VATICAN CITY — Pope Benedict XVI has lifted the excommunications of four traditionalist bishops, including that of a Holocaust denier whose rehabilitation sparked outrage among Jewish groups.
The four bishops were excommunicated 20 years ago after they were consecrated by the late ultraconservative Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre without papal consent _ a move the Vatican said at the time was an act of schism.
The Vatican said Saturday that Benedict rehabilitated the four as part of his efforts to bring Lefebvre's Society of St. Pius X back into the Vatican's fold.
But the move came just days after one of the four, British Bishop Richard Williamson, was shown in a Swedish state TV interview saying that historical evidence "is hugely against 6 million Jews having been deliberately gassed."
Jewish groups denounced the Vatican for having embraced a Holocaust denier and warned that the pope's decision would have serious implications for Catholic-Jewish relations as well as the pontiff's planned visit to the Holy Land later this year.
"I do not see how business can proceed as usual," said Rabbi David Rosen, Jerusalem-based head of interrelgious affairs at the American Jewish Committee and a key Vatican-Jewish negotiator. (Unfortunately Rabbi, in the long history of the Church, this is business as usual.)
He called for the pope or a senior adviser to issue a "clear condemnation" of all Holocaust denials and deniers.
Shimon Samuels of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Paris said he understood the German-born pope's desire for Christian unity, but said Benedict could have excluded Williamson. He warned that his rehabilitation will have a "political cost" for the Vatican.
"I'm certain as a man who has known the Nazi regime in his own flesh, he understands you have to be very careful and very selective," Samuels said. (He also seems to be prone to moments when he forgets about being very careful and selective.)
The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said Williamson's views were "absolutely indefensible." But he denied that rehabilitating Williamson implied that the Vatican shared them.
"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," Lombardi told AP Television News. (These views may not have anything to do with the excommunication, but they have a lot to do with the views of Marcel LeFebvre the founder of the SSPX.)
Williamson's comments cast a cloud over the pope's efforts to normalize relations with the Swiss-based Society of St. Pius X, which Lefebvre founded in 1969. Lefebvre was opposed to the liberalizing reforms of the 1962-65 Second Vatican Council, particularly its ecumenical outreach and its decision to allow Mass to be celebrated in local languages instead of Latin.
Despite concerns from liberal Catholics, Benedict has made clear from the start of his pontificate that he wanted to reintegrate the group back into the Vatican's fold, meeting within months of his election with the current head of the society, Bishop Bernard Fellay.
In 2007, Benedict answered one of Fellay's key demands by relaxing restrictions on celebrating the Latin Mass. In lifting the excommunication decree, he answered the society's second condition for beginning theological discussions about normalizing relations. (This is classic tail wagging the dog. Benedict answering to Fellay? It's supposed to be the other way around.)
The decree from the Vatican's Congregation for Bishops said Benedict "remits" the automatic excommunication that the four bishops incurred and said the 1988 decree declaring their consecrations a schismatic act had no legal standing any longer.
In a statement Saturday, Fellay, who is one of the rehabilitated bishops, expressed his gratitude to Benedict and said the decree would help the whole Roman Catholic Church.
"Thanks to this gesture, Catholics attached to tradition throughout the world will no longer be unjustly stigmatized and condemned for having kept the faith of their fathers," Fellay said in a letter to his supporters.
Fellay, meanwhile, has distanced the society from Williamson's remarks about the Holocaust, saying Williamson only had authority to discuss matters of faith and that he was personally responsible for his own opinions.
But Fellay also berated Swedish state television, accusing it in a Jan. 21 letter of having introduced the Holocaust issue in the interview "with the obvious intention of misrepresenting and maligning," the society. (Another classic case of a traditionalist unable to let go of the victim mentality. Nobody put a gun to Williamson's head forcing him to wax deceitful about the Holocaust. He did that all on his onesie.)
While Williamson's comments may be offensive and erroneous, they are not an excommunicable offense, said Monsignor Robert Wister, professor of church history at Immaculate Conception School of Theology at Seton Hall University in New Jersey.
"To deny the Holocaust is not a heresy even though it is a lie," he said. "The excommunication can be lifted because he is not a heretic, but he remains a liar."
(Sad to say, but he fits right in with too many of the rest of our hierarchy.)
The Society of St. Pius X, which is based in Menzingen, Switzerland, has six seminaries, three universities and 70 primary and secondary schools around the globe. Aside from the four bishops, it boasts 463 priests and 160 seminarians.
The status of the society's priests remains unsettled. While their ordinations are valid, the Church considers them "illicit" because they were ordained by someone who didn't have the authority, Lombardi said. Pope Paul VI suspended Lefebvre from priestly duties in 1976, but he continued ordaining priests illicitly.
This should make Mel Gibson happy. He with his own chapel, SSPX priest, and tendency to mouth anti semitic tirades when drunk.
Bishop Williamson doesn't even need to be drunk to come up with some real gems. Here's a few which are worth pondering?
'In accordance with their false messianic vocation of Jewish world-domination, the Jews are preparing the Anti-Christ's throne in Jerusalem.' ( He also believes the Protocols of Zion are for real and that 9/11 was a Jewish/American/Masonic conspiracy.)
'Can you imagine Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music staying with the Captain if the romance went out of their marriage? Would she not divorce him and grab his children to be her toys? All the elements of pornography are there...'
'This is my diagnosis of the Unabomber. You may say what you like about him as a criminal terrorist, and much of it is true... But he still has a remotely Catholic sense of how technology brutalises man. How Catholic are those technophiles who wallow at ease in their computers? Give me the Unabomber's seriousness over their shallowness, any day of the week.'
'A woman can do a good imitation of handling ideas, but then she will not be thinking properly as a woman. Did this lawyeress check her hairdo before coming into court? If she did, she is a distracted lawyer. If she did not, she is one distorted woman.'
Bishop Williamson currently heads the SSPX seminary in Argentina. I can just imagine the wonderful formation these men are receiving and the gifts of their insight the Church will receive.
The anti semitism which is displayed by Bishop Williamson has not caused any problems with SSPX and the Vatican because the Vatican has always known about the connection between SSPX and anti semitism. Since the Vatican has never commented on these associations, it's not surprising they blow off Bishop Williamson. He's only expressing his 'personal' opinion.
SSPX was excommunicated because Lefebvre had no intention of adhering to basic teachings in the documents of Vatican II. His rejections were in three principle areas: inter religious dialogue, collegiality, and religious liberty. He equated them with the French revolution's notions of Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity.
Lefebvre truly believed Vatican II was the work of Jewish and protestant liberal conspirators whose aim was to destroy the Catholic church. The Latin Mass became the symbol for what was in reality a revolt against the ecumenism and collegiality espoused by Vatican II. In short Lefebvre was a life long reactionary monarchist and for him the Church was the last bastion of monarchy.
John Paul II sympathized with the Lefebvre forces, but not to the extent of tolerating direct attacks on his authority. The installation of four bishops against his express wishes was the final straw for JPII. It was the attack on his authority he cared about, not the inherent anti semitism and anti modernity in SSPX theology. JPII was no dog to be wagged by any tail. Benedict is a pope of a different stripe.
Reconciling with SSPX on their terms is a mistake. It validates Lefebvre and his thinking. It's another step backwards, not just in terms of Catholic Jewish dialogue, but also in the mindset the Church is dragging into the 21st century. It is certainly not a unifying step for Catholicism, and seems to me to be another purposeful nail in it's own coffin, especially in the educated west.
What Benedict and company fail to appreciate is that monarchical Catholicism only flourishes in a class stratified unequal society. When societies reach a certain stage in development towards Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity religions based in notions of authoritarian exclusivity do not have meaningful answers and people stop participating in droves.
The real message of this latest move with SSPX is that the Church is in it's death throws. It has to be if Benedict has decided it's better to let the very tip of the tail wag the dog rather than face reality. He may think the South holds promise, but the truth is the South is rapidly accepting the same notions of Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity lived out in the West. This is why Obama's election was heralded as strongly in the South as it was here in the States. People don't want mindless traditional authority, they want freedom and equality.
This SSPX fiasco just makes me sick.