March 30, 2009 by Daniel Stack
The story is by now pretty well known but the facts are worth a quick review. Back in January Pope Benedict lifted the excommunication of four bishops from the conservative Catholic splinter group, the Society of Pius X. Among these bishops was Richard Williamson who has denied the Holocaust killed millions of Jews. Williams also denoted the Protocols of the Elders of Zion,a Czarist Russian forgery alleging the vile practices of a secret Jewish conspiracy for world domination.
There was a pretty big backash from all of this. What people perceived was that the pope had reinstated a Holocaust denier. (Which is not wholly true, given that while again considered a member of the Catholic church, he is not a bishop within that organization.)
In early March Pope Benedict issued a written statement where he acknowledged the matter was handled poorly and that the papacy should have researched the matter better. He also affirmed his desire for good relations with the Jewish faith. He also managed to sneak in a jab at Catholic protesters: “I was saddened by the fact that even Catholics who, after all, might have had a better knowledge of the situation, thought they had to attack me with open hostility.”
So obviously I’m going to inject my opinion, beginning with a confession of my own prejudices. I consider myself a liberal Catholic. I’m aware that in some people’s eyes that means I’m not a real Catholic. I voted for Barack Obama. I’m pretty much ok with most forms of birth control. I also go to mass weekly. I used to be a Eucharistic minister and am currently a lector (one of those dudes who gets up to do readings during Sunday masses). For a while I served on our parish council. I’m an imperfect Catholic. Just like any other Catholic.
To be honest, I actually take the pope at his word when he indicates he was unaware of Williamson’s antisemitic views. And I don’t consider the pope an antisemite. Indeed he has pushed Williamson hard to recant those views. But one thing I’ve found missing – and perhaps it is out there somewhere – is an indication as to whether or not he still would have lifted the excommunication had he known of Williamson’s antisemitic views. I believe he would have, though perhaps more gracefully. Antisemitism is not cause in the Catholic church for excommunication.
Rather, my main issue is with the lifting of the excommunication in the first place, of all those bishops, not just Williamson. To understand my issues we need to examine the Society of Pius X – or, more formally, The Priestly Confraternity of Saint Pius X. The Vatican II conference of the 1960s greatly changed the Catholic church. The mass switched from using Latin to using the native language of the assembly. The church opened up to greater contributions by the laity (i.e. the ordinary people in the pews). And a host of other changes. Indeed Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict) was, at the time of Vatican II, considered a liberal. Over time his views became more conservative. The Society of Pius X was founded in response to Vatican II by conservative archbishop Marcel-Francois Lefebvre. They rejected the reforms of Vatican II and came into conflict with the Vatican. Eventually Lefebvre was disciplined and forbidden to carry out his priestly functions. He rejected this and ordained four bishops. This resulted in Pope John Paul II’s issuing an excommunication against them.
One of Pope Benedict’s main desires is to unify the various factions of the Catholic church. And this in itself is a praiseworthy goal. But he lifted their excommunications without conditions, as a gesture of mercy in an attempt to start a dialogue to bring them back, to recognize the reforms of Vatican II and the authority of the papacy. But this was not a requiement to the lifting of their excommunication.
So why is this a bad thing? My own belief is it sends the wrong message. In coming without condition it serves, in my opinion, to validate, at least in the broadest terms, the Society’s repudiation of Vatican II. And the actions of Pope Benedict seem to support this by their excommunications being lifted without condition. And with lots of smaller actions (for example, the return of Latin masses, albeit as an option).
Furthermore, this contrasts sharply with the excommunications in Brazil, which I covered in an earlier posting. If there ever was a group in need of mercy and compassion it is those who performed the abortions and the mother of the nine-year old girl who received the abortion. Instead, the Catholic Church excommunicated them. These people made a brutal decision. I don’t believe they made a “wrong” decision, but I can understand how others would disagree. But to believe it was a decision so evil that it be worthy of excommunication? It was a horrific nightmare. Contrast this with the Bishops of the Society of Pius X. These are men who made an adult decision to break with their church for the purpose of setting up their own rules. It was not made at a matter of extreme duress but with careful consideration. It was not made with the life of a nine-year old girl at stake. Yet it is they who have been brought back into the Catholic church. Meanwhile, the only way for those doctors and the mother who chose to have an abortion performed on her nine-year old daughter to be brought back into the church is for them to deliberately seek out reconciliation with the Catholic church and repudiate their actions. Which group do you think is more deserving of an act of mercy?
- William Crawley. “Pope welcomes ‘holocaust denier’ back into the fold”. Will and Testament William Crawley’s Broadcasting Diary. BBC. <http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/ni/2009/01/pope_welcomes_holocaust_denier.html>. Accessed 30 Mar 2009.
- “Marcel Lefebvre.” Encyclopædia Britannica. 2009. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. <http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/334731/Marcel-Francois-Lefebvre>. Accessed 30 Mar 2009.
- “Pope admits Holocaust row errors“. BBC News. <http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/europe/7938827.stm>. Accessed 30 Mar 2009.