Everybody's got an opinion about the withdrawal of the latae sententiae excommunications of the bishops consecrated by Marcel Lefebvre, founder of the Society of St Pius X. None of these opinions, however, seem to draw attention to the fact that not a single one of these bishops possess a legitimate episcopal chair. This is precisely why, I would submit, the press is wrong when they describe Pope Benedict XVI's lifting the excommunications as "rehabilitation"--the bishops, including especially Richard Williamson, have not been rehabilitated, precisely because of an irregularity in the episcopal consecration that can probably be stabilized only by granting a titular see. Allow me to explain.
The sign of the episcopal rank is not the mitre, crozier, or pectoral cross--even an abbot has the right to wear these insignia. The sign of the episcopal rank, rather, is the ring, which symbolizes the bishops "marriage" to his diocese. Thus a dioceseless bishop is a contradiction in terms. Presumably the bishops of the S.S.P.X.--Bernard Fellay, Bernard Tissier de Mallerais, Richard Williamson, and Alfonso de Gallaretta--each have an episcopal ring. But to which dicoese are they married? In other words, which sees are they in possession of?
The other, no less significant, symbol of the episcopal rank is the cathedra, which is actually the physical manifestion of the see, from the Latin sedes, meaning "seat" (and roughly synonymous with "diocese"). We get the word "cathedral" from cathedra, which is the church that houses the bishop's chair, and thus it is the mother-church of the diocese or see. By rights, only the bishop can be seated on his own cathedra, as well as a papal legate or the pope himself. It reflects the bishop in his role as governing the Local Church. In other words, the ring symbolizes the bishop's marriage to the Local Church which he governs from the cathedra. The episcopal ring and the episcopal chair are, therefore, mutually referential.
The Church is serious about the business of episcopal consecrations. An auxiliary bishop is just that, the auxiliary of the ordinary bishop of a diocese (hence "Ordinary"). Not even the auxiliary bishop of New York has the right to sit on the cathedra in St Patrick's Cathedral. Does he, then, have a see? Indeed he does. For a bishop who is consecrated as an auxiliary or, in some cases, a rector of a seminary (such as H.G. +Edwin O'Brien, now Archbishop of Baltimore, who was once the rector of St Joseph's Seminary in Dunwoodie, New York). In such instances, these bishops are given a titular see or a see by "title" (hence titular; cf. can. 376). So Bishop +Robert Brucato, although he assists the Archbishop of New York as his auxiliary, is in possession of the Diocese of Temuniana. The ring worn by H.E. +Robert Brucato means that he is married to the Diocese of Temuniana, although he actually lives and serves the People of God in the Archdiocese of New York. This way, the Church preserves the true function of the episcopal rank--an authority which is geared towards the service of the local Church.
Back to question of bishops of the Econe Consecrations: None of these bishops have a proper see. They are without a diocese, and the Holy See has never given any indication that it will regularize their illicit consecrations by giving them one.
Marcel Lefebvre, in his limited ecclesiological vision, probably thought of the episcopal rank only in terms of apostolic succession: it is well-known that the Econe Consecrations took place to perpetuate priestly ordinations in the face of what he considered to be an erroneous course taken by the Church after the Second Vatican Council. But he probably also forgot that the bishop's task is not only to sanctify the People of God (hence the possibility of ordaining priests), but also of teaching and of governing (can. 375; Lumen gentium no. 21). Since the episcopal chair or cathedra is a sign of the bishop's task of governing the Local Church or diocese entrusted to him (cf. Ceremonial of Bishops, no. 42), the bishops of the Econe Consecrations emerged with only one, possibly two, legs of the stool remaining. Without a diocese to govern, without the exercise of his jurisdiction that is intrinsically proper to the episcopal rank, we are left with what the Fathers of the Church called an episcopi vagantes, "wandering bishops." If the bishops of the Econe Consecrations do in fact wear an episcopal ring, it is mere formality: they are married to no diocese. They do not govern a Local Church. Their rings are only a testimony to an absent cathedra. The exercise of their episcopal office is irregular and without stability.
It is precisely on these terms that we could--until the remission of their excommunications--understand the S.S.P.X. as schismatic, because between four bishops, the entire lay community under the care of the S.S.P.X. effectively created a parallel church. As such the Econe Consecrations have been nothing less than an ecclesiological fiasco.
Why, then, in the face of such disturbance of the Church's peace, would the Holy Father withdraw their excommunications? The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen gentium, states very clearly that "The Roman Pontiff, as the successor of Peter, is the perpetual and visible principle and foundation of unity of both the bishops and of the faithful" (no. 23). It is the pope's job, essentially, to ensure the Church's unity and oneness; Pope +Benedict XVI, in remitting the excommunications, is simply being obedient to his vocation as Pastor of the universal Church. It would be wrong, I think, to interpret his decision to remit these excommunications as instances of his reactionary tendencies. (There are no reactionary tendencies to speak of.) Rather, seeing that the penalty of excommunication did not achieve its desired end, namely repentance (cf. 1 Tim 1:20), Pope +Benedict XVI now tries the medicine of mercy, not so much for the benefit of the illicitly-consecrated bishops, but the Catholic faithful who have been mislead by the leadership of the S.S.P.X. It is in this context, too, that I suggest we interpret his decision to issue the motu propio Summorum Pontificum: Yes, indeed, the "hermeneutic of continuity," but also the unity and peace of the Church.