The extraordinary decision of Pope Benedict XVI to lift the excommunication of four traditionalist Catholic bishops who head the Fraternity of St Pius X, one of whom is Holocaust denier Richard Williamson, has now been answered by the decision of the Israeli Chief Rabbis to break off official ties with the Vatican.
While the Chief Rabbis’ reaction is understandable, it won’t help. The Vatican’s action, for close watchers of Pope Benedict XVI’s approach to Catholic-Jewish relations, is not wholly surprising.
Negative views of Judaism have long been part of the Catholic traditionalist movement. According to Williamson, 9/11 was a conspiracy by the US. Perhaps not surprisingly, Shimon Samuels, director of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre, concluded that Williamson is “a clown, but a dangerous clown.”
The Vatican has stressed that lifting the excommunication is not an endorsement of his views on the Holocaust. However, its repetition of its commitment to Catholic-Jewish dialogue and to combating antisemitism sounds hollow in the light of this latest act — not only to Jews but also to many Catholics who are outraged.
In the 20 years I have been teaching Jewish-Christian relations, I never thought I would witness a time when, in the name of Christian unity, a German-born Pope would bring back into the fold a Holocaust-denier.
It will have consequences, not just in terms of relations with Jews but with other faiths. By re-communicating extreme, conservative Catholics, Pope Benedict XVI is saying he cares little for relations with the outside world. In May, he is due to visit Israel. If the trip goes ahead, we are likely to witness another controversial phase in the papacy of this conservative Pope.