Pope Benedict’s decision to undo the excommunication of Bishop Richard Williamson, an unrepentant Holocaust denier, has been met with wall to wall condemnation. Short of the launch of a new Crusade, it is hard to imagine how the Pope could have ignited such outrage with one decision. Yet there is an even greater crisis waiting in the wings that will soon be picked up by world media. Williamson’s fellow travelers — the entire network of the breakaway Society of Saint Pius X (SSPX) — are vocal enthusiasts of a medieval religious anti-Semitism that gives the Islamist imams in Pakistan some serious competition.
The papal move to re-embrace SSPX was carefully negotiated. And if Pope Benedict was expecting any cosmetic changes in SSPX’s Jew-hatred he was dead wrong. True ideologues in their hatred, their group’s website remains unchanged. Jews, it tells us, are directly responsible for the crucifixion. Jews are cursed with the “blindness to the things of G-d and eternity.” As a people, they stand “in entire opposition with the Catholic Church.” “Christendom and Jewry are designed inevitably to meet everywhere without reconciliation or mixing.” Jews “should neither be eliminated from among us, nor given equality of rights.”
SSPX bookstores sell the anti-Semitic screeds — “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” and Henry Ford’s “The International Jew.” But Jews, we are told in an essay by SSPX icon Fr. Denis Fahey, should not worry. He explains why he is not an anti-Semite. Anti-semites hate Jews, which he does not. He hates the Jewish naturalism, which is the plot of Jews (who have secretly abandoned God for the last two millennia) to take over the world.
Pope Benedict XVI has made a personal crusade of hastening Church unity. According to the Vatican document announcing SSPX’s rehabilitation, lifting the ban against the four bishops allows the Church to talk in earnest with the four, and the tens of thousands of traditionalist Catholics they represent. Short of assigning Bishop Williamson a stint as intern in the Auschwitz-Birkenau museum it’s not clear what else can be said to a man of God who just last week denied the Nazi gas chambers and that 6 million Jews were the victims of genocide.
The Pope’s moves reveal a stunning blindness and deafness to the troubling reality all around him in Europe. He rehabilitated Holocaust denier Williamson in the days before both the 50th anniversary of the Convocation of Vatican II, and Holocaust Memorial day, January 27th, the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, the largest Jewish cemetery on the planet. More troubling is that this Pope’s outreach to this brazenly anti-Semitic group comes amidst an explosion of anti-Semitism not seen since the days before World War II. As synagogues and Jewish places of business are firebombed, as placards at demonstrations organized by extremist Muslim groups sport the slogan, “Upgrade to Holocaust 2.0” and “Jews to the ovens,” the Pope has unwittingly lent credence to those who unleash hate and violence against Jews. Why now?
Some Church apologists argue that the Pope has reached out to the four in order to rein them in. He will have more control over them, more influence over what they can teach and preach, if they are brought under the umbrella of the Church. But this move has not been accompanied by declarations that there is no turning back the clock on the teachings of Vatican II that blazed the way for new understanding between Catholics and Jews. In fact, other Church observers speak more ominously, claiming that Vatican II is “not a dogma of faith,” and therefore no barrier to the reintegration of SSPX faithful into the Church.
Millions of Jews, and tens of millions of mainstream Catholics, wait in dismay and anxiety. The teachings of Vatican II and Nostra Aetate were the most serious moves by any religious group to undo the effects of hundreds of years of Church-inspired anti-Semitism and persecution. They also helped bring Catholicism firmly into an age of modernity, without sacrificing its integrity. They allowed hundreds of millions of Catholics to escape the tension between modernity and sincere religious belief. They do not want to
see a return to the medieval abbey.
Both Jews and Catholics wait for the next moves of the Holy See. The Pope can repair the public relations debacle by declaring unequivocally that the teachings of Vatican II are not optional and not just tools to be taken off the shelf for interfaith op-eds. He can state that they represent the true spirit of the Church, from which there is no return.
The ultimate irony may lay in the fact that one of the intellectual architects of Vatican II, responsible for seeing that the progressive innovations of Vatican II were consistent with rigorous Church theology, was one Father Joseph Ratzinger–the future Pope Benedict XVI. Jews and Catholics can only pray that at the end of day it will be the voice and conscience of that Father which will ultimately prevail.
Rabbi Abraham Cooper is the Associate Director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein is its Director of Interfaith Affairs.