The pope’s decision to nullify the excommunication of four “traditionalist” bishops is getting a surprising amount of attention because one of the bishops appears to be something of a Holocaust denier.
A bit of background: The Swiss-based Society of St. Pius X was founded in 1969 by the late Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre. He and others were opposed to many of the reforms that came out of Vatican II, including the decision to allow the Mass to be celebrated in local languages and the Roman Catholic Church’s new emphasis on ecumenism and interfaith relations.
Four “bishops” who were consecrated by Marcel — without papal consent — were excommunicated by Pope JPII 20 years ago.
It has been a clear priority of Pope B16 to reconnect with the Society. He quickly met with the group’s current leader, Bishop Bernard Fellay. Soon after, the pope eased restrictions on the Latin Mass.
Now he’s chosen to erase the excommunication of the four bishops, a move that has been anticipated and would be of interest primarily to Catholics who follow this sort of thing.
In other words, not most.
However, one of the rehabilitated bishops, British Bishop Richard Williamson, recently said in a Swedish TV interview that there is no evidence that Jews were gassed by Nazi Germany. Watch:
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And Jewish groups are not that happy.
The ADL’s Abe Foxman says:
We are stunned that the Vatican has ignored our concerns by welcoming back into the fold a bishop who denies the Holocaust and rejects the seminal reforms of Vatican II.
This decree sends a terrible message to Catholics around the world that there is room in the Church for those who would undermine the Church’s teachings and who would foster disdain and contempt for other religions, particularly Judaism. Given the centuries-long history of anti-Semitism in the Church, this is a most troubling setback.
The American Jewish Committee’s Rabbi David Rosen:
While the Vatican’s reconciliation with the SSPX is an internal Catholic Church matter, embracing an open Holocaust denier is shameful. By welcoming an open Holocaust denier into the Catholic Church without any recantation on his part, the Vatican has made a mockery of John Paul II’s moving and impressive repudiation and condemnation of anti-Semitism.
The Association of Italian Rabbis, according to the AP, pulled out last week of the Italian Catholic Church’s annual celebration of Judaism, saying that the rehabilitation of Williamson was “canceling” 50 years of interfaith progress.
Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco, head of the Italian Bishops Conference, said today that the rabbis’ reaction was “unjust.” But he also denounced Williamson’s views on the Holocaust, calling them “unfounded and unjustified.”
Vatican spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi told the AP: “They are his personal ideas … that we certainly don’t share but they have nothing to do with the issue of the excommunication and the removal of the excommunication.”
Monsignor Robert Wister, professor of church history at Seton Hall University in New Jersey, told the AP: “To deny the Holocaust is not a heresy even though it is a lie. The excommunication can be lifted because he is not a heretic, but he remains a liar.”
Jewish groups, of course, have often spoken out regarding Catholic actions related to the WWII era (the actions of Pope Pius XII, the canonization of Edith Stein, etc.). Things get hairy when Jewish leaders weigh in on internal matters like who the church should or should not canonize or excommunicate.
The way these things go, if Jewish groups and others continue to denounce what they perceive to be the Vatican’s “endorsement” of Williamson, the Vatican will likely release a statement of some sort distancing itself from Williamson’s views. If such a statement has already been made — other than Lombardi’s quote — I’ve missed it.
LATE ADD: Catholic analyst John Allen adds this in a NCR column about the affair:
In retrospect, however, it would be disingenuous for anyone to feign surprise.
A troubled history with Judaism has long been part of the Catholic traditionalist movement associated with the late French Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre — beginning with Lefebvre himself, who spoke approvingly of both the World War II-era Vichy Regime in France and the far-right National Front, and who identified the contemporary enemies of the faith as “Jews, Communists and Freemasons” in an Aug. 31, 1985, letter to Pope John Paul II.
He later notes:
Observers of the traditionalist landscape caution people not to paint with too broad a brush, as if every Catholic attracted to the older Latin Mass or to traditional views on doctrinal matters is somehow tainted by anti-Semitism. Similarly, experts also warn that critics of Catholic traditionalism can sometimes be quick to label as “anti-Semitic” attitudes that may be controversial theologically or politically, but that don’t in themselves reflect real prejudice.