I am not a member of the Society of St Pius X (SSPX) and I particularly would distance myself from some of the sillier comments made by Bishop Richard Williamson but I do think the Society has been rather shabbily mistreated for the last 20 years or more.
It has become the soft target for every pusillanimous soul who thinks he can gain a few worldly "brownie points" with the fashionable modern pundits by joining in the general frenzy of vilification and venom against the Society, so reminiscent of a pack of bullies kicking a man when he is down.
Defending the underdog somehow doesn't apply when the underdog is the SSPX.
Such are the strange values of some modern liberal Catholics who have joined the unseemly rush to be first to kick those whose principal crime was to continue to worship and believe as did their Fathers in the Faith.
Many simply did not bother to take the time to find out what the SSPX actually taught and held.
Time and again falsehoods were spoken of them - they were sedevacantists (false), they rejected all of Vatican II (false), they were crypto-Protestants (false), they considered the Novus Ordo Missae invalid (false), they rejected the authority of the Pope (false), and even that they were Fascists or Nazis (false). And so on, and so on. It was as if no-one really wanted to find out what they taught and believed but rather just wanted to use them as a useful kick-butt to vent one's spleen upon.
Now read the new decree and you will see that our beloved Holy Father has a rather different, much more pastoral, charitable and compassionate view.
See also that no legal reasons are given for the lifting of the excommunications. That may, however, have been carefully planned.
Is this an act of clemency? Could be.
Is this an act of justice? Could be.
It is (deliberately?) left vague. That way no "side" can claim a victory and all must exercise caution, care and charity. Not a bad solution, that!
The Society of St Pius X long ago appealed the excommunications but it has taken 20 years to hear their appeal - a grave injustice toward anyone, let alone fellow Catholics, regardless of what they may have done or what one may think of them. Everyone should be equal before the law - not just those currently in favour.
Now the appeal has finally been heard and, mirabile dictu, upheld.
The decree of 1 July 1988 was not a decision to excommunicate but rather a declaration of a penalty automatically imposed latae sententiae. Moreover the decree was not signed and for a long time did not appear in the Acta of the Holy See.
The Society appealed the decree which, under the 1983 code, meant that the penalty was suspended until the appeal was heard (Can. 1353) but one never hears this part of the story.
Archbishop Lefebvre argued that his actions had been necessary because the traditional form of the Catholic faith and sacraments might be in danger of extinction without a traditionalist clergy to pass them on to the next generation.
He called the ordinations "opération survie" - "Operation Survival", citing in his defence Can. 1323 and 1324 of the 1983 Code of Canon Law.
Can. 1323 provides that a canonical penalty is not binding when a person has acted "by reason of necessity or grave inconvenience, unless the act is intrinsically evil or tends to the harm of souls".
Can. 1324 states that, if the act is intrinsically evil or tends to the harm of souls, the penalty must be diminished or replaced by a penance if the offence was committed by a person who was coerced by grave fear, even if only relative, or by reason of necessity or grave inconvenience.
In all these circumstances, Can. 1324(3) concludes, automatic penalties do not apply.
Accordingly this was an appeal with a reasonable prospect of success. But it was simply not heard. Scandalously, it seems that it was simply ignored. Justice delayed - especially for 20 years! - is justice denied, even if the final result would have been a refusal.
But now we have a new pope. And the final result has not been a refusal. On the contrary, the result has been, in effect, that the appeal of SSPX and Archbishop Lefebvre, made all those years ago, has been allowed and the excommunication lifted.
It is rather a shame that the Holy See allowed Archbishop Lefebvre to die with the apparent penalty of excommunication lying upon him - seemingly unjustly, as it now turns out - but at least the matter has now finally been addressed.
No retraction, nor contrition, nor apology, nor recantation has been required by the Holy See of any member of SSPX, it seems.
Indeed, in recent times the Ecclesia Dei Commission has apparently stated that members of the Faithful may fulfil their Sunday obligation by attendance at SSPX masses.
Yet this would not normally be permitted if the celebrant priest was suspended a divinis from administering the Sacrament - still less if he was excommunicate.
Catholics were therefore seemingly permitted to consider that SSPX members and priests were neither excommunicate, nor suspended, or at least that the excommunications were suspended, presumably in in accordance with Can. 1353.
Some, of course, will reject that analysis, but, either way, the precise canonical position is by no means clear, save that they are not excommunicate. That being so, why have not more people given SSPX the benefit of the doubt?
In any event, it is now quite clear that the policy of the present Pontiff is toward rapprochement and toward lifting penalties (if any) that exist or prevent SSPX priests from administering the Sacraments.
Even though this would seem to call into question the whole policy of purported sanctions in the first place, our holy Pope has had both the courage and the humility to lift the sanctions.
The stuff of martyrdom consists in keeping one's integrity, one's Faith and one's conscience, even in the face of the most overwhelming persecution, even if abandoned by father, mother, son, daughter, friends and superiors and still more so if unjustly attacked by them.
Is it martyrdom to attack the man whom everyone else is attacking and that unjustly? No - of course not.
But what of that man unjustly attacked? Well now, there you do indeed have a possible candidate for martyrdom.
Perhaps now some shoddy-thinking, liberal Catholics with little compassion and less sense of justice may begin to see that their all too hasty jumping onto the bandwagon of vilification of the SSPX may perhaps not have been a matter for such self-congratulation.
Perhaps they may even see the unfairness and uneven-handedness of crying out against the religious vilification of Jews, Moslems and non-Catholics whilst, at the same time, themselves religiously vilifying the SSPX and its members. They might also see that he who calls for justice - as liberal Catholics constantly are - ought to make an attempt to practice that virtue himself.
Even if I may have reservations about certain members of SSPX (and I certainly do!), I seem to hear from some of their more vociferous liberal antagonists the words of the Pharisee: "O God, I give Thee thanks that I am not as the rest of men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, as also is this [SSPX?] publican" (Luke 18:11).
Well, let us follow the lead of our Holy Father, hope for better things and for a spirit of reconciliation, fraternal charity and forgiveness.
Here, then is the decree and Bishop Fellay's rather moving response:
our wonderfully humble and compassionate Pope, gloriously reigning!
God grant that he may do so for many years to come!