What was Benedict thinking? That’s the question on many Catholic minds these days as the Catholic Church grapples with yet another PR mess.
This time, the crisis started when Pope Benedict XVI lifted an excommunication interdict against four bishops who were previously disciplined by Pope John Paul II because of their radical disagreements with the direction of the Church. These bishops, and their followers, were in open revolt against the reforms of Vatican II. Their leader, Bishop Marcel Lefebvre, caused a schism, which is a break from Church authority, and that’s why JPII sent them packing. They formed a conservative organization known as the Society of St. Pius X after the pope perhaps best known for his stance against modernism in the first decade of the 20th Century.
At first, concern arose over whether the Pope’s decision might be a signal of further retrenchment from the liberalizing reforms of Vatican II. However, that concern has moved to the back burner with the revelation of the views of one of the now-pardoned bishops, Richard Williamson, who claims that the Holocaust never happened.
Holocaust denial is one of the more perverse experssions of right-wing ideology, so extreme that even most conservatives run from the room when a Holocaust denier starts spouting this particularly venemous poison. Holocaust denial in the Roman Catholic Church tears-open the deep historic wounds of racial and religious division between Christians and Jews.
One of the most important Vatican II documents, Nostra Aetate, confronted the Church’s sad history of fomenting religious bigotry, especially anti-semitism. The Vatican Council specifically declared that the Jewish people were not responsible for the death of Jesus Christ, perhaps the most important historic reason why some Catholics and Christians held anti-semitic views. Nostra Aetate condemned anti-semitism in this passage: “… in her rejection of every persecution against any man, the Church, mindful of the patrimony she shares with the Jews and moved not by political reasons but by the Gospel’s spiritual love, decries hatred, persecutions, displays of anti-Semitism, directed against Jews at any time and by anyone.”
Many Catholic leaders around the world, and notably in Germany, have condemned the views of Richard Williamson. In this country, Chicago Cardinal Francis George, currently president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, has issued a statement calling Holocaust denial “deeply offensive and utterly false.”
Many other leaders, however, are demanding more. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has personally telephoned Pope Benedict demanding that he reconsider his decision to welcome Williamson back into communion with the Church. The Vatican has ordered Williamson to recant, but so far Williamson’s response has been to hold his ground.
In the old days, the Church could send its clerical problem children clerics to far-away parishes and no one knew any better. Today, the 24/7 news cycle joins with YouTube and the blogosphere to create a constant chatter about any and all scandals. This is a big potential scandal, one that has grave ramifications for the Catholic Church’s relationship with not only the Jewish people, but with its own flock.
The Vatican is notorious for moving glacially, depending on the Church’s 2000 year-old history to get through most difficult patches. In this case, a more modern approach is absolutely essential. Pope Benedict XVI should listen to his brother bishops from Germany and move swiftly to avoid futher damage to the Church’s standing in the world.
P.S.: Williamson has also preached that the September 11 attacks were an inside job on the part of the U.S. government in order to impose a police state. I don’t have time to investigate all of his views, but I suspect there’s something on the grassy knoll in there somewhere….
P.P.S.: Almost forgot…. Williamson also thinks women should not go to college— and stop wearing those evil trousers. Burning witches at the stake might be on a comeback in Williamson’s world.
See: Jesuit priest Father Thomas Reese has a particularly good column on the controversy on the Washington Post website