A major kerfuffle in Catholic-Jewish relations sprung up last week when Pope Benedict XVI un-excommunicated a couple of self-appointed Bishops who reject Vatican II and accept Mel Gibson. The Pope was apparently the last person to learn that one of these Bishops, Richard Williamson, in addition to prefering the Latin Mass, also prefers to perpetuate the pernicious lie that six million Jews did not die in the Holocaust and that the paltry 200,000-300,000 who did die did not do so in gas chambers. The Pope apparently isn’t very tuned-in to Swedish television. In all fairness, I can’t say that it’s on my TiVO either.
The ensuing outcry against the Holy Father’s action has proven that the dogma of Papal Infallibilty does not apply to management of the news cycle. The result is today’s statement from the Vatican which stated,
In order to be admitted to episcopal functions in the Church, Bishop Williamson should also publicly and unequivocally distance himself from such positions about the Shoa, which were unknown by the Holy Father at the time of the lifting of the excommunication.
This statement seems to have satisfied much of the organized Jewish world. But, parsing this statement reveals that the Pope is not threatening the revocation of the revocation of excommunication, rather the withholding of admission to “episcopal functions in the Church.” Roughly translated, Bishop Williamson can be a Holocaust denier and remain a Catholic, but he can’t remain a Holocaust denier and be a Bishop.
This distinction seems to have been missed by the likes of the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Rabbi Marvin Hier, who stated, “if Williamson refuses to recant, the Vatican should excommunicate him – this time permanently.” Also either missing or ignoring this distinction was the ADL’s Abe Foxman who similarly stated that Williamson and company, “must accept the reforms of the Second Vatican Council and the positive teachings about Jews by the last four popes, including Pope John Paul II, before they can be fully accepted back into the Roman Catholic Church.”
They’ve already been accepted back into the Church as members who can receive the sacraments and avoid the after-life penalties that would result from a serious lack of salvation. What remains at stake is whether they will be allowed a role in administering these sacraments.
And perhaps that’s as it should be. While Holocaust denial is a vile lie and Holocaust deniers base anti-Semites, acknowledging the historical fact of the Shoah is not a tenet of the Catholic faith. Pope Benedict may decide that Williamson can’t work as a priest, but as long as he accepts the teachings of Vatican II, (or at least does not publicly crusade against them) what he believes or doesn’t believe about the Holocaust is moot. Whether that will satisfy those in the Jewish community who have felt wounded by the Vatican’s mishandling of this matter remains to be seen.
One thing is certain, Richard Williamson is not the first Catholic holocaust denier, and probably not the last either.