Almost two weeks ago the news broke in Rome that the Pope had lifted a 20-year-long sentence of excommunication from a bishop who was not only anti-Semitic but actually denied the Holocaust. It was a story tailor made for the secularist media and all those who, knowing full well that it is not anti-Jewish, resent the Catholic Church for other reasons: its stand on homosexuality, birth control, or simply persisting in its belief in God.
Listen to der Speigel: “What’s definite is that the honeymoon between the Germans and their pope is over. For almost four years this thoroughly secular country of Luther flirted with the pomp, the self-assuredness and the proud lack of modernity of the Catholic Church. Commentators admired the rigor of the Tridentine Mass, the media covered ‘our pope’ with fondness, curiosity and empathy. That’s over. Benedict’s rule has now passed a turning point. It is likely to be divided into a before and an after. This scandal surrounding Bishop Williamson has robbed this pope of his magic. It’s a pity.”
Why “a pity,” for heaven’s sake, when you find the church itself so repugnant?
Some of these ready critics are to be found within the church. US columnist Andrew Sullivan, who is Catholic and homosexual, wrote: “I am truly, deeply ashamed of my church for this action and hope this provokes such an outcry that it is reversed.”
An outcry it certainly has provoked. Headlines about the Holocaust-denying Bishop Richard Williamson rehabilitated by the pope ran like wildfire around the globe. Jewish groups were distressed and angry; Catholics were embarrassed and confused; there was a heated debate in the British House of Commons (Williamson is a Briton); the furore in Germany, where denying the Holocaust is a crime, reached such a pitch that Chancellor Angela Merkel was emboldened to call on Pope Benedict (who has made several visits to Auschwitz) to clarify his own position on the Holocaust. Catholic bishops in Germany and elsewhere were clearly furious at the implied insult to the Jews, and German Cardinal Walter Kasper, who heads the Vatican’s Commission for Religious Relations With Jews, distanced himself from Benedict by saying he had not been informed in advance about the Pope’s action.
As a matter of fact, nobody relying on media headlines has been properly informed either. The Bishop Williamson story has been a massive beat-up, a spark from a torch that became a bushfire. Pope Benedict never set out to rehabilitate a crank who not only believes there were no gas chambers in Nazi concentration camps but also that the 9/11 attacks on the United States were carried out by the American military “professionally”. The pope knew nothing of that. The decree he signed in January 21 was not even directed individually at Williamson.
What Benedict actually did, as chief pastor of the Catholic Church was lift the excommunication of four bishops — not one, four — illicitly ordained in 1988 by the late Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, founder of the Society of St Pius X, an organisation of Catholics alienated from main body of the church by changes carried out in the name of the Second Vatican Council. In doing so he also opened the door for a large number of lay Catholics — reported numbers vary from around 400,000 to a million — to be reconciled with Rome and the universal church.
Moreover he did this — as a statement from the Vatican Secretariat of State this week points out — in response to repeated requests from the head of the Lefebvrists, Swiss bishop Bernard Fellay. It was a gesture of compassion from the Holy Father and one close to his heart, since he dealt personally with Lefebvre over the 1988 schism, doing everything he could to avert it and being personally distraught when it finally happened. The pope is regarded as the “supreme shepherd” of the Catholic flock and cannot be indifferent to lost sheep. Benedict said from the outset of his pontificate that healing the breach created by SSPX would be a priority. That some of the strays depend on an eccentric like Bishop Williamson in hindsight made it even more urgent.
Lifting the excommunications implies absolutely nothing about the status or views of the individual bishops or anyone else in the society. The Vatican’s statement makes clear that it is merely the beginning of reconciliation, and that future recognition depends on “full recognition” by the members “of the Second Vatican Council and the magisterium (teaching)” of all the popes during and since the council.
Addressing the Williamson issue directly, the statement says his views “on the Shoah are absolutely unacceptable and firmly rejected by the Holy Father” who already in his general Wednesday audience last week “reaffirmed his full and indisputable solidarity with our brother recipients of the First Covenant” and said the Shoah was a warning against “forgetting, against negating or reductionism” of violence towards human beings. The statement added: “Bishop Williamson, to be admitted to episcopal functions in the Church, must also distance himself in an absolutely unmistakable and public way from his position on the Shoah, which was unknown to the Holy Father in the moment of the lifting of the excommunication.”
All this could have been established from impartial inquiries by the media and by interest groups without the hullabaloo of the past two weeks. Indeed, it could have been taken for granted by anyone with the least insight into Pope Benedict’s personal record or the pastoral nature of his role in the church.
Unfortunately, since such insights are scarce, it could also have been taken for granted by those assisting the Pope in issuing the decree lifting the excommunications that any move to welcome the Lefebvrists back into the fold would be used to air prejudices against the “conservative” or even “ultra-conservative” pope and the “right wing” or “far right” of the church. They were not to know that a Swedish television channel conveniently had an interview with Williamson ready to air (on the very day that the decree was signed by the pope and the day before it was published) but they might conceivably have anticipated sabotage.
To publicise the decree without any explanations seems a mistake. But it was an administrative and PR failure, not a failure of the church or the pope regarding the Jews; Jews and Judaism simply had nothing to do with it. Doubtless the officials could have made a PR effort here, but no matter how hard they tried, there would most likely still have been a furore.
The trouble is that the secular world tends to reduce everything to politics — right wing versus left wing; conservative versus liberal — but the church is not a political institution, and the pope is not a prime minister looking over his shoulder at the latest opinion poll and trying to say what will please the majority so he will get re-elected.
The pope has a larger vision of things. He is a shepherd who has to keep the whole flock in view — all of them, saints and sinners, philosophers and cranks, the politically astute and the incorrigibly naive — and be ready to lay down his life for them. When a man has accepted that burden, he is not going to resile from a decision — as some are calling for him to do over Williamson and the SSPX — because of unforeseen political fallout. He is going to keep reaching into the thorn bushes of church life and rescuing the sheep caught there — despite the denunciations of secularists, or even the bleating of some within his own fold. They had better get used to it.
Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet.