Pope Benedict XVI’s decision to rehabilitate a bishop who recently denied that 6 million Jews were gassed in the Holocaust caused sensational headlines, but the move was partly aimed at putting an end to such controversial remarks.
On Jan. 21, the Pope lifted an excommunication order on four bishops belonging to the St. Pius X Society. The four were consecrated 20 years ago by the late ultra-traditionalist Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre without papal consent, a move the Vatican said at the time was an act of schism.
So far, none of the bishops have formally accepted the teachings of the Second Vatican Council, a period of Church reform in the 1960s. Like their community’s founder, Archbishop Lefebvre, they see the Council as a fruit of modernity that is secularist, anti-clerical and anti-Christian. To many, that marks them out as right-wing Catholic extremists with controversial views to match.
One of the four bishops, Richard Williamson, is the most outspoken: not only does he deny that gas was used in the Holocaust, resulting in far fewer than 6 million deaths, but he has also suggested that the Twin Towers were brought down by “demolition charges” rather than hijacked airliners, and criticized the film “The Sound of Music” for a lack of respect for authority.
In the face of widespread condemnation for his latest remarks, the Vatican added its voice, calling Williamson’s words “absolutely indefensible” and emphatically stating that lifting the excommunications and Williamson’s anti-Semitism were in no way connected. Bishop Bernard Fellay, the head of the St. Pius X Society, also said Jan. 26th in an interview with the Swiss newspaper Le Temps that he “deplores the fact that a bishop has given the impression of implicating the Society with a viewpoint that is absolutely not ours.”
The Pope has chosen to rehabilitate the bishops principally in the interests of Church unity – to bring back the bishops and their flock of around 600,000 followers into the Catholic fold. The timing of the Pope’s decision, however, coming so soon after the airing of the television broadcast, has put the Vatican on the back foot. Vatican officials were clearly unaware of the interview when the decree to lift the excommunications was signed Jan. 21st. What was meant to be a courageous gesture of the Pope to further church unity has been overshadowed by Williamson’s comments.
It also obscured another reason for the decree: to calm down the bishops’ rhetoric and moderate their views. Like a wayward child needs to be taken home and talked to, so the Vatican views hopes these bishops, once back in the fold, will see the error of their ways - despite the fact they have shown no signs of embracing the teachings of the Second Vatican Council.
It’s a big gamble, and has understandably upset those dissenting from Church teaching on the ideological left. If these bishops can be exonerated without recanting their views, why can’t they? But more risky is that these bishops, because they have not been asked to change their positions, may see the Pope’s move as a vindication of their dissent. So far, Bishop Fellay has hinted that to be the case, agreeing to reconciliation talks, but implying they will be on his terms.
The Williamson controversy is therefore a sideshow to more important issues at stake. Yet paradoxically, by rehabilitating these bishops, the Pope is trying indirectly to counter precisely those extremist views that have outraged Jewish groups.
If the reconciliation talks are fruitful in the eyes of the Pope and Vatican officials, then all four bishops will have embraced the Second Vatican Council. That means they will have accepted the Council’s documents, including its landmark declaration Nostra Aetate – a document that deplored all forms of anti-Semitism and revolutionized the church's relations with Jews.
This could, therefore, signal the last time we hear Bishop Williamson spouting anti-Semitism. If it isn’t, he’s likely to end up in a schismatic sect – with just himself as pope.
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