Sunday, February 15, 2009

Papal Fallibility: Say it ain't so, Pope Benedict XVI

-- Richard E. Vatz

No doubt you are aware of the controversy surrounding the Pope's reinstating of the execrable Bishop Richard Williamson. [A good reader claims the "reinstatement" description is imprecise, and that "de-excommunicated" is correct. Perhaps. I do not see, however, that such imprecision, if he is correct, changes at all the gravamen of the argument herein.]

Bishop Williamson is a longtime Holocaust denier and anti-Semite, if you'll forgive the redundancy.

In a broadcast interview last month, according to the Associated Press, the Anti-Defamation League documents his telling the "Swedish state TV that no Jews were gassed during the Holocaust and only 200,000 to 300,000 were killed, not 6 million," and in a 1989 speech declared that "Jews made up the Holocaust, Protestants get their orders from the devil and the Vatican has sold its soul to liberalism. There was not one Jew killed in the gas chambers. It was all lies, lies, lies." In addition he was quoted as saying that "the Jews created the Holocaust so we would prostrate ourselves on our knees before them and approve of their new state of Israel." These are not isolated quotes, as they are prototypical of his anti-Semitic sentiments over at least the last 2 decades.

What is the reaction of Pope Benedict XVI ? According, again, to the Associated Press, he "issued his strongest condemnation yet about Holocaust denial during a meeting Thursday with American Jewish leaders."

The reactions to his apparent peace offering were varied: as quoted by The Washington Post, Abraham Foxman, a Holocaust survivor and the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, stated "Today's statement was important but it did not bring closure ... You cannot condemn Holocaust denial and anti-Semitism and reinstate someone who to this day continues to be an anti-Semite and deny the Holocaust."

There was also inexplicable capitulation quoted in The Washington Post: "We came here with heavy hearts because of recent events, but we came away pleased and honored by the words of His Holiness," Malcolm Hoenlein, vice president of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

No small addendum: In a rare move, German Chancellor Angela Merkel rebuked Pope Benedict XVI, saying the Vatican's action was tantamount to "the impression that Holocaust denial might be tolerated" in reinstating Bishop Richard Williamson into the good graces of the Church.

Major incongruity: Pope said he will visit Israel in May.

The best opinion piece on the moral crisis is as follows:

Dithering Before A Denier
By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, February 10, 2009; A17

Shush. Do not call. Do not e-mail. I am on pins and needles. The newly reinstated Roman Catholic bishop who has been ordered by the pope to recant his statements denying the Holocaust now concedes that "many honest and intelligent people" disagree with him, so he's going to look into the matter and see if he has been wrong. With virtually unbearable anticipation, I await his findings.

Bishop Richard Williamson, installed in the schismatic Society of St. Pius X and invited back into the church by Pope Benedict XVI just last month, said his examination of the evidence will have its limits. "I will not go to Auschwitz," he told the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel via e-mail. No matter. People with his mind-set have already been there.

Still, he could go to Treblinka, also in Poland, or any of the other Polish camps -- Sobibor, Belzec, Majdanek. In Germany, Austria and elsewhere he could visit Dachau, Sachsenhausen, Buchenwald, Flossenburg, Mauthausen, Ravensbrueck or the many subsidiary camps -- a trek that could take him across Europe and into the cold reality of historic horror.

Holocaust denial suggests a mind perforated by anti-Semitism, a bigotry so extreme that it blinds the bigot to mounds of shoes and hair and eyeglasses, all of these exhibited at various Holocaust museums. To be a denier, it is necessary to believe that all the survivors -- Primo Levi and Elie Wiesel and all the others -- staggered out of the camps, got together and agreed to fabricate a story.

You have to believe that historians did something similar -- and so, too, did the people who lived downwind from the crematoriums, and even the train engineers who took countless Jews unto the camps and brought none out. Where are the 54,000 Greek Jews of Salonika? Where did those people go? "We dig a grave in the breezes," Paul Celan wrote in his Holocaust poem "Death Fugue." Ah, yes, that's where they are.

Williamson's lawyer confirmed the authenticity of the e-mails to Der Spiegel. It is possible, though, that the pope has not yet seen the article. He sees so little. Astoundingly, the pope says he was unaware that Williamson is a Holocaust denier. He did not know that Williamson said that only 200,000 to 300,000 Jews were killed during World War II and that none were gassed. Williamson said that he once reviewed the physical evidence. This, of course, is the telltale twitch of the really obsessed anti-Semite, an architectural deconstruction of the ovens and the chimneys to conclude that the whole thing was impossible -- a yarn, a myth concocted by those diabolically clever Jews to win sympathy, reparations and, of course, Israel itself.

It's clear that the pope doesn't only travel in a bubble, he lives in one. But that is no concern of mine -- or yours. What should concern us more is the charade that continues. A Holocaust denier now pretends to sift through the evidence to see if such a thing happened. What shall we do with the results? What if Williamson says the Holocaust occurred, the ovens worked, the chimneys were big enough? Who cares? Should he be considered sincere? Can this graduate of Cambridge University suddenly be exonerated of his patent anti-Semitism? How can you doubt the Holocaust and not be a raving Jew-hater?

Still, the pope mulls the matter over. What should he, a German, do about this Holocaust denier? (The pope has dismayed much of Germany.) What should he, the pope, do after eons of Vatican anti-Semitism culminating in a supine silence during the Holocaust itself? He dithers. He did not know. He demanded a retraction. He is waiting. He is being played for a fool.

Benedict XVI is a traditionalist, an organization man, and so he worries about a schism in the Church -- the Pius X Society representing ultra-conservatives who reject the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, which pertinently included a strong repudiation of anti-Semitism. Never mind that the schism has existed since 1969 and does not matter much anyway. With his overture to Williamson and his subsequent dithering, Benedict XVI has opened a much more consequential schism -- between the church he heads and a worldwide community of appalled onlookers. It is one thing to deny the Holocaust. It is somehow worse to deny that doing so is anything other than an irreversible and disqualifying confession of anti-Semitism. No matter what he may come to say, Williamson must not be accepted by the pope. History forbids it.

Richard E. Vatz is professor of Rhetoric and Communication at Towson University

Richard E. Vatz, Ph.D.
Towson Distinguished Professor
Professor, MCOM/COMM; University Senate; Towson University
Associate Psychology Editor, USA Today Magazine; Editor, Current Psychology
(410) 704-3107


Leo White said...

The blogger who authored this is not cognizant of the facts. Pope Benedict did NOT REINSTATE Archbishop Williamson: Benedict de-excommunicated him and the whole community (namely the Society of Pope Pius V) to which Williamson belongs, but without giving Williamson permission to exercise priestly ministry, let alone function as a bishop in the Catholic Church.

It is true that the press has described this as "reinstating" Williamson, but the press is not inclined to get the facts straight. Williamson's status in the Catholic church is like that of a laicized priest: he has no permission to exercise a ministerial role, but he is now has the right to receive communion (assuming that he repents for past misdeeds). True, Williamson is going around doing bishop-like things, but he is doing so without permission, much like a laicized priest who celebrates Mass even though he has been told not to do so anymore.

Below is a link to a posting on the subject from the blog titled "Get Religion."

Read the comments by Catholics in the combox and you will learn a lot.

It is important to get the facts straight. I am a practicing Catholic interested in getting involved in Republican politics in Maryland. If you are going to diss the Pope, well, then I will feel that much less at home.

Bruce Godfrey said...

I echo the factual propositions, if not generally the tone, of the prior commenter.

It's easier to understand excommunication if one realizes it as a bar of any Catholic from the Church community as a whole, rather than a bar of a minister or leader from leadership or sacramental roles.

It so happens that the Vatican went out of its way only to excommunicate certain bishops of the Society of St. Pius X, as opposed to its priests or its laity. Excommunication, however, affects one's ability to receive certain sacraments, not merely to celebrate them in a clerical role (though it does that too in the case of ordained men excommunicated.)

The best case for lifting the excommunication of Williamson was that he was similarly situated to the others who were excommunicated and reinstated. Being a mouthy anti-Semite or Holocaust denier is not an excommunicable offense. Maybe it should be. It is not now, and was not when Williamson was excommunicated. If anything, lifting the excommunication may make it easier, not harder, for His Holiness to exercise some pressure and leverage over this Holocaust-denying garbage-peddler.

While as a liberal Democrat I favor anything that causes a rift in the other political team, it did not appear to me that you were offering Benedict XVI a "diss", only criticism. Even devout Catholics may criticize their hierarchs on matters of administration; just as it is not presumptuous to praise a Pope's judgment, it is not sacrilege - or a "diss" - to criticize this judgment call.

What I am curious about is how this and other recent moves by the Vatican will affect ecumenical relations with the Christian East. The recent explicit reaffirmation of plenary indulgences, this embrace of Catholic traditionalists, the abandonment of the Papal title "Patriarch of the West" in favor of more explicit universal jurisdiction claims - all are consistent with a hard-line approach towards Constantinople.

Leo White said...

Excellent points by Bruce Godfrey.

My intention was not to say that Benedict handled the matter well, but that Vatz and Cohen both got their facts wrong when they spoke of Williamson as having been reinstated: in that Godfrey and I agree.

As for the letter that Vatz quotes by Richard Cohen, it trivializes the harm done by this schism when it says, "Never mind that the schism has existed since 1969 and does not matter much anyway." This statement sounds like the voice of an outsider looking in. Schism does matter a great deal, if you belong to the group in question.

While approving of his de-excommunication of these bishops of the Society of St. Pius X (Godfrey charitably corrected my having said Pius V--thanks), I add that this action should have been done together with the clear denunciation of Williamson's holocaust denial. I can respect those who criticize Benedict for his handling of this affair--as long as they get their facts straight.