As if the Jews didn’t have enough on their plate, what with blood libels and Israel-hating calumnies flying thick and fast over events in Gaza, the Pope had to choose this moment to readmit into the fold a bishop who denies the Holocaust.
Britain’s Bishop Richard Williamson has said that only 200,000 to 300,000 Jews died in Nazi concentration camps and “none of them in gas chambers”.
He also reportedly endorsed the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and is on record as saying that the Jews are fighting for world domination “to prepare the Anti-Christ’s throne in Jerusalem”.
Williamson is one of four bishops whose 20-year excommunication was lifted by the Pope. Save for a declaration that the Jews were, indeed, damned in perpetuity for the crucifixion of Jesus, it is hard to think of a Papal gesture which could have done more damage than for the head of a church responsible for centuries of Jewish persecution effectively to absolve a bishop of his Jew-hatred. At a stroke, Pope Benedict XVI threatened to destroy the progress made in Catholic-Jewish relations since the seminal Second Vatican Council, which absolved “the Jews of today” from the crime of deicide.
The furore that engulfed the Vatican over the Williamson decision was enormous. Many Catholics were deeply horrified. Jewish-Catholic relations were plunged into crisis.
The Cardinal in charge of these ties admitted the Pope had badly mishandled the matter.
When German Chancellor Angela Merkel rebuked the Pope and called on him to deliver a “very clear” rejection of Holocaust denial, the Vatican buckled. On Wednesday afternoon, it ordered Bishop Williamson publicly and unequivocally to recant his views on the Holocaust if he is to be readmitted to the church.
But it also said that the Pope had not been aware of the bishop’s views when he lifted the excommunication on him and that there had been a breakdown in communications.
This seems scarcely credible. The Pope’s defenders have said that he merely wanted to end a schism within the church by bringing back the ultra-conservative faction represented by Williamson.
But this faction, the Society of Saint Pius, founded by Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, is deeply antisemitic; it rejects Vatican II and Lefebvre himself wrote to Pope John Paul II in 1985 that the Jews were “declared enemies of the Church”.
Indeed, within days of this row erupting another of Lefebvre’s followers, a priest called Floriano Abrahamowicz, also questioned whether the Nazis used gas chambers.
Now the Pope has said that this Society must also recognise Vatican II. But is it really likely that he didn’t know about its views when he sought to retrieve it from the ecclesiastical purgatory into which its obnoxious extremism had sent it?
Previously, the Pope’s defenders said the four bishops were excommunicated not for their views but for being consecrated without papal consent, and that Benedict’s action merely reflected doubts about the validity of their excommunication. Now we’re told it was, actually, all a terrible muddle.
But this is not the first time Pope Benedict has taken actions which raise doubts about his attitude to the Jews. He set in train the beatification of Pope Pius XII — dubbed “Hitler’s Pope” for his silence in the face of the Holocaust, but whom Benedict defended for secretly saving many Jews — until protests forced him last October to put the beatification on hold. He also raised eyebrows by making it easier for ultra-conservatives to celebrate the Tridentine Latin Mass, despite its references to “perfidious” or “faithless” Jews.
Such decisions, even if they are motivated by the desire for church unity, at the very least display a chronic moral obtuseness in failing to see what they represent beyond that limited goal.
For Jews, the timing of all this is particularly neuralgic. Coming as it does when Israel is under existential attack not just from the Arab and Muslim world but also from Christian Europe, which seems hell-bent on that especially vicious form of Holocaust denial which involves painting Israel as Nazis, it reawakens the memory of the war-time church’s failure to take a stand against the Shoah.
As a boy, the former Cardinal Ratzinger was a member of the Hitler Youth and was later drafted into the Wehrmacht. While this doesn’t make him a Nazi — he was apparently unenthusiastic and his father was an anti-Nazi — it leaves a troubling residue of ambiguity which the Williamson debacle can only increase.
No-one believes that the Pope shares Bishop Williamson’s views. But to say he didn’t know about them is to cast severe doubt on his fitness to fulfil the demands of his high office.
The doctrine of papal infallibility has just taken a lethal hit.