A Failure to Excommunicate

Jewish Light Editorial

There is no justification for the action by Pope Benedict XVI to reinstate a bishop who has publicly denied that six million Jews were killed in the Holocaust.

In an effort to appease far-right Roman Catholics who protested the reforms of Vatican II, the Pope revoked the excommunication of Richard Williamson and three other bishops. Williamson is a British-born cleric who has said he did not believe that six million Jews died in the Nazi gas chambers. His recent words: “I believe there were no gas chambers … I think that two to three hundred thousand Jews perished in Nazi concentration camps … but none of them by gas chambers.”

Anti-Defamation League President Abraham Foxman noted that the decision undermines the strong relationship between the Catholic Church and Jews.

Phew. Talk about an understatement.

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The reinstated bishops are members of a group called the Society of St. Pius X, which was founded by renegade French Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre in 1970 to protest the reforms of the Second Vatican Council. Lefebvre made the men “bishops” in an unsanctioned consecration in Switzerland in 1988, prompting the immediate excommunication of all five by Pope John Paul II.

It was at the 1965 Second Vatican Council that the Church approved the historic Nostra Aetate (In Our Time) which ended the centuries old charge of deicide against Jews past and present. This monumental change went a long way to lend normalcy to Jewish-Catholic relations. And the current Pope has worked to perpetuate the constructive dialogue, visiting synagogues in both Rome and New York and denouncing Williamson’s warped and misinformed views.

This decision, condemned by many Jewish leaders and groups worldwide, has re-stormed the calm.

Foxman, who was sheltered by a French Catholic family during the Holocaust, said the Pope’s decree “sends a terrible message to Catholics around the world” that there is room in the Church for those who would ” foster disdain and contempt for other religions, particularly Judaism. Given the centuries-long history of anti-Semitism in the Church, this is a most troubling setback.”

While we respect the role of the Supreme Pontiff to deal with internal Church matters, we are appalled that Williamson would be reinstated in view of his efforts to deny or minimize the Holocaust. At the very least, we would have expected the revocation to be conditioned on an authentic teshuvah, repentance for what Pope John Paul II defined as the “sin of anti-Semitism.”

The late Harry James Cargas of St. Louis, a prominent Catholic scholar and Professor at Webster University, was among the original founders with Elie Wiesel of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. He often lamented that Adolf Hitler was never formally excommunicated and died a member in good standing of the Roman Catholic Church.

Absent any corrective action, it looks like Williamson will complete his life in similar canonic stature as Hitler.

We would strongly encourage reconsideration of this painful decision. If that occurs, perhaps these words, uttered in the past year by a prominent Catholic leader in an entirely different context, could be instructive to Pope Benedict XVI:

“There could be another form of scandal, consisting of leading people to think that the public act that this person is doing, which until now everyone believed was a serious sin, is really not that serious — if the Church allows him or her to receive Communion.”

The speaker? Archbishop Raymond Burke, formerly of St. Louis and now of Vatican address, in asserting that a Catholic public official who espouses a pro-choice position should not receive communion.

While we continue to disagree strongly with the Archbishop’s views on abortion, we think his rhetoric could not be more apropos to this situation. If Williamson’s reinstatement is left standing without consequence, then the assumption dangling in the air is that his renunciation of the Holocaust is really not that serious.

Pope Benedict XVI’s public statements leave no doubt about his personal views acknowledging the atrocities of the Holocaust. While his sentiments are helpful, in this case his actions unfortunately speak louder.