TUESDAY WRITING CONVERSATION

The Senior Times

Pit Stop by Neil McKenty

Pope’s reaction to Williamson curious and disappointing

It is now clear that Catholic-Jewish relations have been seriously damaged by the Vatican’s lifting the excommunication of a schismatic bishop who is a Holocaust denier.

Vatican authorities claim Pope Benedict XVI was unaware of the anti-Semitic attacks that Bishop Richard Williamson has launched in the past. Is this claim credible? Williamson’s diatribes have been in the public domain for years. In 1989, for example, Canadian police considered filing charges against Williamson under Canada’s hate speech laws after he gave an address in Quebec charging that Jews were responsible for“changes and corruption” in the Catholic church, that“not one Jew”perished in Nazi gas chambers, and that the Holocaust was a myth created so that the West would “approve the State of Israel.”

Williamson also praised the writings of Ernst Zundel, the Germanborn Canadian immigrant whose works include Did Six Million Really Die? and The Hitler We Loved and Why, both considered mainstays of Holocaust denial literature.

A 2008 piece in England’s Catholic Herald documented Williamson’s anti-Semitic record and included a judgement from Shimon Samuels, director of international relations at the Simon Wiesenthal Center, to the effect that Williamson is “the Borat of the schismatic Catholic far-right.” Samuels also said at the time that Williamson is “a clown, but a dangerous clown.”

To be sure, the subjects of Williamson’s controversial views are not confined to Jews. He has also suggested that the 9/11 bombings were not the result of airplanes hijacked by terrorists but rather “demolition charges,” has criticized The Sound of Music for a lack of respect for authority and has expressed sympathy for what he described as the “remotely Catholic sense” of the Unabomber for the dangers of technology.

A number of strong voices have spoken to condemn Rome’s rehabilitation of Bishop Williamson and none more so than Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel, who reminded the Pope that in her country denying the Holocaust is a crime. Several Jewish groups have suspended all dialogue with the Catholic Church and, by all accounts, the French bishops are furious. Recently the New York Times questioned why no U.S. or Canadian bishops had publicly deplored the Williamson scandal.

It is also curious that the moderate German Cardinal Walter Kasper was not consulted in this whole damaging affair. Cardinal Kasper is the head of the Pontifical Commission for Religious Relations with Jews.

Nevertheless, the Vatican moved swiftly to try to contain the widespread damage done by the Williamson affair. The Pope confirmed that he was looking forward to his visit to Israel this May. The Secretariat of State said that Bishop Williamson must retract his views unequivocally if he is ever to serve as a bishop in the Catholic Church. In the meantime Bishop Williamson has been dismissed from his post running a seminary in Argentina and the government there has expelled him from the country.

To make matters worse, the Pope named a new bishop in Austria whose well-known public utterances are as outrageous – he described Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans as divine punishment for homosexuality and abortion, and the Harry Potter books as Satanic – as Bishop Williamson’s are evil.

This appointment raised such a storm of opposition in the Austrian Church that the appointment has been rescinded. The irony here is that when a bishop is appointed the diocesan authorities submit three names for the Pope’s consideration. In the Austrian case the Pope rejected the three names and appointed another candidate so unpopular he had to withdraw.

There may well be a silver lining to the affair in Austria. If the Vatican backed down because of opposition at the local level, will this set a precedent for future Episcopal appointments. At the very least it would seem that Rome must take more seriously the views of the local church. In fact, this would be in the spirit of Vatican 11, which urged a more collegial governance for the Church.

Both the fracas over Bishop Williamson and the aborted appointment in Austria beg the question of whether the universal Catholic Church can be competently led by a small group of male celibates isolated in Rome. It is a question that requires an urgent answer.

Originally published in March 2009

Jean P.

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