Pope Benedict XVI has found himself in a maelstrom of controversy over his lifting of the excommunication of Richard Williamson, an illegally consecrated prelate who has downplayed the magnitude of the Holocaust. The Pope has been scored by the media, certain Jewish groups, and even some fellow Catholics; yet few truly understand what they’re criticizing. Let’s examine the matter.
There is no question that Williamson has made some outrageous statements. For instance, first we have the Holocaust comment that put him on the radar screen: “I think the most serious conclude that between 200,000 to 300,000 perished in Nazi concentration camps, but not one of them by gassing in a gas chamber. I believe that the historical evidence is strongly against, 6 million Jews having been gassed in gas chambers as a deliberate policy of Adolf Hitler.”
This is not the only time Williamson raised eyebrows. He also believes the U.S. government perpetrated 9/11 to provide a pretext for invading Afghanistan and Iraq and once said, “the Vatican has sold its soul to liberalism.” Thus, it’s understandable that he would grab headlines. Yet, in the media’s rush to disseminate what they fancy to be the Vatican’s sins, they render themselves guilty of a mortal one of journalistic omission.
First, while the reportage can leave one with the impression that Williamson is a Catholic bishop, this is not the case. Rather, he is a bishop in the Society of Saint Pius X (SSPX), a schismatic organization that is not in union with the Church. To understand the situation adequately, some background is necessary.
The SSPX is a group of ultra-traditionalist Catholics created by the late French Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre in 1970. The organization objected to the reforms of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), some of which it perceived to be heretical in nature. As time wore on, Lefebvre’s bucking of the establishment caused increasing friction between the society and its philosophical opponents and the Vatican.
As Lefebvre aged, he became concerned that his society might not be under the stewardship of like-minded traditionalists upon his death; thus, he consecrated four SSPX priests — one of whom was Richard Williamson — as bishops, in defiance of Pope John Paul II. The Pope then enforced Church law and announced that Lefebvre and the four priests had incurred excommunication. In other words, Williamson was never actually a bishop because he was invalidly consecrated by a renegade archbishop.
This is important to understand when reading articles in which ignorant, if not anti-Catholic reporters write about the “rehabilitation” of the four “bishops.” At this juncture, the rehabilitation of the men doesn’t involve making them officers of the Church with official functions; it simply refers to the lifting of their excommunications. Moreover, the Vatican has made clear that Williamson will never be able to assume ecclesiastical duties unless he completely renounces his claims regarding the Holocaust.
Yet critics are still incensed. “Why would the Pope lift the excommunication of a man holding such outrageous views?” they ask. Others, such as Einar Koch writing at Bild.com, are befuddled. He wonders, “…does the Vatican really know the extent of Williamson's outrageous beliefs?” (Note: It has now been revealed that the Pope did not know.)
While that is a fair question, this is nevertheless where I lose a bit of patience. I would have to ask Koch and the rest of the media, “Do you really know to any extent what you’re caterwauling about?” For while the secular world talks sanctimoniously about how the Church has to work toward “understanding,” it seems to forget that understanding must go both ways.
I can sum up the Church’s critics’ position very simply: A bad man said some bad things, and lifting an excommunication is a good thing to do for someone. And only a bad man would do a good thing for a bad man. This little Dick-and-Jane explanation seems simplistic, but it’s accurate, as most of the critics are long on didacticism but short on depth.
In reality, they’re acting like a lynch mob angry that the authorities aren’t meting out its version of justice. This isn’t surprising coming from people who seem to believe that, oh, for instance, a legislative body can ignore constitutional dictates and do whatever its majority decides, but the Church is governed by laws, not whims. I’ll illustrate the point with an analogy.
Imagine that the death penalty is administered for the murder of a child. Now let’s say a man commits this crime and is thus sentenced. Subsequently, however, exculpatory evidence is presented and the man is pardoned. All right, now imagine it comes to light that the man made some vile anti-Catholic statements, and outraged Catholics demand that the sentence be carried out anyway. Would this be reasonable? Besides the fact that such a punishment would be disproportionate, I think the secular world’s reply would be that its law isn’t there to do the Church’s bidding.
While this analogy isn’t perfect, it does roughly illustrate the situation. And if this seems a stretch, consider that excommunication has been called a spiritual death sentence. It is the harshest penalty the Church imposes and, like capital punishment, is only applied for specific transgressions. It is not imposed simply for making outrageous or offensive comments; if it were, it’s staggering to think how many Catholics might suffer this fate.
Thus, excommunication exists for a particular reason, one that has nothing to do with augmenting the wider society’s scorn and ostracism. And besides the fact that it would be disproportionate to that purpose, Church law isn’t there to do the secular world’s bidding.
It might also be pointed out that the secular world could lead by example. If it really believes that something beyond scorn is warranted as a consequence for Williamson, it could advocate criminal penalties. This is what they do in Germany, after all, where historian David Irving did a stretch in prison for Holocaust revisionism.
Oh, but we don’t want to stifle freedom of speech by imposing our harsher punishments on those with errant tongues? Well, perhaps it’s now easier to understand why the Church may not impose its harshest penalty for such a thing.
At the end of the day, however, this issue boils down to one simple fact: Williamson’s excommunication had nothing to do with his views on the Holocaust, and the remission of it had nothing to do with them. It is ridiculous to conflate the two.
It’s also important to understand that the rehabilitation of the four bishops is part of a much larger process, an attempt to heal divisions in the Church and bring the SSPX back into the fold. Insofar as this goes, it’s much like when a government offers to pardon a rebel group if its members will lay down their arms.
Under such an agreement, it certainly isn’t customary to say that you will exclude this or that member because he made a highly outrageous statement. No, he comes with the organization – it’s a package deal.
Really, though, one has to wonder why this story still has legs. The Vatican has repudiated Williamson’s comments, and the Pope has stated on numerous occasions that denial of the Holocaust’s horrors is gravely wrong. Moreover, as Rabbi David Dalin has said, and contrary to leftist spin, the Church has long been a friend of the Jews – since at least the 13th century.
So what is really going on? Why would a left wing and somewhat anti-Semitic media suddenly have such concern for a Jewish cause? Well, there is of course the media’s infamous, ideologically driven anti-Catholic bias. Yet, to fully understand the current attack, one must understand that this Pope is the embodiment of everything the left despises.
Although the terminology doesn’t really apply in Catholic circles, Pope Benedict XVI is seen as being a rightist (the relevant terms in Catholicism are not right and left but orthodox and heterodox). He has done much to restore tradition to the Church, and this has won him many enemies within her and without.
Why do you think the one man who has called for the Pope’s resignation is an obscure liberal German “theologian” named Hermann Haring? Despite liberals’ talk of tolerance and inclusiveness, they aren’t exactly big-tent people (except when election time comes; then their tent expands to include even cemeteries and mausoleums).
For instance, consider how the Democrats once refused to let fellow party member and then-Pennsylvania governor Robert Casey speak at the Democrat National Convention because he was pro-life, or how conservative professors and actors may be denied, respectively, tenure or roles.
In this case, these scheming leftists simply don’t want an orthodox Pope at the helm of the Church, especially one who might invite traditionalists like the SSPX into their midst. Thus, they would like to be rid of him just as they would like to eliminate talk radio and the Boy Scouts.
At the end of the day, those in the media don’t understand the Williamson issue, and they don’t really care. This is because the prolonged attack on the Pope has about as much to do with Holocaust denial as the Fairness Doctrine has to do with fairness.