VATICAN CITY (Reuters) — Pope Benedict has written an “anguished” letter to Church leaders admitting the case of a Holocaust-denying bishop was mishandled and warning the Church risked “devouring itself” with internal squabbles.
In the letter addressed to the world’s bishops, which the Vatican will release on Thursday, the pope also says he was pained by Catholics’ criticism of him and that the Vatican could have foreseen problems if it had used the Internet more…
The Vatican said at the time it did not know that Williamson was a Holocaust denier but critics said a simple Internet search would have found he had made such statements.
“Doesn’t the Vatican know about Google?” one prominent Catholic critic said at the time.
In the letter, the pope says he was told after the crisis exploded that better use of the Internet would have revealed some of the problems. He says he “draws the lesson” and adds that in the future the Vatican must “pay more attention to this source of information.”
The pope says he could not have foreseen that the Williamson affair would overshadow his intention of bringing unity back to the Church by lifting the excommunications of the bishops who belong to the Society of St Pius X [SSPX].
The Pope’s letter will be released tomorrow, but from the details in the Reuters article it appears that he is still missing the point. The real problem is not that Williamson is a Holocaust denier and antisemite, as evil as he may be. The real problem is the SSPX.
As I wrote before (“Pope’s judgment on Williamson flawed“), the SSPX did not even attempt to hide its clearly antisemitic doctrines. They claim that they are simply remaining faithful to ‘traditional’ Catholicism, but, for example, the statement — which appeared until recently on the SSPX website — that
The heads of [international] Jewry have for centuries conspired methodically and out of an undying hatred against the Catholic name and the destruction of the Catholic order, and for the construction of a world wide Jewish empire.
has nothing to do with religious belief, and everything to do with inciting hatred of Jews.
Catholic doctrines concerning the language of the Mass don’t concern me, obviously. Neither do Good Friday prayers which ask God to “illumine [my] heart” or even “lift the veil” from it (although I admit to being bothered a little by “perfidious Jews”). The critical piece of Vatican II for me is the Papal declaration of Nostra Aetate, which insists that while Catholicism is the true religion, nevertheless a Catholic must respect non-Christian religions, which represent other approaches to spiritual truth.
So, for example, the traditionalist Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter [FSSP] which was founded in 1988 by SSPX priests who were unwilling to separate from the Church also uses pre-Vatican II Latin liturgy and holds relatively conservative positions on other issues. But the FSSP does not reject Nostra Aetate and its doctrines are not antisemitic.
SSPX represents a sizeable number of priests and adherents, with over 100 chapels in the US alone and a presence in numerous countries. I’m sure it’s quite uncomfortable for the Pope to have such large organization in a schismatic position, especially since he is something of a ‘traditionalist’ himself.
In my opinion, reconciliation with the SSPX should require an explict statement that they accept Nostre Aetate. Judging by what I’ve read on their site and from their friends and apologists, I don’t think it’s going to be easy to obtain this. But we will learn a lot about the Pope — and the future of Jewish-Catholic relations — from how firmly he stands on this issue.
Update [11 Mar 2009 1604 PDT]: The full text of the Pope’s letter is available here. It includes this, I think, encouraging remark:
I intend to connect the Pontifical Commission “Ecclesia Dei”, which since 1988 is responsible for those communities and individuals who, coming from the Fraternity of Pius X or similar groups, want to return into full communion with the Pope, in the future with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. This shall make it clear that the problems now being treated are essentially doctrinal in nature, especially those concerning the acceptance of the Second Vatican Council and the postconciliar Magisterium of the Popes.