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A lot of people were concerned when an arch-conservative like Cardinal Ratzinger was named the pope, but I don't think any of us imagined that he would be soon playing footsie with some of Catholicism's most prominent anti-Semites -- namely, the Society of St. Pius X.
From the Catholic Reporter:
In a gesture billed as an “act of peace,” but one destined both to fire intra-Catholic debate about the meaning of the Second Vatican Council and to open a new front in Jewish/Catholic tensions, the Vatican today formally lifted a twenty-year-old excommunication imposed on four bishops who broke with Rome in protest over the liberalizing reforms of Vatican II (1962-65).
Ironically, news of the move came just one day before the 50th anniversary of the announcement by Pope John XXIII of his intention to call Vatican II.
The four bishops had been ordained in defiance of the late Pope John Paul II in 1988 by Swiss Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, whose Priestly Fraternity of St. Pius X clung to the old Latin Mass after Vatican II and also expressed deep reservations about both ecumenism and religious freedom. Lefebvre died in 1991.
The four prelates involved are Bernard Fellay, superior of the Fraternity of St. Pius X; Alfonso de Gallareta; Tissier de Mallerais; and Richard Williamson. Their legitimacy as bishops has never been in question, since under Catholic law, Lefebvre was a legitimately ordained bishop and hence any ordination he performed is considered “valid” but “illicit.”
Unsurprisingly, the move to bring the Society back into the Catholic fold this weekend came just as the Society's members were revealing their true selves:
While Catholics will likely see the decree as a victory for a conservative reading of Vatican II, it has also sparked protest in Jewish quarters for a different reason: One of the four Lefebvrite prelates, Richard Williamson of Great Britain, recently made comments that appeared to cast doubt on the historical truth of the Holocaust.
In an interview with Swedish television recorded in November but aired in January, Williamson said that he did not believe the Nazis had used gas chambers. Fellay: Bishop Bernard Fellay, superior of the Society of St. Pius X, is pictured in a 2004 file photo. He was among the four men ordained bishops in 1988 by the society's founder, Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre. (CNS photo)Fellay: Bishop Bernard Fellay, superior of the Society of St. Pius X, is pictured in a 2004 file photo. He was among the four men ordained bishops in 1988 by the society's founder, Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre. (CNS photo)
“Between 200,000 and 300,000 Jews perished in Nazi concentration camps, but not one of them by gassing in a gas chamber,” Williamson said, according to a transcript of the program.
And of course, Jewish leaders are concerned:
British Jewish groups condemned the decision and said they feared it could damage social cohesion. "The Council of Christians and Jews have said that in recent years there has been a considerable increase in antisemitism from some of the eastern European churches," said Mark Gardner, spokesman for the Community Security Trust which monitors attacks on Jewish people in the UK. Gardner said he hoped the Vatican would make it clear it abhors Williamson's comments about the gas chambers.
"Jews will be extremely alarmed by the lifting of this excommunication on somebody who holds such extreme anti-Jewish views," Gardner said. "I hope the Vatican will speak out on this particular aspect of Williamson's ideology."
Elan Steinberg, vice president of the American Gathering of Holocaust Survivors and their Descendants, warned last week the Vatican's actions would play into the hands of those seeking to stir up trouble. "For the Jewish people ... this development ... encourages hate-mongers everywhere," Steinberg said. Rome's chief rabbi Riccardo Di Segni said that revoking Williamson's excommunication would open "a deep wound".
What none of these news accounts observe is that the problem with St. Pius X isn't just that it has some kooky leaders, but that their rejection of Vatican II prominently includes their rejection of one of its most important reforms -- namely, the longtime Catholic belief in the "blood libel" that Jews were guilty of deicide for having ostensibly killed Jesus. In fact, these Catholics openly trumpet their belief that the Jews are responsible for Christ's crucifixion.
This is why the Society of St. Pius X may ring a bell for some of you -- Mel Gibson's involvement in the "traditional Catholic" movement brought the Society into the news, especially when he released his medievally ultraviolent version of The Passion of the Christ. It came to people's notice then that not only was Gibson (whose own anti-Semitism later was publicly exposed once and for all) involved in this radical Catholicism, but so was his father -- you know, the fellow who made speaking appearances at Holocaust-denial conferences.
As the SPLC reported:
It is in The Angelus, published monthly by the SSPX press, and on SSPX's website, that the radical anti-Semitism of the order is most evident today. One example now on the website is a 1997 Angelus article by SSPX priests Michael Crowdy and Kenneth Novak that calls for locking Jews into ghettos because "Jews are known to kill Christians." It also blames Jews for the French Revolution, communism and capitalism; suggests a Judeo-Masonic conspiracy has destroyed the Catholic Church; and describes Judaism as "inimical to all nations."
Another document reproduced on the SSPX's current website is a 1959 letter from Lefebvre's close friend, Bishop Gerald Sigaud, who also rejected the Vatican II reforms. "Money, the media, and international politics are for a large part in the hands of Jews," Bishop Sigaud wrote. "Those who have revealed the atomic secrets of the USA were … all Jews. The founders of communism were Jews."
The Angelus Press sells anti-Semitic tomes like Hilaire Beloc's The Jews, which blames Jews for Bolshevism and corrupt financial practices, and Monsignor George Dillon's Freemasonry Unmasked, which purports to explain a centuries-old Judeo-Masonic plot to destroy the Catholic Church. More recent SSPX publications include the 2005 pamphlet Time Bombs of the Second Vatican Council, by Franz Schmidberger, the former superior general of the SSPX. Schmidberger denounces Third World immigration into Western countries as "destroying our national identity and, furthermore, the whole of Christianity," and accuses the Jews of deicide.
Of course, it's one thing if Pope Benedict is simply seeking to heal old rifts within the church and bring its diverse elements closer together. But no such outreach to liberals within the church -- particularly the American liberals who have questioned the church's positions on birth control and gay rights -- has been forthcoming. As the Catholic Reporter piece observes:
Vatican solicitude for the Lefebvrites has long been a source of frustration for some on the Catholic left, who complain that there’s no similar concern to heal alienation among liberals. Jesuit Fr. Thomas Reese, for example, charged in a 1997 lecture: “As long as dissenters stay in the church they are treated like pariahs, but schismatics such as Lefebvre are wooed at the highest level. After you have been in schism long enough, you are honored and loved as separated brothers and sisters, even if you hold more extreme views than those of Catholic dissenters.”
I think most people understood that Pope Benedict had in mind rolling back liberal reforms of the past generation or so when he ascended to his seat. But I don't think anyone thought the rollback included the Vatican II reforms that brought the Church into the modern age. Now, it's starting to look like they are -- and that's just the beginning of it. Indeed, the Church under Benedict is looking positively medieval again.