Richard Cohen’s powerful column Tuesday is a reminder that Catholics should be speaking up about Pope Benedict XVI’s decision to rescind the excommunication of Bishop Richard Williamson, the Holocaust denier. Williamson’s excommunication was withdrawn along with that of fellow bishops who are members of the Society of St. Pius X, the right-wing breakaway group that the Pope wants to bring back into the church. I hope Benedict gets to see Cohen’s column so he can understand the legitimate hurt and anger his decision unleashed.
I have wanted to write about this for some time, but kept getting called away by other stories. There is a lot to say about the politics of the decision — for a sharp analysis, see my friend Father Tom Reese’s piece elsewhere on this site — but for now, I’d like to focus on two disturbing aspects of this controversy.
The first goes to the viewpoint of the group Benedict has decided to conciliate. When people talk about “traditionalist” Catholics, they usually think of those who like the Latin Mass. There is nothing wrong with liking the Mass in Latin. While I prefer the vernacular Mass, I share a great affection for the Latin Mass (and can still recite parts of it from my childhood). But the Latin Mass is not the reason why so many on the far right reject the teachings of the Second Vatican Council, which brought in the great church reforms — the new liturgy being, in historical terms, the least important.
Vatican II marked the Catholic Church’s decision to make peace with the many positive achievements of modernity. Under Pope John XXIII, Catholicism embraced religious openness and toleration and the power of the democratic idea. It rejected, at long last, the slander that Jews bore collective responsibility for Jesus’ death. Pope John insisted that the church should pay attention to the “signs of the times,” and criticized ultra-traditionalists who saw “only darkness burdening the face of the earth.” He argued that the modern world offered “more than a few indications that augur well for the fate of the church and of humanity.” Catholicism has much to teach modernity, but only if it continues to accept modernity’s lessons, as Pope John did.
Does this reconciliation with the Saint Pius X Society in any way mean that Benedict is backing off the achievements of Vatican II? Is he backing away from some of its core teachings? His defenders insist not, and as a Catholic, I would like to hope not. Benedict in the past has endorsed Vatican II, but has also expressed doubts about its impact on the church. I’m glad, of course, that the Vatican has called upon Williamson to renounce his Holocaust denial. I think it’s also important for Benedict to offer a strong and ringing reaffirmation of the full legacy of Vatican II.
And it’s troubling, to put it mildly, that the issue of Williamson’s Holocaust denial was not front-and-center in the Pope’s decision-making on this. Father Reese explains the flaws in the process behind this decision, but it’s still hard to understand how this issue was simply overlooked.
Opposing anti-Semitism should be a central calling for all who think of themselves as Christians. If I may be permitted a personal note, as a Catholic who grew up in a Jewish neighborhood (and whose first two friends in the world were Jews), I was taught at a very young age that anti-Semitism was wrong – sinful – and I have appreciated the Church’s strong statements opposing such bigotry.
One of the most moving events I had ever had a chance to cover as a journalist was Pope John Paul II’s April 13, 1986 visit to a Roman synagogue, the first such papal visit on record. John Paul condemned persecution and expressions of anti-Semitism ”at any time and by anyone.”
“The Jewish religion is not ‘extrinsic’ to us, but in a certain way is ‘intrinsic’ to our own religion,”‘ John Paul said. “With Judaism, therefore, we have a relationship which we do not have with any other religion. You are our dearly beloved brothers, and, in a certain way, it could be said that you are our elder brothers.”
As a liberal Catholic, I have, on balance, been relieved by Benedict’s papacy – relieved because he has, on the whole, proven to be pastoral and not as hard-line in his approach so many expected. He has appointed some good Bishops. I should also say (since it needs saying at this point) that Benedict has made it clear that he, like John Paul, strongly opposes anti-Semitism — although that fact makes you wonder all the more why he didn’t think through the implications of the Williamson decision.
I was particularly taken by Benedict’s first encyclical, “God is Love.” Benedict wrote: “Since God has first loved us, love is now no longer a mere ‘command'; it is the response to the gift of love with which God draws near to us. In a world where the name of God is sometimes associated with vengeance or even a duty of hatred and violence, this message is both timely and significant.”
Yes, indeed, and Holocaust denial is not consistent with the view that God is love, nor is it consistent with the truth. It’s good Benedict will sit down Thursday with Jewish leaders to discuss the fallout from his decision. I truly hope he realizes how much damage he has to undo.
E.J. Dionne is a syndicated columnist for The Washington Post.