Pope’s judgment on Williamson flawed

'Bishop' Richard WilliamsonFollowing the flap about the Good Friday prayer, we have another ‘crisis in Catholic-Jewish relations’ as a result of the actions of the Pope, Benedict XVI. This is old news which has been beaten to death in many forums, but nevertheless…

On January 21, the Pope lifted the decree of excommunication on Richard Williamson, a Holocaust denier and anti-Semite. Williamson (seen on video here) claimed that “not one Jew had been killed in gas chambers” and that only 200,000-300,000 Jews perished in Nazi concentration camps.

Williamson and four other members of the ultra-conservative Society of St. Pius X (SSPX) were excommunicated by Pope John Paul II in 1988 when the society’s leader, Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre consecrated them as bishops in defiance of the Vatican. He also declared the society in schism with the church (they dispute this, but see Pope John Paul II’s letter).

Lefebvre was quite a guy. He disapproved of the French Revolution, preferring absolute monarchy. He supported the Nazi puppet Vichy regime in WWII, and expressed unhappiness  at the liberation of France, calling it an “invasion of barbarians without faith or law”.  He bitterly opposed  the reforms of Vatican II (1962-65), including the encyclicals Nostra Aetate, which called for religious tolerance and declared that the Jews of today do not bear guilt for the death of Jesus, and Dignitatis Humanae, which condemned civil coercion of religious belief. In his view, much of Vatican II constituted heresy.

In 1969 Lefebvre formed the Society of St. Pius X (St. Pius X was Pope from 1903-14 and also opposed modernism). He established a seminary in Switzerland, denounced the Vatican II reforms as heretical and celebrated the traditional Latin Mass. Ordered by Pope Paul VI to close his seminary in 1976, he refused and his right to perform sacred functions was suspended.

After the 1988 excommunication of Lefebvre and his ‘bishops’ the SSPX continued to exist, although its status with the Church remained as a schismatic sect. Since then, it has flourished. In the US, the SSPX has chapels in 37 states, schools in 13, and four retreat centers. There are numerous seminaries and headquarters around the world (Lefebvre himself died in 1991).

Although Williamson’s Holocaust denial is extreme even for the SSPX, there is no doubt that SSPX doctrine is anti-Semitic. Here’s an excerpt from a 1959 letter from Lefebvre associate Bishop Gerald de Proenca Sigaud which appeared — with approval — on the SSPX website until very recently:


1.    We condemn all persecution of Jews for their religion or for ethnic reasons. The Church is against “anti-Semitism”.

2.    But the Church can not ignore the facts of the past and the clear affirmations of international Jewry. The heads of this 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. This is what Masonic sects and the communists stand for.

Money, the media, and international politics are for a large part in the hands of the Jews. Although the Jews are the biggest capitalists and should on that account be the greatest adversaries of the Russians and the communists, they do not fear them, but on the contrary, they help them to win. Those who have revealed the atomic secrets of the USA were: Fuchs, Golds, Gringlass, and Rosemberg: all Jews. The founders of communism were Jews. They are the promoters, organizers and bankers.

This is the reality. Should this foster hatred? No! But with vigilance and clear-sightedness we should launch a systematic and methodical opposition to the equally systematic and methodical onslaught of “the enemy of man”, whose secret weapon is “the leaven of the Pharisees which is hypocrisy”.

International Judaism wants to radically defeat Christianity and to be its substitute. Its chief armies are the masons and the communists. This process of the Revolution began at the end of the Middle Ages, developed itself by pagan Renaissance, jumped forwards by leaps and bounds with the Reformation, destroyed the political and social basis of the Church by the French Revolution, tried to overthrow the Holy See with by an attack on the Papal States, emptied the Church’s resources on the occasion of the secularization of the goods of religious [orders] and dioceses, was the cause of a very grave internal crisis with the advance of Modernism, and finally, with communism, it invented the decisive instrument to delete the name of Christian from the very face of the earth.

Much anti-Semitic material has now been removed from the site, but this letter is still available in Google’s cache. And on the website there remains a 1985 letter to the Pope from Lefebvre and Bishop Antonio de Castro Mayer which counts Jews among “declared enemies of the Church”.

The lifting of the excommunication does not include a full reconciliation with the doctrines of the SSPX. But its purpose was to open the door for a rapprochement between the Church and the SSPX, which would take place when certain “open matters” had been resolved.

On the one hand, it can be argued that since the four priests were not excommunicated because of anti-Semitism or historical revisionism — these are highly unlikely to be subsumed under the specified actions that can be punished by excommunication under canon law — but rather because of their part in Lefebvre’s forbidden consecration of them as Bishops, their readmittance does not imply acceptance of their pernicious ideas. This is the line that the Vatican has taken, and the Pope himself has taken pains to denounce anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial. The Vatican even said that the Pope was unaware of Williamson’s statements about the Holocaust.

But on the other hand, the intention of the Pope’s action was to heal the breach between the Church and the SSPX. Given the anti-Semitic bent of the SSPX, should not more have been demanded — both of the society and the ‘bishops’  — before beginning the process of reconciliation?

Certainly Pope Benedict holds traditionalist views about ritual, and for example has relaxed restrictions on priests who want to use Latin liturgy. He is also not likely to call for liberalization of doctrine prohibiting abortion or euthanasia. And in these areas he has beliefs in common with SSPX. But I would like to think that he has strong differences with them regarding religious tolerance — the principles set forth in Nostra Aetate (he was the first Pope to visit a US synagogue, when he was present at a service — something that would be anathema to SSPX). He should have made this clear — and gotten agreement from SSPX — at the outset.

The timing was also quite unfortunate. Anti-Semitic attitudes and expressions around the world today are possibly greater than at any time since the end of WWII, as the virulent anti-Israel propaganda that has been flooding the media from Arab, Iranian and left-wing sources becomes more and more overtly anti-Semitic.

Personaly I don’t doubt Pope Benedict’s commitment to the principles of Nostre Aetate, I don’t doubt his understanding of history, and I don’t think he has an antisemitic bone in his body. But I do think that his decision to seek to bring the SSPX back into the fold without first obtaining an unambiguous recantation of their anti-Semitic (and in the case of Williamson, ahistorical) point of view was a serious failure of judgment.

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