In a move that stunned the Jewish world and significant parts of the Catholic world as well, Pope Benedict XVI moved last week to revoke the excommunication of four bishops, one of whom, Richard Williamson, has denied the historicity of the Holocaust. The four are all members of the St. Pius X Society, a far-right wing schismatic group that argues generally against the modernization of the church, and more specifically against the reforms of the Second Vatican Council in the 1960’s.
In explaining his decision, the Pope said that he saw this as an “internal Church matter,” and that it was born of his desire to sow seeds of reconciliation within the Catholic world. And as recently as today, he issued a strong condemnation of the Holocaust, a stern reminder of its status as historical fact, and also a renewed commitment to teaching future generations the lessons of senseless hatred and violence.
As a rabbi who has engaged in serious interfaith work for almost thirty years, and who has warm and respectful relationships with the Catholic priests in my neighborhood, I find the Pope’s actions to be almost incomprehensible. I say “almost” because, as a political gesture, I understand that a pope would want to mend fences with those on the fringes of his church. With all the political posturing that goes on during a presidential campaign in this country, and politicians cozying up to religious elements that they disagree with on almost everything just for the sake of winning votes, none of us can be so naïve as to think that the same thing does not go on in other arenas. The church is nothing if not a political arena. And the Pope, a conservative himself (although far less so than the members of the St. Pius x Society), would like to solidify his “right flank” by making peace with the renegade bishops.
But I must ask, at what price? At what point is someone so far beyond the pale that reconciliation is simply not an option to be considered?
Were Bishop Williamson’s Holocaust denial not to be an issue, there would be more than enough reason to be troubled by the Pope’s move. The reforms of the Second Vatican Council have been key to improved Catholic-Jewish relations, and Nostra Aetate, whose 40th anniversary was marked last year, is a remarkable document that must not be repudiated. But forget all that. Bishop Williamson’s Holocaust denial is very much the issue here. How can it be altogether that someone would wear the collar as a bishop of the Catholic church and deny that Jews were gassed in concentration camps? And more to the point- how can it be that if a previous pope had the courage to excommunicate him, the current pope, a German, would revoke his excommunication in the name of Christian reconciliation and forgiveness?
Is Holocaust denial another “sin” that requires forgiveness? Is a bishop, a leader of the Catholic Church who denies the Holocaust, just another sinner?
I can’t see it that way. The Holocaust as an historical event was sui generis, and Holocaust denial as a “sin,” or moral failing, is sui generis as well. It’s not like breaking a vow of celibacy, or sharing what one hears in confession. It’s about hatred, and anti-Semitism of the grossest and most unmistakable nature.
I’m sorry. You don’t bring people like Bishop Williamson back into your fold. You don’t reconcile with Nazi sympathizers. As a German, Pope Benedict must surely understand this. But obviously, the symbolic significance of his action is lost on him.
It is surely not lost on Jews. And its implications are unspeakably sad.