just to add insult to injury - he also adds that no stroke of the administrative pen can remove him from the SSPX:
I have been a member of the Archbishop’s Society ever since my perpetual engagement. I have been one of its priests for 36 years. I have been one of its bishops, like yourself, for nearly a quarter of a century. That is not all to be wiped out with one stroke of a pen. Member of the Archbishop’s Society I therefore remain, and I wait.
Menzingen, the SSPX HQ, has handled this with its customary incompetence. In its press release on Wednesday about the expulsion, it let slip that Bishop Williamson had promised an open letter to Bishop Fellay ... a bit of publicity I'm sure Bishop Williamson was delighted to have. PR aside, it is also quite possible that instead of the chorus of approval that Menzingen might hope for, they risk finding that in the eyes of the wider world, they have expelled Bishop Williamson for the wrong reasons. His crimes are principally identified as disobedience and insubordination. Outsiders will wonder why these things are more serious to Menzingen than his anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial.If memory serves correctly, Dom Florian Abrahamowicz was expelled from the SSPX for the damage he caused the Society by Holocaust denial in 2009. To outsiders, Bishop Williamson's expulsion for disobedience could look like the BBC sacking Jimmy Savile for smoking in public.
Bishop Williamson's open letter has the limpid simplicity we have come to expect from this old-time classicist. In it he gives a personal precis of the religious topography of the last two centuries. Since the French Revolution, he says, the ideological battle ground has been drawn between the Church on the one side and liberal Catholicism in cahoots with the world on the other. In spite of a series of great popes from Gregory XVI to Pius XII, the Church slowly moved towards liberalism and fused with it at Vatican II. Since then, those who have wanted to remain faithful to the religion of God have had to fight both the world, liberal Catholicism and the liberal Church. The SSPX's recent attempt at an agreement with the liberal Church, based on a practical accord that set doctrine aside, was a compromise set to transform a conciliatory SSPX into a Conciliar SSPX. Bishop Fellay has been the helmsman of this disastrous policy. Even though the General Chapter in July stepped back partially from the brink, the policy of conciliation is still in place. The heavy crimes of the Superior General are compounded by what Bishop Williamson feels is Bishop Fellay's unjust treatment of himself.In fact, his compromises are surely worse than Bishop Williamson's which were only meant to keep the SSPX faithful to the religion of God. Therefore, Bishop Williamson concludes, Bishop Fellay must resign.
Readers of this letter can decide for themselves what to make of it. To my eye, it looks like there is some special pleading going on here. Bishop Williamson claims that he can only really be reproached for his sometimes insubordinate (though always impersonal) Eleison Comments, the successor to his Dinoscopus blog.
At the very least, however, he fails to mention or own up to his talk widely distributed on Youtube in which he hopes that the General Chapter will get rid of Bishop Fellay, or the fact that his joint letter to Bishop Fellay, written with Bishops Tissier and de Galaretta, was apparently leaked by those known to be close to him. He specifically complains of being abandoned in an attic in London with no ministry in 2009 ... at which time he wrote a letter of apology for the trouble his Holocaust denial had caused, saying that he wished, like Jonas, to be thrown into the sea. Now, perhaps that attic is a little damp ... but is it really that damp?
I suppose the question now is: what is he going to do? He seems not to be without friends or without financial backing. The SSPX of the Strict Observance, led by the tediously garrulous Frs Chazal and Pfeiffer, will surely hope he joins them and rallies to him all disgruntled priests of the SSPX.
Sympathy for Bishop Williamson goes wider than you might suspect.
It is possible of course he could launch his own roving ministry, not aligned with any group in particular, but available to those groups he considers faithful to the Catholic cause, much as he did when, without permission, he recently visited the traditionalist Benedictines in Brazil to give confirmations. There could emerge in the near future a kind of Williamson Federation, loosely tied together, all mutually sympathetic, willing to have his ministry, but not especially willing to tie themselves to any fixed structure. The great advantage in this for Bishop Williamson would be not having to manage hot heads like Chazal and Pfeiffer. I mean, he's just got rid of Bishop Fellay, so why swap a pain in the neck for a pain ... somewhere else?
Or he could - as his letter suggests - wait, calculating that whatever Bishop Fellay's currently charmed existence, any further footsie games with diplomats in Rome will surely see him hung out to dry. Wait a little, see the SSPX become disillusioned with Fellay's failure to deliver or to change much in Rome, and - especially if Bishop Fellay makes another abortive attempt at a reconciliation - sweep in at the appropriate juncture either to be welcomed back by his confreres or at the very least have a hand in influencing some new direction. Bishop Williamson can dream a little can't he? Bishop de Galaretta does.
At the very least he would like to see the SSPX abandon all talk of making a practical agreement without doctrinal reform in Rome. This policy of seeking simply the freedom to criticism the Council is not enough.
In truth - and he must know this - there is no coming back from the expulsion. Even a Fellay-less SSPX will not embrace the toxic Williamson brand once more. The best he can hope for is the last scenario described above: an SSPX which ditches a potential entente with Rome and maintains firmly that the Council taught errors which must be abandoned before normal relations can be resumed.
Meanwhile, the implications of the SSPX's own position unfold before our very eyes. They will not have their theological conclusions adjudicated by Rome. Logically, when one of their own finds fault with their conclusions or with the positions that they adopt in relation to those conclusions, he can in the name of the Faith, dissent from them. In this logic we have witnessed the birth of the SSPX of the Strict Observance. At some point we might see an SSPX of the Even Stricter Observance, shortly before the foundation of the SSPX of the Much Stricter than the Others Observance, from whose ranks will emerge in due course the founder of the Strictest Ever SSPX: Accept No Substitutes Observance. Did Archbishop Lefebvre know it would come to this? As he saw the haemorrhaging of priests from his own Society, did he never wonder whether the insubordination of some of his own men was a mimetic repetition of his own insubordination? What unauthorised traditionalist group has failed to justify its position by appealing to the defence of the Faith?
On the subject of the Church, Bishop Williamson does some whistling in the dark in his letter, but he's quite smart enough to realise the implications of his position. Here is some of that whistling for you:
How many bishops in the whole wide world see clear as Archbishop Lefebvre saw clear, and how many are teaching accordingly? How many of them are still teaching Catholic doctrine at all? Surely very few.
Surely very few? Given Bishop Williamson's fundamental position, how can there be more than three? But he can't say that, can he? He cannot say that there are only three Catholic bishops left to teach the Faith (he, Tissier and de Galaretta) because the fundamental theological absurdity of the position would leap off the page. But who else is there? Cardinal Ranjith says the New Mass. Bishop Schneider is a papal loyalist. All the clever bishops are suspect of modernism, aren't they? Really, who else is there who teaches the Faith according to Bishop Williamson's standards? But if he conceded this, he would be faced with the endgame of his own theology: the Church has essentially defected as the visible sign and instrument of God's action in the world, to be replaced by an imposture Church.
The air was always thin in that Alpine hideaway of Econe.
So what was he trying to tell me all those years ago in 1993, as I sat there like a rabbit caught in the sniper's sites? Bishop Williamson - the man whose monumental imprudence brought a storm of controversy down on the pope a few years ago, the man who has not been able to swallow the bitter pill which that controversy earned for him, the man whose appreciation of the contemporary ecclesial landscape clearly implies that the Church has essentially lost not only her notes but her very marks: this man - was giving me a very straightfoward message: like Icarus, don't fly too close too close to the sun. Or, to put it in the language of his favourite priests: don't be a dick!
And, if I could talk to him now, I rather think that - in all humility, and with all due reverence to his calling - I would talk like those egg-covered, foul-mouthed clerics he so admires ... and tell him much the same thing.